Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Fiction Review: Little Bee

I finished Little Bee by Chris Cleave on an airplane on our way back from our California vacation earlier this summer.  It was the perfect book for a long day spent in airports and airplanes: a unique and engrossing story, populated by characters who felt real.  It’s one of those novels with female characters so well drawn that it’s hard to believe it was written by a man (no offense, guys).

It is the story of two women: Little Bee, a young woman from Nigeria, escaping the terrifying things happening in her home country by trying to immigrate to the United Kingdom, and Sarah, a working mother with a young son in the UK who has just lost her husband.  Little Bee and Sarah first met two years ago, under horrific circumstances and are now about to meet again, in a way that will change both their lives forever.

This novel has all the elements I love in a good piece of fiction: believable characters you come to care about, a plot with plenty of unexpected twists and turns, suspense, and even humor.  Despite its serious subject matter (i.e. life-changing moments), the author weaves in a wonderful sense of humor.  The passages about the mom’s young Batman-obsessed son had me laughing out loud and reading paragraphs aloud to my own sons.

The back cover of the paperback – and all of the publicity surrounding the book’s release – made a big deal about keeping the plot a secret, with admonitions not to tell anyone what happens after you read it.  This was taken to such an extreme, though, that it built up the expectation that there was some huge surprise in the book.  That approach seemed to backfire, since I read many reviews when it first came out from people who were disappointed that the “surprise” wasn’t bigger than it is.  Still, I heard enough good things about it to intrigue me.

In my view, the plot has as many secrets and surprises as any other good work of fiction with an element of suspense, and you should never spoil it for people who haven’t read it yet (you’ll never read spoilers in my reviews!).  So, yes, expect some surprises – even some that are a bit shocking – but don’t let that expectation overrun your enjoyment of the other elements of this well-written novel.  This would also be a great book for book groups to discuss.  As for me, I enjoyed this novel very much and am looking forward to reading other Chris Cleave books.

266 pages,  Simon & Schuster


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Top Ten Books on My TBR List for Fall

It's Tuesday, and that means Top Ten day over at The Broke and the Bookish.  Head on over and check out all the blogs who posted lists today!

Today's topic is Top Ten Books on My TBR List for Fall.  I noticed some blogs mainly listed books that will be released this fall that they want to read.  I'm never that organized or caught up, so I went to my rather extensive TBR (to be read) bookcase.  Yes, they almost fill up a whole bookcase now!  And some have been there for a very long time, as you will see.  These are the ones I most want to read next, though I'm sure I won't get to all of them this fall, allowing time for book group reads as well.  (I stuck to just grown-up books here, but you can also read my Top Ten Kid/Teen Books on My TBR List over at Great Books for Kids and Teens.)
  • The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley - I've wanted to read this for years and picked it up at Borders' clearance sale recently.
  • Smokin' Seventeen by Janet Evanovich - a birthday gift - after all these long books this summer, I'm looking forward to a little fluffy fun!
  • Peony in Love by Lisa See - my mother lent it to me years ago, but I've been hearing a lot about See's latest release and thought I should see what all the fuss is about.
  • The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber - my husband says it was very good and has just finished another Gruber book - I need to catch up!
  • Another Thing to Fall by Laura Lippman - another Borders find that I got for my husband.
  • Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen - an intriguing memoir I can't wait to get to - maybe I can convince my book group to choose this one.
  • The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz - another Borders clearance item - I've heard good things about this for years.
  • Midwives by Chris Bohjalian - borrowed from my neighbor years ago - I really need to read it and return it!
  • Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver - another that's been on my shelf for ages - all my friends say it's great.
  • The Lost Girls by Jennifer Baggett, Holly C. Corbett, and Amanda Pressner - a memoir about travel and friendship?  I must read it!
So, that's just a small sample from my over-full shelves.  What books do you want to read this fall?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

It's Monday 8/29! What Are You Reading?

I'm posting this a bit early this week because on Monday morning, we'll be at the hospital waiting while my 17-year old son gets all 4 wisdom teeth removed.  Fun stuff, eh?  That will cap off several extremely busy weeks.  Having the hurricane come through this weekend has been the most relaxing part of the week (and we had three extra teen boys sleeping over for the storm!).

