Thursday, December 3, 2015

BOHEMIAN GOSPEL by Dana Chamblee Carpenter (✮✮✮✮✮)

This has not been a year of strong novels for me, so I was thrilled to unearth this gem of a debut by American writer Dana Chamblee Carpenter in, of all places, a BBC Books email. My initial response to the promotional materials was lukewarm, and the jacket copy does very little to give the reader a true sense of the writing (in all honesty, it gives off vibes of an overwrought YA novel). I highly recommend readers base their decision as to whether or not to read this novel off from reviews.

It is difficult to classify this book: is it historical fiction? Fantasy? Magical Realism? In that lack of secure genre identity, readers finds themselves immersed in a book that suspends them somewhere between them all. The position was, for me, a rather uncomfortable one. At first flush, the plot is definitely a work of historical fiction, set during the High Middle Ages in Bohemia (roughly Czechoslovakia today). However, the more the main character, a teen-age girl with the rather unassuming name of Mouse, is revealed, the more the reader comes to recognize that there is far more to her—and the world she lives in—than meets the eye.

Mouse is a person of indeterminate ancestry, which is pivotal to the plot, and the secret of which is unfolded in a wonderfully skillful manner as the novel progresses. On the surface, she is a convent orphan who catches the eye of a king through her gift of the knowledge of healing, leading to a foray into another lifestyle entirely. You can see from that seemingly unoriginal plot line where the cringe-worthy YA comparison might come from, but what sets Ms. Carpenter’s novel on a higher plain—this is most definitely not YA material—is where she takes her character, how events change Mouse, and in the end, the shattering truths that are revealed and how Mouse reacts to the knowledge. From there the reader careens through to the stunning conclusion, crafted with one twist after another.

Perhaps what amazed me the most about the novel was that despite how fantastical the novel was at times, I never once felt like it went beyond the boundaries of belief. And believe me, it gets right out there. In general, I am not a fan of magical realism, but Mouse was so confidently rendered that her powers and her path felt completely authentic, wholly believable. I came to this book as a reader of historical fiction and emerged having been steeped in so much more.

Even if you are not a fan of fantasy or magical realism, I would recommend this one to readers who love well-researched historical fiction. Readers are completely immersed in the time period, and as an example of the genre, it is excellent. If you are a lover of magical realism, you will find in the novel a wonderfully original setting and unique usage of magical realism to propel the plot forward. Lovers of fantasy, especially those who love fantasy with a Middle Ages feel, will feel right at home in this novel. The novel can be dark at times, with themes that are definitely for adult readers.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

SUMMER OF FIRE by Kitty Pilgrim (✮✮✮)

I was a bit surprised by how highly this book was reviewed, as I just couldn’t get on board with everyone’s excitement. Part of my issue could be that the book is part of a series of books featuring as characters the oceanographer Cordelia Stapleton and the archaeologist John Sinclair. While the novel is self-contained, with the plot not being at all dependent upon that of earlier books in the series, I did feel as if I were stepping into a number of relationships that might have felt better fleshed out had I begun with the first book, The Explorer’s Code.

That admission made, I still didn’t enjoy the characters themselves as much as I thought I should. Often, they felt very cliched: brainiac couple (check), misguided teen (check), adventurous photographer (check), glamour girl (check). It almost felt like the author was trying to cover too many character traits; you would just be so unlikely to find within one close-knit group of people the kinds of disparate characters and relationships that she draws.

Plot lines were another place where credibility was stretched to the snapping point for me. Too many things just tiptoed along the ridge of tumbling over. On the positive side, I did feel that all strands of the plot were resolved by the novel’s end.

What salvaged the book for me was the obvious knowledge that the author has regarding the science of her subject, in this case volcanoes. Not only does she possess the knowledge, but she weaves it deftly through the story, giving a large amount of information without ever making the reader feel as if they are being lectured by one of the novel’s characters.

There is a bit of everything in this novel, which, while it seemed a bit over the top for me, is probably why a variety readers enjoy it—everyone is likely to find at least one aspect of the book they can get on board with—there is romance, some suspense, volcanoes, and convoluted relationships. I would recommend this novel for readers interested in a light, fun, beach-type read.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

THE MIDDLE OF SOMEWHERE by Sonja Yoerg (✮✮✮✮)

Publication date: 1 September, 2015
My thanks to Penguin-Signet for a review galley

Initially, I was very leery of this novel, which centers around a woman with emotional issues embarking upon a major hike, hoping that the journey will give her the physical space from her life and the headspace to contemplate where her life has gone awry. If you have followed my reviews, you know that I absolutely hated Cheryl Strayed’s similar nonfiction memoir, Wild (link to my review HERE). Because of my experience with that book, I thought more than twice about picking this one up.

