04 March 2019

Stacked-Up Book Thoughts: The Giant Edition

7 short book reviewsHold on to your hats, this is going to be a long post because it covers two weeks of my reading life. I had a post in good shape for last Monday; all I had to do was give it a final read through and then hit "publish." Well, best-laid plans and all of that.

Around midnight on Sunday night, after the Oscars, I lost electricity in a big wind storm. There was still no power in the morning, and in fact, we were in the dark for about 12 hours. Because I had to work on Monday and there was no telling when I'd get electricity again--the repair crews were dealing with numerous outages--I decided not to waste my laptop battery on my blog. The house was getting pretty dang chilly before the heat finally kicked on again.

Before I get to the reviews, note that I am giving away a digital copy of Disney's The Little Mermaid to one of my USA readers. Check out that post for information on how to enter for a chance to win a copy. (Thanks, Disney Studios!)

Review of The Night Olivia Fell by Christina McDonaldThe Night Olivia Fell by Christina McDonald (Gallery Books, Feb. 5): This book is billed as a thriller, but I think it's more like a mystery or puzzle. The story is told in retrospect by a single mother and her daughter. When Abi's phone rings in the middle of the night, you know it's not going to be good news: Her only child, Olivia, is in the hospital in a permanent vegetative state after falling from a bridge into a shallow river. The state of Washington cannot turn off life support because Olivia is pregnant, and there's a good chance the baby will survive until term. The chapters alternate between Olivia's and Abi's viewpoints, covering the final months of Olivia's life. Olivia's chapters primarily cover the events that lead up to her accident (or was it murder?), and Abi's chapters focus mostly on her new reality. Both characters reflect on the past and the choices that lead them to their current situation. The underlying thread is what really happened to Abi on the bridge: Murder or accident or suicide? Was she alone? Among the suspects are a new girlfriend, an old boyfriend, a new boyfriend, and a lifelong best girlfriend, and the parents of these kids are not exactly out of the picture either. This was a solid average read: I liked the two viewpoints and I wasn't completely sure what happened to Olivia. I listened to the unabridged audiobook (Simon & Schuster Audio; 10 hr, 45 min) read by Kelly Burke and Laurel Lefkow, whose performances captured the ages and emotions of their characters. There were a couple of minor mispronunciations, but nothing too jarring. (audiobook provided by the publisher)

Review of Pay Attention Carter Jones by Gary D. SchmidtPay Attention Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt (Clarion Books, Feb. 5): Schmidt is one of my very favorite middle grade authors (Orbiting Jupiter; Lizzy Bright and the Buckminster Boy). Although his novels are indeed geared to young readers, they deal with real-life issues that are important to all of us. His characters are always believable, and he often uses humor at just the right moments to soften the more difficult topics. I loved his latest book and am looking forward to his next. Absolutely nothing goes right on the first day of sixth grade: Carter's mother is feeling blue, the dog gets sick, there's no milk for the cereal, his little sisters are cranky, the car won't start, and a British man wearing a bowler hat is ringing the doorbell. From there, Carter's life gets both worse and better all at the same time. The man, as it turns out, worked for Carter's late-grandfather in England, and he's a genuine butler! Although the solidly middle-class all-American Jones family has no experience with domestic help, the butler is not daunted; he's here to stay and intent on "civilizing" his new employers. Underlying the fun of getting used to a butler (and learning to play cricket!), Carter is also contending with a father who is on active duty in Afghanistan, the loss of a younger brother from illness, and a mother who is loving but having trouble coping with her grief and loneliness. Mixing humor with an exploration of common contemporary issues, Schmidt has written another winning and thoughtful novel. I mean it, you should be reading his books. (finished copy provided by the publisher)

Review of This Much Country by Kristin Knight PaceThis Much Country by Kristin Knight Pace (Grand Central, March 5): I didn't know who Pace was before I started reading her well-written memoir. I picked it up because it takes place (mostly) in Alaska and because she is one of the few women to have completed both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod sled dog races. Each race covers more than 1,000 miles of frozen wilderness and tests the physical and mental strengths of both the mushers and the dogs. Pace has always loved the outdoors, spending as much time as possible in the wild areas of the country, even when quite young. She is also a dog lover. At loose ends, she accepted an offer to spend a few months house sitting, hoping that by the end of winter she would have a clearer vision of her future. This wasn't just any house, though, it was a cabin near Denali Park, and it came with eight sled dogs. Pace, no stranger to fending for herself, thrived in the harsh Alaskan winter, learning not just how to care for the dogs but also how to work them. By the end of the season, Pace found her home, new friends, and a new passion. Pace's story isn't a fairy tale; she writes about her troubles as much as her successes. I can't imagine what it would be like to be on the starting line in -40F temperatures looking ahead to 1,050 miles of snow, ice, cold, and unknown environmental dangers, faced mostly all alone in the wilderness. It's just you, your supplies, and your dogs. Of course, there are checkpoints and other racers, but the Yukon Quest and Iditarod are extremely solo races. Pace has a masters in photojournalism and worked as a journalist, and her writing flows well. It's easy to picture the beauty and harshness of Alaska, her incredible relationship with her dogs, and the emotional journey that has given her a life fully led. I listened to the unabridged audiobook (Hachette Audio, 8 hr, 41 min), read by the author. I usually avoid author-read audios, but Pace did a decent job. It's clear that she's not a professional, but her performance was engaging and heartfelt. The audiobook comes with a downloadable PDF which includes some photographs and maps of the races. (audiobook provided by the publisher)

