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Happy 6th Birthday, SPR!

As of my "maternity leave," here are the stats of the past year: 74 books reviewed 9 guest posts 4 independent bookstores 3 d...

Monday, September 30, 2013

Blowback: A Vanessa Pierson Novel

We all know how much I love crime, and I have had an obsession with the CIA since, like, middle school, so when I found out Valerie Plame had a novel coming out (with Sarah Lovett), a thriller-CIA-bad guy brouhaha called Blowback, I almost hit myself with excitement.

Vanessa Pierson is a CIA agent stationed in Europe and hot on the tail of Bhoot, a terrorist with ties to the Iranian nuclear program. As she meets with a source, he is gunned down in front of Vanessa, signaling the beginning of one of the most intense and frightening chases of her life. She must prove her worth to the higher ups, finding out the details of Bhoot's whereabouts and his upcoming trip to the nuclear facility before he can eliminate all of the most important people to the case.

I love a good thriller, and this was certainly worth the read. I was initially curious as to what Plame would put out, as she clearly has extensive experience in covert ops and would know how to weave a good tale based on her experience. I was engaged, interested, and entertained by this story; the tale was intricate yet I still had the ability to grasp onto what was happening. In other words, it was worldly enough that even I could understand the intricacies of the CIA.

I also found myself caring about Vanessa as a character. She was fully developed, honestly written, and flawed enough to be realistic. She makes mistakes and deals with the consequences; she also follows her gut when she needs to. I rooted for her and wanted her to succeed, and she stayed on my mind long after I closed the book. I appreciate strong character development, and I found that here.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Signature of All Things: A Novel

I am just madly in love with Elizabeth Gilbert, so I begged, pleaded, and cried for her new novel, The Signature of All Things.

Alma Whittaker is the daughter of Philadelphia's richest yet most eccentric man, Henry. He built up his business from nothing in England and made his fortune in discovering, producing, and selling nature. Alma, an unremarkable-looking woman but a brilliant mind, grows up in a home surrounded by the most intelligent men in the world at her dinner table. However, as she grows into a woman, she finds herself falling into spinsterhood as she cares for her widowed father and builds an internationally-known career studying mosses. As Alma is settled in to her middle-aged life, along comes Ambrose Pike--an young artist and the person who moves Alma in unspeakable ways.

Oooohhh my goodness, this book was absolutely, positively charming. I was so moved by the delicate nature of this book; it was so honest and lovely that it felt as though it were a breezy summer day in the parlor where I was taking tea with a brilliant mind. Just simply charming.

Gilbert is a deft novelist; her character development is positively stunning and she crafts a story that is incredibly well-researched and as deep as the ocean in its insightful wisdom and loving care. I felt as though the characters were being taken care of by the author, and that even when life got in the way and hurtful events took place that these characters were so beloved to the author that they could get through anything with her pen.

I found the setting to be incredibly interesting; the bulk of the story takes place in the early to mid-nineteenth century, which I will confess is not my first choice of time period. It was absolutely perfect for this story--it hit all the right notes for Alma and Ambrose, for the Whittakers and for their ilk. Alma was such a genuinely relatable character that I haven't been able to get her off my mind. I so want to have dinner with her and pick her mind and hear her stories and work through her problems with her. The prose of this story was just so brilliant. So brilliant, I say, that I lost myself in the sentences and the story and the people.

That is what I want in a book.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?

I have been an Alan Weisman fan since he released The World Without Us many years ago. Soooo when I found out his latest, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? was coming out I almost peed my pants with utter excitement. (Ok, maybe that's a bit hyperbolic, but I was super excited nonetheless.)

What are the chances for the future of humanity if we continue populating the world without focused regard to the resources available to us? This question is at the heart of Weisman's diverse exploration of how much the earth and its ecosystems can sustain before collapsing under the sheer obesity of human existence. Weisman leaves no stone unturned; he visits more than 20 countries and explores a multitude of cultures, religions, governments, and the like in order to explore what are belief systems, lifestyles, and underlying politics of population and how these affect both our current life and our future on this planet. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I am madly in love with Alan Weisman. No, I have never met the man, but I am so floored and in complete awe of what he does that I find it impossible not to fall head over heels. He takes a subject that could be so incredibly boring if put in the wrong hands and spins it into a tale of horror, greed, and disregard that ultimately ends with a glimmer of hope. Who does that??? Alan Weisman does.