Amidst all this craziness, reading gives us a chance for a bit of downtime here and there:
  • I finished the middle-grade novel Alibi Junior High by Greg Logsted and really enjoyed the unique story about a boy raised by his CIA dad all over the world who has to attend public school for the first time.  Watch for a review this week.
  • I have now embarked on one last Big Book challenge for the summer.  I started Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth.  I am a Follett fan from way back and have wanted to read this book for a long time.  I am 120 pages into this 974 page paperweight and expect to build some muscles while carrying it around for the next few weeks!  It's very good so far - already gripping.
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber and enjoying it.
  • Jamie, 17, actually read both of his required summer reading books in one week, proving once again that procrastination pays off!  He read The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, which he said was OK but not as good as the fantasy novels he wanted to be reading!  
  • He also read The Metamorphosis by Kafka, which he said was strange and pointless.  I asked whether he didn't think there might be some symbolism and hidden meaning in the brief story, since most of the book was taken up by notes and analysis (which he didn't read)....nope, just a strange story.
  • He also re-read book 3 in the Fablehaven series, Grip of the Shadow Plague, and is now reading the fourth book, which he got for his birthday, Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary.  He loves this series and is enjoying it much more than Kafka!
With something going on outside of the house every single day last week, I didn't have any time for writing reviews, but I hope to get back on track this week when school starts up.  My writing time will expand exponentially!

What are you and your family reading this week?

(What are you reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

It's Monday 8/22! What Are You Reading?

Whew, another insanely busy week before school starts!  Our schedule has been unbelievable, with all sorts of medical appointments, physical therapy (pre-soccer season), college visits, and other assorted obligations in these last weeks of summer.  I definitely won't have much time for blogging this week!

We have been managing to squeeze in some reading, though:
  • At bedtime last night, I finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  It was a fascinating story, told in a way that read like fiction and made me care about the people in it.  I can't wait to discuss it with my book group next month.
  • I have now started Alibi Junior High by Greg Logsted, a middle-grade spy thriller I've been wanting to read for a while now.  I chose it out of my towering TBR piles because it is the shortest book!  I am anxious to get to a really long book for a September book group but wanted to first squeeze in a quick kids/teen book.
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber.
  • Jamie, 17, got Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary, book 4 in the Fablehaven series for his birthday last week.  As he often does, he decided to re-read the first 3 books in the series first, so this week he read books 1 and 2, Fablehaven and Rise of the Evening Star.
  • This morning, Jamie finally succumbed to a month of nagging (from me!) and started to read his required summer reading for school (with one week left to go!).  He's started The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa.  Despite the odd title, it actually sounds pretty interesting - about a math professor who suffered a brain injury and can now only remember the past 80 minutes.  Of course, Jamie would rather be reading the rest of the Fablehaven series!
Last week, I posted two new reviews: The Passage by Justin Cronin here and The Search for Wondla by Tony Diterlizzi, a middle-grade book on Great Books for Kids and Teens.

What are you and your family reading this week?

(What are you reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey).

Friday, August 19, 2011

Fiction Review: The Passage

After hearing wonderful praise for over a year, I finally found the time to read The Passage, a hefty tome by Justin Cronin that lived up to its buzz.

The Passage is an epic story, covering more than 100 years and several generations.  It is post-apocalyptic, sci fi, thriller, and literary fiction about people and their relationships, all rolled into one.  It reminded me in some ways of Stephen King’s The Stand, a distinguished comparison I don’t make lightly.  King himself wrote a complimentary blurb on the back cover, so you know Cronin is a talented storyteller.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot because this is a book with surprises and twists around every corner.  Essentially, The Passage is about some secret government research gone wrong, involving a horrific virus that transforms its victims into something deadly and grotesque.  The government was trying to tame the virus a bit, to create a group of super-soldiers, but their first test subjects escape and the virus is released onto the unsuspecting public.

The story is told from varying points of view, starting with the scientist who discovered the virus, a grieving FBI agent named Brad Wolgast, and an abandoned little girl named Amy.  As I said, though, it is an epic, covering multiple generations and telling the story both before and after the apocalypse.

I have often heard The Passage described as a vampire book, but I think that is very misleading.  I’m not much of a fan of vampire fiction generally (and have never even read Twilight).  Although the “v” word is used once or twice in the book, the creatures created from the virus bear little resemblance to traditional vampires, other than their blood lust.  There is no brooding moodiness here nor Hollywood-style romance.  Rather, Cronin writes about real people dealing with some terrifying problems, with in-depth insight into what makes them tick.

