Sunday, August 31, 2014

Book Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Title: Special Topics in Calamity Physics
Author: Marisha Pessl
Publisher: Penguin
Publication Date: August 3, 2006
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

Marisha Pessl's mesmerizing debut has critics raving and heralds the arrival of a vibrant new voice in American fiction. At the center of this "cracking good read" is clever, deadpan Blue van Meer, who has a head full of literary, philosophical, scientific, and cinematic knowledge. But she could use some friends. Upon entering the elite St. Gallway school, she finds some--a clique of eccentrics known as the Bluebloods. One drowning and one hanging later, Blue finds herself puzzling out a byzantine murder mystery. Nabokov meets Donna Tartt (then invites the rest of the Western Canon to the party) in this novel-with "visual aids" drawn by the author-that has won over readers of all ages.

My Review:

In case you haven't noticed, it's become a bit of a pet project of mine to read through the books listed in this article that I mentioned a few weeks ago: 'We Were Liars' and 8 Other Books You'll Love if you Were Shocked By The Twist in 'Gone Girl'.  Because who wasn't shocked by the twist in Gone Girl?  I've had more than my share of "blah" reads this year, and I figured this list would be a good pick-me-up.  So far, I've not been disappointed.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a one-of-a-kind read.  The novel opens with our protagonist, Blue Van Meer, informing us of her teacher's suicide.  Blue formats her narrative like a college syllabus for an English class, largely due to the influence of her father (a professor).  As we go through each literature-inspired chapter, Blue attempts to discover the truth behind her teacher's suicide, but ends up with much more than she bargained for.

There's so much that I love about this novel, but I feel like each stellar point comes with a caveat.  For example: I loved Blue's character.  She has a great way with words, a nearly photographic memory, and is hilarious (often without meaning to be).  She's wise beyond her years, but still struggles with a typical high school need to fit in.  However, despite my love of Blue, I continually felt annoyed by the verbosity of her narrative.  She uses 10 words (or 10 paragraphs from a classic novel) when one would do.  But I TOTALLY GET why she is so wordy.  She's brilliant, she's memorized nearly every book she's ever read, and the writing style reflects that.  If it didn't, you'd have a completely different character.  But even though I completely understand why that was necessary, it was just too much at times, as I felt myself going cross-eyed at her long-winded explanations.  Appreciating it doesn't mean that I always enjoyed it, I suppose.

Similarly, we have the central mystery of the story.  In the end, I was astounded with how well everything came together.  This book is CHOCK FULL of details...really, really minute details (see above paragraph).  Given that, it is impressive how cohesively Pessl was able to wrap them up at the end of the book.  (There is even a "Final Exam" in the last chapter that leaves you with a few interesting points to ponder.)

However, despite the awesomeness of how the ending was crafted, I was a little bit annoyed with the specifics of the conclusion.  The background of the big "reveal" is something that is not alluded to at all earlier in the book, so much so that Blue spends many pages filling us in on historical details late in the novel that are relevant to this game changer.  I get a tad irked when a mystery novel takes such a drastic turn that it starts to feel like something got unnecessarily dropped on me out of left field.  Twists are a good thing, but completely out-of-the-blue plot details that require enormous explanations towards the end of the book?  The story starts to lose its seamless feel when that happens.

Apparently I shouldn't complain about Blue being too wordy, because I'm fairly guilty of that myself in this review.  But my final verdict is this: Special Topics in Calamity Physics is immersive.  Blue's tendency to ramble may make you leery in the first chapter or two, but push through that introduction, and I promise you'll be in for quite the ride.  Despite my misgivings about the direction the novel took in the last 150-ish pages, there are some great twists here, and it will most definitely keep you up til the wee hours wanting to see how it ends.

What was the last good mystery you enjoyed, friends?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

My 2nd Blogoversary! Giveaway! WHOOP WHOOP

Good day to you, reader friends!  Yes, it has been two whole years since I started this bookish adventure at The Well-Read Redhead.  CELEBRATION TIME, YO!

