Thursday, March 31, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Class

In which I share vague recollections of books I read long ago that have stuck with me.

I think it was while listening to Down the Rabbit Hole that I started thinking about the very different kinds of lives we lead. Soon after, I came across an online quiz from PBS called Do you live in a bubble? which is really about your social class, the implication being that if you're in a certain socioeconomic position you are somehow not in the real world. It all made me think about a book recommended to me by a roommate back in the 90s, Class: a guide through the American status system by Paul Fussell.

It may sound dry, but I assure you it is anything but. The premise is that we pretend to live in a classless society here in America, while in fact there are clearly a number of different social classes. Fussell takes us on a tour of each one, their houses, clothing, hobbies, and tastes. I found it absolutely fascinating, and funny, and I don't know how accurate it is, but I recognized myself and others in its pages and was certainly convinced.

First published in 1983, I'm sure some things have changed but I still think it's worth a read if you're interested. For a taste, here's a sort of 25th anniversary review that The Atlantic published several years ago.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Down the Rabbit Hole

Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny by Holly Madison (2015), narrated by the author

I'm going to destroy any image of being a somewhat literary type of person now. Years ago when I had cable, I used to watch The Girls Next Door. Not regularly, but I probably watched several episodes, which is more than I've watched of any other reality show ever. I can't explain why, but there it is.

In case you don't follow this sort of thing, Holly Madison lived at the Playboy mansion as one of Hugh Hefner's girlfriends for several years, during which she appeared on the reality show that I mentioned above. Down the Rabbit Hole is a memoir primarily focused on her time there. Madison wanted to become a famous actress and went to California to pursue these dreams. While working at Hooters, she began hobnobbing with people who got invites to parties at the Playboy mansion and she began going to the parties regularly. Eventually she got Hugh Hefner's attention and ended up moving in. It wasn't so much that she was attracted to the old man, but she needed a place to live and thought that being affiliated with Playboy could help her career. It ultimately did, but at a pretty steep price. Hefner treated his girlfriends like pets, enforcing strict rules on them and being very controlling and jealous.

Hefner sounds like a pretty troubled old man. He always had several girlfriends who were in their 20s, constantly pressured them to look the way he wanted, and regularly had temper tantrums when they did things he didn't like. Also, he had like 10 dogs who weren't housebroken, and white carpeting everywhere. It was really strange to me that a man who employs a scrapbooking staff couldn't manage to employ some dog trainers. Ew.

What most people probably want to know about is the sex. The official line from "the girlfriends" is that there isn't sex. According to Holly this is (unsurprisingly) a lie. She mentions the dreaded "bedroom routine" but only actually describes it once. Basically, two nights a week Hefner and the girls would go clubbing and afterward they all gathered in his bedroom for what sounded like some pretty unsatisfying, perfunctory sex. This was all rather glossed over. As I said, she only really described it once, though mentioned it a number of times in passing, including one point when she says they stopped going out to clubs and therefore stopped the post-club ritual. Late in her time there, she was apparently not having sex with him at all. But what I wanted to know was: did she miss dating? She lived there from the ages of 21-28 and that is the time when you should be having some real romance and actual sex that you enjoyed. I'm also curious about things like disease and pregnancy. At one point she mentions a rumor about herpes but doesn't actually address whether they got tested for diseases or used protection at all.

Aside from the obvious omissions, I really enjoyed the bulk of the book about living at the mansion, her hopes to score a pictorial in the magazine, and her strange relationship with Hugh Hefner. But a couple of hours before the end of the audiobook she left the mansion, and although things began going much better for her, they went poorly for the book. The story became a hodgepodge of activities and squabbles without any insight. There was a lot of drama between the girls and it got a lot worse as things went on. It was all very petty and catty and I just don't care what Hefner's new girlfriends said about her. Plus she left out much of what happened. For instance, she shares her excitement about the prospect of being on Dancing With the Stars, but when she scores the slot she makes one mention of how she can eat whatever she wants because of all the dancing, and moves right on to "after I was eliminated...." Wait, what? Tell us about being on the show! Just a couple of sentences about whether or not it was fun and what she thought about her dance partner would suffice.

