Thursday, July 20, 2017

Mini-reviews: The Home That Was Our Country and Daring to Drive

Alia Malek journeyed back to Damascus to claim the home that her grandmother lived in and loved. She returned as a woman who had lived in America, but also had a long history to trace in Syria. In The Home That Was Our Country, she delves into the history of her family while reporting the atmosphere in her homeland from Arab Spring in 2011 until she left two years later.

I was really interested in learning about recent and long-term Syrian history from someone who lived there. Unfortunately, I had a hard time with this story. Malek has clearly done her research and dives deeply into both her family's history and the history of the country that she loves so dearly. She writes deftly about the families who lived in her family's neighborhood as well as the necessity of changing what you can say, depending on the people you are talking to. But the writing was a bit dry and I sometimes had to force myself to pick it up and continue reading. The Home That Was Our Country might be a good pick for you, though, if you want an in-depth history of Syria told through the story of one family.

The Home That Was Our Country
A Memoir of Syria
By Alia Malek
Nation Books February 2017
304 pages
Read via Netgalley


Manal al-Sharif was a woman living in Saudi Arabia, but she defied expectation in many ways. She graduated with a degree in computer science and used that degree in her job, which allowed her to help her parents financially and also to care for her son. But a single mother living alone within a company compound inevitably runs into some problems, which were compacted by Saudi Arabia's rule that women were not allowed to drive. Manal never set out to defy the government or religious officials; in fact, she was a devout and severe religious adherent as as teen. But she decided she had to take a stand and became the face of the movement calling for women to drive in Saudi Arabia.

Manal al-Sharif may work with computers, but her writing is strong and compelling. Her voice is the thing that pulls you right into her story as the police bang on her door in the early morning hours and the thing that makes you continue to read. For someone who lives in the US, it was sobering to realize just how much a driving ban would limit and, in many instances, endanger women. I only wish that there was a bit of a broader lens at certain moments: I wanted to know about the other people involved and find out where Manal sees the movement going, since women still don't have the right to drive in Saudi Arabia.

Daring to Drive
A Saudi Woman's Awakening
By Manal al-Sharif
Simon and Schuster June 2017
304 pages
Read via Netgalley

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Review: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

Lydia Smith loves working at the Bright Ideas Bookstore. She can talk books all day and spend time with the BookFrogs, a group of misfits who wander the aisles and find a sort of home there. But one night, she makes the terrible discovery that Joey has committed suicide in the bookstore. Lydia learns that he left her everything he owned, including a puzzle hidden inside his books. The messages he left encourage her to revisit the darkest moments of her childhood that she has spent a lifetime trying to forget. Did Joey know who was behind the crime that terrorized a community and destroyed Lydia's family?

Readers love books that are about bookstores and fellow readers. But this is not your grandma's cozy mystery about a bookseller who solves crimes in a small town when she's not knitting sweaters for her cat. Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is dark and a bit creepy and delves deeply into the consequences of suppressing the difficult things in our lives. It's also about the relationships we have and the ones we choose, and about knowing when to leave and when to give people another chance. It's about loneliness and finding the people who will accept you, even with all the scars of your past.

This book is one that seems to play before your eyes as you read. It's easy to picture Lydia shelving books at Bright Ideas Bookstore or spending an afternoon long ago with her childhood friends in the local donut shop. This is also a really well-written mystery. We know early on that the central question is about the crime committed in Lydia's childhood. But Matthew Sullivan has added so many layers that it's impossible to tell who might be responsible or why. As the reader, you are working just like Lydia is to uncover another clue about Joey or remember one pivotal moment from her past. Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is a great choice for book lovers who like their mysteries dark and twisty.


Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore
By Matthew J. Sullivan
Scribner June 2017
336 pages
Read via Netgalley

Monday, July 17, 2017

It's Monday and I need to get working!

Hi bookish people! How are you doing?

I had a good week of actually getting things posted here on the blog, but I feel like I'm still terribly behind on all of my life things after my trip to Portland. The house needs some serious TLC, I have a lot of work to catch up on, and there are these two kids who seem to like hanging out with me during the summer. So I'm chipping away a little at a time and of course remembering to take some time to read too.

This week, I read The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord. I was having one of those days where I couldn't focus on anything, so I curled up with a giant cup of coffee and cried my way through the last 100 pages. I also read The Women in the Castle, which made this historical fiction reader very happy.

          The Names They Gave Us    The Woman Next Door

Now I'm continuing my phase of books with woman or women right in the title and reading The Woman Next Door. It's out in the US, but I actually picked up my copy in a Scottish bookstore when I went to visit my sister a few months ago.


What are you reading this week?

P.S. If you looking for a new book to read, I'm giving away a copy of News of the World

Friday, July 14, 2017

Getting into an Audiobook

For many of my reading years, I avoided audiobooks. What would I do when I hadn't listened for a day or two and forgot what had happened? How could I flip back through the pages to check on a specific fact? Plus, you never know exactly what will happen next and I have two young children who don't need to hear an unexpected steamy scene or four-letter word.


But this past year, I've started incorporating them into my reading. I especially love them on long trips or when I'm cleaning up the kitchen after putting the kids to bed. I've had the pleasure this year of listening to Cinnamon and Gunpowder, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, The Signature of All Things, Shadowshaper, and The Book of Unknown Americans. I confess to picking several of the books because they were immediately available from my library or because I adore the narrator (Lin-Manuel Miranda or Anika Noni Rose, anyone?).