In the last year, I've posted 53 book reviews ...not as good as the 98 of my first year, but I'll still pat myself on the back, considering that I've moved (twice), left my job, and had baby #2 within the last 365 days.  Thanks for tagging along for one of the craziest years of my life!

I know things slowed a lot around here lately, but I SO appreciate all of my readers, and I hope you have as much fun in my literary corner of the internet as I do.  I'm looking forward to more good times in year 3...who's with me??

In honor of all my wonderful followers, I am offering a giveaway.  And it's INTERNATIONAL!  Just fill out the Rafflecopter below, and you'll be entered to win $10 from Amazon to use towards the book of your choosing.  I know, controversy with authors etc etc etc, but whatever.  Don't look a gift horse in the mouth, peeps!

If the winner is from the US, I will also throw in 2-3 books off my shelves that I'm looking to give away.  Except I haven't decided which ones are going yet, so it will be a glorious surprise for the winner!
Your face if you win the surprise box of books.  YUP.
Thanks again all...and keep on reading with me!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, August 18, 2014

Book Review: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Title: We Were Liars
Author: E. Lockhart
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: May 13, 2014
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.
We Were Liars  is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from National Book Award finalist and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart. 
Read it.
And if anyone asks you how it ends, just  LIE .

My Review:

I heard crazy hype about this book for the last few months.  "It's the next Gone Girl!" they said.  "You won't believe the twist!" they said.  Plus, the summary (above) is reminiscent of the book jacket for Chris Cleave's Little Bee, which basically tells you absolutely nothing about the novel, and implores you to never tell anyone else about the novel before they've read it.  (In Little Bee's case, that description is entirely justified, so of course this piqued my interest.)  I had to see for myself.  To the library!

After waiting it out at #63 on the hold list, I finally got my chance at We Were Liars.  And I do see why this book is so hype-worthy.  From page one, you just get the sense that something  I wasn't sure if it was the protagonist (Cadence), her family, the setting (a secluded private island), or all of it.  But something was wrong, and I couldn't put my finger on it.  That eerie feeling compelled me to plow through the book at top speed...and yes, the climactic twist made it worth it.  It's one of those sudden plot changes that makes you want to go back and re-read the entire novel, because OH MY GOD, how did you not figure it out sooner?

That said...after I finished my speed-reading of the novel and had time to calm down after that rush of an ending, I did pinpoint a few things that I was a bit iffy on.  I can't go into too much detail (spoiler-free zone), but despite the amazingness of the big ending, I realized later that there were an awful lot of convenient details that caused that twist to happen.  Things that were ignored by the characters (or the author) that allowed that big event to be possible.  Thus, it all felt a little too neat, given the gravity of the circumstances.  I think this, more than anything, identified the book squarely in the YA genre for me, rather than giving it the ability to overlap with adult fiction.  I'm not trying to trash YA, but in general, those books tend to wrap things up more cleanly for a younger reading audience, versus the ambiguity that is more typical in adult novels.

This convenience factor was the only significant downside for me.  A smaller caveat was the overly-dramatic style of Cadence's narrative--she was always melting into puddles or bleeding on someone (figuratively, of course) and I started to roll my eyes a bit at the unnecessarily theatrical descriptions that were fairly constant in the text.  However, these did get less glaring as the novel went on, likely because the plot action picked up to a pace that started to match her emotional upheavals.

Final verdict on this hit novel of the summer?  Yes, I think you should read We Were Liars.  It's short and fast-paced, great for a beach read.  And the twist is 100% as good as the critics say.  Stylistically, it leaves a bit to be desired, which places it below a suspense novel like Gone Girl for me.  But if you want a novel that's going to keep you on your toes, it's an awesome pick.

