Monday, September 29, 2014

Weekly Wrap-up

Good morning, fellow readers!

Here's what I've been up to on the blog . . . Last week I posted Fall New Releases I Can't Wait to Read. Are you looking forward to any new releases in particular this fall?

I also posted reviews of these books:

Juliet's Nurse is new historical fiction by Lois Leveen, a re-imagining of the story of Romeo and Juliet from the perspective of Juliet's wet-nurse. Sarah Water's newest novel The Paying Guests, also released this month, is a story of love and longing set in 1922 London.

Here's what I've been reading in the past week:

I read the spooky classic The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson for the RIP IX Readalong, which will behosted by the Estella Society on October 1. I have been wanting to read Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves since it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Review to come later, but I will just say for now that it was an intense and astonishing read!

And this is the book that's up next for me . . .

I will be reading Thomas McNeely's Ghost Horse for an upcoming tour on TLC Book Tours towards the end of October. This novel tells the story of a boy from a deeply troubled family in 1970s Houston, who dreams of creating a movie about a horse with supernatural powers. I took a quick peak at the opening chapter, and I have high hopes!

What's on your reading agenda this week?

Friday, September 26, 2014

Fall New Releases I Can't Wait to Read

Fall books are here, fall books are here! Or, at least, they are coming soon. Book lovers can always find something to look forward to among the many new releases of the autumn. Here are some of the new fiction titles that I am most anticipating . . .

Some Luck by Jane Smiley: I haven't read Smiley for quite some time (since the 1990s! wow), but her latest is a family saga spanning multiple decades that sounds intriguing. Just those words--"family saga spanning multiple decades"--are almost guaranteed to get a literary fiction fan's heart beating faster. This novel will be released October 7, and has been longlisted for the National Book Award.

Us by David Nicholls: I haven't read Nicholls before, but this caught my eye when it appeared on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize. The plot about a man struggling to hold together his troubled marriage while on a European art tour sounds interesting. The release date in the United States is October 28.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: There is buzz aplenty surrounding this recently released novel, which received a spot on the National Book Award longlist for fiction. Here's the quick Goodreads description: "An audacious, darkly glittering novel about art, fame, and ambition set in the eerie days of civilization's collapse, from the author of three highly acclaimed previous works." I don't know Mandel's previous work, but this sounds like something I want to read.

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood: Short story collections often give me hives, but . . . Atwood!

The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber: This one sounds a like genre-bending mix of sci-fi and literary fiction. A minister on a mission trip to another planet? "Strange new things," indeed. I'm not quite sure what to expect, but my interest is piqued! Faber's new novel will be published on October 28.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson: Robinson's latest, set for release on October 7, is another one of the contenders for the National Book Award. Robinson revisits the characters and settings of her much acclaimed novels Gilead and Home in this work. Unfortunately, I haven't had the chance to read Robinson before, but I think I'd like to start. The question is, should I start with Lila or the earlier novels? I don't have a sense of whether this is a stand-alone novel or not.

First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen by Charlie Lovett: Right, so I keep saying that I won't read any more books that extend an Austen novel or re-imagine Austen characters. What is THIS doing on here?! Oops. Well, I figured I might need something light and easy at some point in the fall. This might be sweet and amusing or highly irritating; I suppose there's only one way to find out!

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar: This novel is based on the life of Vanessa Bell, a painter who was the sister of Virginia Woolf. The publisher's description promises passion, betrayal, self-destruction, and madness among the Bloomsbury Group in early 20th century London. It sounds like it could be juicy and literary at the same time--my favorite combination. This book will be released December 30 (ok, not technically a FALL book, but . . . close enough!)

Well, I don't know if I'll get to every single one of these . . . I've got some backlist reading I want to do, and some books released earlier this year that I haven't read yet. The TBR pile--it threatens to topple over. But these are definitely the fall releases that caught my attention.

What new releases are you most looking forward to this season? Will any of these make it to your bookshelf?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Review of The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Publisher: Riverhead
Publication Date: September 17, 2014
Length: 576 pages
Source: My own copy

Sarah Waters’ newest novel, The Paying Guests, immerses readers in London a few short years after War War I, an unsettling period marked by disillusionment, economic hardship, and continuing grief for lost sons, brothers, and fathers. Waters, with her signature silken prose, has crafted a fine, layered story of love and longing in a time of great change, with some page-turning plot twists along the way.

