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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: Lair of Dreams

June 30, 2015

Lair of Dreams
Libba Bray
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Advance Copy via NetGalley

I didn’t expect there to be a sequel to the Diviners at all- the story worked as a self-contained, imaginative historical fiction that hit my sweet spots of being set in New York, following threads of an ensemble cast, and having really inventive scares that were just this side of almost too startling for me. But once I discovered that they were giving galleys away at BEA, getting one became a Serious Quest for me. Many thanks to NetGalley for coming through.

My thinking about Lair of Dreams evolved over the course of reading. Getting ready, I prepared myself by rereading The Diviners, which was a reminder of just how much I’d loved the thrills and scares of the plot. Even the bits that were almost too gory for me, or suspense that was nearly jarring. (I am by nature a squeamish soul, easily startled). I started out really liking Lair of Dreams and being pleased with it, but not absolutely blown away with love for it the way I was with The Diviners. Perfectly satisfying, but not off-the-charts. And I was satisfied with liking the book, but not loving it.

And then I kept reading… A few more chapters in, I really started to appreciate the way Lair of Dreams was constructed.

By its very nature, the menace and mystery of the plot is going to be more subtly creepy than its predecessor: there’s a sleeping sickness affecting people in New York, starting in poorer immigrant communities. Nobody knows why, and the entire city is scared. Lair of Dreams picks up the juxtaposed stories of the ensemble cast of characters from its prequel. I enjoyed watching the characters who’d survived the terrors of the first volume, as they each grew into answers to the question of “What now?”

I find storylines that humanize having supernatural powers immensely satisfying: being able to do a supernatural thing might make some talents larger than life, but ultimately, the person with the powers is still the same person, with insecurities, confusions, pettiness maybe, selfishness, a narrow focus on the short term. Establishing the characters in the aftermath of the first story meant seeing them adapt (sometimes badly) to how their lives had changed. Even the romance aspect had excellently messy and ambiguous near-answers that delighted me. (Especially in genre fiction and YA, I think there is far too much certainty about love, and to see this take a different approach was outstanding.) Henry and Ling might have been my favorite plot thread, with Evie and Sam a close second. The shifting allegiances and conflicts felt like natural extensions of the characters rather than being forced.

Another thing that Lair of Dreams did that I especially enjoyed was pulling back to create a larger social context to frame the supernatural events. The story is set in the 1920’s, mostly in New York. But it pulled back at various points to show how America might react as a nation: a few nods to the revival/evangelical religious, as well as to eugenics absolutely made historical sense, as well as adding a good dash of government conspiracy suspense and menace to help build the mood. There were also some riffs on folklore and Americana that were just fun to read for the language. The passages taking the more overarching view reminded me nicely of American Gods.

All of these elements grew on me over the course of the book, building to a plot resolution I genuinely didn’t see coming. While the pacing shifted from the self-contained scare of the first installment, to what is more clearly a long game with plot threads that are clearly going to carry out into a sequel (and possibly more) the events of Lair of Dreams didn’t end on a cliffhanger. I feel, given the trend, especially in genre YA to end on a cliffhanger (I still haven’t entirely forgiven Maureen Johnson for The Madness Underneath, but I digress), it’s important to note that it’s safe to read Lair of Dreams without having to wait til the next book is in hand.

Just make sure to read The Diviners a few weeks prior, and be ready to shift from startling suspense to a subtler creepiness, in Lair of Dreams.

Scary Stories to Read on the Beach

June 26, 2015

We’ve had a few weeks of humid, sultry days. I’ve been enjoying a spooky re-read of The Diviners, preparing to dig into the sequel Lair of Dreams (my biggest must-read from this year’s Book Expo.)  Re-reading The Diviners, I’m reminded how much I enjoyed the story. It’s a creepy novel set in the 1920’s. It has the allure of magic and the supernatural, a great ensemble cast that captures New York in the era of the flapper, the enticing chill of a ghost story, and some frankly squeamish gory scenes of menace and murder.

Reading on bright, sunny days, or humid, stormy evenings, I remember the first time I read The Diviners. It was in the summer, two years ago, so I had the same juxtaposition of humid days and horrifying, spooky reading. It got me thinking about how much I enjoy that juxtaposition. I love reading a dark, spooky mystery on a bright, sunny day. I don’t know exactly whether the disconnect between my atmosphere and the book amplifies, or tames the creepy feeling to just the right degree. (Not going to lie, I can be a coward and a wimp when it comes to scary, violent books and movies. I still remember how many lights I had on in the apartment the night I finished The Alienist.) Maybe there’s just enough disconnect between the story and my surroundings to make the thrill satisfying, rather than nightmare inducing.

