Thursday, July 30, 2015

Review: A God In Ruins

A God In Ruins
By Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown, and Company May 2015
468 pages
From the library 

A God in Ruins

Readers went on a fascinating journey with Ursula Todd in Life After Life. Ursula loved many people, but perhaps her most beloved was her brother Teddy. In A God In Ruins, we follow Teddy through his experiences as a RAF pilot during WWII and into everyday life as a husband, father, and grandfather. Teddy shows us what it is like to live a future you never expected to see and to watch your children and grandchildren make choices you could never fathom.

A God in Ruins is told in alternating (and constantly moving) timelines, as we follow young, brash Teddy's days as a pilot and then the quotidian moments of work, family, and growing older. It could easily be called a war novel, as we follow Teddy on mission after mission. But I think it does this novel and Atkinson a disservice to leave it there. While we certainly see the horror and uncertainty of war, the more striking part for me was what came afterwards. Teddy feels the generational gaps very intensely, as his daughter joins a commune and makes irresponsible decisions that create a potentially unbridgeable gap between Teddy, his daughter, and his grandchildren. The heartbreak that he feels as he sees the lack of understanding and respect that the children have for him is palpable.

Teddy and his wife Nancy are forever distant with each other, as he wants to talk about the experiences of the war that forever changed him while Nancy is unable or unwilling to do the same about her time as a codebreaker. Teddy has never felt more like himself than when he led a group of men inside a tiny metal tube with a single goal giving each of them certainty of purpose. Teddy sees talking about it as a way to pay tribute to that time in his life and to the people who gave their lives during the war. How will anyone remember their lives and the sacrifices made by so many if no one is willing to talk about them?

Interestingly, Teddy sometimes muses over or tells his grandchildren about events that the readers experienced with him firsthand earlier or will see later in the book. And sometimes those events don't play out exactly the same way - no one has a perfect memory, after all. While Life After Life actually took readers through multiple versions of Ursula's life, this story reminds us that we are destined to live the important moments of our lives again and again as we retell our stories and remember our happiest and most heartbreaking experiences.

A God in Ruins is a tale about a family who fails, time after time, to connect with each other in meaningful and long-lasting ways. Atkinson manages to make us care for the most frustrating of characters as we watch the Todd family hurt and miss each other again and again. It is a story about war and memories and family and what it means to live a life that matters. This beautifully written book is a wonderful choice for the reader who is just encountering the Todd family for the first time or the one who adored them in Life After Life and is eager to spend more time with Ursula, Teddy, and the storytelling prowess of Kate Atkinson.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review: Church of Marvels

Church of Marvels
By Leslie Parry
Ecco May 2015
320 pages
Read via Netgalley

Church of Marvels 

In the last days of the nineteenth century, some of the inhabitants of New York City walk in the light of day and enjoy the extravagance and beauty of life. But others stick to the shadows, determined to survive without drawing any attention to themselves. Sylvan works cleaning the privies under the cover of darkness until he finds a baby abandoned in the muck. He decides he must find where she belongs. On Coney Island, Odile sets out to find her sister Belle after the death of their vaudeville queen mother and the destruction of the circus they called home. Across the river Alphie wakes up in a lunatic's asylum, unsure about how she got there and how or if she can escape. Each of their stories will intertwine in unexpected ways in the darkest corners of New York City.

The title and cover of this book suggest that the reader will be immersed in the sights and sounds of the Big Top. But we only visit the Church of Marvels in Odile's memory. Instead, this story follows the people who do not belong in polite society, the ones who hide around the edges or pretend to be someone else.  Ms. Parry takes us to an opium den where a gang of children scavenge to survive, into the pain and horror of an insane asylum, and behind the curtain of a notorious brothel. 

While I enjoyed this book, I thought it fell short in a few ways. I wanted more of the magic of the circus, but instead experienced the darkness and pain of the people that no one wants to see in the city.  If it had been presented as such, I think i would have been a better experience. Expecting one thing and getting another was frustrating. Then Parry waits too long to bring all of her characters and their stories together. When she does, it is terrifically compelling. But it feels like too little, too late. 
Church of Marvels is a powerful debut. The places inhabited by these characters may be dark and often distasteful, but Parry brings light to every corner to show readers the pain of those considered "less than" and the lengths they will go to in order to protect themselves and their loved ones. This author has a serious gift for creating a specific place and moment in time that is matched by few authors writing today. I will be watching closely for her next book. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

It's Monday and the reading is not going too quickly!

