Thursday, May 7, 2015

Review of The Bookseller

The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: March 2015
Length: 352 pages
Source: TLC Book Tours

Synopsis from Publisher: A mesmerizingly powerful debut novel about the ways in which past choices can irrevocably define the present—and the bittersweet confrontation of what might have been.

1962: It may be the Swinging Sixties in New York, but in Denver it’s different: being a single gal over thirty in this city is almost bohemian. Still, thirty-eight-year-old Kitty Miller has come to terms with her unconventional single life. She was involved, once—with a doctor named Kevin—but when things didn’t work out the way she had hoped, she decided to chart her own path. Now she dedicates herself to the bookstore she runs with her best friend, Frieda, returning home each evening to her cozy apartment. Without a husband expecting dinner, she can enjoy last-minute drinks after work with her friends; without children who need to get ready for school, she can stay up all night reading with her beloved cat, Aslan, by her side.

Then the dreams begin.

1963: Katharyn Andersson is married to Lars, the love of her life. They live in a picture-perfect home in a suburban area of Denver, close to their circle of friends. It’s the ideal place in which to raise their children. Katharyn’s world is exactly what Kitty once believed she wanted . . . but it exists only when she sleeps.

At first, Kitty enjoys her nighttime forays into this alternate world. Even though there is no Frieda, no bookstore, no other familiar face, Kitty becomes increasingly reluctant to open her eyes and abandon Katharyn’s alluring life. But with each visit to her dreamworld, it grows more real. As the lines between the two worlds begin to blur, Kitty faces an uncertain future. What price must she pay to stay? What is the cost of letting go?

My Thoughts: In The Bookseller, a debut novel from Cynthia Swanson, a cat-owning spinster bookstore owner named Kitty Miller begins to have odd dreams that hint at an alternative life.

Kitty seems to have an enviable, although quiet, life in early 1960s Denver. She owns a small bookstore with her best friend. Though the bookstore is struggling and may need to relocate, Kitty seems satisfied with her life as a single and independent woman. Then she begins to have tantalizingly strange dreams . . . dreams in which she lives in an entirely different house, with an attractive and loving husband and adorable children. Everything in Kitty's dreams seems wonderful and trouble-free; do the dreams represent what Kitty's life might have been if she had pursued a different path? Soon Kitty finds herself seeking out the dream life, almost as a refuge from her real-life problems. But is the dream life as perfect as it appears? Which life is better . . . and which life is more real?

The Bookseller is an engaging, sometimes haunting read. I polished it off quickly, wanting to know what Kitty's strange dreams would ultimately reveal. Although I began to guess at the ending before the completion of the book, I still found the novel's resolution to be satisfying.

The "what if" scenario Swanson uses is interesting, although as other reviewers have pointed out, it has appeared in other novels, as well as movies, before. There is certainly a parallel to be found in the 1998 movie Sliding Doors. I was reminded, as well, of the novel The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver, which presents two alternate outcomes for the life of the main character. Nevertheless, if The Bookseller's structure is not wholly original, I think most readers can relate to the question of how their life might have turned out differently if they had made other choices.

I'd offer a few other criticisms of The Bookseller. Although the novel hangs on Kitty and her growing realization of what is important in her life, I felt her character was underwritten and would have benefitted from further development. In addition, I could perhaps have used less detail about furniture and housing developments; there is not much historical context other than those sorts of details, which for me, didn't add much to the story.

Bottom line, The Bookseller is a quick and highly readable novel. Although I may not rank it as one of my favorite books of the year, it could prompt a great book club discussion about choices, the nature of reality, and how we perceive our own lives.

I received a complimentary copy of this novel from Harper Collins through TLC Book Tours. Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to participate in the blog tour for this book. You can visit the other stops on the tour at the official tour site here.

About Cynthia Swanson: Cynthia Swanson is a writer and a designer of the midcentury modern style. She has published short fiction in 13th Moon, Kalliope, Sojourner, and other periodicals; her story in 13th Moon was a Pushcart Prize nominee. She lives in Denver, Colorado, with her husband and three children. The Bookseller is her first novel. Find out more about Cynthia at her website and connect with her on Facebook.

Monday, April 27, 2015

It's Monday, April 27--What Are You Reading?

Good morning, fellow readers.

I just finished this book, and . . . wow.

