Last night, as I finished up reading Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman, I started thinking about what I'd say in the review. Then I remembered - oh right - I'm already done the series.
That's how this installment of Book a Week with Jen has gone. It wasn't exactly an afterthought, but it wasn't an undercurrent of the year. When I first took on this challenge in 2007, I threw myself into the project. I was at a very dark spot in my life, and forcing myself to read a book a week, I wrote about those books and my life, and it helped me heal.
This year wasn't awful, but it started off rotten. I ended a long term relationship, briefly moved back in with my mother, then lived in a scarcely furnished house (the house I had bought in 2007 then turned into a rental because that relationship was supposed to be "it") while I put my life back together. I had an off year work wise at the exact time my expenses rose because I was living alone again. I nearly broke my foot running. I got screwed on a book deal. So, no, I wouldn't put 2013 on my best list.
But there were bright points. I ran my fastest marathon ever. I published a long form piece of journalism that I had been trying to write for two years. I traveled to Anchorage, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Diego for the first time in my life. And because I was in a bad mood on Valentine's Day and decided to make fun of the only guy at the running event in jeans, I have a boyfriend and a New Year's Eve date at the Four Seasons tonight. I never would have renovated my house if I had not left then moved back in. And I am oh so happy to be home.
Very little of this came out in reviewing these books, which is okay. It was a nice side project to have, and I think that I've inspired you to pick up some books you might not have heard of otherwise. And I re-read The Prince of Tides specifically because of this project, which has sent me down a long path of re-thinking my approach to writing.
Now, some observations.
Most of the books I read were written by women. This was not by choice, and I didn't notice this until I was 3/4 of the way through. I stay out of the debates about men and women in writing, and whether or not women are seen as lesser writers. There are too many people screeching about it already. I pick what I want to read because I want to read it, not because of gender, the same way that I don't think it's a big deal that the Philadelphia Inquirer gave me, a woman, a sports column.
The pull of eBooks is getting stronger. Because I like to line up the books as I read them, eBooks were not eligible for this series, but they're hard to ignore - hell, I even wrote one. I don't like reading on a screen, but I did download a few novellas to read on my iPhone through a Kindle app so I'd have something to read on PATCO when I either forgot to bring my book or a book was too big to fit into my purse. I will most likely be doing this for flights from now on, or at least having one book on my iPad and one in my carry on.
I love reading. This might sound obvious, but one of the things I didn't do that much when I lived with someone else was read. As soon as I moved out, I started reading before bed again. It's a routine that gets me ready to sleep. I also no longer have cable, so my transition from work day to free time is to sit on my couch and read instead of watching TV. I like it this way.
And now, my top picks of the series.
Best Fiction: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer.
This book knocked me on my rear. I thought about it for days after I read the last page. Deciding to leave a relationship that was supposed to end in marriage is a hard choice, and it left me asking a lot of "what ifs" - not just about this relationship but those that had come before. The "what ifs" happento Greta in this book, with a time travel bend thrown in. I loved it so much that I gave it as Christmas presents. Please go read it if you haven't already.
Best Non-Fiction: Ingenious by Jason Fagone.
Can we build a better car? I didn't think I'd really care, but this book sucked me into a world of dreamers and schemers who think that the answer is yes. It's an eye opening read, but a fun one too. I never thought I'd be saying that about a car book, but Fagone is such a good story teller, that he made me car. That's the sign of a great book.
So that's it for now. As always, I'm not sure what I'll use this space for in the future. And thanks for reading along. Now go read a book!
Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Last night, as I finished up reading Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman, I started thinking about what I'd say in the review. Then I remembered - oh right - I'm already done the series.
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 11:35 AM
Monday, December 30, 2013
After her death, Rosenblatt and his wife move into Amy's home and help her husband cope with the loss and with the children. The story is told in short vignettes, which mirrors what grief does to your system. Everything is scrambled, and flashes of the past, when that person is alive and whole, mix with the profound feeling of loss that they're never coming back. Mix in that this is a story of a father who buried his daughter, and how the children try to cope, and you have an incredibly sad yet beautiful book about love, loss and family. Rosenblatt doesn't make the book entirely about darkness, and I think that's why it works. The children are still children and do funny things. His daughter seems to have been a remarkable person, and he lets that show through too, even as his loss of her is unbearable.
This fall marked the 25th anniversary of my Uncle Tim's passing. He died of cancer, so the death was not sudden, but the magnitude of that death is still felt. I was young then, but I still remember the stream of family in and out of our house and my grandparents' house, the debate of whether or not the kids should go to the funeral (we did not), and a lot of crying. One Sunday in church soon after, my mom broke away from our pew and met my grandparents in the back of the church because she couldn't bear it. When I gave the eulogy at my grandfather's funeral, I cried hardest when I told him to go build buildings with his son in heaven. It's been 25 years and that loss is still so great.
Of course life kept going in those 25 years. His wife re-married and had two more children, who we call our cousins even though we're not blood related. Uncle Tim's daughter just got engaged; his son bought a home. The get together they held for the anniversary of his death was mostly a happy event, with everyone telling their best Time stories, but it's hard not to feel sad that a great man died so young, leaving a wife and two small children behind even though by all accounts they have gone on to live happy, healthy lives.
I read most of Making Toast on a train to and from San Diego with the Pacific Ocean flashing outside my window. I thought half way through that maybe I should pick a cheerier book for both that setting and the last in this series, but I couldn't stop reading. I'm glad I didn't.
So that's it. Another year gone, another 52 books read. I'll do a separate wrap up post about the series, including my top picks for the year. So, as always, stay tuned!
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 10:08 AM
Wednesday, December 25, 2013
I started Antonia Lively Breaks the Silenceby David Samuel Levinson before I flew from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. It was supossed to be my in-flight reading. But I ended the flight by playing word games on my phone while glancing at my fellow passenger's in-seat TV, which was showing the end of the Eagles game. And I don't like football.