I spent this past weekend with my best friend, who was a stinker and got a fabulous new job across the country. Since she will be moving in the next month or so, we spent the weekend with our husband and boyfriend respectively, doing important things like having a wine and cheese party and visiting a secondhand bookstore.

I finished reading The Last Bookaneer and then apparently started a slow but serious non-fiction binge. I am almost finished with Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking and feel like I am learning so much. 

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking  The Last Bookaneer  

I was searching for a new audiobook and decided to get I Am Malala from the library. A note to anyone who saw a crazy crying girl on the commute home on Thursday - I'm fine; it's just that listening to Malala talk about her plan in case the Taliban attacked her made my momma heart cry just a little bit. Next I will be reading Saint Mazie and I'm looking forward to picking up Welcome to My Breakdown when I finish that.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban   Welcome to My Breakdown: A Memoir

What are you reading this week? 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Royal Wedding Giveaway

Royal Wedding (The Princess Diaries, #11) 

In some sort of mailing snafu, I ended up the proud owner of two advanced reader copies of Royal Wedding. This book is the latest installment in Meg Cabot's beloved Princess Diaries series. So of course, I'm doing what any good blogger should do - host a giveaway! 

This is my first time using Rafflecopter, so fingers crossed that everything is working correctly!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Late to the Party Reviews: The Language of Flowers

The Language of Flowers
By Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Ballantine Books April 2012
352 pages
From my shelves

The Language of Flowers 

Victoria is about to age out of foster care. She is furious at the system that let her down, at the foster parents that didn't keep her, and at a world that doesn't seem to care in the least. Victoria is living on the street until she realizes that her knowledge of flowers can go to good use. She begins working at a flower shop and finds she has a gift for putting together exactly the arrangements her customers need. As she begins to enjoy the comfort of routine and security, she has to decide if she can start letting people into her life. Can someone who has always pushed people away finally let herself be loved?

The Language of Flowers alternates between the present and Victoria's difficult past. We see her abused by foster parents who leave her out in the cold or refuse to feed her. But we also witness her tentative happiness with an older woman named Elizabeth. The mystery of this story is when readers see her progress with Elizabeth, but also know that she spent her last few teen years in a problematic group home. Victoria is often a difficult character to follow because she refuses help at almost every turn. For someone who has been abandoned and betrayed at every turn, she believes that her only recourse is to hurt people before they have the chance to hurt her.

Diffenbaugh has a real gift for writing. There were several moments when I had actual fear about what would happen to Victoria and other characters. It is a rare author who gives you no security about the fate of the people who live on her pages. I became really invested in these characters, from Vanessa herself to even the minor characters who hover around the periphery of the story. I also love that this author wasn't content to let readers know about the difficulty of aging out of foster care. She went and set up a foundation to help real-life kids through the process. Anyone who says fiction can't change lives isn't paying attention to Ms. Diffenbaugh's writing and tireless work through The Camellia Network.

The Language of Flowers is, dare I say, an important novel about a group of people who are all too easy to ignore. Few of us worry about the difficulties of children in the foster care system or their complicated transition into adulthood. This story is heartfelt and difficult, as any good tale about love and creating our families must be. I am really interested to see what Ms. Diffenbuagh does in her upcoming second book, We Never Asked For Wings, which will be out in August. 

Late to the Party Reviews are my thoughts on the books everyone else read years ago. I'm finally getting to them, so make sure to chime in and tell me about your experience with these stories!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

It's Monday and I am reading about literary pirates!

Hey there, friends! How is life treating you?

This week, D finished his swim lessons and we celebrated my sister's birthday. On Sunday, we went to my childhood church, where my husband filled in as the preacher and I sang "The Prayer" with a friend for the special music.

Alright, I know, enough is enough. It's time to talk about books!

