Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Mini-Reviews: And Then There Were None & First Impressions

And Then There Were None 
By Agatha Christie
HarperCollins Publishers March 2011
Originally published in 1939
300 pages
From the library

Ten strangers are invited to a mysterious weekend at an island estate. On the evening that they arrive, a recorded message is played that accuses each one of them of murder. Each person seems astonished and there is no one on the island aside from the ten. One by one, the guests die under mysterious circumstances. Will any of them make it off the island? Who is the murderer?

This is my first time reading one of her books and I completely understand why Christie is called the Queen of Mystery. The deliciously wonderful thing about this book is the inability to tell who is good and who is bad. Each character - the pious and elderly woman, the married servants, and the distinguished judge - seem equally capable of lying and killing the people around them. The characters don't know what is going onand neither does the reader. Each time they think they know who the murderer might be, the game changes and they are left baffled and hoping that they will make it through the weekend alive.

This story is a mystery but it is also a morality tale. When our usual forms of justice fail us as a society, as seems to be the case for these people, whose duty is it to ensure that justice occurs and the guilty are punished? Agatha Christie brilliantly builds the tension throughout this book as the characters try to uncover who is lying, who they can trust, and which one of them is picking the others off one by one. And Then There Were None is the perfect book to curl up with on a cold winter's evening as the wind howls outside of your window.

First Impressions
By Charlie Lovett
Viking Adult October 2014
320 pages
Read via Netgalley

First Impressions works in dual narratives. Our first centers around Jane Austen herself as she gets to know her elderly neighbor Richard Mansfield. She soon discovers that he is a wonderful critic of her writing and the two become friends.

In the present, Sophie Collingwood's world is rocked when her beloved Uncle Bertram is found dead. Although it is ruled an accident, Sophie finds his death suspicious. She moves into his flat and takes a job at a local bookstore. When two patrons ask her to find an obscure book, Sophie finds connections to her beloved Jane Austen and to the death of her uncle.

I suppose I might categorize First Impressions and Lovett's debut novel The Bookman's Tale as literary mysteries. Both books orbit around people who love and work with books, as well as containing manuscripts or books that will answer the puzzle for our protagonists. But in each story, there is a feeling of ease and certainty. While the events are moving at a breakneck pace, there is no doubt that all will eventually be well for dear Jane and for our new friend Sophie. There were several times when I wished for a bit more character development and a few more red herrings to take this book from a perfectly good afternoon read to a book I would adore. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

It's Monday and I am ready for some rest and relaxation!

Hey there, boys and girls! How are you?

I think that this will not go down as our favorite Christmas ever, due to general stress and a lot of sickness! But there is still something magical about singing in a church lit up by candles, seeing your family all in one place, and watching your little one's face when they open up that perfect present.

We are now settling in for a few days where I hope we can rest and get in some reading before getting ready for the next big thing. Did I mention we are going to Disney World? Yup, we leave in six days. These next two or three days will hopefully be a bit of buffer between one bit of wonderful craziness and the next. Here's hoping I can keep reading and catch up on my reviews!

How was your reading during the week of Christmas? I thought I was only going to read one book but then I happened to sit down one night and marathon through A Thousand Pieces of You in just a few hours. Reading a book start to finish like that was lovely.

Read This Week:

Not My Father's Son
By Alan Cumming

A Thousand Pieces of You (Firebird, #1)
A Thousand Pieces of You
By Claudia Gray

Posts from this Past Week:
It's Monday
Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Hope Santa Brings!

Reading Now:

Love: The Saint and the Seeker
By Christina Stevens

Up Next:

Station Eleven
By Emily St. John Mandel

What are you reading this week?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: A Bookish Christmas List

No need to read through an entire review in those crazy days before Christmas! Instead, let's compare notes about the books we hope Santa leaves under the tree for us. 

1. Books by Madeleine L'Engle
I have some of them, but Madeleine L'Engle is one of those few authors whose books I collect. I hope to have all of them, perhaps in multiple editions. 

2. All the Light We Cannot See
This was one of my favorite novels of the year (along with everyone else in the world). I would not be disappointed to have a copy of my very own. 

3. The rest of Ann Patchett's novels
I fell in love with Ann Patchett's writing when I read Bel Canto. I have a few of her books, but I need to finish my collection!


4. Hild by Nicola Griffith
This is one of those books that you immerse yourself in and don't come back out for a long time. I loved this historical novel and can't wait for the sequel!

5. The Chaos Walking Series
Anyone who says YA books are fluffy and only for kids hasn't read Patrick Ness. This series is about love, hatred, war, being a good person - all of the big important issues in life. It's also brilliantly written and will keep you frantically flipping pages. 