It's not that it's a bad book, but it's a sprawling, messy one - and not in a good way. There's too many narrators, which make for too many story lines. The book starts in the middle of what happened to these characters, which can make for good tension in a book as what really happened unfolds, but that tension was buried under too many plots moving in too many directions. I kept seeing it as a movie. It would make a good one if someone clarified the story, and made those plot lines more clear while trimming back some of the ones that go nowhere. I almost DNFed the book, but I brought it with me to California, and was more than half way through, so I finally finished it this morning.
Good thing I did - one more book to go before this series was over, and I was anxious to move on. I already started book 52 of 52, and imagine it won't be long until you see the review here. So stay tuned!
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 4:24 PM
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
It's a heavy novel, and not just for a tween. WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD (which seems somewhat silly for a 27 year old book, but still). The story takes places in two times, the bulk of which is the childhood of Luke, Tom and Lila Wingo. Tom narrates that story from the present, which of course was the 1980s, by telling it to his sister's psychologist after his sister has once again tried to take her life. Their childhood was a disaster, and they lived at the mercy of their father, who beat them and their mother, and that mother, who felt she sold herself short by marrying a shrimper. There's also sexual assault and a very graphic rape. I found myself slowing down my pace of reading as I knew the rape scene was drawing near. It's really hard to read, even in my 30s. I remember how affected I was reading it 20 years ago, too. It's one the first grown up books I ever read, and it shocked me into the understanding that books could be about horrible things and still be beautiful.
Conroy's a master in this book. I usually don't like novels that are full of too much description because those pieces feel tacked on. Conroy makes them a key part of the narrative. It makes it a very southern book, even when Tom is talking about being a fish out of water in New York City. It's one of those books that is hard to get out of my brain when writing - I just turned in something the other day that had more lyricism in it than my typical stuff. It's not necessarily a bad thing since I'm not copying him, but it forced me to stretch a little with my writing.
I didn't remember everything - how Luke dies, for example. Reading that chunk of the book was like coming to the book fresh all over again. I stayed up very late the last two nights because I was sucked in by the story all over again, the good parts and bad, and to be amazed at what one writer could do with a language we share.
I'm wavering on watching the movie again. I know it's a different story, more tilted to Tom's time in New York than in South Carolina, and the near deletion of Luke was a big disappoint since he's such a big figure in the novel. But that's the way the movies go.
I have a six-hour flight coming up. Maybe I'll watch it then. Or, more likely, work in making sure I hit 52 books by January 1. Fifty down, two more to go.
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 3:17 PM
Monday, December 9, 2013
It's an okay read. I feel very three out of five stars about it. Enjoyable, but not earth shattering and very Seattle (that's why they lived after some mysterious event, and Bernadette's husband works at Microsoft). It'd make a good beach read, less so a "sink on the couch and read because it's cold out" read.
I was more intrigued about where the book came from. I bought it on Half.com, and knew it was a used library book. It's even stamped as a "Readers Choice," which makes me wonder why it was culled from the library so soon after it was published in 2012. Maybe there's a general three out of five stars feeling about it.
(I just checked the Goodreads listing for the book - 3.5 out of five).
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 8:32 AM
Monday, December 2, 2013
JAM: According to the wordsmith Beyonce, girls run the world. Tell us how that's true in whiskey today.
FM: Today, women are the CEOs, CFOs, marketers, blenders, distillers and owners of many whiskey brands. They are running every aspect of the whiskey industry. And the funny thing is, they’ve always been in the thick of the whiskey business.
JAM: So women have been in charge for some time...
FM: Women have always been a part of whiskey. Even before whiskey was coined as such, Sumerian women invented beer and Mesopotamian women invented distillation. When we get into the brands we see on shelves today, women once owned Bushmills, Cardow (Cardhu), Dalmore, Laphroaig, Tullamore Dew and many others. A woman invented the packaging for Maker’s Mark, which redefined liquor packaging strategies. So, women have been making important business decisions for whiskey brands for a long, long time. It’s only now that they’re finally receiving credit.
JAM: I know you love whiskey - how did you come to this angle for your book?
FM: I was at the Bourbon Women’s founding meeting, and they were talking about women being the first distillers. As a whiskey writer, I had never heard this, so I started looking into it and realized that women were not only distilling at home, but they were crucial to the modern success of whiskey. I had to write this book after I discovered how important women have always been. It was my chance to give many forgotten women, even the bootleggers, the credit the men have always taken.
JAM: What's it like signing books in Costco?
FM: Talk about an experience! One minute a man is knocking over my sign, the next another guy is scratching his butt in front of my table while sorting through cheeses. Old ladies laughed at me when I told them my title was Whiskey Women, and Mormons tried to give me their Book of Mormon. My favorite line: "I’ve never heard of your book because I’m Canadian." The guy walked across three aisles to pick up my book and tell me that. Weird. But, I sold a lot of books, and I recommend a Costco signing to all authors. You just don’t know what people wills say to you.
JAM: What's next for Fred Minnick?
FM: Well, I don’t know right now professionally. My literary agent, Linda Konner, and I have discussed a few potential projects, but no contracts yet. Personally, my wife and I are expecting our first child soon and I’m really gearing up to be a dad. I can’t wait.
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 9:00 AM
Sunday, December 1, 2013
I've read a lot of what makes good romance, and conflict is key. There always needs to be some kind of conflict that is pushed the hero and heroine apart, and the plot turns as they overcome those challenges.
For those two series, the conflict was...just not really there. For Brides, it was "OMG! We run a wedding industry but we are so resistant to love!" For the Inn BoonsBoro Triology, it was "we're building an inn! AND THERE'S A GHOST."
Yes, that oversimplifying both series, but they weren't that great. It felt like Roberts was off her game, and that she was writing copies of books she'd done before, just with a lot more brand names mentioned over and over again, and hooking them into series because that made financial sense.
