Thursday, January 31, 2013

Book Review: Background Noise by Peter DeMarco

Title: Background Noise
Author: Peter DeMarco
Publisher: Pangea Books
Publication Date: November 12, 2012
Source: e-copy provided by the author for an honest review

Plot Summary from Goodreads :

Troubled young suburbanite Henry Walker is on a one-man mission to clean up his town, protect his property, and chase after fantasies of a better life ahead. From an alienated adolescent to a frustrated young adult, Henry encounters one disappointment after another. While suffering the loss of close family members and friends, desperately seeking companionship in the form of unconventional friendships, and becoming a victim of extreme bullying and violence, Henry ultimately becomes an outcast in the only town he knows. As Henry immerses himself in his past, memories become guilt, guilt becomes regret, and regret becomes obsession—until violence seems to be the only logical response.

Written as a collection of interwoven short stories, told in sparse, piercing prose, this haunting novel examines Henry Walker’s transformation from the misfit and the victim— to vengeful retaliator. But does the justice he metes out make him a popular hero or an enemy of the people? In razor-sharp prose reminiscent of Haruki Murakami, Peter DeMarco startles the mind while touching the heart.

My Review:

When Peter DeMarco asked if I'd be interested in reviewing Background Noise, I read the description and immediately was intrigued.  Yes, it sounded dark and depressing--but it also included an interesting psychological bent that roped me in.  I don't like dark-and-depressing just for the sake of being dark-and-depressing, but I DO like books that explore the mental journeys that characters make to get to that point.

Background Noise is more novella than novel--I read it in less than a day.  It's a compliation of short stories that transcribe the turbulent life of Henry Walker from his early teenage years, through his mid-thirties.  This is not a book for the faint of heart--from the start, vulgarity and violence play primary roles in Henry's life.  However, those elements serve as important clues for the reader, as you witness Henry's psychological declines and try to figure out where it all went wrong for him.  Was it because he was bullied in school?  Because his parents died when he was so young?  Because of a head injury he suffered as a boy?  You'll never pin down one answer, of course, but the sum of these tragedies is the subconcious mystery of Henry Walker.

Although it is difficult to blame any one thing for Henry's downfall, the book does highlight a recurring idea that Henry was left to "fall through the cracks," so to speak, of traditional society.  As a child, he would act out, but his behavior was often given a pass because his parents died, and he was thus shuffled from caretaker to caretaker.  As a result, his often-odd and sometimes-disturbing acts are rarely encountered with any resistance from authority.  This idea was illustrated well in his adult years in the chapter "The Commuter", when Henry takes on the role of a commuting worker into New York City, despite not having a real job there: "Sometimes I walk into random office buildings, take the elevator up, punch a button, and walk through office space as if I had a purpose.  Nobody ever says anything."  By the end of the book, this seemingly innocuous scene takes on a more frightening meaning, as you realize the mentally-disturbed Henry faded so easily into the background (noise?) of everyone else's life.  He could easily be your reclusive next door neighbor, or the guy sitting behind you on the train.  SKEEVY.

I enjoyed this novella the way you'd enjoy Burgess's Clockwork Orange, or Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451: not as a fun, carefree reading romp, but as a morose and foreboding tale that leaves you feeling one part sympathetic for our psychologically-disturbed-but-societally-ignored narrator, and one part horrified at the violence he is able to commit.  Background Noise is a literary psychological profile that leaves me feeling like I need to read it again, just to get a better understanding of who Henry is and where he is going.

My one downside for this book: the illustrations.  I didn't think that they added much to the story, and if anything, they made it feel a bit amateurish.  The words in this novel speak for themselves, without the need for visual aid.

If you're looking for a short read that packs a big punch (and you don't mind the vulgarity/violence), Background Noise is a good bet.  I don't read a lot of novellas, but I'm glad I took a chance on this one.

What say you, readers?  What are some of the best novellas you've read lately?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wondrous Words Wednesday (16)

Welcome back, wordy friends!

Wondrous Words Wednesday is hosted by BermudaOnion each week. It's an opportunity to share new words you've encountered in your reading, or highlight words that you particularly enjoy.

Here are three of my favorites new-to-me words, from some of my recent reads. All definitions from

1. pellucid. "The first pellucid rays shone directly through the window, isolating a few golden motes as it fell in a shaft to the white linen sheet that was pulled up to Mike Ryerson's chest." (from 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King)

1. allowing the maximum passage of light, as glass; translucent.
2. clear or limpid: pellucid waters.
3. clear in meaning, expression, or style: a pellucid way of writing.

2. antediluvian. "There was an antediluvian ice-auger, as well." (from Dreamcatcher by Stephen King)

1. adjective
    -of or belonging to the period before the Flood. (Gen 7,8)
    -very old, old-fashioned, or out-of-date; antiquated; primitive.
2. noun
    -a person who lived before the Flood.
    -a very old or old-fashioned person or thing.

3. tensile. "Together, they had formed one of those tensile female bonds that men never understood." (from Bluff by Lenore Skomal)

1. of or pertaining to tension: tensile strain.
2. capable of being stretched or drawn out; ductile.

What are your new words this week?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Book Review: Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio

Title: Blackberry Winter
Author: Sarah Jio
Publisher: Plume
Publication Date: September 25, 2012
Source: personal purchase via Kindle

Plot Summary from Goodreads

Seattle, 1933. Single mother Vera Ray kisses her three-year-old son, Daniel, goodnight and departs to work the night-shift at a local hotel. She emerges to discover that a May-Day snow has blanketed the city, and that her son has vanished. Outside, she finds his beloved teddy bear lying face-down on an icy street, the snow covering up any trace of his tracks, or the perpetrator's.
Seattle, 2010. Seattle Herald reporter Claire Aldridge, assigned to cover the May 1 "blackberry winter" storm and its twin, learns of the unsolved abduction and vows to unearth the truth. In the process, she finds that she and Vera may be linked in unexpected ways...

