Thursday, May 29, 2014

What I've Been Reading: May 2014

Wow, I can hardly believe how quickly May flew by!  The good news is that I managed to get lots of reading in--I was shocked when I tallied eight titles for the month (and it's not even over yet!).  Yes, you read that right--eight!  I will admit, four of these were in audiobook form, which I do count toward my challenge total.  It never ceases to amaze me how much extra reading I can get done just running errands, commuting, or just for something to listen to while doing chores around the house.  An audiobook definitely makes tasks like painting or cleaning a little less onerous, in my opinion.

Defending Jacob, by William Landay.  This was my book club's choice for our May meeting, and I nearly didn't finish in time!  I actually finished the last disc of the audiobook driving to work the morning of the meeting--that's too close for comfort for me!  The good news was that it was a great book, well-narrated, and it made for one of the best, most intense discussions that our book group has had in its twelve-year run.  This is so much more than a thriller or a courtroom drama.  In the wake of the murder of a teenage boy, the son of assistant district attorney Andy Barber, middle-school student Jacob, is the prime suspect.  In the course of the investigation and prosecution, the tale becomes as much about secrets, family dynamics, community response to tragedy, and coping with change, all of which make this deep, intriguing novel so much more than the sum of its parts.  Not for the faint of heart, but very highly recommended.

The Last Runaway, by Tracy Chevalier.  This is my book club's title for our June meeting, and since it was such a close call for me finishing for our May meeting, I wasn't about to take any chances and got started on this the very same day!  This is a deceptively simple, surprisingly deep novel about a woman who loses or leaves behind everything for a fresh start, departing her small, safe community in Dorset, England for the wilds of Ohio in 1850.  Here, everything is different, from the language to the animals, the people to the food.  Honor Bright then finds friendship in the unlikeliest people, and strength where she thought there was none.  Just one more reason I'm a fan of Chevalier's work. 

Astonish Me, by Maggie Shipstead.  I adored Shipstead's debut novel, Seating Arrangements, with its wry, witty social commentary, so I was eagerly anticipating her sophomore novel.  Those expecting something similar to her debut, like I was, may find themselves having to readjust their thinking a bit in order to appreciate this new novel, which follows ballet dancer Joan through her career in a prestigious dance troupe in 1970s New York.  After helping her Russian lover, another famous dancer, defect to the US, Joan finds herself torn between dreams and reality, ultimately choosing to leave New York and Russian Arslan behind in favor of marrying, settling down to raise a family, and moving on.  Until, of course, everything comes crashing down years later, as Joan's new life is revealed to be built on deceit.  A gorgeous novel of passion and drive.

The Third Angel, by Alice Hoffman.  There is the Angel of Life, there is the Angel of Death.  And then there is the Third Angel, the one who comes home with you and renews your faith.  The novel is told in three parts, by three different women, each in London and each in love with the wrong man.  Central to all three tales, however, is Lucy Green, who blames herself for a tragic accident that occurred when she was twelve and spends the next forty years searching for the Third Angel, that her faith might be restored.  Hoffman draws such singular characters, each so deftly nuanced, that I found myself helpless to do anything but keep reading.  Glorious and heartbreaking.

The Pink Suit, by Nicole Mary Kelby.  Based on the true story behind Jacqueline Kennedy's iconic Chanel-inspired pink suit, worn on the fateful day of November 22, 1963 at the request of her husband, as it was his favorite.  Much of the First Lady's wardrobe, pink suit included, came from the New York boutique Chez Ninon, where a young seamstress, an Irish immigrant named Kate, worked behind the scenes on many of these memorable outfits.  Though the two women never met, their lives are deeply enmeshed; when the pink suit becomes infamous, Kate's fragile existence is threatened as well.  There are times in each reader's life when we catch our breaths at a line that is, in the instant we read it, so true and beautiful and powerful that we are overwhelmed.  The Pink Suit absolutely had that instant for me--it will stay with me for years to come.

Long Man, by Amy Greene.  I'd been looking forward to this title since reading reviews for it several months ago--in fact, it was one of my "Meg's Picks" titles from late this past winter.  I finally got a chance to listen to the audiobook last week, and it is phenomenal, read by the immensely talented actress, Tennessee native Dale Dickey.  Based on a true story, the novel takes place during three days in the summer of 1936 as the small Appalachian town of Yuneetah is evacuated.  The government-built dam is about to flood the valley where the town is located.  And three-year-old Gracie Dodson, daughter to one of the last families holding out to the bitter end, has gone missing.  Harrowing and poignant by turns, this is quite possibly one of the best books I've read in recent memory. 

