06 May 2019

Stacked-Up Book Thoughts: The Mega Review Edition

8 books to read in spring 2019Hurray for opening windows and getting outside (if you ignore the pesky rain and ridiculous pollen levels). Spring is really, really here.

Even our outdoor farmers market opens this week. I'll be there every Tuesday afternoon from tomorrow all the way through to the end of October. I'm so ready to eat local!

Last Monday I was getting settled back to normal life after a four-day lacemaking workshop and just didn't have the energy to write my Monday review post. That has two consequences: (1) this post is covering a whole lot of books and (2) some of my thoughts are very brief.

review of Bakhita: The Saint of Sudan by Veronique Olmi, translated from the French by Adriana HunterBakhita: The Saint of Sudan by Veronique Olmi, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter (Other Press, April 16). This novel is based on the life story of Mother Josephine Bakhita, who was kidnapped from her Sudanese village by slavers when she was a little girl. After being sold several times and unspeakably abused, she was eventually bought by an Italian consul, who took her back to Italy. There Bakhita worked for a wealthy family until she finally was freed by Italian courts. By that time, she had a calling from God and joined a convent, where she tried to find peace and acceptance. Her selfless good acts, despite the horrors she both observed and suffered during her childhood, earned her sainthood in 2000, almost fifty years after her death. This is not an easy book to read, but Bakhita's story is powerful and heartbreaking. Even with the nuns, she was not totally at rest--her scars and the memories of how she got them, her skin color, and her many losses weighed heavily on her. Nonetheless, Bakhita always worked to provide comfort and protection to those who lacked both, especially during the World Wars. Don't miss this story of an extraordinary woman who survived slavery in Africa to devote herself to God and the people of Italy. (Finished print copy provided by the publisher.)

review of Park Avenue Summer by Renee RosenPark Avenue Summer by Renee Rosen (Berkley, April 30). If you're of a certain age then you at least recognize the name Helen Gurley Brown and are probably familiar with idea of the Cosmo girl. In the mid-1960s, just after the British (music) invasion and at the beginning of the sexual revolution, Brown took over Cosmopolitan, becoming the first female editor-in-chief of a Hearst publication. This novel covers Brown's first months at the magazine and her fight to shift its audience from middle-class housewives to cutting-edge single women. The story is told through the eyes of her assistant, Alice, who moved to the city to pursue her dream of becoming a professional photographer. I  really liked both plot lines of Rosen's novel. Brown struggled against the male hierarchy and her own insecurities, but eventually headed one of the most-read magazines in the Hearst stable. Alice, a native Midwesterner, is exposed to all the city has to offer: hard work and career opportunities as well as love and betrayal. The period details (music, restaurants, clothes) and the behind the scenes look at Cosmo rounded out the story of Brown's eventual success and Alice's first summer in the city. Audiobook: The unabridged audiobook (Penguin Audio; 10 hr, 42 min) was nicely read by Kathe Mazur, who perfectly captured Alice's trajectory from city innocent to strong woman ready to face her future. (Finished copy, digital galley, and audiobook provided by the publisher.)

Review of I'll Keep You Safe by Peter MayI'll Keep You Safe by Peter May (Quercus, March 2018). I've been on a Peter May kick this year, listening to some of his novels for the first time and revisiting in audio the books I had previously read in print. This mystery/thriller starts in Paris as Niamh and Ruairidh, childhood friends and now spouses and business partners, attend a fashion show to sell the unique wool cloth they design and manufacture in their native Lewis island, in the Outer Hebrides. After an argument in which Niamh accuses Ruairidh of having an affair, he leaves their hotel room to meet up with a fashion icon. Niamh runs after their car, only to see it explode in a burst of flame. The rest of the novel is set in Lewis, where Niamh must face the future without her husband and wait for the French police to identify the car bomber. May is a master of building up the background of his characters, carefully timing when to reveal past events as his characters work through their present. Niamh discovers just how few allies she has in the place she calls home, and we're left trying to figure out which unsavory relative or friend may have reason to do away with Ruairidh. I don't think this was May's strongest ending (to say the least), but frankly the solution to the murder usually takes a backseat to life in the Outer Hebrides, and that's just how I like it. Audiobook: The unabridged audiobook (Hachette Audio, 11 hr, 33 min) was alternately read by Anna Murray and Peter Forbes. Forbes performed the chapters told in the present, and Murray took on the chapters about Niamh's past. Although Murray did a fine job, Forbes seems tailor-made to read May's work, and his performance was the stronger. (Audiobook provided by the publisher.)

Review of Heads Will Roll by Kate McKinnon and Emily LynneHeads Will Roll by Kate McKinnon and Emily Lynne (Audible Studios; 4 hr, 6 min). If you like fun, raunchy, and timely humor in the style of old-time radio drama or Firesign Theater you must listen to this Audible Original, written by and starring McKinnon and Lynne. The evil queen, Mortuana, and her BFF JoJo--turned into a raven by an old hag--work together to put down a peasant rebellion and the idea of social democracy while also individually coming to terms with who they are and who and what they want to be. The combo of current political references and pop culture nods with mythology and fairy tale tropes is just too much fun to miss. We have Sirens (played by Queer Eye's Fab Five), celebrity chefs, actresses, servants, comedians, rebels, gnomes, and a few squawking fowl. Original songs, sound effects, and great acting pull everything together. The full cast also includes Meryl Streep, Peter Dinklage, and Tim Gunn. This title is well worth one of your Audible credits or your cash. I know I'll listen to this more than once. (Audiobook in my personal library.)

