Tuesday, March 3, 2015

SOS! Dead Wake by Erik Larson


Title: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
Author: Erik Larson
Publisher: Crown
Publication Date: March 10, 2015
Source: ARC borrowed from Jen at The Relentless Reader

Summary from Goodreads

On May 1, 1915, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were anxious. Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone, and for months, its U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era's great transatlantic "Greyhounds" and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack. He knew, moreover, that his ship--the fastest then in service--could outrun any threat. 

Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger's U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small--hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more--all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.


My Review:

I have a serious question, readers.

Why did I know everything about the sinking of the Titanic (at least, everything as dictated by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet), but nearly nothing about the Lusitania until I read this GEM of a book?  Because I'm always first to admit that my knowledge of history is lacking, but really.  Hollywood has focused on the wrong subject here.

I have been striking it RICH with nonfiction lately, people!  And this might be the best one of late.  A few years ago, I read Larson's In the Garden of Beasts, and was impressed with his style of narrative nonfiction.  What that literary jargon means is that his nonfiction books read with the suspense and vivacity of a fiction novel.  All of his works are historically accurate (painstakingly so), but he formats them in a way that makes you feel like you're right in the moment with these historical figures, part of their conversations and triumphs and tragedies.

That absolutely holds true for Dead Wake as well.  I was on the edge of my seat while reading this book.  Larson outlines the entire week leading up to the Lusitania's sinking (oh yeah, spoiler alert: it gets sunk. By a German submarine), and even though you totally know what's coming, you'll find yourself praying that the darn thing stays afloat.  Because you KNOW these passengers.  Larson brings you up close and personal with the captain, the crew, the men, women, and (way too many) children on board, even the stowaways.  Plus, you get perspectives from the US (as President Wilson deals with some personal romantic issues while all this drama unfolds), the UK (as the British had far  more foreknowledge of this attack than you may think), and the German U-boat that actually perpetrated said sinking.  This gives you a clear illustration of the complex political forces at work during the attack as well.

In the end, you're left with a detailed, absorbing, and highly emotional account of one of the most devastating and politically-charged passenger boat disasters in history.

I can't say enough good things here.  Five stars all the way on this one.  Whether you're previously familiar with the Lusitania disaster or not, this is a nonfiction release that is not to be missed.

Ever been on a cruise, reader friends?  Did you pay attention during the lifeboat drills?  I bet you will after reading this.  Also: swimming lessons.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The To-Be-Read Tag

I have seen this fun little questionnaire pop up on a lot of blogs lately, and while I haven't been tagged specifically, many bloggers have just said that they invite anyone reading it to play along.  I will take that as my invitation to participate!  :)

1. How do you keep track of your TBR pile?

I suppose my only "official" TBR pile is the one I keep on Goodreads.  However, it is OUT OF CONTROL and doesn't even include everything I want to read, because I kind of gave up on it long ago.  I suppose my true TBR pile is rather infinite. 

2. Is your TBR mostly print or eBook?

I'd say mostly print.  But I have a boatload of eBooks on my Kindle waiting to be read...so many, in fact, that I've forgotten which ones I own already (oops).
 
3. How do you determine which book from your TBR to read next?

Changes by the day!  Sometimes I want a classic, sometimes I want a backlist title from a favorite author, sometimes I want to pick from the TBR Book Baggie, sometimes I want an ARC...the list goes on.
 
4. A book that’s been on your TBR list the longest?

If you go by my Goodreads list, The World According to Garp by John Irving has been there the longest.  I've owned a paperback copy from my mom for ages, and have yet to make time for it.

5. A book you recently added to your TBR?

One of the most recently added to my Goodreads list is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  I am excited to get that one soon.

6. A book on your TBR strictly because of it’s beautiful cover.

I don't really look at covers much, to be honest!  I wouldn't say it's beautiful, per se, but I enjoy the eye-catching cover of Mira Grant's Symbiont (book 2 in the Parasitology series)...it's on my TBR list, even though I've heard this sequel is hugely disappointing.

7. A book on your TBR that you never plan on reading.

Probably World Without End by Ken Follett.  It's the sequel to The Pillars of the Earth, which I didn't even particularly like...why is this on my list, then??

8. An unpublished book on your TBR that you’re excited for.

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer.  It comes out this April.  I would read Krakauer's grocery list, if he'd let me have the privilege.
 
9. A book on your TBR that basically everyone has read but you.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.  I get continually reminded by MANY people that I should have read it by now!
 
