Saturday, October 21, 2017

24 Hour Readathon

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?

My comfy couch in sunny Danville, Pennsylvania.

2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?

I'd settle for literally any of them at this point.

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to?

My snacks are pretty evenly matched, but I might just order delivery Italian food this evening.  Now, that is exciting.

4) Tell us a little something about yourself!

Let's see, I started my blog just a little prior to the first Readathon .  (That's right, my now much neglected blog has officially turned 10!)  I don't think I read for the first 'thon...but I recall being a pretty enthusiastic cheerleader (RIP official Readathon cheerleading), and I've been hooked on this blogging and 24 hour readathonning thing ever since.

I work in technical support for laboratory information systems at a hospital (nay, a *health system*), and I'm on call today, so I figured, hey, I have to stay home to be available for work anyway, might as well get some Readathonning out of it.  Unfortunately, on call has been demanding thus far, so I am participating in theory more than reality.  One 35 page short story from Stephen King's Everything's Eventual is all I've managed.

Also the Yankees are playing in ALCS Game 7 there's that.....

5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today?

Read less than if I wasn't readathonning at all, if things continue as they have been so far.  (Er....hopefully not that......?)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Hummingbird by Stephen Kiernan

In a Nutshell:  Deborah Birch is a gifted hospice nurse experienced in guiding her patients and their families through the struggles of death and dying.  Barclay Reed is a disgraced historian turned ornery old man who has summarily dismissed numerous nurses before turning to Deborah to see him through his final days.  As Deborah struggles to care for the lonely, angry old man who challenges her to read the unpublished manuscript of the book that saw his career go down in flames, she also faces a challenge at home, that of her PTSD-afflicted veteran husband, Michael.  As good as she is at helping those facing the hardest struggle of their lives, it may be that only an angry professor on his death bed can help her reach her husband before it’s too late.

The Good: The professor’s book happens to cover a little-known piece of World War II history (spoiler alert!!!!) that is based on actual events. Though its appearance interrupted the rest of the narrative, the story was a compelling surprise to me. (Okay, that’s all with the spoilers.)  Deborah’s first person narrative of her successes and struggles as a hospice nurse is a unique window on what has to be one of the most difficult yet valuable professions.

The Bad: Deborah occasionally seems like a female character being written by a man, which... she is.  She and her husband’s pet name for each other is “lover” and the way she lusts after her husband comes off very ...male.  Also, I was consistently irritated that she was so attuned to her patients’ needs but so incredibly tone deaf to the “mood in the room” when interacting with her own husband.  Some of Deborah’s experiences in hospice, are bit too textbook-y, as if Kiernan read up on a bunch of manuals about how to practically deal with death and dying and plugged them into his novel in too close to non-fiction format. 

The Verdict: Somehow I’ve now managed to read Stephen Kiernan’s whole catalog so far, and I can tell you that The Hummingbird is my least favorite of the three.  The whole narrative seems a bit wooden at times which kept me from fully engaging with a book that should have been an emotional roller coaster.  The Hummingbird has its high points, but it didn’t feel genuine enough to really reel me in.

Review copy received from the publisher in return for review consideration.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Love Is the Higher Law by David Levithan

"One review a week, that's manageable, right?" Said the absentee blogger.
In a Nutshell: Claire, Jasper and Peter are teenagers in New York City on 9/11.  Confusion, grief, mourning, and learning to live and love again follow.

The Good:  Getting 9/11 from an insider perspective.  I never thought about two building’s-worth of paperwork fluttering into Brooklyn, re-lighting candles in the park in the rain, not being allowed to return to your downtown home.  There’s a great scene where Jasper and Claire are at MSG that October for a U2 concert that showcases music’s power to unite and heal.  It’s very cathartic.

The Bad: Levithan’s writing style.  I sometimes find it hard to take.  It’s like a breathless torrent of teenage “deep thoughts” mixed with over-jaded adolescent angst.  His teenagers seem too old and too young at the same time.  It may be wildly realistic, too, which is why most teenagers frighten me ever so slightly.  Also, there is a love story aspect that left me cold.