The Story: Frances Wray, at age 26, is hardly leading the life she had expected. Born into an upper class family in the genteel neighborhood of Champion Hill, she spent her early twenties in a frenzy of suffrage work and peace protests, imagining a Bloomsbury-type of future for herself with her intellectual and bohemian friends. But the Great War unleashed a chain of catastrophic losses for the Wrays—two beloved sons on the battlefield, one father to a stroke, and finally, the family’s fortune to a series of bad investments. Frances and her mother remain in their slowly crumbling house, while their money dwindles away. Frances, once a passionate free spirit, finds herself, in a sense, entombed by the old Victorian house and the weight of her mother’s expectations.

To make ends meet, Frances arranges to take in boarders, or in the polite euphemism of the time, “paying guests.” Len and Lilian Barber, a young couple of the “clerk class,” arrive to move into an apartment fashioned from several upstairs rooms. Frances, at first, finds the Barbers distasteful; Len smirks and makes crude remarks full of unnerving sexual innuendo, while Lilian, with her short skirts and lipstick, seems vaguely tacky. But soon Frances finds herself drawn to the Barbers in ways she did not expect, and, despite their class differences, she develops an intimate friendship with Lilian. As Frances becomes more deeply involved in the Barbers’ lives, however, she is pulled into a series of events that will threaten to change all of their lives.

My Thoughts: First of all, I think readers would do well to approach this novel with as little detailed information as possible about how the plot will turn, so I tried to keep the above synopsis fairly vague. I read very few reviews of The Paying Guests before embarking upon the first pages, and was pleased to find myself surprised through-out.

The Paying Guests was, for me, a compelling read, an unusual love story as well as a darkly suspenseful psychological novel. Waters doesn’t just create a setting in this book; she builds an entire world. I felt myself completely enmeshed in the domestic details of English life in the 1920s. She also skillfully creates a sense of atmospheric dread; the reader suspects something bad is on the horizon, but Waters masterfully controls the pace before unveiling the traumatic event at the heart of the plot.

Although I truly enjoyed The Paying Guests, a few things keep me from rating the novel as a 5. Waters takes, perhaps, a bit too long to build momentum in the first quarter of the book. While I drunk in her evocative, measured prose, some readers may find the novel too slow at the start. It would be a shame if readers turn away because of this; the plot intensifies about a third of the way through, and the book becomes hard to put down. I do think, as well, that the novel is overly long; some sections towards the end related to legal proceedings are needlessly detailed and could have been condensed without threatening the power of the story.

I would rate this novel 4 out of 5 stars. I’ve read only one Waters novel before, The Little Stranger, and I do think I need to delve deeper into her backlist. I have heard so many great things about Fingersmith, so perhaps that will be my next Sarah Waters. I hope that Waters, who is well-known and critically acclaimed in England, will become more widely read by American readers of literary and historical fiction.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Review of Juliet's Nurse by Lois Leveen

Juliet's Nurse by Lois Leveen
Publisher: Atria Books (Simon & Schuster)
Publication Date: September 23, 2014
Length: 384 pages
Source: Atria Books via NetGalley

Lois Leveen imagines a backstory for the nurse of the ill-fated Juliet in her new novel, Juliet’s Nurse. The character of the nurse speaks the most number of lines after the title characters in Shakespeare’s famous play Romeo and Juliet, but Shakespeare tells us precious little about the nurse herself. Leveen’s thoroughly-researched book puts the nurse center stage, and provides a new perspective on the tragic story of the teen lovers, as well as the experience of women in 14th century Italy.

