Reading Roundup

I’m currently in a “book hole.”  You know that place where you’ve finished a book and you just can’t settle into a new one?  It’s frustrating.  So instead of reading, I thought I’d write about the ones that have recently moved to the Read shelf on Goodreads.

The Hiding Place by CJ Tudor

I was really excited to get CJ Tudor’s second book since I liked her debut The Chalk Man.  I picked this one up expecting the unexpected because she seems to do that pretty well.  It started out fine.  I was intrigued by our less-than-truthful narrator and the eerie English setting.  We had a mysterious setup and I was onboard, but I found myself disappointed at the answer to the mystery.  Maybe I was just expecting too much but it just wasn’t enough for me.  I hesitate to recommend it because it didn’t do anything for me, but people are different.

Cocoa Beach by Beatriz Williams

It pains me to say it, but I didn’t really like this one.  I know, I know, I sing Ms. Williams praises a good bit on this blog and she really is great, but this one just, well, isn’t.  For starters it’s too long.  There are very few people who have any business writing books that are over 400 pages.  There was a story there, but I think it was just drowning in all the words and descriptions and introspections.  I personally didn’t connect with the narrator and it was never definitively explained why she refused to see her husband for the three years leading up to the book’s events.  Not to mention if you’ve read A Certain Age, you already know the story of her sister and father so you’re stuck treading water for the benefit of all those who haven’t.  I’d say skip it and wait for her new one The Golden Hour coming out next month.  I’ve already pre-ordered it.  I know I have a problem.

How Not to Die Alone by Richard Roper

Book of the Month’s latest offering is a book about death and life and…well, death.  A book about a man who works tracking down next of kin for people who die alone in their homes sounds pretty depressing.  And he lies about having a happy family life while living like the very people he investigates for.  Again, depressing.  Except for the delightfully quirky love interest and the off-the-wall co-workers, right?  Sadly, this book just didn’t come together for me.  It’s one of those that was good enough to finish but not really that good.  Book of the Month has always been hit and miss and I think this one goes in the miss category.

The Huntress by Kate Quinn

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably thinking “Does this girl like anything?”  Yes, actually, I do.  I loved Kate Quinn’s new historical fiction novel The Huntress.  If you have the least bit of interest in historical novels and WWII, do not miss this one.  Like I said, very few can write a 500 pager, but Ms. Quinn is one of those few.  Intriguing characters, Nazi hunters, unorthodox love affairs, and female bomber pilots.  What’s not to love?  No one writes a battle ax character better than Kate Quinn.  I was enthralled by Eve Gardiner in The Alice Network and now Nina Markova.  I’ll be pre-ordering her next one for sure.  I do not need an intervention.

Happy Summer reading, y’all!

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Love and Hate in the Time of Audiobooks

Back in the fall I got a new car, the result of an accident involving the Jaws of Life, a night in the hospital, and a hematoma that just won’t quit.  On the brighter side, my shiny, purple RAV4 has brought me into the 21st century with Bluetooth capabilities and a nice sound system.  Eventually, I realized that these could be used to listen to audiobooks on my commute thanks to Libby, the amazing library app.

I was pretty stoked until I remembered that I don’t actually like listening to audiobooks because my mind wanders, and I miss things.  But I gave it a shot anyway.  I started with Julie Shumacher’s Dear Committee Members, a novel told through a series of letters.  I thought the format lent itself to audio because it’s told in only one voice.  I was reminded of the other reason I don’t listen to audiobooks when I tried French Exit by Patrick deWitt.  The narrator worked for the voice of our protagonist, an aging New York aristocrat, but when she read as the male characters, it was not a pleasing auditory experience.  Also, I wasn’t into the story, so I abandoned it.

I thought I would give up on the experiment until Aha! Of course!  Non-fiction!  This will solve the problem of multiple voices since it’s merely recounting the true experiences of others.  It won’t, however, solve the problem of my attention span, but we can’t have it all.  So, I settled on Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker.  It was pleasing to the ear but not the best true-crime I’ve read/listened to/absorbed/whatever.  That brings up another issue.  What do you say when you’ve finished an audiobook?  I listened to Insert Book Title?  Does that count as “read” even if you didn’t actually eyeball the book?  Do I need a separate list on Goodreads?

Sigh.  I suppose that’s a personal choice, how you classify your audio/reading experience.  I definitely prefer the reading of a book to the listening of one but when you’re trapped in a car (regardless of how nice) for an hour a day, we beggars can’t be choosers.

Happy reading/listening/whatever, y’all!

Book or Movie?

