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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

Audiobook Bedtime Stories

August 14, 2016

Audiobooks are a huge part of my reading life; I rely on them in my bedtime ritual. Tuck myself into bed, and cue up the story being read to me as I turn off my brain for the day.

Because audiobooks are part of lulling my brain to sleep, I am picky about what makes a good audiobook. I seek out something gentle that makes me happy. Not sweet enough to be cloying, but not suspenseful or demanding of attention or intensity. Because a harrowing tale keeping me in suspense would defeat the sleepy purpose. Revisiting an old, familiar favorite works nicely for these. To drift away from the story as sleep creeps in.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve listened to anything by James Herriot. The country vet visiting farms of a bygone Yorkshire puts me right out, to dream of lovely green fields. (I suppose a joke about counting sheep wouldn’t be amiss here.) The audiobooks by Christopher Timothy are particularly nice, with his own accent and reading the different voices of characters.

17731046-_uy200_In a similar vein, The Irish Country Doctor books by Patrick Taylor are delightful, especially as read by John Keating, doing all the voices and accents. Doctors Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly and Barry Laverty run a medical practice in the village of Ballybucklebo in Northern Ireland. Keating’s read of O’Reilly’s gruff voice, and all the cast of characters from the Cork-born housekeeper, Mrs. Kincaid, to the scheming of Donal Donnelly, to the bluster of Councillor Bishop has become how I define the characters.

Don’t ask me why someone as squeamish about medical matters loves these rural doctor stories so much. More about the small town life than needles and guts, is one factor. And also, the sort of half-listening, half-asleep mindset cushions me against any medically descriptive parts. Medicine, yes, but bucolic and sepia-toned.

Thanks to the nifty ability to download audiobooks from the library directly to my phone, (yay, Overdrive) I can borrow digital audiobooks and replenish my supply of stories. Wish the lending period were longer than three weeks, as I’m listening in half-hour increments before dreamland, so a story stretched out across 7+ hours can take over a month to finish. And then the book zaps itself off my phone at the due date. With the story unfinished! (Once I figured out how to renew on the OverDrive app, this was less of a calamity.)

So yes, yay libraries and digital access, but this isn’t about that.

I happened to find a paper copy (hooray for retronyms!) of  An Irish Country Girl, one of Patrick Taylor’s books in the library, before I could get it as an audiobook. So I checked it out, reasoning that reading it first would be a good way to enjoy the soporific uses of the narrative as an audiobook being read to me at a later date.

And I discovered something: I like Patrick Taylor’s books much, much better when John Keating is reading them to me. It’s the characters, and their voices, and their accents. It’s the ritual of tucking myself into bed to listen to the nice flow of village life and brogues. Yes, I’m going to fall asleep, lose the thread of the story, and have to backtrack in the chapter the next night. It doesn’t matter. I enjoy the way the story unfolds as it is told to me each night. the way turns of phrase or snatches of dialogue unwind, the next day in my inner monologue like a song stuck in my head. I don’t even mind falling asleep and having the voices play through my dreams. (Sepia toned medical tales make for vaguely comforting dreams, unlike the times I’ve fallen asleep listening to Welcome to Night Vale podcasts. Nightmare fodder! Whee!)

My audiobook life is not all about village doctors. There are podcasts that fit this same niche: The Bowery Boys and Stuff You Missed in History Class are good, though I’ve gone back to listen to various episodes to catch details I slept through. Wait, Wait Don’t Tell me is impossible, because I keep giggling myself into wakefulness.

cgdoy01I found a few gems written and read by Stephen Fry as well, thanks to OverDrive. I’m on the hold queue for Stephen Fry Does The Knowledge, which promises to be in a very nice sweet spot between the odd trivia of my favorite podcasts, as Fry riffs on all the things London cabbies know, and a sonorous British voice lulling me to sleep.