My Review:

I saw this book here and there around the blogosphere, but when someone told me "you'll like this if you like Jodi-Picoult-esque novels", I was sold.  You can get me to read the back of a deodarent stick if you tell me it reads like a Jodi Picoult novel.

I can see why Jio's book is compared to JP.  At its core is a mysterious and moving story, as Claire searches for the long-missing Daniel, and deals with her personal losses at the same time.  The story itself is what kept me turning the pages.  I wanted to know what happened to Daniel, I wanted to know what happened in Claire's past and whether she would reconcile with it, and I wanted to know where Vera went.  Jio always has a new mystery for you to uncover, and that's the best aspect of this book.  Plus, the mother/son relationship between Vera and Daniel is awesome.  Maybe I'm just a sucker because I have a son, but by the end, I was getting teary every time I learned more about them.  What can I say, motherhood turned me into a sap.  I AM NOT ASHAMED.

I do wish that the writing were stronger, though.  While there were a few unpredictable twists at the end, for the most part, Jio has a tendency to make the answers to her mysteries a bit too obvious.  And as a reader, I don't like to feel like I'm being hand-held through the plot.  I figured out one of the big "reveals" before I hit the 10% mark of the novel.  There are just too many blatant hints about how certain people will become significant to the plot, and with a little more creative wordcrafting, that could have been avoided.

Also, the writing itself (especially the dialogue) feels clunky and stilted at times.  It's clear that Jio skips out on certain details or emotional embellishments when she's trying to lead you towards the next clue in the mystery.  For example, at one point Claire and a companion are searching a house, and stumble across a broken window and some missing items.  Clearly a burglary.  But they oddly ignore it and move onto the next room in the house (where they, TA-DA, end up finding the next clue).  This felt strange, and illustrates how the author spent too much time only focusing on the important details, rather than fleshing out the full story.

Overall: an intriguing story that will tug at your heart-strings, for sure.  Despite my caveats about the way it was written, I don't regret jumping into this story at all.  I just wish the writing style made the plot shine a bit more.

Have you read this (or other) Sarah Jio novel(s)?  Thoughts, dear readers?

Monday, January 28, 2013

Am I the only reader...

...who doesn't read the book jacket before reading the book?

I asked this question on Twitter last week, and got mixed reactions.  Many of my tweeps (including Trish, Beth, and Kathy) agreed that skipping the description is the way to go.  However, others like Amal feel that reading the description is the only way she can get a good sense of the plot before jumping in--and then she reads the book to fill in the details.

Personally, I try to avoid reading book descriptions, because I feel like they are often FULL of spoilers.  Let's use the Goodreads description of The Hunger Games (and my reaction to it) as an example:

"Could you survive on your own, in the wild, with everyone out to make sure you don't live to see the morning? In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts.(I preferred finding out the details of the setting as they were revealed during the story.) The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. (Again, would prefer to let this come to light as a read...makes the beginning more intriguing!) Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister’s place in the Games.  (OMG Y'ALL, WICKED SPOILER ALERT UP IN HURRR.) But Katniss has been close to dead before—and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that will weigh survival against humanity and life against love."

See what I mean?  There is so much info from the first third of the novel that is given away in this description. Katniss disapproves.

I have heard that some readers enjoy descriptions like that though, because then they don't feel as disoriented when they jump into the book.  I guess I enjoy that confusion, because the moment when I figure it out is always gratifying.  A little pat on the back for me, as an awesome super-sleuthy reader.  (It's the little things.)

But how do I know what to read, you ask?  How do I avoid reading 70's erotica when I'm really looking for contemporary YA?  First, I do check out what genre the book's been slotted into.  And then I glance over the description for keywords only.  So for The Hunger Games, I would notice things like "survive", "fight to the death", and "place once known as North America": OK, I'm sold.  That's all I need to get roped in.

So, readers: where do you fall in the reading-the-book-jacket camp?  Yay or nay?  DECLARE YOURSELF!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Audiobook Review: Dreamcatcher by Stephen King

Title: Dreamcatcher
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
Publication Date: March 1, 2003 (book first published March 20, 2001)
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Plot Summary from Goodreads

Once upon a time, in the haunted city of Derry, four boys stood together and did a brave thing. It was something that changed them in ways they could never begin to understand.Twenty-five years after saving a Down's-syndrome kid from bullies, Beav, Henry, Pete, and Jonesy -- now men with separate lives and separate problems -- reunite in the woods of Maine for their annual hunting trip. But when a stranger stumbles into their camp, disoriented and mumbling something about lights in the sky, chaos erupts. Soon, the four friends are plunged into a horrifying struggle with a creature from another world where their only chance of survival is locked in their shared past -- and in the Dreamcatcher.

My Review:

I just...I think...I can't...


You guys, I just finished a Stephen King book, and I really, really didn't like it.  That happens almost never.  In fact, the only other time it's happened, so far, is when I read Insomnia.  As a Stephen King fan, I was hoping it would never happen again, but alas, here I sit.

At its start, I was diggin' this book.  These four friends in their mid-thirties are all at a hunting cabin together, as they do every November.  They have some weird, unexplained telepathy going on, which is intriguing.  And then this guy (Rick) comes out of the woods near their cabin.  He's been lost for a day (or more...), and is hungry and not feeling particularly well.  The friends let Rick into the cabin to recuperate and...CUE STEPHEN KING GORE FEST!  I was sufficiently grossed out and ready for more.

