Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Joy Street by Laura Foley

Title: Joy Street
Author: Laura Foley

Genre: Poetry (Relationships / LGBTQ / Motherhood / Parents / On Writing)
Publisher/Publication Date: Headmistress Press (7/8/2014)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: More than thirty brief, but powerful, poems on love, life, everyday joy and everyday loss.

Do I like the cover?: I'm not sure -- it captures some of the feel of the volume, but just isn't a favorite of mine.

I'm reminded of...: Kathryn Kirkpatrick, Yuko Taniguchi

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy.

Why did I get this book?: I like poetry now and then, and poetry is good for me right now.

Review: This slender collection of poems -- about 33 -- is a deceptively quick read, but Foley's pieces invite rereading and ruminating. In plain, straightforward language, Foley shares the joy of partnership and everyday bliss, the bite of remembered pain, the anxiety of social situations.

I have complicated feelings about poetry: I like the idea of liking poetry, but honestly, sometimes I feel like I'm struggling to "get" a poem. Sometimes, despite loving the sashay of language, I get tired of the tumble of verse. But I enjoy contemporary poets like Foley who remind me that poetry is more than meter and rhyme.

This collection, like the volumes of short stories I've been devouring, was perfect for my life right now, when I don't have lots of free time to read. Instead, I could dip in and pluck out a poem to read, quick, when I had a free moment.

Foley articulated moments both familiar and alien in neat, compact sentences:
I've been pretending I'm my quiet musician son, thinking/deep thoughts, but feeling bored and awkward, a pained smile/cracking my face. (from 'Dinner Party')
or
My father not humming the/whole of four winters, or to my knowledge, since. (from 'Not Humming')
and her 'Fruedian Quips', which humorously describes the maddening hilarity of conference calls, is familiar to anyone who has sat through one. (I was reminded of this comedy video, which is oh-too-true.)

Other pieces merge the mundane with the more artistic: 'Gelato', a piece in which her partner eats the treat purchased for her, has the cadence and echo of William Carlos Williams' 'This Is Just To Say' while 'Maternal Semiotics' makes lyrical the act of breastfeeding (a piece that particularly resonated with me right now!).

Fans of narrative-style poetry will want to get this one; those who are new to poetry might enjoy this unvarnished and clear collection. Those who like LGBTQ literature will want this one, as Foley writes about her partner, coming out as queer, and facing commentary from those who don't understand her identity.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Joy Street to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 1/23. See my Giveaway Policy for complete rules.


Monday, January 12, 2015

From the Fifteenth District by Mavis Gallant

Title: From the Fifteenth District
Author: Mavis Gallant

Genre: Fiction (Short Stories / Europe / World War II / Italy / France / Marriage / Ex-Pats)
Publisher/Publication Date:
Source: France Book Tours

Rating: Liked a good deal.
Did I finish?: Yes.
One-sentence summary: Nine short stories of individuals outside of their own communities -- due to war, love, work, or health -- who find their identities challenged

Do I like the cover?: I do --I'm a sucker for this kind of styling.

I'm reminded of...: A.S. Byatt, Tessa Hadley, Katherine Mansfield

First line: In the south of France, in the business room of a hotel quite near ot the house where Katherine Mansfield (whom no one in this hotel had ever heard of) was writing "The Daughters of the Late Colonel," Netta Asher's father announced that there would never be a man-made catastrophe in Europe again., from 'The Moslem Wife'

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy.

Why did I get this book?: I'm a big Gallant fan.

Review: This collection is a reissue of Gallant's well received collection of moody, smart, and emotionally restrained short stories. A wonderful introduction for those new to master writer Mavis Gallant, this volume has some of Gallant's best works, including her delicious 'The Moslem Wife', first published in the New Yorker in the '70s. (Michael Ondaatje once said "'The Moslem Wife' has more going on in it than five novels", and it's true!)

