Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What I've been reading: January 2012 edition

I have to be honest here--I honestly haven't been reading a ton this month.  I was on vacation for a week (a stay-cation, if you will) and spent my time doing pretty much everything other than reading.  So I'm behind on my challenges!  In any case, this is what I've been reading this last month.

Health Food Junkies, by Steven Bratman.  I have a tendency to become involved in a new subject and want to read a bunch about it--this was a recommended read from a friend, and I borrowed it from another library.  Very informative, lots of food for thought.  If you've ever stopped to wonder why diets are such a booming industry, this is a great read.  256 pages.

The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman.  Hoffman, a favorite of mine since Practical Magic, really captures the imagination in her latest novel.  I finally got my hands on a copy, and read it as fast as I could--it has been very popular among staff and patrons since its release back in October of last year.  In 70 C.E., nine hundred Jews held out for months against armies of Romans on Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert.  At the end of the siege, only two women and five children survive.  In the context of the desperate days of the siege, readers follow the lives of four women as they struggle for survival.  Heart-rending and gripping, beautifully told in Hoffman's usual thoughtful style.  Very highly recommended.  512 pages.

Starvation Heights, by Gregg Olsen.  This was part of a list of additional reading I got from Health Food Junkies, and I also borrowed this from another library.  I told you, I get immersed in a topic sometimes!  This is a tale of a woman who was a licensed practitioner of "starvation cures" in the early part of the last century, in the Pacific Northwest.  The book, a work of non-fiction, collects stories, documents, letters and anecdotes from the time about a woman who, under the guise of healing her patients, actually worked to defraud them of their possessions while starving her patients to death.  Grisly, but also kind of awesome true crime.  432 pages.

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake.  This was a read for my book club's February meeting, and somehow, I found myself really surprised by the way the plot went.  For whatever reason, I really felt like I knew where things were heading, and then about halfway through the book, I found myself going, "...wait.  What just happened here?"  And I meant that in the best sense possible--I love it when a book totally turns me on my head and surprises me!  During the last night of the Blitz in London, journalist Frankie Bard meets a Cape Cod doctor and promises to deliver a letter for him when she returns to the states.  Countries torn by war, innocence is lost, and two women who have never met wind up with a strong connection they're unaware of.  Really quite a stunning piece of fiction--Blake has a great talent for turning out phrases so clear, your mind rings with them.  326 pages.

Ok, so my totals for the year's challenges so far are:

4/50 titles read = 8% complete
1,526/50,000 pages read = about 3% complete

Have you been keeping track of what you're reading?  Challenging yourself to read more?  I'd love to know if you are, and how you're doing!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Back in time

There are few books I enjoy more than a great historical fiction.  When done well, the combination of fact and fiction blends into a period piece that manages to educate as it entertains.  And the same can be true of non-fiction books written about history--I tend to prefer to read something with a strong narrative, so that I'm carried along by story and not simply assaulted by facts.  Here are a few of the most recent titles I've come across that fit one bill or the other--perfectly!

The Winter Palace, by Eva Stachniak.  Catherine the Great is becoming a very popular figure in both fiction and non-fiction these days.  There's the recent biography, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie, which was released to lots of critical praise.  And now Stachniak's novel, which allows for an imaginative, entertaining retelling of the Russian empress's improbable rise to power, as seen through the eyes of an all-but-invisible servant close to the throne.  Rich in period detail, this is a compelling read about royalty we are not as familiar with in fiction. 

Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings, by Alison Weir.  Weir is a best-selling author and British historian; in my opinion, few do justice to British royalty and history as well as Weir.  This latest non-fiction title, the first full-scale biography of this royal mistress (made a household name by Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl) is extensively researched, giving readers a picture of how Mary was treated by her ambitious family and the likely relationship she would have had with her power-hungry sister, Ann.  Weir explores Mary's reputation at both the French and English courts, her relationship with Henry VIII, and her later marriage to a cousin of Henry's.  If you're in love with English history, as I am, you absolutely cannot miss this.