Despite its almost-800 pages read over a 3-week period, The Passage easily kept my interest.  In fact, I found myself flipping back to earlier pages, looking for clues and foreshadowing of what was to come, reminding myself of details of each character’s history.  It is an original and compelling story.  I came to care about the characters and what happened to them.  I was pleased at the end when things were seeming to wrap up for them, with perhaps a happy ending…until the very last lines of the book when it became obvious there will be a sequel.  I guess that’s OK, too because it means I can read more of Cronin’s wonderfully engaging writing.

759 pages, Ballantine Books


Monday, August 15, 2011

It's Monday 8/15! What Are You Reading?

Wow, what a weekend!  We got together with my extended family - 14 of us! - in the Poconos for a weekend of swimming, kayaking, horseback riding, and lots of eating!  We laughed so hard Saturday night that my stomach muscles hurt.  Lots of fun, though not much time for quiet reading, as you can imagine.

Here's what we're reading this week:
  • I finally finished The Passage by Justin Cronin and absolutely loved it, except for the very last sentence!  Though it seemed to be wrapping up nicely up until that last sentence, there is definitely a sequel coming, and he left me hanging.  It was excellent - highly recommended for fans of suspense, thrillers, paranormal, and post-apocalyptic plots.  Something for everyone.
  • Next, I finished up The Search for Wondla by Tony Diterlizzi (co-author of The Spiderwick Chronicles), a middle-grade sci-fi novel.  We started the audio on vacation, but no one wanted to finish it because of the narrator.  So, I finished reading the paper novel and really enjoyed it.
  • Now I am reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  I've been dying to read this after hearing so many wonderful things about it.  It's my neighborhood book group's pick for September, so I thought I'd get a head start and skip the last-minute panic!  It's fascinating so far.
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber and enjoying it.
  • Jamie, 17 tomorrow!, finished reading Across the Great Barrier by Patricia Wrede and tells me I have to read this series!
  • Next, Jamie read Num8ers and The Chaos by Rachel Ward, teen thrillers which I recommended to him.  He said they weren't his normal kind of book, but he enjoyed both and is looking forward to book 3.
Last week, I posted two new reviews: The Condition by Jennifer Haigh here and Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly at Great Books for Kids and Teens.  I also posted lists of Top Ten Underrated Books and Top Ten Underrated Books for Kids and Teens.

What are you and your family reading this week?

(What are you reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Fiction Review: The Condition

I am a big fan of Jennifer Haigh’s novels.  I enjoyed Mrs. Kimble and loved Baker Towers so much that I read it twice and convinced my book group to read it, too (they all loved it, too).  So I was thrilled when my neighbor lent me The Condition, another novel by Haigh that takes an in-depth look into the intricacies of family relationships.

The McKotch family are classic New Englanders: living in a stately colonial in Massachusetts, returning every summer to their house in Cape Cod, and accustomed to keeping their emotions inside and their family problems secret.  When their daughter, Gwen, is diagnosed with a rare genetic condition called Turner’s Syndrome that keeps her body childlike, it is the beginning of the end.  Not long after, patriarch Frank gets divorced from his wife Paulette, and the years pass.  Their oldest son, Billy, becomes a successful surgeon.  Their youngest son, Scott, wastes his expensive boarding school education and drifts into both a job and a marriage he regrets, while Gwen tries to get on with her adult life in spite of the stifling overprotection of her mother.

But all of them have secrets – secrets from each other, secrets from the people around them, and even secrets they don’t want to admit to themselves.  The novel explores these disparate lives and family ties.  This is Jennifer Haigh’s genius: portraying and dissecting family relationships, showing how we can push away the people closest to us but we can never escape those bonds.  As you read the novel, you understand that “the condition” refers not only to Gwen’s medical problems but that every character has some sort of condition or challenge that they are struggling with, just as in real life.

I really enjoyed this novel, as did almost everyone in my book group.  It was compelling and well written, with in-depth characters I came to care about (even though I sometimes wanted to shake them).  I can’t wait to read Haigh’s latest release, Faith.

390 pages, Harper Perennial


Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Top Ten Underrated Books

It's Top Ten Tuesday over at The Broke and the Bookish!  Today's topic is underrated books.  This took some thought.  I tried to focus on books that I loved that I didn't hear much buzz about - the kind of books I want to tell everyone about!  If you are interested in my list of underrated books for kids and teens, check out Great Books for Kids and Teens.