I am so glad that I wasn’t swayed and agreed to review a galley of this one for Penguin-Signet. While the bones of the story are similar to Strayed’s, that is where the similarities end. Since a good portion of the people who read Ms. Yoerg’s novel will likely have read Ms. Strayed’s memoir, I will use it as a comparison so you can decide if this one is for you based on how I felt about the memoir.

First off, Cheryl Strayed was a complete novice hiker who had absolutely no business heading out alone on a through hike. Her ineptitude caused her to put others in danger, and that is just irresponsible ignorance. Since she felt no connection to nature, the trail as a stunning setting was absent in her book. By contrast, Ms. Yoerg’s main character, Liz, knew what she was getting into and there is a good deal of hiking info and parlance to which even the most casual hiker will be able to relate. As a foil, her boyfriend, Dante, a novice hiker, tags along for the ride, allowing the reader to watch him develop along the trail and see Liz’s strengths shine. Liz clearly loves the natural world (for the most part) and the trail itself is as alive as any of the characters.

By giving Liz one aversion to a natural element, Ms. Yoerg is able to create a woman-versus-nature tension that she successfully plays off from the other major source of tension in the novel, that of a mysterious and ominous pair of brothers who are dogging Liz and Dante’s journey. Wild completely lacked any kind of worthwhile tension, and it significantly weakened the story line. As the novel progresses, so does the level of suspense, pulling the reader through the tightly edited conclusion of their trek.

Both Liz and Cheryl have emotional issues that they are trying to work through. I could never connect to Cheryl as a reader because I disliked her so intensely. Many of her problems were brought on herself through her own choices and she never seemed to learn from them. I found her whiney and immoral. Liz’s issues were no less opposed to my own moral standards, yet I felt sympathy for both her and Dante given that two very different sides of the issue were expressed with equal sensitivity.

This novel is a satisfying blend of hiking tale, emotional journey, and thriller. The only reason that I did not give it five stars is because I felt that the author came right out and told the reader at the very beginning of the novel what Liz’s issues were. This robbed the novel of a lot of emotional tension, an element that I think would have woven nicely with the tension lent to the story by the trail itself, Liz’s one fear of the outdoors, and the sinister brothers.

I do not at all think that you need to be a hiker to enjoy this novel. The world of the trail is well detailed and gives the reader everything they need to know to follow the plot and feel engaged. If you like thrillers with a straightforward story arc, literary fiction, and travel writing, you will likely find this an enjoyable read.

REBEL QUEEN by Michelle Moran (✮✮✮✮)

The hunt for the Moran book that tops Madame Tussaud is still on, but I definitely enjoyed this one way more than her last effort, Second Empress.

Those who follow my reviews know that as far as I am concerned you can write your historical fiction as far out on the historical accuracy plain as you please.  Just give a solid author’s note at the end letting we the readers know where you deviated from fact.  This novel, which occurs in the court of Queen Lakshmi during India’s British colonial era of the mid-nineteenth century, does not cover a person or time period that I am at all familiar with, so as I read, I was reading purely for entertainment.  However, as is my usual MO, after reading I did some research and found that the bones of this novel are far more based in fact than those of Second Empress, which I panned for a number of reasons, among them the inaccuracies that were presented as fact.

This is a novel full of powerful women, women strong in spirit, body and determination.  However, similar to The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak, a novel marketed as being about Catherine the Great, Rebel Queen is somewhat falsely advertised.  Like Stachniak, Moran chooses to center her novel around a member of the more famous character’s retinue, and the queen becomes very much a background character.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it is through the background of Sita, a girl driven to become a member of Lakshmi’s famed all female guard, that the reader truly gains an appreciation of what attaining the position could mean.  My irritation is that I am tired of reading, and reading, and reading, waiting for the genuine historical figure, about whom the story is purported to be written, to step up into the spotlight.  Since very few people have ever heard of Lakshmi, I felt the artifice on the part of the marketing department was unnecessary.  The story of her guard is equally compelling, and I felt the book could have been marketed on Sita’s merits, notwithstanding those of Lakshmi.

