Tag Archives: 4.5 stars

Books About Books

I was lovingly describing Ruiz Zafón’s Shadow of the Wind to a friend the other day. She seemed a bit unimpressed with my elevator pitch for one of my favorite books, and said, “You really like books about books.”

This is very true. I love books about books. I have a GoodReads shelf devoted to them. According to this list, I’ve read six books about books this year. I push them up to the top of my reading list.  BookRiot runs an irregular series called Genre Kryptonite, in which readers discuss genres or tropes they have a weak spot for. Books about books are one of my biggest genre kryptonites. Today, I’m going to write mini-reviews of the four I’ve read most recently.

Also, you should read Shadow of the Wind.

84, Charing Cross Road/The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

book cover: 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene HanffAuthor: Helene Hanff
Rating: 5 stars/3.5 stars
Genre: Epistolary/Memoir
Length: 97 pages/144 pages

The very slim volume of 84, Charing Cross Road has been sitting on my bookshelves for two years, ever since a lovely book friend gave me her copy when she was moving and told me all book lovers should read it. The book sits on my shelf at eye level, and has been calling my name ever since. “Look at me!” it called. “I’m very short. I’m charming. I’m a book for book lovers.”

I finally picked up 84, Charing Cross Road last week, and it was wonderful. It is a collection of letters exchanged over twenty years between Helene Hanff, a script writer living in New York city, and Frank Doel, a bookseller at a used bookstore in London (located at 84, Charing Cross Road). Helene, who has a specific taste in books, is witty and sarcastic and overdramatic at times. Her outlandish letters are a stark contrast to Frank’s responses: formal, polite, and reserved.

The two start off corresponding after Hanff begins ordering books from the store. However, hearing about the food shortages and rations in post-WWI UK, Helene begins sending the bookstore baskets of gifts, including many hard-to-find items. A friendship slowly grows between Helene and Frank, conducted solely through letters. It’s understated and real and heart-warming.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is a sequel of sorts to 84, Charing Cross Road. The publication of 84, Charing Cross Road makes it possible for Helene visit the UK. The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is the journal she kept during the trip. While it is nice to see Helene finally visit England, it seems much more self-aware and planned than 84, Charing Cross Road, which consisted of letters that weren’t written for anyone else to read.

5 stars to 84, Charing Cross Road and 3.5 stars to The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.

The Moment of Everything

book cover: The Moment of Everything by Shelly KingAuthor: Shelly King
Rating: 2.5 stars
Genre: Fiction
Length: 288 pages

The Moment of Everything had, well, everything going for it. A young woman loses her job and reinvents herself while working in a bookstore. There’s quirky bookstore workers and a cranky bookstore cat. She discovers the record of a romance between two unknown bookstore customers who don’t know each other, but left notes for each other in the margins of an old, used book.

I’ll start off by saying this is a fine book. It reminded me a bit of the set-up for Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (another book about books that you must read if you haven’t yet): an unemployed young tech worker/graphic designer in Silicon Valley looking for some sort of direction in life discovers something unusual or secret while working in a bookstore. It’s a perfectly enjoyable book.

Yet, the book just didn’t quite ring true for me, especially the characters. I didn’t really click with Maggie, the main character, or bought into her relationship with Rahjit. And to my disappointment, the romance blossoming between two characters who only know each other through the notes they leave in the margins of the book turned out to be a minor plot point.

2.5 stars.

I received an advanced copy of The Moment of Everything from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

book cover: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle ZevinAuthor: Gabrielle Zevin
Rating: 4.5 stars
Genre: Fiction
Length: 260 pages

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry reads like a giant celebration of books and reading and stories and second chances, along with a good helping of little book/publishing jokes and references.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry wasn’t what I was expecting at all. The premise of the book is this: A.J. Fikry runs a bookstore. He’s irascible. He doesn’t much like people. His store is struggling. And he isn’t doing so well personally since the death of his wife, who kept the bookstore running and also was the people-person of the pair.  Also, he’s a bit of a book snob. Here he describes his tastes:

“I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be—basically, gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful—nonfiction only, please. I do not like genre mash-ups à la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and—I imagine this goes without saying—vampires.”

The two things happen. His valuable edition of Tamarlane by Edgar Allen Poe, which is meant to fund his early retirement, is stolen. And a mysterious package arrives on his doorstep. The contents of this “mysterious package” are completely different than what I imagined, and it sent the story somewhere very different than I had imagined. I had read a bunch of reviews, so kudos to everyone for keeping that under wraps.

