Category Archives: Reviews

Review: The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard

the-talented-ribkinsLength: 304 pages

Publication: August 8th 2017 by Melville House

Source: TLC Book Tours

What it’s about:
At seventy-two, Johnny Ribkins shouldn’t have such problems: He’s got one week to come up with the money he stole from his mobster boss or it’s curtains for Johnny.

What may or may not be useful to Johnny as he flees is that he comes from an African-American family that has been gifted with rather super powers that are rather sad, but superpowers nonetheless. For example, Johnny’s father could see colors no one else could see. His brother could scale perfectly flat walls. His cousin belches fire. And Johnny himself can make precise maps of any space you name, whether he’s been there or not.

In the old days, the Ribkins family tried to apply their gifts to the civil rights effort, calling themselves The Justice Committee. But when their, eh, superpowers proved insufficient, the group fell apart. Out of frustration Johnny and his brother used their talents to stage a series of burglaries, each more daring than the last.

Fast forward a couple decades and Johnny’s on a race against the clock to dig up loot he’s stashed all over Florida. His brother is gone, but he has an unexpected sidekick: his brother’s daughter, Eloise, who has a special superpower of her own.

Inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous essay “The Talented Tenth” and fuelled by Ladee Hubbard’s marvelously original imagination, The Talented Ribkins is a big-hearted debut novel about race, class, politics, and the unique gifts that, while they may cause some problems from time to time, bind a family together.

What I thought:

I enjoy writers that are inspired by other writers, and so I took the time to read the W. E. B. Du Bois essay that The Talented Ribkins is based on before reading the book. I think having that fresh in my mind made the story more meaningful for me and helped me to overlook some of the aspects of the book that I didn’t appreciate as much. The Ribkins family members are engaging and the symbolism of the characters and their “talents” gives the story resonance. Recommended.

About the author:
ladee-hubbardLaddee Hubbard is the winner of the 2016 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition for the Short Story. She holds a BA from Princeton University, an MFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University, an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin, and a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles. She lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Talented Ribkins is her first novel.

GIVEAWAY:
I’m giving away one copy of The Talented Ribkins to a lucky reader (U.S. or Canada only, sorry). To enter, just leave a comment with your name and email address. Good luck!

Thanks so much to TLC Book Tours for providing me with a copy of this book and giving me a chance to be part of this tour.

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Review: The Unseen World by Liz Moore

the_unseen_worldLength: 452 pages

Publication: July 26th 2016 by W. W. Norton & Company

Source: Library

What it’s about:

The moving story of a daughter’s quest to discover the truth about her beloved father’s hidden past.

Ada Sibelius is raised by David, her brilliant, eccentric, socially inept single father, who directs a computer science lab in 1980s-era Boston. Home-schooled, Ada accompanies David to work every day; by twelve, she is a painfully shy prodigy. The lab begins to gain acclaim at the same time that David’s mysterious history comes into question. When his mind begins to falter, leaving Ada virtually an orphan, she is taken in by one of David’s colleagues. Soon she embarks on a mission to uncover her father’s secrets: a process that carries her from childhood to adulthood. What Ada discovers on her journey into a virtual universe will keep the reader riveted until The Unseen World’s heart-stopping, fascinating conclusion.

What I thought:

I should say from the start that Liz Moore’s previous novel, Heft, is one of my favorites books of all time. I fell in love with it while listening to the audiobook a few years ago, and so I came to her latest work with high expectations. While I ended up appreciating the book a lot, it was a slow starter and I might not have finished it if I didn’t have such faith in her writing. I’m glad I did.

The story is told from the point of view of Ada, and for the first half of the book the action takes place in Boston in the 1980’s when Ada is in her early teenage years. The pace at which the novel establishes Ada’s life and situation is slow…to say the least. Like her father, Ada is a very cerebral person,  and nothing really happens in the first half with the exception of what is going on in Ada’s mind.

Because she has been rather sheltered in her quiet life alone with her father, Ada has a hard time interacting with the outside world of her teenage peers. Instead, her true peers are the colleagues who work in her father’s computer lab, which has served as the only school she has known up until this point. When David, Ada’s father, begins to experience health problems, Ada is forced to move outside her comfort zone and learn to live in the “real” world of high school and beyond.

Once Ada’s circumstances change, things start to pick up. She learns that there are secrets in her father’s past and this shakes the foundations of her quiet life. The second half of the novel switches back and forth between the perspectives of young Ada and an older Ada, all while gradually revealing David’s story. There is enough action to keep the reader interested and it moves along quickly to a conclusion which resonates with the truth of who both Ada and David are as people.