6. A Guide to Being Born
I don't read short stories all that often, but this collection is one I can see myself reading again and again. Ausubel is truly a writer to watch.


7. Incendiary and Gold by Chris Cleave
Cleave's Little Bee tore my heart apart in the very best of ways. I need to read his other books asap!

8. The Empathy Exams 
This was one of my favorite books of the year. This collection of essays will make you think about how you relate to other people in a myriad of circumstances.

9. Pretty Books 
Let's be honest here. We love to read books but we also love to look at them. I would love to have some beautiful books to make my home a bit prettier. Perhaps these hardcover classics or the gorgeous Drop Caps series?

10. Graphic Novels 
I read my first graphic novel this year. I don't really know which one to read next, so finding one or two under the Christmas tree would make the decision for me!

Found here

What books are you hoping to find on Christmas morning?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

It's Monday and Christmas is almost here!

Hi again! How is everyone doing? Are you buried somewhere under the wrapping paper or covered in flour from baking a few dozen cookies?

It's been a long tough week here. Half of the family was sick and the other half of was a toddler...and me. Thankfully, it seems like everyone is almost back to 100% and now we can run full throttle towards Christmas. The hubby will be preaching the sermon and running the Christmas Eve Service. I will be singing a solo and singing with the choir and the praise team. Then we will be hosting  dinner here at our house on Christmas day. We will have a second Christmas at my grandmother's on Friday and then do Christmas with my husband's side of the family on Saturday. After that, you can find me sleeping in a corner somewhere....

I thought I was only going to get one book read this week, but I really got sucked into the Christmas stories in My True Love Gave To Me and finished that up Sunday afternoon. Now I'm going to try to finish up my stack of library books before we leave for vacation on January 2!

Read This Week:
Caleb's Crossing
Caleb's Crossing
By Geraldine Brooks

My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories
My True Love Gave To Me: Twelve Holiday Tales
Edited by Stephanie Perkins

Posts from this Past Week:
It's Monday
Review of Stone Mattress: Nine Tales

Reading Now:

Not My Father's Son
By Alan Cumming

Up Next:

There Was And There Was Not
By Meline Toumani

What are you reading this week?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Review: Stone Mattress

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales
By Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese September 2014
273 pages
Read for review via Netgalley

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales

Margaret Atwood is known and admired for her exceptional talent as an author. Her stories explore friendship, aging, and what humanity looks like at the end of the world. In Stone Mattress, readers are treated to her writing at its height as she tells a compelling story in just a few pages with wit, understanding, and just a touch of malice. 

Atwood does a careful dance here between connecting stories and those that stand alone. She has three stories that are linked, as characters from the others star in a tale of their own. She also has one story that brings back characters from The Robber Bride, one of her early novels. It was wonderful to unexpectedly run into old friends. Many of these stories seem to draw moments from Atwood's own well of knowledge and feeling, as many of the characters are writers themselves. They grapple with both success and failure, high literature and pulp fiction.

One of the themes that runs through the stories is looking back at your life. It is refreshing to read about characters who have some years and experience under their belts. In almost every story, the specters of age and death loom large. In the first tale, entitled "Alphinland," our elderly protagonist is facing her first winter storm without her husband. She is somewhat forgetful about the things she should be doing to prepare. While her husband's voice gives her gentle reminders from the afterlife, it is heartbreaking to see this woman stumble literally and metaphorically. "Torching the Dusties," the last story, is perhaps the most plausible and the most terrifying. Wilma and Tobias are residents of a senior citizen home that is under siege from an organization seeking to eradicate the elderly. Their usual problems of aging are put in juxtaposition with people trying to escape a hostile situation.

Theses stories are just a bit fanciful - everything seems normal except for the voice of your deceased husband, or a daughter who is an outcast because she rather resembles...well, a vampire. It's fascinating to watch characters who wouldn't describe themselves as bad decide to do some very bad things. The idea of a villain is deconstructed to become someone who needs revenge or finds an opportunity too good to pass on (regardless of the consequences). Stone Mattress is a collection for all readers - those who love short stories and those who avoid them, those who love horror stories and those who love literary fiction, the readers who adore Margaret Atwood and those who are lucky enough to be discovering her amazing writing for the first time.

My reviews of Atwood's Oryx and Crake and Surfacing

Sunday, December 14, 2014

It's Monday - let the insanity begin!

Hello, ladies and gentlemen. How is it going?

This week was a bit rough. I caught a nasty cold, although I am happy to report that I am now on the upswing thanks to my good friends Mucinex and Dayquil. Now it is time for things to officially get crazy. I have a few more presents to buy and then it is time for lots of wrapping. We are also hosting a Christmas Open House for our church family this weekend and then we will be hosting Christmas dinner at our place. Let the insanity begin!