Once you accept the fact that Lakshmi is not going to take over as the central character and you begin to embrace Sita as your leading lady, the novel becomes a wonderfully engaging story.  It has been awhile since I read a story that sucked me in from the outset and had me flipping pages to see where the plot was leading.  Although you know from the beginning that Sita will win a rare and coveted spot in Lakshmi’s guard, Moran keeps the journey from village girl to court pebbled with enough deviations to keep the reader interested. Her characterizations are colorful and diverse, and she gives the reader a satisfying sense of place.

The only thing that kept this from being a four and a half, or maybe even a five, star read was the fact that the marketing had me seeking a plot arc that did not exist and left me feeling a bit frustrated.  Go into this one knowing who the central heroine is, and you should have a great reading experience.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

WIDE-OPEN WORLD by John Marshall (✮✮✮✮⭐︎)

There are a number of memoirs available written by people who take the trip of a lifetime and then share their stories.  What sets John Marshall’s account aside is first and foremost that he is not a young, single person taking a gap year, and second, his writing is a wonderfully deft, often humorous, dance amongst joy and sorrow.  Not only is John not young and single, but he took along on his journey his wife and their two teenage children.  To anyone who is also a parent, that adds an additional allure to this memoir.  Their choice as a family was to unplug and detach, to spend six months in places with little or no internet, phone service, or even running water and electricity.  The original mantra that kept running through John’s head was “year of service”, and his wife, Traca, and the kids were more than happy to buy into the idea, which they modified to six months to better accommodate the kids’ desire to return to Maine in time to start school in the fall.

Marshall and his wife had often thought of extended travel, but it just never seemed to be the right time to pack up their lives and launch.  Eventually, they came to the realization that the time is never “right” and that if they were going to ever go they would need to just take off.  They packed up their son, Logan, aged seventeen, and their daughter, Jackson, who was fourteen and headed for Costa Rica’s Osa Wildlife Refuge, where they worked with monkeys.  Other stops along the way included organic farming in New Zealand, teaching English in a village school in Thailand, exploring yoga and buddhism and helping orphans in India, and finally, a visit to a small village in Portugal where the family had spent a year when the children were pre-schoolers.

As great as their international travel experience was, John infuses his story with many additional elements.  Beyond the growth that they all were blessed with through serving in various capacities, John tells a story of marriage, family, and self-discovery.  What saves this book from becoming a pedestrian life story is the depth of insight John is willing to honestly portray and his gift for seeing (and being able to smoothly shape into a narrative) the humor in all things.  He successfully tread the fine line between sharing an candid and relatable tale and maintaining respect for his wife’s and children’s privacy.

If, when I receive a galley of a book from a publisher, as I did with this one, and I get my review out after the publication date, I like to address some of the criticisms from other early reviewers.  Several reviewers mentioned that they felt that although the book is marketed as a family’s story, it was really John’s.  Of course it is John’s memoir.  He is the author, and the book is told from his viewpoint.  I felt he did an excellent job sharing insights and experiences that were related to him or experienced together with the other family members.  The reader also has the opportunity to see, through John’s musings, the persona of each person at the outset of the trip and how they changed as they worked their way from place to place.  Another complaint is that the daughter, Jackson, is portrayed rather unsympathetically as a self-centered teen.  I didn’t see that at all.  Jackson was, I felt, at the outset, a fairly typical representation of an American girl of her generation.  I loved her part in the story because I felt that she grew the most of any family member; John gives the impression that he thought so too.

At the conclusion of his memoir, John gives a very brief sketch of what happened with all of them in the years after they returned home to Maine.  He also lays out a brief summary of how their family, on a working class income, was able to finance the trip and gives some advice about finding reputable service vacation opportunities online.

