Thursday, May 31, 2012

What I've been reading: May 2012

Something about the start to longer days makes me want to read.  When dinner's over and the dishes are done and it's still nice and light out, that's my cue to enjoy the extra light with a book in hand.  I spent a little time earlier this month on vacation, and I'll be honest: the majority of the reading I did for 10 days happened in airports or on a plane.  So I've been making up for it since I've been back!  Here's what I've been reading over the past month...

Fifty Shades Darker, by E.L. James.  Yes, I caved and read the second book while on vacation.  It's a bit better written than the first, but not by a huge amount.  That said, I figured it was more than fluffy enough to qualify as vacation reading, and I was right.  Everything from hard limits to helicopter crashes are handled with an equal lack of gravity, and I'll be honest, in hindsight the whole thing just leaves me kind of underwhelmed.  Currently not feeling terribly compelled to read the final installment, and I don't know that I necessarily understand the ravings of so many readers that these books are so amazing.  The plots are scattered, the characters have little depth, there are earth-shattering "secrets" at every turn that floor the characters, but didn't make me so much as bat an eye.  I just don't quite get it, and I'm okay with that.  544 pages

The Wayfarer Redemption, by Sara Douglass.  This was a paperback of mine that I've been hoarding for a rainy day, or a flight, whichever came first.  The library does own other books in this series, and I've also ordered us a replacement copy of the title.  Douglass,  professor of English history at La Trobe University, Bendigo and one of Australia's most famous writers, is a master of epic fantasy fiction.  Here, she introduces a millenia-old prophecy and a land fractured by religion, where people believe the end is near.  One woman, Faraday, a nobleman's daughter, becomes a lynchpin in political and prophetical machinery far beyond her experience.  But she is the only one who can change the minds and hearts of her people, and unify the fractured peoples against their common foe.  672 pages

The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson.  Changing gears completely, I picked this up when I got home, ready to sink my teeth into something deep and challenging.  I chose wisely, and found myself following Pak Jun Do, son of a lost mother and a father who runs a work camp for orphans.  Jun Do, recognized for his loyalty and fierce instincts, moves up through the ranks of the "greatest nation in the world, The Democratic People's Republic of North Korea", becoming whatever role is set before him: tunnel rat, sailor, spy, diplomat, and finally, treacherous rival to leader Kim Jong Il.  This last role is an attempt to save the woman he loves, actress Sun Moon.  Full of innocence lost, stolen moments of love and beauty, and the harsh realities of cruelty and corruption, this really is a book to be savored.  I loved every minute.  464 pages

The Witness, by Nora Roberts.  Nora Roberts is one of my guilty pleasure readers.  Somehow, each one is just as engrossing and quick-moving as the last, and I enjoy them greatly.  Here, Roberts delves into the Russian mafia, witness protection and the life of a fugitive in fear for her life.  The one night that teenage prodigy Elizabeth defies her strict mother and goes out clubbing with a friend, she witnesses a double-murder, a hit by the Russian mob.  When she agrees to testify, her security team is compromised, and Elizabeth barely escapes with her life, doomed to live in hiding for more than a decade, changing her location and her identity frequently.  Finally, she meets police chief Brooks Gleason, and for once she feels safe enough to stop running and finish what was started so many years earlier.  Break-neck pace and very nicely done, as always.  496 pages

Charlotte au Chocolat: Memories of a Restaurant Girlhood, by Charlotte Silver.  Silver, who grew up in her mother's restaurant on Harvard Square, Upstairs at the Pudding, waxes nostalgic and a bit melancholic over a rotation of eccentric staff, endless Shirley Temples, and her mother, nicknamed "Patton in Pumps", who managed to raise Charlotte and her older brother as well as run the restaurant after Charlotte's father left when Charlotte was six.  A tribute to a bygone era of presentation and good manners, as well as the sacrifices of one woman to keep everything and everyone moving forward in the face of financial uncertainty.  Wistful and charming.  272 pages

White Horse, by Alex Adams.  I reviewed this earlier this week--you can see the review here.  306 pages

