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Good morning, readathon-ers!


So I’m in New Orleans for a Nancy Drew Sleuths convention, which means this blog post and all related BNB readathon activity will be brought to you from the Holiday Inn Superdome. I’m currently in the business center, hogging the one computer with working internet access.

So here’s the question to start off the very first hour of the April 2016 Dewey’s 24-hour Readathon: where will your first book be taking you?

Because I read so much on my Kindle normally, I’m using the readathon to tackle some hard copy books that wouldn’t have the same visual impact in electronic form.  Two I brought with me, one I picked up at a used bookstore yesterday (all 3 pictured above).

I’m starting with Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, a tale of love and fallout, which will take me to nineteenth-century France. How about you?

Beginning my FIRST 24-hour Readathon!

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?

I’ve got some awesome-looking Sherlock Holmes graphic novels on tap, and I even found my Sherlock Holmes tshirt to match!

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to?

Since moving to Puerto Rico two months ago, I’ve developed a mean nachos game.

4) Tell us a little something about yourself!

We just finished moving into our new home two days ago, so I’m surrounded by unopened boxes and piles of miscellany, but I’m hoping to ignore it all for the next 24 hours anyway!

5) If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to?


Salty Sweet Mermaid Deliciousness: a review of The Book of Speculation

This book reminded me how utterly absorbing it can be to read a book about, well, a book. The Book of Speculation follows in the literary tradition of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian or Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason’s The Rule of Four (both of which are well worth digging up at your local used bookstore).

Just as with most of these books-about-books, the text in question is old, mysterious, and difficult to interpret. In the case of The Book of Speculation, the text in question is the half-diary, half-ledger of the man who led a circus before circuses were a thing. Our protagonist stumbles onto this book, which tantalizingly contains the name of one of his forebears.

For fans of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, the sometimes-creepy, sometimes-wonderful, always-magical air of old circuses is intact here too. The dash of magical realism is so deftly done that, at the end of the day, I am not really sure if there was any “magic” at all, or if it could all be explained away. For fans of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, The Book of Speculation does a similarly effective job of using a modern-day protagonist to bring together scraps of historical flashbacks. One of my favorite elements of Water for Elements was the ring of authenticity to the historical discussion of the old circus. Though The Book of Speculation is in some ways less detailed in its description of its historical setting, it nonetheless retains the feel of a well-grounded historical novel.

One final comparison: I couldn’t help thinking of Joshilyn Jackson’s The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, which, though a different book in many ways, explores some of the same elements of water’s mystical qualities, and the intangible magic/meaning that can reside in physical objects.

As you can tell, this pushed a lot of pleasurable buttons for me. I haven’t even mentioned yet that the protagonist is a librarian (and so is his redheaded lady love), or that he has a lovely crumbling old house on a bluff above the sea that is in constant need of repair. Nor have I mentioned the vintage, hand-illustrated tarot cards that his sister carries around. Or that a certain species of odd-looking animal plays a small role in the story. All of these elements come together smoothly, and collectively make me glad I don’t own a hard copy of this book, lest I be tempted to stick out my tongue and give it a lick to see if it tastes as good as it reads.

Now, of course, I’ve set your expectations too high. Much better that you forget everything I just said, and pretend that I told you it was a decent beach read (it is), and go pick yourself up a copy.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for my unbiased review.

Weekend Update

Hi everyone! As you may have noticed, I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus.  Why?  Well, in the past couple of months, I interviewed for a new job, got an offer, accepted it, and MOVED TO ALASKA.

The view from the window of my new office

So, you know, setting into a new job in a new state on the other side of the continent has been keeping me pretty busy.  But I’ve finished a few new books, and have some exciting plans in store for the blog.  

COMING SOON:  a guest blog post by an amazing friend of mine who travels to places most of us never even dream of going.  I also hope to have my very first author interview soon!  So thanks for not giving up on Brave New Bookshelves, and check back soon!
Happy Memorial Day!

At Christmastime, Heartwarming is Code for Tearjerking

Christmas Stories: Heartwarming Tales of Angels, a Manger, and the Birth of HopeChristmas Stories: Heartwarming Tales of Angels, a Manger, and the Birth of Hope by Max Lucado
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Is it February already?

I downloaded this to read over the holidays, but I had so many other books I was desperate to read that this one got left out in the cold. Yeah, that was a bad pun. [Insert another bad pun about there being “no room in the inn” for this book here.]