The Verdict:  I had high expectations going into this one, which is probably part of my problem with it.  I loved the parts from Claire’s perspective that seemed to focus more on the events and aftermath of 9/11 and disliked the ones from Jasper’s more confused, disconnected perspective.  I wanted more emotional kick from this and maybe for Levithan to spread out all the teenage profundities his characters’ internal narratives were constantly spewing.  Short answer: I wanted this book to make me cry.  Instead, all the words got in the way. 
My copy purchased from a store or someplace.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Baker's Secret by Stephen Kiernan

In a Nutshell: Vergers is a coastal French village occupied by Nazis who are using the beaches to fortify their claim over much of Europe.  Emmanuelle is a baker with no bakery, a girl alone with her grandmother whose mind is slipping, who ends up sustaining a village in shortage by her wits and an uncanny ability to reallocate sparse resources and secret favors to those who need them most.  The only thing Emma is short on is a little hope for herself, but a little hope might surprise her when she least expects it.

The Good:  A rich community of characters, a beautiful depiction of provincial France, the French perspective on a major World War II turning point, a writing style that makes France during the Nazi occupation seem somehow fairy tale-esque. 

The Bad:  Needs more exposition.  In a book full of “are things as they seem?” with the small and large acts of resistance from the occupied villagers, I was dying for a little more “this is the rest of the story on X character.” 

The Verdict: I like Stephen Kiernan’s books, enough to give them four stars on Goodreads, but there’s always just a little something missing that keeps me from all-out loving them.  I loved all the parts of this book but, as a whole, it just falls the tiniest bit short.  That said, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend The Baker’s Secret. It’s a welcome addition to the World War II historical fiction genre I love so much.
Review copy received from the publisher.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

When one of my best friends heard I was traveling to Italy - more specifically, to the Cinque Terre, she enthusiastically recommended Beautiful Ruins, a book that takes place in a sixth, more isolated, village Walters imagines for his story.

Beautiful Ruins opens with a beautiful film actress arriving in Porto Vergogna, Italy in 1962.  She was in the film production of Cleopatra but now she's sick and being sent away to await her lover in this obscure coastal village.  There, blue-eyed Pasquale Tursi is carrying on his father's legacy, imagining his forgotten village and his dead father's hotel will someday attain the tourism fame of the Cinque Terre. 

As Dee Moray settles in at Pasquale's hotel, the oddly named Hotel  Adequate View (yes, there's a story there), I was convinced I would love this book.  Walters paints a beautiful picture of a quiet village still dominated by fishermen and memories of the war.  Pasquale's earnest attempts to cater to his beautiful American visitor and the tenuous friendship the two form are enchanting.  The village and the story has a nice bit of quirk that complements the sweetness of Dee and Pasquale's fumbling relationship, such as it is.

Then along comes Richard Burton and the fictional Michael Deane, erstwhile film producer and all-around self-involved douchebag, accompanied by a jump in time to modern day California and the whole thing came off the rails for me.  Walters departs from his promising beginning to introduce us to Deane and a pack of less than lovable losers including Deane's development assistant, Claire, who came to work looking for the next big film and ended up working on some garbage reality show called Hookbook.  There's Shane, who has a tattoo of a made-up Bible passage that he spent his whole life living by until it failed him catastrophically, until he heads to Hollywood to pitch his terrible movie idea to Michael Deane.  Finally there's Pat Bender, washed-up frontman of a band everybody forgot, a screw-up who lost the good things in his life to drugs and bad decisions.
This is all to say that I loved the flashbacks to 1962 Italy and ensuing hijinks, but grinding through the present day with Walter's over-quirked, generally unpleasant West Coast set who are alternately trying to get ahead and right past wrongs left me cold.  All that said, Walter does manage to bring things full circle in a way that tugged gently at the heartstrings as one character starts to redeem himself and in so doing sets a lot of wrongs right. 

Walter is undoubtedly an excellent writer.  Beautiful Ruins is packed with perfect description that captures Italy's incredible coast and quaint villages.  The dialogue is fast-moving and realistic.  Even the structure of the story itself is admirable, peeling itself off in layers to reveal what Dee and Pasquale and Richard Burton, and even the unlikeable Michael Deane started in 1962.  Walter's biggest problem is his characters.  At times their exaggerated qualities chip away at their humanity and leave caricatures in their places, which makes Beautiful Ruins a little hollow on the inside.

"...but true quests aren't measured in time or distance anyway, so much as in hope.  There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this, the hope of the serendipitous savant - sail for Asia and stumble on America - and the hope of scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along."