Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Woman in White

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1860)

This classic sensation novel languished for far too long on my To Read list, despite recommendations from a couple of friends whose taste in books I trust, and who have told me over and over that I must read it. It centers on two half-sisters, Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie, who live with their useless, simpering uncle. Walter Hartright is hired as the young women's drawing teacher and he and Laura fall in love. But she is already promised to Sir Percival Glyde and despite her feelings - and warnings from a mysterious woman dressed all in white - goes ahead with the marriage. All too soon, she is sorry. The union sets off a whole series of events that make up a captivating story combining mystery, suspense, and romance.

There was almost no question about whether I'd like this book. A Gothic novel that inspired Fingersmith and was written by an author frequently compared to Dickens? Yes, please. Everything about it is exactly up my alley, I just kept putting it off because it's so long. Thank goodness for the TBR Pile Challenge lighting a fire under me.

The novel is written in first person through several different narrators, switching perspective throughout. This is common enough now, of course, but very innovative at the time. It adds greatly to the feeling of a mystery that we are piecing together as we read. Also rather emblematic of its time, the novel is filled with ridiculous assertions about the characteristics and role of women. I ignored these as best I could. It wasn't difficult as there was so much to enjoy in the book.

Here I met some of the best characters ever. First of all, I love Marian Holcombe. She is smart, resourceful, and strong. If I lived in this novel I'd want her as my best friend. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Mr. Fairlie, the weakest most pathetic character since Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. In fact, Frederick Fairlie was worse - his infirmities (whether real or imagined) kept him to his room at all times, and he didn't even walk. In one of my favorite passages he actually says "Gently with the curtains, please- the slightest noise from them goes through me like a knife." He is positively insufferable. Count Fosco is another colorful character. This corpulent Italian is secretive and conniving and has a menagerie that includes several birds, and also white mice which crawl over him at will. (Despite having had many pet rats, the thought of little mice crawling about my person positively makes my skin crawl.) Interestingly, Laura, on whom the whole plot centers, is not well-developed or appealing at all, just serving as an object of desire. Her most notable qualities were weakness and fragility. I don't know what Walter Hartright saw in her, besides being pretty, but I liked him anyway.

The title character is Anne Catherick, who bears a striking resemblance to Laura and seems to know awful things about Sir Percival Glyde. Uncovering these secrets is a major part of the novel. Ann dresses all in white because as a child she met Marian and Laura's mother, who told her that little girls look their best dressed in white. Neglected by her own mother, Anne latched onto this advice as she remained devoted all her life to the woman who said it.

Despite its length, I found it easy to lose myself in this novel and enjoyed it the whole way through, thanks in no small part to the excellent atmospheric writing.

"A white fog hung low over the lake. The dense brown line of the trees on the opposite bank, appeared above it, like a dwarf forest floating in the sky. The sandy ground, shelving downward from where we sat, was lost mysteriously in the outward layers of the fog. The silence was horrible. No rustling of the leaves- no bird's note in the wood- no cry of water-fowl from the pools of the hidden lake. Even the croaking of the frogs had ceased to-night."

In short, I'm very glad I finally got around to reading The Woman in White. There is good reason it's a classic! Although it did take me over a week to read, it didn't feel long because it wasn't drawn out at all. There were no lengthy descriptive passages or irrelevant sidetracks; it was all important the story and all very enjoyable to read. If you enjoy the classics, this one is not to be missed.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

My Sunshine Away

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh (2015)

In 1989, Lindy Simpson was raped and everything in her idyllic neighborhood changed. It was the sort of place where everyone knows each other and kids ride their bikes all over the place and wander freely with minimal supervision. But after the attack, suspicions mount and uncertainty reigns. Our narrator is a teenage boy, slightly younger than Lindy, who has admired her from afar. Some might call him obsessed. He is also one of the suspects.

Our narrator tells the story from later in life, ruminating on his memories of that time. Just a few pages from the end, I suddenly realized I had no idea what his name was. Did I miss it? Did I forget? How I got almost entirely through the book without realizing the author had never revealed this basic piece of information is a testament to how seamlessly this story is woven, and how cunningly it folds you into its dark embrace.

