A Year in Provence
by Peter Mayle

March 1, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

Mayle_YearinProvence

★ ★ ★ ★

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle | Vintage Books, a division of Random House | May 1991, originally published 1989 | Paperback $10.00

In this witty and warm-hearted account, Peter Mayle tells what it is like to realize a long-cherished dream and actually move into a 200-year-old stone farmhouse in the remote country of the Lubéron with his wife and two large dogs. He endures January’s frosty mistral as it comes howling down the Rhône Valley, discovers the secrets of goat racing through the middle of town, and delights in the glorious regional cuisine. A Year in Provence transports us into all the earthy pleasures of Provençal life and lets us live vicariously at a tempo governed by seasons, not by days.

Peter Mayle is well-known for his series of books on the life of a British ex-pat in Provence (a region in southeastern France). I got a small set of these books a few years ago from a local library’s used book sale.

I’d been meaning to try them out for a while, as I’m admittedly something of a freshman Francophile. I know just enough French to be able to guess at the offerings on a menu or do an impressive job of mispronouncing things. I had the good fortune to be able to go to Paris about a decade ago, too, and that amazing experience is one of my most treasured memories.

My generally rosy view of all things français must obviously color my perception of this first book in Mayle’s Provence series. Reading it was something like enjoying a particularly luxurious meal, set in 12 courses (a chapter for each month of the year). The beauty of this arrangement of short “slice-of-life” stories is that I could easily read this book in short sittings, just before bed or while waiting in line or during a rushed lunch break.

Actually, I had to stop reading it at lunch because the only thing more depressing than eating a microwave meal in an office break room is eating a microwave meal in an office break room while reading about someone halfway around the world having a perfect feast in their perfect courtyard in perfect weather (with perfect wine). There is A LOT of food and drink in this book. Most of the stories involve food or wine in some way, even if they aren’t specifically about food or wine. I’m really looking forward to reading Mayle’s food-focused French Lessons (on my Foodies Read list this year).


Links:


Publication information:
Mayle, Peter. A Year in Provence. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. Print.
Source: Public library used book sale.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Galileo’s Middle Finger
by Alice Dreger

February 16, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

Dreger_GalileosMiddleFinger
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science by Alice Dreger | Penguin Press | March 2015 | Hardcover $27.95

Galileo’s Middle Finger is one American’s eye-opening story of life in the trenches of scientific controversy. For two decades, historian Alice Dreger has led a life of extraordinary engagement, combining activist service to victims of unethical medical research with defense of scientists whose work has outraged identity politics activists. With spirit and wit, Dreger offers in Galileo’s Middle Finger an unforgettable vision of the importance of rigorous truth seeking in today’s America, where both the free press and free scholarly inquiry struggle under dire economic and political threats.

I managed to get my grubby paws on an e-ARC from Edelweiss for early review.

This book grabbed me from page 1. This partly had to do with the fact that I started reading it not long after the Disneyland measles outbreak brought the anti-vaccines controversy to the front page of every science news website in the country. I was already in a fine lather over that and the timing for reading this book was basically perfect for me.

First, I want to share a few quotes from the 1st chapter just to give you an idea of the tone of this book….

On introducing the topic of intersex and transgender conditions:

“Human sex comes in two big themes — male and female — but nature seems to enjoy composing variations on those themes.”

On choosing where to conduct research while working on her PhD:

“Britain and France also made practical sense because they would be nice places to go on dissertation grants.”

On the topic of her dissertation, historical medical treatment of hermaphrodites:

“Late-nineteenth-century medical and scientific men had little interest in changing social mores just because nature was turning out to be a bit churlish where sex was concerned.”

I could keep going because the book is basically full of this sort of thing, but any more than this teaser is probably a copyright violation of some sort. Also, keep in mind that these quotes are not from the final copy, which is scheduled to hit the shelves on March 10, 2015.

What we have here is a very conversational and accessible book about science and its fraught but extremely important relationship with various social justice fights. (It’s tempting to use the phrase It’s about ethics in science journalism but at this point saying anything is about ethics in ___ journalism makes me want to barf a little bit. Thanks, hashtag gamergate! The overuse of the suffix –gate makes me want to barf a little bit, too, but now this review has gone completely off the rails. Now, where was I… ?)