                     Cinnamon and Gunpowder      The Book of Unknown Americans

With almost every audiobook, I find myself having an adjustment period. It takes longer for me to hit my groove than it does when I read a paper book. When reading a paper book, I can tell within a few chapters if this book will work for me. With an audiobook, I've had several times where I almost set it aside and then found myself happy I stuck with it. But once I hit that point, I am sneaking in a chapter or two any time I find a few quiet moments. 

Is this true for you too? Does it take you a longer time to really get invested in an audiobook?

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Review: News of the World (plus a giveaway!)

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels through Texas, reading the news to crowds of people who long to know what is happening outside of their small towns. He finds purpose in this job, especially since his wife has died and his children live far away. When he is asked to transport a young girl to her relatives, he is unsure what to do. Johanna was captured by a Kiowa tribe after they killed her parents and she has lived with them for four years. The US Army rescued the girl, but they need someone else to make sure she arrives safely to an aunt and uncle she does not remember. Captain Kidd and Johanna set off on a 400 mile journey, where they will encounter friends and enemies and forge an unexpected bond.

So I think I read a Western and I really enjoyed it. News of the World has the requisite journeys over dangerous territory, tense shoot-outs, and encounters with hostile local tribes. But this story isn't really about who is the best shot; it's truly about the unexpected relationship between Captain Kidd and Johanna. He's an old man who has already raised a family and lived through the horrors of the Civil War. She's a child who has forgotten English, won't wear shoes, and certainly doesn't like or trust this strange man in a wagon.

But Kidd is one of those wonderful characters who is determined to do the right thing, even when it's difficult. He is also a man who believes in the importance of story and the written word. He shares the news with people to make a living but, more than that, he tells stories because he knows that they can take you out of your circumstances and show just how big and wonderful the world can be.

Paulette Jiles does an excellent job of bringing the South after the Civil War to life and showing the reader how complicated life could be. But she does this alongside beautiful descriptions and characters that grow on you with each page. This is one of those rare and wonderful books where you wish that the author had written several more to tell you the entire backstory of the characters and to give you entire novels centered on minor characters.

News of the World
By Paulette Jiles
William Morrow Paperbacks June 2017
240 pages
Received for review from the publisher and TLC Book Tours


I happen to have an extra copy of News of the World to send to your bookshelf. If you would like to win this book, leave a comment telling me the best Western or historical fiction novel you've read lately. I will pick a winner in one week.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Review: The Almost Sisters

Graphic novelist Leia Birch Briggs seems to be running from problem to problem. She is at her stepsister's side when Rachel's marriage is falling apart. Before they can solve that, she is off to Alabama with her teenage niece in tow to find out what is happening with her beloved grandma Birchie. When she discovers that her grandma has been sick for a long time and Birchie's best friend Wattie has been helping her keep the secret, she is furious. But Leia is also willing to stick around and figure out a solution. After all, she has a problem of her own that is only going to grow: Leia is pregnant, but the only thing she remembers is that the father was dressed up as Batman at the comic convention.

I had read one other Joshilyn Jackson book before this one, which frustrated me for plot reasons. I'm so glad I gave her another try because I found this book to be the perfect combination of compelling plot, engaging characters, and a wonderful Southern family story.

There's a balance between a light beach read and a story that tackles real issues. It's tough to achieve and books usually fall in one camp or the other. The Almost Sisters is the rare one that can do both. The pages fly by, but the story is dealing with big issues like racism, abuse, and the ways we care for our families.

The story is great, but it's really the flawed, endearing characters that make this book so enjoyable. Leia is a delightful protagonist to follow. She definitely doesn't have her life together, but she is doing the best she can and she will fight unceasingly for the people she loves. The relationships in this story were so strong and realistic. Leia and Rachel are stepsisters, but they are a huge part of each other's lives and I really enjoyed the way Leia understood Rachel and worked to come to terms with her choices. Birchie and Wattie have been friends for a lifetime and would be happy to live together and preside over their Southern town for the rest of their days.

I loved spending time in Birchville, Alabama with each one of the carefully crafted characters. If Ms. Jackson would like to write a sequel, I would be there in a second. If not, I will be happily enjoying whatever stories she chooses to write.

The Almost Sisters
By Joshilyn Jackson
William Morrow July 2017
352 pages
Book provided by Harper Collins for the She Reads Book Club

Sunday, July 9, 2017

It's Monday and I'm back!

Well, I didn't mean for that to happen. I seem to be doing a good job lately of going radio silent for entire weeks. On the last Wednesday in June, I left for Portland for a work conference, a visit with my cousins, and a few days with my best friend. I originally had intentions to write blog posts before I left. That didn't happen. Then I was sure that I would have plenty of downtime to write during my trip. That didn't happen either.

So the trip was good. I'm back home now and ready to catch up on those reviews (as well as the million other things that pile up when you go away!).

Since I last checked in, I read News of the World on the plane. I read Daring to Drive on and off during my days on the West Coast and then managed to squeeze in The Jane Austen Project on my way home. Since adjusting back to East Coast time, I've been enjoying my last foray into Gilead with Marilynne Robinson's Lila

 

What have you been up to? What are you reading this week?