The Story: Angelica, the forty-something wife of a bee-keeper in 14th century Verona, has suffered the loss of six sons to the plague. Somehow, Angelica has managed to bear this unimaginable sorrow, with the help of her loving and bawdy husband Pietro. As the novel opens, Angelica finds, to her immense surprise, that she is pregnant with a seventh child. When the baby dies soon after birth, grief-stricken Angelica takes a position as a wet-nurse for the newborn daughter of a wealthy and powerful family, the Cappellettis. At the expense of her relationship to Pietro, Angelica becomes more than just a nurse to Juliet. She is the nurturing, caring presence in Juliet’s life for fourteen years. When Juliet meets a charismatic young man from a rival family, however, a series of events deeply rooted in the Cappelletti family’s secrets and rivalries begins to unfold. The results will bring tragedy, yet again, to the people Angelica loves most in the world.

My Thoughts: Leveen does a good job of creating a plausible backstory for Angelica. In her novel, the comical but ill-defined nurse of Shakespeare’s play becomes a fully formed and memorable character with her own strong emotions and motivations. Leveen also provides an excellent window into medieval life, with all of its difficulties and tragedies, especially for women. Leveen makes perfectly clear, for example, that you would NOT have wanted to experience childbirth in the 14th century (in case you had any doubt on that particular question! If you should suddenly find yourself time-traveling, Outlander style, to the Middle Ages, I highly suggest finding a convent to wait it out.).

Although Juliet’s Nurse is a solid and readable historical novel, it has some shortcomings that, for me, anyway, kept it from fulling reaching its promise. The unrelenting tragedies and sorrows of Angelica’s life can become repetitive. Leveen’s portrayal of Angelica’s love for Juliet can feel needlessly repetitive, too. The novel has some pacing issues, as well. In the final third of the novel, Leveen switches from a slow and nuanced portrayal of Angelica’s experiences into a rapid-fire retelling of the plot of Romeo and Juliet, even using Shakespeare’s dialogue to tell the story. I found this change rather abrupt and jarring. Angelica’s borrowed Shakespearean lines, which differ so greatly from her language in the first two-thirds of the novel, seem vastly out of place. Finally, I felt Juliet was not a fully developed character; I didn’t sense, for example, the depth of her emotions about Romeo, or anything else, for that matter. Although this is, of course, Angelica’s story, Juliet’s importance to the tale is central, and without a layered portrayal of Juliet, the novel seemed to be lacking something.

I would rate Juliet’s Nurse a three out of five stars. I would recommend it to those readers who particularly love the medieval time period or the story of Romeo and Juliet.

I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Top Ten Authors I've Only Read One Book From But Want to Read More

Today, the Top Ten Tuesday topic at The Broke and the Bookish is "Top Ten Authors I've Only Read One Book From But Need to Read More." Or, Let's Get Busy with the Backlist! (Or the front list, in a few cases! But you get the point.)

Sarah Waters: I have read only The Little Stranger, which I didn't absolutely fall in love with . . but it stayed with me in a weird way. Her newest novel The Paying Guests was released, today, actually--and I've got it loaded on the Kindle!

Philipp Meyer: Meyer's novel The Son, an epic saga about a family in Texas, kind of blew me away. I didn't expect it to, but it did. So I really would like to read something from his backlist.

Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie: I read Americanah this summer, and found it about equal parts fascinating and frustrating (my review is here). I've had a few people tell me it isn't her strongest work of fiction. I'd like to try Half of a Yellow Sun.

Roxane Gay: Well, Gay's debut novel An Untamed State is a gripping and powerful book (here is my review). I'd like to read her essay collection, Bad Feminist, and I will certainly be anxious to read her next novel.

Laird Hunt: I loved Laird Hunt's new novel Neverhome about a woman soldier in the Civil War (see my review here). It is gorgeously-written, and I've said a few times that I think it will be one of my favorite novels of the year. Of his previous novels, Kind One piques my interest the most.

Michael Chabon: I've only read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. Any suggestions for what other Chabon novels I should read? I have a copy of his latest, Telegraph Avenue, but haven't gotten around to it--and I've read mixed reviews. Any thoughts on whether I should read his most recent novel or go into his backlist?

Tom Rachman: I liked but didn't love The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, his sophomore effort (review here). I have heard so many great things about his first novel, The Imperfectionists.

Ann Packer: I loved The Dive from Clausen's Pier. Her new novel The Children's Crusade will be published in 2015, and I will certainly be reading that right away.

