22 June 2017

Falling for the Highlander by Lynsay Sands (Highlanders #4)

Summary from Goodreads:
Lady Murine Carmichael has known her share of bad luck. But when her debt-ridden half-brother tries to sell her off in exchange for a few Scottish horses, it’s the final straw. If keeping her freedom means escaping through harsh countryside alone, so be it. She has barely begun her journey when she lands an unlikely escort—the brawny Highlander who just refused to buy her virtue.

Dougall Buchanan was disgusted by Lord Danvries’ shameful offer, but Murine herself tempts him beyond measure. Even bedraggled and dusty, the lass glows with beauty and bravery. Dougall wants to do more than just help her flee. He wants to protect her—with his life and his heart—if she’ll only let him. For Murine may be pursued by a powerful foe, but nothing compares to the fiery courage of a Highlander in love.

Lynsay Sands, good lord woman, what are you doing with this series?  It started out really fun, and it seemed like branching out into the different women who appeared as potential/thwarted brides in To Marry a Scottish Laird (book 2) would be an excellent plan but what even is this book?

Falling for the Highlander is completely phoned in. Lazy writing, silly plot choices (Really? All these brothers are so smitten that they bring EVERY dress for Murine to choose from so they are conveniently destroyed by a fire forcing her to wear braies so Dougall can ogle her butt?), and strange word choices (butt cheek? In medieval Scotland, really?).  The Buchanan brothers - introduced in Saidh's book - are kind of a riot but they don't help a recycled plot.  And then it just sort of ends. Do better (next time, because I can't quit Sands's Highlanders for some reason).

I'd like a book about Aulay, please.  Given that he's got some hang-ups I think he'd be far more interesting to write about. (Next one's about Niels, though, oh well)

Dear FTC: I had a digital galley, but it expired so when the library's Overdrive system got a copy I borrowed it.  Glad I didn't buy it.

21 June 2017

A Girl Walks Into a Book: What the Brontës Taught Me about Life, Love, and Women's Work by Miranda K. Pennington

Summary from Goodreads:
How many times have you heard readers argue about which is better, Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights? The works of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne continue to provoke passionate fandom over a century after their deaths. Brontë enthusiasts, as well as those of us who never made it further than those oft-cited classics, will devour Miranda Pennington's delightful literary memoir.
Pennington, today a writer and teacher in New York, was a precocious reader. Her father gave her Jane Eyre at the age of 10, sparking what would become a lifelong devotion and multiple re-readings. She began to delve into the work and lives of the Brontës, finding that the sisters were at times her lifeline, her sounding board, even her closest friends. In this charming, offbeat memoir, Pennington traces the development of the Brontës as women, as sisters, and as writers, as she recounts her own struggles to fit in as a bookish, introverted, bisexual woman. In the Brontës and their characters, Pennington finally finds the heroines she needs, and she becomes obsessed with their wisdom, courage, and fearlessness. Her obsession makes for an entirely absorbing and unique read.
A Girl Walks Into a Book is a candid and emotional love affair that braids criticism, biography and literature into a quest that helps us understand the place of literature in our lives; how it affects and inspires us.

*publisher catalog waves title about person talking about Brontës under my nose and I practically short-circuit until I get my hands on a copy*

A Girl Walks Into a Book is a lovely memoir about how one woman found solace and guidance throughout her life through a love of the Brontës and their work. Lots of life lessons, dreams, heart-break, and learning to be an adult who works through difficult situations, particularly relationships. Pennington touched on all of the Brontës' books, a number of the film adaptations, and even includes a shout-out to the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde (aww, yeah).

Dear FTC: I had to buy a copy of this book because no one would give me a galley (sad but true).

20 June 2017

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman by Anne Helen Petersen

Summary from Goodreads:
From celebrity gossip expert and BuzzFeed culture writer Anne Helen Petersen comes an accessible, analytical look at how female celebrities are pushing boundaries of what it means to be an acceptable woman.

You know the type: the woman who won't shut up, who's too brazen, too opinionated, too much. She's the unruly woman, and she embodies one of the most provocative and powerful forms of womanhood today. In Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud, Anne Helen Petersen uses the lens of unruliness to explore the ascension of pop culture powerhouses like Lena Dunham, Nicki Minaj, and Kim Kardashian, exploring why the public loves to love (and hate) these controversial figures. With its brisk, incisive analysis, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud will be a conversation-starting book on what makes and breaks celebrity today.

After living through the first half of 2017, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud is the book I needed to give me a boost and a reminder to square my shoulders and keep on going.

I really, really enjoyed this book of ten essays that examined unruly women (women who are too loud, too slutty, too old, too fat, too strong, too pregnant, etc) and deconstructed the media and culture reaction to each "type". And no woman is perfect, another way we become unruly. I would have happily read even more because Petersen situated her writing in a good middle ground - she pulled theory from philosophy, gender studies, etc but also used hundreds of pop culture examples. This is a good place to start for anyone looking to examine "post-feminist" backlash.

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

19 June 2017

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew J. Sullivan

Summary from Goodreads:
When a bookshop patron commits suicide, it’s his favorite store clerk who must unravel the puzzle he left behind in this fiendishly clever debut novel from an award-winning short story writer.

Lydia Smith lives her life hiding in plain sight. A clerk at the Bright Ideas bookstore, she keeps a meticulously crafted existence among her beloved books, eccentric colleagues, and the BookFrogs—the lost and lonely regulars who spend every day marauding the store’s overwhelmed shelves.

But when Joey McGinty, a young, beguiling BookFrog, kills himself in the bookstore’s back room, Lydia’s life comes unglued. Always Joey’s favorite bookseller, Lydia has been bequeathed his meager worldly possessions. Trinkets and books; the detritus of a lonely, uncared for man. But when Lydia flips through his books she finds them defaced in ways both disturbing and inexplicable. They reveal the psyche of a young man on the verge of an emotional reckoning. And they seem to contain a hidden message. What did Joey know? And what does it have to do with Lydia?