Various encounters with reading and listening to Neil Gaiman have made it so that whenever I read his prose, I hear his voice in my head, narrating. Which makes the reading experience that much nicer. Like Stephen Fry, John Keating and Christopher Timothy, I strongly suspect I would listen to Neil Gaiman reading the phone book or 19th century property law, and fall asleep smiling.

I’ve also been listening my way through The Once and Future King by T.H. White, in about twenty minute increments. It’s an excellent story, for what I need an audiobook to be: interesting enough to distract my brain from the day, but  slow enough to wind me down. In a perfect world, I would find a version read by Stephen Fry, or John Keating, but any resonant British voice will do.

I apparently equate soothing myself to sleep with voices from the British Isles. Go figure. Maybe, in this vein, I should try The Lord of the Rings again, or The Chronicles of Narnia. Or even The Silmarillion. Read by the right Brit, I might just manage to ingest the whole story. Even if I sleep through it a bit.

Elizabeth on Rating Books

August 10, 2016

Wrote this when I worked for AMACOM (did I really write this 2 years ago? Time flies when you’re living the library life?). Reposting to remind myself to try to be more systematic in my admittedly subjective reviews of books.

Still wish Goodreads would allow half stars, because some books are decidedly on the cusp.

AMACOM Books Blog

Like Rosemary, I’m a fan of GoodReads, and I find it useful to keep track of books I’d like to read, or know what friends and family would like to read at gift time. (I’m particularly fond of the mobile app that lets me add books to my to-read list by zapping the ISBN with my phone when I’m in the library.)

The main reason I use Goodreads is to keep track of books I’ve already read, and a little bit about what I thought of them. For the most part, I remember books that I’ve read and enjoyed or disliked. Every so often, one will slip through the cracks. I’m pretty sure I’ve read The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd twice, once before I started using Goodreads, and once in 2010. It was a good book, both times, so I guess it doesn’t really…

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I can’t turn off my brain

August 5, 2016

I watch movies. I watch TV. I start deconstructing power dynamics. Who’s calling the shots? What personality qualities are assigned to different characters? Who’s in conflict, who’s in romance? And how are gender and race playing into any of these questions? I start thinking about looking in the library database for discussions of character development and symbolism. Ghostbusters, crime drama, Lifetime movies. Science fiction. It just keeps happening.

Storytime: In college, I took quite a few English classes. I read novels, I took Old English as the required language course, I took a bunch of creative writing classes. But I was definitely not an English major. At a certain point, the idea of picking apart things I was reading made me feel like it was violating either the words themselves, or my enjoyment of them. It did not sound like fun.

Billy Collins describes my misgivings perfectly in Introduction to Poetry

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
As an anthropology major, I took a wonderful class called “Anthropology Goes to the Movies,” taught by Professor Colleen Cohen. That was a game changer! I read, and learned about things like the camera’s gaze, how editing shapes a story, and the realization that documentaries are stories with an agenda, not necessarily a depiction of “truth.” Whatever truth is. I dabbled in video editing a bit, on a Mac system, and did a group project transforming a doc about rhinos into a sappy tearjerker short called “The Rhino King.” That was possibly the most fun I’ve ever had doing anything for school. And then, I graduated, and went about my business, watching things, reading things.
A couple of years ago, I noticed that it’s gotten difficult for me to watch anything  without a critical, sometimes really jaundiced eye.
  • Sitting down to watch the X-Files reboot, starting to feel jarred by the thought “wow, Mulder’s a damsel in distress, and Scully’s doing both the emotional labor and the science to save the day… what does she see in him and his drama, exactly?” (This came as a major blow to my adolescent crush.)
  • Unpacking the frankly frightening power dynamics between Rey and Kylo Ren in Star Wars, feeling that Kylo’s intimidation tactics were so creepy that it jarred me from getting lost in the movie.
  • Feeling frustrated with Rick Castle, Tony DiNozzo, and the other antic man-children positioned as romantic partners on crime dramas… characters launching madcap messy schemes, saying “I have to win her back,” in ways that feel more like disrespect and force rather than humor or romance.
  • Reading Regency romance novels because I enjoy the pageantry and descriptions of ballgowns, only to shiver and throw them aside because I see the same nasty dominance convince/force conquering mentality playing out as Romantic.
I’m not sure whether it was grad school or the Internet that opened up this perspective. Most of what I analyzed in library school was how people seek information and store and organize it… not how media and storytelling portray cultural attitudes. Was I influenced by blogs discussing how our faves can be problematic, inviting conversation about the ways lionized celebrities and media tropes can show the flawed and stereotypical assumptions we carry as acculturated beings?