The books was loads of fun to read, as well as being a heart-warming tale. 4.5 stars.

P.S. If the judgmental quote about reading annoys you, rest assured A.J. does not feel the same about books by the end.

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Oh, Aector

book cover of Sorrow Bound by David Mark

Title: Sorrow Bound
Author: David Mark
Series: Aector McAvoy #3
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars (Madeleine) 4.5 stars (Zelda)

Synopsis:

The ever-lovable, lumbering police detective Aector McAvoy returns for his third book in Sorrow Bound. When Philippa Longman is found brutally murdered, Aector and Pharaoh are at a bit of a loss to understand why. The woman was well-loved, kind, and dedicated to improving her local neighborhood. Philippa’s death is followed by another murder, and the only connection between the two is that both saved the life of a man years ago. But who would kill someone for being a good samaritan?

Aector’s personal life is also a source of stress. Aector and Roisin are preparing to move into a house that they may or may not be able to afford. After standing up for a friend and confronting a drug dealer (okay, and stealing his money), Roisin becomes the target of the local crime lords. And in other parts of Hull, DC Helen Tremberg finds herself in a sticky situation after attracting the attentions of a man who seems to be too good to be true.

Review:

Madeleine: Let’s be honest: what keeps me coming back to this series is Aector. He is such an atypical fictional detective in a world of hardboiled, jaded detectives with destroyed personal lives. Aector is a genuinely good person who constantly worries about being a good person and deeply loves his wife and family. I love reading about a detective who isn’t sure about actions to take, who can’t quite maintain a professional distance and often finds himself bewilderedly comforting grieving family members, and who blushes whenever someone teases him. I especially loved this description of Aector:

“She remembers their first meeting. Remembers that agonizing walk from Queen’s Gardens to Hull Crown Court. It had rained the night before and the damp pavements were patterned with the crushed shells of snails that had not got out of the way as the city’s commuters began their walks to work. McAvoy had kept stopping every five or six steps to pick up any snail he thought was in harm’s way. He filled his pockets with them then ran back to Queen’s Garned to put them safely on the grass.”

The man saved snails!

Zelda: The snail story was perhaps one of my favorite parts of the book!! I love that while Aector struggles with work and his family, he at least has a family to go home to. I love reading about jaded detectives as much as the next owl, but someone has to be happy, right?

Madeleine: The only other detective similar to Aector that I can think of is Maeve Kerrigan from series by Jane Casey. I’ve only read the first book, but Maeve brings a fresh perspective as an early-career detective who is also concerned with doing the right thing and not 100% sure what to do at all times. In fact, now I want a crossover series with Maeve and Aector teaming up and being awesome together. Pharaoh can join too.

Zelda: I simultaneously want to go drinking with Pharaoh, but also find her so intimidating I hope we never meet. She seems so fun and yet terrifying. It’s a thrilling combination, I suppose. Jane Casey is fantastic. I love Maeve and can’t wait to get her next book, which is in cataloging as I type. 🙂

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Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Cover of Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Author: Katherine Boo
Genre: Narrative Non-fiction
Length: 262 pages
Rating: 4.5 Stars

Synopsis:

Katherine Boo chronicles the lives of an undercity (or slum) in Mumbai, India and the complexities and effects of inequality in her first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.

While the lives and dreams of many Annawadi residents weave in and out of Boo’s narrative, Behind the Beautiful Forevers focuses on three individuals who are all striving to make it New India: Manju, aiming to become the slum’s first female college graduate; her mother, Asha, with the less principled goal of becoming the slumlord; and Abdul, who through focus, hard work, and a keen business sense tries to generate enough money from his family’s garbage business to buy a plot of land.

Review:

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is both a very easy and a very challenging book to read. Everything in the book is real (Boo lived in this community for three years), but the book reads like fiction. You get pulled in and engaged in these individual’s stories. This is why Behind the Beautiful Forevers is also hard to read. It hurts. It’s distressing. It pushes you to face the consequences of global inequalities and poverty.

Abdul’s story was the most challenging to read—when a family feud spins out of control, Abdul is (wrongly) accused of murder alongside his father and sister, and their journey through the legal system has serious ramifications for Abdul’s successful garbage business. Asha’s story is perhaps the least sympathetic, but Boo manages not to demonize this character. Asha’s hard work and scheming allow her daughter, Manju, to attend college, which Asha hopes will help raise the entire family out of poverty.

