Friday, May 29, 2009

Friday Finds

This week in Friday Finds, we are dealing with a phenomena of sorts. I did not find one single book to add to my TBR this week by browsing other book blogs. (Don't worry, I went to a killer Holiday sale at 1/2-Price Books, ransacked the publisher's remainder table at B&N, and found two other books through other means to add nine books to my library.)

The 1/2-Price Sale: I couldn't pass up 20% off everything, so I picked up five books (for about $16--the price of one new paperback) from some of my favorite authors in my favorite genre: the always "boring" literary fiction.

Straight Man by Richard Russo - The story of an English professor at a fledgling liberal arts college who gets into all manner of crazy situations in the span of one week. The setting (and my love of Russo's writing style) made this a sure sell for me.

Duplicate Keys by Jane Smiley - This attempt at Smiley to dip her toe into mystery when a young woman is killed in an apartment to which many friends hold duplicate sets of keys intrigued me. Knowing Smiley, this can't be a simple who-done-it, it has to be a why'd-they-do-it and why-would-you'd-do-it-too.

The Accidental Tourist, Saint Maybe, and Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler - I perused the mass market paper backs (which 1/2-Price sells for half the publishers list price) and picked up these... I plan to eventually get to her entire cannon, but these (the story of a travel writer who hates travelling, a man converted by a possible religious charlatan, and a woman who disappears on vacation--maybe of her own volition) called out for first pick.

B&N Sale Table: I picked up two books that were on the deep discount table (two hardbacks for under $13 total) at Barnes & Noble. [Never mind that I saw some hardbacks for cheaper than what I'd recently paid for the paperback versions... I'll be checking the remainder table from now on before splurging on any paperbacks. Lesson learned.]

Digging to America by Anne Tyler - I'd never even heard of this book, but Tyler never disappoints me, so I picked this up on Sunday night (and finished it Monday and reviewed it on Wednesday).

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon - I've said here that I plan to eventually read Chabon's entire cannon, so this tale of crime, love, and community that won a ridiculous number of genre fiction awards was Chabon's attempt to elevate genre fiction without compromising any of the literary merit of his writing. Can't wait.

Other: I serendipitously ran across this book, The President's Daughter, which is an updated (in 2008) re-release of a book that was originally published in 1984. It's the first in a series about the sixteen-year-old daughter of a female US Senator who makes a successful Presidential run; the series originally was three books long, but the revised and updated version includes a fourth book. I've put this first one on hold at the library and we'll see how they come along and if the rest are worth reading.

A co-worker was reading the second book in Stephen Lawhead's King Raven Series, which I'd heard of, and when I asked her if she was enjoying it and mentioned that I'd considered reading them eventually, she offered to loan me the first one, Hood. She brought that to me at work on Wednesday, so I've got that one pressing down on me (in addition to the five books I've got out from the library with impending deadlines).

So. Many. Books.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Book Review: Stealing Bradford

Title Stealing Bradford (Carter House Girls Book #2)
Author Melody Carlson
Genre YA, Commercial Fiction
Rating D

Summary The Carter House Girls go back to school, further fleshing out who are the smart ones, the athletic ones, the artsy ones, the pretty ones, etc., and continue their boy-related drama. Things get "crazy" when Taylor (the "pretty" and "athletic" and "smart" one) flirts with Bradford, the boyfriend of Rhiannon (the "artsy," "funky," "well-adjusted," "Christian"), and the rest of the house turns against her.

First Line "'I'm sorry, but my car's just not big enough for all the girls,' announced Eliza as they were finishing breakfast."

Review ...And cue the drama. Who will ride in what car? (Because we all know from Carter House Girls Book #1 that we are all supposed to hate Casey, the "troubled" "Goth chick" with safety pin piercings).

Believe it or not, I hated this book actually worse than I hated book number one, Mixed Bags. I didn't think it could get worse, but it did. DJ (the "athletic" "girl-next-door" protagonist), who I kind of liked in Mixed Bags, was schizophrenic in this book--first she can't stand this person, then she can't stand that person; first she's embarrassed by this boy, then she's mad at him, then she's "confused," but happy that he's her boyfriend. Check out some of this prose that occurs during a discussion at the lunch table about what kind of car D.J. should get:
[Conner, DJ's boyfriend, said:]"'Man, I hate to think of what Taylor might pick for you. Probably a Corvette or Mustang.'
'Why's that?'
'Well, my dad's always saying how those are the most dangerous cars on the road. More people get killed in them than any other car.' [Her boyfriend might actually be a girl... what guy would be anti-Corvette or Mustang?]
DJ nodded. 'Okay, definitely no Corvettes or Mustangs.'
'I'm pretty sure that goes for Firebirds and Camaros too.'
...Soon everyone at the table was giving their two cents' worth of car information to her, and by the time they exhausted the subject, she felt completely confused," (p. 131).
Really? Don't teenage girls just go to the lot and say, "Cool, that one's really shiny and I like the color. Let's get that."? I mean, personally, I took the '88 Ford Escort hatchback that my parents gave me and was grateful, but I think anybody that would get "confused" by advice about a car from her friends might not be the brighest bulb in the box.

How about this gem of introspection:
"DJ smiled to herself as she went into the auditorium. Having a boyfriend, although it took some getting used to, was kind of fun," (p. 133).
Kind of fun? Takes getting used to? What is this girl, Amish? Give me a break. She's got a cute guy that she's been friends with for as long as she's lived in town (and they had a serious make-out session in Book #1), but she's not used to him? What? I'd be all up on that (as would most any other 16-year-old girl, right?).

If you've been reading these reviews very long you know that all books start out as an A+ and then get docked a letter grade for everything that is bothersome--plot inconsistencies, down a point; over-characterization, down a point, etc. Well, Stealing Bradford was so bad it was nearly an F, but I made myself persevere and it earned two points (moving it up to a D).

Here are where the points came from:

1. Taylor became an interesting character. In order to not spoil the story, I won't tell you how, but Taylor actually becomes interesting, we get more of her back story, and I found myself wanting to hear more about her. Granted, Carlson's likely to screw the pooch in Book #3, but until I'm sure about that, the character of Taylor was worth something to me.

2. Carlson got into some heavier stuff. There were some plot points that I don't think you'd expect in a Christian-bubble-gum fest like the Carter House Girls, but we got them (finally) in the climax and leading into Book #3. As I said above, I hold out little hope that Carlson will follow through on the interesting set up, but I've got to give her a little credit.

Book Review: Escape

Title Escape
Author Carolyn Jessop (with Laura Palmer)
Genre Nonfiction, Memoir
Rating F

Summary The story of Carolyn Jessop's life (and susequent escape) from the polygamist FLDS cult (an extremist sect of the Latter Day Saints).

Review As you can tell by the F rating, I didn't finish this book. I read approximately 190 pages of the book, and had to quit.

This was my book club's April book selection, we don't typically read non-fiction, but the story line seemed quite interesting, and it was--the story line, I mean. However, the writing was so awful, it read like a 2nd-grader was telling the story in a stream of consciousness, that I quit.

Having read well over half the book I got the idea: Life in the FLDS community sucks. Carolyn escaped (she told briefly about that in the very opening of the book). The escape and her efforts in acclimating herself and her numerous children to life outside the community was what I wanted to read about, but she spent 180 pages (plus more I didn't read) telling all about her life in the FLDS. I got it, move it along.