Amy Bloom: I always meant to read Away, but somehow never did. I did really enjoy Lucky Us, which was published this summer (my review here).

Ian McEwan: Ok, this is a bit of a cheat, since I've now read 3 McEwans. But up until last week, I had--somehow!--only read Atonement. Last Tuesday, on the day it was first published, I read McEwan's latest novel, The Children Act (see my review here) and then I needed more right away . . . so I read his 2007 On Chesil Beach. And now I very much need to read another. Thoughts on which one? I never read Amsterdam, so I added that one here.

Goodness, I don't know where I'll find the time to read all of these . . . but I'd definitely like to get to them at some point. Have you read any of these? If not, which authors do you hope to read more of?

Monday, September 15, 2014

It's Monday, September 15 . . . What Are You Reading?

Good morning, fellow book lovers!

Last week, I noticed a lot of talk in the book blogosphere about the need for a new, more creative kind of blogging about books (see Andi's post at Estella’s Revenge and Shannon's at River City Reading, and the great comments to both of those posts . . . so many good thoughts, and really interesting reading!). Well, I don't know if I have any particularly creative ideas for content--I am still getting my feet wet as a book blogger--but I'd like to do my part at helping to generate discussion. With that goal in mind, I thought I’d periodically throw out a discussion topic for book lovers. Here's my first effort at that: my post on When You Don't Like a Book That Many People Love.

Last week on the blog, I posted reviews of these two books:

My review of Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist is here. I had high expectations for this debut novel, and although there were elements that I truly appreciated, I felt the novel failed to fully live up to is promise. I had a much better reaction to Ian McEwan's latest novel, The Children Act, which I found to be thought-provoking and sharply written. My review is here. I was having a bit of a McEwan moment last week, so after I finished The Children Act, I read his 2007 novel On Chesil Beach--I loved it!

Here is what I am reading now:

Garth Stein's latest, A Sudden Light, will be published at the end of the month. I'll be honest, I'm having a tough time with this one so far . . . maybe that will change as I read more.

This post links to the "It's Monday" meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey. What's on your reading agenda for this week?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Discussion Topic: When You Don't Like a Book That Many People Love

Have you ever had a negative reaction a book that many of your friends and fellow book lovers adored? How has that made you feel?

Our reactions to books are often deeply personal, of course, and what one reader loves, another may absolutely despise . . . and yet another reader may not have strong feelings one way or the other. This is one of the reasons that I enjoy talking about books with others; in fact, it would be pretty boring (and creepy!) if we all reacted to books exactly the same, wouldn't it? Instead, we all bring our different backgrounds, experiences, and literary tastes to the table when we read a book, and that's why it's usually so interesting to have a discussion with others who have read the same the book.

But it can be an extremely odd sensation, I find, when you have a negative reaction to a book that many others seem to love. When this happens to me, I often feel very disoriented. I don't doubt myself . . . I trust my own feelings about a book, but I do tend to wonder how my reactions can be so different from those of friends and other readers whose opinions I respect.

I’ll be brave and throw an example out there . . . Here is a book that many seem to love with an unabashed passion:

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon is the first in a series of books, beginning with the first installment published in 1991. Now it is the subject of a TV series. Because I read historical fiction, I have had this book recommended to me a number of times, I’m sure with the expectation that I would love it.

A few years ago, I tried Outlander . . . and I did not like it. I read more than the half of the first book, and I couldn’t finish it. I gave it a good-faith effort, but it simply was not the book for me.

I don’t want to write a full review of the book--that isn't my goal here. But I’ll give you the general gist of what I thought (I’ll assume everyone knows the basic plot summary of a woman’s sudden time travel back journey into 1740s Scotland). I couldn’t feel any connection to the main character, Claire, who I thought seemed curiously unconcerned that she had traveled back in time, and not terribly interested in whether she could get back to her own time and to her own husband. Especially after she married a new husband in her new time period.

And then the violence . . . I was deeply troubled by it. I get that the 18th century was a violent time, and beatings happened, rape happened. I read literary and historical fiction, so of course I read scenes of violence and brutality all the time. But Claire’s reactions to, for example, her new husband savagely beating her, were disturbing to me. She didn’t seem to question it, and quickly forgave him. I’ve heard others say that they loved Gabaldon’s portrayal of a strong-willed heroine, but in fact, I felt like I was reading the exact opposite.