As Lydia untangles the mystery of Joey’s suicide, she unearths a long buried memory from her own violent childhood. Details from that one bloody night begin to circle back. Her distant father returns to the fold, along with an obsessive local cop, and the Hammerman, a murderer who came into Lydia’s life long ago and, as she soon discovers, never completely left. Bedazzling, addictive, and wildly clever, Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is a heart-pounding mystery that perfectly captures the intellect and eccentricity of the bookstore milieu and will keep you guessing until the very last page.​

I wasn't sure what to make of Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore.  Is it a thriller?  A coming-of-age story?  Psychological?  With loads of psychological thrillers on the market from authors like Gillian Flynn and Ruth Ware, this didn't feel like it fit.  But it went on the Discover display at the store, so I felt like I ought to give it  a shot.

Sullivan chose an odd but compelling way to tell a thriller story that turns out to be something else entirely. Lydia is an interesting main character with a lot of secrets and backstory.  It was pretty compelling reading - if she investigates Joey's last request, will she bring the Hammerman out of hiding? What is this message hidden in his books? However, Lydia also felt very flat as a character, without much internal motivation until the end of the book. There were some good twists and turns in this novel, all leading back to the theme of family and secrets. Structurally, though, Sullivan chose to close the novel with an Epilogue.  It was a total cop out.  He should have just written a closing chapter or two rather than cram all sorts of stuff into a time jump. #banepilogues

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

13 June 2017

Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens by Eddie Izzard

Summary from Goodreads:
Critically acclaimed, award-winning British comedian and actor Eddie Izzard details his childhood, his first performances on the streets of London, his ascent to worldwide success on stage and screen, and his comedy shows which have won over audiences around the world.

Over the course of a thirty-year career, Eddie Izzard has proven himself to be a creative chameleon, inhabiting the stage and film and television screen with an unbelievable fervor. Born in Yemen, and raised in Ireland, Wales and post-war England, he lost his mother at the age of six. In his teens, he dropped out of university and took to the streets of London as part of a two-man escape act; when his partner went on vacation, Izzard kept busy by inventing a one-man act, and thus a career was ignited. As a stand-up comedian, Izzard has captivated audiences with his surreal, stream-of-consciousness comedy--lines such as "Cake or Death?" "Death Star Canteen," and "Do You Have a Flag?" have the status of great rock lyrics. As a self-proclaimed "Executive Transvestite," Izzard broke the mold performing in full make-up and heels, and has become as famous for his advocacy for LGBT rights as he has for his art. In Believe Me, he recounts the dizzying rise he made from street busking to London's West End, to Wembley Stadium and New York's Madison Square Garden.

Still performing more than 100 shows a year--thus far in a record-breaking twenty-eight countries worldwide--Izzard is arguably one of today's top Kings of Comedy. With his brand of keenly intelligent humor, that ranges from world history to pop culture, politics and philosophy, he has built an extraordinary fan base that transcends age, gender, and race. Writing with the same candor and razor-sharp insight evident in his comedy, he reflects on a childhood marked by unutterable loss, sexuality and coming out, as well as a life in show business, politics, and philanthropy. Honest and generous, Izzard's Believe Me is an inspired account of a very singular life thus far.

Eddie Izzard is one of those chameleon actors for me: I would never recognize him on the street and his characters have a huge range (I would never have pegged him to play a Nazi in Valkyrie but he was excellent) plus he's a comic.  Believe Me is a good, solid memoir running from his very early childhood all the way up to his recent successes as an actor. If you're used to Izzard's stand-up shows, the writing here isn't nearly as laugh-out-loud funny, but he's got a really dry writing style and has some excellent bits in the footnotes.  I snorted several times. The last 50 pages or so get kind of pokey and wander around but it is a fascinating look at how he built his career from the ground up.  I also feel like I understand his sexuality much more, which is a good reminder for me that people do not fit neatly into little boxes.

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

11 June 2017

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Summary from Goodreads:
From the bestselling author of Bad Feminist: a searingly honest memoir of food, weight, self-image, and learning how to feed your hunger while taking care of yourself

“I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe. I buried the girl I was because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere. . . . I was trapped in my body, one that I barely recognized or understood, but at least I was safe.”

In her phenomenally popular essays and long-running Tumblr blog, Roxane Gay has written with intimacy and sensitivity about food and body, using her own emotional and psychological struggles as a means of exploring our shared anxieties over pleasure, consumption, appearance, and health. As a woman who describes her own body as “wildly undisciplined,” Roxane understands the tension between desire and denial, between self-comfort and self-care. In Hunger, she explores her own past—including the devastating act of violence that acted as a turning point in her young life—and brings readers along on her journey to understand and ultimately save herself.

With the bracing candor, vulnerability, and power that have made her one of the most admired writers of her generation, Roxane explores what it means to learn to take care of yourself: how to feed your hungers for delicious and satisfying food, a smaller and safer body, and a body that can love and be loved—in a time when the bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes.

I have been WAITING AND WAITING for this book.  A new Roxane Gay collections of essays/memoir.  Give it to me now.

I don't think I can write anything coherent. Roxane's book is beautiful and gutting, full of sharp cultural criticism about how large bodies (fat people, particularly fat women) are perceived running parallel to an account of her life After and how broken she became. I don't know how she found the courage to cut this book free from her mind and allow us to read it but she did. It had to be so hard because I felt physical pain in my chest while I was reading it.  I am in awe of her strength.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. I'll buy it, too, probably.

06 June 2017

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Allison Markin Powell)

Summary from Goodreads:
Featuring a delightfully offbeat cast of characters, The Nakano Thrift Shop is
a generous-hearted portrayal of human relationships by one of Japan's most beloved authors.

Objects for sale at the Nakano Thrift Shop appear as commonplace as the staff and customers that handle them. But like those same customers and staff, they hold many secrets. If examined carefully, they show the signs of innumerable extravagancies, of immeasurable pleasure and pain, and of the deep mysteries of the human heart.

Hitomi, the inexperienced young woman who works the register at Mr. Nakano's thrift shop, has fallen for her coworker, the oddly reserved Takeo. Unsure of how to attract his attention, she seeks advice from her employer's sister, Masayo, whose sentimental entanglements make her a somewhat unconventional guide. But thanks in part to Masayo, Hitomi will come to realize that love, desire, and intimacy require acceptance not only of idiosyncrasies but also of the delicate waltz between open and hidden secrets. Animating each delicately rendered chapter in Kawakami's playful novel is Mr. Nakano himself, an original, entertaining, and enigmatic creation whose compulsive mannerisms, secretive love life, and impulsive behavior defy all expectations.