I absolutely recommend this book for any armchair traveler or those thinking that they might like to take their family on a similar service oriented vacation.  The only reason this book came up half a star short of perfect for me was that I would have liked tighter editing—it was a tad lengthy.  John has a great website at johnmarshall.comwhich I highly recommend checking out after you read the book—lots of great pictures!  However, I do recommend not logging on before finishing, as it will spoil the memoir’s ending.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

THE DOCTORS' PLAGUE by Sherwin Nuland ✮✮✮⭐︎

One of the great truths of science is that in seeking the answer to one question, the greatest discoveries are often made.  It is of such a quest that Sherwin B. Nuland seeks to enlighten his reader in his nonfiction work, The Doctors' Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignác Semmelweis.  Nuland writes with passionate enthusiasm about the history of childbed fever and Ignác Semmelweis, the discoverer of its cause, a man all but lost in the annuls of history.  In helping the reader to understand Semmelweis and the importance of his discovery, the author outlines the history of the illness that sparked his single-minded quest for answers and introduces many important medical and political figures of the time.  Informing about the clinical aspects takes precedence, but along the way readers learn a fair amount about the medical culture of the primary setting of the book: Vienna, in the middle of the nineteenth century.
After a lovely narrative telling the tale of a young, pregnant woman dying of childbed fever after the hospital delivery of her child, a fairly comprehensive recitation of the history of childbed fever is given.  Covered are the many people who attempted to dig their way to the root of the devastating illness whose eradication is the central theme of the book.  This information is given in a couple of chapters—one about the earliest postulations and another setting the scene for the medical community which Semmelweis would soon join.  
Finally, the author begins telling the story of Ignás Semmelweis, a young physician, who chose obstetrics after unsuccessfully attempting entrance to more respected fellowships, because he knew he would not face rejection again.  It might be said that fate led Semmelweis, who originally aspired to the practice of law, to the Allgemeine Krankenhaus and thrust his agile, inquisitive mind towards solving a problem that had bedeviled midwives, physicians, and their patients for more than 2,200 years.  It was Ignás Semmelweis who finally drew the first lasting connection between the importance of hand-washing in halting the spread of infection, including that which caused childbed fever, from patient to patient.

What makes Semmelweis’s story so engaging is not only the fact that he solved a medical mystery that had an import stretching beyond hospital delivery rooms.  His story shows the importance of two practices long viewed as necessary in ensuring that discoveries of scientific import are acknowledged as credible: establishing laboratory experiments that can be replicated by others in the field and publishing written accounts of all findings.

Sherwin Nuland does an excellent job highlighting Semmelweis’s resistance to laboratory experiments, which the doctor deemed unnecessary; he felt the recorded drops in mortality rates of childbed fever in hospitals which instituted mandatory hand-washing spoke for themselves.   Another area the author spends even more time discussing is the effect of Semmelweis’s failure to write about his findings.  Semmelweis was very fortunate that he had friends who were well respected within the medical community and wrote on his behalf.  Their enthusiasm for his discovery, however, hurt Semmelweis in the end, because they didn’t adequately cover all 
aspects of his research and a critical detail was neglected.  The other doctors claimed that Semmelweis had found that infection was spread when doctors went into the delivery room, without adequate hand sanitizing, after dissecting corpses of those who died of childbed fever.  They neglected to mention that Semmelweis also discovered that infection transferred from other sources, such as an infected knee and cancerous pus from an infected breast.  This omission caused doctors at hospitals that did not practice autopsies to discount Semmelweis’s theory; since they did not deal with cadavers, their cases of childbed fever could not be attributed to the only cause that Semmelweis apparently espoused.  

While the author writes in a convincing and vivid fashion about the main themes in the book, the book does have a couple of definite weaknesses.  Foremost of them is that the book is in desperate need of a more definitive timeline.  For the vast majority of the book the reader is bounced literally from Before the Common Era into the mid-nineteenth century and back and forth to various times in between.  This structure makes following the process of discovery very challenging.  The second issue that makes the book more challenging than it likely needs to be is that in a couple of chapters right at the beginning of the book the reader is subjected to a very dry, arduous recitation of names, dates, and theories.  The information is necessary to the story but would have gained a more attentive audience if woven in a more anecdotal fashion into the flow of the narrative.

Overall, I definitely feel that the book’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses.  Nuland creates a convincing argument for Semmelweis’s place in history—in the beginning he is a bit too enamored of his protagonist, but he does come round to an honest assessment of his subject in the end, making his opinions seem well-reasoned and valid.  A complete, if disorganized, history of childbed fever is presented in such a way that the book will appeal beyond the reader of medical chronicles.  General history and politics, social issues, women’s studies, and even the psychological make-up of Semmelweis are all interwoven into the narrative, making for a story with broad appeal.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

MAMA KOKO AND THE HUNDRED GUNMEN by Lisa J. Shannon (✮✮✮✮⭐︎)

Currently, I am doing a multiple year reading challenge through most of the African nonfiction on my TBR, with the addition of a few novels.  Based on the advice of a friend who also enjoys reading nonfiction about The Dark Continent, one of the first books to go on my challenge list was Lisa Shannon’s The Thousand Sisters.  Since my Congo books were slated for next year, I had yet to experience her writing; however, when I was offered a review copy of this, her newest book, I jumped on it.