This book has been favorably reviewed by Kirkus, Dan Savage, and Jared Diamond, which I think says a lot about its quality and potential impact in the science nonfiction market.

Dreger touches on topics like intersexuality, sociobiology, and fetal drug therapy. We get a little bit of history of the treatment of these issues by both the scientific community and the culture at large, but this isn’t really a science history book. Dreger gets personal. She writes mainly about her own experiences with dealing with controversial scientific opinions, but she also includes quite a lot of info on other scientists’ and social activists’ experiences too. She writes about what happens when attempts to pursue scientific truth butt up against efforts to achieve cultural acceptance or legal justice, and about what happens when people on both sides of a volatile issue behave unethically in pursuit of their goals.

I rather enjoyed this book, though it probably wasn’t great for my blood pressure. (“She tried to claim WHAT!?” “He seriously said THAT?!”) The only big caveat I’d give a potential reader is that the bulk of the book really does revolve around the author’s own experiences — and she really did get down into the trenches. There are some passages that feel very “he-said/she-said” and, speaking as someone who is not an expert in any of the fields or controversies discussed in this book, I’m not comfortable making absolute judgments based only on those sorts of arguments… but I have to admit that Dreger is thorough and persuasive.

This is not an unbiased, entirely 3rd person academic-flavor book, and you won’t enjoy it if you’re expecting to read it that way. Dreger has a particularly Galilean personality — and, in fact, she does compare herself and many of her colleagues to Galileo several times. She uses the phrase “politcally tone-dumb” — that is, not exactly oblivious to the effect that controversial science will have on politicized efforts to achieve social justice, but more like not bothering to care about it overmuch because pursuit of actual truth is more important.

Anyway, the message is ultimately a warning, but a hopeful one: Truth and justice are inextricably linked, and only by working together can scholars and activists achieve both.


Links:


Publication information: Dreger, Alice. Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science. New York: Penguin, 2015. EPUB.
Source: This review is based on an e-ARC that I received from the publisher via Edelweiss.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Relish
by Lucy Knisley

February 13, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

Knisley_Relish
★ ★ ★
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley | April 2013 | First Second | Paperback $17.99

Lucy Knisley loves food. The daughter of a chef and a gourmet, this talented young cartoonist comes by her obsession honestly. In her forthright, thoughtful, and funny memoir, Lucy traces key episodes in her life thus far, framed by what she was eating at the time and lessons learned about food, cooking, and life. Each chapter is bookended with an illustrated recipe — many of them treasured family dishes, and a few of them Lucy’s original inventions.

This was a fun, honest, and engaging pick for my first book off of my “Foodies Read” list.

Relish is a comic-format memoir that focuses primarily on the author/artist’s experiences with food – or rather, on the way that food has been a big part of her experiences. It’s a series of stories about growing up with a nature-loving, farm-to-table cook for a mom and an enthusiastic foodie for a dad. It’s also about the way food is inextricably linked to her most treasured memories. And it is about coming of age as an artist and foodie in her own right.

I loved Knisley’s voice. She comes across as optimistic, kind, and able to see the humor in every situation she shares in this book. Even though she writes about her parents divorcing and includes at least one ex-boyfriend in a story, she never crosses that line into “woe is me, these relationships were terrible and these people ruined my life” territory. Not that “woe is me” stories can’t be great, sometimes. I just mean that the author/artist did a great job of focusing on the upside (and on the food).

The main thing that I wish had been different is that the book felt a little… shallow, maybe? Like, sure, I respect that Knisley chose to skip over the nitty-gritty parts of her relationships, but even the descriptions of her travels and the foods she tried weren’t that detailed. Usually when I’m reading a food-focused book I expect to be drooling at every other page. I at least want to be intrigued by the setting of any given meal, whether it’s a posh café in some European city or a little corner shop with cheap, chipped white saucers. And you’d think the graphic novel format would be ideal for that, but somehow Relish didn’t achieve it.