I finished Murder on the Orient Express after a month or so of listening during my commute. With my eyes, I read The Shore and am a little more than halfway through The Last Bookaneer.

The Shore  Murder on the Orient Express 

 On deck for this week, I have Saint Mazie from the library and will be picking something from my shelves. I'm thinking I might pick Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won't Stop Talking.

Saint Mazie   Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

What are you reading this week?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Folded Clock and the Purpose of Memoir

A few weeks ago, I settled down to read The Folded Clock. I had seen the book around the internet a few times and it was heralded as " a meditation on time and self, youth and aging, betrayal and loyalty, friendship and romance, faith and fate, marriage and family, desire and death, gossip and secrets, art and ambition." That sounded pretty good to me, plus I've been trying to add more nonfiction to my reading life.

I found the book to be a fine read. Each entry begins with "Today I," but they jump all over the timeline instead of chronologically covering two years. I found some of Julavits' musings interesting and often funny, but I never had that desperate feeling of needing to read some more right this moment. While I appreciated her honesty as she revealed some of her innermost thoughts and regrets, I also felt at times that she was trying to be sensational and I still don't feel like I really know her in any meaningful way.

Reading this book made me think, though. I wondered why we are so eager to read biographies and memoirs. In some cases, we learn more about the lives of people we admire - politicians, philanthropists, performers, or athletes. In other instances, like this one, the subject of the book has not accomplished anything to get her on any "most influential" lists. By her own admission, she leads a mostly quiet kind of life filled with teaching, writing, and family. So what is the impetus for reading about other people's lives?

Do we have an incurable desire to snoop on other people and appreciate that reading a memoir is a socially acceptable way to do so? Do we hope to find some insight into our own lives by reading about the experiences of others? Or is it just a way to connect with humanity as a whole - to understand just a bit what it means to be this particular person?

Why do you read biographies and memoirs?

The Folded Clock: A Diary

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Review: The Millionaire and the Bard

The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger's Obsessive Search for Shakespeare's First Folio
By Andrea Mays
Simon and Schuster May 2015
368 pages
Read via Netgalley

 The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio 

When William Shakespeare died, many of his plays almost died with him. During the Elizabethan era, plays were not published. They were passed around so the players could memorize them and then they were discarded. A few years later, two of his fellow players decided to gather his plays together in a tribute to their talented friend. The result was the First Folio. Today it is worth millions of dollars but, at the time of publication, it was a unique prize for a few wealthy nobles or contemporaries of Shakespeare to keep in their libraries. 300 years later, an American businessman named William Clay Folger decided to start collecting Shakespeare's plays. He and his wife Emily quietly began to bid on item after item, until they caught the attention and ire of the British. Folger was determined to achieve his dream of an entire library full of Shakespeare's plays and memorabilia, but could he succeed when the British decided that he was stealing their literary treasures?

I was an English and Theatre double major in college, so I like to think that I know a fair amount about Shakespeare and his plays. It turns out that I was sort of right. While I enjoyed reading about Shakespeare's life, there was little information that was news to me. But then I read the chapters about the creation of the First Folio and it was some fascinating stuff. Paper was extremely rare and books were often ripped apart and used to bind a new book. Did you know that many Shakespeare lovers just got rid of their First Folios when the Second Folio was published, despite mistakes and omissions in that later edition?

The portions of the book that follow the Folgers are very interesting as well. Andrea Mays brings Emily and William to life, showing their quiet admiration for each other and the beautiful work of Shakespeare. It's not meant to be humorous, but there is something funny about Folger's placid reaction to the angry British literary community. His response was something along the lines of, "Well, I bought them. None of you wanted to bid on them and I had money. So I bought them." He found nothing bizarre about bidding on literary treasures and then putting them in storage, sometimes without even seeing them.

The Millionaire and The Bard is a vital read for anyone who loves Shakespeare and anyone who loves to learn. The reader who picks this book will be treated to new insight about the life and work of the Bard, publishing in the 17th century, and the quiet and determined lives of a couple who loved Shakespeare. I will definitely be making a trip to the Folger Library at some point to see the legacy that Henry and Emily Folger spent a lifetime creating. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

It's Monday and it was a great weekend

This week was filled with the normal work and grocery shopping plus swimming lessons for D and the fun experience of having people working in your house almost every day. We are getting a new railing and spindles on the stairway from first to second floor.