Un-Booking Through Thursday

This week's Booking Through Thursday question is: Is there a book that you wish you could “unread”? One that you disliked so thoroughly you wish you could just forget that you ever read it?

I guess my short answer is: No.

Any book that I've ever finished has been worth something, even the ones that I graded as low as a D (I reserve "F" for books I can't finish). I learn something from them, even if it's a cautionary tale for my own writing.

In regard to books I don't finish: There have only been two books that I've started and have no intention of finishing--The Thin Red Line by James Jones and Escape by Carolyn Jessop. I put down TTRL because I was having trouble following the book--so many characters that it wasn't gelling well for me. I've since read some Tom Clancey and may go back some day (maybe not) and try to pick this one up again. I put down Escape because the writing was so bad; the story was engaging, but by the end of 190 pages I had the idea, and couldn't stomach any more of this one.

But, if I'm being honest, even those weren't a "waste" of my time. I wouldn't un-read them.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Book Review: Ordinary Love & Good Will

Title Ordinary Love & Good Will: Two Novellas
Author Jane Smiley
Genre Literary Fiction
Rating A-

Summaries In Ordinary Love, Smiley tells the story of a family who's matriarch was unfaithful and probes around at the long-lasting effects of that family break-up on the mother and her children. In Good Will, Smiley weaves a tale of a family that lives an unconventional "counter-culture" lifestyle and attempts to look at the effect of that choice on the elementary-aged son.

First Lines (Ordinary Love) "I don't want Joe to find me on my knees, buffing the kitchen floor with an old cotton turtleneck, but he does, and he says, 'Mom! What are you doing? Relax!'"
(Good Will) "During the first part of the interview, when we are sitting on the porch looking down the valley, I try for exactitude more than anything--$343.67."

Reviews Neither of those first lines are particularly illustrative--Smiley never tries to start with a big bang, she's very much a "slow wind-up" kind of writer, but she wrote both of these novellas with her trademarks. Let's dig in, shall we?

Characters: In Ordinary Love, Smiley got a little child-happy (five children) and I had a hard time sorting them out and keeping them straight in my head--two are never even in the story, they're merely referenced by other family members. I say, since this is a short story/novella and you won't have time to fully flesh out five children, their parents, a step mother, grand children, and two other men in the mom's life, cut out all unnecessary characters and make the others more rich. She could have easily lost two of the kids and tightened up the story in my mind. In Good Will, she was sparse and beautiful with the characters. Even with using only one narrator, I understood everybody's motivations in the story. Beautifully done.

Plot: Both novellas had literary-heavy plots (i.e., not a lot of "action"), as is Smiley's style, but they did what they were supposed to do. Both got you thinking about how the decisions of the parents affect the children. Which leads us to...

Themes: I've reviewed one other book by Smiley, the Pulitzer-winning Thousand Acres, which I loved because I am a hard-core sucker for literary fiction about family dynamics and these are two more works in Smiley's cannon that tackle that subject matter quite beautifully. The only problem I have with Smiley, and it seems to be common across all of her writing (including the nonfiction that I read) is that she doesn't know when to stop a good thing. The themes of both these stories were great, but she gets heavy-handed with the exposition at the end and tells you what the protagonist is thinking (i.e., what you should be thinking), and nearly always, it's not what I was thinking and kind of ruins it for me. I like it when a book creates a situation, brings up a theme for me to think about, and then lets me do the thinking. Please, dear authors, do not do all of the thinking for me; don't preach at me--that's what I go to church for. If Smiley had trimmed her exposition down a shade (most definitely in Good Will), this could have been an A+ book.

Finally, Setting: I don't usually go too much into the settings of books, unless it's a big draw-back, but I need to touch on it. Smiley uses the midwest a lot in her books (she's Iowa through and through) and she continues as such in these stories. It wasn't as big of a deal in Ordinary Love--travel is a theme, but not too over-the-top for it to be in your face all the time--but it was critical in Good Will. The Pennsylvania family-run, self-sustaining farm in Good Will was essential, as was it's juxtaposition with the city they lived near, and it was beautiful. She's descriptive and evocative, the farm nearly takes on a life of its own, and she seriously had me considering moving to the country (even though my heart truly yearns for the big city). She did that one very well. Kudos on using setting to enhance the story.

All in all, the over-characterization in the first story and the over-exposition in the second story brought this one down a touch for me, but it won't stop me from reading the four other Smiley novels I have sitting on my TBR book shelf.

Book Review: Digging to America

Title Digging to America
Author Anne Tyler
Genre Literary Fiction
Rating B-

Summary Two families, one American and one Iranian, adopt daughters from Korea and the girls arrive on the same day, forever intertwining the two families' lives (thanks in part to the party-throwing matriarch of the American family). Two of the grandparents who are widowed dance around a "coupling," further twining together the families.

First Line "At eight o'clock in the evening, the Baltimore airport was nearly deserted."

Review The primary emphasis of this book was intended to be addressing questions of what makes an American. Were Maryam, the paternal grandmother, who moved to the United States 35 years before the story starts; her son, Sami, who was born and raised in the United States (and spoke English with no trace of an Iranian accent, and never spoke Farsi); or her daughter-in-law, Ziba, who moved to the United States with her family when she was a teenager American? Are the adopted daughters, two Korean and one Chinese (adopted by the "American" couple), American? I don't know... nor does Tyler.

I don't mean to throw stones, but the only part of this book that bothered me was that the theoretical point of the story, to delve into what makes an "American" isn't really ever handled all that well and/or definitively addressed. This is likely because defining an American is nearly impossible. Also, I'm sure Tyler did a fair amount of research on immigration, but I find it hard to believe that this could be something that she has too much personal knowledge of--maybe I'm wrong, but her bio doesn't seem to hint at that.

That's why I had to mark the book down so much--because Tyler failed to accomplish what she said she was trying to accomplish with this book. If Tyler had said this was simply a book about the dynamics of extended and/or blended families, she would have been phenomenal, perfect, an A+. But she didn't.

Moving beyond plot and themes, let's review the characters. Tyler did her stereotypical multiple narrator delivery--Maryam, Sami, Ziba, Bitsy (the American hostess with the most-est), and Frank (the maternal grandfather of the American family who "couples" with Maryam) all get a chance to sit in the narrator's seat. Maryam gets the most attention, as she's the primary protagonist of this story, but I have to admit that my favorite narrators were Frank (he had a wry wit and pragmatic view of the world) and Jin-Ho (the Korean daughter of the American family has such a funny and unexpected view of her family and the other adopted daughter that her one chapter as narrator was a nice twist).

The short story of this review is that I'd recommend this book to people who like to read stories about family dynamics. It's not a definitive guide to international adoption and/or international affairs, but brings up some interesting questions that beg for further reading.

Book Review: The Time Traveler's Wife

Title The Time Traveler's Wife
Author Audrey Niffenegger
Genre Literary Fiction
Author A-

Summary Henry, a "Chronologically-Displaced Person" (aka, Time Traveler), meets his wife, Clare, when she's six (and he's not six) and then he continues to travel around in his time and her time, living life.

First Line "Clare: It's hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he's okay. It's hard to be the one who stays."