Jeneration X: one reluctant adult's attempt to unarrest her arrested development,or why it's never too late for her dumb ass to learn why Froot Loops are not for dinner, by Jen Lancaster.  If you're new to Lancaster's work, I highly suggest starting with her first memoir, Bitter is the New Black.  In her latest work of humorous non-fiction, Lancaster is as scathing and sassy as ever as she challenges herself and her generation to do the unthinkable: act their age.  Finally embracing her new life as an investment-making, mortgage-paying adult, Lancaster finally tackles all things adult which she had resisted for years: volunteering, getting a mammogram, etc., with reluctant life-lessons taken from each incident or experience.  If you have read her other work, you'll be familiar with the over-the-top retelling, but it was just as funny and entertaining as I expected.  368 pages

Unorthodox: the scandalous rejection of my Hasidic roots, by Deborah Feldman.  A curious child by nature, Deborah Feldman strained against the bonds of her upbringing in the strict world of Brooklyn's Satmar Hasidim.  Rules governed everything: what she could wear, what she was allowed to read, who she was permitted to speak to and when.  Denied a traditional education and married at 17 to a virtual stranger, Feldman's resulting, and crippling, anxiety was made all the worse by the shame associated with her inability to be a dutiful wife for her husband.  Feldman's secret and salvation, non-secular books obtained from a library far from her Williamsburg neighborhood, give her glimpses of a life outside the tradition in which she was raised.  Ultimately, when she becomes a mother at 19 and realizes her son's future is also at stake, she finally decides she must find a life for herself outside of her community.  Deeply moving.  272 pages

May's total is 8 titles, and 3,394 pages.

Year to date:
12,923/50,000 pages: 26%
30/100 titles: 30%

Anyone else doing a reading challenge?  How's it going?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Can't keep it to myself: White Horse

I have a reading challenge update coming up later this week, but this title couldn't wait for that.  White Horse, by Alex Adams, is a debut novel told in "then" and "now" chapters and the first in a proposed trilogy.  Following protagonist Zoe, widow and janitor at a pharmaceutical lab, through "then", we find that someone has broken into her apartment and instead of stealing something, someone has left an ancient sealed jar that terrifies her by its presence and implications to the point that she starts seeing a therapist to deal with the emotional upheaval.  The evil she feels that is inside this jar will not be contained even if she doesn't open the jar, and the result is a terrible series of events that leads her to "now", approximately two years later.  In "what used to be Italy", Zoe's now traveling toward Greece, avoiding previous civilizations when she can, as they are mostly ghost-towns now.  The survivors of a plague, a mere 10% or so of the Earth's population, are not always to be trusted, and Zoe tries to avoid contact when she can.  Freedom to choose and a shred of hope are the things she clings to as she makes her way, and as long as she has them, she retains her humanity among the "monsters" who now inhabit the planet.  Raw, gritty, powerful. 

This is not, I would say, merely for fans of post-apocalyptic fiction--adult readers, if you enjoyed The Hunger Games, I think this is for you.  It might be a little too much for most teen readers, though.  I read it in two nights, and could not put it down.  Now I can't wait for the next installment.  Very highly recommended.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

On a deserted island

What one book would you want with you if you were stranded on a deserted island?  This question has been posed to me more than once in my life.  My answer has been the same for at least the last twenty years: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.  (What?  It comes as a single volume--it counts!)   Why?  History, language, and sheer entertainment value.  And really, if I was to be stranded for years with only a single volume, I'd want something with both drama and comedy, murder and magic.  Wouldn't you?  Or would you?  Tell me:  What one book would you want with you in this scenario?  Share in the comments!

Have a happy and safe holiday weekend--I'm back next week with reading challenge updates and reviews!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

And the Edgar goes to...

