Looking Ahead: August Books I Can't Wait to Read

01 August 2014

August will bring me back to the real world after a month of vacation reading (funemployment for the win!), but that doesn't mean I don't have my eyes on some big, juicy end-of-summer reads:


Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay (Harper Perennial, August 5th): Damn, but Gay can write a powerful essay. The collection here ranges from why it's ok to be a feminist and like the color pink to all of the ways that Gay disliked The Help (book and movie) to why women still have to fight for reproductive freedom... and so much more. Stay tuned for a full review of this (I've already read it, can you tell?) one.

The Magician's Land, by Lev Grossman (Viking, August 5th): Grossman's book should really need no introduction, but in case you aren't familiar with his last two books, The Magician's Land is the culmination of the Magicians trilogy (The Magicians and The Magician King). This one I've also read, and it was a joy to go back to Grossman's magical world and revisit so many characters from the last book. Stay tuned for a full review... but keep in mind The Magician's Land will be best appreciated by those who have read the first two volumes in the trilogy.

Five and Twenty Fives, by Michael Pitre (Bloomsbury USA, August 19th): I've only read the first few pages of this novel and already I know it will be awesome, in the literal sense of the word. The publisher bills it as a novel about war and its aftermath (specifically, the Iraq War), and after Redeployment earlier this year, I'm looking forward to more in a similar space.

Sweetness #9, by Stephan Eirek Clark (Little, Brown, August 19th): In a world of GMO battles, organic hoaxes, and new fad diets by the day, it seems impossible not to be drawn into a novel about a scientist who discovers a new sweetener--only to discover, along with, a multitude of dangerous side-effects.

The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers, by Curtis White (Melville House, August 5th): Leave it to Melville House to have something as in-my-wheelhouse as The Science Delusion looks to be. I'm drawn to books about our society, our culture, and our brains--especially when said books look at how the three interact.

What We See When We Read, by Peter Mendelsund (Vintage, August 5th): Again, merging two of my favorite topics: books and how our brains work. In this case, how we visually and mentally process images from what we read. HOW COULD I NOT LOVE THIS?

When the World Was Young, by Elizabeth Gaffney (Random House, August 5th): I was initially drawn to this because the publisher compared it to The Secret Life of Bees and Rules of Civility, both of which I loved (LOVED). I'm always a little skeptical of publisher comparisons and setting expectations reasonably, but the description--that of a coming-of-age story set in New York City during and after World War II--sounds like it will be up my alley.

The Story Hours, by Thrity Umrigar (Harper, August 19th): Umrigar's sixth novel (I've never read her earlier works) centers on a suicidal immigrant woman, isolated from her family, her country, her culture--and the woman's therapist, who is herself struggling with the temptation of an affair. The character development here--especially of Lakshmi, the immigrant woman--is superb, and I was taken in by Lakshmi's history and Umrigar's crisp portrayal of the difficulties of immigration, adapting to a new culture, and finding one's place in the world.

What are you most looking forward to in August?


Looking Back: July in Books

30 July 2014

I officially left my job and embarked on a summer of unemployment in June, but the unemployment lifestyle didn't truly begin to feel real until July. Two family vacations meant lots of travel time, downtime, and reading time, and there were some true gems mixed into my July reads:


The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russel: I've had people telling me for years to read this book, and yet for some reason it has taken me until just this week to finally read it. I actually started it in April, set it down after 50 pages, and had to start it again last week to get back into it--but once I did, I was hooked. Russel uses a vision of the future in which Jesuit priests are exploring other worlds to probe questions of morality, philosophy, religion, and humanity. Full thoughts to come.

The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer: Another one I've had on my radar for what feels like ages (July was a good month for catching up on some TBR books in my world), and another one I absolutely devoured, start to finish. I read and enjoyed The Interestings and was struck by the power of Wolitzer's writing, though I occasionally questioned where it was going. Never happened with The Wife, which is a searing, honest portrayal of a crumbling marriage, looking back over the history of how the woman became the wife. Hand-in-hand with Dept. of Speculation, this will make you take a good, hard look at marriage and all its implications.