The Nakano Thrift Shop is a quirky, understated book about three people who work at a thrift shop (four, if you count the owner's sister) over the course of about one year. Hitomi observes the oddities of her employer, Mr. Nakano, and his sister while appearing to drift a little bit in life (I hate to use the term "quarterlife crisis" but it does feel like she is trying to figure out life a bit).  She also develops a strange relationship with the delivery driver Takeo, who definitely sends her strange signals.  This is an excellent book for when you need something quiet.

The translation seems good (I had thought that "Indian summer" was an odd idiom to use but it turns out that it was ported into Japanese some time ago). There is a weird convention about quotation marks - sometimes used, sometimes not.

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

05 June 2017

Bitch Planet, Volume 2: President Bitch by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro

Summary from Goodreads:
Eisner Award-nominated writer KELLY SUE DeCONNICK (PRETTY DEADLY, Captain Marvel) and VALENTINE DE LANDRO (X-Factor) follow up on the success of EXTRAORDINARY MACHINE with the second installment of their highly acclaimed and fiercely unapologetic BITCH PLANET. A few years down the road in the wrong direction, a woman's failure to comply with her patriarchal overlords results in exile to the meanest penal planet in the galaxy. But what happened on Earth that this new world order came to pass in the first place? Return to the grim corridors of Auxiliary Compliance Outpost #2, to uncover the first clues to the history of the world as we know it…and meet PRESIDENT BITCH.

This volume collects issues #6-10, a reader discussion guide and additional bonus materials.

Fire. Absolute fire. Amazing. I don't have much else to say except that I am KICKING myself for not getting this in issues because the trade doesn't have the original essays included in each issue. The notes from Kelly Sue and Valentine about two really important opening panels are amazing.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss and then I'm going to buy one because obviously.

03 June 2017

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat

Summary from Goodreads:
A visionary new master class in cooking that distills decades of professional experience into just four simple elements, from the woman declared “America’s next great cooking teacher” by Alice Waters.

In the tradition of The Joy of Cooking and How to Cook Everything comes Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, an ambitious new approach to cooking by a major new culinary voice. Chef and writer Samin Nosrat has taught everyone from professional chefs to middle school kids to author Michael Pollan to cook using her revolutionary, yet simple, philosophy. Master the use of just four elements—Salt, which enhances flavor; Fat, which delivers flavor and generates texture; Acid, which balances flavor; and Heat, which ultimately determines the texture of food—and anything you cook will be delicious. By explaining the hows and whys of good cooking, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat will teach and inspire a new generation of cooks how to confidently make better decisions in the kitchen and cook delicious meals with any ingredients, anywhere, at any time.

Echoing Samin’s own journey from culinary novice to award-winning chef, Salt, Fat Acid, Heat immediately bridges the gap between home and professional kitchens. With charming narrative, illustrated walkthroughs, and a lighthearted approach to kitchen science, Samin demystifies the four elements of good cooking for everyone. Refer to the canon of 100 essential recipes—and dozens of variations—to put the lessons into practice and make bright, balanced vinaigrettes, perfectly caramelized roast vegetables, tender braised meats, and light, flaky pastry doughs.

Featuring 150 illustrations and infographics that reveal an atlas to the world of flavor by renowned illustrator Wendy MacNaughton, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat will be your compass in the kitchen. Destined to be a classic, it just might be the last cookbook you’ll ever need.

With a foreword by Michael Pollan.

I love, love, love Samin Nosrat's Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Part "this is why we cook food the way we do" guide, part cookbook, 100% delightful. Nosrat's writing style and tone are easy to understand and completely not-intimidating. While reading this I was inspired to try some changes in the way I cook based on her advice in each chapter - it seemed to work and make me more inventive. Along the way, Wendy MacNaughton's delightful artwork helped illustrate ideas with charts and graphs as well as providing some humor and whimsy. A must-have for home cooks!

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

02 June 2017

The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book History by Hope Nicholson

Summary from Goodreads:
A woman's place is saving the universe.

Think comic books can't feature strong female protagonists? Think again! In The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen you ll meet the most fascinating exemplars of the powerful, compelling, entertaining, and heroic female characters who ve populated comic books from the very beginning. This spectacular sisterhood includes costumed crimebusters like Miss Fury, super-spies like Tiffany Sinn, sci-fi pioneers like Gale Allen, and even kid troublemakers like Little Lulu. With vintage art, publication details, a decade-by-decade survey of industry trends and women s roles in comics, and spotlights on iconic favorites like Wonder Woman and Ms. Marvel, The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen proves that not only do strong female protagonists belong in comics, they've always been there."

The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen is a very beautifully designed overview of the history of female characters in (mostly American) comics, starting in the 1930s, twelve ladies a decade. This isn't comprehensive, but Nicholson has tried for a cross-section of ALL female characters not just the "best", including some that are problematic. This was a fun read and Nicholson tries to point out where one can track down the original adventures if you want to read characters' adventures in full (if they're available, many older comics have not been reprinted at all).

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

30 May 2017

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

Summary from Goodreads:
A laugh-out-loud, heartfelt YA romantic comedy, told in alternating perspectives, about two Indian-American teens whose parents have arranged for them to be married.

Dimple Shah has it all figured out. With graduation behind her, she’s more than ready for a break from her family, from Mamma’s inexplicable obsession with her finding the “Ideal Indian Husband.” Ugh. Dimple knows they must respect her principles on some level, though. If they truly believed she needed a husband right now, they wouldn’t have paid for her to attend a summer program for aspiring web developers…right?

Rishi Patel is a hopeless romantic. So when his parents tell him that his future wife will be attending the same summer program as him—wherein he’ll have to woo her—he’s totally on board. Because as silly as it sounds to most people in his life, Rishi wants to be arranged, believes in the power of tradition, stability, and being a part of something much bigger than himself.

The Shahs and Patels didn’t mean to start turning the wheels on this “suggested arrangement” so early in their children’s lives, but when they noticed them both gravitate toward the same summer program, they figured, Why not?

Dimple and Rishi may think they have each other figured out. But when opposites clash, love works hard to prove itself in the most unexpected ways.