I read it in about a 24 hour period. I was drawn in very early, with the descriptions of the narrator and his friends and family just hanging out in their yards in the summer. I've never even been to Louisiana, but the way he described the neighborhood kids hanging out in the yards, using bark and moss as playthings, with pitchers of Kool-aid sitting on the porch, evoked very strong images from my own rural childhood. The narrative was also infused with events from that time, like the Challenger explosion and the arrest of Jeffrey Dahmer, making it feel that much more immediate.

Contributing to the mystery of who raped Lindy is a very full cast of abrasive and sinister characters, each of whom we get to know only enough to raise a lot of questions. The exception of course is our narrator, who we know much more intimately (but still question). As a teenager who is just figuring things out, he hasn't quite learned boundaries yet, and some reviewers on Goodreads found him downright creepy. I didn't. I thought he was just obsessed in the way many teenagers are obsessed with each other as they first experience sexual attraction. Suspicions about his guilt were raised based on some things he did that maybe crossed lines, but in another context wouldn't have appeared so incriminating. Throughout the novel I preferred to believe he was just misunderstood, but I remained anxious about his guilt or innocence up until the end. Reading this was a pretty tense day for me.

I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in an online chat with the author. He talked a little about how our actions are interpreted:

"I think that there is a very fine line between being considered romantic and being considered creepy or a "stalker". You buy a girl flowers and you're romantic. You buy flowers one too many times and you're a stalker. This type of thing can crush you. The boy wants only for the girl to know of his affection. How people react to his actions can change the course of how people see him and, eventually, how he may see himself...I just think that everything is out of proportion during adolescence since teenagers have no frame of reference. Every love is the biggest, first love. Every rejection feels like the final one. So, negotiating those things is hard enough, but when you feel like the way people interpret your actions will define you forever, that makes it even harder."

This dark coming-of-age novel is a very strong debut from an author I'm sure we'll see much more of. The startling end of childhood experienced by these characters in such an evocative and atmospheric setting really got under my skin. Highly recommended.

My Sunshine Away will be published in February 2015. I received my copy courtesy of Penguin First Flights. I was not compensated for this review.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The One

The One (The Selection #3) by Kiera Cass (2014), narrated by Amy Rubinate 

See my posts on the first two books in this series, The Selection and The Elite. If you haven't read them, proceed at your own risk.

What I thought was the final book in this series* begins with America in a precarious position. The king is extremely displeased with her and she had narrowly avoided being sent home at the end of The Elite. But she's not ready to give up yet. The stakes are getting very high - both inside and outside the palace walls - and in this politically-charged climate America finally feels ready to seal the deal with Maxon and become his princess.

So much happened in this book! America's friendship with the other remaining girls really solidified, tragedy struck her personal life, she grew to really admire Queen Amberly, and stopped waffling about Maxon v. Aspen. When she thought it was over for her and she had lost, she realized that she still wouldn't go back to Aspen, so thank goodness that love triangle was somewhat sorted out.

Of course that doesn't mean that everything was fine with her relationship with Maxon. There was still some neurosis between those two. She and Maxon had a few too many conversations in which they each tried to convince the other to finally proclaim their love, but they were both too scared. I kind of wanted to knock their heads together. But, you know, in a friendly way, because I still really like them both.

America really was too outspoken for her own good and I got a little frustrated with her at times. She had some fairly radical views that, of course, the king disapproved of. When called upon to publicly say or do things that went against her views, she balked. Which I totally get on one level, but still. She couldn't seem to understand that she could do way more good if she was able to actually become princess, than the small amount of good she'd do in these individual little acts of rebellion.

I worried a lot about the ending, especially because the rebel attacks kept getting worse throughout the series and I just knew major characters would die eventually. But I also had other hopes for the ending, and many things went the way I wanted them to. All in all I was satisfied with the outcome.

I found this entire series totally captivating and enjoyable from beginning to end. The characters were well-developed - even the secondary ones - and the story kept me just anxious enough about the outcome, while still enjoying the romance and intrigue. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes young adult novels, romance, dystopia, or pretty dresses.

*I just learned there is now going to be a Selection #4 set 20 years in the future. It comes out in May. How can I resist that?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Top Ten 2014 Releases I Meant To Read But Didn't Get To

This was actually last week's topic and I missed it, but this week is a freebie so I'm doing it now.

1. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
I've been anticipating this book for so long that I'm embarrassed I still haven't read it.

2. It Will End With Us by Sam Savage
Granted, this wasn't released until November and I didn't realize until about a week later that it even existed, but Sam Savage is one of my very favorite authors and WHY WASN'T I NOTIFIED? Anyhow, it's only 150 pages and I could probably read it in a day, but I haven't. Again, WHY?

3. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
This just sounds really good and I keep looking at it on my list and thinking about how good it probably is and I've even recommended it to my book group a couple of times.

4. Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix
Honestly this wasn't even on my to read list until I impulsively and inexplicably bought a copy while on vacation in St. Louis. But it looks fun and I enjoy both horror novels and IKEA.

5. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
This was a really hot title of 2014 and it's a post-apocalypse, which I love. I was late even getting on the hold list and then I was stalking the Speed Read copies at my library which were always out, and then my book group picked it for March 2015 so now I have to wait a little longer. But at least it's definitely coming.

6. Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder
I love Laura Ingalls Wilder. I'm a little afraid of the truth of her life though.

7. Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot
I've heard great things about this young adult novel and somehow kept passing it by. So I did what I always do in these situations and bought a copy for my friend for Christmas. That makes no kind of sense but I do it all the time.

8. Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado
I heard this author on an episode of On Point and her book went right on my list. It's short and interests me a lot, but somehow keeps falling by the wayside.

9. Dr. Mütter's Marvels by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz
I was very excited when I heard about this book, having finally visited the Mütter Museum in 2013 after years of wishing to go. I should have read it when I first heard about it because my enthusiasm waned and it has became yet another nonfiction book to potentially struggle through. However, last week I heard that it was recommended for teens, which gives me hope that it will be engaging and easy to read.

10. Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
I keep passing this by and I shouldn't - it has references to Sylvia Plath for crying out loud. But also, magical realism. I think I might be allergic to magical realism. But I won't know for sure until I read this, right?

Making this list has been a great reminder about why I wanted to read all these books in the first place. It has also forced me to learn how to type umlauts.

How did you do with 2014 releases? Are there any that you're surprised you still haven't read?

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Port Chicago 50

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin (2014)

In 1944 a huge explosion rocked the Port Chicago naval base in California, killing over 300 sailors and injuring many more. Afterward, close to 250 men refused to go back to work loading ammunition because they felt it was unsafe. They also noted how unfair it was that only black men were doing this dangerous job. Some were coaxed back to work, but 50 men held their ground and were charged with mutiny. Facing possible execution, these men went to trial to try and defend themselves, but despite their best efforts (and the advocacy of Thurgood Marshall) they were found guilty. However, the case prompted the Navy to review and change their segregationist policies.

Many of these guys were little more than teenagers, and far from being organized rabble-rousers were just scared of being blown up on the job. It seemed like the outcome was  obviously a huge miscarriage of justice. Their concerns weren't taken seriously and they were convicted on pretty flimsy evidence. It seems like everything in the trial was basically ignored in favor of a predetermined outcome.

The worst part is that in many ways, things haven't changed that much. As many of us are aware, the justice system isn't exactly friendly towards non-whites and it's frustrating to know just how long these situations have been happening with little headway towards real equality. I'm glad books like this are being written to remind us how many times this sort of thing has happened. I hadn't even heard about this particular episode in history, which just goes to show you how many stories about racial injustice there are.

This novel is written for teens, and I read it for my Not-So-Young Adult book group at work. It was nominated for a National Book Award, and I can see why. Although I wouldn't exactly call it enjoyable, I found it clear and informative and it held my interest throughout. Recommend if you're interested in learning more about the history of civil rights.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Elite

The Elite (The Selection #2) by Kiera Cass (2013), narrated by Amy Rubinate

For my review of the first book in this series, The Selection, go here.

SO. The group has been narrowed to just six girls, one of which is of course America Singer. One girl is eliminated before we're too far into the book and it is really upsetting, and causes America to have second thoughts about Maxon. But she has other things to worry about, like the assignments the girls must work on now. For one, the girls were divided into two groups and each had to organize a reception for visiting dignitaries. Clearly, now that the girls are narrowed down, they are being tested on how they'd handle being royalty. They need to learn about policy and make decisions and start charitable projects, not unlike the First Lady.