Unfortunately, that's where the awesomeness ended.  Basically the other 18 discs of this audiobook consist of completely non-fear-inducing aliens, a crabby old army general who holds a grudge that I don't even understand, and the world's longest, most bore-you-to-tears car chase.  Also, bacon...something about bacon.  By the end, when the narrator said "Epilogue", I nearly cried knowing that I had more story to sit through.

The real problem is that King just didn't get me to CARE enough.  A lot of the story centers around this army general chasing one of his old lieutenants, but the reason he's chasing him is so underdeveloped that I didn't understand its importance at all.  And even the telepathy shared by the four friends (which is pretty central to the story) did not have a backstory interesting enough for me to want to figure it out.  Usually Stephen King is amazing at getting you hooked into his characters, and his long-windedness has a purpose behind it.  But neither of those two things were true for me in Dreamcatcher.

All of this mediocrity was made worse by the fact that I did not enjoy the voice of the audiobook's narrator (Jeffrey DeMunn).  This is probably more personal preference than anything, but to me, he sounds a lot like David Sedaris (if you've ever listened to one of his audios) and Sedaris's voice rather annoys me.  I don't know how to describe it...he's too heavy on some consonants (every time he said "jacket pocket" I cringed) and his voice sounds...thick, for lack of a better word.  I will say that he did a nice job with the wide variety of tones/voices that the book required (I never had trouble telling characters apart).  But as an overall listening experience, I didn't love it.

Other than the very beginning, I'd say the ONE shining light in this novel is the references to It.  Any mention of Pennywise is a win in my book.

If this was written by any other author, I would have DNF'ed it, but because it was Stephen King, I stuck through it to the very last word.  Unfortunately, that's two months-worth of commute time that I'll never get back.  Le sigh.

I need help readers--name your favorite King novel, so I can get back in the saddle with his books!  And if you loved Dreamcatcher...why?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Book Review: Where She Went by Gayle Forman

Title: Where She Went  (sequel to If I Stay)
Author: Gayle Forman
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Publication Date: April 5, 2011
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Plot Summary from Goodreads :   **spoiler-y if you haven't read If I Stay**

It's been three years since the devastating accident . . . three years since Mia walked out of Adam's life forever.

Now living on opposite coasts, Mia is Juilliard's rising star and Adam is LA tabloid fodder, thanks to his new rock star status and celebrity girlfriend. When Adam gets stuck in New York by himself, chance brings the couple together again, for one last night. As they explore the city that has become Mia's home, Adam and Mia revisit the past and open their hearts to the future-and each other.

Told from Adam's point of view in the spare, lyrical prose that defined If I Stay, Where She Went explores the devastation of grief, the promise of new hope, and the flame of rekindled romance.

My Review:

Remember my review of If I Stay ?  (I will sit here patiently if you want to go read it real quick-like.)

The book grabbed me, emotionally...but overall, compared to many other reviewers, I was lukewarm.  I liked it, I didn't OMGLOVE it.  It bothered me that Mia's position in the novel was not fully explained, and as a result, she didn't resonate with me in the way that I had hoped.

Even so, I was interested in trying the sequel, Where She Went, because the very fact that there IS a sequel was kind of a spoiler to the first book (because, um...Mia doesn't die).  It was worth a shot, even if I did end up with another lukewarm reaction.

Well guess what, guys.  My reaction is not underwhelming this time, because the sequel is FLIPPING AMAZING.

First off, the change in narrator is key.  Hearing Adam's side of the story grounded everything in reality for me, much more so than Mia's ghost-like presence in the first novel.  His emotions are so much more raw and powerful: I felt like the entire story pumped with vitality on a level that If I Stay didn't reachPlus, beginning the novel through Adam's eyes gives you an automatic mystery to solve, as you try to piece together what's happened to him since the accident, and why he's lost touch with Mia.  This distance from Mia's perspective was a big reason why I got sucked into the book so quickly.

Plus, Mia's unexplained level of consciousness in If I Stay is finally addressed head-on in Where She Went.  It's not expressed in scientific terms, but Mia tells Adam how she remembers the accident, and it cleared up a lot of the questions I had in the first book.  Again, the distance from Mia's narration was important here.  And I love that this made the two books feel like they were coming full circle--the first one left me with a ton of questions, and by the end of the second one, everything felt fulfilled.  The ending was spot-on perfect.

And finally--Adam and Mia.  I find a lot of YA relationships to be a little over-the-top, but theirs is just wonderful.  It's passionate and flawed and uncertain, and I love every piece of it.  Without getting spoilery, I have to say there is one scene at the end, in Mia's garden?  That was amazing.  There is nothing fluffy and weak about Adam and Mia's bond, which I find so refreshing for a YA novel.  And the way their music is infused into the story gives the whole thing a very unique atmosphere.  Really well done by Forman.

Bottom line: if you read If I Stay, you HAVE to read Where She Went.  I was reluctant to do so, given my reaction to the first book, but this is a sequel that's 100% worth the read.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Wondrous Words Wednesday (15)

Welcome back, wordy friends!

Wondrous Words Wednesday is hosted by BermudaOnion each week. It's an opportunity to share new words you've encountered in your reading, or highlight words that you particularly enjoy.

Here are three of my favorites new-to-me words, from The Thief of Auschwitz by Jon Clinch. All definitions from

1. loden. "The sturdy Prussian marching across the winter fields in her braids and her long loden coat."

1 A   thick,   heavily   fulled,   waterproof   fabric,   used   in   coats   and   jackets   for   cold   climates.
2. Also called  loden green.   the deep olive-green color of this fabric.

