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Review Policy

March 15, 2012

I am particularly interested in books in the following categories:

  • Historical fiction
  • Foodie lit or foodie memoir
  • Historical mystery or forensic-based mystery
  • Extremely well-written YA  genre fiction (no vampire romance or dystopia, please!)

If I request a specific title, I will do my best to review it in a timely manner. I will review books outside of the above criteria at my discretion.

Thank you so much for keeping me Surrounded By Books

– Elizabeth

Book Review twofer: The Nurses & The Shift

May 20, 2015

Those who know me will probably be surprised that I would read a book about nursing and hospitals… never mind reading and enjoying, two in a row. For those who don’t know me: I’m squeamish about all things medical, to the point where even Scrubs can be too intense. Despite timidity that verges on phobia, I am fascinated by health and medicine, and its practitioners. And so, I read two books about nursing, and, for the most part, enjoyed them both.

The Nurses: A Year of Secrets, Drama and Miracles with the Heroes of the Hospital
Alexandra Robbins
Workman Publishing
Advance copy from publisher)

Given the fact that Alexandra Robbins was also the author of Pledged, I was intrigued enough by this book to set aside my hospital squeamishness and give this one a try.

Four individual nurses in different hospitals became central characters, with anecdotes building their stories over the course of the book. Each chapter developed around a central theme, like the hazing nurses go through in training, power plays between doctors and nurses, grueling hours and patient workloads, bullying and cliques in hospitals, having to subdue violent patients, dealing with burnout. Inanely, I noticed that male nurses are referred to in hospitals as “nurses,” which I remember not believing when I saw the word used on Scrubs. (I honestly thought it was some kind of spoof or joke!) Stories of individual nurses developed over the course of the book, in vignettes that contrasted an understaffed city hospital with limited resources, with a suburban hospital with a teaching hospital, revisiting the focal nurses in sequence. Each nurse works in an emergency room, but the location and character of the hospital plays a significant role in the kinds of patients they see, the kinds of treatments they give.

Even after reading this, I can’t imagine the strength of purpose and character it would take to pursue a career in nursing, and to come back, day after day.  Nurses delivered exactly the kind of smart blend of individual perspective and larger social context I find the most satisfying. After setting up individual narratives to fit each chapter’s theme, Robbins pulled back to take a broader look at nurses’ professional life and culture, adding anecdotes from a number of interviews. I enjoyed the bigger contextual passages the most, where Robbins shifted from description to analysis. Her insights about hazing and the hierarchical power structures of the hospital made me sit up and take notice, especially. Treating the culture of nursing and medicine with an anthropological lens and bringing it out to more social analysis made this an immensely satisfying read (and helped me catch my breath from the more squeamish moments, of which there were a few.)

Which brings us to the next book in my inadvertent binge-read of nursing books.

The Shift : One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients’ Lives
Theresa Brown
Algonquin Books (Forthcoming, September 2015)
(e-galley from Edelweiss)

Busy balancing the needs of four patients against the procedures and workflows of a modern hospital, Theresa guides the reader through her typical, busy day.
Her voice is conversational, and compassionate towards her patients, their families, and her medical colleagues. If every day is like this, it’s a grueling workload that I can’t even imagine being able to handle. I can’t imagine four, never mind twelve hours, of balancing the needs of four critically ill, sometimes scared, patients who need medical procedures, comfort, and to have their medicines tracked, managed and charted… Reading the details of Brown’s single day seems exhausting. Both the mechanics of balancing and tracking the care and procedures of patients, and then having to work through charting, while also maintaining relationships with staff in the hospital… It’s easy to see how nurses burn out, reading this.