As I had hoped, this novel saw more action with the political situation and world events. The situation with the rebels is brought more to the forefront, and we learn a bit about what they want. America even has a startling encounter with a female rebel.

Last time I mentioned that I was curious about the lack of education in this world, and their seemingly limited access to books. In The Elite it was mentioned that there are no newspapers, only the news show that they all watch. But America gains access to a copy of Gregory Illea's diary and learns some pretty interesting things about him and the history of the kingdom in which she lives.

The romance part of the story involves a lot of waffling, and there are some complaints on Goodreads about the love triangle. But I can see how America would be so torn, because I am also very torn! I have softened up a bit towards Aspen since the last book. He's not so insecure because he joined the military and is working as a palace guard, which makes him a 2 instead of a 6. Of course America is now a 3, so things have changed a lot for them. Anyhow, he and Maxon are both really nice guys and America is 17 so I can believe it would be confusing for her.

I listened to this everywhere. I actually got through the audiobook in just a few days, which is completely crazy. Usually my audiobooks are for my bus commute only, but I also listened at the gym and in the car and at home. It was a bit out of control.

I was concerned about this being a middle book in a trilogy. Sometimes that can just feel like a placeholder, but I do feel like a lot happened. Her relationship with Maxon changed as did her relationship with Aspen, and she is really growing and learning what is important to her and it is more obvious now (to me anyhow) that of course she should be the princess, but at the same time she has kind of screwed things up a bit and it will be harder. She has some people to win over. This book is more about being a princess than marrying a prince, and America spent a lot of time thinking about what aspects she could and could not handle.

Just like after The Selection, I immediately downloaded the next one (I even had to renew my Audible subscription early), so I'm sure I'll post about it quite soon!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Dead Wake

Dead Wake: the Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson (2015)

During the First World War, Germany was sending submarines to the waters around Great Britain, but passenger travel continued as nobody thought they'd try to sink a ship full of civilians. The Lusitania set sail from after warnings from the Germans about those particular waters, but even as the ship came closer and other vessels were attacked, nobody contacted the Lusitania to ask them to change their course. Tragedy struck when the ship was within a day of its destination.

The attack might seem inevitable, but Larson also takes us inside U-20, the submarine that torpedoed the Lusitania where we learn that's not so. It turns out that each submarine has very few torpedoes which they use sparingly, but even when they do the weapons frequently miss their mark. Not only was a great deal of luck involved in hitting the ship, but many small decisions determined the moment the Lusitania's path would cross with that of U-20, resulting in the perfect timing for the attack.

Larson pulls from a huge array of sources including archives, journals, and letters to craft his story, creating a narrative that reads seamlessly and is filled with people so well described they are easy to envision. It's almost like reading fiction. One especially poetic line reads, "The music and drinking went on into the night; the sea outside was cold, black, and impenetrable."* Isn't that beautiful? The people aren't all just passengers either - one memorable storyline was about Woodrow Wilson and his love life, a great stressor to him as he struggled to keep the United States out of the war. It took me a little bit to get into, but soon I was captivated and very tense. I was feeling some major stress about the fate of these people I had been introduced to, even though I knew this story would end in disaster and death.

One of my favorite things about the book was how Larson filled it with details about the time. For instance, near the beginning he lists many events going on elsewhere in the world, like the president of France visiting Tsar Nicholas II of Russia at his summer palace. Many English people were caught up in anticipation of Sir Ernest Shackleton's upcoming expedition to Antarctica aboard the Endurance. This sort of context is what I always miss when I learn about history, because each event is usually treated sort of like it took place in a vacuum.

Additionally, Larson mentioned crime being a big concern at the time, proving that things don't change as much as we think they do. In one case a man killed his son and then himself. In another, a man presented his girlfriend with an engagement ring, tied with a ribbon that he urged her to pull. The ribbon disappeared into his pocket and was attached to the trigger of a gun that then went off, killing him. When we hear news about crimes that seem especially cruel, it's tempting to wring our hands and lament about how bad things are these days, but clearly they've always been so. Another thing that hasn't changed is the need to place blame. After the Lusitania was sunk, many families of victims tried to place responsibility on the captain, or the company that owned the boat, when it was clear that the Germans caused the tragedy.

