Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Look at this, people.  Here it is still 2018.  I've finished two whole books, and I'm already writing about the second.  Somebody stop me or I'm going to start having expectations of myself.

Picking up a copy of Murder on the Orient Express, for me, was mostly an exercise in nostalgia. I went through my traditional mystery-lover stage pretty early in my reading career, and when I was in the seventh grade, I was sure I was going to read all the Agatha Christie books, and all those The Cat Who... books, and more, so many more delicious mysteries.  Alas, my reading tastes shifted as I grew older, and my consumption of the entire collection of the delicious new (at the time) copies of Central Columbia Middle School's Agatha Christie collection never came fully to pass, though I did get a few under my belt before my reading tastes shifted to thrillers and horror in high school.  So, reading Murder on the Orient Express was an effort to recapture the reading days of my youth, even though I think I was more of a Miss Marple girl than a Hercule Poirot fan, but, be that as it may, I enjoyed my blast from the past.

Hercule Poirot is returning by train from Syria after solving one case and rushing to England to attend to another when he finds himself in the midst of still a third case when a suspicious gentleman is murdered on the Orient Express.  With no police on board and their progress halted by a snowdrift, it falls to Poirot to gather the evidence of the many potential suspects traveling in the Stamboul-Calais carriage.  Interviewing everyone from the victim's secretary to the honorable Princess Dragomiroff to a Colonel and a young woman from England he'd had a chance encounter with on his previous train, Poirot has to discern the lies from the truth to discover the secrets of both the killed and the killer.

A relative minimum of reliable evidence, an abundance of characters who don't seem quite shady enough for murder, and a healthy dose of lucky guesses make Murder on the Orient Express a fun whodunit.  Its exotic locale in the midst of a snow storm combined with the sinister atmosphere of a marooned train that almost certainly contains a killer adds to its attraction. 

I've always been and still am a fan of the sort of deductive reason, psychologically based crime-solving that marks Poirot's style.  Sure, modern forensics are great, but isn't it more fun to cleverly manipulate potential subjects into tipping their proverbial hands?  There's no doubt that Christie is a master of the genre, and Murder on the Orient Express kept me guessing until the very end when the good detective finally untangles the improbable truth.

(Copy received free from the publisher in exchange for review consideration.)

Sunday, January 7, 2018

My Life After Now by Jessica Verdi

I've done a strange thing this year.  I've finished a book already.  Now I'm going to make it even stranger and try to review it as if I were a functioning book blogger and human.  Look at me go!  What madness does the new year bring?

Anyhow, the first book of the year, well, it's not really anything special.  This is to say, I didn't really pick it for any special reason, like people do.  It's a book the randomizer chose from the thundering neglected hordes on my Kindle.  So yeah, the randomizer followed me right into 2018.  The simple changing of the year didn't transform me into a capable decision-maker.  The foundations of the world?  We won't shake them too hard just yet.

Anyway, the first book of 2018.  It's My Life After Now by Jessica Verdi.

As she enters her junior year of high school, Lucy Moore thinks she's got it made.  As the best actress in her school's drama club, she's sure she's about to land the role of Juliet in the fall production of Romeo and Juliet.  Naturally she'll be playing the role opposite her boyfriend, Ty, the golden boy of drama club.  She's got a pair of supportive best friends - Max and Courtney, and a pair of dads who couldn't love her more. 

In a space of the week, Lucy's world crumbles - the role and the boy both go to theater-camp competitor and high school interloper, Elyse.  When her undependable biological mother shows up at her house trying to make yet another new start, that's Lucy's final straw.  One foolish night of fleeing her problems for an uncharacteristic night of clubbing in NYC is all it takes to change Lucy's life forever.  Now Lucy has a deadly secret she can't tell anyone, and the one person she does tell validates her worst fears.

My feelings about My Life After Now were tremendously mixed.  The beginning of the story seemed wildly exaggerated.  I understand that this almost absurdly bad week had to happen to drive the rest of the plot, but the speed with which things come undone was blatantly unrealistic.  The end, as well, fails in realism, with resolutions that seem to come together far to easily and with too few questions asked.