After work on Friday, we dropped the kiddos off at Grandma and Grandpa's house and then headed back to our home with one sister in tow. We picked up another at the train station and then the sisters, the husband, and I went out to dinner. On Saturday morning, we got up nice and early and drove across state lines for my cousin's wedding. It was a wonderful wedding and it was made even better by the fact that my sister and her husband flew in for the occasion, which meant it was the first time we had seen them since May.

Oh right. Maybe you came here to talk about books. I finished A God in Ruins, read Royal Wedding, and finally got to Lumberjanes this week. I happened to see it on the shelf during a library trip with D and brought it home in a bag with his books. He came to find me a while later to thank me for getting him such a great book! I think he enjoyed reading Lumberjanes just as much as I did.

Royal Wedding (The Princess Diaries, #11)    Lumberjanes, Vol. 1

On the blog this week I joined in a Top Ten Tuesday where we wrote about the really hyped books we've never read, and reviewed Royal Wedding.

The Shore   The Last Bookaneer

As of right now, I'm a little bit into The Shore and I'm thinking I will read The Last Bookaneer next. What are you reading this week?

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Review: Royal Wedding

Royal Wedding (Princess Diaries #11)
By Meg Cabot
William Morrow June 2015
435 pages
Received for review from TLC Book Tours and the publisher

Royal Wedding (The Princess Diaries, #11)  

 I don't really believe in guilty pleasures - if you like something, why feel guilty about it? But I do have certain comfort pleasures, which are books or movies that I turn to when I need a pick me up or I just need some familiar background noise. As a kid/teen, I was decidedly a part owner of the Princess Diaries box set which contained the first three books in the series. While they have gone on to live with another sister, I do still enjoy watching the movies. Often. I adore both of them.

So when I saw that Meg Cabot was writing another (final?) book about Mia and her royal family, I knew I wanted in. The gawky teenager has turned into a grownup who spends her days lending her princess support to worthy causes, running a community center, and seeing her boyfriend Michael. Life has been rather stressful lately so when Michael manages to whisk them both to a Caribbean island, she doesn't protest for long. And when he proposes? Mia of course agrees...although she can see all sorts of royal headaches when it comes to trying to have an intimate wedding in the midst of the paparazi and Grandmere. Just when she thought life couldn't possibly get any more interesting, she discovers a family bombshell that could change everything, including the Renaldo family's rule of Genovia. 

One of the things I've always enjoyed about this series is the way that Meg Cabot used a variety of mediums. In Royal Wedding, we start with a newspaper article and then the story jumps between Mia's journal, text messages, and other notes. It gives us a sense of Mia's personality in a way that would have been hard to convey through traditional writing. And while she may have been dealing with this princess thing for years now, it doesn't mean she is any less angry when reporters ask her stupid questions or her grandmother categorically declares that a princess cannot have mini grilled cheese sandwiches at her wedding reception. There were moments when Mia still sounded a bit like a teenager, but I think it's easy for us to forget that people don't grow up all at once. And of course, there is a wide gap between professional public persona and your most intimate griping. If a journal isn't a place to hold our frustrations and whiniest moments, then I'm not sure what is!

Reuniting with beloved characters always feels somewhat like going home. My generation grew up with Mia and so seeing her juggle a job and family and a wedding looks a lot like the things we are juggling as well, even if we don't have to wear a tiara. All of the other characters that we love are back as well - Michael has started his own robotic medical company, Lily is going to law school, Tina is becoming a doctor, Grandmere is still trying to run everyone's lives, and Lars is standing guard over them all.

Royal Wedding is the perfect book to throw into your beach bag this summer. If you grew up reading about and loving Mia, don't miss the chance to jump back into her crazy life and see how she deals with everything princess life can throw at her!