10. A book on your TBR that everyone recommends to you.

See above answer! 

11. A book on your TBR that you’re dying to read.

I can only pick one?  How about Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. 

12. How many books are on your Goodreads TBR shelf?

1078.  I told you it was out of control.

Feel free to jump into this little questionnaire, if you haven't already!  Tell me about your TBR pile, friends!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sunday Salon #2: A Well-Read (Different Shade of) Redhead

Hope everyone is having a good weekend!  Let's talk about...

Winter.
Here in Rochester, we continue to endure this winter.  There is no enjoying at this point, not when it's -26 degrees outside and when you walk to the mailbox the inner walls of your nostrils freeze together so that you are forced to breathe through your mouth (true thing that happened).  Just enduring.

However, we are having a bit of a heat wave (highs in the 20s yesterday and today!), so I celebrated by going for my first outdoor run in about 2 weeks.  The roads were completely unplowed, and I was trudging through snow drifts with every step, BUT GODDAMN IT I WAS OUTSIDE.  It was glorious.

Hair.
Anyway, in order to spice up this winter, I did an exciting thing on Friday (at least, for me).  I've never colored my hair before--nope, this redhead was au naturel.  However, The Grays started to invade a few years ago (kids will do that), and I finally took drastic measures to do away with them.  Thus, we now have the new-and-improved Well-Read Redhead:
Awkward closeup selfie because it's the only one I did that didn't seem completely awful.  I take horrific selfies.  This one makes me look like I have a huge nose, but we're going to roll with it.  This picture actually makes the color look a little lighter than it is in real life.
This is a long caption.
(Did you think I'd go blonde or brunette or something?  Heck no.  Then I need a new blog name.  PRIORITIES!)

I am loving my new darker shade.  Something fun to keep things interesting during this loooong winter.

Reading.
As for what's new on the reading front: I have a tiny lull between tour books, so I'm smooshing in some library reads right now.  Just started Burial Rites by Hannah Kent this week, and I am intrigued.  I've also go Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch on my nightstand.  And yes, I plan to finish Moby Dick sometime...soon-ish.

Confession: the way I have been choosing my library reads lately is to pull up the "Best/Favorites of 2014" lists from some of my favorite bloggers (like Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall, Words for Worms, The Relentless Reader, Book Hooked, River City Reading, and Books Speak Volumes, to name just a few) and check out the ones they recommend the most from last year.  This method rarely fails me.  Rock on, bloggers!

What are you up to this week, reading pals?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

5 Reasons I Adored The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez


Title: The Book of Unknown Americans
Author: Cristina Henriquez
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: June 3, 2014
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

After their daughter Maribel suffers a near-fatal accident, the Riveras leave México and come to America. But upon settling at Redwood Apartments, a two-story cinderblock complex just off a highway in Delaware, they discover that Maribel's recovery--the piece of the American Dream on which they've pinned all their hopes--will not be easy. Every task seems to confront them with language, racial, and cultural obstacles.

At Redwood also lives Mayor Toro, a high school sophomore whose family arrived from Panamà fifteen years ago. Mayor sees in Maribel something others do not: that beyond her lovely face, and beneath the damage she's sustained, is a gentle, funny, and wise spirit. But as the two grow closer, violence casts a shadow over all their futures in America.


My Review:

I am really struggling with making my reviews exciting these days, reader friends.  I've been at the reviewing game now for 2.5 years, and it's hard to say something different and engaging each time.  So, I'm taking a little advice from Leah @ Books Speak Volumes, and structuring this review a tad differently in order to shake things up.  I hope this will make it more fun for me to write reviews, and also make it more fun for you as a reader.

Without further ado...5 Reasons I Adored The Book of Unknown Americans!

1. Its inclusiveness.  I've read many books (fiction and nonfiction) over the years that tackle various aspects of the immigrant experience.  However, this is the first one I've encountered that brought in such a wide variety of perspectives.  While the Rivera and Toro families are certainly at the center of this story, you also get chapters that focus (albeit briefly) on many of their neighbors and friends who hail from a range of countries: Mexico, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Panama, etc.  And they all came to the US for very different reasons--though the end goals of happiness and fulfillment are largely the same.  This extensive range of viewpoints adds a lot of depth to the story.

2. Its brevity.  For a book with so much emotional complexity, it's a very quick read.  It packs a big punch in a small-ish number of pages.