In the middle, though, My Life After Now really shined. Lucy's terror and shame at what she has done and the diagnosis she receives is expertly rendered.  Her unwillingness to open up to her parents and her friends about what happened and the consequences, for fear of their judgement, disappointment, disbelief, or fear is entirely convincing.  When the truth does have to come out, as the truth always does, Lucy has become so isolated and afraid that her relief is palpable.  Her coming to terms with living her new life is expertly handled.  While My Life After Now suffers a little from a certain YA tendency to wrap things up too nicely and easily, it's ultimately an addictive read about a relatable narrator facing a different diagnosis than is tackled in any of those other YA "sick kid" novels you may have read, which makes it a welcome addition to the genre and well worth a read.
"If you test positive, how do you think you will react?" she rephrased. 
What kind of a question was that? How would anyone know how they would react until actually put in that situation? That was like asking what you would do if you woke up to find your house was on fire. Would you run out immediately? Stop to call 911? Look for your cat? Put on your shoes? Dash around collecting valuables? Until you’re actually in that burning building, flames scorching your skin, there’s no way to know for sure.

Monday, January 1, 2018

My Best Reads of 2017

Happy 2018, everybody!  Before I set my sights fully on the new year, I've got to take a look back at the best books from last year.  Honestly, it was a rough year of reading and blogging for me.  I don't have actual reviews written for my favorites, so this is as much a "reviewlette" post as it is a "best of" post.  I encountered lots of DNF duds and a fair amount of books that I finished that left me feeling pretty "meh," but, in the end, I got more reading done than I expected and encountered a few gems along the way.  Here they are, in no particular order:

1. The Tumbling Turner Sisters by Juliette Fay - I read this waaaay back in the beginning of 2017, so I really have to reach back over the months for memories of it, but it was great.  It's the story of the four Turner sisters whose mother transforms them into a vaudeville act when their father is injured on the job.  I don't know how to describe it other than to say that this book is historical fiction at its most fun.  I loved getting acquainted with the vaudeville circuit through the Turner girls' eyes.  They meet all kinds of people and find success they never expected and some romance along the way.  To say that it's "fun" I don't mean to imply a lack of seriousness.  As they rise to fame the Turners encounter poverty, gain new understanding of racism and discrimination, and are touched by tragedy, all of which add enough heft to story for it to be a truly satisfying read.

2. Someone Else's Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson - Joshilyn Jackson has been waiting on my bookshelves a long time.  I'm glad the randomizer finally helped me rescue her from the deep recesses of my shelves.  Shandi Pierce and William Ashe meet during an armed robbery at a convenience store.  She's a single mom who has convinced herself she's had a virgin birth, he's a scientific savant with a recent past filled with tragedy.  She thinks that destiny brought them together, but there's much more to William Ashe's story than meets the eye.  This book is hilarious in a totally effortless way, is full of lovable characters, and definitely was not the story I was expecting.

3. The Passage by Justin Cronin - This is as good as everyone has been saying for years now while I've been waffling over attempting it due to its enormous size.  I'm a sucker for dystopian/apocalyptic stories, and this one is a champion of the genre. It reminded me a bit of the feeling of reading The Stand, terrifyingly possible, fascinatingly written, weaving between several stories of a nation laid waste by a misguided government experiment.  It's always those misguided government experiments, isn't it?

4. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens - Be still my heart!  I re-read a book.  I'm not really good at Dickens' full length works - the ones I've read drag so horribly in the middle - but I'll always have a soft spot for A Christmas Carol.  There's just something about the idea of Christmas that Dickens preaches in this book that always gets me, more so now that I'm a crusty old grown-up more often tempted to be Scrooge-y over the holiday.  It seems to grow a little more humorous, a little more serious, and a little more relatable every time I read it.

