Jackaby (CBR7 #68)

I was introduced to this book via Malin’s review last November. She had my attention with sassy female narrator who does not have a romance with the titular Jackaby, investigator in the vein of a Cumberbatchian Sherlock or Matt Smithian Doctor Who. Add to that faerie folk, mythical creatures, the late 1890s and New England and I’m sold. And that cover art ain’t too shabby either.

Your basic plot summary is as follows – Abagail Rook, our narrator, has run off with her college tuition to live the life she wants. However, she finds that the life she thought she wanted at an archeological dig site is not actually what she wants. After a slight miscalculation she ends up on a ship across the Atlantic and winds up in New Fiddleham. Once arrived, she needs a job since she has run through her money in the past few months. After a day of searching all the local haunts she comes across an advertisement from a Mr. Jackaby looking for an assistant in his investigations. Little does she know that she’s about to be absorbed into a multiple murder investigation that will also bring the mythical and paranormal into her life.

While that summary may not sound like the most original thing you’ve ever heard of, there’s a lot to love with this book. Let’s go bullet point style for a change of pace (um, vaguely spoilery):

  • Abagail is an independent, self-assured, feminist lead character.
  • Jackaby is just kooky enough to be interesting without being so kooky as to be off-putting.
  • A live-in ghost.
  • A duck who was once a person.
  • Not your average shape shifter.
  • Tight pacing. All of the main events take place within 3 days.
  • A sarcastic narrator.
  • No extraneous fluff, no ridiculous red herrings (this book also clocks in at just over 200 pages).
  • Plausible historical facts and fashion (considering we’re dealing with a paranormal mystery).

Was it a perfect book? No. Was I able to see the identity of the killer about two-thirds of the way through the book? Yes. Would I happily spend more time with Abigail and Jackaby and the rest of the oddball cast of characters in this world? You bet.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Year We Fell Down (CBR7 #67)

I rely wholeheartedly on the advice of fellow Romance readers as I continue to broaden my reading horizons. There is simply too much good stuff available to waste time with the bad stuff. Cannonball Read has been hit with a couple of reviews for Sarina Bowen’s The Ivy Years series, a Contemporary/New Adult romance series set at a prestigious university in Connecticut. The reviews have been nearly unanimously positive. I of course downloaded the first one to my Nook and when trapped without my copy of Persepolis I started reading this on my phone. It is a testament to how good it was that I continued to read it on my phone (which I don’t like to do, but emergencies happen) until I finished it today.

While The Year We Fell Down fits itself in with almost all good genre romance novels out there right now by following the pacing and tropes we’re expecting, it also dunks us into a portion of the world we might not be expecting and is unflinchingly honest about it, or as much as it can be in 200 short pages. You see, our protagonists have their meet cute in the accessible dorm on their college campus. Corey Callahan suffered a spinal cord injury which has left her unable to walk unaided or have sensation in her legs and Adam Hartley broke his leg in two places and will spend the next several months healing. Both were meant to be playing for their school’s hockey team, neither will do so.

Each character also brings other baggage to the table, and in perhaps my favorite saying these characters share, they get to shoveling the shit. They are a believable pair, dealing with mostly believable issues in a completely believable way. This is good storytelling. There are a few dings against the book, focused heavily on the fact that for the life of me I often couldn’t remember the first names of our two main characters (they refer to each other almost exclusively by last name, which itself doesn’t bother me).  I’m excited to see how the stories continue and am excited that Hartley’s best friend Bridger is the protagonist in the next in the series.  While the dating stuff was cute, I really fell for these characters when they all went to Hartley’s mom’s house for Thanksgiving and I’m excited to dig more deeply into the character of Bridger that we were given a glimpse of. I’ll be ordering the rest of the series immediately, and suggest you probably just buy the whole set like Mrs. Julien suggests.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Complete Persepolis (CBR7 #66)

This year as I began making my epic list of things to read for Cannonball I asked some of my friends what they would suggest. While having these conversations my coworker mentioned that she hadn’t read Persepolis yet, but kept meaning to, and had I. I had not, so on the list it went, since she’s the mom of two small kiddoes, I could certainly do a little market research for her reading intake. Good news for her and you is that I *really* liked this book.

In case you are unaware, Marjane Satrapi is an artist who grew up in revolutionary Iran. From Goodreads: “Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private life and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming—both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland.”