The Winter People, by Jennifer McMahon.  In a Vermont town defined by old legends and mysterious disappearances, the most puzzling of which is the unexplained death of Sara Harrison Shea in 1908, just months after the tragic death of her daughter, Gertie.  Now years later, Ruthie lives with her mother and sister in Sara's farmhouse and stumbles across Sara's old diary, which might just explain not only Sara's death, but also the strange goings-on in Ruthie's family today.  A literary thriller that will make you shiver even in the heat of summer.

Pawn of Prophecy, by David Eddings.  The last of my audiobooks this month, I must admit I got this through  I first read the Pawn of Prophecy, the first in Eddings's The Belgariad series, over twenty years ago, and it is just as slyly humorous and deeply entertaining to me now as it was at the first reading.  Young Garion has been brought up on a remote farm, looked over by his Aunt Pol.  He plays at battle with his young friends, but he doesn't really believe the ancient stories of a greedy god long asleep, or that there is a plan to wake this god and unleash him onto the world.  Until, of course, he finds himself swept up in the adventure of a lifetime, and those ordinary people he loves most in his life turn out to be most extraordinary indeed.  If the test of a good book is that it holds up over time, then this is definitely a very good book.

Eight titles for May, which makes for 28 so far this year.  I'm nearly halfway through the year and only a third of the way through my challenge to read 75 books in 2014.  Yikes! 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

On Reading: The Battle of the Sexes

I've got something a little controversial I'd like to talk about today: Men's books versus Women's books.  Lately, I've heard these labels thrown around quite a bit, and I finally decided it was something that I wanted to post about.  For starters, there seems to be a fairly widely-accepted "rule" among readers that there is such a thing as a man's book or a women's book, although there is some disagreement about what each of these categories entails.  For some, the belief is that women prefer genres like cozy mysteries, romance novels, and family the exclusion of all else.  If you've read my blog for awhile, you'll know that these particular stereotypes do not hold true for this particular lady!  And in my experience in libraries over the last fifteen years, the stereotype really must be taken with a grain of salt--some women do enjoy these genres, sure, but many also love horror, thrillers, suspense, science fiction, fantasy and other books that tend to fall under the "men's" stereotype when it comes to fiction.  On the other side of the coin, I know quite a few men who really enjoy reading family sagas and mysteries (and perhaps even the occasional romance novel).

There is also the question of these same issues when looking at nonfiction books, too.  Military history?  Obviously a man's book, right?  Cookbooks are women's territory?  Not so much.  Even within subjects, there are discrepancies.  If you're browsing yard care, the landscaping and deck-building books are men's subjects, but flower and vegetable gardening must be the most popular with women, right?  Nope! 

Where am I going with all of this?  That there is no such thing (in my opinion) as a man's book or a woman's book when it comes to subject matter or genre.  How limiting and boring it seems to this librarian, to only walk down certain aisles of the library or to ignore whole shelves of books there for the reading.  Look beyond the us versus them mentality the next time you're browsing for something to read--you just might be surprised at what strikes your fancy.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Meg's Picks: June 2014, part 2

My list of picks today definitely has something for everyone.  Suspense/thrillers, short stories, mysteries, historical fiction, a little science name it, I've got it.

I Love You More, by Jennifer Murphy.  Oliver Lane is murdered at his summer home, and his wife Diana seems to be the most likely suspect.  What their twelve-year-old daughter Picasso knows, and what investigators soon uncover, is that Oliver had two other families with two other wives.  And while each of the three women disavow any knowledge of the two "other women" in her husband's life, Picasso also knows all three had met prior to Oliver's death.  I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I think this title may be one of the sleeper hits of the summer. 

The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith.  This is J.K. Rowling's second outing in her Cormoran Strike series under the Robert Galbraith pseudonym, following last year's popular debut The Cuckoo's Calling. Here, private detective Strike is called in when novelist Owen Quine goes missing--initially his wife believes he's simply gone off for a few days as is his wont.  But Strike soon discovers that there's much more behind Quine's disappearance: Quine's recently finished manuscript features poisonous pen-portraits of nearly everyone he knows, and the suspect list seems virtually endless.  Sure to be a hit.

