March 2014: What I’m Reading

Sunday Salon

February was a short month! But I was still able to read four titles and make progress on four more. I hope to finish reading several books in March, before my travel schedule gets really hectic!

Books read:

  • Cairo in White by Kelly Ann Jacobson
  • In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
  • Be With Me by Jennifer L. Armentrout
  • (T)here: Writings on Returnings edited by Brandi Dawn Henderson

Halfway through:

  • After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman
  • The Sense of Touch by Ron Parsons
  • Highs in the Low Fifties by Marion Winik
  • When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

To read:

GulpGulp by Mary Roach
This is the selection for both of my book clubs–the one with my friends, and the one held at One More Page. (We’ll discuss it at OMP in May.) I really enjoyed Roach’s Packing for Mars, so this should be a lot of fun!

Frangipani HotelThe Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith
This book sounds fantastic–it has garnered praise from the likes of Téa Obreht, as well as starred reviews from both Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal. I haven’t read many books set in Vietnam, but the last one–The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli–made me fall in love with the country.

Brazil on the RiseBrazil on the Rise: The Story of a Country Transformed by Larry Rohter
I’m traveling to Brazil next month, and this seems to be the must-read book on understanding Brazil’s present state and future promise. Rohter, a reporter for The New York Times, goes beyond the stereotypes of Brazil–Carnival, beaches, supermodels–to dive into its rapid growth and status among other emerging markets.

River of DoubtThe River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard
Did you know that, after being defeated in 1912, Roosevelt mapped a dangerous tributary of the Amazon? Yeah, me neither. While I won’t spend much time around this famous river (at least, not on this trip), this book sounded like an unusual glimpse into the country and a fun, if harrowing, story.

In March, I’ll also read Hyperbole and a Half, the next One More Page book club pick–I can’t wait to discuss it!

Have you read any of these? Which should I pick up first?

“Be With Me” by J. Lynn

Be With MeTitle: Be With Me
Series: Wait for You, #2
Author: Jennifer L. Armentrout (J. Lynn)
ISBN: 9780062294784
Pages: 376
Release date: February 2014
Publisher: William Morrow
Genre: New Adult
Format: Paperback
Source: Review copy (TLC Book Tours)
Rating: 4 out of 5

The past few months haven’t been easy for Teresa Hamilton. After she tore her ACL, she had to put her ballet career on hold. She enrolls in the same college where her older brother and his girlfriend attend. But Cam and Avery are not the only ones she knows on campus; there’s also Jase, Cam’s best friend. She hasn’t talked to Jase since last year–when she finally summoned up the courage to kiss him. And he seemed very, very into that.

But now Jase doesn’t seem to want anything to do with her. Whenever they’re alone, their attraction to each other is undeniable, yet he seems bent on ignoring it. Can Jase put the past behind him and trust Teresa with his heart?

Meanwhile, personal tragedies rock Teresa’s life. But sometimes even the worst situations can change your life for the better.

I really enjoyed Wait for You, the first book in this series. It was incredibly sexy, and it explored serious issues relating to sexual assault and identity. While this book didn’t quite have the same effect on me, I still enjoyed it.

I wasn’t quite as pulled in by the relationship between Teresa and Jase. I loved the constant tension between Avery and Cam in the first book, but the volume seemed turned way down in the second installment.

However, Teresa is a very compelling character–a real fighter. When Jase seems unwilling to risk a relationship with her, she calls him out on it. When her roommate shows signs of partner abuse, she helps her confront him. Teresa is not one to let a man walk all over her–not after her first boyfriend turned violent and threatened to ruin her life a few years ago.

Domestic violence is a recurring issue throughout this book. I applaud Armentrout for addressing an issue that is prevalent, even among young couples, but so often overlooked. Armentrout finds an excellent balance between telling a fun, sexy story and addressing important issues in this series.