So I'm glad to report that Whiskey Beachis a much different kind of book. It has a lot of conflict and complications, and a murder mystery wrapped inside. Eli Landon has just had a horrible year. His wife - from whom he was separated - had been murdered, and he was the prime suspect. Despite there not being enough evidence to charge him, he's still seen as guilty in the eyes of public opinion, and he loses his friends, his job, everything. So he retreats to the family estate called Bluff House in Whiskey Beach, north of Boston. His grandmother had lived there until she took a nasty fall. The woman who had been taking care of the house, Abra, has been charged with continuing the upkeep - of the house and eventually Eli.
Sure, there are the hallmarks of her work: the importance of family, the importance of a place, and there's someone fabulously wealthy involved. But Whiskey Beach didn't feel like a re-tread. It felt like something I wanted to read, and something she wanted to write.
It's not perfect, though. The book could have been about 50 pages shorter and not lost anything. I was impatient for the resolution - not because of the fast paced action, but because in spaced I was bored.
Still, it's encouraging that the book was so much better than those series. I have hope yet.
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 11:30 AM
Monday, November 25, 2013
Yes, Stone is a career criminal, but she doesn't target people who would miss the money, or focuses on bad guys. In Shoot the Woman First, she's involved in a heist from a drug dealer, and things go wrong (if things didn't go wrong, this wouldn't be much of a book). The story flips between Stone, who is trying to give a part of her take to relatives of her partner, and Burke, a former police officer who is being paid by the drug dealer to track down who hit his operation.
Crissa Stone a variation of a hooker with a heart of gold type story. She does bad things, but to bad people. She's living by her own moral code, and that makes her a sympathetic character. Stroby's done his work, too. When I interviewed to him for New Jersey Monthly, he talked about how he built the Stone character based on interviews with female criminals, and that most of the heists are based on actual events.
And this is why genre fiction can be good. This book feels real because it's based on fact, and the book is so well written. It's so good that Showtime has a Crissa Stone series in development.
I'm glad I looked beyond the title - I admit! - I don't like, and spent a few days in the world of Crissa Stone.
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 7:53 AM
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Brosh started blogging and posting comics about her life in 2009 as a way to procrastinate from studying for a physics final.
Some of the comics in this book have run on the website already; some are original. I have heard about Brosh in passing from some editors at Runner's World. Even though I really enjoyed them, I never really checked the site outside the links that they shared, so almost all of this was new to me.
It's an interesting way of story telling because it's not just comics and it's not just words, but a blend of both. And because that visual element is there, Brosh can inject some very perverse humor into comics about terrible topics, like contemplating suicide in a bout of depression. I felt bad for laughing, but I think that's the point. It's weird, dark and brash, but that makes her story telling that more honest and real.
Also: there are comics about dogs. Lots of funny comics about insane dogs.
And now a stupid comment: Reading these in book form was good for me - see statement above about how often I read the website - but I think I'd have preferred this as a hardback. The book is thick with glossy color pages, which made it heavy and hard to hold. A more solid spine might have helped. Of course that's not up to Brosh, but it was part of my experience, so I'm including it here.
Also worth noting: if you haven't listened to her interview on Fresh Air, please do. It's gotten a lot of attention because of the discussion about suicide, but it's not just about that. Great listen.
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 11:18 AM
Sunday, November 17, 2013
While How to Sleep Alone in a King-Sized Bed is a full on memoir, Writing is My Drink is part memoir but the memoir part is set up to support the writing instruction that is given throughout, from personal lessons that Nestor learned on her path to publication, to lessons that she uses in her writing classes, to check lists of writing activities at the end of each chapter.
I've been writing professionally now for a while - 15 years if you count when I started earning something for my writing, almost eight years if you start the clock from when I became a full time freelance writer. I've written a lot of personal stuff and what could be considered memoirs in essay length since then.
So some of this advice is basic to me, but not all. I dog eared a lot of pages with writing actives that I'd like to try later. I don't really aspire to do the big memoir anymore. I did when I was younger (my master's thesis was a 30-page memoir that made the agent rounds and got a lot of nice rejections), back when memoirs by young women were the hot new thing. But I've really found my groove in journalism. I often use the personal in those articles - like this piece that ran today, the bulk of which I wrote in one long stream while in Chicago.
But I don't sit down to write out my guts like I used to. Maybe that's a phase I'm in right now, or maybe I found what works best for me. I know that some of the exercises in this book will be helpful with what I write now, or will be should I chose to write more personally in the future. Even if I'm not going to go full blown memoir, sharpening the personal when I chose to use it can only make me a better writer, and this book can help with that.
One of the exercises struck me, and I'm going to do that here. Chapter 8 is all about finding your tribe, and Nestor writes about identifying those authors and musicians and artists whose work spoke to her. It took her a while to admit that these folks were in her tribe because she tried to hide some of her favorites for a long time because she thought other people would look down on her because of her tastes.
I used to live with someone who did not like my music. At all. I didn't like a lot of his music either, but I didn't try to prove something about him or myself because it. However, I became the one with the unsophisticated ear, and by proxy, the less sophisticated person in the couple.
Well fuck that. Here's my tribe, and I am proud to share it:
Caroline Knapp, Tom Stoppard, Nora Ephron, Bill Bryson, Guster, Matt Pond, Angels & Airwaves, Anberlin, Eloisa James, ELO, Katherine Paterson, Elin Hilderbrand, J.K. Rowling, Aziz Ansari, Robert Zemeckis, Tom & Lorenzo, James B. Stewart, J. Courtney Sullivan, Jon Stewart, Michael Lewis, Tom Perrotta, Mindy Kaling, Jennifer Lawrence.
Random list? Perhaps. I'm not going to explain why each one is there (though if you ask, I'll be happy to tell you). The common thread is that their work speaks or has spoken volumes to me, and I have learned and been inspired by every single one.
