11 April 2017

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

Summary from Goodreads:
From the #1 bestselling author of The Historian comes an engrossing novel that spans the past and the present and unearths the dark secrets of Bulgaria, a beautiful and haunted country.

A young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, has traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria, hoping that life abroad will salve the wounds left by the loss of her beloved brother. Soon after arriving in this elegant East European city, however, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi and realizes too late that she has accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside she finds an ornately carved wooden box engraved with a name: Stoyan Lazarov. Raising the hinged lid, she discovers that she is holding an urn filled with human ashes.

As Alexandra sets out to locate the family and return this precious item, she will first have to uncover the secrets of a talented musician who was shattered by oppression and she will find out all too quickly that this knowledge is fraught with its own danger.

Kostova's new novel is a tale of immense scope that delves into the horrors of a century and traverses the culture and landscape of this mysterious country. Suspenseful and beautifully written, it explores the power of stories, the pull of the past, and the hope and meaning that can sometimes be found in the aftermath of loss.

I loved Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian when it came out.  I mean loved.  I have a signed first edition, first printing.  But I was so disappointed in The Swan Thieves.  It was so blah I DNF'd it at fifty pages - I do not DNF books lightly.  Most just hang around the house for years until I finally finish them.  So I entered into reading The Shadow Land with bated breath.  Being set in Bulgaria, I had high hopes.

The Shadow Land was good...but not nearly as gripping as The Historian. The multiple story layers do not mesh well and it takes nearly half the book for the real crux of the story to start firing. The first half is this strange, meandering tale of an American girl (who, although 26 years old, is annoyingly naive) who winds up with a box of cremains and the oddball cabbie who helps her try to find the cremains' family members.  There's also a very strange moment where Alexandra, having worried almost constantly so far that the cabbie Bobby will take advantage of her, thinks Bobby has made a pass at her until he very casually throws out the fact that he's gay.  At which point then it is "OK for them to be friends" and so on because she doesn't have to worry about attraction between them.  It could have been handled better. (The very ending of the book feels extremely tacked on and hasty, in my opinion, but your mileage may vary.)

The second half of the novel, though, is comprised of a beautiful, gutting story about a gifted musician arrested in a Stalin-era purge in Bulgaria and who survives through sheer force of will. This portion of the novel is where Kostova's talent as a writer lies.  These layers, told by various elderly characters and a written account, blend very well and reveal the lingering effects of Communism.  It was interesting to read this book after having read Elif Batuman's The Idiot and how she depicted mid-1990s Hungary; the two authors came at it from different angles which made for good reading.  I am glad that Kostova put out a new book - I want her to keep writing and exploring these ideas.

The Shadow Land is out today, wherever books are sold.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

04 April 2017

Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice by Colum McCann

Summary from Goodreads:
From the bestselling author of the National Book Award winner Let the Great World Spin comes a lesson in how to be a writer—and so much more than that.

Intriguing and inspirational, this book is a call to look outward rather than inward. McCann asks his readers to constantly push the boundaries of experience, to see empathy and wonder in the stories we craft and hear.

A paean to the power of language, both by argument and by example, Letters to a Young Writer is fierce and honest in its testament to the bruises delivered by writing as both a profession and a calling. It charges aspiring writers to learn the rules and even break them.

These fifty-two essays are ultimately a profound challenge to a new generation to bring truth and light to a dark world through their art.

I've only recently discovered Colum McCann (let me tell you, Dancer is amazing).  This little book contains life advice disguised as writing advice very much in the vein of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. It gets a bit platitude-y at times, in my opinion, but the later chapters have a really wry voice.

Also, dude can write a sentence about anything.  That alone is worth reading.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley of this book from the publisher.

02 April 2017

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

Summary from Goodreads:
An intimate and poignant graphic novel portraying one family’s journey from war-torn Vietnam from debut author Thi Bui.

This beautifully illustrated and emotional story is an evocative memoir about the search for a better future and a longing for the past. Exploring the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects that displacement has on a child and her family, Bui documents the story of her family’s daring escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s, and the difficulties they faced building new lives for themselves.

At the heart of Bui’s story is a universal struggle: While adjusting to life as a first-time mother, she ultimately discovers what it means to be a parent—the endless sacrifices, the unnoticed gestures, and the depths of unspoken love. Despite how impossible it seems to take on the simultaneous roles of both parent and child, Bui pushes through. With haunting, poetic writing and breathtaking art, she examines the strength of family, the importance of identity, and the meaning of home.

In what Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen calls “a book to break your heart and heal it,” The Best We Could Do brings to life Thi Bui’s journey of understanding, and provides inspiration to all of those who search for a better future while longing for a simpler past.

The Best We Could Do is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking graphic memoirs I've ever read. Bui's attempts to understand herself as a new parent by trying to understand how her parents grew up and existed before she came along will resonate with any reader - that it is all set during the turbulence of the Vietnam War makes it just gutting. The art is superb with sharp pen-and-ink drawings colored by soft pastel watercolor. A must-read and congrats to Bui for being selected for BN's Discover program.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

31 March 2017

Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan

Summary from Goodreads:
Guest workers of the United Arab Emirates embody multiple worlds and identities and long for home.

In the United Arab Emirates, foreign nationals constitute over 80 percent of the population. Brought in to construct the towering monuments to wealth that punctuate the skylines of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, this labor force works without the rights of citizenship, endures miserable living conditions, and is ultimately forced to leave the country. Until now, the humanitarian crisis of the so-called “guest workers” of the Gulf has barely been addressed in fiction. Deepak Unnikrishnan delves into their histories, myths, struggles, and triumphs. Unnikrishnan presents twenty-eight linked stories that careen from construction workers who shapeshift into luggage and escape a labor camp, to a woman who stitches back together the bodies of those who’ve fallen from buildings in progress, to a man who grows ideal workers designed to live twelve years and then perish—until they don’t, and found a rebel community in the desert.

I can't quite remember where I heard about Temporary People.  Book Riot, I think.  Liberty?  Probably.  What I do know is that I marked it down as a May release and had a panic when BookTwitter let me know the release date had been March 14.  Drat.  Luckily, Restless Books' very, very lovely PR person approved me for a digital galley after the fact so I could power read it during breaks and evenings at my conference last week.  Temporary People did win the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing so I didn't want to pass it up.

Unnikrishnan has presented a very striking collection of linked short stories, telling fable-like stories about the exploited workers imported to build the glittering skylines of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The use of magical or fable-like elements is a click or two stranger than Salman Rushdie's usual (if you've read him).  Workers turn into suitcases and passports to escape, a woman develops a talent for patching together the men who fall from skyscraper construction sites so that they don't die on company time or property, an elevator develops a shocking proclivity, and the roaches that invade the crumbling homes of workers start taking on human-like traits.  The most devastating and creative stories involve the bioengineering of workers who grow on vines, from seeds, and "die" after a preset number of years creating - the "perfect" labor underclass that won't get ideas, uppity, or demand much compensation.  Characters weave in and out of different stories. "Dreamers" are caught between a country that won't acknowledge them as equal citizens - i.e. the problematic term "guest workers" - and the families back home in India or beyond who depend upon their paychecks. I had a bit of trouble understanding a few stories, likely because I missed a cultural reference that would make a fable-like situation clear, but the overall collection is imaginative and devastating. It's a rough read.

Trigger warning for a few scenes of sexual violence.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.  Thanks so much, Restless Books!