2. strop (stropped). "They've been shorn and shaven raw with razors whose edges have seen a hundred times a hundred men since last they were stropped..."

1.noun:  Any   of   several   devices   for   sharpening   razors,   especially   a   strip   of   leather   or   other   flexible   material.
2. verb:  To   sharpen   on   or   as   if   on   a   strop.

3. voluptuary. "Schuler, like an old voluptuary who's drained his last bottle, sighs and nods his head."

1.noun:  A   person   whose   life   is   devoted   to   the   pursuit   and   enjoyment   of   luxury   and   sensual   pleasure.
2.adjective:  Of, pertaining to, or characterized by preoccupation with luxury and sensual pleasure:  voluptuary  tastes.

What are your new words this week?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Book Review: Paris, My Sweet by Amy Thomas

Title: Paris, My Sweet: A Year in the City of Light (and Dark Chocolate)
Author: Amy Thomas
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication Date: February 1, 2012
Source: personal purchase (e-book)

Plot Summary from Goodreads :

Part love letter to New York, part love letter to Paris, and total devotion to all things sweet. Paris, My Sweet is a personal and moveable feast that’s a treasure map for anyone who loves fresh cupcakes and fine chocolate, New York and Paris, and life in general. It’s about how the search for happiness can be as fleeting as a sliver of cheesecake and about how the life you’re meant to live doesn’t always taste like the one you envisioned. Organized into a baker’s dozen of delicacies (and the adventures they inspired) that will tempt readers’ appetites, Paris, My Sweet is something to savor.

My Review:

Finding my first book for the Around The World in 12 Books challenge was a cinch.  This month's country (France) has been written about from top to bottom, so the recommendations were endless.  However, the one I eventually went with was Paris, My Sweet (mentioned to me by Andi from Estella's Revenge--thanks Andi!).  I thought this was a perfect choice, because it doubles as a book for the Foodies Read challenge (nom).

Paris, My Sweet is the nonfiction account of advertising copywriter/food blogger Amy Thomas during her yearlong stint working in Paris.  After a semester of study abroad in the City of Light during college, she dreamed of eventually returning.  She got the chance at the age of 36 when her job temporarily relocated her there from her longtime home in New York City.  During that year, she experienced all aspects of the city, but especially the ah-may-zing pastries and desserts.  Amy recaps how she ate her way through Paris, while also connecting her food experiences to her personal ups and downs as an expat in France.

I feel like I have to review this as two separate books.  Because first, there's Paris itself: the history, the ambiance, and the food.  OH, THE FOOD.  Amy Thomas pulls no punches when she's describing the positively decadent chocolate, croissants, macarons, cupcakes, et al throughout the city.  I was ravenous before the end of the first chapter.  Each section usually focuses on one type of food (the chocolate chip cookie, madeleines, French toast, etc) and how she experienced it in Paris--along with how it has (or has not) taken off in the NYC restaurant scene.  The contrast between the two cities makes this better than your average food or travel memoir.  (Plus, she provides addresses for every bakery and restaurant she mentions--major score.)

And even beyond the descriptions of the food itself, I felt myself falling in love with the French method of cuisine.  "Fresh, local, and delicious was not the marketing mantra du jour in Paris.  It's just the way it was."  Thomas emphasizes how her Parisians neighbors treasured high-quality ingredients and freshly-prepared dishes, something that is unfortunately undervalued in the US.  It made me yearn for a 3-hour lunch and some local wine.  GAH, divine.

So yes, as far as Paris and the food--this book gets a major thumbs up.

However, then there is the OTHER part of the book: Amy's personal experiences.  To put it plainly, Thomas is just awful at expressing her feelings in a relateable way for readers.  Is she a poor writer structurally?  No.  But she has a complete lack of self-awareness that ends up making her sound spoiled, whiny, and outrageously stuck-up.  She spends the first few chapters recounting how phenomenal her life is: awesome apartment in NYC's East Village, hoppin' social life, amazing job.  Then she gets transferred to the city of her dreams, where she lands a ridiculously perfect apartment (which she doesn't have to pay rent for), gets to work on the Louis Vuitton account, and spends her downtime eating copious amounts of chocolate and jetsetting around Europe.  At one point, she says, "It was almost stupid how picture-perfect my new life was."  And all I could think was, EXACTLY.  Thomas shows positively no humility in these descriptions, and as a reader, I lost all interest in her as a result.  (Best part: when she complains about how she had to work SO MUCH in the summer (wait, like the rest of us?)...but oh yeah, she did have time to vacation in the Loire Valley and the Cote d'Azur.  Oh, and she got to watch the Tour de France from her office.  Please excuse me while I cry all the tears for you.)  Later in the memoir, she starts to talk about some relationship and health problems that she encountered, but by then I found her so eyeroll-worthy, it took me a long time to sympathize.

Also, Thomas breaks a well-known rule of Girl Law: if you're a skinny girl, you don't tell the world about how fat you feel.  I can say this, because I am a somewhat skinny girl, and I know better than to complain publicly about a fat day.  I will not get sympathy.  I keep that sh*t between me and my husband and/or BFF, who are the two humans who will listen to me about it without punching me in the face.  Thomas, however, spends the entire book complaining about how "fat" Parisian chocolate made her, when it is plain from every Googled photo of her ever that that is not the case.  Again, she loses reader sympathy here.