Sara Taylor's debut novel, The Shore, is a quite a read . . . I'll post a review closer to the publication date (May 26). I'll just say for now that if this book is not on your radar yet, consider yourself notified!

I'm currently reading this book . . .

Tania James' novel, The Tusk That Did the Damage, released in March of this year, considers the moral complexities of the ivory trade in South India. James tells the story through the eyes of a poacher, a documentary filmmaker, and and an elephant known as the Gravedigger.

My most recent blog post was a discussion of Spring Releases I Can't Wait to Read. Let me know if any of these are on your list for the next few weeks, and what other spring releases have caught your attention!

I am recently returning to my blog after taking a few months off. I had a bit of an existential crisis as a book blogger--you know, what I am doing with this blog and why?! I think a lot of other book bloggers have experienced something similar. I became rather bored of posting only book reviews, which seem to generate very limited interest or conversation among other readers. But at the same time, I confess that I don't have the time or the creativity to generate much other book-related content.

So I took some time off . . . and I found that I really missed the conversation with other bloggers and book lovers. Therefore I'm back, for now, but this experience has led me to think that perhaps I should focus less on traditional-style book reviews and more on posting reaction pieces, mini reviews, or reading-related discussion topics (when I can think of them!). Have you struggled with similar issues in writing your blog, and if so, how have you handled them?

I wish everyone a happy reading week.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Spring New Releases I Can't Wait to Read

It's spring! The flower trees are blooming, the sun is shining (sometimes), the pollen is making me sneeze . . . and some lovely new novels are on the horizon!

Here are a few which have caught my eye and I can't wait read in the coming weeks . . .

Sara Taylor's debut novel, The Shore, will be published on May 26, and I think this novel of linked narratives looks intriguing. The stories center on women living on islands off the coast of Virginia's Chesapeake Bay . . . but a light beach read, this is NOT. From the publisher's synopsis: "These women struggle against domestic violence, savage wilderness, and the corrosive effects of poverty and addiction to secure a sense of well-being for themselves and for those they love." I read the first chapter last night, and it blew me away!

If you read Kate Atkinson's compelling 2013 novel Life After Life, you probably know that A God in Ruins is a sequel of sorts. This novel, to be published on May 5, is the story of Ursula's brother Teddy, the RAF pilot. Well, while I didn't absolutely LOVE Life After Life, I was certainly fascinated and challenged by it . . . and so, of course, A God in Ruins is one of the spring releases I am most anticipating.

Early Warning is the second installment of Jane Smiley's planned trilogy about the Langdon family. I love Jane Smiley, and I truly enjoyed Some Luck, her first novel about the Langdons (you can see my review of Some Luck here). Early Warning, which will be published on April 28, begins in 1953, as the family grieves the death of Walter. I look forward to finding out how the five Langdon children experience the turbulence and passion of America in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

If you like historical fiction, a new release for spring that might interest you is Sarah McCoy's The Mapmaker's Children, set for release on May 5. McCoy tells the stories of Sarah Brown, the daughter of abolitionist John Brown and a woman active in the Underground Railroad, and Eden, a modern woman anxious to conceive a child. The two women are linked by a house in West Virginia with secrets in the root cellar. (Confession--I read this one already! Review to come soon)

In the Unlikely Event is a new novel by Judy Blume . . . yes, THE Judy Blume! That's all you need to know--just buy it on June 2 and start reading! Seriously, though, that is pretty cool--a new novel for adults from 77-year-old Blume. It takes place in New Jersey in 1951-1952, as a series of passenger airlines crash in the same area within a three month period. I will certainly not miss this novel, but I will probably wait until July to read it (our family vacation in June involves airplane travel. Does this book sound like good airplane reading to you? Um, I'll wait a few weeks).

Do any of these new releases strike your fancy? What books are you looking forward to this spring?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Some Thoughts on the Best Book I've Read So Far This Year . . . A Little Life

The best novel I've read so far in 2015 is--hands-down, no questions asked--Hanya Yanagihara's flawed but absolutely compelling, astonishing, challenging novel, A little Life.

This isn't so much a review as a reaction piece. Somehow, I don't really feel like I can offer a full review of the novel. For one thing, I don't want to inadvertently include any spoilers. In some ways, I feel as though readers are better off going into this novel without many pre-conceived notions about the characters or the plot. It's better to just experience it with a fresh, open mind.