My point here is not to trash the book or question the judgment of those who loved it. I’m trying to describe and explain my own reactions to it. Perhaps, if I’d read the complete book, I might have come to a different conclusion, but after close to 500 pages, I decided it was just not working for me and I didn't want to continue.

Many other readers, I know, have loved Outlander. It has a 4.14 average on Goodreads and a strong fan base. And now that the TV series is going, it’s getting talked about more and more, and even recommended to me as a book I should read. So yet again, I’m feeling alone in my reactions.

Have you have had the experience that your reactions to a book seemed very different from what others thought?

Review of The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Children Act by Ian McEwan
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
Publication Date: September 9, 2014
Length: 240 pages
Source: My own copy

Ian McEwan’s thirteenth novel, The Children Act, highlights issues of faith, fidelity, and responsibility . . . the responsibility of the state for society’s children, and the responsibility of humans for one another. It’s a thought-provoking and intelligent book, elegantly structured and crisply written.

The Story: Fiona Maye is an English judge known for her wise, measured, and carefully crafted decisions. She presides over a Family Court, deciding the fate of families and children every day; among her recent cases was a high-profile and emotionally-wrenching battle over the fate of conjoined twins.

As the novel begins, Fiona’s husband of 35 years tells her he wants to have an affair with a much younger woman, and hopes for her approval. He explains, “I need it. I’m fifty-nine. This is my last shot. I’ve yet to hear evidence of afterlife.” As Fiona reacts with shock and anger, she is called to court to hear the case of a seventeen-year-old boy, Adam, with leukemia. Without a blood transfusion, Adam will likely die. But Adam and his parents oppose the treatment on the grounds of their religion; they are Jehovah’s Witnesses. McEwan follows Fiona’s thoughts as she resolves the complex case and deals with the fall-out of this unexpected crisis in her own domestic situation.

My Thoughts: McEwan skillfully presents the complex legal and moral issues of the Jehovah’s Witness case. Fiona’s actions are guided by the 1989 Children Act, which made a child’s welfare the top priority of British courts; but what if the best interests of a child aren’t always clear? Someone, of course, must sit in judgment, must ultimately DECIDE.

Far more interesting to me than the legal issues of this particular case are the insights McEwan provides into human emotions and decision-making. McEwan’s novels (at least, those I’ve read so far) often seem to hinge on a single, decisive moment, when his main character makes a fateful decision to do something, or NOT to do something . . . and of course, there are consequences to that decision. In The Children Act, this works brilliantly, and the results are provocative.

McEwan’s prose is sharp and clear, and the novel is tightly focused and expertly constructed. McEwan caused a bit of a stir recently when he commented that “very few really long novels earn their length.” After slogging through a few meandering novels recently that could have been cut by at least 100-200 pages (and I confess I’m getting tired of how often I point this out in reviews!), I can well understand his point. Certainly, McEwan demonstrates with the The Children Act that a well-written short novel can still be nuanced, layered, and full of great meaning.

I haven’t read McEwan in quite some time; in fact, I was rather surprised to realize that the only McEwan novel I’d previously read is Atonement. Given that I loved Atonement, I’m not sure how to explain that oversight. In any case, this sharp and intelligent book had me hungering for more McEwan, so I quickly downloaded and inhaled another of his novels, On Chesil Beach. Review to come on that one soon.

Bottom line, I thought The Children Act was excellent, and I do recommend it to those who read literary or contemporary fiction.

Finally, true Book Goofs will enjoy the homage to James Joyce's short story "The Dead." Thanks Ian McEwan, for that literary nerdgasm!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Waiting on Wednesday: The Paying Guests

"Waiting on Wednesday" is a weekly event, hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. Autumn is usually a season with great new releases in fiction, and this year appears to be no exception.

Here is the book that I am most anxiously awaiting at the moment . . .