Puns aside, this is a collection of Christmas stories by Max Lucado. Lucado’s books are overtly religious, and he goes heavy on the sentimentality, but if that’s your kind of book, there’s no one better. In other words, if you’re looking for the kind of stories that Nicholas Sparks writes, except with religious holiday themes, this is definitely the book for you.

The Nicholas Sparks Holiday Collection
But if you’re feeling less religious, maybe try this holiday collection instead?

The first story, “The Christmas Candle,” is by far the longest story in the book (it accounted for about 40% of the Kindle version). In a cozy, old-fashioned town (some chapters take place in 1664, some in 1864), this story follows the arc of a family of candlemakers. Every 25 years, an angel appears and blesses one of the Christmas candles, and the prayer said over that candle is heeded.

I was taught that this is not how prayer works… but wouldn’t it be nice if it  were?

Hokey, yes, but it’s still a charming little story. I found an exchange between one of the townspeople and the new minister who’s skeptical about the Christmas candle to be surprisingly thought-provoking:

What are you afraid of, Reverend? Afraid the prayers won’t be answered or afraid they will?… Do you fear that God will dash the faith of the people, my son? Or do you fear that he will stretch yours?”

Personally, I don’t think God does things like deal in magic candles every few decades, but I also have to admit that when I say, “God doesn’t behave like that,” I’m subjecting Him to my own standards of how I think He should behave — and who am I to do that?

The rest of the (mostly modern-day) stories are a little uneven. Lucado’s signature sentimentality sometimes comes close to being downright maudlin. Women in his world seem to die awfully frequently, whether in car accidents or childbirth, and they almost always seem to leave a young child behind. But despite the tortured plot devices, there’s always a simple and heartwarming message at the core of each story, and the collection as a whole will probably give you the warm fuzzies even while you roll your eyes.

After all, if there’s any time of year when gooey and sweet is appropriate (even cherished)… surely that time is Christmastime. Read this in front of a crackling fireplace while the lights on the Christmas tree twinkle softly in the corner, and all will seem right with the world.

And if it’s February and your Christmas lights are still up… hey, that’s perfectly okay, too.

Or make your own Christmas tree… details about this DIY project can be found here.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255. 

Sharp Objects are Just Too Edgy

Sharp ObjectsSharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My least favorite book by this author to date.  Read my reviews of Dark Places and Gone Girl, and pick up one of those instead.

This started off like a standard pulp murder mystery.  A little dark but interesting, lacking the pretentions of “literature.”  It could have been a novel by Tess Gerritsen.

Before long, I realized I was dealing with a narrator who cuts.  Not just tidy railroad track marks down an arm or a leg, but words.   Everywhere.  Nonsense words, sex words, insults.  On her shoulders, wrists, stomach, thighs.  Words that itch or glow or vibrate or something whenever she feels emotion.  Maybe that’s metaphor, or maybe it’s just weird.

Emo Teens Deal Depression with ‘Cutting’
Photocredit  Shudder.

At least three or four different characters (none of whom are toddlers) literally bite someone else in the story.  Maybe that’s metaphor, or maybe it’s just weird.

Orthodontic side view straight not crooked teeth, ideal bite
Photocredit  (The answer is yes.)

Did I mention the murder victims have their teeth pulled?  Hm, now that’s a coincidence.

The narrator also does drugs — Oxycontin and Ecstasy — with her thirteen-year-old sister, and there may or may not be vaguely sexual implications.  Maybe that’s metaphor, or… nope, that’s creepy and definitely weird.  I think this was the low point for me; I fervently hoped no one was reading over my shoulder on the subway and wondering what kind of pervert I was.

I suspect Gillian Flynn may have watched this movie multiple times while writing. 

I finished reading this primarily to see if my suspicions about the murderer’s identity were right.  They were.

Basically, this book made me uncomfortable, and the discomfort didn’t seem to be in the service of anything except adding edginess to an otherwise fairly typical murder mystery.  Was it reasonably well written? Yes.  Did it have unique characters?  Yes.  Worth it?  Not for me.

Matched Gets Crossed… Off My List

Matched (Matched, #1)Matched by Ally Condie
My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

Oh, dystopian young adult fiction, you are one of my guilty pleasures.

Well, sometimes, at least.

I did like the dystopian world of this book, though I think it owes an awfully large debt to The Giver for everything from deaths orchestrated by Society to the widespread use of emotion-suppressing pills.