I read The World Without Us long before I had this gem of a blog so there is no review of it here, but I felt the same way after putting down his first book. After closing the book after each section of Countdown I read (because it's a long one!), I just had to sit for a bit. I had to mull over what I just read, think about it, chew on it, and come to a conclusion about how I felt. Weisman has such pathos for his subjects while still being gut-wrenchingly honest, and I had to think after each section how I felt about what he just portrayed. He writes as though you are reading a novel, and it's hard to walk away to do things that you need to do in everyday life. Like laundry or eating food. I love his portrayal of his subjects, never judging but always putting forth honesty and care.

Weisman's books frighten me, but they frighten me into action. They make me ask myself hard questions, such as, "What is my responsibility in repopulating the earth?" I am still thinking long and hard on children, and his argument has a hand in my thought process. I understand the reason that 100+ years ago people had six, seven, ten children; you needed to birth that many in order to have just 2 to 3 live to adulthood. But what does that mean today, in 2013, with an unquestioned increase in quality healthcare (regardless of how you currently feel about our system) and a life expectancy that continues to increase every year. How do I feel about a million children being added to this earth every four days? How does this affect me and what is my responsibility in this? How does all of this affect our ecosystems and in turn, my world? These are all questions that I am still mulling over, and I will be for a while.

I rarely re-read books because I am always wanting to see what's next. I can honest say that I intend to come back to Countdown at least once more before next summer. It deserves an additional go and more thought. It's not just enough to think about it for a week. This book deserves a lifetime of contemplation.

I can only offer you this in a hard copy...but I can also give you the link to his first book in a hard copy! Go ahead and treat yourself. Buy both. xxoo

Monday, September 23, 2013

Ostrich: A Novel

This debut novel sounded ridiculously interesting, so I picked it up this week for my train ride. This is Matt Greene's Ostrich.

Alex is writing his story just for you. The only thing is that he is not sure what is going to happen because it's happening right now. He is sick but still wants to be himself. His parents may or may not be in love, and he may or may not be trying to figure out if his father is having an affair like his friend's father. Oh yeah, and then there's Jaws 2, the hamster that has not quite been acting like himself since Alex was in the hospital. This is Alex, and this is his story.

This book is utterly, completely, unapologetically irresistible. I fell in love with this book within the first ten pages because Alex is the liveliest and funniest of characters with the most idiosyncratic storytelling style I have read in quite some time. To read this novel is to fall head over heels for a young man with so much heart and soul, and with enough intellect to whip you into shape.

Greene's writing is positively marvelous; the pathos he has for Alex and the other characters in Alex's life is astounding. This book was written with such love and care, and the embodiment of a young boy who is just so...himself. Too smart for his own good but not enough to outsmart his own body. He is truly a young boy; in love but refusing to admit it, knowing what the truth is about his hamster but refusing to see it, and wanting to find answers where sometimes there just are none. Just so, so lovely.

Kindle copy on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Men We Reaped: A Memoir

Heartbreaking and honest, this is Jesmyn Ward's Men We Reaped.

After the deaths of five men in just a few short years, Jesmyn sets out to discover what causes lie underneath these deaths that makes them happen so often and to such specific people. Jesmyn explores the rural poverty in which she was raised, one family of thousands headed by a mother with no father in sight. Racism, institutional and systemic, is a daily force in their lives; inequality of circumstances goes without saying and drugs are woven into the fabric of their daily existence. Jesmyn explores the circumstances of her home and her world that has laid the foundation for so much loss in her life.

I was captivated by Ward's story and the openness with which she discussed her childhood circumstances. She was not begging  for sympathy; she was rather telling her story without judgment. Only as an adult does she look back and describe to us the hurt that she felt as the only black student (and on a scholarship, natch) at her private Episcopal school, for example. I became so angry for her as she described some of the outright and overt racism she faced on a daily basis. No child should have to deal with words so hurtful and sentiments so vile; however, when you are in the deep South, many feel it is their right to do just this. Ward writes her story with such pathos that I just took it in and sat with it, examining my thoughts on her experiences and her words.

The structure of this book was intriguing and worked beautifully. Ward splits each section into two parts; the first telling her childhood story in chronological order and the second relating the events of one of the losses in her life in backwards order of the time that they occurred. Reading the sections where she described what she knew about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of her friends was incredibly sad, but the final section in which she describes her brother's passing and where she was emotionally at the time both immediately before and immediately after was gut-wrenching and rendered so honestly. I can't say I understand her pain, as this kind of loss is so horrifically tragic and emotionally stunting; I can, however, say that Ward gives us all she has on the page and spares us no amount of pain to soften the blow. It's what makes her writing so beautiful, honest, and emotionally raw.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Salinger Contract: A Novel

You may recall how much I loved Adam Langer's The Thieves of Manhattan a couple of years ago. (Has it really been two years???) When I read an excerpt of his new piece, The Salinger Contract, in the spring, I just about peed my pants in excitement. I promised myself I would do anything to get my hands on it. A huge thank you to the folks at Open Road Media for their help in this!