By the end, I still had a lot of questions. For instance, she was at the Playboy mansion for seven years and apparently wasn't allowed to spend a night away. Was she ever able to visit family? What did they think of this? She does briefly recount an episode of the show in which she travels to her home state of Alaska with her family, and also says that she attends her sister's wedding, so obviously she still had a relationship with her family, but she is strangely silent about this aspect of her life.

Madison held back a lot that I wanted to know, but I also realize I'm probably not the audience for this book. It's likely aimed at people who are more interested in her life as a famous person, which is definitely highlighted over her personal life. I wanted more of the personal stuff and her insights about her experiences. Still, I feel like I know her better and honestly I have a decent amount of respect for her. I was pretty turned off near the end when she began addressing what other girls were saying about her and basically saying that she is better than they are (which is possibly true) but then I thought back to something she said at the beginning of the book: "I always thought it would be classy to not kiss and tell...but after a while you just get sick of having other people trying to tell your story for you." I can't deny that.

Each chapter began with a quote from Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass, which were quite appropriate to the story actually, but to my dismay she read them in a terrible fake British accent. Otherwise, Madison did a great job as narrator. Despite her image, she's the sort of person who might actually pick up a book, so perhaps she'll consider adding audio book narrator to her career repertoire. At any rate, she has written another one: The Vegas Diaries is set to be published later this year. I might skip it, but I'm not sorry I listened to this one.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten 5-Star Reads

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is 10 of My Most Recent 5 Star Reads.

I am sometimes pretty stingy with my 5-star ratings, and also kind of inconsistent, and sometimes I change my ratings later. But rather than overthinking today's topic, I just went into Goodreads and listed the first 10 books that I gave 5 stars to, starting with the most recent. Let's see what they are, shall we? The links all go to my reviews.

1. The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee
Most recent and really excellent. Definitely still thinking about this one.

2. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Great historical written for teens, but I think plenty of adults would love it.

3. I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
This was a re-read, but that's what sometimes happens with books that are that good.

4. Merry Christmas, Squirrels! by Nancy Rose
A children's picture book that I loved. Nancy Rose sets up elaborate scenes on her back porch, including nuts to attract squirrels, and then photographs them. Her first book, also completely adorable, was The Secret Life of Squirrels

5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Also a re-read. It was our Community Read pick for this year and I just hosted a really interesting discussion about it.

6. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Guess what? This was a re-read. Still great!

7. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Not yet a re-read, but I'm definitely thinking about reading it again.

8. The Likeness by Tana French
I still haven't read another book of hers yet. But this year I will. It's on my TBR Pile Challenge!

9. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
A classic, and just my kind of book.

10. The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming
Nonfiction for teens, but again I think it's great for anyone. Completely fascinating.

I am so stingy with my 5-star reviews that I had to reach all the way back to December of 2014 to get ten of them. What great books though! What are your most recent favorite books?

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Throwback Thursday: The Vampire Chronicles

In which I share vague recollections of books I read long ago that have stuck with me.

Before Twilight, before True Blood, before all of the recent plague of vampires in pop culture, there was Anne Rice. There are six books in The Vampire Chronicles, but I think I read only the first 3: Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, and Queen of the Damned.

It seemed like everyone was reading these books when I was in high school, and I loved them. The story began with a boy interviewing a vampire (as the title suggests) and the bulk of the novel is the vampire's story. Louis is from New Orleans and in the late 1700s a vampire named Lestat turns him into a vampire as well and they continue to live together on Louis's plantation. They are joined by a 5-year-old girl named Claudia who, once she becomes a vampire, grows into a woman who is trapped in a child's body. That part of the story was always particularly horrifying to me. Louis and Lestat have many differences over the year and I think Louis ends up trying to kill him a number of times.

The second book, The Vampire Lestat, is obviously about Lestat. He becomes a rock star in the 1980s and to me at that time, there was nothing more thrilling than a sexy vampire rock star. I remember nothing of the third book, Queen of the Damned, but the title character is Akasha, the mother of all vampires. I recall liking the first two books the most.

The whole idea of characters who lived so long they lived in many different eras was very appealing to me, and I remember liking Louis's 1700s style and sensibilities, which were somehow very classy to me. Plus, it was all very sexy. I don't think that Louis and Lestat officially had a romantic relationship, but the process of turning someone into a vampire was pretty intimate, and they definitely had a close bond even though their relationship became quite stormy. Not so different from many romantic relationships.