Intriguing, yes? I agree. I read the complete version of Persepolis, which contains what had originally been published in two different volumes, each with two parts. I felt that the first half was much more engaging than the second half, but that may because part 2 deals more with effects of the revolution and the personal effects of Satrapi’s time in Austria. Or, I just liked the characters in the first half better. It’s hard to know.

Structurally these are graphic novels, and are perhaps more truly chronological collections of short graphic novellas telling the story of Satrapi and her country in small bursts. My only real complaint about this work is that often each chapter, or mini novella, felt like it ended abruptly, without finishing the thought, or complete making the point. Several different times I flipped back a page to make sure I hadn’t missed something. I can however tell you that the artwork is simply beautiful in its simplicity and ability to translate emotions across the page. I haven’t seen the movie version of Persepolis yet, but it’s on my list now.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (CBR7 #65)

I was due a fall. I have been on an unprecedented run of late. Of the 156 books I’ve read since 2013 I have not rated a single book 1 star (at least on Goodreads). Of those 156, only 13 were 2 star books. Which means 83% of the books I’ve read I’ve rated 3 stars or above. That’s insane! I’ve been on a roll of good, enjoyable books – even when they are emotionally draining. But that all ended with A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. The very conceit of this work – first person stream of consciousness across a lifetime – simply broke me.

Your personal opinion of the book (and I admit right now that some of you might read this and LOVE it) will depend on if the writing style works for you. For me, well, it drove me up a wall.  Reading this book felt like a punishment.  I felt as though I were experiencing the literary equivalent of hearing nails on a chalkboard. The narrative structure left the meaning  so vague and the sentences so misconstrued that I was literally more frustrated at the writing than interested in the story. The entire work is written in fragments which caused me to either have to reread, or far more often just skim, because (surprise surprise) meaning is lost when you dispense with grammar and half the words you need to say something. Shocking, I know.

Honestly, if I hadn’t read the back of the book I would have had zero clue as to the plot of the book was intended to be, that is how far removed the words on the page were from giving me meaning. Now, I probably should have known that I was in for a rough go, for while this is a multiple award winning book it was first published by Galley Beggar Press which is a company specifically set-up to act as a sponsor to writers who have struggled to either find or retain a publisher, and whose writing shows great ambition and literary merit. I have to admit McBride certainly had great ambition. And McBride clearly shows craft in this work. I think my actual problem is that all I saw was her technique. I didn’t experience her storytelling. What I did see was someone having more fun with pulling the language apart and making points with what was missing. But I couldn’t make myself care.

Sure, some would say that it’s a brave author who chooses to ignore the normal conventions of written English. And it is brave, but is it wise? Because if some poor fool rewrote this work in proper English I’m pretty sure I still wouldn’t find the plot or the characters interesting in any way. This means that in this work we have a structure that is indecipherable and a plot that did not hold my interest, which dear reader is why I did not finish this book and I do not feel bad about it.

Here… this is how I should have known this wasn’t the book for me if I had looked a little closer at the reviews on Goodreads:

I want to give it 6 stars. It’s just better than anything I’ve ever read, with the exception of Beloved by Toni Morrison.  – Emma Flaim

I hated Beloved.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Cuckoo’s Calling (CBR7 #64)

*Note: This reviews were completed in 2015 before the author’s hateful views towards our trans siblings was widely known. My reading experience was what it was and these reviews will remain up, but it should be noted that I find her TERF values abhorrent and will no longer be supporting her through further readings or reviews. 

I had every intention of reviewing The Cuckoo’s Calling as if I didn’t know that it was written by J.K. Rowling. But, I can’t. I do know, and more than that the book’s true authorship shows on the page. The same things that made me love Rowling’s writing in the Harry Potter series are on display here, as are some of her trademark faults. But first, let’s talk about Cormoran Strike.

The Cuckoo’s Calling opens with the suicide of model Lula Landry. Or is it? Following the standard police procedures her brother John Bristow hires private investigator Cormoran Strike because he doesn’t believe it was a suicide and wants his sister’s killer found. Cormoran’s life is a mess. He is up to his eyeballs in debt, his prosthetic leg is giving him trouble, his fiancée just kicked him out, and he can’t quite figure out how he’s going to pay his new temporary secretary, Robin. For her part, things are looking up for Robin – she just got engaged, she’s living with her fiancé, and is actively on the job hunt while working temp positions to help pay the bills. Neither one is anticipating that they will be the right pair of people to solve the mystery of the end of Lula Landry’s life.