To Have and Have Not, by Ernest Hemingway: Continuing my attempt to read all of Hemingway's works, To Have and Have Not traveled down to the BVI with me this month. While the setting is different--Havana and the Florida Keys, rather than the Caribbean--it felt right to read Hemingway's account of a boat captain looking for work and finding adventure in the sticky, sweltering sun of Great Camanoe island.

Tigerman, by Nick Harkaway: I adored Harkaway's Angelmaker, and though I have yet to read The Gone-Away World, Harkaway is cemented in my brain as a talented author who is capable of twirling together the absurd and the serious in such a way as to make us look more closely at our own shockingly normal lives.  Tigerman lived up to this expectation, relaying the story of an aging British Sergeant and a young boy who join together to fight against unseen forces in a sort of grotesquely wonderful scene ripped from the comic books. Full review to follow in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky, by Lydia Netzer: As with Tigerman, I picked up How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky because I fell head-over-heels in love with Netzer's debut novel, Shine Shine Shine. Like her previous work, Netzer's newest dabbles in space and romance, this time pulling together a couple who were groomed by their mothers to fall in love and be perfect for each other. It's quirky and weird and a little bit crazy, which makes it perfectly whimsical.

World of Trouble, by Ben H. Winters: Winters wrapped up his Last Policeman trilogy with World of Trouble, which continued the story of Detective Hank Palace, out to solve crimes in a world that is about to end. I love the creativity and cleverness of this mystery trilogy, which uses a pre-apocalyptic setting to repeatedly challenge readers to consider what they might do if, say, they knew the world was going to end on October 3rd. My full review of World of Trouble.

The Visitors, by Sally Beauman: The Visitors was not a perfect novel, but it was an epic one, spanning ancient Egyptian history, stories of British and American archeologists in the early 20th century, and family politics in the later 20th century. The familial storyline felt cumbersome at times, but the detail about Egypt and its many tombs and myriad secrets is compelling and fascinating for anyone with a passing interest in Egyptology. My full review of The Visitors.


What were the best books you read in July?


Authors That Take Up the Most Space on My Shelves

29 July 2014

I own a lot of books (something like 28 boxes in storage, give or take a few hundred more tomes in my current apartment). Some are galleys, some are carefully curated selections. Most are by different authors, but there are a few writers that dominate a disproportionate amount of space on my shelves/in my boxes/on my Nook:


J.K. Rowling, 10: All seven Harry Potter books, of course (the hardcovers in the boxed suitcase-like set), plus a few scattered old paperback editions of the earlier titles in the series. Plus A Casual Vacancy and the first Robert Galbraith book, and that makes 10+.



Ernest Hemingway, 11: I long ago decided to try to sit down to read everything Hemingway has ever written, and while I'm still far from accomplishing that goal, I've got a good collection going: The Old Man and the Sea, two editions of The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, Islands in the Stream, To Have and Have Not, The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, two editions of A Moveable Feast, a second e-book version of The Sun Also Rises, The Snows of Kilimanjaro. That's 11, and since I'm doing this from memory, I think I missed a few. (Bonus points to Hemingway because of the many Hemingway-themed reading I have, including Hemingway's Boat, Hemingway's Girl, The Paris Wife, and Mrs. Hemingway.)



F. Scott Fitzgerald, 6: I'm a sucker for a pretty edition, and Coralie Bickford Smith's decadent volumes of Fitzgerald's works are no exception. In addition to my battered old paperback copy of The Great Gatsby, which has survived the decade+ since I first read it in high school, I have two of Fitzgerald's novellas from Melville House's Art of the Novella series, The Beautiful and Damned, This Side of Paradise, and Tender is the Night. (Bonus points to Fitzgerald because I own two novelizations of his wife's life, Z and Call Me Zelda, plus two Out of Print Gatsby-themed shirts.)