The 2012 Edgar Award winners were announced a few weeks ago (I was on vacation, sorry!).  So, have you read any of the winners or nominees?  Do you think the committee got it right?  Inquiring minds want to know!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Food for thought

With the uproar over E.L. James's Fifty Shades trilogy these last few months, one of the big debates among readers has been whether story or delivery is more important, not just in this case but in cases of all print material.  If you're not familiar, you can certainly page through thousands of reviews for Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels on Amazon, but I'll give you the jist.

One side of this argument is that the merit of a book, any book, is in the story and characters, irregardless of style.  That a strong story is worth reading and recommending even if there are grammatical errors (it happens in books from all publishing houses, I assure you), limited vocabulary, repetitive phrases, etc.  The other camp claims that style, the vehicle which carries the story, is just as important, if not more so, as the story itself.  From this view, it's less about the destination and all about how we get there, and those on this side of the line would argue that in the case of the less well-written or -edited stories, the errors are simply too distracting to enjoy the journey.  Essentially, does the lack of style destroy the message?

I find merit in both arguments.  I won't lie.  I worked in academic editing for four years, and tend to be a bit of a stickler when it comes to grammar, vocabulary and sentence structure.  For me, reading along and enjoying a book is easily interrupted by an awkward turn of phrase or the wrong verb tense.  I know, small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, but a well-told tale is one that keeps you in its thrall from beginning to end, without lags or hiccups.  If those bumps in the road are few and far between, it's much easier to settle back into the story without much pause.  However, for me, if those interruptions are consistent enough and jarring enough, I'll often get annoyed and in some cases, I just stop reading.  As with all rules, there are exceptions, and sometimes I do find a premise or character compelling enough to follow through all the way to the end.

I'm interested to hear what others think about this argument.  How do you feel about reading books that contain multiple errors or are not very well written?  Can story trump style?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Top 10 on Tuesday: Breaking out of your comfort zone

Readers, in many cases, tend to get stuck in genre ruts.  Like the mystery reader who devours the latest installments of a dozen different series, but will complain that there's "nothing to read" while waiting for a new title to be published by one of their favorite authors.  Or the medical thriller guru who knows more about forensics than the writers of CSI, but who will turn his/her nose up at any title that doesn't involve gurneys or a visit to the medical examiner. You might not be guilty of this yourself, but you probably know someone like this and are nodding to yourselves right now.  On the off chance that you're feeling the genre rut a little too keenly these days, are caught in the wasteland between books by your preferred list of authors, or are just willing to loosen up and try something a little outside of your comfort zone, I have some strategies to get you started.

1) Try something similar.  If you're a hardcore space science fiction junkie, chances are good that a sudden leap into cozy mysteries might not be quite what you're looking for.  (Then again, I could be wrong--more on that later.)  However, moving over to something like techno-thrillers or alternate reality sci-fi might help broaden your horizons without being too jarring.

2) Find out who your favorite authors read and/or are inspired by, and use that as a reading list.  Stephen King fans, go read Jack Finney or Ray Bradbury, some of his inspirations.  Readers of George R.R. Martin who are avidly waiting for book 6 of A Song of Ice and Fire to be published (it's going to be awhile, kids) could go and read epic fantasy by Daniel Abraham or the old-fashioned space opera by James S.A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes, which Martin mentioned fondly on his blog.  Not sure who your favorites read?  If, like Martin, they have a blog which they update on a regular basis, they'll often mention who or what they're reading.  Others will have websites with a bio or FAQ that often will contain the information, or have mentioned inspiration in interviews.  Worst case?  You can always write and ask.

3) Try reading a genre that plays to one of your other interests.  Mysteries are often especially good for this: wine enthusiasts, gardeners, foodies, world travelers, weekend antiquers, pet-lovers--there is something out there for all of you! 

4) Go back to the classics.  It's not terribly daring, no, but it might give you a better insight into your current genre of choice.  Mystery readers, try Agatha Christie or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Chick lit devotees, many of your current favorites are heavily influenced by the works of Jane Austen.  Do a little digging or stop by your local library and ask a librarian help you find the roots of your favorites.