Review I really liked this over-wrought love story (and if anybody tries to tell you it's not just a romance story dressed up as something else, tell them they're a liar). Even though there isn't much more going on than the romance story, it's still interesting because the time travelling aspect is kind of interesting. Niffenegger tries to do more than just write a 518-page opus to her dream guy, she asks some questions about fate and free will (and doesn't necessarily answer them).

My biggest problem with this story came during the climax when there were some inconsistencies in the story and how the crucial "event" in Henry's life occurred. Something occurs during "The Episode of the Monroe Street Parking Garage" that permanently alters Henry, but a climactic moment had already been seen (via time travel) some 370 pages earlier (22 years earlier in Clare's life) differently than when it occurred in real time. Sure, the chronology of this book is, understandably, convoluted, but I think something that was so critical to the climax of the book, an essential detail about how the male protagonist "functions" in that scene, is pretty important.

That, a fact/continuity issue, was the only thing I could come up with. Other than that I was thoroughly pleased with the book. I looked around at GoodReads.com to see what problems other people had, and found that only 8% (of 88,500 readers) rated the book as 1 or 2 stars. The bulk of their complaints was that the book was "boring" and didn't live up to the hype. The author can't necessarily be blamed for the hype--that wasn't her doing--and part of the "boringness" of the book is related to the afore-mentioned hype. As I said in the opening paragraph of this review, if you go in knowing that this is merely a love story/opus to Niffenegger's dream guy (who is surprisingly close to my dream guy), then you're unlikely to be disappointed. [Note: Dream guy is a slim-built, book-loving, poetry-spouting, multilingual librarian with a love of old-school punk.]

Also, her grade took another hit because in Niffenegger's quest to prove how awesome her dream guy is, she gets wordy with descriptions (and you know how I hate that). The laundry lists of groceries, bands, and locations in Chicago (in addition to her long-winded descriptions of the paper-making process--her first true love) get a little grating.

So, all that being said, I recommend this book to anybody who likes a "high brow" love story with a metaphysical twist, bearing in mind that they need to be able to overlook a major plot inconsistency that doesn't necessarily affect the plot, but shows sloppiness none the less.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

My May Nighstand

Every month 5 Minutes for Books hosts their monthly meme, "What's On Your Nighstand?" (Not that you could tell by my blog because I've been a loser for a couple of months and haven't posted.)

Well, I'm jumping back on the bandwagon because I want to give you loyal readers a look at what should be coming up in the coming weeks:

Read and Waiting to be Reviewed...
In addition to the reviews I posted this month (Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging; Inexcusable; Love Sick; The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl; Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy; So Not Happening; American Wife; Hacking Harvard; City of Glass; Girls of Riyadh; The Mysteries of Pittsburgh; and Stop Me If You've Heard This Before), I have the following reviews of books I've read in May that I need to get up on the blog: The Time Traveler's Wife, Digging to America and Ordinary Love & Good Will that should be up before the end of the week.

To Be Read...
There are currently 126 books on my GoodReads TBR list, the next four that are rotating through the queue are: Hannah's Dream for my book club, A Prayer for Owen Meany as my literary fiction selection for the month, The Sunday Philosophy Club as my commerical fiction selection for the month, and Stealing Bradford as my YA book for the month. I'll probably get to more, but why set the bar too high, right?

The Future...
The most recent additions to my TBR came through a holiday weekend binge at 1/2-Price Books (because everything was 20% off). I got: The Accidental Tourist, Ladder of Years, and Saint Maybe all by Anne Tyler; Straight Man by Richard Russo; and Duplicate Keys by Jane Smiley.

Book Review: Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before

Title Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before
Author David Yoo
Genre Young Adult Commercial Fiction
Rating A+

Summary Albert Kim, high school Junior suffering from a case of self-imposed social exile/Nihilism because he doesn't care about being a loser, works a summer job with school queen bee, Mia, and at the end of the summer they are "something." Then Mia's ex-boyfriend, and bona fide cool guy/jock, is diagnosed with cancer and Albert finds himself fighting a can't-win battle for Mia's heart with a "sympathetic" opponent.

First Line "The first time I met Mia we ended up in a hotel room by ourselves."

Summary I've said before that I'm kind of a big fan of David Yoo's work and that, I believe, it's just as hard to write incredibly funny stuff as it is to write "poignant" or "dramatic" stories. And, travelling on that same road, Yoo one-up's himself with his sophomore novel, Stop Me If...

This book is equal parts funny (actually hilarious), heart-breaking, and thoughtful. The characters were actually better drawn, more mature, than they were in Girls for Breakfast. For example, the protagonist in Stop Me If... makes some social mis-steps, but he knows when he's made those social mis-steps and makes strides to correct them. Also, Albert is more relatable because he's not entirely desperate (the idea that he just "gave up" on caring about high school is inspired and the observations he makes about his fellow students are beautiful), but he does still possess the capacity to make some very good friends--Mia for sure, but his neighbor and the neighbor's pals.

As is Yoo's M.O. (if you can have an M.O. with only two books), the narrator is Asian, it's not nearly as significant as it was in Girls for Breakfast, but still interesting. He writes a line that you can probably only get away with as an Asian writer, but the teenage protagonist is thinking about something his parents do to him and thinks, "Unfuckingbereavable." Is it wrong to laugh at that?

I didn't actually like the ending of this book, the protagonist does something that I wished he wouldn't do (although I know in reality that no teenage guy is going to pass up the opportunity that Albert has at the end of the book), but even that wasn't enough to sway my good opinion. The story and characters, overall, are so spot-on, that this book was an A+ in my literary grade book.

You'll notice that this review is higher (slightly) than Girls for Breakfast and that's because Yoo didn't lose any of his wit or wisdom, and (as referenced above) brought a stronger protagonist and a more compelling story to the table this time. I recommend this book to anyone who loves to laugh while they think about high school politics and first love.

Tease of a New Sort

I don't have either of the books I'm currently reading with me (currently), so I'm going to post a new sort of tease... I'm going to tease you into reading the review I'll be posting later today for Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before by David Yoo.


"'You're pathetic,' Ryan said. 'You're an emotional rapist, and you don't even know it.'
'If you didn't have cancer Mia would hate you, and all these people wouldn't be blindly worshipping you, and you know it!'" (p. 297).
This book is hilarious (Making fun of a kid with cancer? Classic.). Here's the summary from the flap jacket copy:

"If Albert Kim has learned one thing in his tragic adolescence, it's that God (probably a sadistic teenaged alien) does not want him to succeed at Bern High. By the end of sophomore year, Al is so tired of humiliation that he's chosen to just forget girls and high school society in general, and enjoy the Zen-like detachment that comes from being an intentional loser.

"Then he meets Mia Stone, and all the repressed hormones come flooding back. Mia, his co-worker at the Bern Inn, is adorable, popular, and most intimidatingly, the ex-long-term girlfriend of Ivy-bound, muscle-bound king of BHS and world class jerk, Ryan Stackhouse. But -- chalk it up to the magic of Al's inner beauty -- by the end of a summer vacuuming hotel rooms and goofing off together, he and Mia are officially 'something.'

"Albert barely has time to ponder this miracle before the bomb drops: Ryan has been diagnosed with cancer, and he needs Mia's support, i.e. constant companionship. True, he's lost weight and he’s getting radiation, but that doesn’t make him any less of a jerk. And to Albert, it couldn't be more apparent that Ryan is using his cancer to steal Mia back.