Margaret Atwood, 6: Oh Margaret Atwood, how I love thee. On my shelf: the Maddaddam trilogy, The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye, Alias Grace.



Robert Jordan (and Brandon Sanderson), 15: I've written before about my undying love for Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, and with fourteen volumes in all, let's just say this dominates my shelves. (Doesn't hurt that I own two copies of the first book in the series, Eye of the World.) On top of that, my husband and I collectively own most, if not all, of Sanderson's other works.

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This post is part of Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

Books That Go Together

28 July 2014

I'm vacationing this week, staring out over beautiful stretches of water, thinking about books that go together. I packed with me Moby Dick, by Herman Melville, and Why Read Moby Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick, but I haven't started either because I can't seem to decide which I should read first.



When I first read Anna Karenina, I started with the introduction. It was called the introduction, and I expected it to introduce me to the text. Instead, it gave away the outcome of the story--and turned me off of classics introductions forevermore.

But when I read Jane Austen's Emma, I started with the essay on the novel in A Jane Austen Education, and found that I ultimately took more away from Austen's novel than I might have without the essay introduction. (That being said, I still didn't enjoy the novel, and find I'm not so much of an Austen fan.)

Now I'm staring down Moby Dick and Why Read Moby Dick?, uncertain of where to start, and wondering about books that go together, and whether reading about a book enhances the reading of it, or whether reading about a classic is more impactful if you've already read the classic being discussed:
  • Lolita and Reading Lolita in Tehran
  • The Great Gatsby and So We Read On
  • Jane Austen's novels and A Jane Austen Education
That's not even taking into consideration books about an author's life (such as Hemingway's Boat), novels that reinvent an author's life (Z: A Novel of Zelda and Call Me Zelda come to mind), or modern retellings of classic novels (Great, Song of Achilles).

What do you think? Where should I start?


Rewind: Inheriting My Reading Spot: The Saga of an Armchair

25 July 2014

I'm on vacation this week and next, so will be mixing in some past posts with new reviews and content to keep things active around here. This post originally ran in October 2011, but it just as near and dear to my heart as it was three years ago.

Once upon a time, my dad's cat ran away. The cat had a tendency to do this and not return for days and days, so we trekked through the neighborhood with flashlights in hand, making absurd mewing noises and shaking bags of treats.

When this did not turn up one Very Sly and Sneaky Cat That I Thought Deserved to Spend the Night Out in the Cold, we checked our neighbors' houses. At one of these houses, a bundle of items for Purple Heart stood perched on the stoop, awaiting the next-day arrival of the truck. Amidst this bundle was buried one Very Ugly and Very Pink but Very Cozy Looking Armchair.

This wasn't just any armchair. This was my grandmother's armchair. Why, you ask, were my neighbors donating a family heirloom to the Purple Heart? In the smallest of small world stories, it turns out they had purchased it from a Goodwill nearly 20 miles away, intending to have it recovered in not-so-ugly fabric. When the re-upholstery proved to be too expensive, it sat in their basement. When no one bought it at their yard sale, it was destined for Purple Heart.

And how did it end up at Goodwill in the first place? My Very Helpful Uncle donated it, along with the rest of my grandmother's furniture, after she died. Little did he know that the chair, no matter how very ugly and very pink it was, was well-loved. My grandmother had sat in the overstuffed armchair everyday for as long as I could remember - first when she lived with us, then when she moved in with my dad when my parents split up, and then when she moved in with my uncle later on. It was her center, her spot, her comfort zone. It gave her a wingback to lean on while she cried through Days of Our Lives, and it held her in its comfy cushions while she read romance novels plastered with Fabio covers.

It broke my heart when we lost that chair. Luckily, though, the chair never lost us.