Review of National Geographic Kids Almanac 2020 by National GeographicNational Geographic Kids Almanac 2020 by National Geographic (May 7). I can't say enough good things about this fact-filled book for middle grade readers who have an interest in the natural world. Using National Geographic's signature gorgeous photos and colorful and easy-to-read graphics, the book covers everything from animal behavior to climate change, space exploration, history, and the sociocultural world. Besides informative text, the almanac includes activities, quizzes, and homework help. One of my favorite features is getting the chance to meet some of the National Geographic explorers and researchers (for example, archaeologist, filmmaker, pilot, ecologist). This is the kind of book (as you would expect) that you'll read in bits rather than cover to cover. I especially like the maps and the snapshot descriptions of each country. Pick a copy up for a curious kid in your life; it would make a great gift for the end of the school year. (Finished copy provided by the publisher.)

Review of Birds by the Shore: Observing the Natural Life of the Atlantic Coast by Jennifer AckermanBirds by the Shore: Observing the Natural Life of the Atlantic Coast by Jennifer Ackerman (Penguin, May 7). This collection of nature essays is actually a reprint (with a new introduction) of a book published in the 1990s that primarily focuses on the Delaware shore. Although the title implies that Ackerman mainly observed birds, she also writes of other species, like turtles, fish, and butterflies. She has both a personal perspective and a wider ecological and sociological scope, and her thoughts are often supported by research. Woven throughout are memories of her childhood and parents, and visits to Cape Cod and other seaside environments. I loved this collection and am now kicking myself for not having read her The Genius of Birds. I plan to dig out my copy of that 2016 book later this year. The print copy includes maps and and black and white drawings by Karin Grosz. I alternately read the print book and listened to the audiobook (Penguin Audio; 5 hr, 4 min). Ackerman read her own book, and though she's clearly not a professional narrator, she was pleasant to listen to. I recommend reading in print so you don't miss the illustrations. (Print galley and audiobook provided by the publisher.)

  • Reviews of Death Threat by Vivek Shraya and Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana WangDeath Threat by Vivek Shraya, illustrated by Ness Lee (Arsenal Pulp Press, May 7). If you are familiar with writer / musician Shraya, you shouldn't miss this graphic memoir that explores the author's exposure to disturbing transgender hate mail sent by a stranger. I really liked Lee's artwork and was, of course, horrified by the incident Shraya addresses. However, because I am unfamiliar with Shraya's work, I didn't connect as strongly as others might. (Finished copy provided by the publisher.)
  • Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang (Hogarth, May 14). This collection of short stories explores the life of contemporary Chinese new adults, focusing heavily on family and friendship. The settings are Europe, the United States, and China, and the book as a whole is an important addition to the #ownvoices movement. I listened to the unabridged audiobook (Random House Audio, May 14) for a freelance assignment. Each story was read by a different narrator, and although some performances were stronger than others, all were easy on the ears. For more thoughts on the audiobook, see AudioFile magazine.


Deb Nance at Readerbuzz 5/6/19, 8:38 AM  

I've been on a nature-reading kick over the last year, so I will definitely look for Birds by the Shore. I've been listening to North on the Wing on audio, and I've already listened to Genius of Birds. I feel like I am becoming quite knowledgable.

I'm glad to hear you enjoyed Park Avenue Summer. Good historical fiction is the most transportive of books for me.

Susie | Novel Visits 5/6/19, 8:50 AM  

I'm on the hunt for my next fiction audiobook and I just may have found it here with Park Avenue Summer, though I'll Keep You Safe also sounds really great.

JoAnn 5/6/19, 9:47 AM  

Hooray for eating local again! It still seems so strange to me that our farmers market on the island ends in a week or two, just as the markets in the north get started. Park Avenue Summer looks like a good summer read.

Tina 5/6/19, 10:24 AM  

Birds on the shore has my attention! I will certainly look for that at the library.
Would you say the Peter Mays books are better through audio? I tried to start with Coffin Road and for whatever reason I couldn't stay with it. Yet he's been on my short list for authors to try for quite a while. I love the descriptions for the plots, must give him a try once I catch up with the Netgalley books n my Kindle.

shelleyrae @ book'd out 5/6/19, 11:32 AM  

The first few times I saw Park Avenue Summer I made an assumption that it would be for me, so I didn’t even read the blurb. I finally did this time, and I’ve added it to my wishlist :)

Enjoy your reading week, and the farmers markets.

Kathy Martin 5/6/19, 2:06 PM  

Nice assortment of books. We're still waiting for Spring in northern Minnesota. Come see my week here. Happy reading!

bermudaonion 5/6/19, 3:06 PM  

Both Bakhita and Park Avenue Summer sound like books I'd like. I know I'll love the almanac - those books are so much fun to read.

Greg 5/6/19, 5:02 PM  

I love the farmers market and it's always nice when they start up again. Having the windows open this weekend and having a nice breeze was really nice too.

Looks like a nice mix of reads. :)

Clarissa 5/6/19, 6:14 PM  

Oh boy! There’s three books on your list I have to buy!

Sue Jackson 5/6/19, 7:01 PM  

Oh, Park Avenue Summer sounds like such fun! Of course, I remember how hot Helen Gurley Brown and Cosmo were in the 70's and 80's - would love to hear a novelization of how it all began.

My son used to love those annual Nat Geo Almanacs & all their interesting facts.

Sounds like a great couple of reading weeks for you! Enjoy your books - and that spring weather!


Book By Book

Yvonne 5/6/19, 8:10 PM  

I loved Park Avenue Summer. I just finished it, too. It might be my favorite book of the year, so far.

The weather is still up and down here, but it's getting there :) Hope you have a great week!

pussreboots 5/6/19, 8:16 PM  

Birds by the Shore sounds good. My weekly updates

(Diane) bookchickdi 5/19/19, 5:14 PM  

Park Avenue Summer is calling my name.

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