Monthly Archives

May 2015

Book Review: LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE by Jessica Knoll

luckiest girl aliveJessica Knoll, a former Cosmopolitan magazine editor, debuts in book publishing with Luckiest Girl Alive, a novel that adroitly handles timely news topics.

Ani FaNelli is an editor at a women’s magazine in New York City, and engaged to the JFK, Jr.-esque Luke Harrison. Before Ani ties the knot, she agrees to be interviewed for a documentary about the devastating events that occurred while she was a student at an august prep school in Pennsylvania. The tragedy rudely thrust her into the public eye 14 years earlier, and Ani finally wants to set the record straight. In doing so, she could also unravel her seemingly perfect world.

Ani may come across as snarky and shallow at first, going to great lengths to curate an enviable life, complete with a glamorous job, aristocratic fiancé and four-carat engagement ring. But as her secrets are revealed, so is her vulnerable side. What happened to her as a teen—and is happening now too often to young people in real life—would destroy the average person, but it fueled Ani to strive for the brass ring. To her, success is the best revenge, and readers will want her to achieve it.

Knoll writes with veritas about Ani’s workplace: “The uglier and trendier [my] outfit, the stronger I emanate intimidating magazine editor.” Similes are arguably overused, but many descriptions are incisive and witty, such as a girl’s eyes being “so far apart they were practically in her sideburns.” Knoll balances the sharp with the sad, creating a protagonist who has pieces of both.

This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is republished here with permission.

Amazon | IndieBound

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Big Bear Adventure

Since we had a long weekend, Mr. PCN and I decided to run away from civilization and the noisy neighbors with their chainsaws and leaf blowers and constantly barking dogs.

We rented a cabin in the mountains near Big Bear Lake, where it was blissfully quiet. It was too windy and choppy on the water for kayaking so we took a tandem bike around the lake. The air was crisp, the temp about 40 degrees, and this was our view.

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After we had lunch, we came back to the cabin and built a fire. That’s a jacuzzi tub to the left.

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The cabin also had a private deck, where I’d take my coffee in the morning…

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…but it was cozier to stay inside by the fire and dig into my stack of books. I brought 3, was able to finish the top 2 (reviews to come), and have started the third.

IMG_2020And that’s about all I did on my spring vacation. How was your weekend? What did you read or watch?

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Guest Book Review: HOLD STILL by Sally Mann

This review is by contributor Thuy Dinh, editor of Da Mau Magazine.

Hold Still coverThe cover photograph of Sally Mann’s memoir, Hold Still, shows the author as a prepubescent tomboy, airborne against a gray expanse of sky. She seems suspended outside of time, as if she could be from any decade: her hair, white T-shirt, and preppy plaid shorts belong as much to the first decade of the 21st century as to the middle of the last century. This cover image of Mann brings to mind her gorgeous yet controversial black and white photographs of her children in Immediate Family—naked water sprites from a lost, ahistorical Eden.

Here’s the shocker: Mann thinks photographs have the power to distort, or worse, supplant a person’s memory.

Photography would seem to preserve our past and make it invulnerable to the distortions of repeated memorial superimpositions, but I think that is a fallacy: photographs supplant and corrupt the past….As I held my childhood pictures in my hands…I also knew that with each photograph I was forgetting.

The thematic tension in Hold Still reflects Mann’s two life-long passions: the static romance of photography and the dynamism of the written word. Central to this tension is Mann’s identity as a Southern artist deeply burdened by her forebears’ past with slavery.

Mann’s memoir celebrates the natural beauty of Lexington, Virginia—her birthplace—yet it also acknowledges the region’s ingrained racism. Mann recounts being raised mostly by Virginia (Gee-Gee) Carter, her family’s black housekeeper. While she loved and respected Gee-Gee, she now realizes that neither she nor her parents, who were considered kind employers, ever questioned the segregation practice that was prevalent at the time. No one inquired whether Gee-Gee, who worked 12 hours a day, 6 days a week for Mann’s family, besides taking in the neighborhood’s laundry to supplement her income, had time to eat or feed her own family.

By juxtaposing photography’s selective truth with her family’s blinkered complacency on the question of race, Mann offers her stark narrative as atonement. She poignantly observes how often real life is too large, too complex, to be framed by image.

Nevertheless, Hold Still affirms the questing nature of art, how art challenges calcified assumptions and in so doing forges new paths. Mann resurrected the past in her decision to use wet collodion plates for her Deep South project. Air bubbles, dust motes occurring in this painstaking process—where chemicals had to be applied directly onto the glass plates—became “blessings from the angel of uncertainty” who bestowed “persuasive consequence, intrigue, drama, and allegory.”