As I was facing a Saturday night alone with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, I turned to the interwebs for something to entertain me.  It turns out that they recently adapted the Nick Hornby novel Juliet, Naked.  Last April when I went to Taiwan I bought that novel to read on the excruciatingly long flight.  (No, really, it was thirteen hours.)  I was drawn to the off-beat plot of a woman in a dead-end relationship who starts up an accidental correspondence with her boyfriend’s musical idol.  But I found it to be pretty boring.  The writing was bland and it dragged, not really giving me anything to connect to.  I got through maybe a third before moving on to something else.  That’s why you always put multiple books on your Kindle before flying to the other side of the world, am I right?

So, why would I want to watch the movie you ask.  The book is always better than the movie, right?  They even have t-shirts that say “The book was better,” so everyone knows it.  Well, call me crazy but I’m squarely in the camp of Not Necessarily.

Books and movies are different mediums.  Some stories work really well in book form and lose something in translation.  I’m sure you can find many a rant online about why your favorite book didn’t fare well in Hollywood.  And a lot of times that’s true.

I heard great things about that movie The Notebook.  Everybody loved it and it was just the most romantic and beautiful love story.  As any good reader I said, “I’ll read the book first.”  So I did and it was…terrible.  Oh, M. Goodness, so overblown and melodramatic.  I was expecting more from Nicolas Sparks, having seen the film version of Nights in Rodanthe, which was pretty good if you’re into that kind of thing.  So what was I missing?  I came to the realization that some authors and their stories are just better suited to film.  I think Nicolas Sparks is one of them.

So that brings me back to Juliet, Naked.  I watched it and really enjoyed it.  Everything that was flat on the page was bright on screen.  The connections between the characters were genuine and not overdone.  I particularly connected with Annie.  She felt real and believable.  It’s not your typical rom-com and if you find yourself with a Saturday night in, I recommend it.  I also recommend High Fidelity, another Nick Hornby novel that was adapted in 2000.  I’ve never read the book so you’ll have to make your own judgement there.

I have seen some really bad adaptations (I’m looking at you, It) but I’ve also seen some good ones.  I may be standing alone, but I’ll stand up for those films that are truly better than the book.  Always is a strong word, but life has taught me that there are always exceptions that prove the rule.

Bridge to Nowhere

Have you heard about Markus Zuzak’s new book Bridge of Clay?  You probably have because the whole world loved The Book Thief and have waited forever.  No really, it’s been thirteen years.  That’s the first red flag.

When I heard Mr. Zuzak was publishing a new book I was excited because I loved the writing of The Book Thief.  I thought the plot wasn’t that original or exciting but the style was awesome.  I also loved I Am the Messenger because the story was so off beat and interesting.  If we could have a book that married the amazing prose of The Book Thief with a charming plot like I Am the Messenger, we might have a contender for Favorite Book.

But it was not to be.  I read an interview on Goodreads where Zuzak said he had been trying to write this book since he was really young and he agonized over everything, making sure it was perfect.  Uh-oh.  Red Flag number two.  Something that personal does not usually translate.  Mostly it’ll resonate with, well, you.  Despite this reservation I gave it a shot.

What we have here is a failure to communicate.  I read about half of the book and I have no idea what we’re supposed to be getting from it.  We start out with five boisterous teenage boys taking care of themselves with a bunch of animals running around.  That was actually the part I liked.  They were interesting, I liked the way they interacted, each with his own unique personality.  Enter the deadbeat father who asks them if they’d like to come with him out to the middle of nowhere and build a bridge.  Um, okay.  So one of them decides it’d be a good idea to quit school and go to the middle of nowhere with a man he hardly knows to dig holes in the hot sun so they can put a bridge over a mostly dry river bed.  Um, okaaayyy…

Most of the 250 pages I read didn’t even have anything to do with Clay or his brothers.  It was all about their mother’s childhood behind the Iron Curtain and how she got to Australia and their father’s childhood and how he married one girl and then got divorced.  Why do I care?

I’m sorry, but you introduced a whole group of really interesting characters and then left them for half a book to talk about their parents’ pasts?  What does that have to do with anything?  Not to mention this is supposed to be a first person narrative.  The narrator is the oldest brother who isn’t seeing any of this first hand and yet writes like he has intimate knowledge.

To me, this book was a mess.  I think this is what happens when a story marinates too long in the writer’s head.  He gets too close and loses perspective.  Zuzak wanted to convey some awesome family saga with great points about healing and forgiveness but really it’s just a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing.

As much as it pains me to say it, I think Mr. Zuzak missed the mark this time.  I would give this one a wide berth.

Book Reviews: Non-Fiction

Ok, another round-up of book reviews.  This time we turn to non-fiction.  I love a good true crime but I also love biography and memoir, so this is a bit of all three.  Enjoy.