Lisa had the opportunity to travel to the home village of a friend, a Congo born woman married to an American who served in the Peace Corps in her village.  Francesca’s family’s region had recently become embroiled in the tragic despotic conflict that has been spreading across the borders of several neighboring countries.  Lisa convinced her that they should travel to the area together, with Francesca acting as translator and guide, in order for Lisa to document and then share with the west the continued abuses and trials suffered by the people of the region.

Lisa Shannon is a well-known activist for the women of Congo and has devoted her life to raising awareness of their plight.  As such, I expected an insightful look at the hardships experienced by her subjects, but I was completely unprepared for what an outstanding narrative writer she is.  She brings Congo to sweat-soaked, dust-laden reality.  Its people come vividly to life as she shares their humor under duress, their love for each other, and their despair over the calamity that has descended on their once bucolic corner of Africa.

Mama Koko is primarily the story of Francesca’s family (Mama Koko is her mother) and their reminiscences.  Lisa relates first person interviews, observes the situation at the time of her visit, and shares her insight.  In addition, Lisa is unflinching in her analysis of her own motivations and emotions.  There is an appendix at the end of the book where a brief but very informative history of the descent of Congo into chaos is detailed.  Lisa states that she wanted the focus of the book to be on the family and their experiences, but as someone unfamiliar with the genesis and progression of the conflict, I appreciated her synopsis.

At the conclusion of the book, Lisa gives a list of organizations that aid victims of violence in Congo and encourages readers to learn more about their critical efforts.  There is also a listing of all the people mentioned in the book and a distinguishing characteristic.  My guess is that list will be moved to the front of the final publication, but if not, be aware that it is in the back and rather useful while you read, as there is a large cast of players in the narrative.  Although they were not included in my galley, it looked as though there are going to be a significant number of maps in the finished product, which has been available for purchase since 3 February.

Chronology was the sole reason that this book did not garner five stars from me—I gave it a solid four and a half in places that allow halves.  Lisa gives a linear narration of her interviews in the order she conducted them, along with her own experiences, as opposed to the order in which the events being recounted happened.  At times, I lost my grasp of how the many occurrences slotted together.

That single gripe aside (and truly, it in no way affected the impact of the story Lisa was trying to tell), I would recommend this book to anyone who seeks to better understand the non-combatant viewpoint of a region in violent crisis.  This story is not told as a journalist might report the conflict.  It is the chronicle of one motivated, compassionate woman driven to share the anguish of families caught in the cross-fire of a tumultuous battle which came unbidden to their doorstep and which they have never embraced as their own.  This is a book aimed at encouraging each of us to engage, both on an emotional and a hands-on level, in one of the great tragedies of our time.  

Friday, January 23, 2015

☊ An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro (✮✮✮✮)

What a lovely little novel!  This tale of Japan, set just after the Second World War and with flashbacks to the pre-war period, gives its reader a peek into the culture of the time and carries a message relevant to the plot of the book and even modern lives.

The story follows Ono, an artist of some repute, and slowly unfolds a tale of how the past bleeds into the present and can have far-reaching effects on those we love.  Centered around the marriage negotiations for his daughter, which brings the reader quite nicely into the sphere of Japanese culture at the time, the novel has a much deeper theme.  In a subtle unfolding of choices made and how they are perceived by Ono and others, and thus reaching forward through time to affect the characters, the reader glimpses life in post-warJapan.  However, the message is such that it is one easily grasped by and relevant to a modern, western reader.

Narrated by David Case, this brief audio clocks in at a mere six and a half hours.  While I would not call the narration outstanding, Case does a creditable job of voicing each of the characters distinctly.  I would probably recommend reading this one in print, as there were several parts where I backed up the audio in order to hear again passages which I found especially engaging.

If you are a reader who enjoys a gradually unfolding plot and a message that takes an infinitesimal turn just as you think you have grasped the heart of the moral, this tale, gentle on the surface but roiling beneath, will give you a contemplative few hours.