Would I like these books if I read them now? I have no idea, and no plans to find out because I prefer to remember them as high school favorites.

Have you read them recently? How were they? Or do you remember them from decades ago as I do?

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Expatriates

The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee (2016)

This second novel from the author of The Piano Teacher takes us back to Hong Kong and into the lives of three American women living in the expat community. Mercy, a young woman adrift after an incident that has left her paralyzed with guilt; Margaret, a wife and mother whose family has suffered a terrible loss; and Hilary, who longs to be a mother even as her marriage stagnates. The third-person narration moves between characters, and we see them being pulled toward one another as the story develops. Unlike many novels, this one thankfully does not move back and forth in time, but instead contains flashbacks to earlier times, most notably to what is referred to as "the incident."

Watching these three women change and grow throughout the novel was incredibly satisfying. Each held an emptiness within herself and couldn't manage to fix it or move past it. Each was imperfect in some way, denying realities, making bad choices, or unable to make any choices at all. But by the end they all evolved into people who could clearly see what they needed to do, and who could put aside their differences and be there for others who needed them. It was breathtaking.

Lee's writing is lovely and atmospheric and I savored every bit of it. It wasn't especially heavy on description, but somehow transported me with its simple quiet perfection. One of my favorite parts was the description of the apartment Margaret rented just to have a place of her own, where she would go and take long luxurious baths. Having visited Hong Kong, it was also fun to recognize the touristy town of Stanley, breakfast spot The Flying Pan, and the post-SARS obsession with disinfecting everything. The expat community appeared in quite an unflattering light, which made me wildly curious about the reality even while I was entertained and horrified by these shallow, materialistic people in their insular community.

I loved Lee's first book, The Piano Teacher, and recommend it to library patrons all the time. Janice Y.K. Lee is an author who deserves to be more well-known than she is. I have been so excited for The Expatriates since I heard about it a few months ago and I'm so glad that it is just as good as her first novel. I look forward to recommending it often!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Ten Books I Haven't Talked About Enough Recently

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is Ten Books I Really Love But Feel Like I Haven't Talked About Enough/In A While.

To narrow down the list, I looked up some of the titles on my blog to see how often I've mentioned them and when. But I kept coming across my old yearly reading lists from before I used Goodreads much, and seeing more books that I then added to this list, so I had to stop and just guess which ones I've mentioned the least. This list could easily be 50 books long!

1. Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
The only nonfiction book on this list, it's a memoir about Patchett's friend Lucy Grealy who also wrote a great memoir called Autobiography of a Face. Ann Patchett writes so beautifully, and this story is so heartbreaking, it has stuck with me since I read it.

2. Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
There is nothing quite like this post-apocalyptic novel, and after I finished reading it I correctly predicted that I would be thinking about it for quite some time. It's on my list of books I want to read again (along with number 10 below.)

3. American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
Based loosely on the life of Laura Bush, this novel is a great character study of a fascinating woman and her complicated marriage.

4. One Day by David Nicholls
I was skeptical about the premise of this novel, but it made me feel many feelings. I was SO SAD when it was over.

5. Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan
One shift at a Red Lobster restaurant the night before it closes forever doesn't seem like much of a premise, but this is just a perfect little book.

6. Moloka'i by Alan Brennart
This was more of a mini-review when I posted about it, but it really deserved a more lengthy treatment. Brennart's writing is just beautiful and transportive, and this story about a little girl growing up in a leper colony was both richer and happier than I expected.

7. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
A pretty literary science fiction book about Jesuits in space. It's very unusual and original and it has only grown on me over time.

8. Sunshine by Robin McKinley
This is the best book about vampires that I've ever read.

9. The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler
A darkly comic novel by the author also known as Lemony Snicket, but this one is for adults. This is another I'd like to re-read, come to think of it, because I remember very little about it except for pretentious students, absinthe, and murder.

10. The World According to Garp by John Irving
You wouldn't know it from reading this blog, but I really love John Irving. Many years ago (obviously pre-blog) I went on a rampage and read all of his books that I could get my hands on. This was my favorite, though Cider House Rules was just about tied for first place.

Going back through my early shelves on Goodreads has given me some fodder for Throwback Thursdays and reminded me of great books to put on my staff picks shelf at work. I feel like I keep putting the same things on every time.