Here is my list of Top Ten Underrated Books:

  1. Replay by Ken Grimwood – this book appears on many of my top ten lists because it is one of my favorite books, though its official designation as sci-fi tends to make people draw incorrect conclusions and skip over it.  Too bad - it's thought-provoking and compelling.
  2. All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit in India by Rachel Manija Brown – a memoir about a young girl’s experiences when her parents move the family to an ashram in India.
  3. 12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time: A Semi-Dysfunctional Family Circumnavigates the Globe by Mark Jacobson – another one of my favorite memoirs, about both travel and family.
  4. One Mississippi by Mark Childress – I often hear about his other novels, especially Crazy in Alabama (also wonderful) but rarely hear anyone mention this one which my husband and I (and all the friends and family I lent it to) loved .
  5. China Run by David Ball – now out of print (though available used) but my entire book group loved it, and I’d never heard of the author (before or since).
  6. Too Close to the Falls by Catherine Glidner – another fabulous memoir, about growing up in the 50’s near Niagara Falls – everyone in my book group loved it.
  7. Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh – read it twice and recommended it to my book group.
  8. The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder by Rebecca  Wells – everyone raves about her Ya-Ya books (which I liked, too), but Calla Lily didn’t garner much attention – my mother and I both loved the audio.  I laughed, I cried…
  9. Life on the Refrigerator Door by Alice Kuipers – didn’t hear much about this unique, tear-jerker novel told entirely in notes left between a mother and daughter. 
  10. Building a Home with My Husband by Rachel Simon – this second memoir didn’t attract nearly as much attention as her first, Riding the Bus with My Sister, but was just as well-written and thoughtful.
How about you?  What are your favorite underrated books?

Monday, August 08, 2011

It's Monday 8/8! What Are You Reading?

Happy Monday morning!  I always look forward to hearing what everyone is reading each week.  It makes Monday a day to look forward to!

We spent the weekend doing much-needed yard work, shopping for my son's birthday, and relaxing with some movies and TV shows (we enjoy catching up on TV shows on DVD during the summer, like Bones, The Mentalist, and Glee).  Our boys both had sleep-overs.  So, busy, busy!

Here's what we've been reading this week:
  • Yes, I am STILL reading The Passage by Justin Cronin!  I only have about 50 pages to go.  It is a big book that has taken me three weeks to read, but it has been well worth it - an excellent, well-written novel with a unique plot and in-depth characters.
  • My husband, Ken, finished his Jeffrey Deaver novel, The Burning Wire, and is now reading Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber which he picked up at Borders' clearance sale last week.  He enjoyed Gruber's other novel, The Book of Air and Shadows, which I got him for Christmas one year.
  • I forgot to mention last week that he and I started a new audio book when we went to pick up our kids from their grandparents' house.  We're listening to Dying for Mercy, a mystery by Mary Jane Clark.  It's good so far - we listened to a bit more while birthday shopping yesterday - though it's hard to say when we'll next have time alone in the car.  This could be another 6-month long audio!
  • Jamie, 16, is reading Across the Great Barrier by Patricia Wrede and loving it.  This is the second book in the Frontier Magic series that started with The Thirteenth Child.  Jamie says it is a great series.
I posted two new reviews last week.  Here at Book By Book, I reviewed the audio book The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee, a funny and outrageous memoir by comedienne Sarah Silverman.   At Great Books for Kids and Teens, I posted a review of Amy & Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson, a teen road trip novel that I absolutely loved.  And I posted a summary of what I read in July.

What are you and your family reading this week?

(What are you reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.)

Friday, August 05, 2011

Memoir Review: The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee

My husband and I just finished listening to an audio of the memoir The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee by Sarah Silverman.  Neither of us had ever heard of Silverman before, other than reading the audio box and finding out that she’s a comedienne, so we had no idea what to expect.

This is not a memoir for the faint of heart!  As we discovered, Sarah Silverman is crass, gross, shocking, potty-mouthed…and often absolutely hilarious.  Though she sometimes crosses the line into such bad taste that you feel uncomfortable listening, she also has moments that are surprisingly warm.