5) If you're a fiction reader, switch to non-fiction, or vice versa.  Chick lit humor ties in nicely with the works of Jen Lancaster and Amy Sedaris, popular authors like Barbara Kingsolver, Stephen King, James Patterson and Anna Quindlen (among many others) have written works of non-fiction, and if you're looking for a better understanding of your preferred historical fiction's time periods and figures, you could read for years by taking a stroll through the non-fiction collection.  And non-fiction readers, the same goes for you.  Anything from decorating to environmental concerns, politics to cooking, there is plenty in the fiction collection waiting to tickle your fancy.

6) Historical fiction readers, is there a particular time period in which you find yourself stuck?  Start branching out a little, or a lot! Elizabethan England got you caught up in a web of intrigue?  Move from the Tudors to the Borgias or Medicis.  Can't seem to escape the Civil War era?   Follow the Civil War into the turn of the century and beyond--World War I, the roaring 20's...  There's so much more history to soak up!  Keep it moving!

7) Go extreme and try something totally outside of your comfort zone.  Fantasy geek?  (Don't get crabby, I count myself in this camp an awful lot!)  Go read a thoughtful memoir.  Non-fiction purist?  Try award-winning fiction to get your feet wet.  Best-sellers only?  Move on to indie presses, debut novels, and quirky genre fiction.  You might just surprise yourself and find a new love in your reading life.

8) Be deliberate.  It's one glorious thing to wander the stacks and pick and choose whatever strikes your fancy.  But do you have a reading bucket list?  If you don't, you should.  Anything you find mention of that makes you think "hmm, I've always meant to read that" belongs on that list.  Once you start keeping one, read those books.  No, not to the exclusion of those idly-browsed treasures, but in addition to them.  Being careful and deliberate in what you're reading, at least sometimes, will help you start to branch out by the nature of the intent.

And on the heels of that...

9) Give yourself a challenge.  What that challenge is?  Well, that's up to you.  But to get you started, here are a few to try: pick a book outside of your comfort zone on each trip to the library (and read it), try reading a different genre every month, read from lists of award-winners or bestsellers, etc.  Guilty of always reading "short" books?  Pick up a weighty tome next time--no one's judging you on how fast or slow of a reader you are.  On the flip side, if you only take out giant books, stop judging your books by the size of the spine. 

10) Join a book club.  I'm not talking one of those "wine and cheese on a Thursday night" ones, either--those are fine, but what are you really getting out of that, other than some delicious snacks?  Being part of a well-run book club should challenge you to read books you wouldn't ordinarily pick for yourself.  Even if you hate that month's selection upon finishing it, discussion with other members about why you didn't like it will make you a better, more critical reader in the future.  And maybe this is the book-geek in me talking, but I can think of few things I enjoy more than sharing thoughts about books and authors with other readers.

What's my point in all of this?  Reading more, and more variety, makes you a better reader.  Think about it like this.  Reading in a single genre is a bit like being a picky eater.  There are so many different flavors out there, but sticking with the same familiar 5 foods over and over is not only boring, but also might make you a bit malnourished and tough to have over for dinner.  Likewise, reading broadly gives you a more expansive vocabulary, better critical thinking skills, and you'll always have something to talk about over dinner.  Oh, and your brain won't wind up malnourished, either.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Three on Thursday: Best Young Adult Books for Adults

Harry PotterTwilightThe Hunger Games.  What do all three have in common, other than blockbuster sales and film adaptations?  Originally, they were all written for young adults, and wound up appealing to millions of adult fans world-wide as well.  And, interestingly enough, all have elements of fantasy in them.  They are certainly not alone, though.  There are hundreds of titles published for young adults every year, and many of them have major appeal to adult readers as well.  Here are my picks for teen titles you shouldn't miss.

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green.  No matter how many chapters there are, the end of Hazel's story has been written from the time of her diagnosis: terminal.  But when gorgeous Augustus Waters arrives at the Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel's tale gets a major rewrite.  Beautiful, poignant, surprising, this is definitely one you need to pick up.