It was surprising to see how I rated certain books. There are some that I know I loved that got 4 stars and some I liked an awful lot that only got 3. In some cases my opinion may have changed over time, but I also think I used to just rate books lower than I do now, reserving my 5-star ratings for a very few favorite titles. One of the things I love about writing Top Ten Tuesday posts is how often it takes me back through old Goodreads shelves and blog posts from many years ago. It's so fun to revisit my reading history!

Monday, March 21, 2016


Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins (2016), narrated by Kim Staunton

Whoops! I thought I posted about this book last week, but I just found this post in my drafts. I finished listening to it just before reading Salt to the Sea.

On an episode of the DBSA podcast the host interviewed author Beverly Jenkins who writes romances with African-American characters. She writes in a variety of sub-genres, including her very popular contemporary inspirational series, but it is the historical novels that really interests me. In her newest book, Forbidden, a mixed race man who passes for white falls for a young black woman and has to make some very difficult choices. The post-Civil War setting intrigued me because of the implications for the black characters, plus most of the romances I've read so far were about white people.

Eddy Carmichael (which is pronounced Edie, not Eddie, as it appears) longs to leave Denver and go to California to start her own restaurant, but when she finally tries to go she is foiled at every turn until being left in the desert to die. Along comes Rhine Fontaine, who brings her home to Virginia City, Nevada to recover. She does so quickly, and soon has a job cooking at the boarding house where is to live until she is ready to move on to California. The locals are drawn in not only by her excellent cooking, but by her beauty, none more than Rhine himself. Wealthy owner of the local saloon - the only one that doesn't discriminate based on race - nobody but his business partner knows that he was born a slave. But if he is to pursue Eddy, the truth will have to come out.

Rhine is involved with the local Republican party, which at the time was the party that supported non-whites. One of the interesting bits in this story was that it took place as that was changing. The party was fracturing, the town was considering segregating its schools, and even whites who claimed not to be racist wouldn't patronize Rhine's saloon because of all the "colored" folks who went there. Although Rhine did what he could to help out black-owned businesses in town, he felt conflicted about passing as white.

There is so much interesting stuff going on in this book and I haven't even gotten to the romance part yet. Race wasn't the only barrier to these two getting together, because Rhine was engaged to a stuck-up, entitled, racist young woman named Natalie Greer. It was a marriage of convenience, based on some business and political interests and Rhine's relationship with her father. It was obvious from the start of the book that she and Rhine would not be together but, boy, she caused some trouble. The romance between Eddy and Rhine was both sweet and steamy, but I was never really as into it as I was into the other parts of the story. I liked them both and wanted them to be together, but for me the other parts of the story were just as important, if not more so.

The narrator, Kim Staunton, did a good job and I found her voice warm and pleasant, though I thought she sounded a bit matronly for a story about young people and their sexytimes. (Oh, and Eddy was super naive about sex, which is maybe appropriate for this time period? But probably not for someone whose sister is a prostitute.)

Probably the most interesting part of the interview with Beverly Jenkins that I mentioned early on, was when she told a story about a young author trying to sell her book, and an editor said something like "Well, we already have Beverly Jenkins," as though it is not possible to have more than one black author at any given publishing house. This must be incredibly frustrating when you're trying to get published, and also ridiculous. The attitude seems to assume that most readers are white, and that white people only want to read about white characters. I'm about as white as they come but I certainly liked reading this book and would be happy to read more by Beverly Jenkins in the future. If you like historical romances set in the American West, be sure to check this one out.

Have you read anything by Beverly Jenkins? What others books of hers would you recommend?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Salt to the Sea

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys (2016)

I loved Ruta Sepetys's first book, Between Shades of Gray, and then I loved her second book, Out of the Easy. Now I love her third book, Salt to the Sea. Four narrators tell us the story of the worst maritime disaster in history. That's right: worse than the Titanic, worse than the Lusitania. Almost 10,000 people died when the Willhelm Gustloff was torpedoed by the Russians, and you've probably never heard of it. I certainly hadn't.