☊ A SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR by Mark Helprin (✮✮✮✮)

Certainly, this tome by Helprin is not for the faint of heart: the book is just shy of eight hundred pages and the audio clocks in at thirty-one hours.  Until the end of the book, I was not thinking it would earn more than three stars from me.  In the end, I had to acknowledge that despite its weaknesses, the book deserved more regard.

Helprin gives as our narrator a man in his seventies, who, having missed a bus, ends up taking a walk of some great distance through the countryside with a young man.  Along the way he shares wisdom, philosophical musings, and the biggest story of his life.  

Loving as I do great characterization, I couldn’t help but fall in love with Alessandro Giuliani and all the people from his very full life that his narration brought alive.  In light of his conversations, we come to know what life was like in Italy before, during, and after the First World War.  We learn how people thought, what they dreamed of, and what their struggles were.  Helprin’s marvelous gifts of description and depth of thought shine through Alessandro as the teller of his tale. 

However, at times the descriptive language goes, in my opinion, a bit overboard.  The author writes very expressively and has command of the subtle use of metaphor.  Unfortunately, he is also far too fond of similies, and they often jump glaringly out of the prose.  That is not to say that all of them are over-written (although I still groan at the description of a lady’s chin being likened to an opera house balcony—seriously?); some are lovely and apt, but the bad outweigh the good and there are just far too many.

The timeline of the book is crisp, and the format of beginning and ending the book when Alessandro and the young man are on the road walking makes for a smooth narrative.  Unfortunately, not all the intermediary transitions were as easy.  For instance, at one point Alessandro is seemingly at death’s door from a fever, and then, rather jarringly, he is suddenly in a museum admiring a painting.  At first I thought he must be in a fever induced delirium and flashing back, but no, the narrative really did make that leap.

I would be absolutely remiss if I did not give a lot of the credit for how much I enjoyed this novel to the outstanding narration of David Colacci.  His reading infused every character with distinct personality, respected the author’s intent, and effectively carried me through both the active and more passive parts of the novel.

Weighing the good and the bad, I debated between three and a half and four stars and finally decided that the general fluidity of the writing and how arresting and contemplative it was deserved the higher rating.  While parts of the plot sped along, others dragged quite mightily, and to enjoy this novel you must be a reader of patience who enjoys a lot of introspection and observation in between the action.

Monday, January 5, 2015

☊ THE SUPREMES AT EARL'S ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT by Edward Kelsey Moore (✮ ✮ ✮ ✮ ✮)

Nothing beats starting a new year with a five-star read!  Last year I only had two the entire year, so they are pretty rare for me.  But Ladies of PBT, what were you thinking?  I ask for suggestions for relationship books that will not put me over the edge at the moment and more than one of you came up with this one?  My word!  Everyone dies in this book!  (Or so it seemed to my over-sensitized perception.)  However, for some odd reason, the book was okay for me; I cried, but I laughed, too—a lot.  So I thank you for your suggestion. 

Leading off an extensive cast are the Supremes, three vibrant women from the small town of Plainview, Indiana, who bond as girls, support each other through all of life’s less stellar moments, and remind each other of the humor in existence (and not always in a mortal body).  Through these women the reader comes to know their neighbors and parents, who run the gamut from comfortingly normal to out-and-out bizarre.

This is one of those novels where one would be hard-pressed to explain a plot.  It is more a meander through lives shaped by a small town and circumstance, which might sound less than scintillating but in Moore’s hands becomes a journey of worth.

And the journey doesn’t end with death.  I think that is why this book was more of a comfort for me than an instrument of depression in the wake of my daughter’s passing.  Picturing our Winter up in Heaven, or even shadowing us all—with Eleanor Roosevelt in tow—couldn’t do other than make me smile.

Helping me interpret the story were narrators Adenrele Ojo and Pamella D’Pella.  I appreciated the humor, which came shining through in both of their performances and think they both did a good job giving individuality to the characters.  However, the narration was very slow (I sped up to 1.5) and there seemed little point in having two narrators alternating chapters.

This is definitely a book that I recommend, but if you are someone who needs a faster paced novel, it might not be your thing.  I love good character novels, so it was perfect for me.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

☊ WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE? by Maria Semple (✮ ✮ ✮ ✮⭐︎)

Originally, I got a print copy of this book from the library, but a few days later it popped up on my Overdrive window while I was searching for a new audio, so I decided to give that a try.