The Giver (The Giver, #1)
The Patriarch of Dystopian Young Adult Fiction

 But you know what Matched has that The Giver didn’t?  Really dumb, overwrought, unbelieveable romance.  I’m not exaggerating; I found myself making gagging noises — out loud! — every so often.  Good thing I was reading this while home for the holidays instead of on the subway to work.

 Okay, so it wasn’t quite as bad as having to sit next to one of these guys during a no-pants subway ride…

The bulk of this book is an overwhelmingly mushy relationship between Cassia and Ky, replete with agonizing tension over whether he’ll ever finally kiss her.  This breathless tension awkardly coincides with Cassia’s insistence that she loves Ky so much that she’d leave her family, her friends, and give up all her dreams of a normal life, just to be with him.  Is it old-fashioned of me to think that maybe you should wait until at least second base before you decide to trade everything you’ve ever known for the guy?

Even more awkwardly, there’s supposed to be a semblance of a love triangle.  See, Cassia might be falling in love with Ky, but she’s matched (by Society!) with her BFF Xander — and gosh darn it, she kind of loves him too.  Just, you know, not in the same way.  So we get some more teenage angst in the form of Cassia wondering if maybe she should just settle for perfectly wonderful Xander, even though it makes no sense that she’d be wondering this (because as I just mentioned, she is totally and completely bonkers over Ky, to the point that she’s basically ready to take a bullet for him).

Take out the stupid romance, make Ky into just a good friend (even, gasp, a female friend!), and the story is actually not too bad; the dystopian Society would make a great setting for something other than googly-eyed pining.

Crossed (Matched, #2)Crossed (Matched #2) by Ally Condie
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Ugh.  Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, but the sequel was so much worse.

Unlike the first book, which was told from Cassia’s point of view, this book has chapters alternating between Cassia’s and Ky’s points of view. (Note: it wasn’t until I saw Ky’s name in caps at the top of a chapter — “KY” — that it occurred to me how unfortunate it would be if his name ever appeared in a sentence with “jelly.”)  The problem is that Cassia and Ky are basically in the same situation — each is in the Outer Provinces searching for the other — so the perspectives just aren’t different enough.  Repeatedly, I would start reading a chapter with one character’s voice in my head, only to realize a few pages in that the perspective had switched.  “Oops, now I’m reading about the other character who’s lost and hungry and endlessly hiking through canyons!”

Virtually everything that interested me about the first book, particularly the design of Society and its careful planning of its Citizens’ lives, is absent here.  Out in the Outer Provinces, Society is just a Big Bad that sends its less desirable inhabitants out to be decoy farmers in otherwise-uninhabited villages (aka cannon fodder) for the mysterious Enemy.

That seems a little dumb and not well thought out.  We’re supposed to believe that Society is sending kids out to populate villages for the sole purpose of letting the Enemy bomb them.  Why not just let the villages stay uninhabited?   Is the Enemy so busy bombing the fake villages that it can’t plan an attack on, you know, actual military targets?  If the Enemy is that stupid, shouldn’t Society have beaten them by now?

When a painful and wholly unnecessary love triangle among idiotic teenagers is the most interesting thing in the book, the time has come to put it down. And I mean that in a friendly neighborhood veterinarian way.

bulldog puppy getting vet exam
I’m sorry, buddy, but trust me — it’s the kindest thing.

You May Have Had Me at Hello, But…

I know, I know.  I owe you lovely readers my first book review of the new year.  It’s coming soon!  In the meantime, though, here is something new for Brave New Bookshelves: a perfume review!

Yes, I found myself humming The Beatles’ “Hello” shortly after picking up this sample.

I received the above sample, a Harvey Prince perfume called “Hello,” in my December Birchbox.  The tagline, in a stroke of marketing genius plagiarism, is “You had me at Hello.”

Sorry, Harvey Prince, but you’re no Jerry Maguire.

 The inside description was sweet and romantic and tugged at my heartstrings.