Joana is a Lithuanian nurse, Emilia a Polish girl with a secret, Florian a Prussian art restorer, and Alfred a self-important Nazi. In alternating chapters they tell the story leading up to the disaster. Florian saves Emilia from a Russian soldier and together they join up with Joana's group of refugees, and they all travel to the port of Gotenhafen to escape East Prussia before the Russians attack.

Short chapters mean an almost constant change of perspective. It was confusing at first and took me a bit to get a handle on the characters, but then I was propelled through the story. Getting only a little bit at a time from each character meant I kept going and going so I could find out more. There was so much to learn about these people and their stories!

I don't want to say too much about what happens to them along the way, or even reveal much about the characters, because this is all part of the story. None of these people know who to trust and they keep their stories and their problems very close as long as possible. But they do need each other's help, and (aside from Alfred) were decent people just trying to get through a really, really rough time. In addition to the narrating refugees were a young boy known as "the wanderer," an older man who took responsibility for him and was known as "the shoe poet" because he could tell so much about people by their feet, a tall woman named Eva who was never afraid to say what she was thinking, but always apologized for it, and a blind but very perceptive young woman named Ingrid. Alfred was a strange, unsettling character and his chapters were primarily letters he composed in his head to a girl back home named Hannalore.

It's World War II so things are pretty awful, and despite writing for a teen audience Sepetys doesn't shy away from the harsh reality of the time. I wasn't surprised, because I read Between Shades of Gray, but some of the scenes were still pretty upsetting. The desperation of those who weren't able to get on one of the ships to escape was heart-wrenching and made for some scenes I won't soon forget. All through the novel, Joana, Florian, and Emilia feared for their lives, all for different reasons. I felt very anxious for them! Luckily it was a very quick read so I didn't need to wait long to reach the satisfying conclusion.

If you like good historical fiction, even if you don't usually read books for teens, I highly recommend picking up this one.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Ten Books On My Spring TBR

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted over at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is Ten Books On My Spring TBR (To Be Read list.) As you may know, I no longer have a To Read list, but that doesn't stop my head from squirreling away titles in its dark recesses, and I've also posted short specific lists as part of past Top Ten Tuesdays, and I may also have a few scraps of paper on which I've written titles I don't want to forget about.

My list is a mix of new releases and books from last year that I still haven't gotten to. It doesn't even include books from my TBR Pile Challenge or Bardathon Challenge or those I have to read for book groups, so I'm unlikely to read all of these this spring, but in a perfect world I would.

1. Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood
I was dying to read this as soon as I heard it was going to exist, and I am so happy I only have to wait another couple of months until its May release. I loved the Cahill Witch Chronicles, which began with Born Wicked, and I will read whatever she writes until the end of time, amen. (Cheater 1.5: She also just edited an anthology called A Tyranny of Petticoats, which I also want to read.)

2. Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones
A friend highly recommended this in a made-him-really-angry kind of way. After reading The New Jim Crow, I am up for reading more about what is wrong with America. Plus, I keep hearing about more and more people dying of heroin overdoses - it is truly an epidemic right now, and it's not confined to cities or to a certain type of people. This is an issue I just want to learn more about.

3. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
I keep going back and forth on this one, mostly because it's over 700 pages, but I think I've firmly settled on wanting to read it. It's been nominated for lots of awards, which I wish didn't sway me, but it does.

4. Uprooted by Naomi Novik
A young adult fantasy fairy tale story isn't the kind of book I'm generally drawn to, but I keep hearing such great things about it, and I love the cover art.

5. Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Although it's not out until late May, I heard about this months ago on the Books on the Nightstand podcast. Set in a New York restaurant, the description doesn't sound terribly special to me now, but I was so taken by what I heard on the podcast (even though I don't recall specifically what that was) I still plan to read it.

6. Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
I'm pretty sure this book, out in April, was mentioned on that same podcast episode. A young girl falls through the earth in South Dakota, landing in what appears to be a giant metal hand. Later she becomes a physicist studying that very same hand, where it came from, and what it means. This just sounds so unique and mysterious!

7. Level Up by Cathy Yardley
A contemporary romance about video game designers that I heard about on the Dear Bitches, Smart Authors (DBSA) podcast. They loved it! It's not often that an entire episode of the podcast is devoted to one book, but apparently this self-published new adult romance really captures tech culture, and especially what it's like to be a woman in this male-dominated profession.