5. A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline - (Sorry, this one is super long.) I have the hardest time writing about the books I love the most. Usually, when I truly love a book it's because I'm so engaged on an emotional level with it that I can't disentangle myself from it long enough to give people a reason to like it that isn't totally unique to my own psyche.  So it was with this book which was my favorite among favorites.  In it, Kline imagines the life of the subject of one of Andrew Wyeth's paintings, Christina's World.  My heart broke for proud Christina, crippled at a young age by polio, whose determination not to give into the pains of her failing body leaves her unwilling to accept help or pity but also desperately limited by the path she has chosen.  This isn't a cheery book.  It's a hard to look at a character whose lot in life is often frustration, humiliation, and heartbreak as the able bodied people in her life come and go while she is consigned to a life of difficulty, a life that misses out on so much a "normal" life would offer.  Kline's talent in making me care so much for this proud, sometimes selfish, sometimes downright ornery character imprisoned by a world both of her own and her disability's making, is what makes this book shine.  A few times during the reading, I found myself worrying over the ending. How can this end without doing a disservice to the character and the rest of the story?  How can it end without being too trite or just too depressing? I need not have worried.  The ending strikes the most pitch perfect of notes between bitter and sweet, revealing a life that is so much more than the sum of its parts and inspiring that much more love for both the painter and his subject.

6. The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver - If this is Barbara Kingsolver's debut (er, I think it is, actually), then I can't wait to read more of her recent work.  I fell in love with the plucky, courageous Taylor Greer from page one as she abandons her Kentucky home to move west to Tucson, Arizona desperate to evade a certain fate of wedlock-free baby-raising.  This is the fastest reading essentially  plotless book you'll ever meet, filled with excellent characters from Taylor herself, her worrywart roommate Lou Ann, no-nonsense Mattie down at Jesus is Lord Used tires, a pair of Nicaraguan refuges, and baby Turtle who is obsessed with vegetables.  These folks are irrepressible and jump off the page.  I'll be back for more Kingsolver, for sure.

7. The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison - This one snuck in just under the wire as I closed it with satisfaction on the afternoon of New Year's Eve.  If this blurb looks familiar to you, then you must follow me on Litsy. ;-)

The blurb on the front cover of one edition calls it "stealthily powerful," and truer words were never spoken.   Ben Benjamin and the collection of misfits who accompany him on his journey from abject tragedy to redemption and healing are sometimes pathetic, often hilarious, and ultimately (unexpectedly) heartwarming.

Honorable Mentions: Coventry by Helen Humphreys (where the writing stuns, but the plot's cheap twist knocks it down a star), Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers (that captures high school hell so very, very terrifyingly...which also held it back from being fully a favorite) and The Train of Small Mercies (for being a book I thought I would DNF but ended up being a solidly likeable book, if not quite best of the year material)

Linking up to the last prompt of #AMonthofFaves

Monday, December 4, 2017

#AMonthofFaves - This is How We (Don't) Read (Much)

Mon. | Dec. 4 – This Is How We Read #AMonthofFaves – eg. Number of books read so far, genre you read the most from, picture of favorite (or most often used) reading location, most read author, % eBooks, hardcovers, paperbacks and/or audiobooks, hint at what your favorite read of the year is (let us guess), types of books you wish you read more of, month you read the most and least

This should be an entertaining post considering I'm too filled with shame to own up to my reading statistics this year and, well, most of the other years. But especially this year, the year of the "DNF I spent too much time on." I started and labored through a number of books this year, investing more than 50 pages in many of them before reaching that point where I was pretty sure I just didn't like them or was not interested enough to continue, so my DNF stack is high, but it didn't save me much reading time for other worthier books. I attribute this to my year of general book and life slumpery where, at numerous times, I couldn't differentiate between whether the books I was reading were really not any good, really were not for me, or I just, like, was so slumped that I just didn't like books anymore. Of late, I've been more inclined to blame the books and jettison them with impunity and have found that that's lead to a much more enjoyable round of reading.

I would tease some of my favorites in this post, but I'm starting to think I'm only just getting to them.

End of Year Reading Status: I have read *redacted* books so far this year which, in my more optimistic moments, I hope will end up equaling the value of the amount of books I read last year which was...*redacted.*

Favorite Genre: I read most from the genre I typically read the most from, which would be literary fiction. However, it seems my favorites this year fell into the sub-genres of literary horror, literary historical fiction, and literary "books with plucky southern heroines."