Set in Europe ahead of, and after, World War II, her stories focus on ex-pats and the displaced, those who cling to an identity that might not exist anymore, or perhaps never existed at all: an English hotelier in the South of France; an Italian girl in another part of the country, working for an English family at odds in their own English community; a young German POW who returns with an idea of his mother in mind and finds a different woman.

Short stories have been a perfect way for me to get back into reading now that I have a baby and I loved this collection. Gallant has marvelous narrative style: she manages to pack background, judgment, descriptive details, sense of place, and lyrical loveliness into every sentence.
The time was early in the reign of the new Elizabeth, and people were still doing this -- migrating with no other purpose than the hope of a merciful sky., from 'The Remission' (p44)
or
For a time her letters were like the trail of a child going ever deeper into the woods. He could not decide whether or not to follow; while he was still deciding, and not deciding, the trail stopped and the path became overgrown behind her., from 'Baum, Gabriel, 1935-()' (p82)
While most of the stories touch upon some aspect of World War II, they're not war stories per se, nor do they read like historical fiction. They're lightly literary but very readable, deep without feeling obtuse. Gallant is a writer's writer, too: for those who admire the craft of storytelling, these pieces are delightful to admire and dissect (as I have been doing).

Strongly recommended, especially for fans of A.S. Byatt, Tessa Hadley, and Katherine Mansfield.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

2015 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

This is one of my favorite reading challenges, mostly because hist fic is among my favorite genres, and until 2014, was a challenge I easily beat. (Thus, I suppose, negating the "challenge" part of it, but whatever.)

This year the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge is being hosted at Passages to the Past!

I'm going to commit to Renaissance Reader - 10 books since my goal is to read 25 books this year. Here's hoping I can reach both goals!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Weekend reads and Moby Dick...

We're about to get on the road for a little weekend getaway, the first since having our Little Reader.

We're heading to New Bedford on the Cape for the 19th annual Moby Dick Marathon, hosted by the New Bedford Whaling Museum. (You might recall that my wife adores Moby Dick; it's our nursery theme and for our babymoon, we went to Arrowhead where Melville wrote the book.)

Needless to say, my wife is over the moon. We're signed up to be back up readers should one of the scheduled readers bail (fingers crossed!) We've got Little Reader covered, too: lots of nautical-themed clothes for the weekend, and two board books inspired by Moby Dick.

My weekend read is essentially Moby Dick although I am bringing Alex Myers' Revolutionary in case!  What are you reading this weekend?

Be sure to check out my top ten reads of 2014 and let me know what yours were!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Top Ten Reads of 2014

And here's my legit top ten reads for 2014!

I read about 50 books for 2014, which is a huge drop from my typical year (almost by half!). Pregnancy, and the resulting baby, are to blame, and while I'm a little disappointed, the aforementioned baby -- our Little Reader -- is so frickin' cute, I kind of can't care.

I still walked away with some stellar reads for 2014, and once again, had a challenging time identifying the top ten of this year.  In the end, I picked the books I still talk about obsessively, that I purchased (for myself and/or others), and that I want to reread or force others to read.

Seven of the ten novels are historical fiction. Four are penned by men and two are collaborative efforts, which is fascinating -- I've never had novels with multiple authors make my top ten before, and now two have! In terms of other diversity, I did badly, and it's a 2015 goal of mine to read more authors of color and non-US/UK/CA-based authors.

Here they are!

Sally Beauman, The Visitors

I haven't gotten around to reviewing this one (although I did blurb it for Bloggers Recommend, and if you want a great review, see Historical Fiction Notebook.) Ultimately, the book's heroine, Lucy, captivated me, and despite the novel's slightly disjointed feel, her voice was so strong, I sucked up every page just to be with her.



Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly, The Tilted World

Penned by a married couple, a novelist and a poet, this novel swept me away, much like the flood central to the story. A little love story, a murder mystery, a historical snapshot of a forgotten disaster, this novel has it all. I expected the story to feel disjointed, but Franklin and Fennelly created a lyrical, cohesive story I haven't forgotten.