"With the whole town rallying behind Ryan like he’s a fallen hero, and Mia emotionally confused and worried for Ryan, Al’s bid for love is not a popular campaign. In fact, it's exactly like driving the wrong way on a five-lane highway.

"In this desperately funny novel, David Yoo tells an authentic story of first love, and therein captures the agony, the mania, the kicking and screaming that define teenage existence."

Read more Teaser Tuesdays.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Book Review: The Mysteries of Pittsburg

Title The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
Author Michael Chabon
Genre Literary Fiction
Rating A+

Summary The ultimate coming-of-age novel: Art Bechstein spends one relatively wild and crazy summer in Pittsburgh learning that he has no idea who he is.

First Line "At the beginning of the summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business."

Review I read The Mysteries of Pittsburgh way too fast--not in that I can't remember it, but that I wish I was still reading it because it was so fantastic. Let's break down its fantastic qualities, shall we?

One: the writing. I really shouldn't have to expound on that because it's Michael Chabon, it's a given, but knowing that this was a reworked masters' thesis is evidence of his genius. What young guy is writing about other young guys with this much self-awareness? Or maybe it's not self-awareness, maybe its just his willingness to admit that people are confused and not at all self-aware and that's what made this book so great. But, just because I love him so much, let me give you an example of some of his lyrical prose:
"[My father] asked me what my plans were for the summer, and in the flush of some strong emotion or other I said, more or less: It's the beginning of the summer and I'm standing in the lobby of a thousand-story grand hotel, where a bank of elevators a mile long and an endless row of red monkey attendants in gold braid wait to carry me up, up, up through the suites of moguls, of spies, and of starlets, to rush me straight to the zepplin mooring at the art deco summit, where they keep the huge dirigible of August tied up and bobbing in the high winds. On the way to the shining needle at the top I will wear a lot of neckties, I will buy five or six works of genius on 45 rpm, and perhaps too many times I will find myself looking at the snapped spine of a lemon wedge at the bottom of a drink. I said, 'I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray,'" (pp 9-10).
Don't you love that? Don't you love that yin/yang of what a 22-year-old hirsute young man thinks in his head and then how he expresses it verbally? Comic and so beautiful.

Two: the characters. I'm going to admit something to you all: I've never struggled with bisexual urges. Never. Not once. But somehow, and God bless him for it, Michael Chabon drew Art Bechstein so beautifully that I didn't know how he'd pick between Phlox and Arthur. How could you? They were beautiful too and filled in Art's gaps so perfectly. The other accessory characters (Jane, Cleveland, Art's dad, sundry gangsters, even Jane's parents and the [perhaps] retarded neighbor) were all so colorful and "round" that they made the story sufficiently complex and beautiful. There were no throw-aways.

Three: the ending. The ending is not what I wanted. It wasn't what I expected. Would I change it? Not for a million dollars. (Okay, maybe for a million, but not a penny less.) I've actually hearkened back to the ending on several occasions since reading it, revisiting what happened and what I thought of it, and (although it saddens me) I love the book because Chabon was unconventional. The pieces aren't all neatly tied off at the end, and that's gorgeous because life rarely has neatly tied-off ends. If you're looking for a "happy ending," then you'll need to go find a Stephenie Meyer book to read because Michael Chabon is never going to be your guy.

Four: the descriptions of plot and setting. I'm not a huge fan of overly-descriptive settings (I find that many books in the literary fiction category go overboard with sights, sounds, smells, textures, to the point where you're overloaded), but Chabon strikes a perfect balance. I saw the cloud factory, heard the click of heels on the library floor, rode with Art on the back of Cleveland's bike, but never once thought Chabon was being too wordy. He also does a fantastic job in describing sensual scenes as such--sensual, not overly smutty (although there is a heck of a lot of sex of all shapes and sizes going on in this book)--and the confusion, exploration, embarrassment, release, etc., of those scenes comes through swimmingly.

I'll be working on getting Wonder Boys, The Final Solution, Yiddish Policeman's Union, Gentlemen of the Road, and his short story and essay collections read in the not too distant future. He's also got a YA/middle grade book, Adventureland, that I should probably read too. Chabon's cannon is one that everyone should consume. Also (even though I've neglected to do so), I'd advise to read his work chronologically and watch his evolution and his fusion of literary fiction with genre fiction.

Friday Finds

Hallelujah! I can finally post a Friday Finds that is not a blatant display of my book-loving neuroses. This week I only have four books... can you believe it?!

Craziness...

Anyway, on with the main attraction. Here are the four books I "found" this week:


North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley – I got this YA book recommendation of a girl who struggles with identify/self-esteem issues from the teaser posted on Life in the Thumb. I’d seen this book around, but was wavering up to this point. The reviews on GoodReads.com are more positive than negative, but because I’m still quasi-ambivalent at this point I put it on hold at the library… I can’t see spending money on it (yet).

Secrets to Happiness by Sarah Dunn – I got this book recommendation regarding a recent divorcee who is trying to piece together a life of happiness (and gives off-the-mark advice in the tradition of Emma) from the teaser posted by Beth on Beth Fish Reads. I checked it out on GoodReads.com and the cover alone nearly did me in… definitely on the TBR. I'll check it out from the library (when the library gets it).

Beowulf on the Beach by Jack Murnighan – The subtitle of this book, What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits, says what this book is all about. This book is being featured in a reading challenge sponsored by Books on the Nightstand, challenging participants to read at least one of the 50 classics featured in this book during the summer (Memorial Day – Labor Day). To read about my participation in the challenge and/or to join in, read this post here. [Side Note: I went to B&N yesterday to get this book, but they didn't have it... but they ordered it for me, like a good bookstore will do. Just a head's up on availability.]

A Disorder Peculiar to the Country by Ken Kalfus – My Book Lover’s Page-a-Day Calendar highlighted this book and summarized it’s plot as this, “Joyce and Marshall are battling out a nasty divorce right around 9/11—in fact, when Joyce learns of the disaster, she hopes that Marshall, who works in one of the towers, might be out of her hair now. Alas, he survives. Marshall likewise thinks Joyce is dead, and celebrates—too soon. History is brilliantly woven into this tale of escalating domestic hatred to underscore the dark satire.” Dark, sardonic comedy… my cup of tea.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Booking Through Thursday

This week's Booking Through Thursday question is: What book would you love to be able to read again for the first time?

This is a really hard question because there are a lot of books that during the process or immediately upon completion I want to go back and re-read, but I know I'll lose something of that "first love" experience because I know what's going to happen. Some I've re-read selectively--favorite passages, etc.--but most I just put on the shelf (I can't bear to part with them), and look at their spines and remember that blush that crept up my cheeks when I first read them.

That being said, the books that gave me that gooey feeling (in order of gooey-ness) were:
  1. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon - This might just be because it's relatively fresh in my mind, but this was a book I crawled inside and rolled around in. (I could probably easily replace this with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay because pretty much everything Chabon writes is ethereal.)
  2. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld - This is the first book that caused me to cry at the end simply because I was done; I was dying for more, but a simple re-read wouldn't satiate me.
  3. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - These characters have stayed with me since reading and I've even thought, "Hmm, I wonder what Chip would think of that?", which is just ludicrous because Chip is fictional (proving that Franzen is a genius).
  4. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley - This book opened my eyes so much to good writing (and good reading); Smiley created a world of characters that were so vivid that I couldn't help but fall in love with all of them (even the deeply-flawed).
  5. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler - This was the first book that was about "nothing," that did "something" to my heart and mind.