28 March 2017

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

Summary from Goodreads:
Set at the end of World War II, in a crumbling Bavarian castle that once played host to all of German high society, a powerful and propulsive story of three widows whose lives and fates become intertwined—an affecting, shocking, and ultimately redemptive novel from the author of the New York Times Notable Book The Hazards of Good Breeding

Amid the ashes of Nazi Germany’s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels returns to the once grand castle of her husband’s ancestors, an imposing stone fortress now fallen into ruin following years of war. The widow of a resistor murdered in the failed July, 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Marianne plans to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s brave conspirators: to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows.

First, Marianne rescues six-year-old Martin, the son of her dearest childhood friend, from a Nazi reeducation home. Together, they make their way across the smoldering wreckage of their homeland to Berlin, where Martin’s mother, the beautiful and naïve Benita, has fallen into the hands of occupying Red Army soldiers. Then she locates Ania, another resistor’s wife, and her two boys, now refugees languishing in one of the many camps that house the millions displaced by the war.

As Marianne assembles this makeshift family from the ruins of her husband’s resistance movement, she is certain their shared pain and circumstances will hold them together. But she quickly discovers that the black-and-white, highly principled world of her privileged past has become infinitely more complicated, filled with secrets and dark passions that threaten to tear them apart. Eventually, all three women must come to terms with the choices that have defined their lives before, during, and after the war—each with their own unique share of challenges.

Written with the devastating emotional power of The Nightingale, Sarah’s Key, and The Light Between Oceans, Jessica Shattuck’s evocative and utterly enthralling novel offers a fresh perspective on one of the most tumultuous periods in history. Combining piercing social insight and vivid historical atmosphere, The Women in the Castle is a dramatic yet nuanced portrait of war and its repercussions that explores what it means to survive, love, and, ultimately, to forgive in the wake of unimaginable hardship.

By my count, novels about non-combatants in World War II seem to be on a trend.  It's not a particular corner of fiction I gravitate toward, possibly because I'm reasonably well-read on the non-fiction side.  But I had an opportunity to read an advance copy of The Women in the Castle, so decided to give it a try.

I think that a reader who finds books like All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale to be their jam would also like The Women in the Castle.  The writing is very good, the characters are compelling, and Shattuck has done a lot of research into the psychology of why people who seemed to be decent people became complicit in the atrocities of the Third Reich.  However, the book as a whole just didn't do it for me.  The prologue is very clunky and I wasn't that interested in the adults' stories in that section, many of them from men who make few appearances in the book. The timeline jumped back and forth, over huge swaths of time, and between characters' points-of-view.  It made the story feel disjointed and ruined the plot tension in at least two places (and spoiled a plot point for those of us who know anything about immediate postwar Germany and Central Europe).  What did interest me very much was the point-of-view given to us by Martin, Benita's son, who is about 6 or 7 when the war ends but we aren't given that much from that particular character at that point in time.

The Women in the Castle is a good book but it's audience definitely wasn't me. Compared to recent reads like PachinkoEverything Belongs to Us, and Rabbit Cake there were too many things that weren't to my taste.

Dear FTC: I read a galley copy that was sent to my store.

26 March 2017

Standing on Earth by Mohsen Emadi (translated by Lyn Coffin)

Summary from Goodreads:
In his poems of memory and displacement, Iranian poet Mohsen Emadi charts his experience of exile with vivid, often haunting, imagery and a child's love of language. Lyn Coffin's translations from the Persian allow Emadi's poems to inhabit the English language as their own, as the poet recasts his earliest memories and deepest loves over the forges of being "someone who goes to bed in one city and wakes up in another city." Alternating between acceptance and despair, tenderness and toughness, he writes, "I wanted to be a physicist," but "Your kisses made me a poet." Mohsen Emadi is a powerful witness to life in the present times, and Standing on Earth introduces a major world poet to an English-language readership for the first time.

Standing on Earth is a beautifully written and translated collection of poems centered on loss and displacement. While you could read "the lover" invoked throughout as an actual person - and may, in some instances, be referencing someone specific - I feel like the poet means to reference country and culture. The speaker has been forcibly removed from his culture and so mourns it like a lost lover.  Lyn Coffin's translation is excellent.

Read for the 2017 Read Harder challenge.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

24 March 2017

Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve by Ben Blatt

Summary from Goodreads:
What are our favorite authors’ favorite words? Which bestselling writer uses the most clichés? How can we judge a book by its cover?

Data meets literature in this playful and informative look at our favorite authors and their masterpieces.
There’s a famous piece of writing advice—offered by Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, and myriad writers in between—not to use -ly adverbs like “quickly” or “fitfully.” It sounds like solid advice, but can we actually test it? If we were to count all the -ly adverbs these authors used in their careers, do they follow their own advice compared to other celebrated authors? What’s more, do great books in general—the classics and the bestsellers—share this trait?

In Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, statistician and journalist Ben Blatt brings big data to the literary canon, exploring the wealth of fun findings that remain hidden in the works of the world’s greatest writers. He assembles a database of thousands of books and hundreds of millions of words, and starts asking the questions that have intrigued curious word nerds and book lovers for generations: What are our favorite authors’ favorite words? Do men and women write differently? Are bestsellers getting dumber over time? Which bestselling writer uses the most clichés? What makes a great opening sentence? How can we judge a book by its cover? And which writerly advice is worth following or ignoring?

Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve is a fun intersection of statistics and literature. His methodology feels less rigorous, in my opinion, than that of the authors behind The Bestseller Code, but this is far more entertaining. It's very much a "I wonder what the percentages would look like if I searched for [insert word]" book: What word does an author use most frequently? Do authors follow their own writing advice? And do American fanfic writers try to out-British the Brits with their slang? (That was a fun one.) Blatt did try to get a wide-ranging sample of books - bestsellers, Classics, critical hits, etc. although he didn't get much into genres outside the authors who have crossed into the mainstream. I have to rap his knuckles a bit about the Gender chapter: it wasn't terrible, but an acknowledgement that he was sticking with the binary for "x reason" would have been a start.  Those conclusions felt a bit too facile.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

15 March 2017

Mikhail and Margarita by Julie Lekstrom Himes

Summary from Goodreads:
It is 1933 and Mikhail Bulgakov's enviable career is on the brink of being dismantled. His friend and mentor, the poet Osip Mandelstam, has been arrested, tortured, and sent into exile. Meanwhile, a mysterious agent of the secret police has developed a growing obsession with exposing Bulgakov as an enemy of the state. To make matters worse, Bulgakov has fallen in love with the dangerously candid Margarita. Facing imminent arrest, and infatuated with Margarita, he is inspired to write his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, a scathing novel critical of both power and the powerful.

Ranging between lively readings in the homes of Moscow's literary elite to the Siberian Gulag, Mikhail and Margarita recounts a passionate love triangle while painting a portrait of a country whose towering literary tradition is at odds with a dictatorship that does not tolerate dissent. Margarita is a strong, idealistic, seductive woman who is fiercely loved by two very different men, both of whom will fail in their attempts to shield her from the machinations of a regime hungry for human sacrifice.

Debut novelist Julie Lekstrom Himes launches a rousing defense of art and the artist during a time of systematic deception, and she movingly portrays the ineluctable consequences of love for one of history's most enigmatic literary figures.