Stardust, by Neil Gaiman.  My regular readers know that I have a deep and undying love for Neil Gaiman, author, screenwriter and supporter of libraries.  This absolutely extends to Stardust, which was adapted for film in 2007.  When young Tristran Thorn, a half-human and half-Faerie boy raised by his father and stepmother, foolishly promises his sweetheart that he will bring her a fallen star, he has no idea that his quest will lead him to answers about his heritage, as well as love outside his village, in the land of Faerie.  Full of adventure, mystery and romance, Stardust is a novel I could read again and again.

Eragon, by Christopher Paolini.  The first in the Inheritance Cycle series (currently there are four books), Eragon was originally self-published by the author's family, but when discovered by Carl Hiaasen, it was republished by Knopf.  Young farm boy Eragon finds a strange stone in the mountains, which turns out to be an egg.  A dragon hatches from the egg, whom Eragon names Saphira.  The duo is forced to flee Eragon's village when an evil king finds out about the boy and his dragon, and so their adventures begin.  Set in a world of magic, destiny, elves and dragons, this story is destined to become a classic.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Reading Ahead: June 2012, part 3

 Here we are, at the end of the list of titles due out next month.  Don't forget to put your requests in now!

The Conviction, by Robert Dugoni

XO, by Jeffery Deaver

Little Night, by Luanne Rice

Bad Faith, by Robert K. Tanenbaum

Summer Rental, by Mary Kay Andrews

Search and Destroy, by Tom Clancy & Peter Telep

Honor, by Janet Dailey

So tell me--what are you most looking forward to reading this summer?  Something from the list?  Something due to come out later in the summer?  Or something a little older that's been waiting for just the right time?  

Me?  I'll let you in on a little secret...  The sequel to A Discovery of Witches is coming out in July, and it's called Shadow of Night.  I cannot wait! 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Reading Ahead: June 2012, part 2

I don't think I'm alone when I say that the promise of new fiction by some of my favorite authors makes me a little giddy.  Read on to the list and tell me there's nothing there that strikes your fancy!

Tumbleweeds, by Leila Meacham

Wicked Business, by Janet Evanovich

Gone Missing, by Linda Castillo

A Place in the Country, by Elizabeth Adler

The Risk Agent, by Ridley Pearson

The Third Gate, by Lincoln Child

Porch Lights, by Dorothea Benton Frank

Between You and Me, by Emma McLaughlin & Nicola Krauss

2010's Roses, also by Leila Meacham, was a HUGE hit with readers, so there will be lots of excitement that she's publishing just in time for some beach reading.   Linda Castillo's new novel is also being greeted with eagerness--if you're looking for a new thriller series, you really should pick up her Kate Burkholder series, starting with Sworn to Silence.  And if you're looking for a "sure thing" to slip into your beach bag this summer, Dorothea Benton Frank's Porch Lights already has readers lining up to get their hands on a copy!  I'll see you next Tuesday to wrap up the list of June releases.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Reading Ahead: June 2012, part 1

Happy May Day!  I hope everyone has cleared their collective calendars this summer, because there is an absolutely stunning amount of new books slated for release.  Shall we get into the nitty-gritty?  Let's!

The Red House, by Mark Haddon

Summer Breeze, by Nancy Thayer

Heading Out to Wonderful, by Robert Goolrick

Equal of the Sun, by Anita Amirrezvani

Potboiler, by Jesse Kellerman

Heartbroken, by Lisa Unger

The Wrong Man, by David Ellis

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

Summerland, by Elin Hilderbrand

See what I mean?  Amazing!  AND this is only about a third of the "biggies" scheduled to hit the shelves during the month of June.  I'm particularly eager to see what Mark Haddon's new book is like, since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was a favorite of mine.  I also loved Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife, so I'm interested to read his new novel.  Finally, Karen Thompson Walker's novel, The Age of Miracles, has been getting such amazing reviews, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it may be the sleeper hit of the summer.  So far, comparisons have been made to Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones and Margaret Atwood, and I've had it marked with an asterisk on my "to read" list since I first heard about it.  I'd recommend you mark your list, too!