I think these are good, important conversations to have about media, in the service of wanting to do better in creating representation of  diverse reality, and to give media portrayals and stories that reach out to all kinds of people and experiences. Watching and reading media shapes how people expect things and behave. Questioning it and laying open its shortcomings seems sensible.

Plus, it’s kind of fun. I wound up majoring in anthropology with a bent towards cultural studies. This is right in my sweet spot. It blows my mind in the most wonderful way to see the quality of writing and analysis that’s coming out of both academia and the blog/Tumblr sphere, asking critical questions, unpacking media tropes. Sometimes, it’s amazing and strange to believe that lines of thought that are so much fun to traverse can carry the weight of academia behind them. I feel like I’m getting away with something awesomely rambunctious, reading and taking part in the conversation. And I also respect the legitimate, insightful quality of the discussion. For example, my cousin Berna is hotshot documentarian and media studies scholar at Johns Hopkins, Bernadette Wegenstein. Married to cousin Billy, known to some as Professor William Egginton, also a hotshot academic and philosopher. (Seriously, the brainpower in that household is awe-inspiring.)

At some point, it might be worth thinking about for me to find a second Masters degree program, especially as I’ve grown more fond of being an academic librarian. Might be worth thinking about media studies. Note to self: less time binge-watching and snarking media on Tumblr, more time poking around odd corners of academic databases to see what scholars are saying about Ghostbusters and the X-Files and fanfiction.

Hodgepodge 7/29/16

July 29, 2016

I’d been calling these link roundups Odds and Ends. Have decided I like Hodgepodge better. Fun to type, fun to say. Here, have a hodgepodge.

International libraries give me wanderlust

Libraries in the Czech Republic

My parents just got back from a cruise around the Baltic Sea. Of course, they paid special attention to visiting libraries, bringing  back photos and tales for their librarian daughter.

The National Library of Finland, pictured below.

image of the interior of the National Library of Finland

National Library of Finland, by Dad

More from Dad’s blog:

In Oslo, they’re working on  a new version of the current Deichman Library. “Hailed by many as a deichmanske-bibliotek-01.jpglibrary of the future’, New Deichman will be much more than just a library. While seeking to be Norway’s most important arena for literature, the project also looks to become a center of knowledge for the capital’s citizens as well as a host of cultural experiences that are accessible to everyone.” It’s going to look like a spaceship that landed in the harbor. It’s supposed to open sometime this year.

And in Copenhagen, there’s the spectacular “Black Diamond” library that opened in 1999.It’s more than a library — there’s a 600-seat auditorium, the Queen’s Hall, used for concerts—mainly chamber music240px-SHL_-_Black_Diamond.jpg and jazz—literary events, theatrical performances and conferences. There are also exhibition spaces, a bookshop, a restaurant, a café and a roof terrace. Two museums are based in the Black Diamond, the National Museum of Photography and a small museum dedicated to cartoon art

Finally, in Stockholm, everyone got worked up six years ago about their new library. They announced an architectural competition that drew 1,170 entries, and a German architect Heike Hanada was declared the winner with her proposal Delphinium. Although Hanada was instructed to produce preliminary plans for the project’s realisation, the extension was put on hold in late 2009. Maybe they’ll restart it in time for our grand library-and-opera house tour in a couple years.