The Paying Guests is the new novel from Sarah Waters, set for release on September 16th. Here's the publisher's description:

It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned; the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa -- a large, silent house now bereft of brothers, husband, and even servants -- life is about to be transformed as impoverished widow Mrs. Wray and his spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.

With the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the "clerk class," the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. Little do the Wrays know just how profoundly their new tenants will alter the course of Frances's life -- or, as passions mount and frustration gathers, how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.

Yeah . . . I really want to read that! My eagerness is making me jittery (or is that the coffee?). Give me that book!

I have read only one Sarah Waters book previously, The Little Stranger. I didn't absolutely love it, but it was a very interesting read, and it has stayed with me in ways I wouldn't have expected. The Paying Guests seems to cover some of the same themes--class boundaries, gender roles, the social upheaval after a great war--but without the supernatural element of The Little Stranger (which I found problematic, actually). For some reason, the description of Waters' latest offering is really striking a chord. The reviews I've read at this point are kind of mixed . . . but something tells me that I shouldn't read too much about the novel before diving in myself.

Does The Paying Guests sound like something you would read? What new fall releases are you eagerly awaiting?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Review of The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Publisher: Ecco
Publication Date: August 26, 2014 (US publication)
Length: 416 pages
Source: My own copy

Jessie Burton’s much hyped debut novel, The Miniaturist, takes readers to late 17th century Amsterdam, a contradictory and sometimes dangerous world. At the time, Dutch traders ruled the seas. Merchants lived in opulence in the Dutch Republic’s capital, and yet an austere and punishing religion governed daily life.

The Story: The Miniaturist begins as eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam from the countryside, leaving behind a noble family that has fallen on hard times. She is newly wed to a rich, older merchant named Johannes Brandt, and although her marriage ceremony was hasty and none-too-auspicious, Nella hopes to embark on a life of happy matrimony and motherhood.

Instead, nothing is as Nella expects in her new home. Her husband’s brusque sister Marin rules the roost with an iron fist, and has no intention of ceding control of the household to her na├»ve sister-in-law. Even the servants seem to view Nella as a provincial nobody. Most confusing of all to Nella, Johannes does not attempt to consummate the marriage. Instead he presents her with an extravagant but perplexing wedding gift—a doll-sized replica of the house.

Lonely Nella, with little else to occupy her, turns to a craftsman to fill the doll-house with mini pieces of furniture and figures. The mysterious miniaturist, however, seems to have a disturbing and prophetic knowledge of the members of the Brandt household. As Nella grows increasingly obsessed with the miniaturist’s creations and cryptic messages, dangerous secrets in the Brandt household are revealed. Nella finds that she must quickly shed her innocence in order to protect her future and her strange new family from the threats that lurk all around them.

My Thoughts: The Miniaturist, first of all, is a very readable novel. I found myself turning the pages quickly, wanting to know the secrets of the Brandt household and how Nella’s situation would resolve. Burton ably recreates the world of Amsterdam in 1686, and I drank in all the rich details of a merchant family’s life. Burton does a good job of highlighting the limited roles a woman could have in this repressive time and place. Nella’s miniature house represents the cloistered, prison-like sphere acceptable for a woman; Nella must break out of this doll-house to become a person in her own right.

But while there is much I appreciated in The Miniaturist, I felt the novel didn’t fully live up to its promise. The mysteries of the miniaturist are never satisfactorily resolved. Could the miniaturist manipulate the Brandts like puppets; if so, why? Could the miniaturist predict the future? Did the miniaturist have supernatural powers? These questions are left unanswered, which seems a curious cop-out. I would have preferred a novel focusing on the family drama alone—of which there was plenty—without all the build-up about the miniaturist’s powers, especially since, in the end, this doesn’t seem to lead anywhere.

I must say as well that the plot, at times, felt forced—there is just a little too much happening all at once to the same family. Nella, as a character, left me unconvinced; she makes an enormous leap from an innocent, rural-bred girl to a surprisingly modern and proto-feminist woman. As a reader, I didn’t feel like Burton showed that transformation enough for me to accept it. The character of Otto, Johannes’s black servant, is not nearly developed enough, given his key part in the plot.