These marks of imperfection represent the fluidness of art that liberates it from staticity, hewing it closer to life, or what Mann describes poetically as meuse, a word that describes a hare’s bodily imprint on the grass, closely connected to the word Muse, daughter of Memory.

Photo by Liz Liguori

Photo by Liz Liguori

Hold Stil beautifully demonstrates that an artist’s personal history is inseparable from her artistic self. In this indelible memoir, carefully curated with family snapshots and preserved memorabilia, Mann shows that her obsessions with the artistic process, family, race, and death are traits inherited from several of her guilt-ridden ancestors, who were vexed either by unmet desires or by the slavery issue.

Seen in this light, the resplendent images of her long-ago nude children are not so much provocative as wistful. Mann has always known that American innocence is a fictional construct, created out of deep longing, struggle, and isolation.

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When Is a Spoiler a Spoiler?

I had two extremely annoying reading experiences recently and it brought to mind a question I’ve had for a while so I thought I’d seek outside opinions.

Here’s what happened, with two books in a row. I was reading the first ARC while using the accompanying press release as a bookmark. I hadn’t read the release because I’m so spoiler averse, I rarely read synopses, except to maybe skim the first sentence and the last to get a very rough idea of plot.

At one point I put the book down to grab a snack, a vital part of my reading ritual. When I inserted the press release into the book to keep my place, I accidentally glanced at the first sentence at the top of the page.

FullSizeRender (1)It mentioned the death of a character. In bold. I was on p. 52, the death hadn’t occurred, and it wasn’t something I was anticipating. I was super annoyed by the spoiler and haven’t picked up the book again.

The next ARC I read, I made sure to not use the press release as bookmark. But like the other book, I dove in without knowing anything about the plot. When I took a break, I put the book front cover down.

And that’s when I saw the synopsis on the back—with the very first sentence IN BIG FONT mentioning the death of a character I’d thought would be the protagonist. I was on p. 35 and the death hadn’t occurred.

Why are spoilers being given away so freely?? In press materials, no less. As I asked myself this, the obvious answer was: Because other people don’t think these are spoilers.

Which brought me to this question: When does a plot point become a spoiler if revealed? To me, if something happens before p. 5—maybe p. 8—it’s OK to mention it in a release or review. If a major development happens after that, best to keep mum or be vague when addressing it.

Not everyone agrees with me, though. Some reviewers have told me anything that happens before p. 30 is not a spoiler. Some people say p. 50 is their cut-off mark.

What do you think? When does something become a spoiler to you?

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Nerdy Special List May 2015

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

We have a full list this month. After a couple of lackluster reading months, I was happy to read some strong books in April and to see my blogging friends did, too. Hope you find something on this list that piques your interest.

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

Dry Bones by Craig Johnson (Viking, May 12)

dry bonesDem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones do make for a good old-fashioned mess in Absaroka County, Wyoming. Craig Johnson’s eleventh Walt Longmire novel involves the discovery of a Tyrannosaurus rex named Jen, the death of an Indian—who just happened to own the land the dinosaur was discovered on—and the fight between three different groups over who exactly has the rights to this priceless pile of dry bones.

Life is never easy and rarely quiet in the least populated county in the least populated state in the Union. Johnson continues to keep this series fresh and unpredictable, and readers can count on his wonderful sense of humor; rich, dynamic characters; and great plot twists. The atmosphere and setting take their silently powerful supporting roles in Walt’s “Save Jen” story line as Craig Johnson spins another astounding yarn.

Dietland by Sarai Walker (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 26)dietland

This daring debut is a wonderful mix of satire, mystery, adventure, and feminist fiction. Using a morbidly obese protagonist and a terrorist group known only as Jennifer (don’t ask me, I have no idea what the deal is with my name this month), Sarai Walker examines society’s objectification of women.

Alexis “Plum” Kettle has battled her weight all her life. She’s tried diet after diet and only succeeded in making herself fat and miserable. Now she’s decided to have weight-loss surgery, convinced this will be the turning point in her life. Her procedure is scheduled and she’s ready to go, until she meets Verena Baptist and her cadre of women working in various ways to empower women.

About the same time Plum meets Verena, Jennifer starts targeting institutions and individuals around the world who harm and debase women. Plum unwittingly finds herself tangentially tied to this group and must make some of the hardest decisions of her life.