The stories Boo captures give us a humanizing portrait of life in an undercity. “Do you ever think when you look at someone, when you listen to someone, does that person really have a life?” Abdul asks at one point. Behind the Beautiful Forevers gives all the people depicted a life. They may not be glamorous or particularly good lives, but gives Abdul, Manju, Asha, and everyone else an identity separate from their poverty.

I appreciated that Behind the Beautiful Forevers doesn’t offer any easy solutions. If anything, it highlights the complexities of anti-poverty work. Charitable efforts to promote education, microfinance, and health conditions are almost completed stymied by corruption. Government officials, elections, police, and local slumlord all support themselves through bribery.

In short, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is an excellent, engaging piece of narrative non-fiction that thoroughly deserves the National Book Award it earned. 4.5 Stars.

Editorial note: This review was drafted as a sample post in January 2013 when this blog was still an idea. I recently found the review and decided to edit, reformat, and publish it.

Attachments

Attachments is Rainbow Rowell’s first book and only adult book until Landline is published this summer. She’s probably better known for her two YA novels for Eleanor & Park (reviewed by Nox last year) and Fangirl. I’ve actually read and enjoyed all three, but this is the first one I’m reviewing here.

The year is 1999. Y2K is approaching. Email is just catching on, and it has some employers running scared. Enter Lincoln–late 20s, serial student and degree earner, D&D player, and living with his mother until he can save up for his own place. Lincoln is hired as the Internet security officer for the local newspaper, which means he is responsible for reading employees’ emails to make sure no one is using it inappropriately.

Jennifer and Beth are both co-workers and best friends at the newspaper. Despite the fact that they know someone is reading their emails, they are definitely not following company policy. At first, Lincoln is highly entertained by their witty conversations, but eventually he finds himself interested in their lives.

When Lincoln falls for Beth, it gets very tricky, very quickly. He’s never met Beth. He doesn’t even know what she looks like. Despite this, he knows very personal details about her life, because he’s been reading her emails.

Attachments is unique for several reasons. First, it’s a romance told from the point-of-view of the guy. Second, guy and girl don’t even meet until very late in the book.

I really enjoyed Attachments. Lincoln is a great character. Yes, he’s a little nerdy and geeky, but he’s much more adorable than my description above makes him sound. He’s conscientious, smart, sweet, and funny. He reminds me of Clay from Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I definitely had a bit of a crush on him.

While the main part of the book is told from Lincoln’s point-of-view, the chapters are interspersed with emails between Jennifer and Beth. These emails were wonderful! I wanted to be friends with Jennifer and Beth. Rainbow really captured the camaraderie and spirit of female friendship. She has posted a deleted scene from her book with Star Trek themed emails and another section that made the cut where Beth waxes poetic about the month of October (which also happens to perfectly capture my feelings about the most glorious month of the year).

I only had two minor complaints about the book. There was ongoing tension between Lincoln’s sister and mother that was weird. I never quite figured out what was going on. Also, the book wrapped up really quickly, at a pace that didn’t quite match the book. It was a bit jarring.

I got to briefly meet Rainbow Rowell when she came to speak about her books and censorship last year, after a school in Minnesota challenged Eleanor & Park. (I have LOTS of passionate, library school student thoughts about that situation, so let’s not go into that). You guys, she’s such a genuinely wonderful person. My younger sister once woke me up in the middle of the night with ecstatic texts when Rainbow Rowell responded to her tweets. And now I’ve read her backlist. Do yourself a favor and follow her on Twitter/Tumblr, or even better, read one of her books.

4.5 Stars.

I hunt (and read) killer books

I’m finally back to serial killer and death books. It’s been so long and I’ve missed them. I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga tells the story of Jazz (short for Jasper). A body was discovered in a field just outside of town and Jazz just had to take a look. He makes a habit out of spying on the cops when he hears interesting calls over the police scanner, but this one is different. When he sees one of the policeman hold up an evidence bag containing a single severed finger, Jazz knows that there’s a serial killer in town. You see, Jazz is the son of the world most notorious serial killer, Billy Dent, who over the course of his career killed 124 people. This type of death in small Lobo’s Nod was sure to cast suspicion on Jazz.

Jazz was afraid of two things in the world, and two things only. One of them was that people thought that his upbringing meant that he was cursed by nature, nurture, and predestination to be a serial killer like his father. The second thing . . . was that they were right.