I have talented friends

Chasing Waldorf’s history as it becomes history itself A New York Times profile of Deidre Dinnigan, the archivist for the Waldorf Astoria, and a classmate of mine from Pratt, doing a great job working with a fascinating collection. How cool is this? Go Deidre!

Fencing photos taken by Russ Voss  at Stab in the Dark, an outdoor fencing event in the Hudson Valley. I love all of these, and it was hard to pick a favorite. Check this one out, though.

photo of two fencers against a stormy sky

Photo by Russ Voss

Various nifty things

Friday Reads in the Digital Library from JSTOR Weekly  themed book roundup, annotated with interesting articles. Great way to talk about, and publicize books lists. (Good outreach idea for an academic library, too.) I have a huge crush on JSTORDaily, the blog JSTOR runs to highlight the articles and oddities in its collection, and this just reinforces it. Love!

Savage Chickens delights me.


Book Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

July 27, 2016

yv5p40fg5thomw8usqncThe Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
Becky Chambers
Harper Voyager
(library book)

I loved this book. Absolutely, gleefully, loved the ensemble alien cast of characters, being drawn into the space world, loved reveling in the emotional feel of how the characters worked together, and the way the story played out. I want more science fiction like this, where so much of what drives the story forward is navigating interpersonal relationships.

Can you say “interpersonal?” when the crew includes a saurian-bird-looking pilot named Sissix, a multi-pedal being named Dr. Chef (because his true name would take multiple throats to say, and  work on the ship is to both feed and minister to the crew) and where even the default-recognizable humans are as alien to a reader as the visually alien? Each of the crew members (including the AI: the plot with the ship’s AI is magnificent) has a perspective colored by the life that came before the story, and shown in little interactions, the domestic and logistical life of the ship, of bringing new crew on board, dealing with taking on a  huge job, space pirates (yes there are space pirates), supply runs, downtime.

The best part was the way the story combined the warmth, the heart of crew-as-found-family with some riveting read-past-my-bedtime fascinating action. There are some great spaceships and compellingly weird alien customs going on, even/especially among the focal ensemble of the crew of the spaceship, the Wayfarer, as most of the story centered around the ship and its journey. Newcomer Rosemary learning her way into the ship’s routines makes a good viewpoint to get to know the rest of the crew and their quirks, both individual and cultural.

There were a few moments that held a mirror to questions our own, present society deals with. It was satisfying to see them play out with the novel’s characters. They were handled with grace, and with the story’s central warmth, without being didactic. I appreciated the guiding ethos of the story. A lot. Interactions may be messy, but they’re doing their best.

I feel like calling it “escapist,” or “feel-good” does a disservice to the world created aboard, and around the Wayfarer. But I really enjoyed being swept into the story. I smiled and laughed so much reading this book. And that, I think, is the best part about it. The action took time out for domestic, relationship-building scenes, for moments of tenderness. Those moments provided pacing relief from tension and panic, both the characters’ and, honestly, my own. I felt really happy reading this book, and I’m still smiling. If I hadn’t already chucked my no-buying-books resolution, this would have been the book that did it. It’s a library book… so I might just be placing an order for a copy.

I would like more, much more, of this kind of character-driven, warm and exploratory science fiction.

Got any recommendations?

Buying Books

July 26, 2016

I made it almost to the end of July before breaking my New Year’s resolution not to buy books.

And I did not so much fall off my resolution as swan dive off it, in spectacular style.


I have bought a set of books, to be exact. A complete set of Jodi Taylor’s Bells of St. Mary’s wonderful, zany, suspenseful time travel series. A series I first encountered in the first months of the year, when Just One Damned Thing After Another was offered on Edelweiss. And I zoomed through reading it, and then was desperate for the second book, which was, mercifully also offered on Edelweiss. Got the third from the library.

So far, so good. Resolution firmly in place.