FaceOff, by various.  This anthology is truly unprecedented.  Edited by David Baldacci, the collection features eleven short stories--each story has been co-written by a pair of critically acclaimed thriller authors, in which their series characters go head to head.  Intrigued?  Imagine M.J. Rose's Malachai Samuels vs. Lisa Gardner's D.D. Warren, or Paul Madriani vs. Alexandra Cooper by Steve Martini and Linda Fairstein.  Jeffrey Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme vs. John Sandford's Lucas Davenport?  Really, these pairings are fascinating and I am totally intrigued.

Written In My Own Heart’s Blood, by Diana Gabaldon.  Gabaldon continues her long-running series of time travel and history (started in Outlander) with this new installment, which finds the Frasers picking up the pieces in the midst of war's turmoil (this time, the American Revolution) in the wake of a series of upheavals (people coming back from the dead and the proposal of marriage to a Quaker, among other things).  But they can rest easy knowing that daughter Brianna and her family are safe in twentieth-century Scotland.  Or are they?  The series has been popular for over twenty years for a reason, folks.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Meg's Picks: June 2014, part 1

As you may have guessed, I look forward to new books just as much as other readers.  The difference is that I often know about these titles months in advance.  So I keep a running list of all the goodies I have to tell you about when the time comes--in some cases, these lists have been running for more than six months by the time I finally get to post and share titles that I'm particularly looking forward to.  To give you an idea--it's only May and I've been ordering holiday-themed fiction for more than a month already.  Ordering Christmas books in April?  It's enough to give me goosebumps sometimes, which is why I keep some of these things under my hat until closer to release dates.  And speaking of, here are a few goodies you just might want to check out next month.

Summer House with Swimming Pool, by Herman Koch.  Dutch author Koch made quite a name for himself among American readers in 2012 with the US release of his psychological thriller The Dinner.  Now he's back with a novel that critics are already hailing as "razor-sharp" and "compulsively readable"--a medical procedure goes wrong and famous actor Ralph Meier is dead, and everyone is looking to Dr. Marc Schlosser for answers.  Truly, Marc isn't sorry Ralph is dead and he knows he can't hide from the truth forever.  The story between the two men goes further back, to a summer vacation that ended badly for all involved.  I'm very interested to see how this latest from Koch fares with readers, since the critics are already enamored.

Mambo in Chinatown, by Jean Kwok.  The author of 2010's very successful Girl in Translation has returned with a story of a sheltered young woman who has grown up within the confines of New York City's Chinatown.  Though born in America, Charlie Wong has seen very little outside of her small neighborhood where she lives, with her widowered father and younger sister, and works very unhappily as a dishwasher.  It is only after Charlie lands a new job as a receptionist in a ballroom dance studio that she finally comes into her own after an interval of awkward adjustments.  When tragedy again strikes her small family, however, Charlie is forced to evaluate the conflicting influences of East and West in her life.  Book clubs take note--there would be a lot to discuss here!

I’ll Be Right There, by Kyung-sook Shin.  Shin returns after 2011's successful Please Look After Mom (which was a world-wide bestseller translated into thirty languages) with this new offering, following Jung Yoon in 1980's South Korea as she recounts her own background and those of three friends among political turmoil.  A chain of poignantly-recounted formative experiences, this is sure to please fans of her previous work.  American readers might also be interested to know that Shin has actually written seventeen novels and is South Korea's most widely-read and acclaimed novelists. 

Road Ends, by Mary Lawson.  You'll have to forgive me if I've saved my personal favorite for the last offering in this post.  Lawson is one of those authors who is not prolific, but when she does come out with a new novel, readers sit up and take notice.  Twelve years ago, I fell utterly in love with her prose in her debut novel, Crow Lake.  I can tell you that in over a decade, I've read hundreds if not thousands of books.  Crow Lake is one which has stuck with me, continuing to resonate years later.  Lawson returned to her home setting of Ontario, Canada in 2006's The Other Side of the Bridge, again exploring family conflict in a rural setting to beautifully haunting effect.  