I’m going to stay spoiler free, but the conclusion to the mystery was good, if slightly predictable. What Rowling, as Galbraith, did well was what you would expect her to: the world building. I felt intimately familiar with the neighborhood of Cormoran’s office, the pubs he spent his time in, the various places he and Robin went to and the people they interacted with. It all came alive on the page. And, the mystery was relatively well plotted and the clues arrived in a satisfying pace… eventually. Because here was the drawback for me – the book was too long and there were too many extra details and alleyways. Yes, some of this is needed to keep the mystery alive, but there were time where as a reader I was sure that I was back with Ron, Harry, and Hermione in the tent on the never ending camping trip. I skimmed large chunks of Part 1 of this, and the entire first chapter in Part 2 before things started to pick up. For that reason, I am rounding this book’s rating down to a 3 star from 3.5. I am however looking forward to picking up The Silkworm and spending more time with Cormoran and Robin.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Love Life (CBR7 #63)

I read Rob Lowe’s first book Stories I Only Tell My Friends back in 2012 for Cannonball Read 4. I remember enjoying it quite a bit, so much so that when I became aware of his second memoir, Love Life I immediately added it to my to read list.

Where Stories I Only Tell My Friends had a somewhat linear structure, Love Life does not. Rather, it reflects the things left over from his previous outing. Lowe focuses on his time on West Wing, the years and series that followed, and his family life. When Lowe hits his storytelling stride, there are fantastic chapters – I suggest this book to you for the chapter containing the story about scaring his sons and nephews with Bigfoot – but when he doesn’t this reader was left with the feeling of “haven’t you already told me this, not five minutes ago?”

There can also feel like there is no real narrative arc, no toehold that ties this stories together. By the time you get further into the book the idea that these are all ideas framed around the idea of loving your own life, even when it is difficult or leaving you sad starts to come together. And perhaps about being brave, and making memories, because that’s all we really have. But, sometimes it rings a little hollow, and other times its all very true.

I had a tough time getting into this work, because I am not a parent, and I’m not yet in my middle years. The first third of the book revolves around Lowe’s feelings about his children leaving the nest, particularly his eldest son heading off to college. I had a tough time sinking into these insights and stories, because so little of it felt relevant, and Lowe didn’t do the work to make it so. It also felt very meandering. Things did tighten up as the book went on.

I would suggest this to you if you are a Rob Lowe fanatic, or love a Hollywood memoir. And if you do pick it up, I suggest audio format so you can hear Lowe’s Bigfoot impersonation. It’s worth the price of admission.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Fabulous Girls Guide to Decorum (CBR7 #62)

I wanted to like this book more than I did, and if I’m being honest with myself and you I would have DNF’ed this one about half way through if it wasn’t the book I had chosen for Read Harder Task 24: a Self-Improvement book. This is one of the tasks that actually felt like a challenge.  I have read, perhaps, zero books in the past which classify as self-help. Sure, I’ve read lots of memoirs, lots of non-fiction, but really no self-help. That’s not to say that I don’t see the value just that I’ve chosen to go for that information in other formats. This non-traditional type of book seemed like a good fit to both my new year’s resolution of looking and acting more like a grown up in my day to day life (earrings at work! Sometimes!) and my quest to continue broadening my reading.

And it did meet the minimum requirements for both of those things.  But not much beyond that.

The book is structured with interludes about a fictional Fabulous Girl and then the authors breaking down various topics of modern life. But it really wasn’t a book about manners; so much as it was a book about what kinds of behavior should be expected from one another, particularly if we endeavor to be a certain type of woman in an urban society. I did find the work-related section at the beginning interesting, particularly the section about becoming your former co-workers supervisor. This is something that may be happening to me in the coming year as my immediate superior may be retiring and I would inherit some of her supervisory work.

However, this being published 15 years ago did show. Any reference to cell phones or email is painfully outdated. Also, there is a definite snooty vibe to a lot of the sections, some serious contradictions, and a generally not very LGTBQ friendly.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (CBR7 #61)

Mary Roach is an author who has been on my radar for a while. I knew about her books, and her particular brand of letting-the-reader-in-on-the-joke writing about non-fiction which I learned when I dove into Packing for Mars earlier this year. So when Audible had a sale of Mary Roach’s books, I looked to see what I wanted to listen to next in her oeuvre (knowing that I already have a library request in for Stiff which is all about the life of cadavers). Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex seemed a clear winner, so off we went.