For another thing . . . my God, I'm not even sure how to think about adequately reviewing it in a traditional sense. If you've read the novel, you may know what I mean.

So, here is what I posted on Goodreads about A Little Life just after finishing the novel last month: Whoa... This book will wring your heart out. You don't READ A Little Life so much as experience it on a primal level. The novel includes some disturbing, emotionally harrowing material, and in that sense, it can be difficult to read. So why is it racking up 5 star reviews from many literary fiction fans? I think because Yanagihara makes readers feel so deeply connected to the characters, so positively immersed in their lives ... she has a way of creating a bond between the reader and her fictional characters that is nothing short of astonishing. Therefore, add me to the growing collection of people singing the praises of A Little Life--even though I do think the novel has a few flaws. Ultimately, it's a truly thought-provoking book that raises questions about the nature of love and friendship, how people can overcome trauma, and how far any of us is prepared to go to help a friend or loved one experiencing pain.

Back to me in the present.... So yup, this is quite a powerful book. I devoured it--it's over 700 pages, but I flew through it in a couple of days. Yanagihara grabs ahold of you with her complex, rich characters and will NOT LET GO. I think I have a completely fresh definition now for a book that you "can't put down."

I do think there are a few things that aren't perfect here. To start, Yanagihara really hits Jude hard, over and over again ... It's relentless. Was it necessary for this character to experience so much pain and heartache? I think Yanagihara clearly exaggerates his pain for a reason--to force us think about the nature of physical and emotional trauma, about our responsibility for others, about the limits of love and friendship, etc. But .... is it too much?

Secondly .... women? Women characters are almost completely absent in this novel. I know--there's Julia, a social worker, a few female friends, but they are cardboard cut-outs compared to the men. I have to say I noticed this and wondered why. Interestingly, Yanagihara's previous novel, The People in the Trees, also lacks any deeply developed female characters. So, two novels, with only men as fully-realized characters . . . I'd love to know if that was a conscious decision on Yanagihara's part.

I think, in the end, everyone should just experience the novel for themselves. It's a powerful and thought-provoking book, and it would be fabulous for a book club. This is a book that cries out to be discussed over a few glasses of wine. I'll be eagerly anticipating the discussion on The Socratic Salon!

I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher, Doubleday Books, through NetGalley, for review consideration.

What do you think . . . Have you read A Little Life? If not, do you plan to?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Congratulations to Anthony Doerr, Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Yesterday, the Pulitzer Prize Board announced the winners of its literary and journalistic prizes for 2015. And the recipient of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is Anthony Doerr, for his novel All the Light We Cannot See. I'd like to congratulate Doerr for this honor . . . and recommend that you read the novel if you have not!

All the Light We Cannot See was one of my two favorite novels from 2014. I never wrote a review of it (as a book blogger, I experienced a bit of an existential crisis starting in December of last year and stopped posting . . . more on that later!). But my failure to review the novel in no way reflects my opinion of its worth. Doerr's novel is beautifully written, deeply engrossing, and emotionally engaging. It's a terrific example of what I like to call literary historical fiction--those books that tell a story from the past but bear the hallmarks of excellent writing and strong character development that are present in literary fiction. As you might be able to tell if you've read my blog, literary historical fiction is my very favorite kind of book.

I am always interested in which novels win the big literary prizes. Some of the winners of the prizes last year gave me some pause, I have to admit. (In fact, last fall I wrote a blog post about this: Do Literary Prizes Influence Your Reading Choices?) Especially after the awarding of the Baileys Prize to Eimear McBride for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and the Man Booker Prize to Richard Flanagan for The Narrow Road to the Deep North . . . Both choices struck me as not very accessible for most readers (just my own opinion, of course--I'm sure some would disagree). That prompted me to wonder if there has been a disconnect between prizewinning novels of late and what most readers actually want to read. I certainly don't want to imply that I think literary prizes should necessarily go to commercially successful fiction; sometimes that just isn't possible. All the Light We Cannot See strikes me as great example of a novel that is literary enough to earn the approval of judges and, at the same time, accessible and enjoyable for much of the fiction-reading public.

I've recommended All the Light We Cannot See to many friends and fellow book-lovers as a satisfying and thought-provoking read. Interestingly, both of my two local book clubs have chosen it as their selection for the month of April. The novel is an excellent choice for this year's Pulitzer Prize. I hope that even more readers will discover the pleasures of All the Light We Cannot See as a result of the prize.