This book includes several illustrated recipes, which look interesting, but I can’t speak to their quality because I didn’t try any of them. I checked this book out from the library and just read a chapter or two during my lunch breaks over a few days.

I haven’t read any of Knisley’s other books yet, but I did check out her website hoping to find some more comics. I was not disappointed. At the end of last year she published a short but poignant comic about having a miscarriage. If you’re interested in checking out more of her work, check out her website (link below).


Links:


Publication information: Knisley, Lucy. Relish. New York: First Second, 2013. Print.
Source: Public library.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


The Diviners
by Libba Bray

February 9, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

Bray_TheDiviners
★ ★ ★ ★
The Diviners by Libba Bray | Little, Brown and Company | September 2012 | Paperback $11.00

Evie O’Neill has been exiled from her boring old hometown and shipped off to the bustling streets of New York City — and she is pos-i-tute-ly ecstatic. It’s 1926, and New York is filled with speakeasies, Ziegfeld girls, and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is that she has to live with her uncle Will and his unhealthy obsession with the occult.

Evie worries he’ll discover her darkest secret: a supernatural power that has only brought her trouble so far. But when the police find a murdered girl branded with a cryptic symbol and Will is called to the scene, Evie realizes her gift could help catch a serial killer.

As Evie jumps headlong into a dance with a murderer, other stories unfold in the city that never sleeps. A young man named Memphis is caught between two worlds. A chorus girl named Theta is running from her past. A student named Jericho hides a shocking secret. And unknown to all, something dark and evil has awakened.

Here’s a solid book for YA readers who like their paranormal stories with an historical twist (or historical fiction fans who might like a bit of paranormal flavor).

I’ve been meaning to read this since it came out, and I even picked up a copy last spring, but I just never got around to it. That’s why it ended up on my TBR Pile Challenge list this year. It’s great timing, because the sequel (Lair of Dreams) is set to come out this summer. I’ll probably pick it up.

First, the positive: The beautifully historical worldbuilding is great, and I do tend to swoon over that sort of thing. You can’t help but feel sucked right into 1920’s New York. It has a diverse cast of memorable characters. Except for the very beginning and the very end, there was rarely a slow moment, plot-wise. Also, I felt a real sense of suspense and horror several times (especially while trying to read this at bedtime, when the house was quiet and dark and a little bit spooky). All of these things combined to bring my rating for this book up to 4 stars.

Now let’s talk about the little things that I think could have been better. I actually did start reading this book several months ago, but I ended up putting it down because it wasn’t keeping my attention at first. It does get off to kind of a slow start. The characters solve their big mystery around page 400 and then it takes them about 140 more pages to resolve their major plotline, but then there’s still another 50 or so pages of set-up for the next book… it’s a bit long for a YA book, in my opinion (and I’m not one to be afraid of a chunkster). And quite a lot of that page space is taken up by atmospheric and historical stuff. I know, I know, I just said that I loved the detailed setting, and I do, it’s just that after a while I started to think, OK, I get it, we’re in the 1920’s, we can move along now… and honestly, some of the lingo was terribly overused and it got distracting.

All in all, I’m glad I finally read it and I’m glad I got a chance to briefly meet Libba Bray last year. I definitely have high hopes for Lair of Dreams.


Links:


Publication information: Bray, Libba. The Diviners. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012. Print.
Source: Purchased at the Texas Library Association conference, 2013.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


How my reading habits have changed in the past 5 years

February 3, 2015 Books 0

At this time 5 years ago, I was packing up and getting ready to move out of my hometown, where I’d lived my entire life up to that point. I’d finally earned my bachelor’s just a couple of months before and my husband landed a seemingly-good job in a city nearly 7 hours away. Everything was changing so fast.

At this point I think we had 2 bookshelves. There were a few books and even comics packed away in boxes or randomly strewn about the apartment, true, but most of what I read was actually re-read from our little baby book collection, or it came from the university library. I rarely tried anything new; it was a diet of old favorites, textbooks and academic journals, and mind-numbing magazines.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Just a few months later, my husband left his actually-not-good job, I’d found clerical work at a library, and I started on my MLIS (the graduate degree required for official librarianship). At this point it seemed like the only constant in our lives was the constant change.