Her writing isn’t exactly literary (at one point, she describes Jase as appearing to be “drowning while being nom nom’d on by cookie cutter sharks”), which often held me back from truly getting into the story.

But I loved Teresa’s pugnacious spirit, and her humor–as with the first time she tells Jase she loves him:

“Please God, let him think I said something else–anything else. Like maybe I dove you. That was better.”

Despite my qualms about Armentrout’s writing style, I appreciate how well she tells stories about serious issues without coming across as preachy. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

Quote of Note:

“I stroked the flame until it turned into an orb of anger–anger was better than hurt.”

TLC Book ToursDon’t just take my word for it! Check out what other people on the tour have to say:

Tuesday, February 4th: In Bed with Books
Wednesday, February 5th: Nightly Reading
Thursday, February 6th: Ladybug Literature
Monday, February 10th: Oh! Paper Pages
Tuesday, February 11th: Books à la Mode
Wednesday, February 12th: Snowdrop Dreams of Books
Monday, February 17th: Why Girls Are Weird
Tuesday, February 18th: Mom in Love With Fiction
Thursday, February 20th: Luxury Reading
Monday, February 24th: cupcake’s book cupboard
Tuesday, February 25th: Curling Up With a Good Book
Wednesday, February 26th: Dear Brighton
Thursday, February 27th: Book Marks the Spot
TBD: Schmexy Girl Book Blog
TBD: Tina’s Book Reviews

Or buy Be With Me for yourself from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle and Audible versions are also available). Each sale from these links helps support Melody & Words.

“Wait for You” by J. Lynn

Wait for YouTitle: Wait for You
Series: Wait for You, #1
Author: Jennifer L. Armentrout (J. Lynn)
ISBN: 9780062294777
Pages: 384
Release date: September 3, 2013
Publisher: William Morrow
Genre: New Adult
Format: E-book
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 4 out of 5

Going to college is stressful for pretty much everyone, but for Avery, there is a whole new level of fear. Now, away from home, she can’t explain why she hates going to parties and why she’s never dated a boy—hell, never even been alone in a car with one before.

But leaving all that behind her in Texas also gives Avery a lot of freedom. She’s finally out from under her parents’ control. And here, no one shoots her sideways glances and whispers behind her back about what happened at that party—so many years ago, yet still haunting her.

And then there’s Cam, the beyond-hot guy who just so happens to live across the hall. But Cam is hiding a past of his own. Can these two (both incredibly good-looking people, I should point out) ever figure out how to maintain a relationship?

I haven’t read a lot of romance, so I was surprised by how deeply I was drawn into this story. Although the writing lacks polish, the story resonated on a deeper level than I expected.

This is a subject that so many women face—sexual assault—and yet I’ve read remarkably few books about it, which I only realized now. At the same time, part of Avery’s search for identity involves coming to grips with her sexuality—a huge task, after what she went through. And that means there is a good bit of sex. The story is dark, but it’s erotic as well; it’s not for prudes.

In my opinion, though, Armentrout finds a good balance between pain and happiness. Wait for You deals with enough deep, emotional themes to hook me in, and the sexy stuff was awfully fun, too. (I’m probably the opposite of the average reader, but there you go.) All in all, I enjoyed this book quite a bit, and I’m looking forward to reading the next in the series!

Quote of Note:

Everything was okay. Maybe not perfect, but life wasn’t meant to be perfect. It was messy and sometimes it was a disaster, but there was beauty in the messiness and there could be peace in the disaster.

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy Wait for You from Amazon (Kindle and Audible versions are also available). Each sale from these links helps support Melody & Words.

“Cairo In White” by Kelly Ann Jacobson

Cairo in WhiteTitle: Cairo In White
Author: Kelly Ann Jacobson
ISBN: 9781619377714
Pages: 158
Release date: February 14, 2014
Publisher: Musa Publishing
Genre: Fiction
Format: E-book
Source: Review copy
Rating: 5 out of 5

Eighteen-year-old Zahra had been climbing over the wall to Jamila’s house and sneaking into her girlfriend’s room for years, but that night was different.