So I'll hang on to Writing is My Drink for when I need some help with the personal. It's a wonderful book for a beginner if you're looking to start this kind of writing, and a good tune up for those of us in the thick of things.
My only quibble is a throw away line about writing for low or no money. No no no. That was one of my quibbles with the conference, too, especially when Very Famous Wonderful Writer suggested to the crowd that they write for free (and then mentioned that her husband supported her through a lot of her rambling around in writing before she wrote Book that I Really Do Love).
I can't agree with writing for free, for reasons I have written about many times before. I earn my keep from writing and writing only, and I'm the only one whose work is keeping the lights on and paying the mortgage. I can't give this stuff away. I don't want you to either. It's not an okay practice, and writers should stop doing this immediately.
Small quibble, but to me an important one.
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 9:32 PM
Thursday, November 14, 2013
So I'm not going to share the book that is #44 of the series for a lot of reasons, the top one being that this is my blog and I MAKE THE RULES, DAMMIT! It's a self help book and I really don't want to share what I was reading and why. In case you're wondering, I'm fine, fit and healthy - I picked this up on the recommendation of a friend.
But I read it, so it's part of the list.
It's also an example of the back stories of used books. This one was published in the early 1990s, and it had been read before. Someone wrote in the book, and turned down corners. Based on how flat those folded corners are, I'm betting this book has stayed shut for about 20 years.
The person who read it before me made notes in red pen - a very specific red pen if I can remember right: the old Bic pens with the white body and the cap to match the color of the ink. I used to pop off the bottom of the pen - a little round plug - and play with it when I was bored in class. I went through boxes of those pens when editing papers for school, even though I hated the way they felt on the page - hard and thin. I stole felt tip pens from my dad's collection when I could, and I now use Uni-ball and felt tips when editing. Seeing that red ink was a flashback to when I was typing on a typewriter, and then our old Tandy that didn't even have a hard drive.
Anyway, I was supposed to be reading this book for myself, but I started building a picture of this pervious reader based on what check marks she filled, what she had starred, and what corners she turned down.
I don't know how much good the book will do me, but I was reading about a phase from my past, not my present. I hope she found what she needed because based on her marks, she was very much in the thick of it.
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 8:09 AM
Saturday, November 9, 2013
But after seeing some of John Green's Youtube videos, and realizing he was friends with my friend Claire Zulky, and that the book was being turned into a movie AND that I had marked it "to read" on my Goodreads page, I decided to give it a go. And I am so glad I did.
The Fault In Our Stars is told from the point of view of Hazel, who should be dead. She almost died when cancer took over her lungs, but was saved by a miracle drug that keeps her tumors from growing. So she is alive, but constantly attached to oxygen and knows that the drug could stop working at any moment.
At group therapy for cancer kids, she meets Augustus, who has lost part of a leg to cancer, and Isaac, who is about to go blind because of it. The book is what happens to the trio, though Isaac is the third wheel in this situation.
Yes, parts of this book are extremely funny, but it's a sad novel. As I finished the book last night, I thought about books I loved as a kid, and realized they all are, too: Where the Red Fern Grows, Bridge to Terabithia. Even Old Yeller.
They're so good because they deal with real life, which isn't always about dating and fun and parties. And vampires. Sure, those books serve their purpose - just look at how I enjoy a romance novel every once and a while, and as a kid I read about every Sweet Valley book I could get my hands on - but books like The Fault in Our Stars is a reminder that kids can and want to read books that deal with heavy topics. Because their life is not unencumbered.
Now I want to go hug a puppy.
I read this book on my flight home from Chicago with the beginnings of a head cold that stopped me from running a half marathon today. The flight home was much better, in part because on this reward ticket, I was put in first class. At first, I felt strange reading a YA book around an entire first class cabin of business men, but not so much when the guy next to me started snoring loudly.
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 11:04 AM
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Then, for today, I finally cashed in some of my USAirways Dividend miles for a flight from Philadelphia to Chicago. In return, USAirways gave me a ticket that put me on the plane in the last boarding group. Person after person with rolling bags got on before me - including a woman with two! - and then, just as I was about to get on the plane, a USAirways employee grabbed my bag and took it from me. When I then took the ticket from her hand, she made a nasty comment about me, in front of a crowd of people. Apparently she thought I couldn't hear her because I was wearing headphones. But no. I heard her, loud and clear. As did everyone else.
So then I get packed onto the flight, and a person is in my seat. After much shifting around, I finally sit, and the woman next to me promptly takes over the arm rest and puts her arm into my "space." We taxi. And then stop. And sit on the runway. In a hot plane. For an hour. We are now airborne, and seat hogger just coughed into my coffee, and is clearing her throat every 30 seconds or so.
What does that have to do with Courtney Milan's
I could tell you more about the book, but I'll just direct you here. So what I'll say is this: This is why I read romance novels sometimes. Because life really sucks sometimes. And these books take you away to another place where you know the guy will get the girl, or vice versa. It's not really about the smut. It's about picking up a book where you already know everyone is happy at the end.
That's not how life always looks, but I try to stay positive. I'm not a "glass half empty" or "glass half full" person, but instead a "who drank out of my glass" kind of gal. Reading these kinds of books balances me out sometimes. Even when this lady's elbow is just about nestled into my hip.
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 11:33 AM
Sunday, November 3, 2013
The Casual Vacancyby J.K. Rowling was the most expensive of the batch - it cost me a whopping $5. That's a lot more than most vendors were charging for used hardcovers, and the guy tried to hard sell me on it by saying it's a first edition (yes, a first edition Harry Potter might be worth something, but this? Eh). But since I so loved the Harry Potter books, I figured Rowling was worth a fiver.