Have you read All the Light We Cannot See? If not, is it on your list of books to-be-read?

Friday, April 17, 2015

Review of A Reunion of Ghosts

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell
Publisher: Harper Collins
Publication Date: March 24, 2015
Length: 400 pages
Source: Publisher, through TLC Book Tours

Synopsis from Publisher: Three wickedly funny sisters.

One family’s extraordinary legacy.

A single suicide note that spans a century …

Meet the Alter sisters: Lady, Vee, and Delph. These three mordantly witty, complex women share their family’s apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. They love each other fiercely, but being an Alter isn’t easy. Bad luck is in their genes, passed down through the generations. Yet no matter what curves life throws at these siblings—and it’s hurled plenty—they always have a wisecrack, and one another.

In the waning days of 1999, the trio decides it’s time to close the circle of the Alter curse. But first, as the world counts down to the dawn of a new millennium, Lady, Vee, and Delph must write the final chapter of a saga lifetimes in the making—one that is inexorably intertwined with that of the twentieth century itself. Unspooling threads of history, personal memory, and family lore, they weave a mesmerizing account of their lives that stretches back decades to their great-grandfather, a brilliant scientist whose professional triumph became the sinister legacy that defines them.

Funny, heartbreaking, and utterly original, A Reunion of Ghosts is a magnificent novel about three unforgettable women bound to each other, and to their remarkable family, through the blessings and the burdens bestowed by blood.

“What if the man who invented chemical weapons was also a grandfather, and what if his great-grandchildren grew up to be three hilarious, introverted, deeply-haunted sisters? And what if those sisters co-wrote a fascinating, funny, and deeply sad 350-page suicide note? Then you’d have A Reunion of Ghosts. This is a triumphant, beautiful, and devastating novel about coincidences, family, and the sins of our fathers.” — Anthony Doerr, New York Times bestselling author of All The Light We Cannot See

My Thoughts: I thoroughly enjoyed Judith Claire Mitchell's intriguing and startlingly original novel A Reunion of Ghosts. Both literary and humorous, this was a novel I absolutely devoured; I truly did not want to put it down. Mitchell has crafted a story that entertains as well as prompts the reader ponder the nature of memory, family ties, sin, and mental illness.

Mitchell deftly alternates between the lives of Lady, Vee, and Delph Alter, a trio of sisters living in Manhattan, and the lives of their great-grandparents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The witty and complicated Alter sisters struggle under the weight of a unique family history. Their great-grandfather, Jewish scientist Lenz Alter, invented chlorine gas... the very stuff which resulted in the development of chemical warfare in World War I and Zyklon B (the gas used in Nazi concentration camps to kill Jews and other prisoners). Talk about a troubling family legacy.

The terrible invention of Lenz Alter reverberates through the generations in the Alter family. Young Lady, Vee, and Delph are taught by their mother from an early age that "the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the 3rd and 4th generations." The Alter sisters believe that their family has been cursed, in a fashion, like the famous Kennedys. While this curse at times seems a bit overly fantastical (does anyone truly believe they must pay with their lives for the sins of their forefathers?), the saga of the Alter family provides a good means for contemplating the most dark and troubled parts of the history of the twentieth century.

Mitchell's well-written novel is emotionally engaging throughout, and filled with much more warmth and humor than you might expect in a novel about a family prone to suicide. I felt myself more deeply connected, at times, to the characters of Lenz and Iris Alter, as well as their friends Albert and Mileva Einstein, than to the modern-day Alter sisters. But overall, I found A Reunion of Ghosts to be a fascinating and worthwhile read. It would be a good choice for book groups; the mix of weighty themes and dark humor will please a range of readers and provide plenty of topics for discussion.

I received a complimentary copy of this novel from Harper Collins through TLC Book Tours. Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to participate in the blog tour for this book. You can visit the other stops on the tour at the official tour site here.