Review of The Waning Age by S. E. GroveThe Waning Age by S. E. Grove (Viking Books for YR, Feb. 5): I really liked Grove's The Glass Sentence series and so I thought I'd give her latest novel a try. In a future world, people lose the ability to feel emotions as they mature. Currently, the age of waning is around 10, which means children feel sadness, happiness, love, and empathy but teens and adults feel only instincts. Thus a mother will care for her children, but true love is missing. If you have enough money, you can buy synthetic emotions; depending on the mix, the drugs allow you feel a full range of emotions from joy to depression. Since their mother's death, Natalia and Cal have been mostly on their own. Nat works as a maid in a Bay Area hotel while her brother attends school. Although Cal is already 10, he is not showing signs of waning and thus draws the attention of a powerful pharmaceutical company, which kidnaps the boy so researchers can figure out why he's retaining emotions. Nat uses her street smarts and meager connections to try to save Nat before he comes to harm. The novel is a mix of action/thriller and alternate history and explores the nature of emotions and how a world can become devoid of empathy. Grove leaves you with a lot to think about in terms of how technology and drugs could change the very nature of humanity. The unabridged audiobook (Listening Library; 9 hr, 51 min) was read by Kyla Garcia, Julio Sanchez, and Arthur Morey, who kept my attention, blended well together, and grasped the pacing of the story. (audiobook provided by the publisher)

Review of Make This! by Ella SchwartzMake This!: Building Thinking, and Tinkering Projects for the Amazing Maker in You by Ella Schwartz with photographs by Matthew Rakola (National Geographic Kids, Feb. 5): First, get the idea that this book is only for kids out of your head. Make This! is for anyone who is interested in how things work. The book takes the current artisan maker movement and turns it into an inspiring learning opportunity for those of us who want to know how to create useful and fun gadgets out of everyday materials. I love the maker culture and can't tell you how excited I was to find a book that is full of projects that pretty much everyone can complete. The projects in Make This! are divided into categories based on a STEM idea: machines, systems, optics, energy, acoustics, and so on. Each project is fun and easy and teaches a practical concept. For example, use a rolling pin to make a pulley and test how it makes it easier to lift heavy objects. Make your own Archimedes' screw and see how screws can move water uphill. Make your own musical instruments and learn about sound waves. Besides the projects, the book explains why things work, encourages us to think about how to apply the concepts to real-life problems, and helps us see the world in a new light. As a bonus, the photographs show young makers of different ages, colors, and body types, which is always appreciated. Both Mr. BFR (a real-life adult maker) and I are looking forward to making many of the projects in the book. Highly recommended. (print copy provided by the publisher)

Review of The Island of Sea Women by Lisa SeeThe Island of Sea Women by Lisa See (Scribner, March 5): I have always liked Lisa See's historical fiction set in China, so I jumped at the chance to listen to her latest novel for a freelance assignment. This time See takes us to the Korean island of Jeju, which has a unique history in terms of women. Families count on women to tend both the dry lands (traditional land-based gardens) and the wet lands, the collectively owned areas of the sea where the haenyeo (women divers) harvest seafood for sale and for feeding their families. The men, in turn, cook, watch the children, and "think deep thoughts." The diving collectives are a centuries-old tradition in which the women are strong and are the major breadwinners for the family. These women dive into cold ocean waters using only lung capacity and wearing minimal clothing; as a result they are able to withstand lower body temperatures than any other population on earth, including polar peoples. The novel follows two friends--one from a long line of strong haenyeo and one an orphan from a questionable family--from young childhood through to old age. Their story is also modern Korea's story, which includes invasion by the Japanese, occupation by the Americans, and a war between democracy and communism. This is a fascinating look at a vanishing culture, an emotional and complex tale of women's friendship, and tough look at Korean history of the last 70 years or so. Add this novel to your March reading list; it's an amazing story. The unabridged audiobook (Simon & Schuster Audio; 13 hr, 22 min) was read by Jennifer Lim who did a terrific job capturing the emotional arc of the characters. (For more, see AudioFile magazine; review copy provided for a freelance assignment)