So, overall--as a food memoir (especially a dessert memoir), this book rocks my socks.  I am really glad that I bought a copy, because I'd love to take it with me if I ever visit Paris--all the best foodie spots are mentioned!  And Paris, as a setting, is gorgeously described.  It made me want to hop a plane ASAP.  However, as a personal memoir, Paris, My Sweet falls on its face.  Thomas needs to re-think how she presents herself to her audience.  She had some good stories to tell, but she just doesn't go about it with the right tone.

Foodies--rejoice!  This one is a hit.  But memoirists, you may want to take a pass.

What are your favorite books set in Paris?  How about food memoirs?

Friday, January 18, 2013

A Meme Break

Hello, lovely readers!  Believe it or not, January is a very busy time for the Well-Read Redhead.  I work at a university, and students return to campus this week and next for the new semester.  I'm also teaching an online course (starting at the same time).  And, I'm home 2 weekdays/week with Small Fry (which, while awesome and fun, doesn't give me much time to brush my teeth, let alone blog).

And oh yeah, I guess it goes without saying that I'd love some time to read my MASSIVE PILE OF BOOKS.

As a result, I need some TIME.  And thus, I think I'm taking a meme break for a while.  I'll turn Small Fry Saturdays into a "whenever the mood strikes" sort of thing, rather than every Saturday.  Probably no Deja Vu Reviews or Top 10 Tuesdays for a while either, though I do have some Wondrous Words posts scheduled and I love sharing my nerdy words, so that might stay.

Overall, I think for a while I will be mostly focusing on my book reviews and the occasional discussion post (loved all the responses to my "where do books take you?" post last week!).

Posting may be more spread out than usual, but absence makes the heart grow fonder, yes?  Admit it, YOU MISS ME WHEN I'M GONE.

In the meantime, be cool mah bebehs, and be on the lookout for:

-my first Foodies Read review of the year, and

-the worst Stephen King book review I have ever had to write.  Srsly.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Giveaway winners!

Just a quick post to announce the winners of my recent giveaways!

The winner of my Clear Your Shelf giveaway is...
Laurie B!

Laurie's books are already in the mail, and my shelves have just a tad more room (to be filled soon, I'm sure...).
The grand prize winner of my Level 2 giveaway is...

Shelby is getting a copy of Level 2 by Lenore Appelhans, as well as an autographed Level 2 postcard and a Level 2 magnet.  WOOT for swag.

The seven winners of the other Level 2 autographed postcards are...
Cristina N.
Amber H.
Jess W.
Jill O.
Kirsten W.
Chenise J.

All of you have email from me in yo' inboxes...get me your addresses so I can fill your mail with awesome!

Thanks to everyone who entered...more giveaways coming up in a few weeks!

Wondrous Words Wednesday (14)

Welcome back, wordy friends!

Wondrous Words Wednesday is hosted by BermudaOnion each week. It's an opportunity to share new words you've encountered in your reading, or highlight words that you particularly enjoy.

Here are three of my favorites new-to-me words, from some of my recent reads. All definitions from

1. pillion. "A big BSA cycle with jacked handlebars suddenly roared past him in the passing lane, a kid in a T-shirt driving, a girl in a red cloth jacket and huge mirror-lensed sunglasses riding pillion behind him."  (from 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King)

1 a   pad   or   cushion   attached   behind   a   saddle,   especially   as   a   seat   for   a   woman.
2. a   pad,   cushion,   saddle,   or   the   like,   used   as   a   passenger   seat   on   a   bicycle,   motor   scooter,   etc.
3. a   passenger's   saddle   or   seat   behind   the   driver's   seat   on   a   motorcycle.

2. inchoate. "At some point, though, they all told me of having reached a spiritual dead end; a feeling, at once inchoate and oppressive, that they'd been cut off from themselves." (from Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama)

1 not   yet   completed   or   fully   developed;   rudimentary.
2. just   begun;   incipient.
3. not organized; lacking order:  an inchoate mass of ideas on the subject.

3. pyrrhic. "I allow myself the relaxation of watching the final part of a documentary on BBC World about Napoleon's pyrrhic victory over Moscow in 1812." (from The Uninvited by Liz Jensen)

1consisting of two short or unaccented syllables.
2. composed of or pertaining to pyrrhics.

I am guessing this last word is meant to convey that Napoleon's victory was swift and decisive...yes?

What are your new words this week?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Book Review: The Thief of Auschwitz by Jon Clinch

Title: The Thief of Auschwitz
Author: Jon Clinch
Publisher: unmediated ink (self-published)
Publication Date: January 2013
Source: e-book provided by the author for an honest review

Plot Summary from Goodreads :

"The camp at Auschwitz took one year of my life, and of my own free will I gave it another four."

So begins The Thief of Auschwitz, the much-anticipated new novel from Jon Clinch, award-winning author of Finn and Kings of the Earth.

In The Thief of Auschwitz, Clinch steps for the first time beyond the deeply American roots of his earlier books to explore one of the darkest moments in mankind’s history—and to do so with the sympathy, vision, and heart that are the hallmarks of his work.

Told in two intertwining narratives, The Thief of Auschwitz takes readers on a dual journey: one into the death camp at Auschwitz with Jacob, Eidel, Max, and Lydia Rosen; the other into the heart of Max himself, now an aged but extremely vital—and outspoken—survivor. Max is a renowned painter, and he’s about to be honored with a retrospective at the National Gallery in Washington. The truth, though, is that he’s been keeping a crucial secret from the art world—indeed from the world at large, and perhaps even from himself—all his life long.

The Thief of Auschwitz reveals that secret, along with others that lie in the heart of a family that’s called upon to endure—together and separately—the unendurable.