That night, as she crept through the Ahmeds’ house, she ran smack-dab into her parents. They were taking tea and arranging her marriage. But not to Jamila; love between two girls in 1986 Egypt was forbidden. Instead, Zahra will marry Jamila’s brother.

The only thing stronger than Zahra’s sense of independence is her loyalty to her family. And so she follows her head rather than her heart, committing herself to a brutish man she hardly knows on one condition: they move across an ocean, far from memories of true love, to a new world—one that, Zahra discovers, is far more accepting of her sexuality.

More than two decades later, 22-year-old Aisha greets the heat of her homeland for the first time. After growing up in the U.S. with only her mother to watch over her, Aisha is determined to find a family and a history in Egypt. But she discovers more than she bargained for.

Will Aisha find acceptance, even a home, in a culture that once rejected Zahra? Will Aisha be free to pursue the love that she finds in Egypt? And will Zahra ever rediscover love herself?

At this point I should note that I am a biased reader. Kelly is a writer friend of mine, and I’ve enjoyed watching this novel take shape. (But trust me: Friend or not, you would know if I didn’t like it. I’m not really known for holding back my opinions.)

Lucky for our friendship… I loved this book from start to finish. The writing is fabulous, but more importantly, the story’s central themes resonated deeply with me. How do you reconcile cultural taboos with what you know to be true about yourself? How do you manage your family’s expectations with what you really want and need?

Both Aisha and Zahra feel, for different reasons, like outsiders in a culture that is an irreplaceable part of them. The conflicts of growing up and growing into yourself, figuring out where you belong and who you are—these are universal struggles, and Cairo In White illustrates them beautifully.

One of my favorite exchanges occurs when Zahra asks Jamila why white is her favorite color. “There are so many beautiful colors to choose from, why would you choose the one that doesn’t count?” Zahra asks with the sweet thoughtlessness of youth. “Sometimes, the things that don’t count are the most beautiful of all,” her girlfriend responds. Indeed.

Zahra’s loss is clearly defined—she knows all too well what she has given up—while Aisha’s is vague, an indefinable lack—both of family support and purpose in life. Their interwoven narratives contrast identities—mother and daughter, traditional and modern, gay and straight, immigrant and emigrant—that are not so different as they seem. A low throb of heartache and loss run beneath the narrative, but so, too, does a bright vein of optimism.

The best stories fully ground the reader in a place. They make you miss somewhere you’ve never been. I can see it all now: the crowded markets, the women with jangling bracelets haggling with old vendors. The swish of cool fabric against hot skin, cigarette and shisha smoke blending and floating on a dry breeze.

Jacobson has a gift for descriptions—for pulling the reader on to the page and immersing her in an unfamiliar setting, whether on the streets of Cairo or in an immigrant neighborhood in Northern Virginia. I loved poetic descriptions like these:

Al Qahirah, or the city of a thousand minarets, had turned like a dried date. The streets were bruised with shadows, and empty sunflower shells littered the pathways like breadcrumbs through the dark.

The book is probably best described as a romance, although it could also be called new adult. I’ve been reading a lot of LGBTQI fiction lately, and have a special focus on new adult titles this year, so Cairo In White was a very satisfying read on those levels as well.

In all, I highly recommend it! I wouldn’t be surprised if this book found its way on to my Best of 2014 list in a few months.

Quote of Note:

Eventually, they would fade like paintings in the sun, just an outline and a wash of color against an ever-expanding white background.

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy Cairo In White from the publisher or Amazon. Each sale from these links helps support Melody & Words.

Or come to her book launch party tonight in DC’s Adams Morgan!