By then, we’d acquired 3 more bookshelves. They were nowhere near full, of course, but I knew that they would be someday. Of course, working in a public library made finding new books to try laughably easy (not to mention cheap-as-free). I was a glutton for printed pages. Worse, my coworkers and friends were fellow addicts and terrible enablers.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Fast forward a couple of years. I’d walked the stage at my master’s ceremony in one of those robes with the funny little long pocket sleeves. My husband found a new job, and I did too. We started making new friends and we found interesting places to see and fun things to do in our new city (well, cities actually). So many big changes in such a short amount of time.

Our bookshelves were filling up. I’d started challenging myself to read X number of books per year, though some semesters had made those goals more difficult than others. There was 1 semester when I think I read maybe 1 or 2 books for pleasure all the way through; everything else was academic. It was a tiny slice of the most lenient circle of hell, but it was worth it, and I made it through. I also started paying more attention to what I was reading during this time, making the effort to write reviews or learn about the authors of my favorite titles.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Now, we’ve both moved up our respective career ladders a little bit and things seem like they might have actually steadied for a little while. My job is quite different from what I thought it would be when I was in school, quite different even from what it was when I started. But now that I think I’ve more or less figured out what I’m doing, that’s OK. It’s an actually-good job and I know I’m lucky. After the past few years I think I may always feel like there’s some unexpected change lurking over the horizon, but I can definitely appreciate that right now things are pretty good.

We’ve added 2 more bookshelves, 1 in my new sewing room and 1 in the living room, front and center for any visitor to see. I joined the Classics Club and a state library association book list committee, so those things (especially the committee!) have certainly affected what I’ve been reading recently and inevitably will continue to do so for the near future.

I’ve started reading more e-books. My mother gifted us a Nook Color a couple of years ago and we just recently obtained a small tablet that works well as an e-reader, too. And since I’m now more or less in charge of my library’s “electronic resources” (databases and e-book platforms, essentially), I am much more aware of exactly how much free digital reading material is out there waiting to be discovered. My TBR list has grown beyond all reason because of this.

But I’ve also become more critical. A crucial lesson that I’ve learned over the past few years is that some books just aren’t worth finishing. Being more judgmental has been freeing, in a way, because I don’t feel guilty giving up on a not-for-me title when I know that there are so many books out there that are worth spending time on. Thinking about books instead of just reading + forgetting them also makes me more comfortable sharing my opinion on what I’ve read with fellow bibliophiles, practicing readers’ advisory, and (as evidenced by their slowly increasing frequency on this blog and in the local newspaper) writing reviews.

 


This Is What You Just Put in Your Mouth?
by Patrick Di Justo

February 2, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

Happy book birthday! Talk about a mouthful – just take a look at that title!

DiJusto_TIWYJPIYM

★ ★ ★

This is what you just put in your mouth: From egg nog to beef jerky, the surprising secrets of what’s inside everyday products by Patrick Di Justo | February 2015 | Three Rivers Press, an imprint of Crown Publishing | Paperback $15.00

What do a cup of coffee and cockroach pheromone have in common? How is Fix-A-Flat like sugarless gum? Is a Slim Jim meat stick really alive? If I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter isn’t butter, what is it?

Based on his popular Wired magazine column “What’s Inside,” Patrick Di Justo takes a cold, hard, and incredibly funny look at the shocking, disgusting, and often dumbfounding ingredients found in everyday products, from Cool Whip and Tide Pods to Spam and Play-Doh. He also shares the madcap stories of his extensive research, including tracking down a reclusive condiment heir, partnering with a cop to get his hands on heroin, and getting tight-lipped snack-food execs to talk. Along the way, he schools us on product histories, label decoding, and the highfalutin chemistry concepts behind everything from Midol to Hostess fruit pies.

Though the supersized title doesn’t indicate it, this book is actually a collection of some of the most popular articles from the author’s “infotainment” Wired magazine column (What’s Inside). It isn’t really surprising that things like Kraft Easy Cheese and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter contain some weird-sounding ingredients (at least it shouldn’t be if you’ve been paying any attention at all to what you eat), but that gross factor is only part of the appeal of this book.