About Judith Claire Mitchell: Judith Claire Mitchell, author of the novel The Last Day of the War, is an English professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she directs the MFA program in creative writing. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Judy has received fellowships from the James A. Michener/Copernicus Society, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Wisconsin Arts Board, and elsewhere. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband, the artist Don Friedlich.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Top Ten Books I'm Looking Forward To In 2015

This week's Top Ten Tuesday list, sponsored by the Broke and the Bookish, is the Top Ten Books I'm Looking Forward To In 2015. I'm quite sure that I'll be learning about lots more new releases in the coming weeks (and hopefully today from some of my fellow bloggers!), but here are ten titles that I'm anticipating so far:

West of Sunset: A Novel by Stewart O'Nan. I haven't read O'Nan in a while, but the premise of his latest caught my attention: the last, difficult year of F. Scott Fitzgerald's life, when he lived in Hollywood and tried to make it as a screenwriter. Sounds interesting! The publication date is January 13, 2015, and I'm happy to have an ARC--so this will probably be one of the first novels of 2015 that I read.

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum. Here's the publisher's mini synopsis: "For readers of Claire Messud and Mary Gaitskill comes a striking debut novel of marriage, fidelity, sex, and morality, featuring a fascinating heroine who struggles to live a life with meaning." This debut novel, with an expected publication date of March 24, 2015, tells the story of an American woman married to a Swiss banker who begins to have affairs and finds her comfortable life in Zurich falling apart at the seams. I don't have an ARC, but I'd love to get my hands on one; something tells me this might be a very promising debut.

A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison. Another debut novel, Ellison's book also promises an interesting story about a woman who has made mistakes. From the publisher: "A Small Indiscretion is a gripping and ultimately redemptive noel of love and its dangers, marriage and its secrets, youth and its treacherous mistakes." This novel, to be published January 27, 2015, has received some pretty impressive blurbs from the likes of Emma Donoghue and Ann Packer.

The Children's Crusade: A Novel by Ann Packer. I loved Ann Packer's 2003 novel The Dive From Clausen's Pier, which was a fantastic book (although a terrible TV movie!). I haven't read any of her other novels, which seem to have suffered some mixed reviews. The Children's Crusade, to be published in April of 2015, looks to be a sweeping, multi-generational saga that covers five decades in the lives of a California family. Well, I'm always up for a good family saga, so I have high hopes!

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson. Oh dear, time for me to admit I have never read an Erik Larson book! I have certainly paged through his previous books at the bookstore, but for some reason never read one. Maybe this year I will start with his newest offering, which will be published on March 10, 2015. Well, I said I wanted to incorporate more nonfiction choices into my reading throughout the year (not just during Nonfiction November!). Any other great nonfiction titles you see on the horizon for the first half of 2015?

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh. I've heard buzz aplenty about this debut novel set in Baton Rouge in the summer of 1989. It sounds like a combination of a coming-of-age story and a thriller, with a touch of Southern gothic. Okay, I'm intrigued. I look forward to reading some reviews in the early part of the year--I'm sure some of you out there have ARCs of this one! My Sunshine Away is set for publication on February 10, 2015.

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter. This novel, Aislinn Hunter's second, begins with a 15 year-old girl who loses the small child she was babysitting. The child, lost in the woods, is never found. The teenager grows up and becomes a museum archivist, who is searching for information related to another missing person--a woman who disappeared from a Victorian asylum. The novel moves back and forth between the archivist's search in contemporary London, the Victorian asylum, and a delapidated country house which may connect the missing people. I'm not sure why, but this captured my interest.

The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James. This novel, to be published in March 2015, considers the moral complexities of the ivory trade in South India. James tells the story through the eyes of a poacher, a documentary filmmaker, and most interestingly, an elephant known as the Gravedigger. This sounds quite original to me, and I can't resist seeing how the author offers the point of view of an elephant.

The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson. From the publisher's description: "A provocative and hauntingly powerful debut novel reminiscent of Sliding Doors, The Bookseller follows a woman in the 1960s who must reconcile her reality with the tantalizingly alternate world of her dreams. Nothing is as permanent as it seems . . ." Well, this one caught my eye, and I'll be participating in a blog tour for it in the spring. The release date is March 3, 2015.

The Mapmaker's Children by Sarah McCoy. This novel, to be published in May of 2015, moves back and forth in time between Sarah Brown, the daughter of the abolitionist John Brown, and a contemporary woman who finds hints about Sarah and the Underground Railroad in the root cellar of an old house. I wasn't a big fan of The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd's novel about the abolitionist Sarah Grimke. I hope McCoy's book will be a better read.

What 2015 new releases are you most anticipating? Would you read any of the above books? I look forward to reading everyone's lists!