Thursday, January 30, 2014

What I've Been Reading, January 2014

I cannot tell a lie:  my 2014 challenge (to read 100 books in the course of the calendar year) is off to a bit of a rocky start.  Sometimes, even the most voracious readers take a break or hit a lull.  In my case, I've been having a hard time finding books that really call to me to sit and read for long, uninterrupted stretches.  What has fit that bill?  Let's see, shall we?

The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan.  Told by three very different women, this is a story of what it means to be family, of the people in our lives who shape us, and how we find our place in the world.  Violet Minturn is barely a teenager when she is separated from her mother, an American madam of a Shanghai courtesan house, and finds herself abandoned and sold to a different courtesan house. Violet is half Chinese and half American, and finds it a challenge to determine who she can now trust.  Magic Gourd is a retired courtesan who has known Violet since she was a child, and manages to remain as her guardian and attendant after her abandonment.  Finally, there is the story of Violet's mother, Lucia, who reflects on her own life and the men who shaped her destiny.  I found this both powerful and bittersweet, haunting and richly detailed. 

Dead to Me, by Cath Staincliffe.  I have to say that I really hope that Staincliffe continues this series, because this first entry is absolutely stellar.  Think of the Odd Couple as female detectives in Manchester England.  Bizarre, right?  But you have to admit, you're intrigued.  Detective Constable Janet Scott has seen it all, and has no interest in a move up in the ranks--she loves her own job too much to consider more paperwork and less detective-work.  She is methodical and plays by the book, so when her boss teams her up with new addition Rachel Bailey, it is not a match made in heaven--Rachel is impulsive, ambitious, easily frustrated and incredibly tenacious.  And yet when a young woman is found murdered in her North Manchester estate flat, this team will see justice done.  Surprising, exhilarating, and exquisitely plotted. 

An American Bride in Kabul, by Phyllis Chesler.  Sometimes, I plan ahead what I'm going to read next.  Sometimes, a book just about jumps right off the shelf at me, demanding to be read.  This was just one such, and it was a bit like falling down the rabbit hole--I read quickly, in huge chunks, fascinated by Chesler's story and her insight.  In 1961, Chesler goes from being a Jewish American good girl to the wife of an Afghan man she met while they studied at the same university.  He is bright, charming, intelligent and they marry for love.  It is only after they return to Afghanistan that Chesler realizes how much she does not know about her husband, his family or his culture.  She lost her American passport upon arrival, and would never see it again.  She is initially puzzled by the way the family approaches her father-in-law (a wealthy man of influence and power) with such cringing deference, only later realizing that maintaining his favor would prove crucial for each individual's standing in the family hierarchy.  Chesler does come back to American, years later, only to maintain complex relationships with her family, especially after 9/11.  I was deeply moved by her story.

And I'm afraid that's it.  My total of books read for January, and for 2014, is 3 books.

Looks like this challenge is going to be challenging!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Top 5 on Tuesday: But the book was better

There are a number of movies coming out this year which are, of course, based on books.  If you'd like to get a jump on things, I have some titles you might like to check out.  Word to the wise--if you read the book for free from the library, you can then decide one of three things: 1) You didn't love the book enough to spend $11 at the theaters, 2) You loved the book so much, you'd hate to see it potentially ruined onscreen or 3) You can't wait to see it in theaters.  What have you got to lose?  Nothing but yourself.  In a story.

(FYI, for the complete list of "books to read before they hit theaters, check out the link here.  What I've listed are my top 5 picks, based on...well, my opinion.)

Wild: from lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed. 
 The very honest memoir of a woman who lost everything, and with nothing left to lose, goes on a 1,100 mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail.  Her outlook at the end is, to say the very least, much changed.  The film version will star Reese Witherspoon playing Strayed. 

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. 
By the author of Seabiscuit, Unbroken has been extremely popular with readers of all stripes.  Another true story, this follows Louis Zamperini, 1930's track star and participant in the Berlin Olympics who became an airman during WWII, after his plane went down in the Pacific in May 1943.  What follows is his harrowing account of survival after being captured by Japanese forces.  What clinches it for me is that not only was it scripted by the Coen brothers and directed by Angelina Jolie, but that Zamperini himself was consulted on the film.

The Giver, by Lois Lowry.  In a utopian society, 12-year-old Jonas has been given his life assignment--he will be the "Receiver of Memories", and only "The Giver" knows the truth about their society and its past, which he must now pass down to Jonas.  The film's cast includes Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep and Alexander Skarsgard, which all has my interest piqued.

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green.  This young-adult novel has been a huge favorite of teens and adults alike--my guess is that the movie, if done well, could be just as big.  The premise is not for the faint of heart: Hazel and Gus are two normal teenagers in love, witty and rebellious.  Except that they met in a cancer support group, with Hazel constantly accompanied by an oxygen tank and Gus making jokes about his prosthetic leg.  The book is beautiful and tender, and I am really hoping that the movie will retain that delicacy and grace.

Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn.  Please note that another of Flynn's novels, the very popular Gone Girl, will also be made into a film released in 2014.  Why am I selecting the film for Dark Places instead of Gone Girl?  First, as much as I loved the twists and turns in Gone Girl, fact is, I just preferred Dark Places as a novel.  Second, I think Dark Places will translate better on film.  It's a gut feeling--I'm not sure I can explain it adequately.  Third, cast.  Ben Affleck is playing the male lead in Gone Girl, and I have to say that I would not have gone in that direction.  I'm just going with my gut on this one.

Have you read through the full list?  What are you looking forward to seeing or reading this year?  I'd love to know!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Reading Ahead: February 2014: Meg's picks, part 2

 As promised, I'm back with part two of my picks for fiction you might want to consider outside of the big names on the bestsellers' lists.  February in particular has quite a few of these, and I want to give each of them their due.  In which case, let's get rolling, shall we?

The Good Luck of Right Now, by Matthew Quick.  If the author's name looks familiar, it should.  Quick also wrote NYT bestseller The Silver Linings Playbook, which was adapted into an extremely popular film starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.  So his latest novel has a lot of readers very interested, and with good reason. Thirty-eight year old Bartholomew Neil has lived home with his mother all his life.  His days have revolved around her, Saturday Mass, and the library.  When she becomes sick and passes away, Bartholomew is not only devastated, he is also unmoored.  Finding a "Free Tibet" letter from Richard Gere among his mother's possessions, Bartholomew uses this as a talisman as he tries to grow up and assemble a family on his own.  This looks to be quirky and endearing, and I'd recommend it not only to fans of Quick's other work, but also to readers who enjoyed The Rosie Project

The Winter People, by Jennifer McMahon.  West Hall, Vermont, has always been a town of strange disappearances and old legends. The most mysterious is that of Sara Harrison Shea, who, in 1908, was found dead in the field behind her house just months after the tragic death of her daughter, Gertie. Now, in present day, nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in Sara's farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her younger sister, Fawn. Alice has always insisted that they live off the grid, a decision that suddenly proves perilous when Ruthie wakes up one morning to find that Alice has vanished without a trace. Searching for clues, she is startled to find a copy of Sara Harrison Shea's diary hidden beneath the floorboards of her mother's bedroom. As Ruthie gets sucked deeper into the mystery of Sara's fate, she discovers that she's not the only person who's desperately looking for someone that they've lost. But she may be the only one who can stop history from repeating itself.  (synopsis from  Fans of S.J. Watson's Before I Go To Sleep may want to check this one out.

The Martian, by Andy Weir.  Plausible sci-fi meets suspense when astronaut Mark Watney, who six days ago became the first person to walk on Mars, may now also be the first person to die there.  A dust storm forced his crew to evacuate and leave him behind, and he is left for dead, stranded without any way to communicate with his ship or with Earth.  The trick is: can his resourcefulness keep him alive long enough to maybe, just maybe, be rescued?  This has been getting huge praise from suspense and sci-fi fans alike (including positive reviews from authors like Douglas Preston and Larry Niven).  I'm intrigued, and I'm going to go out on a limb that this will likely find its way onto the big screen in the next few years.  Just my two cents.

Queen Sugar, by Natalie Baszile.  Why did this pop up on my radar?  Well, publisher Penguin has a excellent track record when it comes to publishing strong Southern fiction debuts, like those from  Kathryn Stockett, Sue Monk Kidd, and Beth Hoffman, just to name a few.  Told over the course of one sweltering summer, this story is of Charly Bordelon's experience running the eight-hundred acre Louisiana sugar plantation left to her by her late father.  Not only is it a chance for her and her young daughter to start over, but it's a mystery as to just why her father left her the plantation in the first place.  She also has not just the challenges of the farm itself to undertake, but also the complaints from a homesick daughter, a bitter and troubled brother, and her own transformation in the span of the growing season.  If this isn't a knockout for book clubs this year and in years to come, I'll eat my hat.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Reading Ahead: February 2014, Meg's Picks, part 1

Trying something a little different this month.  I've mentioned before that as I order fiction titles for the library, I keep a list of titles which I know will very likely be on the bestsellers' lists, and therefore will be of interest to my fellow readers.  I also keep a list of titles which may interest readers, but for whatever reason, might fly under the radar.  I put a little star next to these, reminding myself to give them a little extra attention when they appear on the blog.  There are quite a few of these titles coming out in February, so many, in fact, that I'm breaking the list up into two posts this week to make sure they've all received fair coverage.

That Part Was True, by Deborah McKinlay.  A fan writes to an author, praising a scene in one of his books.  What follows is a gradual move toward friendship as they trade stories and advice in their relative anonymity.  As they grow closer, however, they begin to plan a meeting in Paris, which the fan fears can never happen.  Critical buzz is big on this one, and I'm guessing it will be a book-club darling this year.

The Daring Ladies of Lowell, by Kate Alcott.  Alcott made quite an impression with 2012's The Dressmaker. Desperate to get away from her family's farm, Alice Barrows moves to Lowell in 1832 and eagerly throws herself into the hard work demanded of her as one of "the mill girls".  She embraces her new life in spite of the hard work, making friends and ultimately falling in love...with a man she cannot have.  When her friend is murdered, Alice is torn between her loyalty to her fellow mill girls and her newfound love.  Based on a true story.