The Casual Vacancy looks at what happens to a community after one person dies, though Barry Fairbrother's death doesn't cause the problems in Pageford Parish. It sets forth a series of events that take place revolving around who will take Fairbrother's seat on the parish council (because he died, his seat being open is called a "casual vacancy")
That's because Fairbrother had been on the side of council that didn't want to relinquish control of a poorer part of town. The other side thought that section, called the Fields, didn't belong in good ol' Pageford, and never should have been put under their control in the first place. Fairbrother also advocated keeping open an addiction clinic where other members of council wanted to see it closed.
Even though The Casual Vacancy is set in England, its themes are very in tune with what's going on in the U.S., given that just Friday, food stamp benefits were cut for 47 million Americans. The council members in Pageford who want to give up the Fields say a lot of the same things as politicians say about people who receive food stamps: that they caused these problems on their own, if they wanted to, they could get out of poverty and stop sucking off the government teat (even though a lot of food stamp recipients do work but still can't afford to feed their families on minimum wage). The Casual Vacancy goes deeper into the issues of poverty and gives the backstory behind people who are written of by Pageford residents (the heroin-addicted single mother; the trashy teenager who sleeps around) and shows why a lot of people are trapped in a cycle of poverty and violence. These kids were born down. They never really had a chance. A lot of these characters come out looking despicable. I didn't like many of them.
These issues are timely, but I wasn't in love with the book. If the author hadn't been Rowling, I might have DNFed it. There's a lot of people in this novel, and I still confused some of them more than half way through. That's, in part, because you hear inside the head of different characters within the same chapter. The revolving narrator can work very well, but not when it jumps from person to person within paragraphs of each other. The book improved as it went along, but I'm still labeling this an okay read.
Two months and 11 books to go! That's more than one book per week. Can I make it? I think so.
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 2:25 PM
Friday, October 25, 2013
Her Dearest Sin is a historical action romance that's pretty typical of the genre: woman in distress, soldier who saves her, they fall in love, happily ever after ensues (and I'm not giving away the ending here - it's a romance, and they're all supposed to end that way). The "sin" in the title doesn't come from something naughty the heroine does - it's not that kind of book - but from the last name of the hero, Sinclair.
Why did I pick it up? Because $.25 is a cheap way to try a new author. I tend to read everything in a romance writer's backlog if I really like her work, but it takes a leap for me to try someone new. Even though I'm not going to make that leap with Wilson here, I don't think it was a waster of that quarter.
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 4:19 PM
Thursday, October 17, 2013
So I will say only this: the book made me angry. Not just because of what the book portrayed or that Stockett is a white woman who wrote in three difference voices here, two of them black (which she addressed in an afterword to the book), but that while so much has changed since 1962, so much has stayed the same.
I didn't need to go back too far to illustrate why - I didn't even need to leave this week.
On Tuesday, Antonin Scalia, a Supreme Court Justice, said that the 14th amendment was for all, not "only the blacks." Last night, Cory Booker became fourth black person to be elected to the U.S. senate, the first from New Jersey, and will be one of two black senators in the current senate.
Oh and then there was the incident of flying a Confederate flag in front of the White House. Not only is the flag incredibly offensive and representative of reprehensible period in our country's history, but it is even more wrong - and threatening - when waved in front of a black family's home, which is what the White House is.
So if you haven't read this yet - and a lot of you probably have - be prepared to have feelings about it other than what you're reading on the page.
P.S. I bought this for $.50 at the Collingswood Book Festival. One good thing about waiting to read big blockbuster books is that you can usually get them on the cheap a few years later (The Help was first published in 2009).
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 8:34 AM
Saturday, October 12, 2013
I'm not a car person. I drive a 2002 Honda Civic that I won't replace when it either dies or fails inspection. I do, however, spend more than a fair amount of time on Bring a Trailer, a fascinating blog that aggregates cool cars for sale, and provides commentary on why they're cool.
Jason Fagone says he's the same thing. "I'm not a car person," he writes in the introduction to Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America. You can argue that Ingenious is about cars, and it is, but what makes this book accessible to everyone is that it's more about the people trying to reach a crazy dream. They just happen to be dreaming about cars.
In 2007, the X Prize Foundation said it would give $10 million to someone who could create a safe car, mass produceable car that was more efficient than what's on the road now. The terms and the rules of the competition changed, but the key point was that cars needed to travel 100 miles on the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline.
The idea was that money would spur anyone with a good idea and sweat equity to create a better car than anything that the entrenched big car makers would actually produce, and make car production more like it was before the big three dominated the market. "But the U.S. auto market was awesomely chaotic once: a weird and colorful splay of small-time tinkerers, strivers, blacksmiths, bakers, bicycle-makers, tricycle-makers, thieves and playboys," he writes.
And that's what happened. Fagone follows a handful of groups who submit cars to the X Prize, from the well funded companies to a high school in West Philadelphia (whose kids had already beaten MIT in similar competitions) to a guy who built a car by hand in a shop in a corn field.
That car is featured in the Ingenious book trailer
It's a wonderful, fascinating read, with the plot tension of a thriller when the cars get to the actual testing grounds (WHO IS GOING TO MAKE IT? WHO IS GOING TO WIN?). I thought about the book as I drove my Civic today, especially when I was stuck behind a monstrosity of a car called a Sequoia. Why anyone would want to drive a car associated with a giant tree is beyond me. I'm still pissed that the new Civic looks like a tank compared to my 12-year old ride. The dreamers in Ingenious feel the same way, and the book is about them trying to do something about it.
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 12:35 PM
Wednesday, October 2, 2013
I didn't know until after I'd finished with the series that the TV show was based on the book Hotel Babylon: Inside the Extravagance and Mayhem of a Luxury Five-Star Hotelby an anonymous reception desk clerk and Imogen Edwards-Jones. Hotel Babylon is a cover, and it's pretty obviously why Anonymous chose that name - he names names, and even though the book was published in 2004, some are still big like Kate Moss, Johnny Depp, Princess Diana and even the Queen Mum.