I first heard about When Dimple Met Rishi months ago when Preeti Chhibber started talking about an upcoming YA romance novel about two Indian kids at a computer coding camp whose parents have decided to play matchmaker.  That sounded a) adorable as all get-out and b) yaaaas, #ownvoices book about two nerdy kids.  Yes, do want, kthanks.

Would you be surprised if I said that basically anyone who walks into our teen section at the store gets this book handed to them?  You shouldn't be.

Because When Dimple Met Rishi is the most adorable, a-dork-able romance I've read in a long time. There's comics, coding, cosplay, generalized nerdery, and Bollywood. Dimple and Rishi are such great characters who are very smart but also have a lot of life experience to live through, too.  Dimple is extremely angry at her parents for this matchmaking scheme (particularly her mom, since her mom's sole purpose in life seems to get Dimple to be more girly and snag an Ideal Indian Husband); she doesn't have time for a relationship, she's going to focus on her career to develop great apps and software to help people.  Rishi, who is of a more traditional mindset, is determined to be a successful engineer so that he can take care of his parents later on, even if that means depriving himself of a creative outlet that he loves.  I loved the secondary characters of Dimple's roommate Celia and Rishi's brother Ashish. But in and around the central romance plot, there are some really sobering scenes with the local rich douche-bros and some casual racism and sexism; Menon uses these really tough scenes to highlight how hard Dimple has worked and how people like to pigeon-hole brown kids. I loved it - such a good book.

If this book does not make you grin with delight there is no hope for you. Definitely a comp for fans of Fangirl, given the characters' are edging out of teenage years and into adulthood.

(Also, please make this into a movie? It would be the cutest.)

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

28 May 2017

From Duke Till Dawn by Eva Leigh (The London Underground #1)

Summary from Goodreads:
Eva Leigh launches a seductive new series that sizzles with the dark secrets of London’s underworld...

Years ago, the Duke of Greyland gave his heart—and a princely sum of money—to a charming, destitute widow with unparalleled beauty. After one passionate night, she slipped from his bed and vanished without a trace. And just when he’s given up hope of ever seeing her again, Greyland finds her managing a gaming hell. He’s desperate to have her… until he discovers everything about his long-lost lover was a lie.

In truth, Cassandra Blake grew up on the streets, picking pockets to survive. Greyland was a mark—to be fleeced and forgotten—but her feelings for the duke became all too real. Once he learns of her deception, however, the heat in his eyes turns to ice. When her business partner absconds with the gaming hell proceeds—leaving unsavory investors out for blood—Cassandra must beg the man she betrayed for help.

Greyland wants compensation, too, and he’ll assist her under one condition: she doesn’t leave his sight until her debts are paid. But it’s not long before the real Cassandra—the smart, streetwise criminal—is stealing his heart all over again. 

Eva Leigh is kicking off a new series!  More cross-class romance, yes! (I still need to catch up with the last book from her Wicked Quills of London series, Temptations of a Wallflower - I have it, but haven't read it, yet, story of my life.)

From Duke Till Dawn is a wild ride!  We have a Duke in love with a pretty widow who captured his attention then disappeared but turns up months later as the manager of a pop-up gaming hell...who spins a few more glib stories but her house of cards soon collapses.  The pretty widow is really a con-artist, skilled at getting rich men to "help out" a destitute young widow desperate for a few hundred pounds to get her out of a jam, more familiar with the gutter than the ballroom.  The Duke, Greyland, is understandably pissed off at her, not so much for cheating him out of money but for abusing his trust (and maybe breaking his heart).  Cassie was hoping this gaming hell gig would be her last job, a way to get out of the grind and lead a life free of lies. But when her business partner - her supposed friend and mentor for many years - disappears with the takings from the gaming hell, leaving Cassie in mortal danger, she's forced to throw herself on Greyland's mercy.

This is a cross-class romance that gets rather adventurous (in more ways than one) and has some real stakes. I really liked the problem presented by making the heroine a grifter who had made the hero a previous mark - it turns the meet-cute on its head and presents a real problem of social, moral, and personal tangles to the resolution of a Happy Ending rather than just those pesky "three little words." Ellingsworth and Langdon were a hoot as the comic relief - I can't wait to see what Leigh has in store for them.

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

25 May 2017

Isadora by Amelia Gray

Summary from Goodreads:
Using the scaffolding of Isadora Duncan’s life and the stuff of her spirit, Amelia Gray delivers an incredibly imaginative portrait of the artist

In 1913, the restless world sat on the brink of unimaginable suffering. But for one woman, the darkness of a new era had already made itself at home. Isadora Duncan would come to be known as the mother of modern dance, but in the spring of 1913 she was a grieving mother, after a freak accident in Paris resulted in the drowning death of her two young children.

The accident cracked Isadora’s life in two: on one side, the brilliant young talent who captivated audiences the world over; on the other, a heartbroken mother spinning dangerously on the edge of sanity.

Isadora is a shocking and visceral portrait of an artist and woman drawn to the brink of destruction by the cruelty of life. In her breakout novel, Amelia Gray offers a relentless portrayal of a legendary artist churning through prewar Europe. Isadora seeks to obliterate the mannered portrait of a dancer and to introduce the reader to a woman who lived and loved without limits, even in the darkest days of her life.

I've been very interested in this novel for a while.  Isadora Duncan is an absolutely important figure in the development of modern dance and in breaking away from the classical ballet tradition.  She's also a tragic figure in the discipline, first losing her eldest two children to an accident and then dying of a broken neck when her scarf is caught in a car's axle.  Of course, I would want to read a novel based on her life.

This didn't quite pan out.  There's an interesting biographical novel somewhere in Isadora, one about grief and loss and art, but it's bogged down by the style. The novel begins on the day that Isadora's children drown in a car accident in the Seine and spans the next 18 months or so told by a rotating cast of 4 characters: Paris Singer, Isadora's lover and father of her younger child; Elizabeth, Isadora's sister; Max, Elizabeth's lover (maybe her lover, maybe not?) and a teacher at the Duncan school in Darmstadt; and Isadora Duncan herself.  There are also other characters coloring the narrative, the Duncan matriarch, another Duncan sibling and his wife, students of the Duncan school, and so on. Now, the major snag here is that Isadora narrates in the first person and everyone else in a close third person point-of-view, with some letters mixed in between chapters, and that makes it absolute hell to read. Also, while some of Paris's sections were interesting, absolutely none of Max's sections were worth reading, in my opinion. Isadora's sections are the strongest, and most beautiful, with Elizabeth's a perfect contrast as the sister always in the shadow. If I could take a knife and snip out everything else leaving only these two sister narrators (and magically make Isadora's sections a close third POV) this would be a marvelous novel.