To the outside world Jazz seems “impressively well adjusted.” He has a girlfriend, Connie, and a best friend who’s been with him for years, the incredibly loyal hemophiliac Howie. But on the inside Jazz knows he’s not normal. He constantly has to remind himself that “People matter. People are real. People matter.”

He doesn’t want to turn out like Dear Old Dad, but knows that he’s irrevocably scarred for life from his experiences from his childhood. His father started coaching him on the basics of how to be a functioning sociopath at a young age. Jasper has also been having terrifying dreams where he can feel himself cutting into human flesh hearing his father say, “Nice job, son. Nice good cut. It’s just like chicken.” And Jazz can’t figure out if it’s just a dream or a repressed memory seeing how no one knows what happened to his mother.

Since Jazz knows so much about murder and he wants to prove his innocence (to himself and others), he volunteers his services to the local police.  After all, who better to find a killer than a killer?

As the murders continue, Jazz is the first to recognize the victims as copies of his father’s first murders. Someone is trying to recreate Billy Dent’s murder spree. As the town is going through the motions by the book, which takes time. Jazz takes it upon himself to try to find the killer, but as he starts examining clues and the deaths more closely he starts losing touch with himself and fears that the killings are all because of him.

Who is the murderer: The police chief who had a mental breakdown after catching Jazz’s father? The reporter who would do anything to get back in the spotlight? The new detective who just happens to be from the same town as the first victim?
And what will become of Jazz? Can he hold it together or is he destined to become his father?

Medieval X-men


Graceling takes place in a traditional fantasy world where some people have been marked with heterochromia showing that they have a “grace” or power. When Katsa, our lead, discovered her grace she was only 8 years old. She killed a cousin who had….let’s go with intensions towards her. A grace for killing is rare and very valuable so she was trained in the household of her king to be a weapon that he wielded against traitors and any others who dare disobey him. As she comes into her own, she realizes that what her king wishes isn’t just and, along with his spymaster, create the Council that ranges throughout the kingdoms working for good. It’s while performing a mission for the council that she meets Prince Po, who is also graced. Po’s grace is a major plot point, so I don’t know how much I can actually talk about their relationship. Just know that he’s amazing, and I love him.

 
Katsa is a girl I can identify with – anti-social, stubborn. I loved that she doesn’t change her opinions based on what others think and that her ultimate goal isn’t to fall in love and get married. It’s refreshing in a YA book geared towards girls. Po’s character is a brilliant counterpoint to Katsa, he’s gregarious, very independent and although he helps Katsa become more outgoing, he does it on her terms. The romance in this book (because what would a YA book be without a little romance) is paced very well, it isn’t insta-love that happens to often. It develops slowly and through friendship. 
This book was so good, I want to recommend it to everyone I know! I’ll admit, the last 20 pages or so were a bit of a letdown, which is why I give it 4.5 rather than 5 stars. Ultimately, though, it was a great read.

Yogurt or Yogurt Soda?

At the beginning of ‘A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea,’ the storyteller Khanom Basir shares two matching rhymes about yogurt and yogurt soda that are used at the end of the story to reveal whether a story is truth or fiction. (Maast is the word for yogurt, doogh is yogurt soda.)

If a story was fiction, the poem starts out with yogurt.

Up we went and there was maast,
Down we came and there was doogh.
And our story was doroogh (lie!).

If a story was true, the poem starts out with yogurt soda.

Up we went and there was doogh,
Down we came and there was maast.
And our story was raast (truth!).

And so, at the end of the story, you wait for the first line of the rhyme. Was the story yogurt or yogurt soda?

Saba has a murky memory of the day, but one she firmly believes happened–seeing her mother and twin sister, Mahtab, get onto a plane and leave Iran for America. But those around her, in her rural community in northern Iran, believe that Mahtab is dead. As Saba grows up with her friends Reza and Ponneh, three surrogate mothers, and a distant father, she tells stories of how she imagines her twin’s life in America. She imagines her twin facing life confidently and bravely, facing challenges that are very different but at the same time very similar to Saba’s difficult life in Iran. Are these stories yogurt or yogurt soda? Are Mahtab and her mother alive and well in America?

‘A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea’ was a bit slow-moving, but ultimately a lovely book. There were several especially touching relationships–the semi-dysfunctional and close friendship among Saba, Ponneh, and Reza; the father-daughter relationship between Saba and Agha Hafezi; and the marriage and deep love between the elderly Agha and Khanoom Mansoori. 4.5 stars.