Written in epistolary format, I wasn’t sure how this novel would work as an audio.  The story line is woven among the first person narration of Bee, the fourteen year old protagonist, and correspondence of various types, from emails to receipts for services rendered.  Not a format I favor in print, let alone audio, but oddly enough, it worked.

This was a book that caught my attention for the humor theme Play Book Tag was reading for the month of December.  Initially, the novel seems very funny, but as you progress through the tale of this bright girl’s eighth grade year, the humor becomes progressively more muted, darker.  Through Bee’s storytelling and the “first person” bits and pieces from the lives of the adults surrounding her, a novel of far greater consequence emerges.  As you learn more about the characters, you become, in turn, more empathetic with each and every one, no matter how buffoonish and unlikeable they seemed at the outset.  In the end, I felt that Play Book Tag’s January theme of relationships far better reflected the novel. 

It is Bee’s relationship with her mother, Bernadette that anchors the story.  When Bernadette mysteriously disappears from a life spinning out of control in some pretty far-fetched ways, Bee begins compiling written records of all kinds from everyone who might be able to shed some light on the situations leading up to her disappearance.  While the plot stretches credulity to the snapping point, it lends to creating the frenetic energy that powers the emotional connectivity between the characters.

The frenetic tone of the novel is very well conveyed through the narration of Kathleen Wilhoite.  I almost gave up on the audio a few minutes into the book, as the frenzied tenor of the reading grated on me.  Luckily for me, it was the middle of the night and I couldn’t be bothered to search for another book, so I persevered.  In the end, I am so glad that I did.  Wilhoite was the perfect narrator for this tale, matching the character of the novel to a tee and imbuing every participant with their own distinct personality.  It wouldn’t surprise me if this ends up being my best audio winner for 2015.

Thursday, January 1, 2015


Although I didn't do a very good job keeping up my blog this year, there were many stellar books that stand clearly in my mind as the year's reading highlights. The first two titles were my only five star reads this year, the second three I gave four and a half stars, and the last five were four star reads.:

The Invention of Wings - Sue Monk Kidd (novel)
Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe - Nancy Goldstone (history)
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats - Jan-Philipp Sendker (novel)
Moonwalking with Einstein - Joshua Foer (science)
Savage Harvest - Carl Hoffman (history)
Blood Diamonds - Greg Campbell (history)
A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon - Anthony Marra (novel)
Empire of Blue Water - Stephan Talty (history)
Salt: A World History - Mark Kurlansky (history)
Matterhorn - Karl Marlantes (novel)

Best Audio of the Year: The Invention of Wings - Sue Monk Kidd

What made these outstanding (Titles I reviewed show up maroon--click on the title to be connected to my thoughts.):

The Invention of Wings - Sue Monk Kidd: Hetty and Sarah will live inside my head for a very long time.  Their story was powerfully told through the excellent narration of Adepero Oduye and Jenna Lamia.

Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe - Nancy Goldstone:  A wonderful story of four sisters who’s lives paint a vivid picture of life in thirteenth-century Europe.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats - Jan-Philipp Sendker: We all have things we are seeking in our lives.  Sometimes what we learn along the way is more important than arriving at our destination.

Moonwalking with Einstein - Joshua Foer:  What a fascinating look inside the art and science of memory.  Engagingly written and full of useful information to go along with the story that frames the book.

Savage Harvest - Carl Hoffman: I couldn’t care less about primitive art or the Rockefellers, but this quasi-mystery was just plain great story-telling.

Blood Diamonds - Greg Campbell: You will never, ever look at your engagement ring quite the same way again.  An important story that needed telling.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon - Anthony Marra: A story of our times about how people in the worst situations can connect and touch each other’s lives for good or evil.

Empire of Blue Water - Stephan Talty:  A rollicking good yarn about Henry Morgan, the great age of pirates, and how the Spanish lost their grip on the New World.

Salt: A World History - Mark Kurlansky:  You really can tell the history of the world through salt (who’d a thunk it?) and turn it into a genuinely fascinating tale.

Matterhorn - Karl Marlantes: Raw and unflinching, full of characters you cannot evict from your head.  Not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination, but vital reading for anyone who wants to try to understand Vietnam.