 And taking a step still further back in time, Lionheart, by Sharon Kay Penman.  The four surviving children of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine were called "The Devil's Brood", though for obvious reasons never to their faces.  With such extraordinary parents, great things were expected of them.  Upon the death of the eldest brother, it was the second brother, Richard, also known as the Lionheart, came to the throne and almost immediately left for the Holy Land on what would later be known as the Third Crusade.  And in his absence, the conniving youngest brother, John, sought to steal the throne for himself.  A tale of loyalty and betrayal that is fresh again with Penman's flair.  Well done, and a great read.

I'll be back next week to share where I am with my reading challenges and what I've been reading.  Hope you'll join me!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

More hidden gems at the library

Do you have a list of books you want to read "someday"?  A reading bucket list, if you will?  Have you ever come across a book that you meant to read, or always wanted to pick up, but didn't have the time or weren't in the mood, then forgot about?  If you're not keeping a reading wish list, now might be a good time to start one, and if you already keep one?  I've got some great ones you should add to it.  (As an added bonus, these are all great picks for book clubs to read and discuss!)

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett.  You remember me going on and on about Patchett's latest novel, State of Wonder, over the summer?  Well, I originally fell in love with her gifts of storytelling and memorable characters with Bel Canto a number of years ago.  Somewhere in South America, an opera singer performs at the birthday party of a powerful businessman, with a number of international guests in attendance.  The soiree quickly takes a turn when armed terrorists take the party hostage.  And yet, as time unfolds and negotiations drag, what started as a life-threatening struggle changes, as hostages and terrorists form unexpected bonds.  Beautifully written and sure to stay with you long past the last page.

Everyone remembers the huge sleeper hit that was The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.  But you may not be so familiar with one of her more recent novels, Day After Night.  Based on the extraordinary true story of the October 1945 rescue of more than two hundred Jewish prisoners from the Atlit internment camp outside Haifa, this novel follows the experiences of four young women haunted by memories and loss as they find the strength to rebuild in the bonds of friendship.  Such a complicated story, told with perfect attention and grace.  This is not, by any means, a light read, but deeply satisfying.  And if you enjoyed The Red Tent, you absolutely owe it to yourself to pick this up.

Also on everyone's radar in the past was The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini.  But you might have missed his follow-up novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns.  And while I enjoyed The Kite Runner, I adored A Thousand Splendid Suns.  This novel covers thirty years of civil war, Taliban regime and Anti-Soviet jihad through the lives of two women: Mariam, the scorned illegitimate daughter of a businessman, forced to marry a much older man, Rasheed, at the age of 15; and Laila, the 14-year-old girl Rasheed takes as a second wife after Mariam fails to provide him with children after many years.  Using these two women as a lens, Hosseini gives readers an unflinching view of a society dominated by its men, and the sharp contrast of the resilience of its women.  Very, very highly recommended.

I'm back on Thursday with recommended historical fiction titles!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Quiet time in January

In the midst of all of the hustle and bustle around the holidays, it's hard to find a quiet moment to breathe, let alone read.  That's why for me, January is the ultimate time to recharge and get caught up on my reading, especially some of the deeper reading that I just can't slow down enough to enjoy in December.  Here are a few of the titles on my list of books you slow down to savor.  (As a bonus, any one of these titles would be a fantastic choice for a book club to read and discuss!)

Unbroken: a World War II story of survival, resilience and redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand.  Best-selling non-fiction author Hillenbrand (of Seabiscuit fame) returns with the beautifully told tale of Louis Zamperini, delinquent turned athlete turned airman, who was involved in an Army Air Forces bomber crash over the Pacific in May 1943.  Zamperini, the plane's bombadier, was the sole survivor, and endures a number of harrowing dangers while adrift at sea.  Hillenbrand has a gift for writing non-fiction in such a way that the tales of the ordinary turned extraordinary stick with readers for years after reading.  Unbroken is such a tale.  If you haven't read it already, you're missing out. 