Now, readers are being gifted with Road Ends, in which twenty-one-year-old Megan Cartwright, the second-oldest of seven children and the caregiver of the family, has finally decided to leave the small community of Struan, Ontario and heads out on her own to find her own path, which takes her to London.  In her absence, however, her family begins to unravel, pulling away from one another into isolation and denial.  Megan is then left with the impossible choice: family or independence.  

To say I'm looking forward to this title would be an understatement.

I'll be back next Tuesday with my final batch of picks for June.  In the meantime, happy reading!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Reading Ahead: June 2014, part 4

Need a a sweet or spicy novel to throw in your beach bag or suitcase this summer?  I've got just the ticket.  From family sagas to sultry romance, there's a little something for everyone in this list.

The Hurricane Sisters, by Dorothea Benton Frank

Stormy Persuasion, by Johanna Lindsey

Nantucket Sisters, by Nancy Thayer

The Matchmaker, by Elin Hilderbrand

I'll be back on Thursday for the start of my Meg's Pick list for next month--there are a bunch, so I'll see you then!  In the meantime, happy reading!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Reading Ahead: June 2014, part 3

In the book world (publishing, libraries, book stores), summer is perhaps second only to the holiday season for deluges of new titles.  I'm hoping you've got a little time set aside this summer, because the publishing world has got literally scores of new fiction books just begging to be read.  So whether your plans will include being at the shore, pool- or lake-side, or just some downtime enjoying your own backyard, I'll make sure you have a book to go along with you.  In this case, fiction of all stripes--book clubs and beach readers, take note!

The Arsonist, by Sue Miller.  Troubled by the feeling that she belongs nowhere after working in East Africa for 15 years, Frankie Rowley has come home—home to the small New Hampshire town of Pomeroy and the farmhouse where her family has always summered. On her first night back, a house up the road burns to the ground. Is it an accident, or arson?  When another summer house burns, and then another, the social fault-lines of the town open up and what was once a community built on trust and respect begins to dissolve into chaos and suspicion.  Miller (The Senator's Wife, While I Was Gone) excels at emotional insight--this should be excellent.

China Dolls, by Lisa See.  See is best known for 2005's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, about a long friendship between two women in early 19th-century China and the secrets they shared.  Here in her latest novel, See again examines the binding nature of secrets and the strength of friendship, this time among three women of Chinese descent who meet in 1938 San Francisco, a time when the city is about to open the World's Fair on Treasure Island and the country hovers on the cusp of war.  Book clubs should absolutely take notice.

All Fall Down, by Jennifer Weiner.  Weiner has a delicate touch when it comes to emotional subject matter, and in her new novel, All Fall Down, it's about as emotional as it gets.  From the outside, Allison Weiss has the perfect fairy-tale life.  Handsome husband, adorable daughter, big house, great job.  It's all perfect, that is, until she gets a little wake-up call that forces her to stop and examine her life and the way she avoids dealing with some of the less-than-perfect things, like her husband beginning to become distant or her father's worsening early Alzheimer's.  A painkiller at the end of a long day is no different than a glass of wine if it helps her unwind, right?  Except her dependence is getting expensive and increasingly hard to hide.  Weighty stuff, but the critics are giving it major kudos. 

The Beekeeper’s Ball, by Susan Wiggs.  Wiggs's fresh entry in her Bella Vista chronicles follows chef Isabel Johansen as she comes to Bella Vista to set about the project of transforming her childhood home into a culinary arts retreat.  All is well until journalist Cormac O'Neill arrives, war-torn and full of bravado, to dig into Isabel's secret past.  Susan Wiggs is great with stories of the heart and examining the ties that bind families together--this should make for great beach reading this summer.

Save the Date, by Mary Kay Andrews. A Savannah florist is about to score the wedding of a lifetime—one that will solidify her career as the go-to-girl for society nuptials. Ironically, Cara Kryzik doesn't believe in love, even though she creates beautiful flower arrangements to celebrate them. But when the bride goes missing and the wedding is in jeopardy, Cara must find the bride and figure out what she believes in.  Maybe love really does exist outside of fairy tales after all.  Chick-lit by one of the masters, told with wit and candor.  

That rounds out my offerings today, but there is still so much more coming in June--if you can believe it, I've only covered half so far!  I'll be back with more next week.  In the meantime, happy reading!