This list could go on forever, I haven't listed anything by John Green or the other great YA authors who inspire me, but I'll stop at five.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Book Review: Girls of Riyadh

Title Girls of Riyadh
Author Rajaa Alsanea
Genre Commercial Fiction
Rating B-

Summary Imagine Sex & the City in Riyadh--four friends endure the ups and downs of the single scene in the world of arranged marriages with the reality of irrational love.

First Line "Ladies and Gentlemen: You are invited to join me in one of the most explosive scandals and noisiest, wildest all-night parties around."

Review This book was my book club's May reading selection and, had I not been under social compulsion to read this, it's not something I ever would have selected because I don't read very much chick lit (just by a select number of authors I like). If, by some chance, I had picked it up, I'm not sure I would have completed it, but I'm glad I did.

This peek into Saudi culture through an insider's look at how the business of marriage is changing, was incredibly interesting. I also came to like the characters--some took longer than others, but eventually I came around to all of the four friends. The biggest thing I learned through the experience of reading this book is that I should probably do more international reading.

The two things that brought this down for me were: 1) I think the translation probably could have been better, there were times that the English was stilted or awkward (not really the author's fault); and 2) The reason it took me longer to like some characters was because they kept making the same mistakes until the end--the growth was unnecessarily protracted and caused the plot to lag.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Heavy Books Read Lightly

There are a lot of good reading challenges out and about in the world; some hard, some soft, some in the middle. Me, I prefer the "soft" variety that have ridiculously attainable goals that I put a slight spin on to capture the essence of the challenge. That being said, the fine folks at Books on the Nightstand are hosting the Beowulf on the Beach Reading Challenge.

The essence of this challenge is that you peruse the lovely tidbits in the forth-coming book Beowulf on the Beach by the ridiculously-talented author and essayist Jack Murnighan and select one classic work of literature that you'll tackle some time this summer (May 25 - September 7; aka, Memorial Day - Labor Day).

The summary of Beowulf on the Beach (which sounds delightful) from GoodReads.com:

"If you’re like most folks, you probably feel guilty for never reading War and Peace, Ulysses, or Moby-Dick. Or maybe you read them in school, but you didn’t exactly enjoy them, right? Writer and professor Jack Murnighan says it’s not the books that put you off, it was the lifeless, uninspiring way they're usually taught. Now, with Beowulf on the Beach, you’ll discover not only why these classics deserve another chance, but how to read great books in general.

"Balancing humor and expertise, Murnighan picks 50 of the most revered books of all time and explains what the professors never told you: that Moby-Dick is funny, Dante will make you cry, Anna Karenina is a beach read, and James Joyce is great, but only if he’s talking about drinking, sex, or organ meats. Plus you get the juicy tidbits on what you’re supposed to know, what you need to know, and what’s okay for you to skip without feeling guilt. From Homer and Proust to Beloved and the Bible, Beowulf on the Beach is a user-friendly guide through the imposing world of capital-L Literature. In no time at all, you’ll be revved up and ready to tackle Dickens or Woolf—only this time without the test."
I selected Middlemarch by George Eliot which I've been meaning to read ever since finishing 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel because the idea that George Eliot had something so important to write that she'd publish under a man's name to get it taken seriously intrigues me.

Below is a widget that will let you peruse the first 30 pages of the book (which includes the table of contents listing the 50 books analyzed in Beowulf on the Beach) so you can pick and choose (if you want) to participate in this challenge. If you do, be sure to drop a comment on the Books on the Nightstand blog posting about this.




If you're having trouble viewing the widget (or it doesn't come through on your email subscription), check it out at the Random House website.

Teaser Tuesday

I admit that I'm ridiculously behind the times, seeing as how I'm just now getting around to reading 2003's The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, but better late than never I say.

Definitely better because this book is rocking my world--I'm actually making myself ration it because it's so good, so sweet, so heart-rending that to read too much in one sitting is too hard. This is a book to linger over.

That said, let us get on with the tease:

"'Does your dad have any clothes he doesn't need? Even a pair of pants would be great. I mean, I like this towel, don't get me wrong, it's just that where I come from, I usually like to wear pants,'" (p. 43).
This is a scene from the first time that Henry (the time traveler, aged 36) and Clare (the time-traveler's wife, aged 6) meet. It's too cute and romantic.

Interesting tid-bit... I know a lot of you will have already read this book (and enjoyed it), so have heart, Niffenegger has completed work on her second novel and it will probably be published in the fall of this year. Also, the film adaptation of this book (starring Eric Bana as Henry and Rachel McAdams as Clare) is set to be released in February 2010. Read more about it all here.

Read more Teaser Tuesday posts here.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Musing Mondays... Again

It's been awhile since I've done a Musing Mondays post (I think the last one was in October 2008), but today's was an interesting question and I've decided to jump back in.

"Do you remember how you developed a love for reading? Was it from a particular person, or person(s)? Do you remember any books that you read, or were read to you, as a young child?"
I, honestly, can't remember reading a lot as a child, which is kind of weird. I know I read nearly the entire Baby Sitter's Club series from around age seven through sixth grade, but those are the only books I remember reading on my own. I don't remember reading anything for pleasure from then up until after I graduated from college, which is sad, right? (And so fascinating to me that so many young people read voraciously. Yeah for them!)

I think, possibly, my love of reading, which was always there--yet dormant until I had the time aside from all the school-related reading--came as a result of the influence of my mother, who was a voracious reader. Granted, I'd hardly ever read the stuff she read (she was such a genre fiction junkie who was nearly obsessed with Grisham, Clancey, Ludlum, etc.), but I have very distinct memories of her doing book swaps with my aunts and uncles at Thanksgiving and Christmas. My mom died a little over five years ago, and I think that's when my sister and I rekindled our love of reading--maybe we are carrying out her legacy. Who knows? Now it's just a compulsion.

My sister, who has a 14-year-old son, is much more intentional about his reading. He can pick whatever he wants to read, but he is required to read a chapter a day and it's kind of fun to watch when he picks something that gets him really good, and he doesn't have to be forced. Right now he's reading the final book, The Last Olympian, in Rick Riordan's "Percy's Adventures" series and really enjoying it. (Here's to hoping that he doesn't lose his cultivated love of reading next year when he starts high school and the level of required reading increases. Fingers crossed.)

Friday, May 15, 2009

Friday Finds... Oh So Many

I love Friday Finds because it's that great opportunity every week (every Friday, to be exact) where I get to admit to my compulsions and provide tangible evidence that I will never make a dent in my TBR pile or wish list.

I thought I was doing really good this week, I didn't find anything on last week's Friday Finds meme posts that really flipped my trigger, but somehow I still put eight new books into my queue (one was purchased and the other seven are on the wish list). Here they are in all of their literary glory:

Mating Rituals of the North American Wasp by Lauren Lipton – This was linked to as a current read in the side bar of Bookfan-Mary’s blog. The title (and cover) caught my eye, so I checked it out on GoodReads.com and added it to my wish list. The plot twist of a drunken Vegas wedding with an offer that can’t be refused were what caught my eye.