What I found more fascinating were the little asides about all the hoops the author had to jump through to get to the bottom of any particular product. As you’d expect, many companies were less than thrilled and subsequently tight-lipped when this investigator started asking complicated questions about what exactly they’re selling.

I was also pleased by the science-for-everyone feel of the articles. You don’t have to be a nutritionist to be able to understand the ingredients that Di Justo describes. There are also several science “highlights” (for lack of a better word) that dig a little deeper into particular aspects of a few of the products. Take, for example, this section on acid attached to the investigation of red wine:

Acid
One of the first things you learn about in grade school science class is that vinegar is an acid and it can make baking soda fizzle into foam. But what is an acid, really? [….] It all seems pretty complicated, but the bottom line is that an acid is a substance that can’t help but react with certain other substances. In many of our products, acids provide a tangy our sour taste – that is the effect of hydrogen ions on the taste buds.

Even though the title seems to indicate that the entire book is devoted to foodstuffs (“This is what you just put in your mouth…”), in actuality only about half the book concentrates on edible products. Part 2 is actually titled This is what you don’t put in your mouth, which I guess is a pretty straightforward way of telling you what sorts of products you’ll read about in the 2nd half of the book. This section covers things like Axe deodorant, Downy fabric softener, and Noxzema.

Now THIS is the section I found fascinating, possibly because I’ve done far too much reading about food science already and I’m difficult to surprise in that subject. But, just for example, did you know … ?

  • Antiperspirants include slightly flammable ingredients
  • Fabric softener is made from rendered cattle, sheep, or horse fats
  • Noxzema contains pig-derived gelatin, making it haram

Yes, I mostly liked this book. However, I do think that the format (short, often snarky summaries of stuff on ingredient lists) really works better for the online articles than for the full book. The extra behind-the-scenes info is kinda cool, but it does not do much to tie the whole thing together in a cohesive package.

More importantly: where are the sources? Bibliography, footnotes, anything? Sorry, but I find it hard to take a science-focused nonfiction work seriously if it does not even include some minimal form of source citations.

I do wish it had been made more clear at the outset that the book includes quite a lot of non-food info. Well, I was reading an e-ARC, so perhaps the cover copy on the final printing will mention something like that. I also think that this is not a book for someone who tends to panic over “chemicals” in whatever they’re eating or cleaning with or whatever.

Gift it to your friend who is fascinated by household chemistry, but keep it away from the friend who always equates natural with healthy. And above all, don’t take it too seriously.


Links:


Publication information: Di Justo, Patrick. This Is What You Just Put in Your Mouth: From Egg Nog to Beef Jerky, the Surprising Secrets of What’s Inside Everyday Products. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2015. EPUB file.
Source: This review is based on an e-galley provided by the publisher through NetGalley.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Freeman
by Leonard Pitts, Jr.

February 1, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

Pitts_Freeman

★★★★

Freeman by Leonard Pitts, Jr. | May 2012 | Agate Bolden | Paperback $16.00

Freeman, the new novel by Leonard Pitts, Jr., takes place in the first few months following the Confederate surrender and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Upon learning of Lee’s surrender, Sam — a runaway slave who once worked for the Union Army — decides to leave his safe haven in Philadelphia and set out on foot to return to the war-torn South. What compels him on this almost-suicidal course is the desire to find his wife, the mother of his only child, whom he and their son left behind 15 years earlier on the Mississippi farm to which they all “belonged”.

Freeman is an historical fiction novel, though a great many aspects of its settings and the events in the characters’ lives are not nearly as fictional as I’d wish them to be. The story follows 3 people — a free black man, his still-enslaved wife, and an idealistic Yankee schoolmarm — immediately following the conclusion of the American Civil War.

I actually read this book for Galveston Reads, a yearly community-wide “book club” sort of program organized by the local public library. They give out a limited number of free copies to anyone who wants to join, and they have a series of book-related events over the year. Freeman was specially chosen this year to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth (the official announcement of emancipation in Texas following the Civil War on June 19th).