Those stories, however, are far from the most interesting in the book, which has as many "OMG that happens in hotels?" stories into one book as it can. I imagine that the structure was a challenge for Edwards-Jones. How to pack it all in? The solution is have Anonymous pull a double shift and tell the story of the hotel in 24 hours. It's pretty brilliant. Between the ticking clock and flashbacks, Anonymous can share stories of the drunk guy who smashes his teeth in the urinal, people having sex outside the elevator, the big spenders from all countries and what they order, and requests for "extra pillows" i.e. prostitutes.
At first, I thought too much was being jammed into the book, but the pace evened out, and I was disappointed when the book ended, much like I was that the show was cancelled with no resolution to its cliff hanger (and that happened with my favorite American soapy guilty pleasure of Las Vegas). But all good things must come to an end, and at the end of Anonymous' night, I'm relieved for him. Even if I really don't know his name.
Here's a sample from the show. The characters aren't really the same from book to show, but the flavor is the same.
P.S. This book is also a good reminder about fast technology changes. Here's how Hotel Babylon handled email: "Ewan is often too busy dealing with the faxes and telephone calls to check the email five or six times a day in case anything important comes in." I remember in 2004 when I didn't always have my email open, and I still got faxes at work. Inconceivable now.
P.S.S. I started to read another great book before this one arrived, but given the douses of bad news happening right now, dishy was exactly what I needed. I'm glad I found a copy of this book, at exactly the right time.
P.S.S.S. (Sorry but it's late and I've had a lot to write today) I did like this more than the previous hotel-related book I read and wrote about on this blog. Both are still good, but Hotel Babylon has the leg up here.
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 8:06 PM
Thursday, September 26, 2013
I haven't landed an assignment about The Theory of Opposites quite yet, but I hope I do soon, especially since she's taking a slightly different path on the business end of this book. But let's save that discussion to a later time.
As for the book! It's typical, excellent work. The Theory of Opposites is about Willa Chandler-Golden trying to get out of the thumb of inertia, which comes from both her famous philosopher father and a husband who has mapped out their lives together. When said husband chucks the map out the window (not giving away too much by saying in a less than wonderful way), Willia is forced to try something new, which involves not standing still, and writing a book surrounding the (faux) reality show Dare You!
I was a little concerned at first when Willa's ex-boyfriend popped into the picture, as she'd covered this topic before in Time of My Life when the heroine goes back to see what life would have been like with the other guy - literally.
But The Theory of Opposites is so very different, with more of the focus on Willia's quest here, that that concern was brushed off quickly. The book was a shade slow at the start, but I put my butt on the couch and didn't move for two hours this afternoon because I wanted to know how it ended.
Sadly for you guys, the book doesn't come out until November - but that's what pre-orders are for!
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 5:44 PM
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
But I'll try, briefly: to me, this read as a book about aging. The story slides in time around a handful of characters who are loosely connected, and we see them at different stages of their lives. For most, the last time we see them, they are drawn in a state of melancholy and also living the consequences of previous actions, for good or for bad. No one we meet more than once seems to have lived up to his or her potential. The older adult versions of themselves are flat where the younger versions - no matter how much wrong they were doing - were full of promise and life.
Downer, right? Maybe I feel this way because I'm starting to think about aging. I turned 33 this summer, so my 20s are far behind me and I'm moving into the middle 30s where I have to make some decisions about my life (i.e. do I want a family, etc.) Maybe I'll see something different if I read it in 10 more years, or if I'd read it when it first came out in 2010. But that's the beauty of books - you can revisit them when you're older and have lived more and have a different perspective on things. It's like writing about a bad breakup five years after it happened as opposed to five months. You might have better clarity.
Side note: this is probably the most beat up book I've received from half.com. I only paid a $1, so I'm not surprised. I also took it camping, and it now smells like campfire (from reading it by a campfire) and salsa (from salsa that leaked on my bag), so I'm glad I took this rather than, say, a brand new hardcover with me.
Another side note: I was a member of the National Book Critics Circle when A Visit from the Goon Squad won, yet I still thought this was about gangster before I started reading. I need to pay better attention.
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 2:29 PM
Saturday, September 14, 2013
That might a slight exaggeration, but all caps were used in a portion of the email.
She obliged, which is why I can't write too much about the book here - I have to save it for the review, which will run in January, the same month the book is published in the U.S. It has already been published in the U.K. and was a smashing success.
Bailey is a historian who started going through documents of the 9th Duke of Rutland because she was working on a book about the estate's "Lost Generation" - the young men who worked there and died in WW I. While at the estate, though, she stumbled upon big family mysteries that the Duke had apparently been trying to cover up while he was dying. Correspondence for specific chunks of his life were gone, and he died in the same rooms where the records was kept.
From there, Bailey changes the focus of her book and works unravels the mystery. It's thrilling. I had to keep checking to make sure it was a true story and not fiction.
Put it on your to-read list, especially if you're a Downton Abbey fan since it involves the same time period, and I'll link to the final review once it's published.
Another funny thing: I almost passed over this book entirely. I'm sent galleys for a lot of mystery and sci fi books, and I assumed this was one of those, too. But I found myself without a book to read, and The Secret Rooms was on the top of discard pile. I'm glad I took another look.
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 3:52 PM
Friday, August 30, 2013
Thriller? Yes. But literary? No. Sure, it makes for a servicable caper - a young painter shunned by the art world who is offered the chance to copy a Degas that had been stolen in the 1990 Boston art heist (the heist is fact; the Degas fiction). But any book that uses the word "laboriously" is not literary.
I tripped up on the writing. It's just not good. The novel is told in present tense. Adverbs are ripe. Shaprio over describes everything, which is tedious to the point of maddening when describing how to forge a painting. I was very tempted to pick up my red pen and start slashing, but it just wasn't worth it after a while because I'd slash everywhere. The writing didn't pass my meter test: I would never turn in an article written like this. I'd look like a lazy writer.