8. Clockwork Samurai by Jeannie Lin
It's been over a year since I read Gunpowder Alchemy and I'm hoping I will remember enough to enjoy the sequel, which I downloaded a few months ago and still haven't read. Although my review at the time wasn't stellar, I really loved the setting and the adventure in the story and have been thinking about it ever since.

9. Grunt by Mary Roach
I just won a galley of her forthcoming book that comes out in June, and I'd really like to read it before it comes out. This one is all about how science prepares soldiers for the day-to-day realities of their jobs. It sounds fascinating!

10. City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin
I really wish I thought I'd have time to re-read the first two before starting on the finale to this excellent series. But alas, these books are really long. I can't not finish the series though.

I'm unlikely to read all of these this spring, but I hope to at least read them all this year. What about you? What's coming up on your reading list in the next few months?

Monday, March 14, 2016


Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer (2014)

Jam Gallahue found love with Reeve Maxfield, an exchange student from England, but after just 41 days tragedy took him from her. Her parents have sent her to the Wooden Barn in Vermont, a boarding school for emotionally fragile teenagers. Jam is accepted into an exclusive and somewhat mysterious class called Special Topics in English, which she got into despite not applying. In this class the students read only one author all semester, and Jam's class will be focusing on Sylvia Plath. They are also given journals and told to write in them twice a week. Writing in a journal can often help someone work through their problems, but in this case what Jam and her classmates experience is otherworldly.

There are only five students in the class, and each has been through a difficult trauma. Over the course of the semester they develop friendships and share their stories, though some students are more forthcoming than others. The types of traumas the students have experienced vary in their severity, and one whose situation might seen comparatively mild is apologetic about it. Another student, Casey, points out, "But it's the worst thing that's ever happened to you." To me this is one of the most important points of the book, and something that I wish people would remember a bit more. It's easy to dismiss some complaints as "first world problems" or say things like "at least you have such-and-such" but those statements never help. Yes, it's important to keep perspective, but geez, let people feel bad about their problems for a little while, at least. It's ok.

I liked their teacher, Mrs. Quenell, a lot. In many YA novels, adults are non-present, two-dimensional, or villains, and I really appreciate a good story in which a teacher actually makes a difference in her students' lives. At the beginning of the semester she asked the students to look out for each other, and they took those words to heart. They supported each other as they tried to work through the difficulties in their lives and, inevitably, romances blossomed too.

Jam holds her story back as long as possible, and I admit I felt a little conflicted about the reveal. When I read the full backstory about her relationship with Reeve and what happened to him, I felt a bit of a letdown. But I hadn't predicted it, and by the time I finished the book I felt pretty solidly that I liked the whole story, ending included. I'm really looking forward to discussing it with my book group at work. This is a book that needs talking about.

I'm always a sucker for a good boarding school story, even more if it involves trauma of some sort. When I first heard about this book I was very excited because of the Sylvia Plath connection. I love her work so much, starting way back when I first discovered her in high school and read The Bell Jar (which I really want to read again now.) But when I read reviews they mentioned magical realism and I was put off by that. I don't know what I think magical realism is, but whatever it is in my head isn't apparently what it actually is. This is my first Meg Wolitzer book, and the first she has written for teens. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I liked it very much!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Ada Blackjack

In which I share vague recollections of books I read long ago that have stuck with me.

In The Winter Rose, one of the characters is a budding explorer and even manages to talk his way onto an expedition with Ernest Shackleton. Although I don't read many books on the subject, I'm fascinated by harrowing journeys of exploration. This novel reminded me of one of the few true accounts I have read, Ada Blackjack: a true story of survival in the Arctic by Jennifer Niven.

I mentioned it briefly once before in this post after being led to it by a knitting book, of all things. It recounts a 1921 attempt by the British to colonize Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean. Ada Blackjack was an Inuit woman hired as a seamstress for the expedition, and she was the only member to survive. She didn't even want to go on the expedition; she did it because, as I recall, she needed the money. She wasn't an explorer, just a very practical-minded woman who managed to outlive every man on the expedition.