I still remember the first time I enjoyed a truly scary book on a beach. It was The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and I was on a Caribbean beach. The contrast between the dazzling blue ocean and the slowly building menace of Hill House made the whole reading experience so much better. It was like a piano solo injecting sweetness into a gritty rock ballad, dark chocolate with the kick of sea salt or chili, or wearing bright pink argyle socks with a sharp business suit (those who know me will know just how much I like that last juxtaposition in particular.) The slight disconnect between the two moods makes the overall mood better.

And then there was the beach vacation where I read nothing but murder and crime novels. And it was great. If a bit unplanned. After the fact, I felt slightly ghoulish.

I know Beach Reads can be marketed as their own, relatively narrow genre. Over at Book Riot, Jessi Lewis makes several good points on that score:

But, let’s pause for a moment and think about how utterly distracting the “beach read” term is in a bookstore. It’s interesting to see that it’s not just “light reading” the beach label is working with– you also have an excess of travel lit, a lack of tragic historical, a great and overwhelming fiction theme that includes the sun on covers, and many violent thrillers that end in chase scenes. Not that chase scenes are bad plot elements, but it’s rough when a seasonal formula defines the plot lines of books.

Speaking of the seasonal formula for book genres and marketing, this gets me thinking, also, of my book reviewing days for the Star-Ledger. Fran the editor would send over a wonderful pile of ghostly and ghoulish reads for me to write about for an October publication date. And the timing usually worked perfectly for that sweet spot of a dark, spooky read on a bright, sunny day as summer wound itself down. Stretched out in a hammock to read about vampires looming out of the shadows. Rattling the cubes in my sweating glass of iced tea when the suspense of the story made me jump.

I tend to think of scary stories as Not My Thing, and to avoid reading them unless given a book to review.

But I need to remember just how much a good scare hits the sweet spot for me on a warm, summer day.

Book Review: Primates of Park Avenue (a memoir with an asterisk)

June 12, 2015

Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir
by Wednesday Martin, Ph.D.
Simon and Schuster
free review copy via Edelweiss

As a fan of social history, and a bit of an armchair anthropologist, I was looking foward to reading this book. (I majored in anthropology in college, mostly because reading ethnographies appealed to my fondness for a well-told tale, along with my intrinsic nosiness and tendency to want to see patterns.) The idea of an anthropological take on the uptown New York “ladies who lunch” also piqued my curiosity. My personal favorite use of anthropological analysis has been to squint at the familiar, and the domestic, and try to figure out its underpinnings as though it were a faraway tribe. And, despite sharing an island with these super-affluent women, I very much see them as a separate, and remote tribe. I was looking forward to this book both as a chance to be a bit voyeuristic into the world of designer handbags (even after reading Martin’s ode to them, I’m not wholly sure I know what a Birkin bag looks like) and blown out hair and cutthroat private preschool admissions and the proscriptions of designer workout wear.

The fact that Martin combined descriptions that satisfied my desire to gawk at the luxe life with anthropological analysis and metaphors drawing connections between these wealthy mommies and the behaviors of primates in the wild made the book even more fun to read. Explaining women’s role in apartment hunting by drawing connections to hunter-gatherer practices, or highlighting similarities between Physique 57 workout classes and tribal initiation rituals (or primate mating displays)…or working to understand the extreme practices of plastic surgery (even, yikes, numbing foot injections to withstand towering, pinching heels) by seeking commentary from a professor of ornithology, ecology and evolutionary biology.
I feel the book delivered exactly what I wanted: a combination of a voyeur’s look into the weird world of the super-rich, with decently constructed anthropological metaphors. It whets my appetite to read more anthropology and sociology, and makes me nostalgic for sitting in a classroom and digging into ethnographic texts with my professors’ guidance.

So I had fun with this, and emerged from reading it thoroughly satisfied. It wasn’t deathless prose, and some of the insights could have been communicated with more subtle writing… but I think a lot of her analysis made sense, and her points were laid out clearly, if not always artfully.

But, of course, here’s the thing. Right about when I started reading it, just before its publication date, it turned out, there were “factual errors,” in the book despite her claims of academic rigor, or of sticking to the facts.

I haven’t decided what I think about this. That knowledge, that maybe she wasn’t there as long as she claimed, or that details had been fudged, did not impact my enjoyment of an engrossing read, with descriptions I could just about picture, and analysis I appreciated.