I would rate The Miniaturist about a 3 out of 5 stars. For me, it was a solid read, but not quite as good as I expected. I do think Jessie Burton shows a great deal of talent in her debut, and I would certainly read her next novel.

Tuesday Intros -- Juliet's Nurse

Every Tuesday, Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts a weekly meme in which book lovers share the opening paragraph (or sometimes two) of a book they've started to read or are thinking about reading soon. As readers, we form our first impressions of a book from the opening lines, and a good beginning paragraph can captivate us and draw us deeply into a book right from the start.

This is the book I am currently reading . . .

Juliet's Nurse by Lois Leveen, set in 14th century Verona, tells the story of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet from the perspective of Juliet's nurse Angelica. The novel, published by Simon & Schuster, will be released on September 23rd.

Here are the opening two paragraphs of Juliet's Nurse:

Two nights before Lammas Eve, I go to bed believing myself fat and happy. You will think me a fool for being so deceived, at my age. But in our hearts, we all wish to be fooled. And so we make fools of ourselves.

For months, Pietro and I have finished dinner with a sampling of his latest confections: candied cherries, quince marmalade, muscatel-stewed figs. Though he still cannot afford sugar, Pietro's begun gathering honey from hives in the groves and fields beyond Verona's walls. This frightens me, for I was badly stung as a child. My face swelled so large, villagers crossed themselves when they passed me, as though I was a changeling. But whenever Pietro returns from his hives he hums like he's a bee himself, insisting this will be his good fortune at last. With the honey, he can make, if not the bright, hard, confetti candy the apothecaries offer, at least such treats as we might sell ourselves.

What do you think? Are you interested, and would you keep reading?

Monday, September 8, 2014

It's Monday . . . What Are You Reading?

Well, good morning again! Sheila of BookJourney hosts this weekly meme for book lovers. I hope September is starting off as an excellent reading month for you. There are quite a lot of intriguing new releases coming out this month, so I'm looking forward to diving into a lot of great books.

Last week on the blog, I posted a review of this new novel:

Laird Hunt's Neverhome is a mesmerizing and beautiful novel about a woman who disguises herself as a man to fight in the Civil War. I absolutely recommend it, especially for readers who love literary historical fiction. Neverhome will be released tomorrow. You can read my review here.

Here is what I've been reading in the past week:

I finished The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, and I'll post a review soon. Juliet's Nurse by Lois Leveen, set in 14th century Verona, tells the familiar story of Romeo and Juliet, but from the perspective of Juliet's nurse. I wasn't sure how much I'd appreciate another re-telling of that old tragic tale, but so far it's had a few interesting surprises. Juliet's Nurse will be released on September 23rd, and I'll post a review sometime closer to that date.

Coming up for me this week, or at least soon-ish (and I'm not sure about the order in which I will read these):

I'll be reading Shirley Jackson's creepy classic novella The Haunting of Hill House as part of the RIP IX Readalong sponsored by The Estella Society. You can read my RIP IX post here; and you can go onto the official R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril site, sponsored by Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings, to see how you can join in on the fun for fall. Does the approach of fall make you want to read something spooky, mysterious, or gothic?

Hope everyone has a terrific week of reading!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Review of Neverhome by Laird Hunt

Neverhome: A Novel by Laird Hunt
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: September 9, 2014
Length: 256 pages
Source: Little, Brown and Company via NetGalley

I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic.

So begins Laird Hunt’s mesmerizing and beautifully written new novel, Neverhome.

Constance Thompson is a young farmer’s wife still reeling from the fresh grief of her mother’s death. A year into the Civil War, Constance decides that someone must represent her Indiana farm in the Union cause. Her husband Bartholomew has poor eyesight and lacks Constance’s sharp skills with a gun and fearless nature. Thus, Constance, dressed as a man, enlists in an Ohio company as “Ash” Thompson, while Bartholomew remains to tend their homestead.

With subtle but evocative prose, Hunt relays Ash’s experiences as a new recruit, from the nearly worthless training to the harrowing fields of battle. Slowly, it becomes apparent to the reader that Ash has been drawn to the fight not only from patriotism or a sense of duty; she is running away from something. Hunt skillfully reveals the truths of her past life as Constance, while describing soldier Ash’s journey through the war and quest to return home again.