Adam, a writer with one successful novel under his belt, has always admired Connor Joyce. Joyce is the best selling author of a series of crime novels and is famous in his own right. Their relationship comes to a head when Joyce tells Adam a story that is all too unbelievable--that a wealthy patron has requested him to write a mystery novel for his eyes only to be kept in his personal library with those stories written by some of Joyce's literary heroes. Only after he agrees and holds up his end of the contract does Joyce discover the truth behind the deal--and there's nothing he can do to fix the mess he is now in.

I was recently trying to describe Langer's books to someone, and I was like, they are so meta, as though he isn't the actual narrator but is instead telling you something that happened to him, you know, as if this is a memoir, but the plots of his book are so crazy that there's no way this could happen in real life...but he is such an honest writer that...I guess...well, maybe it's possible that this is actually a thing...but nnnoooooo, we would have heard about the big events he talks about in his books...unless...

I was in it to win it with this book--hook, line, and sinker. I loved it. Like, genuinely in love. It is fast-paced, jaw-droppingly unreal, and wild beyond my expectations. (Trust me, those expectations were high!) Like Langer's Thieves, the suspension of disbelief becomes a given when you read this book. Things that seem completely outlandish and unrealistic turn on their heads and seem absolutely plausible, and that is in large part due to Langer's storytelling ability. He has this way of turning your expectations upside down so much so that you go into the next chapter saying, "Ok, buddy, I give up. What could possibly happen next?" You think nothing crazier could possibly happen and then it does. It's seriously mind-boggling. Who is this man?

A genius, that's who.

This book is absolutely, totally, completely worth your time. So click below and buy it already. Kindle version on the left, hard copy on the right. Get this book.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Mother, Mother: A Novel

I love to be super creeped out by a book. Like, love it. So I obviously loved Koren Zailckas's Mother, Mother. [She says as she shivers.]

The Hurst family may seem perfect on the outside, but inside their home lurks a cruel and incessant monster--Josephine, the matriarch. She is as manipulative and narcissistic as it gets, and she gaslights her children and husband to the point where their psyche breaks them and they don't know reality from fiction. Rose, the oldest daughter, ran away from home just for some sanity. Her younger sister, Violet, is in a mental ward after supposedly attacking her younger brother, Will--the only thing is, she doesn't remember anything close to hurting him. What really happened the these three children?

Holy hell, even I at times couldn't tell fact from fiction and it was awesometown. I felt addicted to this book in the same way that Will, the youngest son, was addicted to his mother. I couldn't put it down because I couldn't believe what I was reading. The mystery was a spider's web woven so intricately that as soon as you stuck your hand through it you were attacked by a whole family of spiders. The tactics Josephine used to control her family sent chills down my spine, and when you find out the truth of the sophisticated mystery you will have your mind sufficiently blown. If not, then I have nothing else for you.

From the very beginning the characters owned me, and the alternation of the story between Will's and Violet's points of view was an excellent way to contrast the two sides of Josephine and to make you feel as though you are in a blender. Did Josephine really just blatantly lie? Is she really trying to sabotage her family? Or is everyone out to get her? I am sure you can figure out which, but still you keep on reading because you just simply can't believe a woman would go to these extremes for attention and reverence. (But never, ever, ever love--narcissists don't need love, only admiration.)

Kindle copy on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Dan Brown's Inferno: A Novel

Ah yes, even I love a good mass market thriller. This is Dan Brown's newest, Inferno.

Robert Langdon is back like whoa. He wakes up in a hospital in Florence with a gunshot graze wound to the head and retrograde amnesia. Before he can fully come to, he is on the run with his nurse from a crazed assassin with the understanding that his own government is trying to kill him. He has visions of a gray-haired lady wearing a plague mask and is mightily confused by the warped Botticelli facsimile in his pocket. Can he solve the mystery left behind by a crazed microbiologist and save mankind from a plague of epic proportions before he is killed by his pursuers? Can Dante's Inferno hold all the answers?