Well, this underwhelmed.  If I hadn't read previously read The Master and Margarita then this debut would have just been another historical novel about Soviet writers in the 1930s and I probably would have passed on it.  Due to the Bulgakov link, I was expecting something very much more...colorful, at minimum. The plot in Mikhail and Margarita takes a while to get going.  Once it did pick up speed, the fascination for me was the dizzying, Kafkan "The Trial"-like machinations of NKVD and what it makes people do, but not the characters of Bulgakov or Margarita.  Mikhail and Margarita is a book definitely intended for fans of The Master and Margarita, because it's been a while since I read that and I was having some trouble piecing together specific callbacks and phrases.  More importantly, I found myself wishing that I was more familiar with Osip Mandelstam's work.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

14 March 2017

When the Marquess Falls by Lorraine Heath (The Hellions of Havisham #3.5)

Summary from Goodreads:
The long-anticipated and utterly extraordinary tale of the Mad Marquess that proves love truly does last forever

The Marquess of Marsden always follows the rules. Expected from birth to adhere to decades of tradition, he plans to marry a proper young woman from a good family. But when a beautiful, and completely unsuitable, woman snags his heart, he begins to realize that to get what you want, sometimes you have to break the rules.

Linnie Connor dreams of the independence of running her very own bakery. And while she may be allowed to be a marquess’ childhood companion, the baker's daughter never ends up with the handsome nobleman. Determined to achieve at least one of her dreams, Linnie makes plans to leave her sleepy village for London, intent on purging him from her heart. And yet, when an invitation to the Marsden annual ball arrives, she can't refuse her one chance to waltz in his arms.

It will be a night that stirs the flames of forbidden desires and changes their lives forever.

When the Marquess Falls is a very bittersweet and heartbreaking prequel, even if it's listed out as #3.5. I've only read Falling Into Bed With a Duke (the first in the "Hellions of Havisham" series) but its opening chapter/prologue is enough to tell you what has to happen in this book.  The relationship between Linnie and Marsden seems natural, with just the right amount of plot for a novella without all the tiresome will-we-won't-we that occasionally infests the romance genre (a little is fine for the tension, but some over do it to the extreme). You'll need the Kleenex.

(Edited to add: And while this ending is appropriate for this novella, because Marsden's problems had to start somewhere, I am not generally in favor of this No Happy Ever After trend that seems to be appearing.  Not in my genre romance, go put that stuff in general fiction or something.)

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley of this novella from the publisher via Edelweiss.

13 March 2017

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Summary from Goodreads:
A portrait of the artist as a young woman. A novel about not just discovering but inventing oneself.

The year is 1995, and email is new. Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives for her freshman year at Harvard. She signs up for classes in subjects she has never heard of, befriends her charismatic and worldly Serbian classmate, Svetlana, and, almost by accident, begins corresponding with Ivan, an older mathematics student from Hungary. Selin may have barely spoken to Ivan, but with each email they exchange, the act of writing seems to take on new and increasingly mysterious meanings.

[redacted due to SPOILERS]

With superlative emotional and intellectual sensitivity, mordant wit, and pitch-perfect style, Batuman dramatizes the uncertainty of life on the cusp of adulthood. Her prose is a rare and inimitable combination of tenderness and wisdom; its logic as natural and inscrutable as that of memory itself. The Idiot is a heroic yet self-effacing reckoning with the terror and joy of becoming a person in a world that is as intoxicating as it is disquieting. Batuman's fiction is unguarded against both life's affronts and its beauty--and has at its command the complete range of thinking and feeling which they entail.

Alert: The Idiot has Bad Flap Copy Syndrome. It blows almost the entire plot, so FYI (see above).  Our narrator and protagonist, Selin, is starting her first year at Harvard.  She has two roommates who both strike her as strange in their own ways.  She's mystified by the new email system she's told to use (side note: I started college in 1996 at the University of Iowa and, yes, that stuff was new and weird if you hadn't used it before).  Selin tries out for the orchestra and finds that everyone plays violin.  She's constantly unable to take classes that interest her (side note two: the "audition" system of picking college classes makes zero sense to me but apparently this is a thing?).  She's pushed into volunteering as a math tutor that lead to several scenes of increasing absurdity like a Gogol short story.  However, in her Russian class, she develops two important relationships: Croatian-American socialite (?) Svetlana, who becomes what appears to be Selin's best friend, and Hungarian international student Ivan, in his last year of undergrad.

The Idiot a very readable book, with excellent scenes and description. I had previously enjoyed Batuman's The Possessed, a book of essays about translation and Russian literature, and I remember thinking I'd like to see a novel from her. The Idiot is a true Bildungsroman, a campus novel about a intelligent, naive young woman's first year at Harvard University. First experiences, first roommates, first new friends, and first love. The novel seems almost plotless at times, just the record of one year in someone's life. I was very interested in the title, which reminded me of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, about a young man trying to experience life (or find himself) who really gets the short-end of the stick when everyone assumes he's an idiot because he gives everyone the benefit of the doubt, as does Batuman's Selin.

I have some reservations about the ending. It isn't terrible but I didn't like it very much. It felt like the novel just ran out of gas and ended.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley of this novel from the publisher via Edelweiss.

09 March 2017

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Summary from Goodreads:
A few years ago, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received a letter from a dear friend from childhood, asking her how to raise her baby girl as a feminist. Dear Ijeawele is Adichie's letter of response.

Here are fifteen invaluable suggestions--compelling, direct, wryly funny, and perceptive--for how to empower a daughter to become a strong, independent woman. From encouraging her to choose a helicopter, and not only a doll, as a toy if she so desires; having open conversations with her about clothes, makeup, and sexuality; debunking the myth that women are somehow biologically arranged to be in the kitchen making dinner, and that men can "allow" women to have full careers, Dear Ijeawele goes right to the heart of sexual politics in the twenty-first century. It will start a new and urgently needed conversation about what it really means to be a woman today.

A follow-up of sorts to We Should All be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has published her response to a friend's request for advice. Specifically, how to raise a little girl as a feminist.  Dear Ijeawele is a beautiful essay in 15 points, both specific and general in its advice. Adichie has beautifully thought-out responses to the request for advice, but sprinkled throughout are many instances of a wonderful female friendship.

(And yes, all our favorites are problematic, as Adichie has recently made some troubling remarks about trans-women, but the specific points made in this book are quite good.)

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

06 March 2017

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

Summary from Goodreads:
Twelve-year-old Elvis Babbitt has a head for the facts: she knows science proves yellow is the happiest color, she knows a healthy male giraffe weighs about 3,000 pounds, and she knows that the naked mole rat is the longest living rodent. She knows she should plan to grieve her mother, who has recently drowned while sleepwalking, for exactly eighteen months. But there are things Elvis doesn’t yet know—like how to keep her sister Lizzie from poisoning herself while sleep-eating or why her father has started wearing her mother's silk bathrobe around the house. Elvis investigates the strange circumstances of her mother's death and finds comfort, if not answers, in the people (and animals) of Freedom, Alabama. As hilarious a storyteller as she is heartbreakingly honest, Elvis is a truly original voice in this exploration of grief, family, and the endurance of humor after loss.

When you're twelve, and your mom dies in a freak accident, you use whatever facts you have at your disposal to try and create a roadmap to grieving.  Because that is the major problem facing Elvis Babbitt: there doesn't seem to be a single best way to get through mourning her mom.  So she takes the best advice available - from her guidance counselor who is obsessed with her recent divorce - and carves out the next eighteen months to mourn and to try and figure out how to help her dad and sister mourn, too.

Rabbit Cake is a funny-sad-sweet slice-of-life novel about a girl and her family as they mourn the death of their mom/wife. Elvis is a really sharp narrator, precocious without being precious or too adult.  As Elvis goes around collecting information and facts she occasionally gets the wrong end of the stick because she is a child; the adult characters eventually provide the right context for her. The cast of characters (Dad, out-of-control sister Lizzie, chatty parrot Ernest, stray roommate from the mental institution they take in Vanessa, school grief counselor Ms Bernstein, zoo veterinarian Dr Rotherwood) are kooky in that truth-is-stranger-than-fiction way. There's also a little bit of a Steel Magnolia edge - this family sticks together, through tragedy and mishap, and always finds a way to laugh.