My Review:

Remember back when I said I was struggling with self-published novels?  To summarize; I said that I had had very bad luck with self-pubs in the past (which is why my review policy says I do not accept them for review).  However, I had been solicited to review several that sounded really, really promising, so I took the plunge and agreed to read two of them.  The first was Bluff by Lenore Skomal, which, though it had its hitches, was overall a very coherent and engaging read.  My cold reviewer heart began to melt, just a tad.

The Thief of Auschwitz is the second self-published novel that I decided to read and review.  This is partially because I was intrigued by Jon Clinch's personal publication journey.  You can read about it HERE, but basically, he had what so many authors covet: a publishing deal with Random House.  Even so, it ended up causing him more frustration than success, so for his newest novel, he decided to self-publish.  His "microbrewery approach," as he calls it, allows him to have more control over the success or failure of his writing, from the social media outreach, to the sales numbers on Amazon.  It was a risky move, but admirable--and so far, it seems to be working.

Okay, enough talking about how Jon Clinch kicked the publishing industry in the ass.  What did I think of the book?

I thought...the book rocked.

Gripping, masterfully written, profound--I sound like a flippin' book jacket, but The Thief of Auschwitz is all of these things.

The Holocaust is a difficult subject for authors to tackle, because it's been written about so many times before.  Adding another fictional perspective runs the risk of either not hitting the mark that the nonfiction accounts describe, or repeating the impassioned efforts of other fiction novels.  However, The Thief of Auschwitz is not lacking in authenticity or sentiment, and in fact captures the harrowing everyday lives of the death camp prisoners in a way that I found to be remarkably unique.

Clinch's writing style is much of what drives that uniqueness.  Most Holocaust books I've read (everything from Anne Frank to Wiesel's Night) focus very much on using passion-filled language to nail down the emotional core of that time period--which, of course, is appropriate and often unavoidable.  However, Clinch's novel speaks in a crisp, straightforward manner about the things the Rosen family had to do to survive in the camp, and in so doing, the emotional aspects seep out between the lines.  It is amazing to see how the family moves from being carefree and compassionate, to hardened and survival-focused by the time we reach the end:

"The good that there's been a catastrophe on the rail project and scores of men have died."

Plus, the mystery.  The story of the family's time in the camp is told alongside Max's modern-day perspective, as he (now a world-renowned painter at the end of his career) slowly reveals a secret that he has been keeping from the art world.  Clinch builds the tension in both the historical narrative and Max's secret in the last 10% of the novel, to the point where you literally will not want to put it down.  All is not revealed until the very end, and while it's not a Gone-Girl-esque atom-bomb ending, it's still a reveal that takes your breath a bit, and fits with the emotional climate of the rest of the novel.

My only (small) gripe about this novel is the title.  While there is thievery involved (and it relates to the central mystery of the story), I just felt like it didn't capture the majority of the plot very well.  There are so many other things that I think the title could capture, about art and beauty and love through adversity, but it just doesn't.  Again, this is a very small disappointment, as no matter what the title, the book itself is still awesome.

Final verdict: read this book.  If you already gravitate towards books about the Holocaust, this is a must.  But even if you don't, the Rosen family's story is still one that is painstakingly told and worth experiencing.

(As for me and self-pubs?  Clinch knocked this one out of the park, but I'm still taking it day by day...)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Deja Vu Review (6): Favorite book covers

The Deja Vu Review is hosted every Sunday by Brittany at The Book Addict's Guide.  It's a chance to mini-review books that I read in my pre-blogging days.  This week's topic is your favorite book cover(s)!  Here are two of my faves (with mini-reviews to go along).

The Luxe series by Anna Godbersen

I recently reviewed the final installment in Godbersen's second YA historical fiction series, The Lucky Ones .  But the covers of her first series take the cake for awesomeness.  Each cover features a different girl in a drop-dead gorgeous ball gown (fitting for the time period of the novel).  I am not a very "girly" girl, but even I turn green with envy when I see those things.  My favorite is the cover of Rumors; that red dress slays me.

To give you a short review: The Luxe (and its three subsequent novels) focuses primarily on four girls (Elizabeth, Diana, Penelope, and Lina) living among the New York City elite in 1899.  There are lover's quarrels, backstabbing, and murder: what else do you need?  Plus, the period details are excellent.  These books actually inspired me to read a nonfiction novel about this part of NYC's history (When The Astors Owned New York, by Justin Kaplan).  It was a perfect companion to Godbersen's drama-filled fictional story.

Under the Dome by Stephen King

I already mentioned this cover in a Follow Friday post way-back-when, but anyone asking me about my favorite book covers is going to have to hear about Under The Dome.  The cover of this book is simply amazing (and makes me so happy that I have a hardcover copy, so I can pull the jacket off to really look at it!).  It's eye-catching and extremely detailed.  As you read the novel, you can refer to the cover and understand some of the little things that were added into the picture.  LOVE.

As for the book itself, it is, also, amazeballs.  Definitely one of Stephen King's epics, in the manner of The Stand and It.  It's crazy-long, but in that 1000+ pages, the twists and the energy do.not.stop.  LONG story short: the town of Chester's Mill is suddenly cut off from the rest of the world by an invisible dome surrounding it.  No one can get in or out, and even the air has trouble passing through.  The citizens need to find a way to deal with the dome...and each other.

King does a great job getting you into the (massive) cast of characters.  You root for the good guys, you can't wait to see the bad guys meet a grisly end, and even the side characters are fleshed out well enough that you feel a bit invested in them.  Blood and gore?  Yes, but the real story here is the frightening way the town changes as its citizens deal with the realities of the dome.  This book is one of the many reasons I love King so very much.