I realize that snobby book readers stick up their noses at the fact that the masses will read and enjoy this work, and to them I say, "Get a grip." I had this conversation with some Book Snots I worked with for five minutes earlier this summer before I came to my senses and walked out, when one of them said sarcastically, "So I know you guys can't wait to read Dan Brown's new book." The nineteen-year-old boys laughed derisively before I said, "Actually, I am planning on reading it. Dan Brown is a compelling story teller who knows how to get you to turn the page, and it is clear the he puts much research he into his work. You can make fun of it all you want, but I like a good story and I appreciate any book that gets people reading who don't often read." They changed their tune to regretful murmurs, but you can imagine the conversations they have at the wine bar on weekends. I will take my beer with fun, thankyouverymuch.

I will also take a story that is tight, page-turning, and fantastic in the most literal terms. I stand by my comments made to the Book Snots months ago--I find Brown to be a compelling story-teller and I will continue reading his books when they come out. I buzzed through this one in two days at the beach over the summer, and while it was predictable at times (if you have read Langdon's adventures before, you know he figures things out quickly, can be intelligently crafty, and loves a hot chic as a sidekick) I still enjoyed the story and the web that was woven around Dante's Divine Comedy.

It focused on Inferno but also brought the other two sections of Comedy to the table, making it fun and informative. I also appreciated that Brown found ways to inform his readers of Inferno's content without being pedantic about it; I imagine that not everyone reading this book has a history in Dante. It had been so long for me since I read it that the refresher was nice. I had a great time with this book and I am happy that I carved out some vacation book-reading time for it. Give it shot--you never know, you may very well find you also can't put it down.

I can only give you a link to the hard copy below. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Lola Bensky: A Novel

I was taken by the premise of this book, and I had to read it immediately. Lola Bensky by Lily Brett was such a lovely treat, like Christmas cookies. 

It's 1967, and the London music scene has never looked so good. The Stones, The Beatles, Janis, Jimi, and everyone in between. Lola Bensky is nineteen and a reporter for an Australian publication; she is sent to London to cover the music scene. Lola is a bit overweight, wholly lacking confidence, and fascinated beyond belief. As we see Lola grow older and look back on her time in London, we watch history unfold through the eyes of a young woman in her prime.

If you are a fan of the music of the time (and really, would you ever trust anyone who was not?), you will love the tale spun by Brett, a journalist, that imagines what these interviews would have looked like and the experiences Lola would have had.

What I appreciated most in this book was Lola herself. Her self-consciousness and constant desire to lose weight is so easy to relate to as young female (or as one looking back on that time). Don't we all look back and wish we appreciated that time in our lives when we were at our skinniest (even though we complained about how fat we felt), our loveliest (although we wished we had longer/shorter/straiter/wavier hair), and our eagerest (if I only I could get that job...). The imperfectness of Lola was what made her so human, so real, and so relatable.

Hard copy for purchase below. Enjoy!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers

This is a story that will knock your socks off while not surprising you. Anabel Hernandez's Narcoland is five years worth of investigation into the Mexican drug cartels and the political corruption that allowed them to proliferate.

After her father was kidnapped and killed, the police refused to investigate without a bribe. This prompted Hernandez to become one of the most prolific and feared journalists in Mexico. In this book, Hernandez turns her pen to the "war on drugs" that cost tens of thousands of lives in such a short time. This detailed account of those highest on the chain and their political connections reads like a horror story; no one, not even those highest in the Mexican government, is blameless in the drug trafficking. 

What. A. %&$#*^$. Piece. Of. Work. Seriously. Hernandez is a marvel of a journalist and one hell of investigator. I found my jaw on the subway floor most days this past week. I could have used a flow chart with all of the insanity that was happening in this account, but Hernandez's words flow off the page in such a riveting storytelling phenom-like way that I was with it the whole way through. People should be afraid of her. Her pen wields more power to destroy those who have caused so much destruction than all of the drug lords combined. I am thankful she's not investigating my life. I would fear her.

I was so saddened at the recounting of how drug crops are a way of life for so many families in Mexico; there is no other way to survive for many down south. You may think you understand what is happening in the country attached to our lower regions, but until you read this book you don't have a clue. The intricate weave of cartels is more than I could have ever imagined, and the political corruption will astound you. I didn't think I could ever be surprised again by this type of corruption, but low and behold it surpassed even my threshold. You might even be surprised to find out how the USA aided in the rise of the cartels.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Enon: A Novel

Enon by Paul Harding is a heart-wrenching tale of loss and redemption that tugged at my heart strings.