I particularly enjoyed the technical aspects of the book, including the descriptions of David’s lab and work and the parallels between what he and Ada value and try to achieve. The ending wraps things up in a way that is complete and satisfying, even going beyond Ada and David’s stories to reveal a larger truth about the world–as all truly great novels do.

As I think back over the novel, I wish that the first half could have been written in a way that established the story without dragging it down. The change in perspective in the second half made for a much more interesting reading experience, and if there had been a way to do that from the beginning without giving too much away, I think the novel would have benefited from it. Still, all in all I enjoyed the book and will look forward to reading more from Liz Moore in the future.

Review: The Mothers by Brit Bennett

the-mothersLength: 286 pages

Publication: October 11, 2016 by Riverhead Books

Source: Library

What it’s about: It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty. Mourning her own mother’s recent suicide, she takes up with the local pastor’s son. Luke Sheppard is twenty-one, a former football star whose injury has reduced him to waiting tables at a diner. They are young; it’s not serious. But the pregnancy that results from this teen romance—and the subsequent cover-up—will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth. As Nadia hides her secret from everyone, including Aubrey, her God-fearing best friend, the years move quickly. Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults and still living in debt to the choices they made that one seaside summer, caught in a love triangle they must carefully maneuver, and dogged by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently? The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.

What I thought:

I probably came to this book with too many expectations. I’d seen it talked about on other book blogs and literary social media, so I was pretty sure I would like it based on the almost universally positive feedback I’d been reading. And I did like it, to a degree, but it didn’t work for me overall.

This is a first novel from a talented writer. The language is simple but powerful and the characterizations strong, but there is also an emptiness to it that made it less convincing to me than it could have been. The character of Nadia is troubling; as a girl of 17, she knows exactly what she wants. Her only doubts come in the form of her feelings about Luke, with whom she has a natural and easy relationship except for the fact that he isn’t there for her when she needs him the most. Even though he later explains his behavior, she doesn’t ever completely accept his feelings and remains equivocal in her treatment of him.

Nadia never really shows uncertainty in her decisions, even if she might regret them later. She acts without any internal deliberation–she decides what she wants to do and she does it. This applies not only to the choices she makes at 17 but also when she is older and returns to her hometown to pick up old relationships. She doesn’t give any evidence of considering the feelings of those her decisions may affect.

I believe the purpose of the novel was to illustrate the “what ifs” of being in a similar situation to Nadia (even the description above would suggest that), but I wasn’t convinced by this because she never seems ambivalent to me. She makes choices and they have consequences, but she doesn’t hesitate or falter. In this way she is very like her mother, a point that is made throughout the book.

The trope of the Mothers didn’t work for me, either. I never understood the importance of their narrative voice or why they had any say in things, anyway. The story belongs to Nadia, Luke and Aubrey, and the figures of the church leaders and members didn’t resonate with me as anything more than background noise.

I would read more from Bennett because she is a good writer, but I wasn’t invested enough in this novel to be able to recommend it.

Review: My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella

not-so-perfect-lifeLength: 368 pages

Publication: February 7th, 2017 by Bantam Press

Source: Random House

What it’s about:
Katie Brenner has the perfect life: a flat in London, a glamorous job, and a super-cool Instagram feed.

Ok, so the real truth is that she rents a tiny room with no space for a wardrobe, has a hideous commute to a lowly admin job, and the life she shares on Instagram isn’t really hers.

But one day her dreams are bound to come true, aren’t they?

Until her not-so perfect life comes crashing down when her mega-successful boss Demeter gives her the sack. All Katie’s hopes are shattered. She has to move home to Somerset, where she helps her dad with his new glamping business.

Then Demeter and her family book in for a holiday, and Katie sees her chance. But should she get revenge on the woman who ruined her dreams? Or try to get her job back? Does Demeter – the woman with everything – have such an idyllic life herself? Maybe they have more in common than it seems.

And what’s wrong with not-so-perfect, anyway?

What I thought:
I have a weakness for Sophie Kinsella novels, mainly because of their spunky main characters, comical scenarios, and light touch with romance. However, the last one I had read (Wedding Night) was a bust for me, so this upcoming one wasn’t even on my radar until I received a free review copy from Random House. I started reading it over Thanksgiving break and it was exactly the kind of book I needed–fun and zippy and satisfying.