  • Meyer Lemon, Mandarin, Grapefruit — because Citrus is nature’s way of saying “Good Morning.”
Love it.  “Good morning!”
  • Forsythia — because they are an early spring floral, a welcome sign of new beginnings and possibilities.
Love it.  I suddenly feel hopeful. 
  • Plumeria — because the flowers are traditionally used in Hawaiian leis, given to greet friends old and new.
Love it.  I was an anthropology major; an appeal to cultural traditions is a slam dunk with me.  Celebrating old and new friends — how very Auld Lang Syne and appropriate for the New Year!
My camera was so excited, it found it difficult to focus.
So I tried it out.  The scent is actually quite lovely.  I am generally hard to please when it comes to perfumes, because I think most “floral” notes just smell like chemicals, but the citrus is bright and fragrant enough to make me smile.
I skimmed the rest of the text on the sample card, thinking I might have to check out how expensive a full-size bottle is, when the following phrase stopped me short.

 “We started Harvey Prince in dedication to our mother, and we craft exceptional fragrances that empower women to feel young, happy, slim, and beautiful.”

Sorry, what?  This perfume is supposed to empower me to feel slim?  Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I have never once, not in all my nearly thirty years, smelled something that influenced my perception of my body size.  If such a thing existed, I’m pretty sure it would be marketed by Jenny Craig, not Harvey Prince.  So all I can conclude is that Harvey Prince thinks slimness is of a piece with youth, happiness, and beauty, and frankly, there’s no empowerment in that for me.  Anyone can feel young, or happy, or beautiful — but they don’t want to risk marketing to fatties!  If you can’t feel slim, begone!

I personally don’t need to “feel slim” (which raises a quasi-ontological question about the nature of slimness: can one feel slim if one does not look slim?) to feel happy and beautiful.  Nitpickers may argue that beauty isn’t really a feeling either, but because beauty can be defined in so many ways, I do believe one can feel beautiful even if one doesn’t meet the traditional cultural standard for looking beautiful.

In any case, I’m irritated with Harvey Prince for telling me that I need to feel slim, and trying to sell me a perfume that will help me.

You may have had me at Hello, Harvey Prince, but you lost me at your limited understanding of empowerment. 

Shopgirl is a Quiet Pleasure

Shopgirl: A NovellaShopgirl by Steve Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s confirmed. I have a bit of a crush on Steve Martin.

Sensory descriptions like this make me weak in the knees:

…the various scents that have been sprayed throughout the day onto waiting customers have collected into strata in the department store air.  So Mirabelle, at five-six, always smells Chanel number 5, while someone at five-two is always treated to the heavier Chanel number 19.

I love that I can almost visualize the strata, and I immediately imagine walking through that store with girlfriends of different heights and each of us thinking that the store smells like something different.

Mirabelle (played by Claire Danes in the movie, which is coming up on my Netflix queue as soon as I catch up on Downton Abbey!) is a salesgirl in the nearly deserted gloves department of an upscale department store in southern California. Shopgirl is primarily the story of Mirabelle and two men: one a slacker type (played by Jason Schwartzman) with whom Mirabelle becomes passively involved, the other an older and wealthier businessman (played by Martin himself) with whom Mirabelle finds herself in an unexpectedly deep relationship. The former is described thusly:

He never complicates a desire by overthinking it, unlike Mirabelle, who spins a cocoon around an idea until it is immobile.

The pupa
This moth is really an immobilized desire.

 That kind of pithy insight into his characters’ emotions is one of Martin’s great strengths as a writer.

You know how sometimes you look up from a book, or work, or a good conversation, and realize it’s gotten dark outside without you realizing it? In other words, a dramatic change has occurred, but so gradually that you can’t pinpoint when it happened.  The unfolding of the characters was like that for me; by the end of the book I felt that I fiercely understood Mirablle, but I still can’t point to a specific moment when I began to understand her motivations.  And I thoroughly enjoyed the characters’ journey, though at times it seemed largely a passive one.

I withheld a star because of the ending. Whereas the rest of this novella was marked by the slow, quiet progress of three characters’ lives, the last several pages were composed of clipped summaries that spanned months and years in just a few short paragraphs. It felt rushed and abridged after the patient pace of the rest of the book, and left me feeling disappointed and unsatisfied. Still, I liked the rest of it so much that I recommend Shopgirl rather highly if you’re in need of a short book that is mostly sweet but has a thread of melancholy. But if you have time for something longer, pick up Martin’s An Object of Beauty instead.

An Object of Beauty

November Giveaway Winner: Ashley!

Congratulations to the winner of the November Giveaway!  Ashley’s winning entry was a tweet about Brave New Bookshelves.  She’ll receive the BNB copy of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.  Thanks to everyone who submitted their entries!