J. Boyce Gleason, Anvil of God

This was one of my first reads for 2014, and I still think about the story and characters. Set in the 8th century, this novel has flavors of Marion Zimmer Bradley and Phillipa Gregory, and mixes romance with battle easily and convincingly. I'm dying to read the next book.


Elaine Neil Orr, A Different Sun

I was astounded by this novel -- by the premise, by the narrative style, by the deft handling of white privilege, slavery, women's rights in a historical context. Inspired by the real life diary of the first Southern Baptist missionaries in Africa, Orr explores marriage, faith, and colonialism in a compassionate, captivating manner.


Mallory Ortberg, Texts from Jane Eyre

I'm madly in love with this smart, snarky volume of classics "retold" in the form of text messages between characters. Books about books are a perennial favorite of mine, and this one takes the best of more than sixty classics, both ancient and contemporary, and distills them to their silliest and most sublime.


Laura Purcell, Queen of Bedlam

This novel represents what I love about historical fiction: a well-researched story that entertains. Focusing on the wife and daughters of "mad" King George III, Purcell evokes the tumultuous and tragic events of the Hanoverian royals without overdoing the drama or loading on the unnecessary research. At the heart of this novel, a story of family and loyalty.

Deanna Raybourn, Night of a Thousand Stars

This was my first experience with Raybourn, and I fell madly in love. This was a splashy, historical rom com with exotic locales, a winsome heroine and a dreamy hero, and plenty of drama. There were laugh-out-loud moments, a romance I rooted for, and smart narrative styling that kept this from being rote or cheesy.


Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation

This creepy, sinuous speculative novel captivated me -- so much so I had nightmares inspired by it! A poetic novel with a sci-fi plot, this is a slender book that invites one to  linger but I couldn't help racing through it. Supremely original.



Various, A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii

Six fabulous historical novelists tackle the eruption of Mount Vesuvius with a series of intertwined stories. The intentional collaboration pays off in this cohesive novel; there's no jarring misstep, dropped thread, or narrative shift to distract from the tragedy of the story.


Ann Weisgarber, The Promise

This is one of those reads I can't seem to review well; I need to just make a video of myself flailing in hopes of conveying my love. A novel of the 1900 Galveston hurricane, it is also the story of emotional storms. Weisgarber's writing is just wonderful, and she makes the novel's triad -- two women connected to one man -- rich, fascinating, and heartbreaking.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Books Read in 2014

January

Linda Bamber, Taking What I Like
Colin Falconer, Isabella: Braveheart of France
J. Boyce Gleason, Anvil of God
Elaine Neil Orr, A Different Sun
Nicky Penttila, An Untitled Lady
Sam Thomas, The Midwife's Tale [reread]
Sam Thomas, The Harlot's Tale
Heather Webb, Becoming Josephine

February

Kim Cooper, The Kept Girl
Michelle Diener, Mistress of the Wind
Nancy Horan, Under the Wide and Starry Sky
Marci Jefferson, Girl on the Golden Coin
Nina Siegal, The Anatomy Lesson
Peter Swanson, The Girl with a Clock for a Heart
Michele Zackheim, Last Train to Paris

March

Ruth Hull Chatlien, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte
Laurel Corona, The Mapmaker's Daughter
Nicole Dweck, The Debt of Tamar
Daniel Levine, Hyde
M.J. Neary, Never Be At Peace
Shannon Selin, Napoleon in America
Jan Shapin, A Snug Life Somewhere
Carol Strickland, The Eagle and the Swan

April

D.W. Bradbridge, The Winter Siege
Mario Giordano, 1,000 Feelings For Which There Are No Names
Sandra Gulland, The Shadow Queen
Violet Kupersmith, The Frangipani Hotel
Stephanie Thornton, Daughter of the Gods
Andra Watkins, To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis
Ann Weisgarber, The Promise

May

Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly, The Tilted World
Sally O'Reilly, Dark Aemilia
Lauren Owen, The Quick
Phyllis T. Smith, I Am Livia