3. Mayor and Maribel's relationship.  Everyone knows I'm not much for literary romance, but Mayor and Maribel transcend your usual teenage love story.  Watching Mayor fall for Maribel, despite her medical struggles after her accident, is beautiful and moving and all-around awesome.  And the way he helps her communicate with the world will tug at your heart strings.

4. It will get your wheels turning.  The main focus of the book is obviously the experience of the Latino immigrants in the novel, but as an extension of their struggles, I also found myself thinking about the motives and misfortunes of the American citizens they encountered who discriminated against them (especially the primary antagonist, Garrett).  People don't create hate in a vacuum.  This book will force you to think about why.

5. This quote:"We're the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they've been told they're supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we're not that bad, maybe even that we're a lot like them.  And who would they hate then?"

Read this book, friends!  I have not-a-one bad thing to say about it (and way more than 5 good things that I could say).

What was the last quick-ish book you read that also packed an emotional gut-punch?

Monday, February 16, 2015

GIVEAWAY! The Last Good Paradise by Tatjana Soli


Title: The Last Good Paradise
Author: Tatjana Soli
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: February 10, 2015
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

On a small, unnamed coral atoll in the South Pacific, a group of troubled dreamers must face the possibility that the hopes they’ve labored after so single-mindedly might not lead them to the happiness they feel they were promised.

Ann and Richard, an aspiring, Los Angeles power couple, are already sensing the cracks in their version of the American dream when their life unexpectedly implodes, leading them to brashly run away from home to a Robinson Crusoe idyll.

Dex Cooper, lead singer of the rock band, Prospero, is facing his own slide from greatness, experimenting with artistic asceticism while accompanied by his sexy, young, and increasingly entrepreneurial muse, Wende.

Loren, the French owner of the resort sauvage, has made his own Gauguin-like retreat from the world years before, only to find that the modern world has become impossible to disconnect from.

Titi, descendent of Tahitian royalty, worker, and eventual inheritor of the resort, must fashion a vision of the island’s future that includes its indigenous people, while her partner, Cooked, is torn between anarchy and lust.

By turns funny and tragic, The Last Good Paradise explores our modern, complex and often, self-contradictory discontents, crafting an exhilarating story about our need to connect in an increasingly networked but isolating world.


My Review:

First things first: how can you pass up a book with such a beautiful cover?

The Last Good Paradise is a unique read.  I initially wanted to try it because it seemed to bring together many of my reading interests: complicated family relationships!  Travel!  Food!  Yup, can't go wrong with that.  I got all of those things in spades throughout the book.  But that makes this novel sound rather simplistic, and simplistic it is not.

Soli has taken some risks in terms of the narrative style.  As the description implies, there are 7 different protagonists, and the storyline moves quickly between them throughout the book.  The POV is always third person, but the focus changes from one character to the next quite often (and rather quickly at times).  Those shifts in focus are not signified by a change in chapter (as I often see in other multiple-perspective novels).  When I first noticed this, I was afraid that it would quickly become confusing and muddle the story.  However, despite having so many primary characters, it came together surprisingly well.  Probably not my favorite POV choice for a fiction novel, but Soli made it work.

I did enjoy the touches of wanderlust in this book.  You can't go wrong with a story set in a beachy paradise.  Plus, the many references to Moby Dick, Robinson Crusoe, Mutiny on the Bounty, etc. added a nice literary element that played up the setting (though I will admit they got a little much sometimes--if you are unfamiliar with any of those texts (and Shakespeare, for that matter), you're sure to miss a lot of the literary allusions that Soli goes for).  All of the characters are ultimately trying to find their version of happiness, and despite the idyllic setting, they all come to realize that the happiness of their dreams might not be exactly what they want (or need).

The narration, the setting, the quests for happiness--all good things.  But the characters themselves?  That's one part of the book that I didn't roll with.  I had a hard time finding any of them likeable, even though I'm pretty sure I was supposed to, as I was privy to their inner struggles to find peace and love.  I'll admit that part of it was likely because they all regarded infidelity with such a ho-hum attitude.  So many of the couples cheat on each other in this book, with the expectation that forgiveness is right around the corner.  I didn't find this realistic or sympathy-inducing in the least.

The other character issue for me was that they all made very abrupt changes in personality and decision-making throughout the book.  One minute Wende is Dex's mindless hottie, the next she's a politically-minded revolutionary who wants to leave Dex for film school.  And that's only one example of many.  It was enough to make my head spin.  I appreciate that these people were all going on a bit of an emotional journey, but at times their sudden metamorphoses were rather hard to process.