What are your favorite book covers?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Small Fry Saturday #14: Press Here by Herve Tullet

It's time for installment #14 of Small Fry Saturdays!  This is where I do a weekly showcase of books that my Small Fry is currently reading.  Feel free to do a SFS post on your blog (with the graphic above) or leave a comment below about your favorite kiddie reads.

Press Here by Herve Tullet

Small Fry received this book for Christmas from his great-aunt and -uncle.  I'd never heard of it before, but all it took was one reading for me to say, "Okay, this book is flipping AWESOME."  SF is a tad young for it right now, but in a year or so, I bet he will think it's a riot.

The book starts by asking the reader to press the yellow dot and turn the page.  From there, kids are asked to shake, blow on, and press the book in all different ways, causing the dots to rearrange themselves on the subsequent pages.
one page example
Interactive children's book WIN.  It's such a simple concept, but manages to be educational (pick the yellow dots out from the other colors!) and goofy at the same time.  Apparently the book even has it's own iPhone app ($.99) with additional games and activities, which I'm planning to check out soon.

What are your favorite interactive kid's books?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

GIVEAWAY! and Review: Level 2 by Lenore Appelhans

Title: Level 2
Author: Lenore Appelhans
Publisher: Simon & Schuster BFYR
Publication Date: January 15, 2013
Source: won a giveaway copy from the author

Plot Summary from Goodreads :

Three levels. Two loves. One choice. Debut novelist, Lenore Appelhans has written a thrilling otherworldly young adult novel about a place that exists between our world (Level 1) and what comes after life (Level 2).

'I pause to look around the hive - all the podlike chambers are lit up as the drones shoot up on memories ... I've wanted to get out of here before, but now the tight quarters start to choke me. There has to be more to death than this.'

Felicia Ward is dead. Trapped in a stark white afterlife limbo, she spends endless days replaying memories, of her family, friends, boyfriend ... and of the guy who broke her heart. The guy who has just broken into Level 2 to find her.

Felicia learns that a rebellion is brewing, and it seems she is the key. Suspended between heaven and earth, she must make a choice. Between two worlds, two lives and two loves.

My Review:

I was pretty psyched when I found out that I won a copy of Level 2 from Lenore Appelhan's blog, Presenting Lenore.  I'd heard a lot of good hype about this YA dystopian release ever since I started the blog last year, so when Lenore asked me if I wanted the UK edition (available immediately) or if I wanted to wait for the US edition (releasing next week), it was no contest. 

(Bonus while reading the UK edition: they use cool words like "torch" instead of "flashlight".  LOVE THE BRITS.)

Level 2 sucked me in early on, as I tried to figure out Felicia's past, as well as her current surroundings.  After death, she arrived in a bright-white "hive" with thousands of other "drones"--humans like her who have died, and now spend the majority of their days watching the happy memories of their lives.  No one in the hive questions their existence--until Julian, Felicia's ex-boyfriend, suddenly breaks in and tells her he's coming back for her.  At this point, Felicia realizes that something more than her happy memories exist in this afterlife, and she has to find out what it is.

First off, what a cool way of thinking about life after death!  Appelhans incorporates both Biblical and mythological beliefs in her creation of Level 2.  It's a perfect mix, because it's not overly Biblical (for the less-religious readers), but at the same time, I think most Christians could see the possibilities in this interpretation too.  Plus, Felicia considers a wide variety of other possibilities along the way, as she gathers more details about her environment.  In the end, Appelhans gets an A+ for clear and concise world-building, while also leaving room for readers to put their own spin on things.

Felicia is an engaging character.  Because her entire past isn't revealed right away, you see many conflicting sides of her personality throughout the novel.  This leaves you to question her true nature--was she a rebel who was forced to reform?  Or was she a good girl in unfortunate circumstances?  You don't find out her full story until the end, and the guessing game makes her an intriguing protagonist.  Plus, her relationship with Neil (her boyfriend at the time that she died) is awesome.  I thought it was a little sappy at first, but as I got to know Felicia and her troubled past, I grew to see it as a perfect match for her.

After the initial excitement of the introduction, the novel keeps up a good pace.  I like how Felicia's memories of her life were used to break up the action in the hive--it kept the story moving and continually left new questions to be answered.  Every new memory revealed felt like Pandora's box when its implications were added into the plot.

My one disappointment was in the ending.  It felt entirely too rushed.  So rushed, in fact, that I went back and re-read the last 20 pages, to be sure that I didn't miss something.  There's an entire battle with the opposing side that felt like it could have taken up half the book, but instead is covered in just a few paragraphs.  And when the "bad guys" actually show up for the first time, it happens very quickly and feels anti-climactic after all the build up.  There's also a poorly-timed reveal of a memory of Felicia's 13-year-old self that makes part of the ending a bit confusing.  I think the memory should have been explained a bit earlier in the story so that it's later significance could be more clear.  In general--it was just a very messy outcome for me, which was unfortunate after such an otherwise evenly-paced and well-explained novel.

Despite my concerns with the conclusion, I am interested in reading Level 3, the next installment in this series.  Level 2 ended in a very different place than I originally expected, which leaves me curious about exactly what direction Level 3 could take.  For that reason, I will certainly be on the lookout for the sequel in 2014.

Now, who's ready for a GIVEAWAY?  
(My first international one, no less!!)

Lenore was kind enough to autograph my copy of Level 2 when she sent it along (woot!).  So I'm not giving that up, sorry y'all.  :) 
HOWEVER!  I decided to buy a copy of Level 2 for one lucky reader, so that I can share the reading love that Lenore passed on to me.

One "grand prize" winner will receive a copy of Level 2, as well as a Level 2 postcard (signed by Lenore!) and a Level 2 magnet.
Seven (yes, SEVEN!) runners-up will receive a Level 2 postcard signed by the author (thanks Lenore for all the swag!).