If The Art Forger had been labeled a straight thriller or mystery or pulp novel, I don't think I'd be as annoyed. But I feel the same way as I did about Water for Elephants: They're both books dressed up to look like more than they are - in the latter's case, a romance dressed as a literary novel. I'd much rather read a genre book with spectacular writing, like an Eloisa James romance, than something the other way around.
I picked this up at the Cherry Hill Wegmans, which used to have a fine book section for a grocery store, but space for books has been been cut to about a quarter of the original section's size. The selection wasn't great and I needed a book. Next up is one I chose on purpose, not because it looked like the best of limited options.
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 8:17 AM
Friday, August 23, 2013
It's an interesting read. It isn't a new book, but a re-release from 1956 by a master designer who made clothing more wearable and comfortable for American women. It's sometimes hilariously dated, with things like what to wear when you drive your husband to the train in the morning. "When you drive your husband to the train, is the whole community there? If you are display, it is only sensible to be displayable." On shoes, she writes "When you buy shoes, you are not just buying for your own feet. You are buying for your husband's tastes, for the things you are going to walk to. Does he take big steps? Would he rather help poor delicate you into a taxi?" Sports are limited to skiing, hiking, golf and tennis, and gloves must be worn, always. Oh, and "every woman should be able to sew on a button--otherwise she's hardly a woman."
These offering aren't often, but they are jolting - and a remind of what 1956 life was like for a lot of women.
But her general messages about fashion and making clothes work for you apply today. I came around to her way of thinking about building a wardrobe gradually, first by starting to collect vintage clothing, and then by shopping for better made items that worked for me rather than trying to build a wardrobe out of whatever was on the sale racks at Banana Republic and the Gap. Instead of wasting time and money constantly trying to find good deals on clothes I didn't always love, I work with someone at Nordstrom who picks out clothes for me based on what I like to wear, my shape, and my job (and she sometimes forces me to try new things, which is not bad!). I have most items tailored to fit ME, too (I'm a runner, so jeans are bought three sizes up to fit my legs, and taken in at the waist to fit there). These clothes are much better made, too, I wear the heck out of them. Goodbye, three cheap cardigans that somewhat fit. Hello, one kick ass bone blazer that cost more but works with almost everything (and becomes a coat when paired with a thick scarf).
I especially liked McCardell's chapters about jewelry and coats. With jewelry, she advocates finding unique things that work for you, not whatever's most expensive. Here are two of my favorite pieces:
This is my grandfather's high school ring. He had it sized down to fit my grandmother because he had taken her high school ring to WW II where someone stole it. I have never seen anything like it, and I'm so glad my mom let me have it on a permanent loan. I sometimes wear it alone; other times paired with a trio of new Marc Jacobs bangles and turnlock stud earrings, which I bought not because of the brand name but because I liked them, and they were sized right for my wrist and ears. I was surprised when people picked up on what brand they are. I try to avoid that kind of stuff because it's not me. For example: I HATE that Tory Burch medallion, and I passed on a 1960s Louis Vuitton oversized cosmetics bag I found in Alaska because I didn't want to seem like a label whore, though now I regret not getting it. Despite what I think is a tacky trend to flash labels - like when I saw a slideshow from a recent black tie and women were in formal dresses with their label bags COME ON THAT NEEDS A CLUTCH - that vintage LV still would have fit into my wardrobe. Sigh. Anyway.
This was my grandmother's silver charm bracelet, which is made up of sites from around New Jersey. After her funeral, her daughters, daughters-in-law, and then granddaughters were allowed to pick an item from her costume jewelry collection, and this was my selection. I usually wear it stacked with a Lagos rope bracelet that was a gift from an ex-boyfriend. I never wear earrings with it - two bracelets, especially with that much going on, is enough for me. I've also mixed the Lagos bracelet with a heavy 1950s rhinestone cuff that I bought at a now-closed antique store for $50. Why? I don't know. I thought they were a fun pairing - and McCardell would approve.
For coats and jackets, McCardell suggests having many, and collecting them over time. I've been doing this without realizing it, starting with when my mother gave me the coat on the left below.
I rarely feel more glamorous than when in that coat. I've worn it to cocktail parties, black ties, and sometimes with jeans and a sweater when I want to feel dressed up. And it wasn't a crazy expensive coat when first bought, either. My father got it for her from JC Penny in the 1970s, but it's held up incredibly well, even through a cleaning that involved sending it to a specialist who could clean both the fur and the wool (and as for the fur - my mother wanted me to have the coat. I don't buy fur, new or vintage, but I was not going to throw this away).
The jacket on the right is a wool princess coat that may or may not have been originally paired with a matching dress. I bought it at a vintage store that's now closed. I think I paid $40. It's a short coat that stops right at the belly button and makes my waist look teeny. I'll typically wear it on a chilly day (but not cold day - it's not a heavy coat) paired with leggings, boots, and a top that works with that kind of short coat. My favorite pairing is with a thin, hip length cotton hoodie. For whatever reason, that pairing looked fantastic, and I've repeated it many times since.
Now let's talk about buying when you see the perfect item, not when you need it - another McCardell adage.
On the left is a tapestry coat I bought from one of Couture Allure's last chance sales. I believe it was $50, and I bought it in March a few years ago when I *should* be transitioning into spring clothes. It's heavy, and gorgeous and wonderful. We had some bitter cold March days that year, so I got to take it out a few spins putting it away until the fall, when it then became my go-to. I am stopped by someone almost every time I wear it. I wore it on my first date with my boyfriend, and it's the one thing he remembers about my outfit. It's not a coat to wear if you don't want to stand out, but it also can turn a jeans and sweater outfit into something much more interesting.
On the right is a Burberry trench coat - with winter wool liner - that I found at Sherry's Yesterdaze in Tampa (which I included in this story). I bought it for $55. It poured while I was in Florida, so I got to wear it right then, and many times since. I took it to the Philadelphia Burberry store to have the frayed buckles replaced for $30, and they guess that it was a petite jacket from the 1990s when Burberry made ankle-length coats. They were also shocked that I found it for that price. Me too.