Ultimately, The Last Good Paradise is a very ambitious novel.  If you're like me, and want a solid piece of contemporary fiction that delves into some intriguing relationship issues, you're sure to get a lot of that!  And the atmosphere of this book can't be beat--that is probably what will stick with me the most.  However, I had a tough time building sympathy for the characters, and that makes me hesitant to rave about it too hard.  Even so, an enjoyable read that gave me a lot more than what I initially bargained for...and I do enjoy surprises.

As always, much thanks to Lisa and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Want to find out more?  Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Tatjana Soli on Twitter.

GIVEAWAY TIME!
I have two copies to give away to 2 lucky readers!  One is a new copy (delivered to you from TLC Book Tours) and the other is my gently-used ARC copy (delivered by me).  Winner #1 will get the new copy, Winner #2 gets the used ARC from me.  Just use the Rafflecopter below to enter!  US/Canada only.  Ends 2/23.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, February 9, 2015

One Step Too Far by Tina Seskis


Title: One Step Too Far
Author: Tina Seskis
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: January 27, 2015 (first self-published in 2013)
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

A happy marriage. A beautiful family. A dream home. So what makes lawyer Emily Coleman--a woman who appears to have everything--get up one morning and walk right out of her life to start again as someone new?

Deliberately losing herself in London, Emily quickly transforms herself into Cat. Along with her new name, she finds a new home in a shared house in North London teeming with an odd assortment of flatmates, and a new job as a receptionist at a hip advertising agency. Finding easy kinship with the fun-loving Angel, her savior and new best friend, Cat begins to live on the edge, giddy with the euphoria of freedom and release.

Cat has buried any trace of her old self so well, no one knows how to find her. But she can't bury the past--or her own painful memories. As the days turn to months, thoughts of all she's left behind begin to consume her. She cannot outrun the ghosts that haunt her, no matter how hard she tries to elude them.

And soon, she'll have to face the truth of what she's done--a shocking revelation that may push her one step too far.


My Review:

This book gets a solid WOW from me. I am a sucker for anything with a good, mysterious twist at the end--especially one that is widely advertised right from page one. However, that sort of build up leads to mighty high expectations on my part. Luckily, they were 100% fulfilled here. When Emily's secret was revealed, I had an honest-to-God physical reaction--my stomach dropped, my jaw hit the floor, and I had to reread the climactic moment in the text over and over. What an emotional gut punch--this is not a book that I will soon forget.

However, I have to put forth my hesitation with how the "big twist" is kept from the reader. This is not a twist that you can feasibly guess as you read. (If you do guess it, congratulations, you are a wizard! Welcome to Hogwarts.) No, Seskis writes the novel in a way that is very deliberately misleading (though you won't realize it until the time comes). I'm struggling with how I feel about that. I've read a few reviews in which the reviewers were downright angry, as they felt deceived by the writing style. I wouldn't go that far. I wish that the twist was worked into the details of the plot a little more naturally, but honestly, the big reveal is JUST SO GOOD that I feel like I can't be mad. I mean really...when was the last time I read a book that gave me a true physical shock? That's admirable, right?

Plus, it's worth mentioning that the pacing and detail of the novel is very absorbing--I was caught up in Emily's world from the very beginning, and I enjoyed going along on her ride, even before her secret came to light. So this book stands alone as a great piece of fiction, even before you get to the climax.

What it all comes down to is: I'm giving the side-eye to how the big secret in this novel is revealed to readers. HOWEVER. The rest of the novel (and the twist itself) is so absolutely worth devouring, that I absolve it of all its sins. This is a truly captivating book that is guaranteed to generate a lot of debate with fellow readers!

As always, much thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Want to find out more?  Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Tina Seskis on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A life of lovely LIBRARIES.

I've wanted to do this post for a while, because in case I haven't said it enough, I LOVE THE LIBRARY.  I thought it would be worth highlighting the various wonderful libraries that I've had the pleasure of living near throughout my life.

Let's take a trip down memory lane, shall we?

Some of my very earliest memories are of going to the local library with my mom.  My first local library was the Bill Memorial Library in Groton, CT.  Up until we moved at age 10, "the Bill" was an easy 5 minute walk from our house.  How great is that?
Bill Memorial Library, Groton, CT
I went to countless story times there as a tyke. I remember following my mom through the stacks of the adult section as she picked out books, spending many hours browsing the kids section, and I volunteered there for a period of time in middle school.  This library is super cool, because it's quite old, very small and cozy, and has a lot of history behind it.  There's even an interesting-slash-creepy butterfly collection in the attic.  If there is a place where my love of books began, this is likely it.