Favorite Reading Locale: Meet my couch. This is my favorite place to read books I don't like with occasional interruptions for reading books I actually do like. In the warm weather months, I occasionally read books I don't like that much on the balcony which is also pictured. I have taken the photo in this style to obscure my current read, which is likely to be one of my favorites which you'll have to wait to the end of the month to have revealed unto you.  No, really, I just took a really bad picture and am too lazy to take a better one. Focus on the nice view outside. Blogging is hard.

Most Read Author of the Year: Well, this is weird, it's a three way tie. Normally I'm hard pressed to read more than one book by the same author in single year, this year Justin Cronin, Stephen Kiernan, and Courtney Summers all qualify for this honor, which is especially honorific considering I've only read *still redacted* books this year!

Favorite Disregarded Gadget for Reading: My poor Kindle Paperwhite. It is a lovely reading tool crammed to bursting with enticing reads I've purchased for $2.99 or less over the years I've owned it. I've read only 2 e-books on it this year which, while it may be a significant portion of my redacted reading total for the year, it is also about .0031% of the amount of e-books housed on said neglected device. Oh wait, but I did DNF one e-book after spending too much time on it, so that totally counts as a third, right?

Favorite Book Format: Trade paperbacks. Far and away my favorite is the trade paperback. Hardbacks are too heavy, e-books aren't pretty and pagey enough, and mass markets are lucky if they can even retains their spots on my shelves, I'm usually so averse to them. Ironically, however, one of my favorites from this year actually was a mass market. There, I've duly teased a favorite.

Reading Accomplishment of the Year: Reading the longest book I've read since I read The Stand in 2012. Even at close to 800 pages, it's one of my favorites of the year. And it reminded me of The Stand, only I think I might have liked it better. Another favorite teased!

So that's my reading year to date. I'll be sharing my favorite books of the year at the end of the month (you know, after I've finished reading them), so stay tuned!

How was your reading year?

Friday, December 1, 2017

#AMonthofFaves - The Year That Was

I'm going to take a hack at doing Traveling with T, Estella's Revenge, and Girlxoxo's #AMonthofFaves again this year, despite the fact that writing 4 posts for it will easily double the amount of posts this blog has seen this year.  I miss writing, and this year has been a sort of slumpy year in blogging, reading, and life.  This first post prompt is for general favorites of the year, but I think I'm going to tweak it a little and get a little reflective on you, but it's okay, lots of a favorites are involved in my reflection.  No books, though, there's plenty of other book-centric prompts!

This year was a mixed bag, which is better than I expected of it.  I cried driving home from my New Year's Eve celebration last year.  For the first time that I could remember, I didn't expect the new year to be a new start, a chance at doing life better, enjoying things more.  My job was, and in many ways continues to be, a train wreck burdened with too many projects in too little time for an organization that sometimes seems to take on big moves just to be able to say it's not standing still. 

In a way, I was right. This year was a struggle, but certainly not one worth crying over.  In the midst of struggle at work, I found my voice in my career in a way I never have.  I've gotten to know my co-workers better than I ever have.  Outside of work, the year hasn't been even half bad. I found plenty to enjoy in a year full of challenges, and plenty of events and things to call my favorite.  Here are some:

"Favorite" Work "Event" - Go-live palooza.   I work in lab IT.  Occasionally, our health system sees fit to merge with another hospital and then after a time, we go there and make them switch to our lab applications.  When we do, we go on site to ease the transition/become ambassadors of goodwill, or something.  We did a big one this spring, full of 10 hour shifts and too little staff and trying to keep the wheels on the bus.  It was challenging.  It was also like 2 or 3 weeks of "summer camp" with your co-workers, staying in a comped hotel room and eating reimbursable  meals.  Even after working a 10 hour second shift, we eked out time to eat and drink together every day, and I remembered why I took my job and how much I enjoy my co-workers.  Sub-favorites Discovered at Said Trying Work Event: Bully Hill Riesling and Bonefish Grill's Bang Bang Shrimp.