Here’s what I’m left wondering, about the commentary about the book’s truth or not…Why the outrage? It’s mostly a memoir, as in, what she remembers happening, and she’s used her academic knowledge to tease out and question some assumptions about the social structures she described in the text. The narrative was coherent enough to keep me reading, and leave me thinking about my own social world as well as hers.
I think it might be a better idea to remember the importance of accounting for the role personal point of view, and conscious narrative structure play in participant observation and ethnographic narrative, and, of course, memoir.

In my junior year of college, I took a terrific class about anthropology and documentary film. And one of the most important themes of the class was the need to remember that a documentary, seen through the ostensible camera lens of capturing actual events, is just as carefully constructed to tell a story as a fictional screenplay and film.
And why shouldn’t the same be even more true in the medium of text? Details blurred, reconstructed, embellished, lost in translation, even made up, in the transition between actual experience to understood experience, to written text.

Instead of outrage and asking if Primates of Park Avenue got the details wrong, or is faked, or false, or diminished by fudging the details?… let’s ask a better question:
How on earth could we expect it to be an account of objective truth? And why aren’t we taking this critical, questioning view of more stories (news accounts, let’s just say, perhaps) presented as objective, unvarnished truth?

What do you think? Of the book? Of truth and memoir? Of designer handbags? Drop me a line.

Book Review: The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend

June 9, 2015

Book Jacket, The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, by Katarina BivaldThe Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend
Katarina Bivald
Sourcebooks, January 2016
Advance Reader Copy from BEA

An odd but charming premise (bookish young woman leaves Sweden and heads to a small Iowa town, sight unseen to meet her pen pal) sends a young woman all the way to an odd, but charming small town in Iowa. Where she discovers that the pen pal she intended to visit has died… and the entire town sort of adopts and assimilates her, trying to charm her although they find her, and her bookishness, rather odd. Broken Wheel is not a town of readers, you see. Apart from the (now-deceased) Amy, and the shy, awkward Swedish newcomer, who honestly prefers books to people most of the time.

But… friendships are forged. Books are discussed. I felt for Sara, seeking solace in books, and feeling curious and perplexed and frustrated, trying to connect with a town of avowed nonreaders, the only way she knows how- through books. I’ve daydreamed since I was a kid about running a small, cozy bookstore, recommending books to people who come in, having shelves designated for Books With Happy Endings When You Need Them… comfy chairs and places to read. I know that this kind of dream is a vicarious one for me, unless I can recruit a business manager. I’m good at balancing books on shelves and in piles… Balancing the fiscal books? Not so much. So picturing Sara’s cozy little bookstore in my mind was vicariously cozy and nice.

This is absolutely not the book to read if you’re feeling at all cynical. There are shades of books like Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe (which gets a nod in the text) in how the small town story is constructed. And yes, the characters and the narrative are leaning more heavily on emotional connection to let the story move forward at a meditative pace. I can confirm that this is a good book to read on a rainy afternoon. And I’m glad that, for all the fact that the plot hinges on a death, various losses, and emotional plot points rather than startling events, there was absolutely no sense of constructed emotional manipulation. I appreciate that.

Would this reader of a major, often cynical metropolis, recommend The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend? I’d give that a solid maybe. You have to be in the mood to be charmed, by a slower-paced, slightly muted emotional story. It has its delightfully odd moments… even if a book like this isn’t in my usual genre-reading, plot-driven wheelhouse.

Wishlist of Books from #BEA2015

June 4, 2015

Despite having acquired a pile of books that is likely taller than I am, and, arguably, being well supplied with unread books for the next two years… one of the things that happens at Book Expo is that I hear about other books that I can’t get my hands on, and am left to covet them.

I stare at my bounty of books a bit sullenly, in a “my bookshelf has nothing to wear,” unreasonable fit of pique.  And so, in the days following BEA, I send forlorn emails to nice publicists, and put myself on library hold lists.

Here are this year’s books that got away from me. Please, nice publicists, take pity on me and send a galley my way? My review will include gratitude as well as giddiness and raves about a book I’m sure I’ll like.

Lair of Dreams– Libba Bray. A sequel to The Diviners. I loved The Diviners! This is the main one I’m after.

The Wrath and the Dawn– Renee Ahdieh. Retelling of Scheherezade? Yes, please!

Last Song Before Night– Ilana Meyer

The Clasp– Sloane Crossley. I like her essays, and I’m curious how she’ll handle fiction.

A Court of Thorns and Roses– Sarah J. Maas. Mercifully, the library has this one and I’ve got it on hold, so that particular book desire will be sated soon.

And there you have it… my list of books I’m after is actually pretty reasonable. For once. And the library should help.