We moved across town when I was in 5th grade, and even though we made the drive back to the Bill often, the move put me closer to the Groton Public Library, which is bigger and has quite a few more resources for visitors.  Not as cozy as the Bill, but a great place for studying...I remember spending way too many hours here doing AP English homework and researching colleges in my junior/senior years.
Groton Public Library, Groton, CT
After high school, I headed to college at UConn and had 4 years of visiting the Homer Babbidge Library on campus.  The place is impressive--UConn is a Research 1 institution, so naturally they have a library to match.  However, my memories of this place are less filled with pleasant, literature-filled lazy hours, and more filled with OMG MY FINAL IS TOMORROW HOW DID I FORGET WHAT A COVALENT BOND IS ALREADY (yes, my first all-nighter took place here).  Even so, there are two locations that have more lighthearted memories for me in UConn's library: the Bookworms coffee cafe on the main floor, and 3 North ("study" area on the 3rd floor, north side of the building).  3 North was affectionately nicknamed the Dry Bar.  No work gets done there.  I'm pretty sure that's still the case.
Homer Babbidge Library, University of Connecticut
After college, I moved just north of Albany, NY, and the now-husband and I lived in that area for the next 8 years.  In the first apartment we lived in, the local library was the William K. Sanford Library in Colonie.   These were my early post-college years, when I first re-connected with the library after living in textbooks for 4 years.  I wanted to read ALL THE THINGS and would spend ages just wandering the stacks in wide-eyed wonder.

Then we moved to our first house a few years later, and our new library was about 15 minutes north, the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library.  When we moved to Clifton Park, I realized something wonderful: the Sanford Library is part of the Upper Hudson Library System, which encompasses over 30 libraries around Albany.  And the Clifton Park library is part of a different system that covers 8 counties north and west of Albany.  For two years, my library cards at both places were active.  DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW MANY BOOKS I HAD AT MY FINGERTIPS?  The power was great.  I could interlibrary loan literally anything you could think of.  It was amazing.  **geek moment**
Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library, Clifton Park, NY
Nerdy stuff aside, I will always have very fond memories of the Clifton Park library, because that is where I took Small Fry to his very first story times as a baby (only 3.5 months old for his first one)!  Awwww, love of libraries coming full circle.  CPH really does an amazing job with their children's area and activities.  Plus, this is where I got attend my first author event, as they hosted Dennis Lehane there in 2012.

Then, of course, we made our big move to western New York in 2013.  First, we had a brief 6-week stint in Batavia, NY as we waited for our house to come available.  Even though we were only there a short time, our rental was just a couple blocks from the Richmond Memorial Library.  Small Fry and pregnant-me took many, many summer walks there in the few weeks that we lived in the area.  Richmond library reminds me an awful lot of "the Bill", with it's older exterior, though it has gotten a facelift in recent years.  This library is smaller in size, but offers a surprisingly large number of programs given the size of the surrounding community (Batavia is fairly rural).  I didn't love living in Batavia, but I will say that the Richmond library provided some of the best memories we have there!
Richmond Memorial Library, Batavia, NY
Finally, on to Rochester.  I was quick to figure out my library options when we got here.  I live on the western side of the city, but my library card is good at any of the 31 libraries in Monroe County, which rocks my socks.  We actually have several of those libraries in close proximity to our house, and make a point of visiting at least one of them each week.  Our current favorite is the Chili Public Library (affectionately referred to by Small Fry as the "train library", thanks to the awesome Thomas the Train table in the children's room).
Chili Public Library, Rochester, NY
It's a small-ish library, but the staff is SO nice, and they put on a ton of fun programs for kids.  (And yes--this is where Tater Tot got to attend his first story time! Memorieeeeees.)  Plus, I suspect that Small Fry has a crush on Miss Jill, one of the children's librarians, so chances are he has an ulterior motive for all our many, many visits here.

Quite the litany of library experiences I've had in three decades!  I look forward to many more years of literary memories, and new libraries to explore.

(And if you haven't gotten the subtext of this post yet--VISIT YOUR LIBRARY!!  So much to see and do...not just books, but often craft programs, book sales, free museum passes, book clubs, etc.  Most of it free, too.  BONUS.)

Tell me about your favorite library memories, reader friends!
 
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