I was not disappointed at all in way Roach approached the topic, or her trademark wit. Basically Roach set out to get behind the closed doors of sex research and answer the questions that linger in the back of our minds, but either are afraid to ask or don’t know who to ask. I was also pleasantly surprised how much of what she covered I was already aware of. So while there wasn’t a ton of new ground being broken for me personally from this 2008 work, there was still an interesting story of the evolution of scientific research in the field, and that alone is worth the price of admission. I knew, but perhaps hadn’t put a lot of thought into the idea that scientific research was, at an earlier time, just about wanting to know and now it’s often about who’s willing to pay. There was a great push forward in research about sex in the first half of the 20th century, and the second half of the century saw that research whittled down into revenue streams. But I digress.

While I do suggest this book to you, I’m not sure I suggest the audio version. The narrator of this one, Sandra Burr, did a great job, and had that certain slyness that one often reads in Roach’s words. But… and this might just be me, I often found myself struggling to concentrate on what I was hearing. I think I personally might have to stay away from audio non-fictions, but your mileage will certainly vary.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Five Came Back (CBR7 #60)

In 2008, before my time taking part in the Cannonball Read, I read and loved Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. For those that are interested, that book covers the 1967 Best Picture Oscar race, cataloguing how that year’s nominated films – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, and Bonnie and Clyde each highlight the changes both in Hollywood and in the culture. I suggest it wholeheartedly. When I saw via Goodreads that Mark Harris had a new book out, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, I got it from my library and (eventually) dug in.

Unfortunately, this one just didn’t sing for me in the way that Pictures at a Revolution had. In Five Came Back Harris tells the story of five Hollywood directors who joined the war effort in World War II to be of patriotic use, and to document the war. We meet and follow John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens as they leave behind a Hollywood system experiencing both highs and lows and enter a world to which they are unfamiliar. Between them these five men were the scene of almost every major moment of America’s involvement in the war. They served in every branch of service—army, navy, and air force and all theatres of war. They were present at the biggest moments in the American campaign from Midway, Normandy, to the fall of Paris and the liberation of the Nazi death camps or stateside in the shaping of the message out of Washington, D.C.  and chronicling the effects of the war on its soldiers once they returned home. As it did for so many others, World War II divided the lives of these men into before and after. However, as a reader I became less and less interested in some of these narrative threads and instead wished to hear more about Wyler and Stevens.

The beginning of this work was simply far too detailed to pull me into the book. I understand that Harris is after giving the reader the general feeling of the time, but it just dragged and dragged – for nearly 150 pages. When it comes to drawing in a reader for a work of non-fiction I often think its best start broad with big sweeps of information to draw the reader into your preferred level of detail. Just because we the reader are interested enough to choose to read your book does not mean we are interested enough to be as informed as you assume we should be, just saying. Other than that issue, and the general slow pace of the text, and my disinterest in half of its main characters are leaving me rating this a three, but it keeps all three because what worked for me worked well.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t) (CBR7 #59)

I have a summertime tradition of reading autobiographies. I tend to stick with ones by comedians of various stripes, but that’s more happenstance than plan. I have had If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t) on my to read list since sometime in the winter of 2012. Well, I finally got my act together and here we are. I’m happy to report that if you love Betty White (and seriously, if you don’t how do you even live with yourself?) and are in need of a quick, fun, lighthearted read to take a break from your own life and peer into hers for a bit, then this is a book for you.

I read this book in one sitting. I hardly ever do that. While clocking in at 250+ pages, lots and lots of them are photographs of Betty through the years and the typeface is large and well-spaced on the page. If this book was formatted more like the novels I read it would probably clock in closer to 100 pages. But separate from that the nuggets of stories that Betty is telling, primarily focused on her life 2009-2011, and are quick and to the point. There isn’t much extra stuffing, but that doesn’t take away from the fluffy feeling of having an octogenarian (this was written before her 90th birthday in 2012) tell you things. I kept imagining sitting down with her for a cup of tea. Or some gin.

It was of no surprise to me that some of my favorite chapters focused around her time with Craig Ferguson or on the set of The Proposal (a role she almost passed on because it would require her to be away from her dog too much). But there were also interesting chapters on her marriage to Allen Ludden whom she lost to cancer, her choice to not have children, and her life as a child and how it influenced her work with animals. A good read, for sure.   

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, fighting cancer one book at a time.