As expected, her memoir is the story of her life, beginning in her childhood in New Hampshire.  As one of very few (maybe the only?) Jewish families in her small, rural hometown, Silverman tells of her childhood.  I think we liked this whole childhood section best in the entire memoir.  Silverman is very honest and open throughout the book, including when she describes her bedwetting problems as a child and pre-adolescent.  This is one of the places in the book where her story is yes, very funny, but also very tender.  Anyone who’s been a child can relate to her feelings of embarrassment (it may not have been bedwetting, but we were all humiliated by one thing or another as children and teens!) and of trying to fit in.

The rest of the memoir deals with her rise to fame.  Even though we hadn’t heard of her before this, it was fascinating to hear the inside view of the world of stand-up comics and what happens behind the scenes at Saturday Night Live.   As is usually the case with a memoir, listening to the author read her own story added an extra element to the book.  Overall, we enjoyed most of the memoir, though we certainly couldn’t listen to it when the kids were in the car!

Harper Audio


Thursday, August 04, 2011

Books Read In July

Well, this is going to look like a pretty pathetic monthly summary!  We returned from vacation on July 2, and shortly after that, I decided to tackle some Big Books this summer, so my list of books completed in July is quite meager:
And...yeah, that's it!  Just two kid/teen books completed this month (though one was 800 pages long) and one audio book that we started over a year ago!  It's not as bad as it looks, though, since I am also almost finished with The Passage by Justin Cronin (which has almost 800 densely-written pages).  I am also in the process of listening to three different audio books - I just don't have much free time during the summer to listen.  Hey, at least I reviewed two of the three books I finished this month (though I am still trying to catch up on June).

As for a favorite, well, I have to pick Harry Potter, of course!

Where Are You Reading? Summary:   My map didn't change much this month, since the locations of  two books, CT and the UK, were already accounted for.  I did add New Hampshire for Sarah Silverman's memoir since that is where she grew up.  So, my count for the year stands at 10 different states and 5 different countries (outside the U.S.).

How about you?  What was your favorite book read in July?

Monday, August 01, 2011

It's Monday 8/1! What Are You Reading?

August 1st already!  July seemed to go by quickly.  I had a very unusual week - my kids were gone all week, and my husband was gone half of the week, so I enjoyed some quiet solitude, a rarity around here in the summer!  I had planned to catch up on all the things I'm behind in and spend lots of time reading, but that never quite works out as I'd planned.  Instead, I watched a bunch of girl-centric movies in the evenings and spent a lot of time with a friend going through a difficult time.  So, not quite the productive week I'd foreseen but rewarding just the same.  The kids had a blast on their grandparents' sailboat, enjoying Block Island, R.I.

And here's what we all read last week:
  • I am still reading The Passage by Justin Cronin.  I am finally about halfway through this hefty book!  It is really, really good - original, suspenseful, and compelling.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading The Burning Wire by Jeffrey Deaver, one of his favorite thriller writers.  He had fun yesterday browsing though Borders' clearance sale and spending his last Borders gift card, but my son said the YA section was almost empty!
  • Jamie, 16, loves to read books set on the water when he's on his grandparents' boat, so he started the week with Rip Tide by Kat Falls, sequel to Dark Life (which he loved) about a civilization deep under the ocean.
  • Next, he re-read Pirate Curse, book one in The Wave Walkers series by Kai Meyer - he just has to read at least one pirate book when he's sailing!  He said it was pretty good but not great.  I don't think he's ever read the rest of the series.
  • Then he left the water theme behind to read The Lost World by Michael Crichton, sequel to Jurassic Park which he read and loved a few weeks ago.  He loved the sequel, too!
  • Now he is re-reading The Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede in preparation for reading its sequel in the Frontier Magic series, Across the Great Barrier, which was recently released.  Jamie says this is a great series - I really need to find time to read it.
I did manage to write some reviews last week, including The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon, a wonderfully original love story, set against the backdrop of a mental institution in the 1960's.  I also posted a review at Great Books for Kids and Teens of D.J. MacHale's Morpheus Road: The Black, a fast-paced ghost story for teens.

In addition, I posted lists of Top Ten Books That Tackle Tough Issues, both here and on Great Books for Kids and Teens (two different lists).  Finally, I posted an update on Borders' closing and my shopping expedition to their clearance sale and a sneak peek at the actors playing Gale and Peeta in The Hunger Games movie.

What are you and your family reading this week?

(What are you reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.)