How to Talk to a Widower by Jonathan Tropper – This was another random book in the sidebar of Bookfan-Mary’s blog that caught my eye by the title. She linked it up to Amazon.com where I read the first couple of pages (and was hooked). I love guys writing about guys in funny and irreverent ways in unique situations.

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson – This book has been, well, everywhere. I was putting off reading it because it was too, well, everywhere. (I’m a book snob, okay?) It popped up on my Book Lover’s Page-a-Day calendar and I kind of fell in love with the story of a mountain climber who gets nursed back to health and then gives back to those people. Climbing mountains? Always cool. Giving back? Always cool. Keeping a promise? Always cool.

First Comes Love, Then Comes Malaria by Eve Brown-Waite – Another book that I’d been sitting on the fence about; this memoir of a caffeine-addicted city girl who falls in love with a “Peace Corps Poster Boy” and then follows him around the world as a volunteer finally made it onto the list. All in thanks to the review by Alison at Worducopia’s review with the personal story.

The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton – I know this book, a tale of five women united through their shared love of literature that meanders over 40 years of change in the country and change in their lives, has been around for a while (it actually has now finally been released in paperback), but I never got to it. Now, in celebration of the paperback release, Kylee over at Kylee’s 2009 re-posted her review, which I finally read, and now it’s on the list.

Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever by Walter Kirn – This is a memoir by freelance writer Walter Kirn about his time at Princeton and his take on how ivy league education is merely, “an arena for gamesmanship, snobbery, social climbing, ass-kissing, and recreational drug use, where the point of literature classes was to mirror the instructor's critical theories and actual reading of the books under consideration was optional.” I got this recommendation from the fine folks at Very Short List.

Carter Finally Gets It by Brent Crawford – This book is about a high school freshman, Will Carter, and his trips and stumbles through a freshman year filled with social ups and downs (including, but not limited to stuttering around females, fascination with boobs—see previous—and a run-in with a band member that may result in blood shed). This was an impulse buy at Barnes & Noble. Based on the reviews on GoodReads.com, I don’t think I’ll be disappointed in this “Guy YA” book.

Guys Write for Guys Read, Edited by Jon Scieszka – I found this book, a collection of short stories by male authors for teen guys—guys writing for guys—on a random library list, “all-time-favorites-young-adult,” on GoodReads.com. Check out the Guy's Read website for more cool stuff to get young guys (middle grade and YA) reading.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Book Review: City of Glass

Title City of Glass (Mortal Instruments Series, Book #3)
Author Cassandra Clare
Genre YA Science Fiction/Paranormal
Rating B-

Summary Finishing up the Mortal Instruments Series (you have to read Books #1 and #2 to get this one), City of Glass tells of how Clary and Jace (and the rest of the Shadowhunters and Downwolders) figure out what in the world is up with the megalomaniac Valentine Morganstern. They also do some serious (and sometimes seriously disturbing) coupling.

First Line "The cold snap of the previous week was over; the sun was shining brightly as Clary hurried across Luke's dusty front yard, the hood of her jacket up to keep her hair from blowing across her face."

Review That was a gripping first line, right? No? Yeah, I didn't think so either. I didn't think the book got gripping until about page 149 (of 541). Sure, there was a wee bit of witty banter (especially from the lovely Jace and Simon) prior to that point, but the plot was having a really hard time ramping up for me. That was problem #1.

Also, did you notice that I said there were five hundred and forty-one frigging pages in this book? Yeah, I like a good long love-fest with my favorite characters as much as the next chickie, but this one was unnecessarily long. My case in point:
  1. Clary and Jace find out some interesting news about Clary's childhood in a kind of cool way through some visions (roughly four pages);
  2. Clary's mom explains about her childhood, some of which is re-iteration of what we saw in the visions, some of which is clarification/revelation (roughly twenty-one pages); and then in yet another scene
  3. Jace finally finds out the clarification/revelation while off fighting a battle (roughly eight pages).

The same information was presented three times--and I'd figured it out even before the first time. It got a little tedious. I did some skimming.

The only part I didn't skim was when the Angel Raziel was summoned by Valentine. That was the best scene of the entire series. A-W-E-S-O-M-E. Loved it. I'd re-read that scene over and over and over again. Good stuff. Favorite passage (Spoiler Alert):

"The Angel opened his mouth and spat. Or at least that was how it seemed to Clary--that the Angel spat, and that what came from his mouth was a shooting spark of white fire, like a burning arrow. The arrow flew straight and true across the water and buried itself in Valentine's chest. Or maybe 'buried' wasn't the word--it tore through him, like a rock through thin paper, leaving a smoking hole the size of a fist. For a moment, Clary, staring up, could look through her father's chest and see the lake and the fiery glow of the Angel beyond... [The Angel says,] That was the justice of heaven. I trust that you are not dismayed."
I love dispensing "The justice of heaven." Great stuff!

The combination of the undeniably witty banter, the fantastic coupling, and the scene where Raziel was summoned (he is one bad Angel), was enough to earn this book a B- (even in spite of the painfully slow pacing and plot development).

Book Review: Hacking Harvard

Title Hacking Harvard
Author Robin Wasserman
Genre YA Commercial Fiction
Rating A+

Summary Three friends want to perpetrate the greatest hack (not to be confused with a prank) ever... they want to get a burn-out into Harvard to prove that the admissions process is a joke. Also, on a side note, they've made a bet with another group of hackers and there's a lot of money to be had if they can pull it off... if they aren't thwarted by "cheaters."

First Line "'I'm in.' The shadowy figure slipped down the hall, infared goggles giving the familiar surroundings an eerie green haze. Dressed in head-to-toe black, a mask shielding his face, he would have been invisible to the security cameras if his partner hadn't already disabled them. Five minutes, blueprints from the firewalled Atlantis Security site, a pair of wire clippers--and the job was done."

Review From the beginning I loved Eric, Schwarz (Carl Schwarzbaum), and Max. Their dialogue was snappy, funny, irreverent, perfect. I was surprised this this was written by a chick--chicks usually screw up male characters, but Robin (which, admittedly, is a unisex name) Wasserman did her job well. (Plus, big hint, the narrator isn't a guy... and that revelation was awesome.)

What I really liked about this book, in addition to the characters and their incredibly great dialogue, was the actual plot of this book. The pacing was just right--actually, I read it so fast, that I'm dying to go back and re-read so I can experience it all over again--and the scenarios were so believable (in so much as climbing in a tree to beam the answers to the SATs into the school can be believable).

Also, the idea behind the book is really cool. College admissions are a tricky mistress and the question of whether what college you go to is what can make or break you is an interesting issue. The "About the Author" section says, "Robin Wasserman has always harbored a certain nostalgia for the college applications process... That is, until she began writing this book and remembered what it was really like. She now realizes she would rather have her wisdom teeth removed--without anesthesia--than go through it all again. Which is to say: She feels your pain. Having survived high school, college admissions, and college itself (which proved almost worth all the trouble)..." As someone who's undergrad degree was so flagrantly wasteful (BA in Religious Studies? Hello...) that I gave my diploma away in a white elephant gift exchange, I'm not sure I'm the most reliable person to answer the question, but the question is meaningful none the less.

I recommend this book to every high school student in the United States. High recommendation, right?