She describes the medical procedures she works on, like giving injections of chemotherapy, in easy-to-visualize detail. (I got squeamish in several spots, because, of course, the treatment of cancer is full of procedures with needles and IVs, which might be the most cringe-inducing aspect of medicine, in my squeamish and cringing opinion.) I also appreciated seeing Brown’s view, and thoughts about the computerized charting system for electronic medical records. From her astute, and detailed description, it doesn’t seem user-friendly or easy to navigate… adding yet more stress to the day, I would imagine.
And yet, Brown’s narrative voice stays matter-of-fact, acknowledging her busyness, yes, but staying largely upbeat… the sense of her love for her profession and willingness to work hard to care well and connect to her patients comes through.

The fact that Brown has a background in English literature makes for interesting observations, like drawing on William Blake quotations as she thinks about patients’ lives. I appreciated that, both because I found it artfully done, and because, again, it helped me catch my squeamish breath.

In sum, I found both of them rewarding, well-executed books. I’m fairly certain I’m not the target audience for either of these books. I could see them as fascinating reads for a range of audiences, from someone considering going into nursing, to someone looking for insights and perspectives about the American health care and hospital system, or someone like me, looking for a view into a profession I respect and feel timid about, enhanced by cogently written social analysis. And I can attest that even the most medically squeamish reader can find something to like about both of these.


Happy #Readathon Weekend!

April 25, 2015

I love readathon weekend. Dewey’s Readathon snuck up on me this Saturday. I’d been looking forward to it for ages. After all, it would be the first in years that didn’t coincide with having to churn out a paper for school (an entirely less-fun way to lose sleep and read too much.) I’ve been looking forward to the chance to read interesting books and get to know other readers on social media, in one great big, bookish slumber party.

Speaking of slumber, I decided to do the Readathon a little differently this year. Having learned that staying up too far past my bedtime turns me into a jerk the next day isn’t the best idea for me, I’ve decided to rejigger the schedule a bit. So, I’m having my 24 Hour Readathon, but I’m spreading it out over the entire weekend.

Rebel that I am, I started last night, stretching out on the couch to finish reading London Falling, by Paul Cornell. An entirely satisfying blend of urban fantasy and police procedural, set in London. At times, it skewed more towards horror and gore than I really like, but it was still a great read. The setup is that police investigating a murder get hit with a supernatural power that gives them all the Sight, turning them into the Met’s only weird-magical crimes unit. The best part about it was that, instead of being inducted into some kind of existing magical tradition, they had to figure out the weird crimes as they went, trying to adapt what they knew, instead of inheriting an existing fantasy tradition.

So that got my Readathon off to a very nice start. I’m going to jump in and out of participating today, tomorrow and even Monday, with the goal of accumulating 24-ish hours, plenty of Twitter conversations, and at least one more book, along with some sunshine, weekend frolics, and of course, sleep.

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?
I’m participating from New York. And it’s a fine part of the world indeed, nice and sunny out. Going to head out in a bit, to grab coffee and read in a sunny window spot.
2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?
The only books I have on deck so far are a British murder mystery and a book that chronicles the working life of nurses. Given how much hospitals make me squeamish, I anticipate the nurses book will scare me more than the murder mystery.
3) Which snack are you most looking forward to?
My impending latte. Which may need to be a mocha. Yes, definitely a mocha.
4) Tell us a little something about yourself!
On Monday, I start a job as an actual academic librarian. I just finished my Masters in Library Science, and I’m doing the readathon in the hopes of losing myself in a book and distracting myself from wondering what the first week of work will be like.
5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to?


Book Review: The Tapestry

April 24, 2015

The Tapestry
Nancy Bilyeau
Review copy from Publisher

Having thoroughly enjoyed The Crown, and its sequel, The Chalice, I was curious to see how the mysteries and intrigue surrounding Joanna Stafford would evolve, and resolve. It’s highly recommended to begin at the beginning with The Crown, and then read straight through. While I could pick up the intrigues and mystery reasonably well having read the earlier books over a year ago, I think a re-read would have been even more fun leading into the third volume.

Let me say this right off: The Tapestry is aptly named. Not just because, after the events of the previous installments, Joanna plans to set herself up in a quiet life weaving tapestries…. but then finds herself faced with a “request,” and an official commission from Henry VIII. Henry VIII, drawn in all his decadent (kind of amazingly repulsive) glory by Bilyeau’s excellent descriptions, is not so much the sort of person whose requests one can ignore.