A great deal of research obviously went into this book, evidenced by the extensive notes in the back. My galley copy contained 10 blank pages where the index is to be, which will surely prove useful (I would have liked it a couple of times myself when trying to find some fact I had read earlier.)

Years ago I read Devil and the White City and loved it, so despite the fact I haven't read anything else by Erik Larson I was very excited when I heard about this forthcoming book. I was surprised to come home from work just a couple of days later to to find a copy of the galley on my doorstep. It was a little creepy. I am not one of those well-known bloggers who gets unsolicited advanced copies of books. I don't know who at Random House is reading my mind, but I'm very grateful to them.

Dead Wake is a meticulously detailed piece of history that will captivate anyone who is interested in history or just enjoys a good story. Full of rich detail and fraught with tension, it is hard not to get caught up in it. I'm inspired to go back and read more of Erik Larson's books.

I received my copy of Dead Wake courtesy of Random House. It will be published in March 2015. I was not compensated for this review. 

*Note: this is an uncorrected proof; the final edition may have changes from my version.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Selection

The Selection (The Selection #1) by Kiera Cass (2012), narrated by Amy Rubinate

When America receives a letter inviting her to take part in the Selection, her family is overjoyed. This chance to possibly marry a prince means that her family will no longer be scraping by on their meager incomes. But America doesn't care about being raised to a higher caste, marrying a prince, or becoming a princess. She cares about her one true love, Aspen. She's a Five and he's a Six so their love is forbidden, but she's sure they will find a way to make it. So she is extremely surprised when even Aspen encourages her to enter the Selection. And just like that, her life changes.

The Selection is like a kindler, gentler Hunger Games. A Hunger Games meets The Bachelor, if you will. Thirty-five young women were chosen to come to the palace and meet Prince Maxon, who is seeking a wife. As he gets to know the girls, their pool will slowly be whittled down until he chooses the lucky woman who will marry him. The stakes aren't as high as in the Hunger Games - nobody has to die - but winning does mean a great improvement in the life circumstances, especially those girls from the lower castes.

America goes into this thinking she's only there for the food, and the checks her family will receive while she's away, but it turns out there are more compelling reasons to stay after all. Prince Maxon, who she assumed was shallow for holding such a contest in the first place, actually turns out to be a pretty good guy and America finds herself striking up a friendship with him, despite her devotion to Aspen. Of course there is also a horrible girl who wants to sabotage everyone else's chances. Isn't there always? This one is named Celeste and I really wanted her to get what she deserved and be eliminated early on, but that's not how these things work. I'm sure she'll remain until the bitter end. Someone has to be the jerk, right?

The romance is full of swoon. America is torn between two potential love interests and I really do feel unsure of where this will go. Will something happen to Aspen to take him out of the picture? Will the whole system break down so America can be free to marry a Six? I just don't know. I do know, however, that as of now I'm rooting for her to be with Maxon. I kind of agree with the character (I can't remember who) who said that poverty is a huge strain on a relationship and that love fades, and over time she may not feel like a poor man is worth the sacrifice. Also, I think Aspen is kind of a jerk. He waffles, and I do not like a man who waffles. He goes between saying they can't be together to saying he wants them to be together forever. He also gets upset at the thought that he can't be a good provider and totally takes this out on America, and I have no patience for that kind of macho bullshit.

I found the world of Illea fascinating. From what I gather, the US, Canada, and Mexico became one huge kingdom ruled over by a monarchy. It was after the Fourth World War and China took over the US, but then Russia started being threatening and all the North American countries banded together and formed this new kingdom. Throughout the book are references to the war in New Asia, as well as rebel attacks upon the palace. These attacks added a great bit of excitement to America's time there, but I also think the political situation might become more prominent as the series goes on. There's a bit of mystery about what the rebels want, and I am extremely intrigued by this! I'm also curious about how little the girls know of the country's history. It sounds like the knowledge isn't forbidden exactly, but just that nobody bothers to teach it. It was kind of strange and I'm hoping we'll find out more about this as the series progresses.