Have you read We Were Liars this summer, friends?  What did you think?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Top Ten Books I'm Not Sure I Want to Read

It's been a long time, friends!  But I thought today's Top Ten Tuesday topic (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) was an interesting one, so it's time to jump into the fun.  This week's focus is...

Top Ten Books I'm Not Sure I Want to Read

You know, books you bought but now aren't sure you want, books that get tons of hype and you feel like you SHOULD read them but are kinda iffy about, etc.  We've all got books on our lists like that!

1. World Without End by Ken Follett

Several years ago, I read Pillars of the Earth, back when EVERYONE was reading Pillars of the Earth.  And it was...okay.  I liked it, but it was kind of slow and tedious and OMG LONG.  And now I feel like I have to read the sequel...even though I kind of don't want to.

2. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Or really any David Sedaris book.  I read Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim a few years ago, and was so excited to laugh out loud, like everyone told me I would.  Aaaaand...I didn't.  I just did not get the Sedaris hype at all.  I feel like I need to give him another try though, because SO many people adore his work.  I'm just not super pumped about giving it a second chance.

3. 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James

I have read just enough excerpts from this book to feel like I can comment on my opinion of it with some authority.  (If you are unclear on my opinion, please feel free to go over to the search bar on the right side of my blog, search for 50 Shades, and enjoy the biting commentary that I have shared here over the years.)  However, there is a part of me that feels like I should read it, because EVERYONE has read it, and if I'm really going to pan it, shouldn't I read it cover to cover?  Even if it might make me die a little inside?

4. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

This is a tough one to admit!  I've owned this book (and the next 4 in the series) for something like 5 years now, and never touched them.  I bought them because I heard so many rave reviews, how could I not read them?  But...historical fiction (especially LONG historical fiction) is really hit-or-miss with me.  (See book #1 in this post.)  And it's such a long I ready to commit?  It all seems so daunting.  (Katie from Words for Worms, I see you bursting at the seams over there, please feel free to unleash in the comments.)  :)

5. A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin

See: everything I said about Outlander.

6. The Dark Tower series by Stephen King

So hard for me to admit!  Because everyone knows I just adore Stephen King.  However, I have to admit that I'm not a huge fan of his books that have a heavy sci-fi bent.  Like, Insomnia was kind of painful for me.  Even The Stand was a little tough at times (but was saved by the more solid "real life" story of those that survived Captain Trips).  King says this series is his magnum opus can I avoid it?

7. Extras by Scott Westerfeld

I read the Uglies trilogy a few years ago, and overall I really enjoyed it.  I saw that Extras is a companion novel to the trilogy, taking place after Tally's story is over with a new set of characters.  I feel compelled to read it because it's related to the Uglies trilogy...but I'm not sure I'm on board with a totally different protagonist after following Tally for 3 novels.  I feel this way about pretty much any "companion" novel to a solid trilogy.  Sometimes authors need to quit while they're ahead.

8. MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

This is book #3 in the MaddAddam trilogy.  I read Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood a couple of years ago.  I liked them, but didn't love them.  Honestly, I read The Year of the Flood because I felt like I had to after finishing Oryx and Crake.  Now I feel the same about MaddAddam.

(This post is teaching me that I have a lot of guilt issues to get over regarding my tendency to not finish series.)

9. The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

Or pretty much any Philippa Gregory that I haven't already read.  Back in 2008, I discovered her work with The Other Boleyn Girl, and got fully ADDICTED.  I ripped through a ton of her books and adored them.  However, I think it was a case of burnout, because after a while I felt way overloaded on her stuff.  A lot of it reads somewhat similarly, so I got a little tired of her material.  Since then, I've looked at her other releases with a vague sense of yearning, but also a bit of uncertainty...will I enjoy it, or am I going to think it's too much of the same again?

10. Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

This is described as the Japanese version of The Hunger Games, which is why it's been on my TBR list.  It actually came out a few years before HG, but is way, way gorier (so I've been told).  Hence my hesitation.  I am outrageously curious about this novel, but not quite sure I'm ready for the blood and guts.  Same goes for the movie version!

Readers: what books are YOU unsure about reading?

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Book Review: Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Title: Gone With The Wind
Author: Margaret Mitchell
Publisher: Scribner
Publication Date: September 1, 1936
Source: personal purchase

Summary from Goodreads

Set against the dramatic backdrop of the American Civil War, Margaret Mitchell's epic love story is an unforgettable tale of love and loss, of a nation mortally divided and its people forever changed. At the heart of all this chaos is the story of beautiful, ruthless Scarlett O'Hara and the dashing soldier of fortune, Rhett Butler.

My Review:

HOW to review a novel as vast, as famous, as this one??

This book has been on my TBR pile for a long, long time.  I operate on the principle that if there is a well-known movie based on a book, I must try to read the book first.  Such is the case with Gone With The Wind.  Somehow, I successfully avoided the movie for the last 30.5 years of my life (minus endless clips of Rhett Butler's famous "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn"...which was actually mildly spoilery for the book, by the way), and I was able to first enjoy this story in written form.  And enjoy it I did!  For over two months, in fact.  I spent most of the summer finishing this book, and I have zero regrets about savoring those 1024 pages for so long.

I knew that GWTW was a romance, but it is so much more than that.  Because first of all, how fantastic of a character is Scarlett O'Hara?  She is such a force to be reckoned with, especially for a woman in the Civil War era.  At the same time, she is outrageously self-centered and naive, very much to a fault.  I alternated frequently between cheering for her to get on with her bad self, and shaking my fist at her stupidity.  The complexities of her character are endless, though in the end I really did love her, despite her many faults.  (Okay, except maybe her role as a mother.  She was a positively horrid mother.)

Beyond the romance, beyond Scarlett, we have a novel set quite dramatically against the backdrop of the Civil War.  Scarlett and Rhett's story is inseparable from the tragedies of wartime in 1860's Atlanta.  Not only is their relationship perfectly woven into this turbulent time period, but the novel does a pretty excellent job of detailing Civil War history.  I was raised in Connecticut, where I imagine the Civil War is taught in schools with a bit of a different tone than it is in Georgia, or any of the southern states.  This was probably the first account of the Civil War that I've read from a southern perspective (albeit a fictional one), and it was extremely eye-opening.  The historical detail in this novel is every bit as compelling as Scarlett and Rhett's dramatic romance.

One of the most important messages in GWTW is this: be happy with what you have, when you have it.  The grass is not always greener.  Love the one you're with.  I won't tell you if Scarlett learns these lessons or not, but it's quite a ride watching her try to get there.

I am so glad that I finally got around to tackling this classic.  It is absolutely an epic novel that's worth your time!  Now I need to get to the movie...although I must admit, the few clips I watched on YouTube already have me feeling like it won't do the book justice.  (That famous Rhett quote isn't delivered in anywhere near the same tone it was written in the book...#readerproblems.)

This was my third pick from the TBR Book Baggie! My next pick from the baggie is:

Someone Like You by Sarah Dessen!

YA up in the hizzy!  And another main character named Scarlett?  Weird.  Stay tuned for a review...

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Book Review: The One & Only by Emily Giffin

Title: The One & Only
Author: Emily Giffin
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: May 20, 2014
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

Thirty-three-year-old Shea Rigsby has spent her entire life in Walker, Texas—a small college town that lives and dies by football, a passion she unabashedly shares. Raised alongside her best friend, Lucy, the daughter of Walker’s legendary head coach, Clive Carr, Shea was too devoted to her hometown team to leave. Instead she stayed in Walker for college, even taking a job in the university athletic department after graduation, where she has remained for more than a decade.