This is an intense, highly emotional story. And how can it not be? The subject matter is incredibly difficult and the events leading up to, during, and after the Civil War had a huge – huge, huge, huge – impact on our country. Of course most Americans are aware of this, but if you’re outside the U.S. you may not know that some parts of our nation are still struggling with the effects of slavery and the war that ended it.

It’s a complex story, too, and I really appreciated the way that the author handled the white Southerners’ reactions and motivations. It makes me uncomfortable to admit this, but it necessarily affects the way I read this book and others like it: I am a product of Southern white privilege and all the unfortunate history that goes along with that. The residents of the town that refused to consider the needs of the former slaves in their midst could have been my ancestors. The violence done toward people who only hoped to attain basic human dignity is terrifying to the point of being unimaginable – but it doesn’t matter if it is hard to imagine, because it happened whether or not we’re comfortable with that truth.

I won’t go into too much detail about the plot, except to warn sensitive readers that there really are some disturbing occurrences, including rape, physical and psychological abuse, and murder. Pitts doesn’t sugar coat a thing. But for all that, the story is ultimately a hopeful one. Despite everything and everyone standing in their way, the 3 main characters do their damndest to pursue their goals.

Freeman is not without problems, of course. It starts slow. Occasionally the POV shifted within sections, so that in one paragraph we’d be getting a scene from Prudence’s eyes but in the next we’d be learning how Bonnie felt about the situation. It was a little distracting. I was also a little irritated by the way the “educated” characters wouldn’t use contractions at all. I understand that this was a stylistic choice to provide a contrast between the way they spoke and the way uneducated or poor people (black and white) spoke, but it made some bits of dialogue sound stilted and unrealistic.

Overall, I’m glad I got a chance to read this and to hear the author speak at a local event.


Links:


Publication information: Pitts, Jr., Leonard. Freeman. Chicago: Agate Bolden, 2012. Print.
Source: Public library.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


A Darker Shade of Magic
by V.E. Schwab

January 31, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

Schwab_ADSOM

★★★★★

A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab | February 2015 | Tor | Hardcover $25.99

Here’s a quick summary of the book from the publisher, via Edelweiss (where I was delighted to obtain an e-ARC):

Kell is one of the last Travelers — magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel universes — as such, he can choose where he lands.

There’s Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, with one mad king — George III. Red London, where life and magic are revered — and where Kell was raised alongside Rhys Maresh, the rougish heir to the throne. White London — a place where people fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London… but no one speaks of that now. Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler, ambassador of the Maresh empire, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, he’s a smuggler, a dangerous, defiant hobby to have — as proven when Kell stumbles into a setup with a forbidden token from Black London.

Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations, who first robs him, then saves him from a dangerous enemy, and then forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure. But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they’ll first need to stay alive.

Parallel universes. An interesting magic system. And a cross-dressing aspiring pirate.

What’s not to love?

This is actually the first Victoria Schwab book I’ve read. She’s written several YA/MG books, but this is her second adult novel published under the “V.E.” semi-pseudonym. (Is a semi-pseudonym even a thing? Well, it is now.) I moved it up to the top of my virtual to-read pile after seeing Nikki of There Were Books Involved and Angie of Disquietus Reads rave about it all over Twitter.

Here are a few things that I really liked about A Darker Shade of Magic. . . .

The world building is fantastic. I don’t mean just the concept of parallel universes layered over one another and traversable at certain magical places, which makes for fun fantasy but has been done in a great many variations (I got some major Through the Looking Glass vibes at one point, but that may have just been a side effect of staying up until 2:00 AM reading). I’m talking about the “flavors” of the different Londons, the way they aren’t just described in a stage-setting way but seem to come alive in discovery for the reader over the course of the book.

Death is death. Or is it? What I mean by this is that, yes, some characters will die. And not just the bad guys, either, I’m talking about characters that I was rooting for and maybe got a little attached to, though I hesitate to say too much for fear of spoiling the story. So the reader gets the sense that death is a very real danger to the main characters, that not everyone is guaranteed to make it out of the plotline alive. There are 2 major exceptions: a character who sort of dies but who is definitely alive by the end of the book, and a character who is sort of dies but who is maybe alive at the end of the book and who could maybe come back to haunt us later on. And that’s as much as I can say without spoiling everything!