The audio narration was not outstanding, but still good. Rubinate did an especially good job with the male voices, particularly Maxon's. There were some spots where the gears seemed to shift too quickly. I suspect there was a break in the text, but the narration just went from one sentence to another, confusing me a for a few seconds until I realized the story had shifted scenes.

It is entirely possible that a couple months from now I won't remember what was so great about this book, and that it won't have stuck with me. It isn't especially original or unpredictable so far, but it's incredibly satisfying and I had such fun listening to it! I actually listened for an hour or two at my desk at work, that was how desperate I was to keep going. (And I was doing work at the same time, for any of my coworkers who might be reading this.) Immediately upon finishing I downloaded the second book and have already begun listening. Stay tuned for my post about The Elite - I'm sure you won't have long to wait!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Gunpowder Alchemy

Gunpowder Alchemy (The Gunpowder Chronicles #1) by Jeannie Lin (2014)

When Jin Soling was just a child, her father was executed for admitting that the British steam engines were superior to Chinese gunpowder engines. Years later, Soling and her family are selling off valuables just to feed themselves. On a trip to a nearby market where Soling hopes to sell a Japanese puzzle box left by her father, she is turned down over and over and finally arrested by the authorities. She is then sent on a mission that turns into a pretty big adventure involving kidnapping, pirates, and the opium trade. Along the way she also meets a man who was very significant in her past.

This Chinese steampunk meets historical romance is very intriguing. I very much enjoyed the world-building and all the historical elements. Opium was a huge theme in the novel because of what was happening with the trade, but also because Soling's mother was an addict. I think all of the characters were affected in some way by opium. One character had bound feet and Soling was helping design special mechanical shoes so she could walk, which was a very unusual element that I really enjoyed. The steampunk bits were also very cool - all the mechanical limbs and automatic sedan chairs that you can program with an abacus-like contraption, airships, not to mention the whole steam power vs. gunpowder power aspect. I really found that all very fun to read, and it added a lot to what was a pretty enjoyable adventure novel. This is also the second book in a row I've read that takes place (at least partially) on a boat that gets attacked by pirates.

However, it's not billed as adventure, but romance, and looking at it that way, it lacks a lot. For one thing, there was very little romance in the book at all. Also, Soling had that stupid neurosis that so often appears in romance to create a block between the characters, but which is obviously totally fabricated. There were times that she was all "Woe is me, we cannot be together" and I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and say "Did you not hear what he said? He explained that already. That is no longer an obstacle to your love." She remained convinced that she still suffered from her family's disgrace after her father's execution, even after that disgrace became irrelevant because of changes in how people viewed him.

This is sort of a mild spoiler, but I felt really weird about the ending. At the conclusion the romance was almost resolved. Like, not quite resolved but extremely close to it. I expected it to end with the characters totally together and happy ever after, etc, because that's how romance novels work. Even in a series, each book is a romance between a different set of characters. If this relationship is going to be drawn out for the whole series, I don't understand why it would be so close to wrapped up at the end. Maybe something happens in the next book that draws the characters back away from each other, but if that's the case this romance is a very slow burn and I'm not sure I have that kind of patience.

Ultimately, I feel very conflicted about this novel. Soling's character could use a little more development and I'm not very drawn in by the romance aspects. On the other hand, I liked the adventure and really did enjoy the time I spent reading it. It's really a great premise for a series. I'm kind of curious about where it will go, but it remains to be seen if my interest holds long enough for the next book in the series.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Hostage Three

Hostage Three by Nick Lake (2013)

Amy wasn't especially excited about spending the better part of a year on a yacht with her father and stepmother. Her father was so wrapped up in his work all the time he had never really been there for her, and Amy still resented how quickly he remarried after her mother's death. But on the boat she just keeps her distance as much as possible, putting on her headphones to tune everyone out. Things turn considerably worse, however, when the yacht is boarded by Somalian pirates and Amy's family and the crew are taken hostage. Weirdly though, as they're all killing time waiting for the ransom to come through, Amy gets to know one of the pirates and begins to have very conflicting feelings about these dangerous strangers.