The Tiger's Wife, by Tea Obreht.  This novel was a total sleeper hit in 2011; staff and patrons alike raved about it.  Natalia, a young doctor in the Balkans, is determined to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding her grandfather's recent death.  In the process, she comes across his old, worn copy of "The Jungle Book" and recalls the stories he told her over the years of his time spent traveling with "the deathless man."  But the most extraordinary story is the one he never told her--that of the tiger's wife.  Moving, beautifully written, and deeply imaginative--this is a gorgeous, unique novel that deserves all of the praise it has garnered.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer.  While this was also a critic's darling when it was published back in 2005, this novel is finding a new surge of popularity with the film version (featuring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock) hitting theaters tomorrow.  After the death of his father in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, nine-year-old Oskar Schell is on a secret mission across the five boroughs of New York City to find the lock for a mysterious key that belonged to his father.  Tender, humorous and healing, Oskar's journey is one no reader will ever forget. 

I hope you get the chance to enjoy some quiet reading this month.  I'm back next week to talk more about hidden gems in your library!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

New Year: Cleaning up your act

Some people can't wait until spring to start cleaning up their act.*  January, in all it's fresh new resolutions, seems to be the new spring when it comes to getting organized.  If you're feeling that impulse, publishers are there to help you out with some new titles guaranteed to give you great organizational ideas.

The Happy Home Project, by Jean Nayar.  What makes a house a home?  Decor maven Nayar explores this idea, touching on all the little things that make a space feel like home.  Included are tips, stories and ideas from architects, professional organizers, designers and contractors, giving different insight and approaches to inspire.  Guaranteed to give you great ideas and fresh perspective on your living space.

If you're feeling the need for a laugh as well as some perspective on organizing your life, I highly recommend Whateverland: Learning to live here by Alexis Stewart (yes, Martha's daughter) and Jennifer Koppelman Hutt.  This duo's fresh, funny and very down-to-earth approach to food, fashion and organization (i.e. Not a Hoarder, Still a Slob) is just as full of helpful advice as it is hilarious stories.  Think you're the only one with the opinion that perfection is overrated?  Hardly! 

Finally, if you'd just like to be able to find what you're looking for when you open a closet, check out Best Organizing Solutions: Cut clutter, store more, and gain closet space by the editors of Family Handyman.  Garage storage got you down?  Can't find your favorite cardigan in the mishmash that is your closet?  Overwhelmed by overflowing shelves of stuff?  Find all your answers in one place, complete with DIY tips suitable for beginners. 

Happy organizing!

*In the spirit of full disclosure, I am typically not one of these people.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Reading Ahead: February, part 2

 Time to be excited, because there are more new titles coming from some of your favorite best-selling authors.  Place your holds now, if you haven't already!

Lone Wolf, by Jodi Picoult

I’ve Got Your Number, by Sophie Kinsella

Oath of Office, by Michael Palmer

Private Games, by James Patterson and Mark Sullivan

Home Front, by Kristin Hannah

I'll be back next Tuesday with more new recommendations for a new year--happy reading!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

New Year, New Recommendations

The beginning of the new year affects different people differently.  For some, it's all about resolutions, about cleaning house, decluttering, organizing, working out, eating right.  For others, it's about relaxing and recuperating after a hectic holiday season.  And for still others, it's a time for quiet thought and contemplation.  I don't know about you, but I am a little of all three, so this month, I thought I'd share lists of books for all types.  Today's list is for the rest and relaxation types--if you just want to kick back with a good book and tune everything else out for a little while, you can't go wrong with one of these suspenseful stories.  (Don't find suspense novels relaxing?  Hang in there--I'll have more recommendations for you later this month!)