The balance of humorous banter, thrilling action, and angsty introspection is superb. The whole thing was just so dang clever. I wasn’t bored for a single minute while reading, which often happens when an otherwise good story is heavy on just one of those things.

Interesting, intimidating villains are always delightful. And the thing is, there’s not just one “bad guy” in A Darker Shade of Magic. I mean, sure, there’s a primary set of antagonists, though it is notable that their identities and motivations aren’t 100% obvious to our protagonists right from the start. There’s one villain in particular who is particularly complicated, even sympathy-inducing to a point, and yet still rather terrifying and dangerous.

The reader is left to figure some things out for his/herself. I want SO BADLY to talk about my suspicions for what’s going to happen in the next book in this series (and I want it nowwwww) but I also really, really don’t want to spoil it for anyone! In any case, I do very much like it when authors drop hints about things but don’t resolve all the problems or questions at the end of the book, tied up in a nice neat package. Leaving a little room for the reader’s imagination is nice.

Also, Kell’s coat is fantastic. Here’s the opening lines, which just happen to feature it:

Kell wore a very peculiar coat.
It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.

This book comes on in late February, so if you’re interested, NOW is the time to place that pre-order or purchase request at the library!


Links:


Publication information: Schwab, Victoria. A Darker Shade of Magic. New York: Tor, 2015. EPUB file.
Source: Provided by publisher via Edelweiss.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


We Are Pirates
by Daniel Handler

January 18, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

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★★

We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler | February 2015 | Bloomsbury | $26.00

A boat has gone missing. Goods have been stolen. There is blood in the water. It is the twenty-first century and a crew of pirates is terrorizing the San Francisco Bay.

Phil is a husband, a father, a struggling radio producer, and the owner of a large condo with a view of the water. But he’d like to be a rebel and a fortune hunter.

Gwen is his daughter. She’s fourteen. She’s a student, a swimmer, and a best friend. But she’d like to be an adventurer and an outlaw.

Phil teams up with his young, attractive assistant. They head for the open road, attending a conference to seal a deal.

Gwen teams up with a new, fierce friend and some restless souls. They head for the open sea, stealing a boat to hunt for treasure.

I really struggled to get through this one — and, in fact, didn’t. Finish it, I mean. The only reason I even tried to finish it is because it is only 280-something pages. But… nope.

Here’s the thing: I’ve seen a few negative reviews that compare the author’s Lemony Snicket works to this one. But how can that be fair? Those are fantastical books for kids. This is realistic fiction for adults. Apples and oranges. I’m starting to understand why J.K. Rowling chose to publish her grown-up books under pen names. People can’t help but judge what someone has written in comparison to their previous works, no matter how silly the comparison is.

I bring this up because I haven’t read the Lemony Snicket books. I have nothing to compare the author’s latest offering to. And I still didn’t like it.

A big, big part of what made me put We Are Pirates down, never to be picked up again, is the writing style. We’re talking lots of short, chopped up sentences within rambling stream-of-consciousness-y paragraphs. I have never particularly loved this style of writing.

Here’s a sample (and yes, it really is all in one big paragraph like this):

Phil Needle looked out to sea but was distracted by his own face in a photograph sitting on top of the piano, among the ones of his ravenous wife and the little thief they’d conceived. He could not hear if Gwen was still crying down the hall. “She seems isolated,” he said finally, and got up without his cupcake or his wife. He walked through the kitchen and passed the office and the room where Marina did her painting and paused for a moment at the door to the bathroom. He walked very quietly on the carpet, but he could not hear anything when he got there. He could open the door, or knock on it, and in the small room try to hug her and make her feel better. She would be crying into those dumb towels. He could tuck her hair, again, behind her ears. But he had to decide on a punishment. She would be punished, and, or, also, maybe she hated him. So Phil Needle walked away and stood for a minute in the office doorway looking at the projection of the fake tree rattling against the fake window and the desk with the last of the invitations. On the other side of the wall, Gwen was still furious, with furious words on her hands, although of course Phil Needle did not know, and could not have known, the terrors on the horizon, the bloodshed and the ravaged citizens. And yet at that moment he might not have been surprised. He felt unready. He had raced home to face the alarums of trouble, stopping only for cupcakes, and then had not been able to make himself useful. He’d said nothing. He’d ruined his wife’s diet. He […]

I don’t know… if that quote looks appealing to you, maybe you’ll enjoy this book?