Dietland is bold and passionate. Any woman who’s ever felt shunned because of arbitrary definitions of beauty will appreciate and empathize with Plum’s plight. Any person who hasn’t felt this way needs Dietland even more. It’s a powerful message wrapped in witty storytelling. Sarai Walker has a winner and is one to watch.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

Beneath the Bonfire by Nickolas Butler (Thomas Dunne Books, May 5)

beneath the bonfireLast year I had the privilege of reading the wonderful Shotgun Lovesongs. While the novel never got the attention it fully deserved, I’m hoping the release of Beneath the Bonfire will change that. In Nickolas Butler’s new short-story collection, he again examines complex friendships that arise in small towns, the bonds between men, and a love for rural landscapes.

Highlights include “The Chainsaw Soiree” (my favorite), which tells the tale of a beloved annual party, the last of which is truly life altering; “Morels,” where mushroom hunting and the bonds of friendship take an unexpected turn on one particular hunt; and “Beneath the Bonfire,” the story of a complicated relationship between two scuba divers set against the backdrop of a bonfire on a frozen lake.

This is the best short-story collection I’ve read in a long time. I’d recommend it to lovers of good literary fiction—and maybe that readers give Shotgun Lovesongs a chance, too.

From Erin at In Real Life:

The Fall by John Lescroart (Atria Books, May 5)

9781476709215_p0_v2_s260x420The Fall begins quite literally when a young woman plunges to her death from an overpass in San Francisco. The expected questions abound—was she pushed? Did she jump?—but that’s where this story stops being predictable.

The woman in question,  Tanya, had a difficult, tragic life, but she had begun to persevere in the face of great adversity. As we meet the people in her life, the answer to who might have wanted to do her harm is anything but clear. Hidden agendas and muddy motivations abound, and they make for a fascinating journey.

John Lescroart is one of those rare series author who brings fresh eyes to each of his legal thrillers. This time, Dismas Hardy’s daughter, Rebecca, takes the lead in the case arising from Tanya’s death.

But this book is much more than a courtroom tale; it includes insightful social commentary as it explores a number of timely social issues, and it lets readers spend time with characters who are a pleasure to know, whether they’re old friends or new acquaintances.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Rumrunners by Eric Beetner (280 Steps, May 12)

rumrunnersFor generations, the McGraw men have worked as transporters for the Stanley crime “syndicate” in southeast Iowa, a tradition about to come to an end. Calvin is 86 and grumpily retired in Nebraska, son Webb is in his sixties and pulling a few last jobs, and grandson Tucker rejected the McGraw outlaw genetics and became an insurance salesman.

But when Webb goes missing with $12 million of Stanley drug money, the generations come together to find him in order to repay the boss. What’s billed as “Smokey and the Bandit meets Justified and Fargo” doesn’t disappoint, and Beetner has written a full-throttle ride filled with car chases, fistfights, and fights with everything from power tools to broken glass.

Rumrunners keeps you on your toes, mixing light and funny with vicious and bloody. You definitely want to call “shotgun!” for this ride.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (Atria Books, May 12)

soul of octopusSy Montgomery has been called a cross between Indiana Jones and Emily Dickinson, and she puts both personas together in this engrossing and emotional study of the octopus.

The account of her relationship with several octopuses (not octopi, I learned) at the Boston Aquarium is a dazzling look at the intricacies and depth of octopus intelligence and communication, both within its natural environment and, more remarkably, with humans.

Displaying individual character traits, varying reactions to individual humans, and complex problem-solving skills, octopuses teach us a valuable lesson in not selling the mindfulness of other species short. Montgomery deftly weaves scientific facts into an incredible story of love and friendship that’s not to be missed. (Click here for Lauren’s full review.)

From PCN:

Disclaimer by Renée Knight (Harper, May 19)

disclaimerCatherine Ravenscroft starts reading a thriller titled The Perfect Stranger one night and recognizes herself as the novel’s villain. The story references events that happened to her twenty years earlier. Since she’s never told anyone about what happened then, it seems impossible for the book’s author to know certain personal details about her. She must track down the writer and soon, because in Stranger, things don’t end well for the Catherine-like character.

Disclaimer alternates between the POVs of Catherine and the person who self-publishes the damaging novel within this novel. The characters are not easy to like, but keep reading because the ending is quietly devastating. It also capsizes any presumptions readers might have about the characters, reminding us not to rush to judgment when we don’t know the whole story.

Which May releases are you looking forward to?

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