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

24 May 2017

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. by Samantha Irby

Summary from Goodreads:
Sometimes you just have to laugh, even when life is a dumpster fire. With We Are Never Meeting in Real Life., "bitches gotta eat" blogger and comedian Samantha Irby turns the serio-comic essay into an art form. Whether talking about how her difficult childhood has led to a problem in making "adult" budgets, explaining why she should be the new Bachelorette--she's "35-ish, but could easily pass for 60-something"--detailing a disastrous pilgrimage-slash-romantic-vacation to Nashville to scatter her estranged father's ashes, sharing awkward sexual encounters, or dispensing advice on how to navigate friendships with former drinking buddies who are now suburban moms--hang in there for the Costco loot--she's as deft at poking fun at the ghosts of her past self as she is at capturing powerful emotional truths.

Somehow, I had not run across Samantha Irby, a writer/humorist from Chicago, on the Interwebs. (No lie - I saw the cover with its grumpy kitten and was like SOLD, I wonder who wrote this.) we are never meeting in real life. is a very solid collection of personal essays ranging from hilarious (her bachelorette contestant application) to the stone-cold sobering (a phone call at college informing her that her father is missing, possibly dead). The arrangement of essays is very clever, moving us from topics we grasp easily - and easily chuckle over - moving through gradually harder subjects as Irby reveals to us - always with a quip - who she is as a queer, disabled black woman. She will cut you to ribbons with her words then enjoy a marathon of Real Housewives in her pajamas without a second thought. I think my favorite piece was the one about the Civil War reenactment she ran across while in Naperville for a wedding.  Definite recommend.

we are never meeting in real life. is out May 30th!

Edited to add: Congrats to Irby on her TV deal for her previous book, Meaty!

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

23 May 2017

Little Sister by Barbara Gowdy

Summary from Goodreads:
Thunderstorms are rolling across the summer sky. Every time one breaks, Rose Bowan loses consciousness and has vivid, realistic dreams about being in another woman's body.

Is Rose merely dreaming? Or is she, in fact, inhabiting a stranger? Disturbed yet entranced, she sets out to discover what is happening to her, leaving the cocoon of her family’s small repertory cinema for the larger, upended world of someone wildly different from herself. Meanwhile her mother is in the early stages of dementia, and has begun to speak for the first time in decades about another haunting presence: Rose’s younger sister.

In LITTLE SISTER, one woman fights to help someone she has never met, and to come to terms with a death for which she always felt responsible. With the elegant prose and groundbreaking imagination that have earned her international acclaim, Barbara Gowdy explores the astonishing power of empathy, the question of where we end and others begin, and the fierce bonds of motherhood and sisterhood.

Little Sister is one of those books that has such a good premise and idea behind the characters but then gets really underserved by the construction. The book takes so long to get to WHY Rose becomes so obsessed with Harriet and how the two of them might be connected (or not) that I was having trouble staying with the story.  And then it doesn't really dig into whether Rose was actually having visions, or just migraines, or if there truly was something supernatural.  For a short novel it should not have taken me this long to read. The mother, Fiona, was a great character and one of the few times that I've read an aging parent with dementia who is portrayed sympathetically but also given a three-dimensional personality beyond the mental deterioration.

Dear FTC: Thanks to Tin House Galley Club for the ARC.

21 May 2017

Chemistry by Weike Wang

Summary from Goodreads:
Praised by Ha Jin as "a genuine piece of literature: wise, humorous, and moving," and perfect for readers of Lab Girl and Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You, a luminous coming-of-age novel about a young female scientist who must recalibrate her life when her academic career goes off track.

Three years into her graduate studies at a demanding Boston university, the unnamed narrator of this nimbly wry, concise debut finds her one-time love for chemistry is more hypothesis than reality. She's tormented by her failed research--and reminded of her delays by her peers, her advisor, and most of all by her Chinese parents, who have always expected nothing short of excellence from her throughout her life. But there's another, nonscientific question looming: the marriage proposal from her devoted boyfriend, a fellow scientist, whose path through academia has been relatively free of obstacles, and with whom she can't make a life before finding success on her own.

Eventually, the pressure mounts so high that she must leave everything she thought she knew about her future, and herself, behind. And for the first time, she's confronted with a question she won't find the answer to in a textbook: What do I really want? Over the next two years, this winningly flawed, disarmingly insightful heroine learns the formulas and equations for a different kind of chemistry--one in which the reactions can't be quantified, measured, and analyzed; one that can be studied only in the mysterious language of the heart. Taking us deep inside her scattered, searching mind, here is a brilliant new literary voice that astutely juxtaposes the elegance of science, the anxieties of finding a place in the world, and the sacrifices made for love and family.

Chemistry is a book that fits in between Dear Committee Members and Dept. of Speculation - which is an intersection that I didn't know I needed. I really enjoyed the narrator as she winds up having to break almost everything in her life from her academic career to her long-term relationships before she can figure out who she is or what she wants. The writing is very wry and there's a lot of science and chemistry (NERD CRED FTW). I had some trouble at the beginning with the tenses - present tense is used for EVERYTHING, including events from the narrator's childhood, and I found that kind of annoying.

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

17 May 2017

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier (Hogarth Shakespeare)

Summary from Goodreads:
From the New York Times bestselling author of Girl with a Pearl Earring comes the fifth installment in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, a modern retelling of Othello set in a suburban schoolyard

Arriving at his fifth school in as many years, a diplomat's son, Osei Kokote, knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day so he's lucky to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one student can't stand to witness this budding relationship: Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl. By the end of the day, the school and its key players - teachers and pupils alike - will never be the same again.

The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970's suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practice a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Peeking over the shoulders of four 11 year olds Osei, Dee, Ian, and his reluctant girlfriend Mimi, Tracy Chevalier's powerful drama of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying and betrayal will leave you reeling.