Realized a few things: One, was that I couldn’t find the fourth book in any library (and I have five separate library cards, so that’s saying something.) And also, that I wanted to spend money to show support and encouragement to both the writer and the publisher, to vote with my dollars, for more Saint Mary’s books. To tell the publisher and agents and others behind the scenes that, yes, I want more madcap and perilous but good-natured takes on history and time travel. Also, dinosaurs and Romans and screwball comedy and snark. And giggling on the subway and staying up late binge-reading. I want more of this, from Jodi Taylor, and from the publishing industry in general.

Also, I want to be able to loan out copies of the first volume, to get friends to read it. And then, ideally, go buy their own copies of it, and the rest of the series.

My main complaint about e-books is that it’s not very easy to share them. There are many advantages to the format, of course: portability, ease of accessing review copies and library books, and having library books zap away to be returned on time… Lending books on Kindle can be done, it appears, but only of books bought through the Kindle platform? Meh.

Secondary complaint: curling up in bed with a book is much nicer, much cozier, with an actual book. Even allowing for a paperwhite, not gorilla glass shiny screen.

This morning, I willfully chucked my resolution,  with a monster book order of the entire St. Mary’s series. Had I been truly thinking through all of the implications of voting with my dollars, encouraging the book economy, I would have placed the order by calling the world’s greatest bookstore, Burton’s Bookstore. Bit ticked at myself for that one.

Amended resolution: no buying books, except through Burton’s.

As I wait eagerly for the fruits of my broken resolution to arrive, a few thoughts on lessons learned.

I did a decent job of relying on my various libraries to get books that looked interesting. Even if, in more than a few cases, that’s turned into buying the books, after the fact. Being able to satisfy bookish curiosity with a test-drive is one of the reasons to love libraries.

I fudged my resolution a few times: I placed a decent-sized pre-order of books on December 30th, anticipating some of the books that were likely to break my resolution. (Sheepish admission: I’ve only read 2 of the 6 I ordered, since then.)

I bought four books that I needed for a project of personal study. They’re textbooks, I told myself.

I convinced myself and my friend Josiah that buying books for each other wouldn’t count as breaking my resolution. (Haven’t read that book, either, but he’s read the book I bought him.)

Bought a whole bunch of music on iTunes, and also, a few CD’s. “I’m not buying books, after all,” I reassured myself, as I bought more music than I have in the past 5 years. Related news: my music collection could use an update, so if you have any recommendations in a blues/rock/folk-rock vein, or other tuneful recs you think I’d like, let me know.

enhanced-27976-1405966713-29The intent of my resolution was to read down the stash of books that I own, as well as those that have been lingering about in my Kindle queue. I can claim only marginal success on this one.

New books, or the promise of acquiring new books, is a big thing for me. I think browsing new books from the library and from book reviewer sites, as well as books that come from lovely generous publicists, was the only thing that allowed me to last as long as I did before chucking my resolution. Sometimes, I think I like browsing, acquiring and novelty even more than owning or reading books. It’s the thrill of the chase. And book-dragon tendencies.

I got books for birthday presents, both requested and books I didn’t know I needed. Thank you, parents!A58DE9FC-931C-4526-9F7C-C93466401598

While I didn’t make much progress reading books that have been sitting on my shelf for a while, I did reread some old favorites like Billy Boyle, and I read what feels like a ton of library books and review books. There’s just something about the novelty of books I don’t own yet, or new books. The bookshelf is always…greener?

Or something.

Lessons learned and resolution tweaks to take me through the rest of the year:

Going forward, I am only buying books from Burton’s. And other independent, local bookstores. (Does the Strand count? I think it does.) For me, and for others.

I feel like the moratorium on buying books might help me do a better job of buying them more intentionally, when I do. Written by and sold by people I really like. Will see how that plays out.

Novelty and reading whims play a giant role in my reading enjoyment, and always have. Even to the point of making me hate a book on the first try, and zoom through it later. This can be detrimental to my ability to review books in a timely fashion, and to any effort to try to read down my TBR pile.

I possibly need to face the fact that I will never catch up with my TBR pile, or the unread books I’ve got all over my bookshelves.

This is not the worst problem to have.