Bonus: you get lots of animal facts, particularly about sleeping habits.

Dear FTC: I received a galley - thanks to the Tin House Galley Club for the ARC!

03 March 2017

Schadenfreude, A Love Story by Rebecca Schuman

Summary from Goodreads:
You know that feeling you get watching a pompous jerk whine into his cell as he’s booted out of a restaurant? When the elevator doors slide shut just before your sadistic boss can step in beside you? There’s a word for this mix of malice and joy, and the Germans (of course) invented it. It’s Schadenfreude, deriving pleasure from others’ misfortune, and with Slate columnist Rebecca Schuman, the Teutons have a stern, self-satisfied blast at her expense.

Rebecca is just your average chronically misunderstood 90’s teenager, with a passion for Pearl Jam and Ethan Hawke circa Reality Bites, until two men walk into her high school Civics class: Dylan Gellner, with deep brown eyes and an even deeper soul, and Franz Kafka, hitching a ride in Dylan’s backpack. These two men are the axe to the frozen sea that is Rebecca’s spirit, and what flows forth is a passion for all things German (even though, as everyone is quick to remind her, Kafka wasn’t German at all). Dreamy Dylan might leave the second he gets accepted to a better college than Rebecca does, but Kafka is forever, and in pursuit of this elusive love she will spend two decades stuttering and stumbling through broken German sentences, trying to win over a people who don’t want to be bothered.

At once a snapshot of a young woman finding herself, and a country slowly starting to stitch itself back together after nearly a century of war (both hot and cold), Schadenfreude, A Love Story is an exhilarating, hilarious, and yes, maybe even heartfelt memoir proving that sometimes the truest loves play hard to get.

The Spring slate of Barnes and Noble Discover titles is a really interesting collection of books.  Thrillers, literary fiction, Russian fables, two refugee memoirs, the Discover winners.  And then there is Rebecca Schuman's Schadenfreude, a Love Story - a unique combination of love letter to a language and travel memoir.  It starts when Schuman is in high school and falls hook, line, and sinker for the cool smart boy in her class and the volume of Kafka riding around in his backpack.

Thus starts this funny and awkward memoir about Schuman's love (possibly hate) at times relationship with German and Germans, starting with her first exposure in high school through several study abroad trips and a PhD in German. Schuman is approximately 2 years older than me, so we experienced the same Germany in the mid-1990s as a reunified country struggled to figured out how to work again. We had very different experiences, to say the least. She has some interesting stories. One of the most compelling parts of this book is that Schuman doesn't shy away from her brattier attitudes - she shows herself warts and all.

(And yes, we all know Kafka wasn't an actual German. Everyone likes to tell us that.)

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

28 February 2017

Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz

Summary from Goodreads:
Two young women of vastly different means struggle to find their own way during the darkest hours of South Korea's economic miracle, in a striking debut novel for readers of Anthony Marra and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie.

Seoul, 1978. At South Korea's top university, the nation s best and brightest compete to join the professional elite of an authoritarian regime. Success could lead to a life of rarefied privilege and wealth; failure means being left irrevocably behind.

For childhood friends Jisun and Namin, the stakes couldn't be more different. Jisun, the daughter of a powerful business mogul, grew up on a mountainside estate with lush gardens and a dedicated chauffeur. Namin's parents run a tented food cart from dawn to curfew. Her sister works in a shoe factory. Now Jisun wants as little to do with her father's world as possible, abandoning her schoolwork in favor of the underground activist movement, while Namin studies tirelessly in the service of one goal: to launch herself and her family out of poverty.

But everything changes when Jisun and Namin meet an ambitious, charming student named Sunam, whose need to please his family has led him to a prestigious club: the Circle. Under the influence of his mentor, Juno, a manipulative social climber, Sunam becomes entangled with both women, as they all make choices that will change their lives forever.

In this sweeping yet intimate debut, Yoojin Grace Wuertz details four intertwining lives that are rife with turmoil and desire, private anxieties and public betrayals, dashed hopes and broken dreams while a nation moves toward prosperity at any cost.

Conveniently enough, my next historical novel was also centered around Korea.  Yoojin Grace Wuertz set her debut novel Everything Belongs to Us during the turbulent 1970s student uprisings in Seoul.  Two women, Namin and Jisun, have been friends since elementary school.  Jisun's father is rich and politically well-connected, Namin's family scrape by through relentless toil at their food cart.  Neither family is what you would call close or warm.  Namin knows that her only way out of poverty, and that of her disabled younger brother, is through her brains - she will make it through university and medical school to become a respected doctor.  Jisun is no less intelligent but possesses a reckless spirit that places her squarely at odds with her father.

Seoul National University - the country's most elite college with its grueling entrance exams - offers the women their first taste of freedom after the rigor of high school.  Namin begins to social-climb. SNU's The Circle, a fraternity-like social club, offers her connections with peers who will go on to direct South Korea's future.  Jisun, though, spurns the club - her brother being one of the leaders - and instead focuses on the student movement agitating among the factory workers.  Both women become involved with Sunam, another aspiring applicant to The Circle whose earnest, bumbling attempts at social-climbing perpetually leave him on the periphery.

Everything Belongs to Us is an excellent debut novel. The settings are so vivid. Jisun's starkly beautiful but chilling home compared to Namin's poor but kept just-serviceable family house compared to the rural family farm where Namin's brother lives with their grandparents.  The factory workers' protest compared to the rigor of academics at SNU.  Namin, Jisun, and Sunam are all very different characters, with differing motivations. They're all also extremely unlikeable at times which makes them particularly fascinating as you simultaneously pity and despise each one in turn. Each carries so much of the story that even at the very end I was never quite sure who the "main" character actually was - Sunam who always seemed to be more of a narrator of others' lives? Maybe.  He is the most relatable character, in my opinion - haven't we all tried to join a group, on our best behavior, only to feel like we haven't been told the password?  The book ends with an Epilogue that I wasn't particularly a fan of, so Epilogue dislikers you are forewarned, but it didn't take away from the body of the book.  A definite recommend for fans of Min Jin Lee (hey, hey, Pachinko) and Kyung-Sook Shin.

Everything Belongs to Us is out today, February 28, wherever books are sold.

Dear FTC: Thanks to Random House for the ARC.

12 February 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Summary from Goodreads:
The captivating first novel by the best-selling, National Book Award nominee George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War

On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body.

Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel - in its form and voice - completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace.

It is said that the night Willie Lincoln, who died at the age of 11 of typhoid fever, was laid to rest his father Abraham Lincoln came to the cemetery to visit the body.  It is also said that he held his son's body, spoke to it.  George Saunders has taken this historical nugget and turned it into a masterwork of beauty and pathos.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a novel narrated largely by the shades that inhabit the Georgetown cemetery over this single night.  These shades are trapped in this limbo, hampered by need, want, and fear.  Their forms are grotesquely reshaped by their obsessions and sins, for want of a better word.  Willie Lincoln's shade becomes a focus of attention in the cemetery for children's souls do not linger in this purgatory.  If they do, a horrific fate awaits.  Three shades, Vollman (a businessman), Bevins (a printer), and the Reverend Thomas, do their best to encourage Willie's soul to ascend.  But Willie's father has promised to return and so the little boy waits despite the increasing danger.