But when an unexpected tragedy strikes the tight-knit Walker community, Shea’s comfortable world is upended, and she begins to wonder if the life she’s chosen is really enough for her. As she finally gives up her safety net to set out on an unexpected path, Shea discovers unsettling truths about the people and things she has always trusted most—and is forced to confront her deepest desires, fears, and secrets.

My Review:

First, I must note that I adore the plot summary for this book, because it doesn't give away ANYTHING.  Lately I feel like the plot summaries I've been reading are far too detailed.  This one gives you a good feel for the book, without giving away the farm.

You may remember that I really, really, really love Emily Giffin.  Usually I know WAY in advance when her latest book is coming out, but because I most recently live in a mommy cave of oblivion, I didn't find out until a whole month AFTER its release that this book was available.  For shame, me!  Luckily my library got it to me lickity-split, because this was a novel worth devouring.

In keeping with the summary, I don't want to give any spoilers.  However, I will say that this book brought me back to my early love for Giffin's work, forged when I read her first two novels (Something Borrowed and Something Blue).  I was drawn to them because, like a lot of women's fiction, they are steeped in relationship issues, but not in a way that is predictable or mollifying.  Giffin has a way of making you build sympathy for characters who aren't always engaging in the most wholesome behaviors, which takes a lot of skill.  You don't naturally want to cheer on a liar or a cheat, amiright?  But Giffin molds her characters in a way that allows you to see them as more than the sum of their poor choices.  In fact, she makes you question if those choices were really poor at all.

Such is the case with The One & Only.  Shea (our protagonist) stumbles into some rather...complicated relationships.  And believe it or not, I found myself rooting for her to go towards the most inappropriate one of all.  I won't tell you if it comes to fruition or not, but I will say that the suspense along the way is fairly addictive.  Prepare to be glued to your book once things get rolling.

I've read a few reviews that decry Shea as a very one-sided character--nothing but football, football, and more football.  I agree that that is true, but it didn't bother me because I think it was meant to make a point.  Shea has led a pretty sheltered life, and is definitely battling some "daddy issues"...she's afraid to move out of her comfort zone.  Football is her comfort, and that was highlighted a bit heavily, but I believe it's in a way that gives you a better sense of her motives.

Overall, this was another Emily Giffin win for me.  I will say that I did not love the conclusion (we're talking the last 3-4 pages), because I feel like she decided to pull a punch at the last second and wrap up the ending a little too sweetly.  However, given that I was unable to put the book down for the previous 400-ish pages, I'd say this one gets a 99% amazing rating from me.

Any other Emily Giffin fans out there?  Will you be picking up her latest anytime soon?

Sunday, August 3, 2014

July 2014 in Review

Wow, I posted 3 times in the month of July.  Ouch!!  Ah well, you know my story these days, I won't repeat it.  But lots of fun is being had in the Redhead household this summer, and needless to say, I've been outside playing with the kiddos a lot more than I've been inside blogging!  We did a little family vacation last week, had several beach/pool days, many zoo/museum/park trips, and also celebrated Small Fry's 3rd birthday.
When did this happen?  Le sigh.
I've also continued my half marathon training...which is getting JUST A TAD more difficult as time goes on...but I'm impressed with myself!  I did a 7 miler yesterday, which is the longest I've run since 2008 (wowza).  Mileage is getting up there, but so far my knees haven't exploded, so I'm doing well.

Anyways, even though it was a light month, let's recap book activities in July...

In July I read 2 books:
Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet
The One and Only by Emily Giffin (review coming soon!)

I also jumped into the Six Degrees of Separation meme, which I would love to do again soon.  Anyone know what the August book is?

I know I said I was going to finish Gone With The Wind last month, but I'm still working on it!  About 200 pages to go.  I WILL finish it this month.  It's been worth the wait though, trust me.  Beyond that, I'm looking forward to finally getting a chance to read We Were Liars by E. Lockhart...I've heard so many amazing things about that book already!

What are you reading these days, friends??
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