I particularly liked the way the book skewers our social media culture, which encourages people to depict their lives through a rosy filter. In reality, no one’s life is perfect, and Katie learns this is true not only for herself but for those she has put on a pedestal as well. The scenes where Katie gets revenge on her oh-so-perfect boss by using her own worship of the latest fads and buzzwords against her are pure poetic justic.

There were certain fairy-tale elements to Katie’s happy ending that stretched belief, but overall the story shows us that if you work hard, treat others fairly, and stand up for yourself, you can make your own dreams come true. The book doesn’t take itself too seriously, though, and it’s laugh outloud funny at times. Recommended.

Thanks so much to Random House for providing me with a copy of this book.

Review: Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear

among-the-madLength: 319 pages

Publication: January 1st, 2009 by Picador

Source: TLC Book Tours

What it’s about:
It’s Christmas Eve 1931. On the way to see a client, Maisie Dobbs witnesses a man commit suicide on a busy London street. The following day, the prime minister’s office receives a letter threatening a massive loss of life if certain demands are not met—and the writer mentions Maisie by name.

After being questioned and cleared by Detective Chief Superintendent Robert MacFarlane of Scotland Yard’s elite Special Branch, she is drawn into MacFarlane’s personal fiefdom as a special adviser on the case. Meanwhile, Billy Beale, Maisie’s trusted assistant, is once again facing tragedy as his wife, who has never recovered from the death of their young daughter, slips further into melancholia’s abyss.

Soon Maisie becomes involved in a race against time to find a man who proves he has the knowledge and will to inflict death and destruction on thousands of innocent people. And before this harrowing case is over, Maisie must navigate a darkness not encountered since she was a nurse in wards filled with shell-shocked men.

 What I thought:
I love Maisie Dobbs so joining in a tour for any of the books in this series is a treat. Among the Mad is the latest one I’m reading, but there are many others that precede and follow it. I’ve enjoyed getting to know Maisie through reading about her adventures, and this one was no exception.

Beyond the setting of the interwar period in Britain (a particular interest of mine), the character of Maisie is fascinating as she represents such a strong, honest, and yet deeply empathetic woman, an unusual combination. She consistently puts others’ needs before her own even as she remains staunchly her own woman and doesn’t let others take advantage of her.

In this novel we see Maisie working with her Police Inspector as well as Scotland Yard and even the Prime Minister’s office as they attempt to prevent an act of terrorism. Winspear’s writing is as enjoyable to read as ever, and I found myself checking out the next book in the series from the library even before I’d finished this one.

Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction set during the interwar period or anyone who likes a well-written detective story that will appeal to the mind as well as the heart.

Thanks so much to TLC Book Tours for providing me with a copy of this book and giving me a chance to be part of this tour.

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Review: The World’s Strongest Librarian

Format: Hardback

worlds-strongest-librarianLength: 291 pages

Publication: May 2nd, 2013 by Gotham

Source: Library

What it’s about: 

Josh Hanagarne couldn’t be invisible if he tried. Although he wouldn’t officially be diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome until his freshman year of high school, Josh was six years old and onstage in a school Thanksgiving play when he first began exhibiting symptoms. By the time he was twenty, the young Mormon had reached his towering adult height of 6’7″ when — while serving on a mission for the Church of Latter Day Saints — his Tourette’s tics escalated to nightmarish levels.

Determined to conquer his affliction, Josh underwent everything from quack remedies to lethargy-inducing drug regimes to Botox injections that paralyzed his vocal cords and left him voiceless for three years. Undeterred, Josh persevered to marry and earn a degree in Library Science. At last, an eccentric, autistic strongman — and former Air Force Tech Sergeant and guard at an Iraqi prison — taught Josh how to “throttle” his tics into submission through strength-training.

Today, Josh is a librarian in the main branch of Salt Lake City’s public library and founder of a popular blog about books and weight lifting—and the proud father of four-year-old Max, who has already started to show his own symptoms of Tourette’s.

The World’s Strongest Librarian illuminates the mysteries of this little-understood disorder, as well as the very different worlds of strongman training and modern libraries. With humor and candor, this unlikely hero traces his journey to overcome his disability — and navigate his wavering Mormon faith — to find love and create a life worth living.

What I thought:

You know that feeling of satisfaction you get when you read just the right book at just the right time? That was what the experience of reading this book did for me. I finished it a few nights ago and I actually cried when it was over because I was so relieved to have found it now. I’d heard good things when the book first came out in 2013, but now was exactly the right time for me to read it.