Three families, two houses, and several NYC apartments later, the chair has returned to its rightful home in my living room. It has become my rock, my nook, my reading center. And until a week ago, it was still Very Pink and Very Ugly (though also Very Cozy):



Now it has left again, this time for a stint in a reupholstery shop. The chair will now be Very Khaki Colored and Very Plain and Still Very Cozy. It will always be my grandmother's chair, but in recovering it, it will continue in its journey to become my chair, too. The upcoming chairless weeks will be a trial. I'm not sure where to rest my feet when settling in with a new book. My library books have no cushion creases in which to lose themselves. My reading lamp shines on an empty corner. But when the chair returns to me, as I know it always will, I will curl into its oversized arms, open a book on my lap, and read with thoughts of my grandmother to keep me company.

(Follow-up post: A New Reading Nook, on the chair post-reupholstery.)

Book Review: Alias Hook, by Lisa Jensen

24 July 2014


Originally published in the July 15 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Everyone knows how Peter Pan defeats his piratical foe: Pan throws the evil Captain Hook into the ocean, where he is eaten by a crocodile. But what if Hook did not, in fact, die? What if he could not die?

Lisa Jensen (Witch from the Sea) bases her second novel, Alias Hook, on this premise, turning the classic fairy tale on its head in much the same style as Wicked did for The Wizard of Oz. In Jensen's reimagined Neverland, Hook is Captain James Benjamin Hookbridge, an English gentleman and privateer caught in Neverland and forced to fight the Lost Boys against his will. Peter Pan, on the other hand, is a ruthless barbarian whose youth prevents him from understanding the cruelty of his actions as he kills Hook's men again and again.

Two centuries of fighting with Pan and not dying have left Hook wishing for nothing more than the sweet relief of death--until he encounters a grown woman in Neverland, an occurrence strictly prohibited by Pan. This presents Hook with something new: hope that the rules of the Neverland may not be as unbreakable as he had once believed them to be, and a renewed desire to leave the place forever and live the rest of his life in peace.

Told from Hook's perspective, Alias Hook can sometimes feel cluttered with overwrought pirate speak or ungainly with the outmoded vocabulary of an 18th-century gentleman. As the plot picks up pace, however, this potentially distracting language falls away to reveal a story of magic and romance, powerful in its ability to remind us to believe in the impossible, no matter the odds.

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Alias Hook | Lisa Jensen | Thomas Dunne Books | Hardcover | July 2014

Decisions, Decisions: Packing for Vacation Reading

21 July 2014

I'm spending two and a half weeks in this lovely place, with one main agenda item: read, read, read. I have internet, but the connection is limited, and while the family will be doing some serious snorkeling, I have issues with breathing underwater (namely that it makes me freak out) so I'll have several days to bask in the glory of a quiet house with a view of the ocean.

Great Camanoe, British Virgin Islands

Which means that when I packed for the trip, I put some serious thought into which books would be coming with me--especially given the strict weight limits for luggage, given the six-seater plane we had to take to get to our final destination (which, like snorkeling, didn't go well for me).

On unpacking my bag on arrival, I realized my book selections fell into a few key vacation reading categories:



I have read exactly zero books for the Classics Club so far in 2014, and vacation seemed as good a time as any to start. I've had Moby Dick on my to-read list for what feels like ages, and I'm still trying to read all of Hemingway's works, even though I didn't manage to do it before I turned 26.


As a reviewer, I often fall behind in recent releases that I don't manage to pick up before publication date. These are just a few of those titles, but they all look so wonderful in different ways. And Land of Love and Drowning is set in the Virgin Islands, so should make for some awesome themed reading as well.


Like recent releases, I'm hoping vacation can be a chance to catch up on some books that have lingered on my to-be-read stack for an inappropriately long time. It's a mixed bag here, but I'm hoping for some gems.

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Of course I also came down with a Nook loaded with galleys, e-books, and other options, but the ones above are the ones highest on my list. I won't get to them all (never do), but I've got high hopes... and lots of sunshine.

What kinds of books do you bring on vacation?