But I am feeling severely whiny about having to wait til August for the new Libba Bray. Alas and wail away!

Also, every time I see Kaite Stover, I make a mental note that I need to start reading N.K. Jemisin, as Kaite’s the one who recommended.

 

 

 

The End of #BEA2015

May 29, 2015

I got to spend the entire day at the Book Expo today. In the morning, Hilary and I roamed the exhibits and the autographing area, open to possibilities, and snapped up intriguing stories about superheroes, women of science, mystery and Alice in Wonderland. I am fairly sure we walked by Dr. Ruth. I am also sure we walked by Tim Federle, but I was in a book-drunk daze, and couldn’t be witty and exchange puns with him. Missed opportunity!

The main event of today was the Book Group Speed Dating, an event where 27 (!!!) publishers and imprints gathered with book bloggers and librarians, and lovely tables heaped with lovely books, to tell us about titles that would make good book group picks. I told myself, going in, that I had to remember I could only carry so much. That I tend to prefer genre fiction, like mysteries, fantasy, and historical, to straightforward novel narratives. Yes, I told myself these things. I left books on the tables! I did!

Dang, those publicists, and those lovely book designers are good at shattering one’s willpower.

I swear, books jumped into my bags. And for all the books I have, more books than I think I could read in an entire year, there’s at least ten more titles I don’t own and I’m absolutely pining for.

I’m six inches shorter than I was on Wednesday morning and I don’t know where I’m going to put all these beautiful books.

I’m just luck nobody’s thought to organize a Book Group Speed Dating for mystery lovers, or other genre fiction readers, or foodies, because I’d be even more doomed to bring home all the books.

Now to pet my giant stacks of books, be entirely too perplexed about where to put them, and do yoga to see if I can make myself taller.

What will I read first? I also need to update my book list post.

Bit of a melancholy cast to the evening as well… Book Expo’s pulling up stakes and heading to Chicago for next year, and I’m pretty sure I won’t be making the trip. But something tells me I’ll have plenty to read til it comes back.

 

Day Two of #BEA2015

May 28, 2015

Even in a half day of wandering the exhibit floor, I managed to come away with a brimming bag full of books, both eagerly anticipated and sudden surprises, and an ever-growing list of books I don’t have yet, but still covet. (Libba Bray has a sequel to The Diviners coming? MUST OWN this! Also, the new Nightvale novel, which I should have known better than to try to obtain/get signed. The line was a bit intense, so I fled!) Much of this book largesse is due to Hilary knowing exactly what sort of fantasy, mysteries and generally uplifting genre fiction I like. Thank you, Hilary! You’re a wonderful BEA-buddy.

Hilary and I, weighed down by our bags of wonderful and enticing books, started talking about dragons and their hoards of treasure. Because one of the fun parts, year after year, is putting the splendid haul of new books into towering stacks, and just admiring them, before digging in and starting to read. Sometimes I get tempted to stack the books and see if the stack is taller than me. Sometimes, I think about building book forts. Maybe I’ll do that, this year. But, here’s the thing about dragons and hoards of book-treasure: Dragons’ usual defenses aren’t very book-friendly. Fire-breathing or acid spitting would be bad news. So, maybe not a dragon with a bookish hoard. Yes, we actually had this conversation.

Today’s other adventures included bumping into Nancy Bilyeau, author of the Joanna Stafford series. It was great to be giddy at her about the Joanna Stafford series, and especially The Tapestry, and to see an author’s perspective on BEA. I stopped by the Librarian Book Buzz, but they didn’t have slides, so I rather lost the thread of things… possibly just as well: my list of books to read beyond the ones I’ve grabbed is getting alarming. I saw a few familiar faces from all facets of the publishing world: nice publicists and reps I’ve seen before, librarians and bloggers from all over. Even people whose names I don’t know without a quick glance at their badges were familiar faces, nice to see, nice to say hi. I’m still dazed, and beyond happy that I actually belong in the Librarian’s Lounge now. Mostly, the afternoon was a blissful wander of the floor, snapping up intriguing looking titles.  I tried, I really tried, to be picky and discerning. But… my stash of new books has doubled in size. And guess what’s going to happen again tomorrow?

Maybe I’ll build myself a fort out of books this weekend. And pile it with blankets and pillows and settle in and read.

Yes, I’m a grown woman. Yes, I’m actually considering building a book fort.  No, I haven’t updated my list of books yet. Updates to follow, this weekend.

But for now, the book blogger librarian has some reading to do. Run along now, don’t make me breathe fire at you.

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