Sound good?  Then ENTER!  Check out the Rafflecopter below.  This is an international giveaway (because I'll be sending the book via Book Depository)!  So come one, come all!  Giveaway ends on release day (January 15).

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Wondrous Words Wednesday (13)

Welcome back, wordy friends!

Wondrous Words Wednesday is hosted by BermudaOnion each week. It's an opportunity to share new words you've encountered in your reading, or highlight words that you particularly enjoy.

Here are three of my favorites new-to-me words, all from The Lucky Ones by Anna Godbersen. All definitions from

1. louche. "It was as if mother- and daughter-in-law had set out to define one another in opposition, for where Caroline was decorous, Virginia was louche..."

dubious; shady; disreputable.

2. bespoke. "When they got back to New York City, they'd spent all their loot buying bespoke suits and gold watch chains and showing off in the Midwest..."

1. (of clothes) made to individual order; custom-made: a bespoke jacket.
2. making or selling such clothes: a bespoke tailor.

3. lintel. "...they were not in Dogwood but parked on Main Street, in front of a square brick building with the words Police Department of White Cove carved in the lintel."

a horizontal architectural member supporting the weight above an opening, as a window or a door.

*Turns out the first word is French in origin, and the second two are British...I suppose fitting for the "high society" characters in this 1920's novel.

What are your new words this week?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Where do your books take you?

Any parent will tell you that life pre-kids is very different than life post-kids.  "Different" doesn't mean better or worse--just different!  You have to give some parts of your carefree lifestyle up, but you get an awesome bundle of awesome in their place.  WIN.

One of the things that the husband and I gave up after Small Fry's arrival was our frequent travel.  We traveled a LOT in the 6 years of our relationship before the little dude was born.  We still travel now, but child-related travel (wholesome family fun in the Outer Banks) is way different than pre-child travel (let's go to Vegas and see how quickly I can double-fist margaritas).
Not really kidding about those margaritas.
Anyway, now that we travel less in person, I find myself wanting to travel more in the literary sense.  I love reading books that either take me back to the beautiful places we've been, or transport me to new destinations that I haven't yet had the chance to explore.  I guess that's part of why I'm so into Giraffe Day's Around The World in 12 Books challenge this year.

With that in mind, here are a few books that have helped me travel to both once-visited and new-to-me destinations:


The Borgia Bride and I, Mona Lisa by Jeanne Kalogridis
The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons by Dan Brown
Juliet by Anne Fortier

Italian cities are some of my favorites to visit in novels.  I've been to Florence, Rome, and Naples, and these particular books cover those cities very well.  The authors get VERY detailed about places, people, and atmosphere, and it really transports you right along with the characters.  Plus, how fun to go to Italy and try to retrace Langdon's steps?

The Netherlands

A Heart of Stone by Renate Dorrestein

I already talked your ear off about Park's novel and how beautifully he portrays Amsterdam, but Dorrestein is a Dutch author who sets most of her books in that country as well.  A Heart of Stone is not a lighthearted read by any measure, but I enjoyed that it was set in the Netherlands and told from a native's perspective.

Coastal North Carolina

Basically all Nicholas Sparks books ever

I read a lot of Sparks novels before we visited the OBX last summer, and once we got there, I realized why he likes to use the beaches of North Carolina in his books.  They're beautiful, peaceful, and relaxed...very conducive to romance.  I am not the biggest Sparks fan in general, but I do love his settings.

Nantucket, Massachusetts

Basically all Elin Hilderbrand books ever

I've never been to Nantucket, but Hilderbrand's romances are usually set there, and they make me desperate for a beach vacation.

The UK/Ireland

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
The Lace Makers of Glenmara by Heather Barbieri
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I have never been to the UK or Ireland, but I am DYING TO GO.  (I know I have some UK readers, who wants to put up this ginger for a week or two?)  There are so many good books that highlight the flavor of these countries--this list is but a few.  You can also read pretty much any Sophie Kinsella or Jane Green novel to get a London fix.


Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

This book highlights some of the more devastating parts of Hawaii's past, but the islands themselves are painted so gorgeously by Brennert.  I want to go to there.


The Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson

Nothing could ever make me more interested in Stockholm as a vacation destination than The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series.  I was researching flights by the end of the trilogy.  Larsson wins for making it sound awesome to eat open-faced sandwiches in the cold.


A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

None of these books illustrate Africa in the most positive of lights, but as a lover of travel, they leave me feeling intrigued about what a trip to the continent might be like.

Mount Everest

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Krakauer does not make climbing Everest sound fun.  At all.  (See: parts of book where 8 people die trying to climb it.)  But I'd be lying if I said it didn't make me wonder what it would be like to scale the darn thing.  Maybe just to base camp?


Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (or any classic Russian lit, really)
Stalin's Children by Owen Matthews

I know this is a tad crazy, because neither of these books make Russia seem like the most inviting place in the world.  Plus, Russia is actually not a very safe place for American travel these days, but books set in that country make me insanely interested in checking it out.  Maybe one day.

Around the Globe!

13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson
A Cook's Tour by Anthony Bourdain
Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Can't argue with a novel that basically takes you around the globe!  And two of these are nonfiction books, making the travel experiences even more vivid for the reader.  (Bonus: Bourdain's book will make you want to Eat All The Things.)

There are also a few favorite destinations that I haven't read books for yet.  Have you read any books set in these locations?  I'm dying to find some!:

Spain (specifically Barcelona)
Greece (either Athens or the islands, Mykonos and such)

Do you like to "travel" when you read?  What are some of your favorite literary settings?

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