I will not be the first reader, and I am sure not the last, to compare Neverhome to Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. The odyssey of Constance/Ash did make me think of Frazier’s Inman, but Hunt has his own unique and complex story of love, loss, and identity to tell . . . and he tells it masterfully, indeed. From the enthralling opening lines to the startling conclusion, Neverhome is a literary triumph.

I will certainly want to discover more of Laird Hunt’s work. From his backlist, I am most intrigued by his 2012 novel, Kind One, the story of two slave girls who hold their white mistress captive. That will go onto my To Be Read list, to be sure.

I highly recommend Neverhome to readers of literary fiction and historical fiction. I would rate this novel a 5 out of 5 stars, and I suspect it may be one of my favorite novels for the year.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, through NetGalley. The opinions expressed here, as always, are solely my own.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril IX

I am going to participate in a reading challenge this fall called R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril or RIP, hosted by Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings. The challenge is in its ninth year (wow!), but this will be my first time playing along. This is kind of out-of-the box for me, but I've decided I'm in!

Here is the basic idea of the RIP IX challenge . . . to read one or more books that fit into the following categories during the months of September and October:
Dark Fantasy

And here are Carl's two rules for RIP:
1. Have fun reading (and watching).
2. Share that fun with others.

Well, truthfully, I don't read many books that fall into the above categories at all! I am usually more of a literary fiction and historical fiction reader, although I like a good thriller or mystery once in a while. But, as a relatively new blogger, I am trying to expand the horizons of my reading and connect with other bloggers, and this seems like a great way to do both. And, hey, it's almost fall . . . what better way to get into the mood for Halloween than to read something creepy?

The RIP IX challenge has several levels of participation, or "perils," which you can read all about on the official challenge site here. I am going to participate in this peril:

Andi and Heather of The Estella Society are hosting a RIP IX Readalong for this year's Group Read, and this is actually what led me to participating in RIP. The readalong will run from September 1 through October 1, and the book selected is The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. There will be a group discussion of this classic novella on October 1. Here is the banner for The Estella Society's readalong:

When I saw Andi's post about the readalong for The Haunting of Hill House, I decided this would be a great opportunity for me to revisit the work of Shirley Jackson. I've only read her short stories, and that was positively EONS ago in high school. My interest in Jackson was peaked earlier this summer when I read a novel loosely based on Shirley Jackson; it's called Shirley: A Novel by Susan Scarf Merrell and you can read my review of it here. I didn't find Merrell's novel fully satisfying, unfortunately, but I feel drawn to reading more Jackson. So this readalong sounded like perfect fit. I can't wait to get started!

I'm only committing myself to reading The Haunting of Hill House at this point, but I am fully expecting to hear about some fantastic books through RIP IX. Maybe I'll add other books as we go along! I look forward to reading everyone's posts.

Big Book Summer Challenge--Wrap-Up

Labor Day is over and the kids have started back to school this week . . . all signs point to the end of summer. Except the weather! In my neck of the woods, we've been having some of our hottest days of the season this week.

Nevertheless, it is time to do a little wrap-up of my summer reading. I participated in my first ever reading challenge as a book blogger this summer, with the 2014 Big Book Summer Challenge hosted by Sue at Book by Book. The idea of this nicely low-key challenge was to read a few books over 400 pages.

I didn't have any truly ginormous chunksters on my plate for this summer (although just before the challenge began, I had finished Donna Tartt's 778 page door-stopper of a novel, The Goldfinch!). These were the books with more than 400 pages that I promised to read for the challenge:

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman just squeaked in for the challenge at 400 pages. You can read my review here. Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah is a bit heftier, at 477 pages. My review is here.

I'm going to tack something on to the challenge, because the biggest book I read this summer was actually not one that I had planned in advance to read. At 640 pages, this was my chunkiest summer read:

My review of We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas is here.

Thanks to Sue for hosting this challenge! I think reading challenges are a great way for book bloggers and other book lovers to plan our reading schedule and, sometimes, to expand our horizons a bit and try something new! I'll be trying out a new challenge this fall . . . more on that soon!

Did you read any Big Books this summer?