Charlie's thirteen year old daughter was killed biking home from the lake one late summer day. He didn't want her biking on that narrow path, but at some point you have to let worry go and trust your kid, right? The death of his sweet daughter tears apart his marriage and his life while it also breaks his spirit. Where is rock bottom when you have nothing left to lose? Is it possible to claw your way back to reality when you have spiraled so far down you aren't sure there is earth below you?

This is a tear-jerker, no lie. The book opens with the death, so it's no spoiler. Charlie moved his burgeoning family back to his hometown of Enon while he was still a baby himself, knowing that this idyllic setting would mean a safe upbringing for kids and a daily reassurance of contentment. Only when you least expect it, life gets in the way.

It was hard to watch Charlie's spiral down into madness; one night in the throes of grief he punches a hole in the drywall and, not heeding the doctor's warnings, quickly finds himself addicted to the pain medication. It allows him to leave the world with no thoughts of his family and no responsibilities on the table. But with nothing left to lose, is recovery and a normal life possible? Or is it even desired?

This was an emotional book that found me furrowing my brow while I sat reading it on the train. I wanted to will Charlie to care; I wanted to push him to leave his home and to just ask someone for help. I wanted him to stop his descent into madness and do his daughter's memory right, but the reality that we can't force people to make good decisions is one that smacked me in the face. The moral of the story is that we can't control the actions of others--recovery, of both addiction and of paralyzing grief, is something that must be desired or it will never be achieved.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Humanity Project: A Novel

A good friend of mine sent me an email telling me I had to read Jean Thompson's The Humanity Project right away. So I did.

Will people be good if you pay them? That's the idea behind The Humanity Project, started by a widow with too much money and a need to help the world. She taps her nurse, Christie, to head it up. Christie quickly becomes overwhelmed by what it takes to run an organization. Her personal life is also a mess, having to often fend off the advances of her neighbor, Art, a Peter Pan whose estranged teenage daughter is suddenly thrust upon him after becoming an up-front witness to her school shooting. A series of connections brings everyone together to explore whether or not humanity can be saved--and at what cost.

This was a great vacation book. The right size, the right cast of characters, and the right emotional level. I was so engaged with Thompson's storytelling that it was hard to walk away from the book to get dinner. Her dark humor and overt recognition of the nonsense of the world, such as charities that are so focused on getting donors they forget who they originally set out to feed and care for, was right on the money.

Linnea, the teenager sent away by her Midwestern family after she becomes too much to handle, is in such a devastated state that even she is sure no one can help her. Witnessing the killing of her stepsister by the shooter is too much for her to bear, so she turns her anger outward. I loved the relationship between Linnea and Art when Linnea is suddenly thrown into Art's world after ten years apart. The dynamic between a rebellious teenager and a father that just won't grow up was so honest.

I also really enjoyed the Christie character. She felt so authentic and her struggles with wanting to good with having to run an organization really hit home. The disillusionment that comes when you realize that you can't do all the good you set out to do is disheartening, and Thompson really makes it truthful in her writing.

Kindle on left, hard copy on right.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Somebody Up There Hates You: A Novel

Every once in a while a novel comes along that gut-punches you so hard you double over in pain. This is Hollis Seamon's heart-wrenching Somebody Up There Hates You.

Richard is just seventeen years old, but he has seen enough in his short time to know that sometimes life just isn't fair. His official diagnosis is cancer, but Richard prefers to call it SUTHY syndrome--Somebody Up There Hates You. He meets Sylvie, another teenager and the only other non-elderly person in hospice with him, and they fall in love. While they want to spend the last of their time together just being kids, they have to deal with nurses, medications, crazy family members, and everyone else that overtakes their lives in hospice. Only when Richard must face the music, also known as Sylvie's dad, does he understand the selflessness of true love.

Oh em geeee, you guys, my heart broke as I read the last words on the last page of this book that tore my heart out, stomped on it, then picked it back up and ripped it to pieces. And it was good. So, so good. It was Mr. Mellencamp that said it well when he said, "Hurts so good." I loved this book. It toyed with my emotions and left me to flounder in the wind with my pain and no morphine, but it was so.so.so. good.

I adored Richard as narrator. His character arc was so wide-ranging and profound, while everyone around him also grew throughout the course of the book. I yearned (and yes, I found myself yearning, you guys) for Richard and Sylvie to reach their goal, which was for Sylvie to lose her virginity before she died. Seamon has a superb way of channeling a seventeen year old boy (how does she do that???), and this book felt that it could just be true. And that made it hurt all the more.

Also, fair warning, although you might know how the book ends, you will still be sucker-punched. So just get ready. And get the book.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.