Book Review: American Wife

Title American Wife
Author Curtis Sittenfeld
Genre Literary Fiction
Rating B

Summary Read about nearly the entire life of "fictitious" First Lady, Alice Blackwell (nee Lindgren) and see how all of that life (with special emphasis on one particularly critical event) has been one large cosmic build-up to a key day in the Presidency of her husband, Charlie Blackwell (who bears nearly no resemblence to former President George Bush).

First Line "Have I made terrible mistakes?"

Review I picked up this book at the airport when I finished my other book that I'd brought on the trip and needed to have something to get me back home. I am quick to admit that I have a big-time author crush on Curtis Sittenfeld, but I'd put off reading American Wife because I didn't want to read some liberal rip-off/snark of the Bushes (and I don't even particularly like the Bush family, in the Presidential-sense).

But that's the beauty of Sittenfeld, she fooled me. You don't even get to the time when the near-Laura-Bush meets the near-George-Bush until page 115, and by then you love the near-Laura-Bush character. I'd never given much thought to Laura Bush, but if she's anything like Alice Lindgren (which Sittenfeld sites both in a preface to the book and in the acknowledgements her research process), then she is a woman of strong character.

The section about the tragic event that "shaped" her was heart-breaking (and I made a hot mess of myself, crying on the plane), but I think that Sittenfeld (for literary purposes... because this is--don't forget this--a work of fiction) played this up too much. Sure, what happened was tragic, and probably Alice never really dealt with it (not in the true, get-your-feelings-out sense), but that still, forty years later, that one fateful night was shaping her actions and her feelings about her husband of twenty-plus years? I found that a little hard to swallow.

The other thing I found hard to swallow (and this is typical Sittenfeld) was the obsession with descriptions. She was on some kind of fanatical food kick and would describe everything that was on a buffet. She was also doing this weird thing with the interior of buildings and rooms and would described the carpet, the walls, the brick-a-brac, the smells, everything, and it got to be a little much. Take this example:
"We step into the living room, which holds a black leather couch and matching chair as well as a low coffee table, all facing an entertainment system--a triptych of shelves whose centerpiece is an enormous television set, flanked on one side by a stereo, speakers, and CD and DVD cases, and on the other side by several rows of propped-up collector plates featuring either horses (they gallop against a backdrop of western landscapes, their bodies at sharp sideways angles, their manes and tails blown fiercely by the wind) or else American Indians (a chieftain gripping a tomahawk with an eagle perched on his shoulder, a woman in long black braids and a fringed leather dress kneeling devotedly over a papoose)... The walls of the living room are covered in wood paneling, the carpet is mauve, and a doorway leads to an overcast narrow hall at the end of which another doorway opens onto, from my vantage point, a strip of a sunny room with a black-and-white checkerboard floor--the kitchen, I assume. The television set is on, set to Dr. Phil," (p. 506).
Maybe that was a literary device that was over my head. I wouldn't put it past Sittenfeld (because I harbor a chick crush on her). None the less, that got tedious and I did some skimming at parts.

Even still, I loved it. Mostly--and I'm not sure this is what Sittenfeld intended--I loved it because I fell in love with the Charlie character. I actually liked him more as a character because he said who he was and owned up to it, unlike Alice. In the climax of the book she, while she's First Lady, does something incredibly stupid (in regard to being naive about her political position as First Lady) and Charlie says, "Every decade, you like to pin me to the ground, pull open my mouth, and take a shit right into it," which I thought was genius dialogue. Charlie stays Charlie thoughout (which is probably a liberal slap at how Bush stayed "Bush" even when his foreign policy should have changed), but in regard to literature, it made him out to be an interesting character to juxtapose with Alice.

I only marked this book down (albeit somewhat significantly, from an A+ to a B) because of her excess of description and the implausibility of the role of the critical event in Alice's high school career affecting her so strongly (as noted above). That's not to say that I won't be keeping this book on my shelf and re-reading the courtship parts over and over again to pet my Sittenfeld crush.

Book Review: So Not Happening

Title So Not Happening
Author Jenny B. Jones
Genre YA Commercial Fiction
Rating C+

Summary If you were to judge by just the first couple of chapters of this book (which you can read here), you'd think this was the story of Bella Kirkwood, a New York socialite who's parents get divorced and then she has to move to Oklahoma with her mom (who remarries), but it's so much more. Bella (under duress) joins the school paper and gets all up in the middle (oh so literally) of a serious situation at her high school.

First Line "One year ago my mom got traded in for a newer model. And that's when my life fell apart."

Review This book got on my nerves so thoroughly throughout that I had to force myself to keep going, but I persevered and it ended up being... not bad.

The plot started off ridiculously slow, but picked up at the last fifty pages (enough to get me to pick up the next book in the series... I'm such a sucker for a series).

The reason this book was a C+ (slightly above average) was because at times (albeit rarely) the dialogue actually made me laugh out loud. Literally. Not text speak. Literally laughing out loud. Want an example? Okay... here's a scene where Budge (Bella's high-school-aged step brother) is bidding Robbie (Bella's first-grade-aged step brother, Budge's actual brother) a good day at his first day of school:

"[Budge] stands beside his brother and holds out his fist. Robbie hits it with his own. 'Make me proud today, Robmesiter. Keep your hands to yourself and remember rule number one above all things.'

'Don't discuss politics.'

'No, the other one.'

Robbie nods. 'Don't eat glue.' He drops his chin. 'It's my weakness,'" (p. 27).

Robbie was my favorite character. If you're looking for a funny, clean, quick read with a good plot, decent characters, and some funny dialogue, you might want to pick this up. Note: I had to pick this up at my Christian book store, so keep that in mind (or get it online at your favorite online realtor) if you want to get it.

Book Review: Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy

Title Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy
Author Ally Carter
Genre YA, Commercial Fiction
Rating B+

Summary This book is the sequel to I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You, and picks up the story of Cammie--after her first love with Josh fizzled--and the rest of the Gallagher Girls (who are at, lest you forget, Spy School). This year the Gallagher Academy is infiltrated by boys from a brother Spy School, and drama ensues.

First Line "'Just be yourself,' my mother said, as if that were easy. Which it isn't. Ever. Especially not when you're fifteen and don't know what language you're going to have to speak at lunch, or what name you'll have to use the next time you do a 'project' for extra credit. Not when your nickname is 'the Chameleon.' Not when you go to a school for spies."

Review I'm having a hard time reviewing this book in a vacuum (i.e., without comparing it to the first book in this series), so I'm not going to beat myself up over it, and I'll just go with that line of logic. That's what Ally Carter does--what worked the first time, she trots out for the second time--so I'll follow her lead.

This book, like I'd Tell You..., is super-heavy on the plot and states (probably a million times) that The Gallagher Academy is a school for spies (in case you missed that). Actually, in my opinion, the plot was a little better in this book (which is why it was rated a little higher than Book #1 in the series). The element of having the boys in the school added an extra twist, and there was some drama of the who-dun-it variety and there are a couple of really good red herrings. It's a credit to Ally Carter that I didn't see the ending coming. I wasn't necessarily pleased with the ending, I didn't see it as "original", but it did surprise me, which is something, right?

I liked the characters a lot, she has the advantage of building off of well-liked characters from the first book, and added some new guys into the mix, that helped the book. She does a good job with everyone--Cammie, her friends, the guys, and even the teachers--and I can see her books translating so well onto the big screen.