June

Sally Beauman, The Visitors
Lynn Cullen, Mrs. Poe
Laura Purcell, Queen of Bedlam

July

Emma Campion, A Triple Knot
Jaime Lee Moyer, Delia's Shadow
Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation
Jeff VanderMeer, Authority

August

Marie-Helene Bertino, 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas
Megan Chance, Inamorata
Ned Hayes, Sinful Folk

September

Deborah Swift, Shadow on the Highway

October

Kari Edgren, Goddess Born
Lois Leveen, Juliet's Nurse
Deanna Raybourn, Night of a Thousand Stars

November

Mallory Ortberg, Texts from Jane Eyre
Various, A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii

Monday, December 29, 2014

Top Ten Reads of 2013

First things first: you're not reading this wrong!  This is indeed my top ten post for 2013 -- not 2014.  Somehow, I never posted this last December or January, and I liked these books too much to let them go without some praise.  My top ten of 2014 will be posted later this week.

Now, my favorite reads from last year (all of which I still passionately recommend and think about!).

It was incredibly challenging assembling my top ten reads for 2013. So many standout, stellar books this year! In the end, my final top ten list is made up of the reads that emotionally rocked me in some shape or way, that I haven't stopped thinking about, that I have purchased or gifted for others.

Seven of the ten were written by women. Eight of the ten are historical fiction. (Pretty on par with other top tens since I've started blogging.) Four are part of a series, but only one is the end of the series; the rest are the start. Two are reads from Literary Wives, and both are books I wouldn't have read otherwise!

Stephanie Dray, Daughters of the Nile

This final volume in Dray's stellar, standout trilogy.  Her three novels about Cleopatra's daughter make my top ten desert island picks for historical fiction. What I said then:
Here's the bottom line: Daughters of the Nile might be one of the best concluding volumes in a series I've ever read, and Dray's Cleopatra Selene trilogy among the best historical fiction trilogies out there.  It has everything for hungry readers of historical fiction: rich and atmospheric details that evoke a foreign time and place, a standout cast of characters that live and breath, resonant themes and deep emotional interactions that are impossible to shake off, and some deliciously disturbing soap opera-y elements in case you were feeling safe. 

Jennifer Cody Epstein, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment

I never anticipated loving this novel the way I did, especially since I have mild World War II fatigue.  But in Epstein's hands, the familiar stories are new, and she reveals aspects of that conflict that were completely new to me.  From my review:
Delightfully and disturbingly, Epstein's characters are human, warm and flawed. ... There wasn't a particular 'villain', per se, as most everyone was articulated in shades of gray. The descriptions of time and place put me immediately into the story, and I couldn't put this book down. The tension comes from needing to know who survives and at what cost; from the meager hope more than one ends up happy.

 Kate Forsyth, Bitter Greens

I love fairy tales re-imagined, and Forsyth's book is standout. It's a massive, thick, rich tome, the kind of book  you want to drown in, and drown I did. I wrote then:
Forsyth's writing is evocative and pretty without feeling heavy or ornate; she conveys a sense of time and place without the dreaded infodump. What I appreciated, as well was that she doesn't mince words about the way women were treated in these eras -- she creates strong heroines who are quite real but don't reek of anachronism.

Robert Goolrick, A Reliable Wife

I never formally reviewed this one, unfortunately, but it was a selection for Literary Wives -- one of two that made my top ten this year, and both books I wouldn't have read otherwise.
It's a kind of noir novel, with no noble hearts here, no heroes, just a twisted love story and flawed desires.  I plan to write a formal review, but in brief: set in Wisconsin in 1907, the novel follows Ralph Truitt, a wealthy, sex-obsessed businessman with a broken heart and sad family story who takes out an ad for a wife.  Catherine Land, a con artist and floozy, accepts, and reinvents herself as a staid missionary's daughter.  Catherine plans to off him, but her husband asks her to find his long-lost 'son' (there's some concern about his parentage) and bring him back.  This errand sets off, unsurprisingly, a series of events blah blah blah doom, heartbreak, conclusion!