What I remember most about this story was when one of the men was dying of scurvy. It was described in such vivid detail, I became instantly thankful for the abundant supply of citrus fruit we are able to enjoy today. There was much more to the story, of course, much of which is taken first-hand from Blackjack's journals. After the expedition a great deal of controversy surrounded Ada and her role on the trip, and suspicions about why she was the only survivor. It's a fascinating story from beginning to end.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016


Hamlet by William Shakespeare (1602)

I may have gotten a little too cocky after reading Macbeth, which was pretty short and easier to read than I expected. Hamlet was another matter entirely.

Hamlet is also a tragedy, and begins with some conversations with a ghost which is presumed to be Hamlet's dead father, the king of Denmark. After his death, his brother Claudius married Queen Gertrude within a month. Hamlet learns that Claudius murdered the former king and vows revenge. His erratic behavior makes everyone suspect that he is mad and Claudius tries to have him sent to England, but he makes his way back, and by the end a number of characters die.

The plot isn't especially complicated or hard to follow, but the play is filled with various soliloquies and philosophical conversations that had my head spinning. Deciphering the language was simple enough in Macbeth when it all pertained to matters at hand, but here much of the dialogue is about more abstract topics and was much more difficult to read and understand.

Again, it was fun to read well-known quotes in context: "Get thee to a nunnery," and "Alas, poor Yorick!" Common expressions that originated in this play include "Neither a borrower nor a lender be," and "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," a favorite phrase of my father-in-law (whose delivery is paraphrased and heavily Boston-accented, but nevertheless recognizable.) Most famous of all is Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy, which was quite poetic and nice to read.

Because they are so highly recommended, I picked up the Arden edition at first. The introduction was around 150 pages and so scholarly I couldn't read it. The layout of the pages was difficult as well - on each page there was just a small block of text from the play and the rest was notes, and many of the notes weren't really helpful to me because they went way beyond what I needed to understand the text. Arden must be geared more toward academics, so I think I'll stick with the Folger editions.

I've completed the tragedy portion of my Shakespeare reading for the Bardathon Challenge, and am ready to move on to comedies. Now I'm also considering reading some of his sonnets this year since the plays are not as unpleasant or time-consuming as I was anticipating and I could stand to add to my challenge for a more well-rounded experience of Shakespeare.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016


I've started a vlog with a coworker, and since it's all about books and reading I thought it might interest some of you. Our first episode is all about reading challenges. Enjoy!

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Winter Rose

The Winter Rose by Jennifer Donnelly (2008)

Although The Winter Rose is a sequel to The Tea Rose, I was glad to find that it can stand alone because it's been a few years since I read the first book and I don't remember the details. The main characters, Fiona and Joe, are back again and joined by a new and interesting cast including a lady doctor, India Selwyn Jones. After graduating from medical school she begins work at another doctor's practice until she can afford to pursue her dream of opening a clinic for women and children in London's impoverished East End. But her boss is not sympathetic to the plight of women and India becomes even more impatient to set out on her own. Meanwhile, she's engaged to politician Freddie Lytton, a total asshat who wants India for her huge dowry and plans to make her quit her job because it is so unbecoming for a lady to be a doctor. But when India meets - and falls for - local crime boss Sid Malone, everybody's plans become derailed.

This is a 700-page book just packed with drama, adventure, and romance. My description is just a small bit of the story, which sucked me in from the very beginning. What I remember most about The Tea Rose was just being so immersed in it, and so incredibly invested in the people I got to know over the course of many years (and pages!) It was as though I went through all these harrowing experiences with them. I'm happy to say that the experience was the same with this book. There were times that I was positively stressed out at what was happening, even though I knew that most of it would work out in the end.

It was nice to see Fiona and Joe again, and although they definitely still had a good story, it was India who I was most interested in. Graduating from medical school in 1900 was a big deal for a woman and many people had strong opinions about this. I love a story about a woman ahead of her time, and India's story was very satisfying. She was smart, ambitious, and had a passion for helping the poor. Most of all, she was practical and I just love a protagonist who is that realistic and sensible about things like getting birth control to those who need it. The doctor she worked for, on the other hand, I wanted to smack. For instance, when preparing for a visit with a woman in labor, India asked him for chloroform and he refused. This was his explanation: "Labor pain is Eve's legacy, and to ameliorate it would be against God's will. Birth pains are good for women. They build character and inhibit indecent feeling." And he wasn't even the real villain of the book.