I just need to get this out of the way - that cover is weird. On my copy the face is barely visible; in fact, I didn't actually realize it was there until I saw this version. So, don't be put off by the big ghosty face on the cover, which I assume is supposed to be Amy (who doesn't look like that in my head.) This is the only negative thing I have to say about this book. Let's move on.

You may remember that Nick Lake also wrote In Darkness, which was one of my top picks for 2014. Hostage Three is SO different, but also really good, and unusual but in a totally different way. I became engrossed in this past-faced story quite early and found it to be a page-turner all the way through.

I think what stands out the most is this meeting of the incredibly rich and the incredibly poor. That is kind of a ridiculous observation since that's obviously what happens when Somalian pirates attack a yacht. But I like how that was such a focus, how Amy got to know her captors enough to understand why they would go to such desperate measures. The Somalian pirates in this story aren't just troublemakers and criminals; they are complicated people who are poor and desperate and have had many options taken from them by people not unlike Amy's family. They are doing what they have to do to survive.

Amy's privilege isn't lost on her either. She mentions that she got a diving license at her school, emphasizing "I went to that kind of school" to assure us that she knows there are other kinds. Her family weren't snobs though, which was nice. As she got to know one of her captors, Farouz, she realizes that despite their very different life situations, they have some things in common. For instance, music. Amy plays the violin (though she hasn't touched it since her mother died) and Farouz plays the oud, which is also a stringed instrument, one he is so fond of that it's the first thing he bought with his earnings as a pirate. They talk a lot about their lives, and the stories Farouz tells about his life in Somalia are some of my favorite parts of the story.

Amy's narrative voice moves smoothly between her backstory and the current story. She has a lot of family tension surrounding her mother's suicide, her own abandonment of her education, her stepmother (who she refers to as "the stepmother"), and her absentee father. It's a well-crafted backdrop for the crazy hostage situation and informs many of the choices they make during it.

When I realized Amy was going to have an attraction to one of the captors, I just didn't know how this would be pulled off convincingly, but these characters were all so well-formed and genuine that it worked, and very well. The six hostages and three primary pirates were all distinct with different personalities, even the secondary characters like Felipe the cook. It wasn't like a bunch of characters on a boat, it was a bunch of people on a boat. Their interactions all seemed to happen very naturally.

I was drawn in by the premise of the book, and the fact that I had read this author before actually made me wary, because how could it possibly live up to In Darkness? It's a very different book, to be sure, but maybe just as good. Now that I've read it I'm very surprised I haven't heard anything about it. I literally stumbled across it one day at the library while looking for In Darkness to put on my Staff Picks shelf. I'm so glad I did - tell everyone you know who likes YA books that they should read this! It merits way more attention than it seems to have gotten.

Friday, January 2, 2015

TBR Pile Challenge 2015

It's that time of year again: the TBR Pile Challenge! Last year was a great success. You can see my official list here. I read 11 of the 12 books I picked and one alternate. This is a great challenge because it motivates me to read books I've been wanting to read for far too long (more than a year, per the challenge instructions.) I'm disheartened that I still have plenty of books on my to read list that have been there for that long - I was hoping that wouldn't be the case after last year's challenge - but I'm really looking forward to doing it again.

Here's my list for this year:

1. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (finished January 27)
2. The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway (failed! admitted defeat on March 16)
3. The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley (finished February 20)
4. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (finished May 25)
5. Walden by Henry David Thoreau (finished August 10)
6. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
7. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
8. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (finished November 15)
9. Between Man and Beast by Monte Reel
10. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (finished April 12)
11. Mortality by Christopher Hitchens (finished April 27)
12. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

All Fall Down by Sally Nichols
Attachments by Rainbow Rowell (finished April 1)

I think this is a good mix of long and short books, classics and contemporary, and I even have a couple of nonfiction books on there.

The Woman in White is on my list for the second year in a row, unfortunately. I was actually really looking forward to it in 2014, but it's a fairly long classic and as you may remember I read both David Copperfield and War and Peace in the past year. (Have I mentioned War and Peace? Only about a dozen times? Oh, ok.)

The Gone-Away World has technically only been on my Goodreads lists for a few months, but its presence on my "To Read" list actually pre-dates my Goodreads account.  It was on my old Word document To Read list and never got transferred over when I set up my Goodreads account. But I've still thought of it many times over the years until a recent recommendation at a library conference spurred me to add it to my Goodreads shelf. I will read it this time, dammit.