Lincoln in the Bardo is an incredible first novel from a master of the short fiction format.  The shared narration is reminiscent of a Greek chorus or a conversation, rendered on the page like the script of a play. These shades are not Dickens's ghosts - they are venal, vengeful, lustful, racist, distraught, obsessed with property, old lovers, old slights by family members, old wounds.  In a way, they are in collective denial of their state.  Saunders reflects the condition of the United States, torn by the Civil War as it reached the height of its bloodiest battles, in the inhabitants of this cemetery.  The limbo of Saunders's Bardo is not the Dantean Limbo of the Inferno, with the virtuous pagans living peacefully throughout eternity; this limbo is menacing, with an undercurrent of evil.  It swirls around Willie Lincoln, who waits in vain for his father to take him home.

I read this book almost immediately upon receiving the galley direct from George Saunders's hands. It proceeded to wreck me emotionally for the next 350 pages.  The uniqueness of the format allows the characters to speak directly to the reader without any sort of narrative interpretation or point-of-view.  I could read this over and over and keep finding little nuggets to wonder over.  I intend to purchase the audiobook edition of Bardo, which has a star-studded cast of 166 readers including Saunders himself, and just submit to it completely.

Lincoln in the Bardo is available on February 14 - you must read it.

Dear FTC:  I have a signed galley from BEA, which was an absolute highlight of the conference. Thank you so much to Random House and George Saunders for this book.

08 February 2017

The Lawrence Browne Affair by Cat Sebastian

Summary from Goodreads:
An earl hiding from his future . . .

Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, is mad. At least, that’s what he and most of the village believes. A brilliant scientist, he hides himself away in his family’s crumbling estate, unwilling to venture into the outside world. When an annoyingly handsome man arrives at Penkellis, claiming to be Lawrence’s new secretary, his carefully planned world is turned upside down.

A swindler haunted by his past . . .

Georgie Turner has made his life pretending to be anyone but himself. A swindler and con man, he can slip into an identity faster than he can change clothes. But when his long-dead conscience resurrects and a dangerous associate is out for blood, Georgie escapes to the wilds of Cornwall. Pretending to be a secretary should be easy, but he doesn’t expect that the only madness he finds is the one he has for the gorgeous earl.

Can they find forever in the wreckage of their lives?

Challenging each other at every turn, the two men soon give into the desire that threatens to overwhelm them. But with one man convinced he is at the very brink of madness and the other hiding his real identity, only true love can make this an affair to remember.

We first met Georgie in his brother Jack's book, The Soldier's Scoundrel.  Georgie's line of business is particularly shady, given that he's a confidence trickster.  It can also be deadly when you get cold feet during a deal and back out.  Sympathy for a mark is never tolerated.  Conveniently, Jack's partner Oliver has a way to get Georgie out of London while the criminal gang cools off: there's a "mad" Earl out in Cornwall who needs a secretary (and the local vicar a spy to determine whether the Earl is truly mad).

Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, doesn't particularly dispute the "mad" appellation.  He might well be.  He hates to be disturbed by anyone, develops anxiety out in public, and prefers to hole up in his study inventing a method of long-distance communication.  Besides which, both his father and his brother were definitely not sane, so it's only a matter of time before he also loses his grip.  He doesn't need a secretary hanging around, getting into his business, and looking so sinfully handsome.  Georgie is quick, efficient, fastidious (the result of a squalid childhood in the slums), and proves himself to be a help to Lawrence in his inventing.  He's also stubborn and reciprocates Lawrence's desire for pleasure and companionship.  But Georgie is living a lie and it's only a matter of time before his past catches up with him.

The Lawrence Browne Affair is a sweet romance, but I didn't love it quite as much as The Soldier's Scoundrel. Georgie is a very aloof character, even in his own book, so he still feels an enigma to some extent. Because of that, at times the story felt less like a romance and more like "Lawrence found a handler he couldn't frighten away." It's a minor quibble.  I did appreciate that Lawrence's "madness" was not perfectly defined; it comes across as either extreme social anxiety or somewhere on the spectrum but since things like the DSM-V didn't exist Sebastian tried to stay within contemporary descriptions. There were several interesting turns to the plot I liked.  There are some interesting incidents with superstitious Cornish villagers and a surprise character pops up. Plus, we get to see Oliver and Jack in their home, which was so lovely. This is a good second novel and I am intrigued by the character Sebastian has decided to follow in the next book (spoiler: it won't be Jack and Georgie's sister, Sarah, nuts).

The Lawrence Browne Affair is out now in e-book and will be available in mass market paperback on March 21.

Dear FTC: I got a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.  And then I bought a copy.

07 February 2017

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale

Summary from Goodreads:
WHO RUNS THE WORLD? SQUIRRELS! Fourteen-year-old Doreen Green moved from sunny California to the suburbs of New Jersey. She must start at a new school, make new friends, and continue to hide her tail. Yep, Doreen has the powers of . . . a squirrel! After failing at several attempts to find her new BFF, Doreen feels lonely and trapped, liked a caged animal. Then one day Doreen uses her extraordinary powers to stop a group of troublemakers from causing mischief in the neighborhood, and her whole life changes. Everyone at school is talking about it! Doreen contemplates becoming a full-fledged Super Hero. And thus, Squirrel Girl is born! She saves cats from trees, keeps the sidewalks clean, and dissuades vandalism. All is well until a real-life Super Villain steps out of the shadows and declares Squirrel Girl his archenemy. Can Doreen balance being a teenager and a Super Hero? Or will she go . . . NUTS?

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is one of my favorite ongoing Marvel Comics series.  A human girl, with a squirrel tail, teeth, proportional speed and strength, and the ability to reason with super-villains (she convinced Galactus to not eat the Earth without throwing a punch).  I was unbelievably excited when I heard that Shannon and Dean Hale had been tapped to write a Squirrel Girl middle-grade novel.  (I got a galley at BEA and got it signed plus I got squirrel ears - bonus! Go nuts!)

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World starts a few years before the opening of the current SG comics run.  Fourteen-year-old Doreen's dad has accepted a new job and the family has moved from California to the New Jersey 'burbs.  Doreen is going to start at a new school, try and make some (human) friends, and keep her bushy squirrel tail hidden in her pants (it gives her a bodacious badonk).  That's all easier said than done.  Her neighborhood is filled with strange LARPers and roaming angry dogs, someone is trapping local squirrels in lethal traps, and this "friends" thing isn't coming along as fast as Doreen hoped (The Somebodies are the mean kids in any school anywhere).  When Doreen puts the fear of the Jersey Devil into a pack of local hoodlums, she accidentally becomes a superhero: Squirrel Girl!  Who has squirrel friends, like Tippy-Toe!  And rescues babies!  And winds up in a fight for her neighborhood with the newest super-villain menace: the Micro-Manager!

The Hales captured Squirrel Girl's voice from the comics perfectly (and the footnotes!). They've given us a superhero novel that is unbelievably funny with great heart.  The narration rotates between Doreen, Tippy-Toe (who has an amazing Jersey Squirrel dialect), and Ana Sophia, Doreen's new friend who is a computer genius and is obsessed with socks and Thor (possibly in that order).  There are several text exchange chapters between Doreen and members of the Avengers that are so funny they should be illegal.  The voices were EXACTLY RIGHT and I dare you not to hear the MCU actors' voices for Black Widow, Tony Stark, and Rocket Racoon when reading those chapters (I almost peed my pants I laughed so hard). Easter Eggs abound for Marvel fans. Go nuts!

Even though Squirrel Meets World is aimed at the middle-grade or teen crowd, the book does not condescend or talk down to its audience.  It's a bit like the original Muppets movies - there's something for everyone.  Grown-up fans of SG should enjoy this book, too!

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World is out TODAY wherever books are sold.

Dear FTC: I have a signed galley.  Also, I *high-fived* Dean Hale after we talked about which issue of SG is the best, so there's that.

06 February 2017

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Summary from Goodreads:
A new tour de force from the bestselling author of Free Food for Millionaires, for readers of The Kite Runner and Cutting for Stone.

Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan.

So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.

I missed Lee's first book but I was really intrigued by the flap copy for Pachinko.  Fiction is a way for me to identify areas of history or the world I don't know much about - the history of Korea is definitely a blind spot.

Pachinko is the story of Sunja, a poor teenager in 1930s Korea just after the start of the Japanese occupation.  When she is seduced and abandoned by a wealthy Korean expatriate, she is left pregnant, a massive source of shame for her hardworking mother.  A young Presbyterian minister, Isak, offers to marry Sunja, give her baby a name, and take her with him to his new congregation in Osaka.  The novel continues to follow Sunja, her sons Noa and Mosazu, her brother-in-law Yosef and his wife Kyunghee, the growing circle of family and friends, and the yakuza Hansu, the man who set the saga in motion, as they survive living as second-class citizens of Japan in the twentieth-century.

This is a beautifully wrought family novel concentrating on the successes and tragedies of a single Korean family living in Osaka. Lee shows the reader in unflinching detail how poorly Koreans - even those born in Japan - are treated.  The Japanese people brutally repressed non-Japanese ethnic minorities and denied Koreans good jobs, equal pay, fair housing, equality under the law, respect, and citizenship (gee, I wonder who else that sounds like...).  There is a lot of concern about being one of the "good Koreans" rather than one of the "bad Koreans".  Also very interesting is the almost constant undercurrent of "should we go back to Korea?" Even though life in Japan is hard, with no guarantee of success, there is the constant pull of the homeland as Korea remained divided between North and South against an almost certain belief that none of them would have survived had they stayed in Korea through World War II and the Korean War.

Much of the later plot revolves around the economics of the pachinko parlors of Japan.  If you don't know much about pachinko the game, don't worry.  After I read the book, I had to look up how the game worked so I'll give you the capsule summary. Pachinko seems to be an amalgam of pinball and slots (kind of) and leans more on chance not skill; after the balls are shot into the machine they bounce down from pin to pin, the object being to get them into a small cup to win a payout.  So, fate.  And life for Sunja and her family in the novel resembles the pachinko balls, bouncing from one pin to another in search of a better life.

Pachinko comes out tomorrow, February 7, wherever books are sold.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

05 February 2017

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Summary from Goodreads:
Life in a small town takes a dark turn when mysterious footage begins appearing on VHS cassettes at the local Video Hut

Jeremy works at the counter of Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. It’s a small town—the first “a” in the name is pronounced ay—smack in the center of the state. This is the late 1990s, pre-DVD, and the Hollywood Video in Ames poses an existential threat to Video Hut. But there are regular customers, a predictable rush in the late afternoon. It’s good enough for Jeremy: It’s a job; it’s quiet and regular; he gets to watch movies; he likes the owner, Sarah Jane; it gets him out of the house, where he and his dad try to avoid missing Mom, who died six years ago in a car wreck.

But when Stephanie Parsons, a local schoolteacher, comes in to return her copy of Targets, starring Boris Karloff—an old movie, one Jeremy himself had ordered for the store—she has an odd complaint: “There’s something on it,” she says, but doesn’t elaborate. Two days later, Lindsey Redinius brings back She’s All That, a new release, and complains that there’s something wrong with it: “There’s another movie on this tape.”

So Jeremy takes a look. And indeed, in the middle of the movie the screen blink dark for a moment and She’s All That is replaced by a black-and-white scene, shot in a barn, with only the faint sounds of someone breathing. Four minutes later, She’s All That is back. But there is something profoundly disturbing about that scene; Jeremy’s compelled to watch it three or four times. The scenes recorded onto Targets are similar, undoubtedly created by the same hand. Creepy. And the barn looks a lot like a barn just outside of town.

Jeremy doesn’t want to be curious. In truth, it freaks him out, deeply. This has gone far enough, maybe too far already. But Stephanie is pushing, and once Sarah Jane takes a look and becomes obsessed, there’s no more ignoring the disturbing scenes on the videos. And all of a sudden, what had once been the placid, regular old Iowa fields and farmhouses now feels haunted and threatening, imbued with loss and instability and profound foreboding. For Jeremy, and all those around him, life will never be the same . . .

The minute I saw that there was a book set in small town Iowa, by John Darnielle, with some weird Clerks crossed with The Ring plot, was like Give. It. To. Me. Now.  I was very disappointed with the big "Iowa" book last year - The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend - and hoped that the setting for Universal Harvester would ring true.

Universal Harvester is set in Nevada, IA - which is an actual town over by Ames in the center of the state - in the late 1990s.  Jeremy's mom died in a car accident when he was a teen, he and his dad are just trying to get through each day, and while working at the Video Hut is fine for now, Jeremy really ought to start looking at getting a job with better potential.  The daily Video Hut routine is interrupted one day by a customer complaining about a weird scene inserted into a copy of Targets.  Soon another one surfaces in She's All That.  The scenes are crude, black-and-white, in a barn, with creepy breathing and a hooded figure tied to a chair.  The scenes are unsettling, disturbing.  When Jeremy and his boss Sarah Jane begin investigating how many tapes have inserted "barn scenes", the rails come off their quiet Iowa lives.

John Darnielle, whose debut novel Wolf in White Van detailed the haunting life of a shut-in running a turn-by-mail RPG after two participants die trying to turn the game into live action, has perfectly captured the rural central Iowa countryside.  He gets what it's like to live here, to drive out into the fields on two-lane blacktop or dirt roads during the growing season when the fields rarely have people in them. How eerie and quiet it is.  The deadening of sound.  (And if you're in the dark, how absolutely certain you get that The Children of the Corn might actually be real.)  Darnielle also picked up on how Ames was growing out into the surrounding rural area in the 1990s, as did many other large Iowa cities, and how the balance between City and Country changed.

Universal Harvester of the strangest books I've ever read, but at the very end it all makes sense. The layers of the story twist and change as the characters themselves change and share perspectives during the story. The book's reality shifts but this isn't a book with supernatural elements. Right at the point I thought for sure someone was going to turn out to be a demon-possessed ax-murderer Darnielle pointed the story in another direction.  An excellent reading experience.

Universal Harvester comes out in a few days on Tuesday, February 7!

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley from the publisher via NetGalley.

04 February 2017

Seven Minutes in Heaven by Eloisa James (Desperate Duchesses #9, Desperate Duchesses by the Numbers #3)

Summary from Goodreads:
All of Eugenia Snowe’s problems start when Edward Reeve, an arrogant bastard son of an earl, bursts into her registry office. He wants a governess and he wants her. She gives him the governess he demands, but she refuses to give herself.

No question that Eugenia enjoys crossing wits with the brilliant inventor, but she will never tarnish her reputation with an affaire, particularly with a man who doesn’t realize she’s a lady!

She holds her ground…until he kidnaps her.

Ward will stop at nothing to convince Eugenia that they’re meant to be together. He promises her heaven.

She gives him seven minutes.

In the course of Eloisa James's Desperate Duchesses series, she introduced several children who have popped up as protagonists in later books.  Thorn (Villiers's son Tobias) found his match with Lady Xenobia in Three Weeks with Lady X.  Now Ward (the scamp Teddy from Desperate Duchesses) has met the one woman who can match wits with both himself and his new-found half-siblings:  Lady Eugenia Strange, now the widowed Mrs. Eugenia Snowe (last seen as the brilliant Shakespeare-quoting moppet in Duchess by Night).