Blood Lands Series by Harold Schechter

I thoroughly enjoyed these short works by Harold Schechter.  Each one focused on a lesser-known true crime story in American history and only took around an hour to read.  I especially liked the one about the family of murderers living across the prairie from Laura Ingalls Wilder.  It was aptly titled Little Slaughterhouse on the Prairie.  The other one I liked was The Pied Piper about a young man in the 1950’s who committed Manson-style murders by holding other young people in thrall.  I would suggest this series of short reads for anyone just getting into true crime.  They get in and get out and don’t have time to get dull and repetitive like so many I’ve abandoned over the years.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Before I traveled to Taiwan I felt that I needed to read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail alone.  It was well-written and quick and deeply poignant.  There’s something about solitude that really centers us.  One thing that stood out to me was the mental toughness it took to do something like that.  It wasn’t just physical.  It took a lot of “mind over matter” to get through it.  That idea of pushing through and overcoming really spoke to me.  I definitely suggest this one even if, like me, you have no intention of hiking anywhere, alone or otherwise.

In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson

I realized recently that while Frankenstein is a masterful work and is still relevant today, I knew very little about the woman who wrote it.  So I read In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson.  It was a little long but it kept me engaged throughout.  I think it’s amazing that Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was only nineteen.  People have mocked Shelley for being obsessed with death but death was all around her.  Her mother died at Mary’s birth, her half-sister committed suicide, her husband was killed in a boating accident, and only one of her four children lived to adulthood.  I think Mrs. Shelley can be forgiven for having a preoccupation with death.  Frankenstein is much more than a monster story.  It goes to the heart of what it means to be human and what happens when humans attempt to create life.  In Search of Mary Shelley is a good read and I recommend it for biography lovers.

The Dark Heart by Joakim Palmkvist

This is the best true crime I’ve read in awhile.  Set in Sweden, it follows the missing persons case of Goren Lundblad in 2012.  An interesting twist to the story was the role of Therese Tang, an investigator with non-profit organization Missing Persons Sweden.  Though not law enforcement, Therese blows the case wide open.  But the best thing about this one was the dramatization of scenes without straying into fiction.  I never thought Capote was successful in mashing up true crime and fiction in In Cold Blood.  This seemed to be much more fluid and engaging, without crossing any lines.  I recommend The Dark Heart for true crime buffs and anyone looking for a good whodunit.

That’s all for now.  Happy reading, y’all!

Book Reviews: Historical Fiction

I realized recently that even though I’ve been reading a lot I’ve neglected to do any reviews on this blog.  I don’t normally read a lot of historical fiction but recently the thriller choices on Book of the Month have been lacking so I’ve been opting for something different.  So here are a few that I’ve devoured lately.  Enjoy.

The English Wife by Lauren Willig

This was a good starter for me because it still has a murder mystery at the heart of things.  It’s set in New York during the Gilded Age, which I love.  There’s murder, manners, and mistaken identity.  And a little bit of Shakespeare for good measure.  Though not the best I’ve read, I would recommend it for a light read.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

The next book that caught my eye was The Alice Network.  This one takes us into parallel time lines between WWI and WWII.  It delves into female roles during WWI in the real-life Alice Network, women who served as spies in occupied France.  It also looks at the female role just after WWII.  The world was changed and so were the women living in it.  Though Eve Gardner is driven by hate and revenge, she’s a captivating and sympathetic character.  Her old-age bitterness is tempered by the young woman who comes to her for help.  I greatly enjoyed this one and recommend it for WWI buffs and anyone interested in women’s roles though-out history.

The Summer Wives by Beatriz Williams

I can’t thank Book of the Month enough for introducing me to Beatriz Williams.  I bought this one as an extra, not sure if it would suit, opting for my usual dark, gritty fare, but I’m really glad I took a chance on it.  Though a murder mystery plays a role in this novel, it’s not the main focus.  It focuses on the relationships and dynamics of a small island in Long Island Sound after WWII.  There’s love, romance, and heartbreak.  And again, a little Shakespeare.  But what really captivated me was the prose.  I’m a sucker for good prose and Ms. Williams is wonderful at using her words to evoke a time and place.  It goes beyond the slang of the time period and creates the atmosphere of Post-War New England a la the Kennedy family.  I was totally swept up and definitely recommend it for those who want an author whose diction is more than hum-drum.

A Certain Age by Beatriz Williams

I admit I was chasing the high of The Summer Wives when I immediately went to Amazon and ordered A Certain Age.  Beatriz Williams’ writing, a love triangle, and the Jazz Age.  I was sold.  Although I must say that I was somewhat disappointed.  It was a good story and the prose was on point, but I think it ran a little long.  I found myself wishing these people would just say what they meant for once.  And the murder mystery felt a bit unnecessary.  If you love the glitz and glamour of the 1920s, you’ll probably enjoy this one but otherwise you can give it a skip.

Until next time.  Happy reading!