My oldest daughter was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome earlier this year. It was something I’d suspected for a while, but having the official diagnosis made it real in a way that I’m still struggling to accept. I’ve been reading nonfiction books about TS and looking for more information online, but reading a memoir of someone with the disorder who writes about his experiences with such earnestness and humor gave me something that all the medical books and articles couldn’t–a sense of peace.

That may seem strange considering just how hard Hanagarne’s life has been because of Tourette’s. He doesn’t pull any punches (literally), and I read about his experiences with a mixture of sadness and admiration for how he persevered in spite of being dealt a tough genetic hand. I think part of why I found the book comforting was that despite the extreme nature of his Tourette’s condition, he manages to eventually carve out a fairly normal life for himself. He has a good job, friends, a wife and son, and perhaps most importantly he doesn’t seem bitter about all that he has had to endure.

The biggest factor in Hanagarne’s success seems to have been a very loving and supportive family, and that gives me hope that our daughter’s outcome can be the same. I want more than anything for her to be accepting of herself and proud of all that she can do, none of which having Tourette’s can take away from her. I want her to find a sense of peace with her diagnosis, too, and to know that no matter what, her family will always have her back. She’s still very young and I don’t doubt that there are harder days ahead, but Hanagarne’s story gives me hope.

Highly recommended.

Review: The Red Road by Jenni Wiltz

red-roadI posted a spotlight on this book a few weeks ago and finally had a chance to read it, so I wanted to share my thoughts. Just to recap:

What it’s about:

Honor student Emma knows more about galvanic cell diagrams than guns. College is the only way out of her gang-ridden hometown, but her parents can’t afford it.

When her unemployed dad lands a job as a census taker, things start looking up. But he’s sent deep into East Malo Verde, where gang members rule the streets and fear anyone with a badge who knocks on doors. One night, a gang member mistakes him for a cop and beats him savagely, leaving him for dead.

Her best friends, her chem lab partner, her mom, and the detective assigned to the case all try to convince her to focus on school. But school won’t prepare her for a world that ignores a crime against a good man. Emma must decide what’s more important: doing what’s expected, or doing what she feels is right . . . even if it leads her down a dark and dangerous path of revenge.

What I thought:

First of all, The Red Road is a book that is immediately accessible. The character of Emma is recognizable. She’s the girl who is always trying to do the right thing, to be the good girl even in a difficult situation. She’s the girl who still buys into the idea that if she just keeps her head down and her nose clean, she’ll get what she wants. She’s Veronica Mars before Lily dies, minus the easy popularity and the stunning good looks.*

When a crime is committed against her father and nobody seems able or willing to do anything about it, Emma becomes obsessed with making things right. She becomes more negative and outspoken, which turns off her so-called friends. She starts looking for answers in dangerous places, getting in fights, and skipping class. She challenges her friends, her parents, and even the detective assigned to the case.

I think part of the reason that Emma becomes so preoccupied with the crime is that she feels somehow responsible. Her father gave up his job in order for her to stay at her high school and in their town, which leads to him being in the wrong neighborhood. It’s as if Emma thinks that by solving her father’s problems she can repay him for his sacrifice. She seems oblivious to the fact that she is only a young girl in a situation that is way, way over her head–one which even the police won’t touch.

I felt bad for Emma because I could see her consistently making the wrong choices (even if they were for the right reasons) and yet there is nothing that will make her turn back from her course. Even the potential for happiness with a new boyfriend is easily given up for the larger purpose of avenging her father. All of the things that once seemed so important to her are subsumed by her need for justice.

Even though it seems inevitable, the ending of the book is hard to read and harder to accept. The fact that not a single adult in the book has a real, forthright conversation with Emma about what she is going through is so sad to me. Her parents just seem to be sticking their fingers in their ears and yelling “la la la la, I can’t hear you!” while the teachers at her school don’t react to the fact that she is skipping classes and acting differently. No one intervenes, which drives Emma to the point where she takes extreme action.

The Red Road is a good read and I definitely enjoyed it, even if the characters are frustrating and oblivious most of the time. It is a more authentic portrayal of a teenager than is usually found in YA fiction, as Emma is portrayed as both still young and vulnerable and seriously lacking in judgement. Recommended.

*For those who haven’t watched the tv show Veronica Mars, it was the most obvious parallel that came to mind when reading this book.