Ward's had a very trying year.  First, he was falsely arrested and imprisoned by his fiancee's nefarious uncle to prevent their marriage (don't worry, Mia found her happily ever after in Four Nights with the Duke).  Then, he was presented with his unknown half-siblings Otis and Lizzie when his deceased mother's theatrical troupe dropped by Oxford.  He had to give up his professorship at Oxford due to said false jailing plus half-siblings.  And now his harpy of a maternal grandmother, the Duchess of Gilner, is suing for custody of Otis and Lizzie on the basis that Ward is not a suitable guardian because his parents were never married (which is rich, considering that it is her daughter, Lady Lisette, who is the connecting parent and Ward's father is an earl).  Ward is desperate for a Snowe's governess, those stoic, no-nonsense nannies that are guaranteed to bring hellions in line.  Otis and Lizzie are sweet children, but dramatic recitations, Catholic-looking mourning veils, and a velvet-cloak-wearing rat named Jarvis test the nerves of the average governess.  Unfortunately, their first Snowe's governess had an attack of nerves and quit.  And their second Snowe's governess isn't working out....

Eugenia is a workaholic with a waiting list miles long for her trained governesses.  She has no time for a rugged, brilliant, devious male (who for all that he is brilliant and rich he thinks she's a governess, more fool him) who makes her think of pleasure.  He plies her with flattery.  He plies her with pastries at Gunther's because he has deduced she has a sweet tooth that she keeps ruthlessly restrained.  He kidnaps her (it's not bad, don't worry) with the help of Eugenia's assistant who has been pushing Eugenia to both take a vacation and have an affair.  So Eugenia agrees to allow herself to be kidnapped, spend a fortnight in Oxford, help Otis and Lizzie become "Society" ready, and be passionately seduced by Ward before moving on with her life.

Things don't turn out as planned... (it's a romance novel, that always happens).

Seven Minutes in Heaven is a novel that brings together all the best of Eloisa James's writing talents: snappy, rapier-sharp dialogue, smart women, family dynamics, creative love scenes, grand gestures, and a healthy sprinkling of English playwriting. And cute animals.  Ward and Eugenia toss lines and innuendo back and forth like Bogey and Bacall. I thought the pages would catch fire during one scene (that one in the dining room, yowza).  Almost all of my favorite scenes involved Eugenia and Ward's little sister Lizzie quoting bits of Restoration drama and Shakespeare at one another (like I said, smart ladies). Eloisa's day job (awesome Shakespeare professor) has always slipped into her books in various ways and it makes them so very fun to read. [Go read The Taming of the Duke and then Etherege's play The Man of Mode because the intertextual mixing with Etherege and Shakespeare in the plot is awesome.  And then go read some John Wilmot, while I'm recommending Restoration literature, because everyone needs some dirty poetry and puns.]

I think, although I might be wrong because I can't test the opposite idea, that this is a novel that works best if you have read Duchess by Night, Desperate Duchesses, and A Duke of Her Own. Because even though certain things are explained through out the course of Seven Minutes, there's a resonant effect that's missing if you haven't those three prior books. Eugenia is too rigidly proper in public and Ward too aggressively you-can't-hurt-me-if-I-don't-let-you as over-reactions to their childhoods. You don't get the full spectrum of Lady Lisette unless you read her on the page (and Seven Minutes gives some rather frightening dimensions to Lisette's behavior in A Duke of Her Own, holy cow).

Eugenia's side of the story was a perhaps a shade too Insta-Lusty for my usual taste, but in this instance it did work for a woman who keeps her sensual side tightly controlled. I loved the appearance of the Duke of Villiers, one of the best heroes (anti-hero? Cupid at times?) ever created; he gives the best advice and gets the best quips. Every one of Eloisa's Desperate Duchesses couples appears or is mentioned at some point.  I loved it.

Seven Minutes in Heaven is out now from your favorite bookseller!

Dear FTC: I read an advance galley that I won in a giveaway and I also had a copy pre-ordered on my nook.

29 January 2017

salt. by Nayyirah Waheed

Summary from Goodreads:
Salt is a journey through warmth and sharpness. This collection of poetry explores the realities of multiple identities, language, diasporic life & pain, the self, community, healing, celebration, and love.









salt. is a self-published book of poems about the experience of being a woman of color, an African-american woman, of African descent, an immigrant, loving an immigrant, of ancestry.  A few poems hit back hard at tourism by affluent whites to the poorer, browner areas of the world.  I know very little about Nayyirah Waheed herself, her website and Goodreads Author page have no biographical information, so I have to read and interpret these poems without any knowledge of her influences.  These poems are stark and raw but also beautiful.  Waheed has taken great care not just with her imagery but also with the structure of these poems.  Her line breaks are very precisely placed.



And now I come to the rub of publishing.  I had to read this wonderful book via kindle app since there doesn't seem to be a way to get this elsewhere except from Amazon. Even my well-stocked, very-up-on-what's-popular-and-relevant local public library doesn't have a copy in either ebook or print. I have tried to order the book through my store's distributors - because we can order CreateSpace books if/when we can - but according to the distributor it isn't available anymore.  However, checking the actual CreateSpace site reveals that the book is available to order and that CreateSpace is an Amazon subsidiary.... This is why I included the BN link above.  Because of whatever decision made behind the scenes at Amazon/CreateSpace I have no way of getting paperback copies of salt. into my store to push into customers' hands.  And I want to push this at everyone who comes in looking for Milk and Honey and Citizen because salt. should reach just as many readers as those books can.  So please publishers, offer Waheed a P2P contract.  She has a gift.

24 January 2017

We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement by Andi Zeisler

Summary from Goodreads:
Feminism has hit the big time. Once a dirty word brushed away with a grimace, “feminist” has been rebranded as a shiny label sported by movie and pop stars, fashion designers, and multi-hyphenate powerhouses like Beyoncé. It drives advertising and marketing campaigns for everything from wireless plans to underwear to perfume, presenting what’s long been a movement for social justice as just another consumer choice in a vast market. Individual self-actualization is the goal, shopping more often than not the means, and celebrities the mouthpieces.

But what does it mean when social change becomes a brand identity? Feminism’s splashy arrival at the center of today’s media and pop-culture marketplace, after all, hasn’t offered solutions to the movement’s unfinished business. Planned Parenthood is under sustained attack, women are still paid 77 percent—or less—of the man’s dollar, and vicious attacks on women, both on- and offline, are utterly routine.

Andi Zeisler, a founding editor of Bitch Media, draws on more than twenty years’ experience interpreting popular culture in this biting history of how feminism has been co-opted, watered down, and turned into a gyratory media trend. Surveying movies, television, advertising, fashion, and more, Zeisler reveals a media landscape brimming with the language of empowerment, but offering little in the way of transformational change. Witty, fearless, and unflinching, We Were Feminists Once is the story of how we let this happen, and how we can amplify feminism’s real purpose and power.

We Were Feminists Once is a very accessible examination of the commodification of feminism through the last 30 years or so. A lot of thought is given to "choice" feminism and how that plays into brand marketing. The takeaway here is that it's much easier to put on a pair of sweats that say "feminist" on the butt than go to a march or have a nuanced discussion. Because "feminists" are still portrayed as baby-eating family-wreckers in the media rather than humans with equal standing (see also: the ERA).

Dear FTC: I borrowed this from the library.

23 January 2017

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

Summary from Goodreads:
Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South and the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space program—and whose contributions have been unheralded, until now.

Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as “Human Computers,” calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known, used slide rules, adding machines, and pencil and paper to support America’s fledgling aeronautics industry, and helped write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.

Drawing on the oral histories of scores of these “computers,” personal recollections, interviews with NASA executives and engineers, archival documents, correspondence, and reporting from the era, Hidden Figures recalls America’s greatest adventure and NASA’s groundbreaking successes through the experiences of five spunky, courageous, intelligent, determined, and patriotic women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine.

Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures interweaves a rich history of scientific achievement and technological innovation with the intimate stories of five women whose work forever changed the world—and whose lives show how out of one of America’s most painful histories came one of its proudest moments.

There isn't much more about Hidden Figures that I could say and not have it been said by about ten other people already.  This is such an amazing untold story about the black women who literally did the math that made the space program possible. They could have broken or bailed or given up so many times in the face of discrimination on two fronts. But they didn't. And we are so much richer for their perseverance.

Dear FTC: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

22 January 2017

The Secret Loves of Geek Girls edited by Hope Nicholson

Summary from Goodreads:
The Secret Loves of Geek Girls is a non-fiction anthology mixing prose, comics, and illustrated stories on the lives and loves of an amazing cast of female creators. Featuring work by Margaret Atwood (The Heart Goes Last), Mariko Tamaki (This One Summer), Trina Robbins (Wonder Woman), Marguerite Bennett (Marvel's A-Force), Noelle Stevenson (Nimona), Marjorie Liu (Monstress), Carla Speed McNeil (Finder), and over fifty more creators. It's a compilation of tales told from both sides of the tables: from the fans who love video games, comics, and sci-fi to those that work behind the scenes: creators and industry insiders.


A very diverse (both in creators and contents) anthology of "geek" ladies' origin stories, worries about relationships, identities, dating, and fandom. Some pieces are straight prose, some comics, some feel more like short fiction, some confessional memoir.  Loved it.

(Our buyers put this in Graphic Novels but it really feels like Women's Studies would be a better fit.)

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

21 January 2017

Jane Austen's Names: Riddles, Persons, Places by Margaret Doody

Summary from Goodreads:
In Jane Austen’s works, a name is never just a name. In fact, the names Austen gives her characters and places are as rich in subtle meaning as her prose itself. Wiltshire, for example, the home county of Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, is a clue that this heroine is not as stupid as she seems: according to legend, cunning Wiltshire residents caught hiding contraband in a pond capitalized on a reputation for ignorance by claiming they were digging up a “big cheese”—the moon’s reflection on the water’s surface. It worked.

In Jane Austen’s Names, Margaret Doody offers a fascinating and comprehensive study of all the names of people and places—real and imaginary—in Austen’s fiction. Austen’s creative choice of names reveals not only her virtuosic talent for riddles and puns. Her names also pick up deep stories from English history, especially the various civil wars, and the blood-tinged differences that played out in the reign of Henry VIII, a period to which she often returns. Considering the major novels alongside unfinished works and juvenilia, Doody shows how Austen’s names signal class tensions as well as regional, ethnic, and religious differences. We gain a new understanding of Austen’s technique of creative anachronism, which plays with and against her skillfully deployed realism—in her books, the conflicts of the past swirl into the tensions of the present, transporting readers beyond the Regency.

Full of insight and surprises for even the most devoted Janeite, Jane Austen’s Names will revolutionize how we read Austen’s fiction.

Jane Austen's Names is a book I didn't even know I needed until I saw it on the shelf at Prairie Lights.  Come to mama, Jane Austen literary criticism nerd book.

I ❤❤ this book a lot - the minutiae of place names and personal names and etymology and how that commented on Austen's characterizations was so great.  She gets in a little dig at naming conventions in historical romance novels (which I totally get - sometimes those names are buh-nanas).  Recommended for Austen fans and people super-into English history. It's not quite perfect - there's a huge late digression during a discussion of place names in Mansfield Park which has an interesting premise but it feels much longer that discussion of the other novels so feels out of place (I could be biased, MP is not my favorite Austen novel). (And a strange statement about Erotic love in the Conclusion that seems to come out of nowhere....)

Finished book 1 of #24in48readathon! (Whee, academic writing makes for slow reading - BUT it was a good pick for Readathon since I was making time for long stretches of reading, which is what this book needed.)

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book OF COURSE.

16 January 2017

The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer

Summary from Goodreads:
A comic, bittersweet tale of family evocative of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Everything Is Illuminated

Alexander "Sasha" Karnokovitch and his family would like to mourn the passing of his mother, Rachela, with modesty and dignity. But Rachela, a famous Polish émigré mathematician and professor at the University of Wisconsin, is rumored to have solved the million-dollar, Navier-Stokes Millennium Prize problem. Rumor also has it that she spitefully took the solution to her grave. To Sasha’s chagrin, a ragtag group of socially challenged mathematicians arrives in Madison and crashes the shiva, vowing to do whatever it takes to find the solution — even if it means prying up the floorboards for Rachela’s notes.

Written by a Ph.D. geophysicist, this hilarious and multi-layered debut novel brims with colorful characters and brilliantly captures humanity’s drive not just to survive, but to solve the impossible.

If I said The Mathematician's Shiva was really funny would you believe me?

Well, it is. This book is LOADED with kooky academic math-nerd humor in among all the my-mother's-shiva-has-been-invaded-by-non-family-members-and-what-the-hell-all-is-going-on-in-this-house scenes. This is a really wonderful novel that examines how one remembers and honors a parent when that parent isn't just a private person.  Sasha also discovers a lost part of his family over the course of the week.  Rojstaczer also uses the setting of Madison - a college town in the midst of winter to his advantage.  If you've been to UW's campus, you'll know exactly where he has put his characters.

And I learned a bit (I think) about Russian-Polish Judaism (I was raised Lutheran so the specifics were all a bit fascinating). I appreciated greatly how words or phrases in Russian/Polish/Hebrew/Yiddish(?) weren't always translated and that made the dialogue and writing seem very natural.

An excellent debut novel (also, A+ cover design Penguin, I love it).

Dear FTC: I won a copy of this book waaay back when it was published in a Goodreads First Reads contest.  I read it then, but somehow never managed to get it reviewed on my blog.  So I'm doing it now.

12 January 2017

Unf*ck Your Habitat: You're Better Than Your Mess by Rachel Hoffman

Summary from Goodreads:
Finally, a housekeeping and organizational system developed for those of us who'd describe our current living situation as a “f*cking mess” that we're desperate to fix. Unf*ck Your Habitat is for anyone who has been left behind by traditional aspirational systems: The ones that ignore single people with full-time jobs; people without kids but living with roommates; and people with mental illnesses or physical limitations, and many others. Most organizational books are aimed at traditional homemakers, DIYers, and people who seem to have unimaginable amounts of free time. They assume we all iron our sheets, have linen napkins to match our table runners, and can keep plants alive for longer than a week. Basically, they ignore most of us living here in the real world.

Interspersed with lists and challenges, this practical, no-nonsense advice relies on a 20/10 system (20 minutes of cleaning followed by a 10-minute break; no marathon cleaning allowed) to help you develop lifelong habits. It motivates you to embrace a new lifestyle in manageable sections so you can actually start applying the tactics as you progress. For everyone stuck between The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Adulting, this philosophy is decidedly more realistic than aspirational, but the goal is the same: not everyone will have a showcase of a home, but whatever your habitat, you deserve one that brings you happiness, not stress.

Unf*ck Your Habitat is a good, solid "kick in the pants to stop procrastinating and take care of your mess" book by the UfYH creator. It isn't over-prescriptive or unrealistic (you are not expected to hold each object in your home to see if it brings you happiness, for instance). There's a lot of acknowledgement that real people are busy, or have messy, sheddy cats, or roommates, or family members, or have trouble with mobility or pain or illness, or mental illness that wreaks havoc on ones ability to even get out of bed much less make it afterward.

The main point is to just get started, even if it's five minutes of dishes or five pieces of clothing put away - those little bits will eventually add up.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.