Annabel Lyon, The Sweet Girl

I wanted this book upon seeing the cover; after reading an interview with Annabel Lyon, I knew I had to read this book. A marvelously emotional, inventive historical novel that plays with what we don't know about a long forgotten historical figure. From my review:
Little is known about Pythias, so Lyon created a life for Pythias that is wild, complicated, incomplete (the story ends around, I think, Pythias' mid-twenties.) The strength of this story comes from Pythias, who is smart and striking, emotive and honest. Lyon's writing style is precise and sharp, yet heavy with inference and intimation. Pythias speaks in polite obfuscation at times -- ever the lady -- until her experiences shift her from someone reserved and polite to someone who owns her agency, decisions, voice. The plot follows this subtle transition; at some point the story drifts into the fantastical, but whether it is really magic or just hysteria (we learn earlier from Pythias' young friend about the wandering uterus), there's a disquieting sense that the concrete reality Pythias grew up with may not be the reality of the world she lives in.

David Morrell, Murder as a Fine Art

I can't shut up about this book for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the author is the guy who invented Rambo. This smart, intriguing historical mystery hit every note for me, and I'm eagerly anticipating the second book in the series (which comes out spring 2015). From my review: 
I had such a flippin' great time with this book. From the first page, I was sucked in, and the only reason I didn't finish this one in a day is that I made myself slow down and enjoy the journey -- I could have taken another 300 pages and been only slightly satisfied. ... 

Lisa O’Donnell, The Death of Bees

Oh God, this book gutted me. From the opening line, I was hooked. Occasionally gruesome, deeply disturbing, and disturbingly funny at moments, I inhaled this book with a mixture of delight and horror. Unforgettable, and still hard to describe.  I wrote then:
This is me gesticulating wildly as I try to express to you how great this book is. This also means this review is going to be kind of meaningless because I'm still gasping for words.

Phillip Rock, The Passing Bells

A reissue of a 1970s release, this one still reads fresh and compelling.  The first in a trilogy (I know!), it is so good, so atmospheric, so deliciously British, you'll be grateful there's two more books! I wrote:
Given the Downton Abbey craze, I was apprehensive about this trilogy: was it any good or just a marketing ploy to cash in while DA is hot?

Thankfully, happily, awesomely, this book is good. Great. Another meaty hist fic that satisfies. This review, however, is probably going to be a hot mess, because how do I describe what is contained in these 500+ pages without just squeeing stupidly?

Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife

Another read from Literary Wives, this one was tough for me.  I hated it -- loathed it! -- and yet, couldn't shut up about it.  In the end, it had to make my top ten because it was unshakeable for me. A fictional account of Laura Bush, this book rattled me and made me think about love, politics, loyalty, and everything in between.  In my reflection for Literary Wives, this book gave me an ah-ha! about my marriage, too!
While I wanted to loathe Alice for loving a man whose political beliefs are so antithetical to mine I literally get foamy at the mouth thinking about it, she has the same values and desires I do: to have the opportunity to spend her life with someone she loves and admires even she when doesn't agree with them. 
Victoria Wilcox, Inheritance

Another first in a trilogy, this biographical historical novel follows drug addicted gun fighter and cohort of Wyatt Earp, John Henry "Doc" Holliday.  Rich with detail, Wilcox sold me on this Southern anti-hero hero and made me care. I never thought I'd be so gripped! Dying for the second and third books. From my review:
I'll be honest, I never expected to love this book. Like it perhaps, but not love it, and that's because I never anticipated liking John Henry. He's a hard figure to genuinely admire and yet, by the end, I was completely taken with him. (Watch Justified? There's a long-standing 'villain', Boyd Crowder, who is pretty despicable; and yet, my wife and I are completely invested in/kind of rooting for him because he's sort of so damaged and vibrant and real. That's about how I felt toward John Henry.) I wanted to loathe him but Wilcox provides enough psychological and emotional insight so that I can't write him off as horrible. He's real and flawed and aspirational and completely stupid -- and so, so compelling to follow.