With the coming theatrical release of The Hunger Games (March of this year), parents and teens alike can't get their hands on a copy of the novel fast enough.  Don't think that because The Hunger Games and its sequels are written for teens that they don't have plenty of grown-up appeal--often, a great books is simply a great book.  Set in a future version of North America, societal control is maintained with the help of an annual televised survival competition among young people from twelve districts.  One competitor, Katniss, volunteers to take her younger sister's place, and finds her survival skills and training put to the ultimate test.  Powerfully told by author Suzanne Collins, and hugely popular.  If you're looking for a fast read with the side bonus of being in the loop when the movie fever hits, this is a great one to pick up.

The Litigators, by John Grisham.  I used to be a reader of Grisham.  Then I considered myself a fan of his early work.  The Litigators recaptures that essence of fire, with memorable characters and a plot that drags you along through the story at a brisk pace.  Finley & Figg law firm is a small-town firm pretending to be selective and prosperous.  When this ambulance-chasing duo finally gets a breath of fresh air in the form of young but burnt-out downtown lawyer David Zinc, they believe they are ready for the case of a lifetime--namely, a class-action suit against big pharma, which they think should be a breeze.  But as with all things, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, and the partners get much more than they ever bargained for.  Legal drama, suspense, hugely entertaining--Grisham is back on his A-game here!

And being released today, Elizabeth George's Believing the Lie.  George, best-selling author of sixteen Inspector Lynley novels already, is gaining additional critical praise on this latest book (being released today!).  When Scotland Yard policeman Lynley is requested to investigate the apparent accidental drowning death, he sees nothing on the surface, but enlists aid from series regulars, friends Simon and Deborah St. James.  Together, the trio delve into the case only to find a number of suspects and a laundry list of motives.  George's story-telling really can't be beat, and if the critics and advance copy praise is any indication, she's outdone herself this time.

I'll be back on Thursday with more Reading Ahead titles--there are some great ones coming up!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Reading Ahead: February, part 1

While the list of titles due to be published in February isn't quite as extensive as the one for January, there are still lots of big names coming up in a few short weeks.  Take a read through, and be sure to put your requests in for your favorites!

The House I Loved, by Tatiana de Rosnay  (Side note:  If you haven't read Sarah's Key, her first novel, you are really missing out.)

Bone Tree, by Greg Iles

Catch Me, by Lisa Gardner

Celebrity in Death, by J.D. Robb

Left for Dead, by J.A. Jance

Victims, by Jonathan Kellerman

I'll be back next Tuesday with recommended reading to get you through the winter doldrums!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New Year's (Reading) Resolutions

Happy 2012!  I hope everyone had a safe and happy New Year.  Here at the library, new books are coming in fast and furious.  Interested in what titles are coming to the shelves in January?  Check back through these posts--there will be lots to choose from in the coming weeks!

In the first days of the new year, resolutions and changes are on everyone's minds.  A new year means a fresh start, and a chance to do things differently.  I'm all about reasonable resolutions, though.  There's no point in setting myself up for failure, right?  Just, you know, give myself a little nudge to do things differently, better.

One thing I want to do better this year is read more broadly.  I read across most fiction genres usually, but my non-fiction reading tends to be few and far between.  I'm going to make a concerted effort to read more non-fiction this year (and no just cookbooks and crafting titles!).

A few years ago, I took part in two separate reading challenges.  One was to read (and finish) 50 books in a year.  The other was to read 15,000 pages in a year (which averages to finishing one 300 page book per week).  I liked having a challenge to meet, even as I was doing something I loved anyway.  I think it challenged me to read more, certainly.  And since I've mentioned recently that I haven't felt like I've been reading enough, I think I'm going to set these goals for myself for 2012, and see how this pans out.  I'll run a monthly update post, to keep it easy to track.  Anyone else want to join me?

What about you?  What are your reading resolutions for the new year?  More non-fiction?  More best-sellers?  Read more with your kids?  I'd love to know!