Read This Week:
First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen
First Impressions
By Charlie Lovett

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan
The Underground Girls of Kabul
By Jenny Nordberg

Posts from this Past Week:
It's Monday
Top Ten Tuesday: New to Me Authors
Review of Dear Committee Members

Reading Now:
Caleb's Crossing
Caleb's Crossing
By Geraldine Brooks

Up Next:
My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories
My True Love Gave To Me: Twelve Holiday Stories
Edited by Stephanie Perkins

What are you reading this week?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Review: Dear Committee Members

Dear Committee Members
By Julie Schumacher
Doubleday August 2014
181 pages
From the library 

Dear Committee Members

Jason Fitger is an English professor at Payne University, specializing in creative writing. His department is under siege as the administration cuts funds and faculty and debris rains down on their head from the renovations to the economics offices. Fitger was once a member of the esteemed "Seminar," which seems to be an allusion to one of the prestigious MFA programs around our country. He can't seem to shake the relationships that shaped his life at that time as he still pines for the approval of their adviser and reaches out to the other students for advice, assistance, and sympathy.While Fitger's own writing career is somewhat derailed, he still can recognize a promising writer when he sees one...and when he doesn't.

The story of this professor is told through a series of letters to his fellow faculty members, to old friends and lovers, and to the committees of the graduate programs, writing fellowships, and internships that his students hope to gain. Dear Committee Members is a book that will make you laugh in recognition while also sparking a deeper look at our current higher education practices.

The epistolary novel is not for every reader and certainly not for every writer. The difficulty lies in bringing a character to life solely through their correspondence. For Professor Fitger, who has recently been burned from a very unfortunate reply-all situation, hand-written letters are an important means of expression. He is sarcastic and snide as he criticizes the lack of support from the university for the professors and students, but willing to take responsibility for his own failings. Most of all, his blunt honesty in the recommendations that he writes for his students shows his commitment to their education and to their futures. Fitger sees no problem in stating that a student did poorly in his class or that another deserves better than the job she is trying to nab. But he also writes to the mental health services on campus on the behalf of a student and tirelessly tries to find funding for a writer he believes can make it big.

Julie Schumacher has created a true curmudgeon of a character. But he is grumpy because he cares - because he has witnessed too many writers who didn't get the book deal, too many professors fight to teach the classes that matter, and too many students in his department take terrible jobs in unrelated fields. This is the perfect book for anyone who has had a teacher who opened their eyes or the professors who are doing the world-changing every day in our colleges and universities.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: New to Me Authors Read in 2014

Putting this post together was fun and it opened my eyes to what kind of reading I have been doing this year. I thought I read a lot of new authors but when I looked at it, I read many books by authors I had read before. 

Here are ten authors whose work I read for the first time in 2014:


1. Chris Cleave
I had Little Bee sitting on my shelf for a while and finally decided to give it a try. Reading this story devastated me in the best of ways and I love knowing that he has two other books for me to read!
Books tbr: Gold and Incendiary

2. Sarah Beth Durst
The Lost was a bit out of my comfort zone, but I'm so glad I gave it a try. Durst brings a new world to life while referencing beloved tales like Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz. She has several other books but I am really waiting impatiently for the sequel!
Books tbr: Chasing Power, Conjured

Non-fiction and Memoir

3. Leslie Jamison
The Empathy Exams was a sleeper hit when this book of essays struck a chord with readers. It's one of those books I want to enthusiastically push into people's hands with the warning that it will make you reflect on the way you interact with others and it just might make you a kinder, better person.
Books tbr: The Gin Closet

4. Micha Boyett
Found: A Story of Questions, Grace, and Everyday Prayer is a beautiful look at the ways we can connect with God throughout the mundane and repetitive parts of our lives. Boyett doesn't have any other books yet, but this girl is hopeful!

5. Shauna Niequist
In Bread and Wine, Shauna Niequist easily combines a cookbook, a memoir, and advice about living an open and inviting life. Shauna seems both wise and totally relatable.
Books tbr: Bittersweet, Cold Tangerines, and the upcoming Savor

Historical Fiction

6. Anthony Doerr
All the Light We Cannot See is a National Book Award finalist for very good reason. Doerr portrays two children growing up during WWII and the intersections between art and science and kindness and evil are breathtaking.
Books tbr: About Grace, Memory Wall, and The Shell Collector

7. Erin Lindsay McCabe
I Shall Be Near To You was one of my favorite novels of 2014. McCabe brings a young couple to life as the wife follows her husband to the battlefields of the Civil War.
Books tbr: Next novel is in the works!