So, despite misgivings, Joanna undertakes the journey to Whitehall, to the Tudor Court, where being a former nun puts her in a distinctly odd, and uneasy position, to say the least. Henry VIII has dismantled convents and monasteries, looting them of their treasures, is married to Anne of Cleves, and is spending an awful lot of time with the young, and innocent Catherine Howard. Joanna Stafford also has to navigate court intrigue regarding familiar historical figures such as Oliver Cromwell, John Cheke, and Thomas Culpeper.

And, even before she arrives at Whitehall, somebody’s trying to kill Joanna. The combination of Joanna’s voice, and excellent description keeps the suspense rising very nicely.  This is a dark book, full of scheming and excellent peril, and I was rooting for Joanna to come through, even if I wasn’t entirely sure, until the surprising ending, how she would make it happen.

It’s hard to say who is the biggest architect of Bad Things happening to Joanna and  others in the Tudor court, or who is the main mastermind of intrigue. Whoever’s at the heart of it, whether the intrigue is political, religious, mystical, or some combination of all three, it runs very very deep.

Highly recommended that you block out a weekend to dig into this book, order takeout and don’t move from your comfy chair, because sustained attention is needed, especially in the last third of the book, to keep track of who Joanna’s friends and allies (few) are, who knows what, and who can’t be trusted (a lengthy and shifting list.) I had some knowledge, vaguely remembered from history class, of the Tudor court and historical events, but the sheer physicality of Bilyeau’s descriptions, and the immediacy of Joanna’s voice made the story absolutely engrossing. The kind of historical fiction where you look up after a few chapters, and are surprised to be in the 21st century.

Not sure what’s next for Bilyeau. It seems like Joanna’s story has reached its satisfying, if unanticipated, conclusion. I’m hoping there will be another historical mystery in the works, Tudor or otherwise.


Book Review: Gabriel Finley & the Raven’s Riddle

April 23, 2015

Gabriel Finley & the Raven’s Riddle
George Hagen
Schwartz & Wade Books
ARC from BookExpo

Gabriel Finley & the Raven’s Riddle absolutely charmed me from the start. I liked it for any number of reasons: a well-constructed fantasy, with just enough spookiness and strangeness to give a few delicious chills. It’s built around a well-constructed and interesting mythology: ravens have their own society, and tell riddles as both a matter of community and a matter of survival. The kids driving the plot are well-constructed, and if they and their various grownup figures are a touch on the eccentric side, they’re believably so. Plus, it’s set in Brooklyn, and does a good job of capturing a brownstone neighborhood full of kids and smallish shops.
And did I mention the riddles and puzzles? The mythology that the book sets up is that ravens love riddles of all kinds, and laugh croaky raven laughs at riddles and wordplay. Owls are more fond of puns. And certain ravens and people can communicate… Gabriel, a young boy being raised by his Aunt Jaz, collects riddles of all kinds. He’s being raised by his aunt, because his parents disappeared under Mysterious and Menacing Circumstances, in a way that has to do with how the human and raven worlds intersect, and with magic, mythology, and of course puzzles. Together with his riddle-loving new friend Abby, the young violin prodigy Pamela, Gabriel must find a way to unlock the ultimate puzzle, what happened when his father disappeared. Gabriel and his friends need to decide whether to trust the school bully, Somes, and a local shopkeeper who may or may not be trustworthy. There’s also an excellent literary reference in one of the key puzzles. I won’t spoil it for potential readers though. Throughout, Hagen’s prose makes it easy to visualize the characters and settings– from Abby’s mismatched bright outfits to the corridors of Gabriel’s house or the underground explorations that are part of their quest.