Need more Royal Wedding love? Hop over to TLC Book Tours, where 23 other bloggers are sharing their thoughts!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Hyped Books I've Never Read

It's Tuesday again, so it's time to make a list! The ladies over at The Broke and the Bookish are asking which popular books you haven't read yet. Make sure to visit them to see the lists from other bloggers

Five I Hope To Read:

Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)  An Untamed State

Five I Will Probably Never Read:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series (It just doesn't interest me so much.)
50 Shades of Grey (Because 50 Shades of Grey. Need I say more?)
Heaven Is For Real (I believe in the existence of heaven, but can't help but feel there is something manipulative about using a small child to try to prove it)
Game of Thrones (So long and so violent)
Water for Elephants (Saw part of the movie; just not that interested)

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1)

What hyped books have you skipped? Do you hope to read them some day? 

Monday, July 6, 2015

It's Monday and we are reunited again.

It's the most wonderful time of the weeeeeeek! It's time to talk about books and stuff.

This was a long week for the little literary family. Dad was away for eight days at a conference and we all missed him. We pretty much spent the 4th of July celebrating his return by eating cake before dinner and getting lots of presents. Then we of course had to watch the World Cup on Sunday night. How awesome was Team USA??

This week, I read Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry and now I'm finishing A God In Ruins, the companion novel to Life After Life.

       Church of Marvels  A God in Ruins

On the good ol' blog, I reviewed Americanah and War of the Encyclopeaedists and looked back at all of the books I read in June.

Now I am looking forward to reading Royal Wedding, the conclusion to Meg Cabot's much-beloved Princess Diaries series, and The Shore, which everyone and their mother has been raving about.

       Royal Wedding (The Princess Diaries, #11)  The Shore

What are you reading this week? 

Friday, July 3, 2015

Review: War of the Encyclopaedists

War of the Encyclopaedists 
By Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite
Scribner May 2015
448 pages
From the library 

War of the Encyclopaedists

Mickey Montauk and Halifax Corderoy are best friends with plans to conquer graduate school together. They decide to throw one last incredible party before they move to Boston. It will be their final party as "The Encyclopaedists," joining bashes that were themed around things like monocularity. But this will be their last night of normality in more ways than one - Mickey learns that his National Guard unit is being deployed. After he leaves for Baghdad, the two friends communicate via Wikipedia, as they update and edit their joint article on The Encyclopaedists.

Mickey is predestined to have the more interesting of the two storylines, because he goes off to war while Hal goes to snowy Boston. But even Mickey and his platoon must find some sanity in days that are either mind-numbing boredom or terrible tragedy. Their days mostly consist of running a security checkpoint and wondering why, exactly, they are there. But before you worry that this story will just be centered around hipster dudes with a side dish of war, I am happy to report that there are also female characters to be found within these pages. There are some complicated geometric shapes that emerge between the two friends and Hal's girlfriend Mani and his roommate Trish.

This is one of those books where readers, or at least this reader, really want to yell at characters. The people in this story are doing stupid and selfish things and you know the repercussions will not be good. But as often as Mickey and Hal drove me crazy, I saw the reality in their actions. I understood being out of college and expecting the world to work a certain way. I could see why they lashed out when their lives looked so very different from the ones they imagined.

War of the Encylopaedists is undeniably at least partly autobiographical since authors Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite mirror their characters. Robinson received his MFA from Hunter College and Kovite was a platoon leader in Baghdad. Their story, or at least the story of Mickey and Hal, is painfully self-aware as their characters discover just how little they knew about the world and themselves. It will be interesting to see just what these two talented writers cook up individually and together.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

June Wrap-Up

Well, we got through June. D had his last day of 1st grade, and we are trying to get into some semblance of a summer routine. I fear that will be easier said than done since I work some days, but not every day and right now, my husband is taking a few weeks of sabbatical from his job. Oh well - who needs routine anyway?

Books reviewed in June: 7
Pages read: 3,149
Fiction/non-fiction: 6/1
Multiple authors/female authors: 1/6
My books/library books/books for review: 2/2/3
Most-read June review: Inside the O'Briens 
My favorite June read: A Little Life 

A Little Life Gummi Bears Should Not Be Organic: And Other Opinions I Can't Back Up With Facts Americanah

Tiffany Girl My Brilliant FriendInside the O'Briens

What was the best book you read in June?