Review Roundup 7/22/16

July 22, 2016

Nothing in particular binds these reviews together, other than the fact that I’ve read the books fairly recently, and had some thoughts about them that weren’t long enough for bigger posts.

9781501124372_d1d3dEveryone Brave is Forgiven
Chris Cleave
Simon & Schuster
e-galley from Edelweiss

Devastating. Impressive, in that it didn’t put a valiant sheen on war by turning it into an adventure. Ensemble, alternating perspective, weaving from Tom and Mary living in London and bearing the destruction of bombs and the Blitz… and Alastair, joining up and heading to the front. Alternating between their stories and perspectives makes the emotional pacing work really well, even though they’re living completely different (and heartbreaking) experiences.
Impressive, in that I’ve never seen a WWII novel openly deal with racism this way.
Lovely turns of phrase kept weaving through brutal, violent passages. Marking a long night of bombs overhead, with a piano in a jazz club. A jar of blackberry jam, luminous on a barracks windowsill. I kept underlining bits of sentences, or brief images, both the lovely happy ones, and the startling, harrowing images of war. It took me ages to read this, because I kept putting it down, just before I decided I wanted to cry. Possibly pair this with The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson, for similar lovely prose surrounding wartime heartbreak.

9780062467256_ade66The Bookshop on the Corner 
Jenny Colgan
William Morrow Paperbacks
e-galley from Edelweiss
This is possibly the sweet, reassuring book you need right after reading the above. The start of this book hit a little bit close to home for an early-career librarian, I have to say. Nora’s job at her beloved library comes under threat when the library is redesigned as a digital, interactive, space, with new management that is looking for cutting edge corporate technology, rather than the skills of a readers’ advisory librarian. On the plus side, it’s set in Scotland, and it’s a romance for a librarian, so it’s wish-fulfilliment for me. Nora gathers up her courage, leaves everything familiar behind and moves to rural Scotland, where she purchases a giant van to turn into a mobile bookshop. The tiny Scottish village where she lands is almost too precious, with an idyllic setting and gruff eccentrics slow to welcome Nora. I was just as jealous of the sensuous descriptions of farm-fresh eggs and cream and food, as I was of the bookshop life and the romance. Not too many surprises (Am I too cynical to read romance novels?) it’s a romance, after all. But it’s a good, happy read. I liked the characters. My only complaint is that I wish there was an annotated bibliography at the end, so that I can go read all the books that were described just as tantalizingly as the food. Some of the titles Nora mentioned and sold real books I recognized, but I’m pretty sure others were invented for the sake of the story… and I want that confirmed, or I want to find the books being referenced. Especially that one children’s book!

26202447A Shameful Murder
Cora Harrison
Severn House
(library book)

Lucked into this as a book recommendation on Goodreads, and found a copy at the library. Set in the dark, foggy streets of Cork, Ireland in 1923, this wonderfully atmospheric mystery forces Reverend Mother Aquinas to confront murder and dark secrets when the body of a murdered debutante floats up from the canal, almost onto the convent’s doorstep. The Reverend Mother sends for Police Sergeant Peter Cashman, one of her former pupils, now a member of the police force. A member of the clergy solving mysteries? Yes please! (It was possibly my Grantchester binge that tipped off the Goodreads recommendation algorithm). I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the story through Mother Aquinas. Although living in the convent, she’s not completely cloistered from the realities of the world. Interestingly, there are intimations of her own origins, born into a high society life she left to take vows.  She’s observant, curious, resourceful. The dynamic between the Reverend Mother and the Police Inspector was a delight. They had to transition from past pupil and teacher, to sort of collaborating to solve the crime, in a way that stayed respectful of her vows, his work, their past as student and teacher. The whole mystery is fascinatingly steered by the social strictures of Cork of that time: religion and class and family relationships govern how secrets are kept, who can learn what information, and even how the mystery can be solved. This has the feel of a great series, and turned the last few pages hoping there were at least 6 more books to launch me into a binge read.


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