I'll be updating this post as I go with completion dates for each book and links to reviews. Wish me luck!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Year of Reading: 2014

1. The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell
2. Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys
3. Home is a Roof Over a Pig by Aminta Arrington
4. Affinity by Sarah Waters
5. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
6. Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat
7. The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord
8. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
9. Persuasion by Jane Austen
10. The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman
11. Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell
12. Pearl by Tabitha King
13. Reality Boy by A.S. King
14. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black
15. Tampa by Alissa Nutting
16. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
17. The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr
18. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
19. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
20. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
21. Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kristin Cronn-Mills
22. Pain, Parties, Work by Elizabeth Winder
23. Nine Inches by Tom Perrotta
24. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
25. Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith
26. A Night Like This by Julia Quinn
27. City of Thieves by David Benioff
28. The Radioactive Boy Scout by Ken Silverstein
29. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
30. My Notorious Life by Kate Manning
31. Perv by Jesse Bering
32. Keeping the Castle by Patricia Kindl
33. Go by Chip Kidd
34. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
35. Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya Von Bremzen
36. Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken
37. A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend by Emily Horner
38. Winger by Andrew Smith
39. When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman
40. Panic by Lauren Oliver
41. Train Go Sorry by Leah Hager Cohen
42. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
43. The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin
44. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
45. The Perils of Pleasure by Julie Ann Long
46. The Panopticon by Jenny Fagan
47. Wool by Hugh Howey
48. Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin
49. Love the One You're With by Emily Giffin
50. Wildthorn by Jane Eagland
51. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
52. Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
53. The Farm by Tom Rob Smith
54. Girls Standing on Lawns by Maira Kalman and Daniel Handler
55. Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang
56. Ten Thousand Joys and Ten Thousand Sorrows by Olivia Hoblitzelle
57. The List by Siobhan Vivian
58. The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan
59. Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
60. The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
61. The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
62. Landline by Rainbow Rowell
63. The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon
64. No Choirboy by Susan Kuklin
65. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
66. Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian
67. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
68. The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
69. The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell
70. How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
71. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
72. The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
73. Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern
74. The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason
75. Sister's Fate by Jessica Spotswood
76. The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty
77. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
78. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
79. Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff
80. Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman
81. Stay Awake by Dan Chaon
82. Whose Body? by Dorothy Sayers
83. Sally Heathcote: Suffragette by Mary Talbot and Bryan Talbot
84. In Darkness by Nick Lake
85. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick
86. Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey
87. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
88. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
89. 100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith
90. Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit
91. Revival by Stephen King
92. Glory O'Brien's History of the Future by A.S. King
93. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
94. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty
95. Yes Please by Amy Poehler
96. I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
97. The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield
98. Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell
99. Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover by Sarah MacLean
100. The Storied Life by A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
101. The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming
102. The Walled City by Ryan Graudin

I'm down a bit from last year, but that's not surprising. I actually didn't expect to hit 100. As you may remember, I spent two months reading War and Peace. I also read the lengthy David Copperfield early in the year. And this one wasn't especially long, but it took me two weeks to read The Boys in the Boat. All in all, I'm pleasantly surprised with how many books I managed to read. I also completed the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge, which means that I finally read a bunch of books that had been languishing on my To Read list for quite a while. I'm so pleased about that, I'll be doing the challenge again in 2015. I'll be posting my list soon!

As for favorites, it's such a funny thing. Here are the books I gave 5 stars on Goodreads:
Reality Boy
The Handmaid's Tale
Thunderstruck and Other Stories
Sister's Fate
In Darkness
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock
War and Peace
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
I'll Give You the Sun
The Family Romanov

I stand by my 5-star ratings, but when I look at what I read this year, there are many other books that really jump out at me, that when I see them on the list I think "That one was really good."

For instance:
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown
Grasshopper Jungle
The Panopticon
My Notorious Life
The Woman Upstairs
We Were Liars
The Tragedy Paper
The Burn Journals
The Miniaturist
Sharp Objects

I think it was just an especially good year for books, maybe.

Here's hoping that 2015 is a great reading year too!