And then there is THIS.
THAT is a fabulous faux cheetah crop jacket with sleeves short enough to show off my wrists and all those bracelets I wrote about. I bought it online in May. I'm not going to post the source because the jacket smelled TERRIBLE when it arrived, like they'd doused it when some chemical instead of actually cleaning it. I worked with my dry cleaner to get that stench out. I haven't worn it yet, but I can't wait to break it out this fall, whether with jeans or over a gown for the black tie I'm going to in November (which has a 1920s theme - McCardell writes about knowing your figure, and I know that drop waists do NOT work on me. So it'll be a black dress I already have with a jeweled headband. Done).
I have one more coat project I'm working on for the fall:
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 4:07 PM
Monday, August 19, 2013
I, like many people, binge watched Netflix's Orange is the New Black this summer. I fell down the rabbit hole on Fourth of July weekend, and immediately ordered the book upon which it's based - Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison. I guess I wasn't the only one. Barnes and Noble said the book was backordered, so I cancelled that order and bought a used library copy from Half.com.
Some of the basic facts are the same: the main character/narrator is a woman named Piper who came from a middle to upper class background, graduated from an all woman's college, and then traveled the world with her lesbian lover who was also part of an international drug ring. Piper, once, transported money for them. A decade after she did so, she's arrested and sent to prison.
The differences are many: Piper is not locked up in Danbury with her former lover in the book, and Pennsyltuckey, who has a major conflict with Piper in the show, is just another background. There is a guard they call Porn Stash, but he isn't there the whole time of Piper's sentence. Crazy Eyes from the show is a few characters from the book molded together. In the show and book, there's a transgendered prisoner, but in the book she'd doesn't run the prison salon. In the book, there's a Delicious; in the show she's Tasty - that kind of thing.
The strength of the show is that they took this true story and turned it into a deeper story because of the medium of television where you can see Piper's surroundings. They could also expand on her story, and on the stories of the women with whom she's locked up. The flashback sequences in the show are some of the most powerful parts of it, and turns them from criminals into people who made mistakes - sometimes small ones - that sent them to prison.
On its own merit, the book is still worth a read. Sometimes the writing flags, but that's not enough of a quibble for me to say don't read it. I might have read the book first if I had the chance, though. Something to consider if you're thinking of watching and viewing Orange is the New Black.
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 2:35 PM
Sunday, August 11, 2013
I was happy, then, that Sittenfeld's third book The American Wife seemed to be a return to form. I devoured that novel, and bought her new novel Sisterland as soon as it came out. It falls somewhere in the middle between Man of My Dreams and The American Wife - disappointing but not a terrible book.
Sisterland is about twins Violet and Daisy. They have what they call "senses" - either able to predict an event happening in the future, or know something about someone without knowing why (i.e. that a classmate will die young). Violet chooses to tune into these senses and brands works as a psychic. Daisy starts telling people that her name is Kate (a shortened version of her middle name) and tries to destroy her abilities.
This works, though not perfectly. Daisy/Kate can't shut everything down, and she's always fighting with Violet - over a lot of things but also their different opinions on their ability. Then Violet says that a major earthquake is going to destroy St. Louis. The Today Show catches on, and the story unwinds from there.
My problem with Sisterland is the second half. The book just falls apart the closer the story moves to the predicted date of the earthquake, and Kate starts doing things that don't make sense. At all. I can't say what because I'd ruin the plot, but there is nothing in the first half or even first three quarter of the book that would indicate her actions at the end.
Sisterland isn't terrible, not in the way Man of My Dreams was. The built in deadline of the earthquake gives tension to the novel, especially on the day of, but that tension is hard as a reader to enjoy when the characters are off doing unrealistic things.
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 10:29 AM
Sunday, August 4, 2013
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 7:52 AM
Friday, July 26, 2013
Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan are the writers behind Go Fug Yourself, a funny fashion celebrity blog. They're also YA authors and just published Messy, their second novel.
Messy is a modern day take on Cyrano de Bergerac (or Roxanne. I loved that movie). Much in the same way that Clueless turned Pride & Prejudice into a send up of rich kids living the Beverly Hills lifestyle, Messy is a send up of rich kids living in the shadow of Hollywood.
It's also a sequel to Spoiledin which we met Brooke Berlin, the daughter of mega action star Brick Berlin. Spoiled had Brooke (and everyone via gossip blogs) learning that she had a half-sister, Molly, who came to live in the Berlin mansion after her mom died. Here, Brooke hires Molly's green-haird friend Max to ghost write her blog as she tries to start her own acting and "it girl" career.
They're an unlikely pair. Brooke is queen bee at Colby-Randall Prepatory School (acronym: CRAPS), and Max is the headmistress' daughter who's working minimum wage jobs to help pay her way to a summer NYU writing program. That's the only reason Max took the job. The money was too good to pass up, especially to pay for something she previously thought was out of reach.
As you can imagine, things go awry. The blog takes off, and people expect that Brooke really is the person writing the blog. When Brooke falls for a smart, cute guy in part because of the blog, she expects Max to help out - never mind that Max has a crush on him too.
Messy is good, fun YA. The characters aren't complete, cardboard stereotypes. Sure, there's the quarterback jock - but he asks Max out on a date. Brooke is that uber popular blond rich girl, but Cocks and Morgan show us that she has a very insecure side that drives a lot of what she does. Max could have been the typical loner-who-needs-a-makeover.
I know I'm probably out of the target audience for this book, but I know a lot of adults read YA every now and again. Look at what happened with Twilight. This would make a fun beach read for you and the young women in your life.
And, to take you into the weekend, the "nose jokes" scene from Roxanne:
Posted by Jen A. Miller at 2:01 PM