Lost Lake, by Sarah Allen Addison.  When Kate finds herself newly widowed, she takes her eccentric eight-year-old daughter Devin to a cottage at Lost Lake, where she herself spent a summer of dreamy wonder as a girl.  However, all that's left in Sulley, GA are the cottages at Lost Lake, and the owner, Kate's aunt, wants to sell them and retire.  In a place where time seems to stand still, can Kate rediscover her purpose in life?  I'm suggesting this for fans of authors like Jane Green and Kristin Hannah.

Long Man, by Amy Greene. New fiction from Greene, who also wrote 2009's critically acclaimed novel Bloodroot.  A river called the Long Man has flowed through Eastern Tennessee since time began.  But in 1936, the Tennessee Valley Authority plans to dam the river and flood the small town of Yuneetah for the sake of the greater good: bringing electricity and jobs to the region.  As the deadline approaches, one of the last holdouts in the town realizes that her young daughter is missing, and the heat is on to find her and get to safety before the flood begins.  This is being heralded as brilliant, suspenseful, gorgeous and a tour de force.  My interest is certainly piqued.

Vienna Nocturne, by Vivien Shotwell.  Anna Storace is a child prodigy, a young British opera singer whose parents take her to Italy when she is just thirteen in order to further her training.  Anna is eager to have it all, love, wealth, fame--all of which lead to her making some unfortunate choices.  As she grows into a passionate young woman, she also meets Mozart and becomes his muse in the midst of their torrid love affair.  I'd highly recommend this to readers who also enjoyed Loving Frank or The Paris Wife.

I'll be back with the rest of my picks on Thursday.  In the meantime, happy reading!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Reading Ahead: February 2014, part 3

 On the off chance you need a little cheering up this winter, publishers have you covered.  And if a mystery novel is your read of choice, they definitely have you covered!  Don't believe me?  Read on.


The Forever Girl, by Alexander McCall-Smith

Moving Target, by J.A. Jance

Death of a Policeman, by M.C. Beaton

Blackberry Pie Murder, by Joanne Fluke


The Chase, by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg.  Following this writing duo's excellent novel The Heist, The Chase picks up with the unlikely team of FBI agent Kate O'Hare and master con-artist Nicholas Fox now undercover to bring down a thief whose crimes could cause an international incident between the US and China.  Evanovich, best known for her witty Stephanie Plum mysteries (One for the Money, etc.), and Goldberg, best known for his Monk mysteries, team up here to make dynamic, fast-reading gold with their signature style for the slightly madcap well intact (AARP-card-carrying mercenaries, anyone?).  If you're intrigued, I would highly suggest picking up a copy of The Heist while you wait.

Twisted Sisters, by Jen Lancaster.  I have mentioned often (and recently) the pleasure I receive in reading Lancaster's work.  Here, overachieving sister Reagan has a spot on a breakout television show as a licensed psychologist, pushing people to overcome their fears and boundaries to live better lives.  Yet for all her success, her younger sister Geri was, is, and always will be the family favorite.  When Reagan's show is picked up by a national network, the pressure is on to make it work, and she winds up seeking a slightly unconventional approach.  Record Nielsen ratings follow, and Reagan decides to use her newfound power to teach a lesson about sibling rivalry.  What could go wrong?  Well...  This is, absolutely, on my list. 


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Reading Ahead: February 2014, part 2

If my list of thrillers and suspense novels from last week didn't quite float your boat, or perhaps only just got your reading list started, never fear.  I've always got a little something for everyone.  Today's list has a bit of everything--futuristic suspense, juicy tales of teenage rebellion, family sagas, romance and a bit of history.  Care to guess which of the following is which?

Confessions of a Wild Child, by Jackie Collins

Kiss and Tell, by Fern Michaels

Somerset, by Leila Meacham

Evening Stars, by Susan Mallery

Concealed in Death, by J.D. Robb

So what's making my reading list?  I'm going with the bookends (please forgive the pun) of this booklist.  For my reading pleasure, I really can't beat Alice Hoffman.  She does not repeat herself, and she is never boring.  Some of my favorites include The Dovekeepers and  her collection of intertwined short stories in The Red Garden.  If you're new to her work, I highly recommend either.  But you can bet that The Museum of Extraordinary Things will be reviewed in one of my reading challenge posts this spring.  From what I've read about it so far, it combines Hoffman's signature gorgeous prose and deft hand with a volatile time in history (1911-1925 in New York) and a brilliant love story between two very different people.  Intrigued?  Me, too.

On the other end of the spectrum, of course, is my need for something a bit on the light and fast-reading side.  J.D. Robb's Eve Dallas series is always a good bet for that.  Following 2013's Thankless in Death (which was one of the best of the series to date, in my opinion), Concealed in Death finds Dallas's husband, wealthy business mogul Roarke, beginning the demolition of an old building where he plans to build on a new addition to his empire.  Only the first swing of the sledgehammer reveals two skeletons wrapped in plastic.  Dallas is on the case, and with not two but twelve murders to solve.  I am giddy with anticipation!