8. Ariel Lawhon
The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress is a fictional look at a real-life mystery. Lawhon's passion for history and these people is evident on every page. The coolest part of the story is that a descendant of one of the characters in this book actually contacted Lawhon recently!
Books tbr: Hindenburg is coming soon!

9. Genevieve Valentine
The Twelve Dancing Princesses set during the Roaring 20s = The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. It's magical and wonderful.
Books tbr: Mechanique 

10. Nicola Griffith
There are not too many books out there about the 7th century. Hild will introduce you to an unforgettable heroine and immerse you in a fascinating time period.
Books tbr: The Aud Series

What new authors did you discover in 2014?

Little Bee     Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table, with Recipes    Hild

Monday, December 8, 2014

It's Monday and we have had a lot of celebrating!

Hello again! This has been quite the week.

David turned seven so we celebrated with his friends on the actual day and then celebrated with family on Saturday. He also got to go see New Jersey author Dan Gutman (author of the My Weird School series) at our local library and have his books signed. We have to start them young, right?!?

With everything going on this week, I only read one book. On the plus side, my desire to review books seems to be coming back. I think I might actually catch up this week!

Read This Week:
Some Luck
By Jane Smiley

Posts from this Past Week:

Reading Now:
First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen
By Charlie Lovett

Up Next:
The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan
By Jenny Nordberg

What are you reading this week? 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Birthday Boy!

Today is the seventh birthday of a certain member of our household. We are having a few friends over to celebrate after school and then we will celebrate with the family this weekend.

To my dearest little big boy,

Happy Birthday!

I am having such a fun time watching you grow up.

Look! They let us take home this baby!
I love discovering your passions along with you and watching you learn new things.

You make your daddy and me laugh almost every day with your wise beyond your years exclamations.

I hope you love being seven. I hope you that you grow taller and stronger (although you could hold off on the being as tall as your mom thing for a few more years). I hope you learn new things about this great big world of ours and about yourself. 

I love you so much and I am so proud of you.

Your Mama

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Mini-Reviews: Everything Beautiful Began After and A Map of Betrayal

Everything Beautiful Began After

Everything Beautiful Began After 
by Simon Van Booy

One summer in Athens, three young people meet and become inseparable. Rebecca is an artist who has left her past behind in an effort to discover who she is and what she wants from life. George hopes to find a connection in ancient languages that he hasn't been able to find from other people. Henry is an archaeologist whose bravado and confidence hide a dark secret.

Simon Van Booy is a master of writing lovely stories. His prose is simple but breathtaking and his tales themselves are timeless. Rebecca and George and Henry could be people from any time, exploring new places, learning new things, and finding the people who will shape their lives. 

The timelessness of the story is in direct juxtaposition to the meticulous sense of place. While the characters in this book will travel to many places, most of the story takes place in Rome. The sweeping vistas, noisy tourists, and historic sites seem to come to life right before your eyes.

I love reading the work of Simon Van Booy. There is a sincerity that permeates every sentence of his stories; an acknowledgement that each of us will face both divine joy and unspeakable grief during our lives. Everything Beautiful Began After invites the reader to let themselves be shaped by this difficult and wonderful life.

A Map of Betrayal

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       A Map of Betrayal
by Ha Jin

Gary Sheng was a man with dual allegiances, dual families, and dual lives. He lived in the United States and worked as a translator at the CIA, which gave him the ability to leak information to the Chinese government. He married an American woman and has a daughter named Lillian. But all the while, he could not forget his first family back in China. A grown-up Lillian learns about his duplicity by reading his journals after he has died. She decides to reach out to her father's first family and try to piece together the truth.

A Map of Betrayal moves back and forth between Lillian's quest in the present and her father's life in the past.The entire novel has a sense of reserve throughout, even as Lillian learns her father's darkest secrets and finds that they have implications for her family. At times, it felt as if Lillian's interest in Gary was academic and part of her research as a professor instead of personal. I learned a lot about China and Gary's pain about living two lives is fully realized, but I never really empathized with the characters. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

November Wrap-Up


So now that we are officially in holiday mode, what have you been doing? Are the decorations up? We have most of our decorations up but we still need to get a Christmas tree! The Christmas songs are on pretty much 24/7 around here. My current favorites are Here with Us and Winter Song.

Books reviewed in November: 5
Pages read: 1,595
Fiction/non-fiction: 4/1
Male authors/female authors: 4/1
My books/library books/books for review: 2/0/3
Most-read November review: Persepolis
Favorite November read: Little Bee

Ouch. I knew the reviewing hadn't been going so well, but I didn't realize it was this bad until I started working on this post. I just don't seem to have a lot of time or motivation to write reviews lately. I hope to catch up with some mini-reviews and have a better month in December!

What was the best book you read in November?