I am having extreme side-eye with this this book. I love the Shakespeare Hogarth series idea, but I don't think New Boy executed well. We've had Othello updated using teens before but Chevalier chose to use 6th graders in the 1970s as her setting. Her depiction of racial tension in 1970s America worked but the sexual politics fell very flat, particularly since the action took place in a single school day.  One school day.  I know eleven-ish/twelve-ish year-olds are DRAMA (I've got twin nieces that age, tell me about it) but it felt over-constructed. Maybe it would have worked better to run the story over time as the children aged and developed relationships but this was far too short a time span.  In addition, I think Hogarth missed an opportunity to get an author who is not a white person to write Othello's story.  Chevalier is a fine writer, but what would Marlon James have done with this?  Jesmyn Ward? Colson Whitehead? NK Jemisin? Nnedi Okorafor? (OMG, YES PLEASE WRITE THIS, NNEDI)

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

16 May 2017

Evensong by Kate Southwood

Sumary from Goodreads:
Margaret Maguire—a widow and grandmother, home from the hospital in time for Christmas—is no longer able to ignore the consequences of having married an imperious and arrogant man. Despite her efforts to be a good wife and mother in small-town Iowa, her adult children are now strangers to one another, past hope of reconciliation. Margaret’s granddaughter could be the one to break the cycle, but she can’t do it without Margaret’s help. It’s time to take stock, to examine the past—even time for Margaret to call herself to account.

By turns tenacious and tender, contrary and wry, Margaret examines her life’s tragedies and joys, motivations and choices, coming to view herself and the past with compassion, if not entirely with forgiveness. Beautifully rendered and poignantly told, Evensong is an indelible portrait of a woman searching for tranquility at the end of her days.

While perusing catalogs, I came across a book set in Iowa.  Gimmie.

Evensong by Kate Southwood beautiful, quiet, slowly unfolding story about an elderly woman near the end of her life.  As she recuperates from a heart attack, she contemplates the consequences of her choice of husband who died decades ago when their two children were young (nothing squicky, just not a great person, in the end). The family dynamics here are very intricate - encounters are either commonplace or fraught with tension between the daughters and grand-daughter.  Anyone who has had that awkward holiday dinner with the one overachieving weirdo relative that everyone else is winding up will understand.

Although I picked up Evensong specifically because it is set in Iowa - a fictional town somewhere down near Ft Madison - and it isn't specifically evocative of place, it very much deserves its comps to Marilynne Robinson's Gilead with with the focus on a long life, family, and the past.

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

09 May 2017

Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano by Andrea Avery

Summary from Goodreads:
Andrea, already a promising and ambitious classical pianist at twelve, was diagnosed with a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis that threatened not just her musical aspirations but her ability to live a normal life. As Andrea navigates the pain and frustration of coping with RA alongside the usual travails of puberty, college, sex, and just growing-up, she turns to music—specifically Franz Schubert's sonata in B-flat D960, and the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein for strength and inspiration. The heartbreaking story of this mysterious sonata—Schubert’s last, and his most elusive and haunting—is the soundtrack of Andrea's story.

Sonata is a coming-of-age story that explores a “Janus-head miracle”—Andrea's extraordinary talent and even more extraordinary illness—in a manner reminiscent Brain on Fire and Poster Child. As the goshawk becomes a source of both devotion and frustration for Helen Macdonald in H Is for Hawk, so the piano comes to represent both struggle and salvation for Andrea in this extraordinary debut.

Sonata is a beautifully written, unflinching look at how a pianist has fought and accommodated her disease, even as it tried to close off her instrument. This is not Inspiration Lit. Avery doesn't triumph over adversity to nab a Juilliard scholarship, recording contract, and massive acclaim as a concert pianist. She allows us to see her anger, her loss at not being given a fair shake to see where her talent might take her before RA decided that she wasn't allowed to know if her joints would reliably function. That some days are good, some days are bad, and some days are awful. How being an adult with a chronic illness and disability impacted her relationships, romantic and otherwise. Mixed into Avery's story are the stories of Franz Schubert, a gifted composer ahead of his time who wrote the B-flat sonata that calls to her, and Paul Wittgenstein, a concert pianist who lost an arm in WWI.

Avery has a very nice writing style.  Straightforward but also illustrative without getting ornate. Someday, I hope she writes about being an English teacher, too, since she gives us a small glimpse into her life as an instructor and it sounds like she can give us some stories there, too.

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

03 May 2017

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly

Summary from Goodreads:
A brilliant, illuminating reassessment of the life and work of Jane Austen that makes clear how Austen has been misread for the past two centuries and that shows us how she intended her books to be read, revealing, as well, how subversive and daring--how truly radical--a writer she was.

In this fascinating, revelatory work, Helena Kelly--dazzling Jane Austen authority--looks past the grand houses, the pretty young women, past the demure drawing room dramas and witty commentary on the narrow social worlds of her time that became the hallmark of Austen's work to bring to light the serious, ambitious, deeply subversive nature of this beloved writer. Kelly illuminates the radical subjects--slavery, poverty, feminism, the Church, evolution, among them--considered treasonous at the time, that Austen deftly explored in the six novels that have come to embody an age. The author reveals just how in the novels we find the real Jane Austen: a clever, clear-sighted woman "of information," fully aware of what was going on in the world and sure about what she thought of it. We see a writer who understood that the novel--until then seen as mindless "trash"--could be a great art form and who, perhaps more than any other writer up to that time, imbued it with its particular greatness.

I'd been hearing about this new book of Jane Austen criticism that posits Miss Austen would have been a radical.

OK.  I'm in (I was actually in at "new book of Jane Austen criticism" but "political radicalism" bumped it up the TBR). Hello, Jane Austen, the Secret Radical.

I really, really liked Kelly's analysis of Austen's work.  The arguments made about Jane Austen's political leanings (spoiler: she's not a Conservative) are interesting and worth thinking about, whether you agree or not.  I actually started wishing I had a physical copy of this book so I could do some annotating/arguing in the margins. However, the affectation of placing a fanciful, fictionalized scene from Austen's life at the beginning of each chapter, including the Introduction, is completely unnecessary and hypocritical after pillorying Austen biographers for creating saccharine, unsupported-by-evidence portraits of "our Dear Sweet Aunt Jane." Such a lazy device. The editor should have nixed those pages.