Stories, Other Books, and a DNF

  • "The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Lui from The Paper Menagerie (Saga Press, 2016). I read and loved the title story from this speculative fiction collection. The story explored a mother-son relationship, immigration, regret, and empathy. Recommended, so far. (finished copy provided by the publisher)
  • The Book of Delights by Ross Gay (Algonquin, Feb. 12). In 102 very short prose pieces, award-winning poet Gay recorded the small acts of kindness, humor, and beauty he noticed over the course of a year. Recommended for dipping into and for gift giving. (finished copy provided by the publisher)
  • Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (Riverhead, Feb. 5). An epic fantasy based on African myth and history that garnered tons of praise. After an hour of listening to the audiobook (Penguin Audio, 24 hr, 2 min) read by Dion Graham I had to put it aside. I just wasn't feeling it. From the little bit I heard, Graham's performance was awesome. (audio edition provided by the publisher)
  • "Secrets" by Jessica Keener from Women in Bed (Story Plant, 2013). Keener is one of my go-to authors, and I liked the way this first story in the collection made me think about the relationships we have with the people we run into on a daily basis but never really know; in this case a waitress and a woman who was a regular for lunch service. Recommended. (review copy provided by the author)
  • Death of a Dreamer by M. C. Beaton (Grand Central 2007). This is the 22nd book in the Hamish Macbeth series, and it didn't disappoint. Hamish's personal life, the characters in the village, his new cat, and of course the murders kept me entertained. Totally recommended, especially in audio (Blacktone Audio; 5 hr, 25 min; performed by Graeme Malcolm) (I bought the audiobook)


Daryl 3/4/19, 8:45 AM  

some interesting reads here .... thanks!

Susie | Novel Visits 3/4/19, 8:54 AM  

I always worry about losing power before a post. That would take my internet down, so it wouldn't matter it my computer had juice left of not.

You've covered a lot of books and such a variety these last couple of weeks. The Lisa See book is one I've really been curious about, but my March is already packed! May have to add it to my summer TBR list. Have a great week!

rhapsodyinbooks 3/4/19, 10:37 AM  

I agree about Gary D. Schmidt - I think he's terrific!

Unknown 3/4/19, 10:56 AM  

So many new to me titles. I love seeing the variety of books you read/listen to.

Laurel-Rain Snow 3/4/19, 11:00 AM  

Losing power is the worst! It doesn't happen here often, so when it does, we don't quite know what to do. Spoiled, maybe?

I had a DNF yesterday. And another one a couple of weeks ago. I hate when that happens, but I don't like slogging through books I'm not feeling, either.

Enjoy your week, and thanks for visiting my blog.

Les in Oregon 3/4/19, 11:22 AM  

The Night Olivia Fell sounds intriguing. I read a book called Reconstructing Amelia a few years ago and this sounds a little bit like that one. I think I'll look for it at the library and see if holds my interest. I gave up on four books a few weeks ago, so I'm happy to be utilizing my library rather than spending money on books!

Have a good week and stay warm!

Kathy Martin 3/4/19, 11:36 AM  

Twelve hours without power! What a nightmare. Lots of good looking books here. Come see my week here. Happy reading!

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz 3/4/19, 12:28 PM  

I've heard so much good about Black Leopard, Red Wolf. But that is a long audiobook. I hope you will get back to it at some point and share your thoughts about it.

I've always complained about losing power during hurricanes down here on the Gulf Coast. But losing your air conditioning is nowhere near as difficult as losing your heat. How awful!

bermudaonion 3/4/19, 5:06 PM  

I have to get my hands on Pay Attention, Carter Jones since I love Schmidt's work too. I'm anxious to get to Make This! and The Island of Sea Women.

Greg 3/4/19, 5:18 PM  

Ugh power outages! It's awful in the winter too when it gets cooold!

This Much Country sounds amazing. Although speaking of cold- haha- I don't know HOW they do those sled races. No thanks!

Hope you have a nice week. :)

Yvonne 3/4/19, 8:25 PM  

I'm sorry you lost power. That's awful. I hope you have a good week and enjoy your books.

pussreboots 3/4/19, 9:40 PM  

With all the wind and rain we've had of late, I'm surprised the power has stayed on. We're expecting more this week. My weekly updates.

Nise' 3/4/19, 10:07 PM  

Such a great selection of book. The Lisa See book definitely has my attention.

Tina 3/6/19, 9:42 AM  

The Olivia book has been on my short list for a while . Never heard of the Waning book but it sounds interesting.
That’s a long time to go without electricity when it’s cold. Good thing you have a gas stove. We went days without during the aftermath of the last hurricane but it wasn’t cold.

Trupti 3/6/19, 11:12 PM  

This much country looks awesome to me!

thecuecard 3/8/19, 5:40 PM  

Good to hear that you liked the new Lisa See novel. I'm hoping to get to it. That Pace memoir looks pretty good too. Can't imagine how hard those dog treks must be!

(Diane) bookchickdi 3/11/19, 12:16 PM  

I have the Island of Sea Women on next up my TBR list.

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