I was also pretty regularly confused. Wait, who is our POV character right now? What is going on? What is the meaning of all this?!?! This is probably a failure of attention on my own part, but there you have it. The book was just not holding my attention.

Add to this the extremely self-centered, boring, petty characters and you have a recipe for a bad book. I’m not whining about how the characters are “unlikable” — I mean, yeah, they are, but that’s not the point. The point is that they aren’t actually interesting.

Going with 2 stars instead of 1 because (a) despite my being bored by the characters, Handler really works hard to make the reader feel immersed in realistic, believable people’s brains and (b) that 1 star thing is usually reserved for books I outright dislike, and I’m merely disappointed in this one.

It’s really too bad, because I had very much been looking forward to reading this! The book was favorably reviewed in trade pubs (Kirkus calls it “affecting, lively, and expertly told” and the PW review actually uses the word “jaunty”). I loved the concept and the cover art and Daniel Handler has a pretty good reputation.

Maybe the exception to that good reputation is his distasteful joke at the expense of National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson this past December. I mean, Handler is obviously well-liked enough to have been invited to help host the event, but he definitely put his foot in his mouth and soured the occasion. I do think he apologized magnificently, though, with his massive donation to We Need Diverse Books, a group that supports writers of color and books featuring characters of color (and similarly underrepresented groups).

So in an effort to end this negative review on a positive note, I want to point y’all in the direction of We Need Diverse Books!

weneeddiversebooks

Links:


Publication information: Handler, Daniel. We Are Pirates. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. EPUB file.
Source: Provided by publisher via NetGalley.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


All the Bright Places
by Jennifer Niven

January 5, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

This review is based on an ARC provided as part of a giveaway package, but the book itself is officially released tomorrow!

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Normally this is the space where a star rating would go. But… not for this book.

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven | January 2015 | Knopf Books for Young Readers | Hardcover $17.99

Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him.

Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death.

When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries: It’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself — a weird, funny, live-out-loud guy who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink.

I actually finished this book before Christmas, but I’ve struggled with writing a review for it. In the end, I decided the most honest action would be to briefly explain why I’m not comfortable assigning a star rating, even just casually on Goodreads.

I finished All the Bright Places in one day. The characters read as real teens — and by that I don’t just mean that they act in a realistically teenager-y way, but but that they generally (though not always) come across as complicated people with actual personalities. The relationships that develop between the characters (and not just the romantic relationship between the primary characters but the friendships and animosities between the other characters, too) are similarly real-ish. The manifestations of grief / mental illness are raw and subtle and carefully handled and unapologetically real. There’s that word again: real….

So why no rating?

It was too real for me.

I won’t go into too much personal detail about why, but if this book came with “trigger warnings” they would look something like this….

Trigger warnings: bipolar disorder, depression, child abuse, suicide, car wrecks

No, I don’t advocate for trigger warnings on books. I think that’s what the jacket copy and online or print book reviews are for, to give you a good idea as to the content of the book. And yes, I read the summaries and had a pretty good idea of what I’d be reading. I guess I just didn’t expect that it would actually hurt so much to read.

So if you’re the same, if these topics are close to home, even if you can normally read about them in a sort of detached way, heed my warning.

And when I say that it hurt to read, I don’t mean in a good way, like the sort of book that you read with a box of tissues nearby so you can have a good cathartic cry after. This book made me angry.

Even now, a couple of weeks later, when I think of inevitable conclusion (or lack of one, or too much of one), I only want to rip my copy in half. I only want to shred into tiny pieces, like the characters in the book do with the words that hurt them.


Links:


Publication information: Niven, Jennifer. All the Bright Places. New York: Knopf, 2015. Print.
Source: Part of a “Season’s Readings” giveaway by author Lisa Schroeder.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.