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

02 May 2017

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

Summary from Goodreads:
From a dazzling new literary voice, a debut novel about  a  Palestinian family caught between present and past, between  displacement and home.

On the eve of her daughter Alia’s wedding, Salma reads the girl’s future in a cup of coffee dregs. She sees an unsettled life for Alia and her children; she also sees travel, and luck. While she chooses to keep her predictions to herself that day, they will all soon come to pass when the family is uprooted in the wake of the Six-Day War of 1967. Salma is forced to leave her home in Nablus; Alia’s brother gets pulled into a politically militarized world he can’t escape; and Alia and her gentle-spirited husband move to Kuwait City, where they reluctantly build a life with their three children.

When Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait in 1990, Alia and her family once again lose their home, their land, and their story as they know it, scattering to Beirut, Paris, Boston, and beyond. Soon Alia’s children begin families of their own, once again navigating the burdens (and blessings) of assimilation in foreign cities.

Lyrical and heartbreaking, Salt Houses is a remarkable debut novel that challenges and humanizes an age-old conflict we might think we understand—one that asks us to confront that most devastating of all truths: you can’t go home again. 

Oh man, this book.  Salt Houses is going on my best-of list this year for sure. I had to take a break about page 74 to charge up the iPad (since I forgot to charge it before Readathon started - oh, the vagaries of digital galleys), but once I started reading again this morning I could not stop.  And I'm so glad this was an end-of-Readathon book as opposed to the beginning because it ruined me for a few days afterward.

Salt Houses is a beautifully crafted story told by rotating among the different members of four generations of a Palestinian family, forced into a nomadic life after their home in Jaffa is lost during the 1948 incursion. Subsequent homes are created and lost over the years - Nablus, Kuwait, Amman, Beiruit, Paris, Boston. The push-pull of culture, homeland, loss, and faith is exquisite. Such a wonderful debut novel.

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

01 May 2017

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul

Summary from Goodreads:
When she was sixteen years old, Pamela Paul opened to the first page of a notebook and began recording the title and author of every book she read during the summer. She continued doing so as autumn turned to winter, as high school turned to college, as her life took her through romance, disappointment, marriage, and motherhood, and as she rose in her career to the editorship of The New York Times Book Review. The once-new notebook—now mottled, coffee-stained, and frayed at the corners—is the record of her lifelong love affair with books, and it has come to mean more to her than any other material possession. She has even given it a name: Bob, for “Book of Books."

Pamela Paul’s life with Bob is a life that many of us will recognize, a life in which books play a much more meaningful role than simply imparting information or entertaining us with compelling stories. When she opens Bob to any page, the titles and authors listed there serve as touchstones to remember the people, places, and emotions of her past – not only what she was reading but where she was and the person she was at the time. It makes a difference that she read The Trial while on a youth program in France, The Hunger Games in the maternity ward, and Swimming to Cambodia in Cambodia, and she reflects on how her life’s journey has been shaped and redirected by the books and authors who spoke to her at that time.

Not merely a chronicle of reading, My Life with Bob is also a testament to the power of books to provide the perspective, courage, companionship, and ultimately the self-knowledge to forge our own path and get where we want to go.

Bob is pretty awesome.

"Books wherein an author talks about how much they love books and what they read" is a particular genre kryptonite of mine. Editor of the New York Times Book Review wrote a book about keeping a book journal for most of her life?  Sign me up.

My Life With Bob by Pamela Paul was a little more memoir that I had anticipated - I was expecting more "this is what I read" as opposed to "this is my life while I was reading books" - but it's a well-written set of personal essays about a life-long love of reading, chronicled by the Bob (Book of Books) that she started while on a study program in France during high school. As someone who only started a book journal once finished with grad school and free once-again to start reading voraciously I found this particularly appealing.

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

30 April 2017

One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

Summary from Goodreads:
A collection of essays about growing up the daughter of Indian immigrants in Canada, "a land of ice and casual racism," by the cultural observer, Scaachi Koul.

In One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, Scaachi deploys her razor-sharp humour to share her fears, outrages and mortifying experiences as an outsider growing up in Canada. Her subjects range from shaving her knuckles in grade school, to a shopping trip gone horribly awry, to dealing with internet trolls, to feeling out of place at an Indian wedding (as an Indian woman), to parsing the trajectory of fears and anxieties that pressed upon her immigrant parents and bled down a generation. Alongside these personal stories are pointed observations about life as a woman of colour, where every aspect of her appearance is open for critique, derision or outright scorn. Where strict gender rules bind in both Western and Indian cultures, forcing her to confront questions about gender dynamics, racial tensions, ethnic stereotypes and her father's creeping mortality--all as she tries to find her feet in the world.

I've followed Scaachi Koul on Twitter for a while and read a few of her Buzzfeed pieces so I was really happy to see that she had a book coming out. One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter is a really readable collection of essays. Koul covers a number of topics - growing up Indian in Canada, visiting India for a family wedding, getting annoyed about double-standards in both Western and Indian culture, the privilege of being a light-skinned brown person vs a not light-skinned brown person and how it changes between Canada and India, the social politics/pressure of female hair removal (or not), rape culture, drinking culture, and her relationship with her parents. I laughed a bit, cried a bit, agreed a bit, and got real mad for a bit.

Congrats to Scaachi on her selection for the BN Discover Great New Writers program!

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

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

25 April 2017

Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym

Summary from Goodreads:
The spellbinding memoir of a violin virtuoso who loses the instrument that had defined her both on stage and off -- and who discovers, beyond the violin, the music of her own voice

Her first violin was tiny, harsh, factory-made; her first piece was "Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star." But from the very beginning, Min Kym knew that music was the element in which she could swim and dive and soar. At seven years old, she was a prodigy, the youngest ever student at the famed Purcell School. At eleven, she won her first international prize; at eighteen, violinist great Ruggiero Ricci called her "the most talented violinist I've ever taught." And at twenty-one, she found "the one," the violin she would play as a soloist: a rare 1696 Stradivarius. Her career took off. She recorded the Brahms concerto and a world tour was planned. Then, in a London cafe, her violin was stolen. She felt as though she had lost her soulmate, and with it her sense of who she was. Overnight she became unable to play or function, stunned into silence.