While very few books will ever come close to The Westing Game, one of my all-time favorites, I can see and appreciate some of the same elements here. Kids working together to solve puzzles. The puzzles themselves, which seem right about on target for the book’s middle-grade audience. (I can admit a few of the riddles stumped me on the first try!) Also, as mentioned above- some of the villains and obstacles getting in the way of Gabriel’s quest are well-characterized. Neither straightforward big-bads nor mawkish forced sympathy. Good stuff, throughout. Highly recommended as a middle grade book with enough going on to grab an older reader (including one, ahem, a decade or two past her middle grade years.) I don’t think there are plans for a sequel or series, but I wouldn’t mind seeing more in this world, and I’d definitely like to see where Hagen’s imagination heads next.


April 16, 2015


Um… Oh dear.

Between physical, and digital books, I can safely say the number must be at least 100. I still have unread books I brought home from a trip to Scotland.

And yet, I run my finger over spines, shrug, move on, and head to the library to find entirely different books.
The bookshelf equivalent of having nothing to wear, I suppose.

Originally posted on Booking Through Thursday:

btt button

What proportion of the books you own are unread?

Don’t forget to leave a link to your actual response (so people don’t have to go searching for it) in the comments—or if you prefer, leave your answers in the comments themselves!

View original

Singing the Praises of Libraries for National Library Week

April 16, 2015

It’s National Library Week this week. Hooray!

I always knew librarians were a talented, dedicated, and passionate group. But these videos are just… wow. Catchy and clever, and amazingly well done.

First, from the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, we have CheckItOut, a Taylor Swift parody.

Unread Books, a parody of Bruno Mars, comes from the Orange County Public Library

There are a few different versions of All About Those Books, out there, parodying Megan Trainor’s All About That Bass. This one’s my favorite, from the Mount Desert Island High School Library. These are (some very talented!) high school kids.

Yes, I’ve had all three stuck in my head this week, and yes I like these enthusiastic, catchy library anthems much better than the pop songs they parody. Well done, all!

Interesting Things I’ve Read Recently 3/31

March 31, 2015

Why We Need Ruth Bader Ginger Ice Cream (NPR blog)

Of course, ice cream flavor names aren’t exactly political mandates or awards for lifetime achievement. As McCall acknowledges, flavor-name parity won’t close the gender pay gap or elect more women to office. But calling attention to gender disparities of this kind is valuable precisely because such disparities so easily go unnoticed. A string of female flavors would seem anomalous (Ruth Bader Ginger, Coco-nut Chanel, Angelina Jolie Rancher, Jane Austen Cream Pie…), yet in many domains, it takes a stunt like McCall’s for most of us to notice a trend of female absence.

The above piece, and the blog post it references from BuzzFeed do an excellent job of setting up an important conversation, and arguing how urgently it’s needed… through ice cream flavor puns.

What Happens To a Book After You Donate It to the Library? (BookRiot)

When the volunteers are done pricing, the books have to be stored until it’s time for the next big book sale. Some libraries are lucky to have large staging areas like obsolete garages that can store a whole lot of books. Other Friends of the Library groups have to dip into their coffers to pay for off-site storage. Still other libraries have spaces for small used book stores that are open year-round and staffed by volunteers, with the pricier books getting listed on Amazon.

Not sure if the NYPL even takes donations anymore, so not sure if this applies, but it’s still a fun read.

My childhood friends and I were avid readers, trading paperbacks and poring over the Scholastic catalog together. Now, even in 2015, children’s publishing has a diversity problem. But this was back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and so nearly 100 percent of the books I read were about white, straight, able-bodied kids. I didn’t think to question it; I yearned to read about kids who looked like me, but if I hadn’t read the books that were out there, I wouldn’t have read anything at all. I started writing fiction when I was seven years old, and even my own books at the time featured exclusively white characters because I just assumed people didn’t publish contemporary books about black kids.
The biggest art heists of the 20th century  (Independent) includes the Mona Lisa, a massive theft in Boston that remains unsolved 25 years later, and a Rembrandt painting that has been stolen 4 (!!) times from the same museum. But at least they have a sense of humor about it.

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