The book was a cute, fun read, and I'll plan to read the final (I think) installment, Don't Judge a Girl by Her Cover, and I'll even go so far as to not pretend that it'll be in a year or so. It'll probably be shortly after it's released this summer (June 2009).

(Massively) Booking Through Thursday

This week's Booking Through Thursday question is: Are your eyes bigger than your book belly? Do you have a habit of buying up books far quicker than you could possibly read them?

I totally need to go on a book diet. My current GoodReads.com stats are:
  • Books Physically on my TBR Shelf: 79
  • Books on my Mental TBR Shelf (aka, The Wish List): 59
Even if I didn't buy another book all year, I probably couldn't get through these... I average about 100-120 books a year. But you know what? I won't stop buying. I have a sickness.

It could be worse: they could be drugs.

Roughly two years ago I wrote a blog post (on my very old MySpace.com blog), which contained the following "random/weird" facts about me:
"I have an addiction to shopping so I have developed a system to manage the contents of my closet. Whenever I purchase a new pair of jeans, casual/weekend shirt, pair of shoes or purse, I have to purge an old item. This ensures that A) My closet will remain up-to-date without growing too large, and B) Creates a system of checks while shopping because I know I'm going to have to get rid of something--I really have to want that new thing."
Should I require myself to adopt this inventory management system with my books? Weigh in on the comments (remembering that they're just books, not drugs).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Teaser Tuesday... Of Course

We here at What Was I Reading? love Teaser Tuesdays, right? For sure.

I'm going to open my current read, City of Glass by Cassandra Clare (a library loaner that is the final installment of The Mortal Instruments trilogy), to a random page and I'll pick out a tasty morsel for you to chew on:

"'Good,' he said, 'you're back. I was beginning to think you'd fallen into a canal.'
"Clary just stared at him, wordless. She wondered if he could read the anger in her eyes."

Not the most awe-inspiring teaser ever, but the book is actually a little slow-going for me. I loved books 1 and 2 of this series, but this one is dragging ever so slightly. You can't necessarily tell it from the teaser, but the first line of dialogue is spoken by the character Jace, whom I love for his snark, and I'm sure the book's going to come out good in the end, but I'm still waiting.

For more information on the series, if you're into YA science fiction/paranormal, check out Cassandra Clare's website.

Monday, May 11, 2009

I'm Challenging Myself

I usually abjure challenges because the arbitrary deadlines are like an albatross around my literary neck. However, the Printz Challenge has a revolving deadline, so I just have to (at some point in my life before the blog is shut down) read all of the Printz Winners (and honor books, if I choose).

I choose. I choose! Yeah, I totally choose!

Here's the link for any other YA geeks out there who want to participate in this free-spirited "challenge."

I'm Famous!


I'm not actually famous, but my blog has been included in the Book Blog Guild--a site to promote good book blogging (in all its many forms). Click on the link to read my profile and, while you're there, check out all the other totally amazing things going on there.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Book Review: The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl

Title The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl
Author Barry Lyga
Genre Young Adult, Literary/Commercial Fiction
Publication Date 2007
Rating A+

Summary Don (aka, Fanboy) is a high school sophomore who is having the crappiest of years--school stinks, home stinks, and a lack of friends stinks--but then he meets Kyra (aka, Goth Girl) and things start to change. She influnces him and is the first to see his secret, his graphic novel, and compels him to break out of his mold. Kyra has secrets though...

First Line "There are three things in this world that I want more than anything. I'll tell you the first two, but I'll never tell you the third."

Review The opening paragraph (above) was a really good starting place for this kick-butt story. Lyga takes the icons and ideas of Chabon's Pulitzer-winning Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (which I, personally, believe is a modern re-interpretation of Don Quixote) and brings it down to a YA level. He uses the motif of comics and what they mean to fans, along with their culture, to illustrate some really important stuff about how teens belong, get along, etc.

Fanboy is heart-breakingly accurate. I loved him. I actually cried at parts. I laughed out loud at parts. I got excited at parts. For me this was one of the best books for teenagers that I've seen. I could really see this opening up some interesting discussions and debates.

Some of the bad reviews on GoodReads.com come from people who couldn't identify with the character because he doesn't fight back against the bullying and I say, "Really? You can't understand why a kid wouldn't do that?" Let me give you a taste of why Fanboy doesn't fight back when a kid repeatedly hits him during gym class:
"I can't [stop him]. He knows I can't. I'm a computer geek, a comic book geek, a study geek. Even in the Fast-Track classes, I'm apart... 'Just ignore them,' my mother used to tell me, when I was a kid, when I was younger, when the other kids would tease and make fun. 'Why do you care what they think? Just ignore them and they'll go away.' They didn't go away, though. She was wrong about that... What great advice: 'Ignore them.' So I did, even thought they didn't go away, and pretty soon there was nothing to say, nothing to do, because how are you supposed to suddenly stand up to them after years of silence and nothing?" (pp. 15-16).

"[His mom] pokes my right shoulder [where the kid has been repeatedly hitting him] and I want to scream, want to bellow in agony. 'What's that? What is it, Donnie?' I hiss in a breath through clenched teeth, my arm suddenly numb with fire where Mitchell Frampton pummeled it yesterday. 'What is this? What happened to you?' I look at what she's looking at, a massive bruise that discolors my arm from the point of the shoulder muscle up to the clavicle. At the center it's a deep purple that's almost black, lightening to a sickly jaundiced yellow at the edges. I don't know what to say. Or, actually, I know exactly what to say, and that's the problem. What happened to me, Mom? I followed your advice, that's what happened. I followed it for years and it's just that for once someone decided to go beyond name-calling and sniggering and flipping me off and sticking porn in my hands and the occasional shove or push, so someone finally left a mark that even you can't avoid seeing. But there's no point in saying that. I'm fifteen now. What would she do? Call the school? Call Frampton's parents? My word against his, and even if they believed me, so what? He gets suspended a few days and comes back worse than ever," (pp. 23-24).
That's the thing that got the most to me--how empty our advice, as adults, must seem to kids who are in tough situations. Ignore it and it'll go away? Why do we think that's good advice? Do we really think that some other juvenile kid won't love to pick on a weak and silent target? Is it because our kids who, honestly, are weaker would lose in a fight? It's because we know deep down that violence won't solve anything--even if your kid fights back and (miraculously) wins, well, you haven't won. That kid who was damaged enough to want to bully your kid in the first place is now damaged and looking to settle the score. Unfortunately, you've got a school full of hormone-riddled teenagers, none of whom has a fully-developed pre-frontal cortex, and they're going at each other like cannibals. The whole thing sucks, seriously, and Lyga takes a beautiful look at the whole thing.

By the way, after Kyra starts to influence Donnie, he does start to stand up for himself--not only to Frampton, but also to others who try and get him down.

On the topic of Kyra, there's not really a "clean" resolution at the end... Kyra's secrets remain a secret... and I think that's what made this book so awesome. You saw growth, change, you introspected, and all without it falling into a cookie-cutter. Very nice work from Lyga. I'll be putting him on my radar for future books (such as Goth Girl Rising which picks up Kyra's story six months later).

There, honestly, isn't anything that I'd change about this book. I loved it. The A+ probably should have been higher if I could, but I can't, so Lyga will just have to be pleased with perfection.