Favorite Sport - Baseball!  I am an unapologetic Yankees fan *ducks the flying rotten vegetables*, and it was positively awesome watching the new generation of Yankees already showing such promise.  I'm a hundred percent in the Aaron Judge fan club and was downright gleeful watching him win the home run derby and otherwise being awesome.  This year's team was the most fun team to watch since I first became a fan in the 1990s.  Also, I went to more minor league baseball games than ever this year (mostly AAA Yankees in Scranton Wilkes-Barre with a brief diversion to City Island in Harrisburg to watch the Harrisburg Senators).

Favorite Throwback Vacation -  My dad and I went to Cooperstown, NY (home of the baseball Hall of Fame also ground zero for adorable, affluent small town America) in July, and it is perfect.  There's the Hall of Fame, of course, but also a gigantic beautiful lake, delicious places to eat right on said like (hello, Blue Mingo Grill), and all the baseball themed crap you can buy.  And my dad and I can buy a lot of baseball themed crap.  Sub-favorites: Life is Good clothes, ahi tuna "nachos" from Upstate Bar and Grill, the incredible burgers from the ambiance-less Council Rock Brewery (oh, such burgers), clothing with obscure baseball references (any takers on "6+4+3=2"?), and planning a return trip with rented lake house.

Favorite Gift - My oldest friend sent me a copy of the illustrated Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.  It's beautiful and signed and an especially meaningful gift for us.

Favorite "Living Your Best Life" in Small Town America Moment - Actually consistently going to my town's small farmer's market that is getting a little bigger and a lot better all the time, buying and trying things when they're actually in season, chatting with the guy who grows the best cherry tomatoes.  Sub-favorite:  Raspberries, cantaloupe, tomatoes, and Caprese salad (even a culinary incompetent like myself can make it).

Favorite "Staycation" - My bestie from high school came to hang out at the end of July and we road tripped to Philadelphia.  We did Reading Terminal Market and the Franklin Institute and Rittenhouse Square and a little bit of Old Town and took the most enjoyable selfie-littered 20,000 step whirlwind tour of Philadelphia, a city I spend startlingly little time in despite living in its state.  Sub-favorite: Cuba Libre food, trains that save me from city driving/parking, the Franklin Institute's super-trippy mirror maze.

Favorite Vacation - Cape Cod in the fall.  This is one of those vacations that I romanticized to death in my mind before finally recruiting a willing participant and making the trip.  Amazingly - amazingly it was everything I thought it would be.  We did all the Cape Coddy things - ate lobster, walked on boardwalks, sat on beaches, collected pretty beach rocks, waded through a flooded marsh (oops), saw the harvesting of cranberries, visited with wild seals, browsed an adorable bookstore and were generally just stupid lucky (like accidentally still being in the beach parking lot with a clear view when the harvest moon rose, getting off the beach with all the seals just as it started to pour rain, and also randomly picking a beach to watch the sunset where we were actually faced the right way to watch the sunset).  Sub-favorites: lobster roll, the beach in the off-season when I don't have to wear a swimsuit or deal with crowds, Titcomb's Bookshop in East Sandwich, the Earl of Sandwich Motel (where they have canopy beds, a "camp fire" every night, and the most reasonable of prices).

Favoritey Hodgepodge
  • Mint Lemonade from Pitango Bakery in Fells Point (Baltimore) - It's more refreshing on an unexpectedly 90 degree day in late September, even if that weather is *not* a favorite.
  • Six - the history channel's Seal Team 6 show
  • Hand soap from Bath and Body Works - I'm currently hooked on the Winter Cypress, but Ocean Citrus kept me smelling good all year.
  • Cards Against Humanity - I thought I wouldn't be able to find people to play this with me.  I was wrong.
  • Summer campfires (minus the camping) - Who doesn't love chatting over s'mores?
  • Litsy - I discovered it last year, but like it more this year.   I mostly use it to afflict people with quotes I find interesting and to quickly discover more books to add to my wish list (I'm LeafingThroughLife there if you want to look me up!