In this lucid and transfixing memoir, Kym reckons with the space left by her violin's absence. She sees with new eyes her past as a child prodigy, with its isolation and crushing expectations; her combustible relationships with teachers and with a domineering boyfriend; and her navigation of two very different worlds, her traditional Korean family and her music. And in the stark yet clarifying light of her loss, she rediscovers her voice and herself.

Gone is a really interesting memoir about musical talent and identity. Kym is a violinist who is one of the true child prodigies, who conquers the the toughest pieces in the violin literature at an impossibly young age, and whose 1696 Stradivarius violin was stolen at the height of her career. Her memoir looks at not just her career, but the toll it took on her, how much her career and training pushed against her Korean upbringing, and how she succumbed to a bad relationship that may later have led to some really bad decisions.

The writing style is very interesting. It isn't very polished but winds around, almost stream of consciousness at times. She really tries to get at the heart of performing at such a high level so young. Kym also pushes into the period of depression and mourning she went through after her violin was stolen.  A violinist's relationship to the violin as instrument becomes very personal, almost like a child or a partner, which is a much different relationship that one I am familiar with as a pianist.  As a pianist, you can't tote your instrument around and get to make-do with what you find at your venue (if you're super-famous/fancy/loaded, you can rent the piano of your choice as you tour).

You may start reading Gone to see whether Kym gets her violin back, but you'll stay for her journey.

Edited to add: Kym is releasing an album of violin music played on her Strad on July 18, 2017.

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

23 April 2017

Tender: Stories by Sofia Samatar

Summary from Goodreads:
The first collection of short fiction from a rising star whose stories have been anthologized in the first two volumes of the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy series and nominated for many awards. Some of Samatar’s weird and tender fabulations spring from her life and her literary studies; some spring from the world, some from the void.

I haven't read Sofia Samatar's novel (yet - I'm not dead, yet) so I jumped at the chance to read this collection.  There are a lot of good stories in Tender, particularly ones where the world of the story seems "normal" then one small twist reveals that it is actually dystopic (ex. "Selkie Stories Are for Lovers", "Honey Bear" and "How to Get Back to the Forest"). These stories cluster in the front half of the book (Tender Bodies) and it made the collection feel unbalanced to me. For this reason it didn't gel as a collection for me, but the actual writing of the stories is superb.

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

18 April 2017

Blame It on the Duke by Leonora Bell (The Disgraceful Dukes #3)

Summary from Goodreads:
Have you heard?
The future Duke of Barrington has just been gambled away by his father. To an heiress!
The delicious details thus far...

Nicolas, Lord Hatherly, never intended to marry—nor add to the “mad” Hatherly line—but now he must honor his father’s debt to a social-climbing merchant or lose the family estate.

A notoriously wild marquess, won by her father at a game of cards, is the very last thing Miss Alice Tombs wants. She’s spent the last three seasons repelling suitors in spectacular fashion so she’d be at liberty to explore the world. She’ll just have to drive this one away as well.

Until Nick proposes an utterly tempting arrangement: one summer together to prove the legitimacy of their union, then Alice is free to travel while Nick revels in the time he has left before the Hatherly Madness takes hold.

It will be easy to walk away after a few months of make-believe wedded bliss—won’t it? Alice and Nick are about to find out...one sultry night at a time.

This ought to be fun . . .

I've been enjoying Leonora Bell's romances and Blame It On the Duke is a very nice third entry in the Disgraceful Dukes series. This installment has a delicious twist on the old "gambled the wife/mistress/sister/daughter away" trope: Hatherly's mad father (the titular Duke) gambles him away to a flush-in-the-pockets baronet with a daughter he wants to marry off in the most social-climbing matter possible. The daughter, Alice, is actually an accomplished translator (of Sanksrit) and while a Society husband would be a hindrance, the rakish Hatherly - who doesn't want a wife or children hanging around to watch him go mad - is perfect for her plans (escape England and her mother). Of course, those pesky things like hearts and feelings get in the way.

Bell does a much better job with this book in balancing her light elements (translation, bedroom scenes, one sweet house cat named Kali) with the dark (there's quite a bit about the inhuman conditions of insane asylums of the period). And Bell now has three side characters she could choose from for the next book....

ALSO! Princess Bride jokes!

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

13 April 2017

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey

Summary from Goodreads:
In four years Prime Space will put the first humans on Mars. Helen Kane, Yoshi Tanaka, and Sergei Kuznetsov must prove they’re the crew for the job by spending seventeen months in the most realistic simulation every created.

Retired from NASA, Helen had not trained for irrelevance. It is nobody’s fault that the best of her exists in space, but her daughter can’t help placing blame. The MarsNOW mission is Helen’s last chance to return to the only place she’s ever truly felt at home. For Yoshi, it’s an opportunity to prove himself worthy of the wife he has loved absolutely, if not quite rightly. Sergei is willing to spend seventeen months in a tin can if it means travelling to Mars. He will at least be tested past the point of exhaustion, and this is the example he will set for his sons.

As the days turn into months the line between what is real and unreal becomes blurred, and the astronauts learn that the complications of inner space are no less fraught than those of outer space. The Wanderers gets at the desire behind all exploration: the longing for discovery and the great search to understand the human heart.

So, before we begin, The Wanderers is not like The Martian.  I know it's being marketed that way - because NOVEL ABOUT SPACE AND ASTRONAUTS WHAT ELSE DO WE COMPARE IT TO - but The Martian is a much different book, very action-driven.  The Wanderers is very character- and setting-oriented so it makes for a very different reading experience.  So, onward.

The Wanderers turned out to be a very enjoyable and thoughtful novel about space exploration that doesn't actually explore space...or does it? It actually reminded me a lot of Carl Sagan's Contact (the movie adaptation at least, since I've not actually read the book) with it's range of time and philosophy about the nature of space exploration (and odd charismatic billionaires). I really liked the characterizations of the three astronauts Sergei, Helen, and Yoshi. They share the narration between themselves and with several family members and Prime employees.  At the outset I wasn't sure if I liked expanding the narration beyond the astronauts, but over the course of the book it turned out to be very interesting. It's very easy to think that the story of space exploration lies solely with those who leave our atmosphere and forget those who remain behind.

Dear FTC: I picked up an ARC of this book from a batch sent to my store by the publisher.

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!