The Victorian era is my favorite historical time period and Donnelly does a great job bringing her many characters to life in this long and complicated story. It was incredibly satisfying! I don't know when I'll finally get around to reading the third and final book in the series, but I am very much looking forward to the experience.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016


Daredevils by Shawn Vestal (2016)

Loretta is a teenager in the mid-1970s and lives in the strict Mormon community of Short Creek, Arizona. When her parents catch her sneaking out at night to be with a boy they quickly marry her off to an older man and she must go live with him and his large family as a sister wife. When her new husband's father dies, they go to his farm in Idaho and Loretta meets Jason, a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien and Evel Knieval, and the two hit it off and eventually band together to make their escape.

Although this story takes place in my least favorite decade, I was drawn to it because of the whole Mormon sister-wife story. I did really enjoy that part of it too. When Loretta went to live with Dean and Ruth and their kids I expected it to all be awful, but it wasn't. She didn't want to be there, of course, but Dean was not at all mean to her, nor was Ruth, and she really liked the kids. It's too easy to make everything about a shitty situation bad and I appreciate that Vestal didn't do that.

The entire book was in third person, but the chapters shifted back and forth between Loretta and Jason. I also liked Jason's chapters early in the book when we're just getting to know him. He is in many ways a pretty typical teenage boy, one who is kind of awkward and doesn't generally get into trouble. He has one good friend, a part-Native American boy named Boyd, and he is also close with his grandfather who has lied to Jason's parents in order to sneak him to see Evel Knievel perform a stunt.

There were short bits between chapters called "Evel Knievel Addresses An Adoring Nation" which were just short monologues by Knievel who refers to himself in the plural and seems to be a total asshole. These were my least favorite parts of the book and they seemed extraneous. I think the point was that Jason sees this guy as a hero but he's actually kind of an ass. He's not the only person in this book who turns out to be disappointing.

I really got into this book for the first 100 pages, which I read in pretty much one sitting. The writing is solid and I was drawn in right away, especially by Loretta's part of the story, but I also enjoyed Jason's chapters. But my interest and momentum waned as the story started to flounder a bit. Although things were still happening, it felt like it wasn't going anywhere very satisfying and there were few surprises. It kind of just kept going until it stopped. It wasn't bad, it just didn't fulfill the promise of the first third of the book somehow.

Nevertheless, it got me another square on Winter Bingo as it's a 2016 debut. I think this is probably my last completed square as nothing I'm planning to read soon qualifies for any of the other spots. Take a look at this, will you? There are FOUR rows where I have 4 out of 5 of the squares. You couldn't even plan this. I should get some sort of a prize for my ability to not get bingos. (Update: I realized later that I had missed one. Check out my final Winter Bingo post for the actual completed card.)

Daredevils will be published on April 12, 2016. I received my copy courtesy of Penguin and was not compensated for this review. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Ten Books To Read If You're in the Mood for Teen Audiobooks

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is Top Ten Books To Read If You're in the Mood For...and I chose YA audiobooks because I was recently thinking I should do a list of my favorites. So here they are!

1. His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, narrated by Philip Pullman and a full cast
This was one of the first audiobooks I ever listened to, perhaps my very first teen audiobook.

2. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, narrated by Kate Rudd

3. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, narrated by Tanya Eby Sirois

4. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, narrated by Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra
Rebecca Lowman is always and forever my favorite audiobook narrator, but Sunil Malhotra just paired perfectly with her in this book.

5. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick, narrated by Noah Galvin

6. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, narrated by Michael Crouch

7. The Selection series by Kiera Cass, narrated by Amy Rubinate
The fourth in the series, The Heir, is narrated by Brittany Pressley, who is also very good.

8. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black, narrated by Christina Lakin

9. Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, narrated by Nicole Sudhaus
I loved this so much I couldn't wait for the next book in the series to come out, and I was crushed to learn that they weren't making audiobooks of the rest of the series.

10. In Darkness by Nick Lake, narrated by Benjamin L. Darcie
This one takes place in Haiti, and although I'm not an expert on accents I'd say he does it perfectly.

I loved all of these books, but the expertly read audiobooks made them stand out even more. I'm a little surprised to look at my list and see that there are no repeats of narrators. Perhaps I have more favorite narrators than I thought!

Do you have any favorite teen audiobooks? I'm always looking for more suggestions!