“We” by Michael Landweber

WeTitle: We
Author: Michael Landweber
ISBN: 9781603811668
Pages: 194
Release date: September 2013
Publisher: Coffeetown Press
Genre: Speculative fiction
Format: Ebook
Source: Review copy (TLC Book Tours)
Rating: 3 out of 5

Ben was 42 when he reached to scrub an old stain from the ceiling of his apartment and lost his balance. When he opened his eyes, he was 7 again. He had traveled back in time to the days before his sister’s rape tore their family apart.

As Ben relives those days through his 7-year-old self, Binky, he struggles to warn his family of the impending tragedy written in their future. But you can’t change the past—can you?

I really enjoyed the experimental form of this novel. Ben coexists with his younger self, who is in subject to strong currents of emotion—love, terror, anxiety—that as an adult he no longer feels so strongly. The best part of the novel–really, a novella–was his keen sense of the loss of his entire family, not just Sara. His father’s indifference, his mother’s abandonment, his brother’s distance.

In addition to the waves of feeling that regularly buffet his seven-year-old self, Ben can’t escape the ways the tragedy affected his own attempts, or lack thereof, at a family. “I was terrified of repeating my father’s mistakes, of showing a child his indifference,” he reflects while thinking of his partner’s insistence on adoption. “I wanted him to feel the absence of my mother the way I felt it.”

The ending was somewhat disappointing; it took the story from a realistic psychological or even medical story to a story about time travel. In my opinion, it misses the opportunity to reflect on how the past cannot be changed—only the future.

The story, however, was well-written. Anyone who has ever experienced or imagined a family tragedy (so, basically, everyone) can appreciate the wrenching apart that older Ben anticipates as he tries to change the events of that night. I was struck by parallels with my own family; this passage in particular resonated with me:

No one knew if Sara was tired or hungry or alone or alive. Her absence was deeply felt, there being a full, untouched place-setting laid out before her chair. I had listened to my mother make all the obligatory pre-dinner phone calls to Sara’s friends, or at least the friends she used to have in the long-ago time when she last confided in my parents. With each call, each act of contrition, my mother wilted. I sensed that this was a common ritual—the search for Sara. There was not much effort invested in it, no real hope for success.

In all, I enjoyed the book, but the ending clouded the rest of the story for me. But I’m looking forward to the next book by Landweber, a local author.

TLC Book ToursDon’t just take my word for it! Check out what other people on the tour have to say:

Monday, February 3rd: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Wednesday, February 5th: Cerebral Girl in a Redneck World
Thursday, February 6th: Bewitched Bookworms
Tuesday, February 11th: Broken Teepee
Wednesday, February 12th: Happy. Pretty. Sweet.
Friday, February 14th: Laura’s Reviews
Wednesday, February 19th: The Book Wheel
Thursday, February 20th: From the TBR Pile
Friday, February 21st: Mockingbird Hill Cottage
Monday, February 24th: Suko’s Notebook
Wednesday, February 26th: Simply Stacie

Or buy We from an independent bookstore or Amazon (a Kindle version is also available). Each sale from these links helps support Melody & Words.

What Book Bloggers Love

Ask any book blogger what she loves most about blogging. Invariably, the answer is always the same. It’s not the advanced reader copies or the page views or even the inducement to read more.

It’s the community.

This is what I learned from the beginning of my book blogging career, and it is what has kept me going.

From my fellow book bloggers, who fill up my TBR list and share tips on review policies and the reading/life balance, to readers of my blog, who enrich my posts with their own opinions and experiences with a book. From publishers, who are endlessly enthusiastic about the next great gem everyone will be talking about in the three months, to bookstore owners and employees, who just can’t contain themselves when they get on the topic of their new favorites.

And, of course, those around whom we book-lovers have built this entire ecosystem: Writers.

One of the very best parts of writing about books has been interacting with authors, whether they comment (always graciously) on my review of their work, or shoot me an email recommending even more great authors, or indulge me at author events when I have a billion questions about their writing process.

I met Kelly Ann Jacobson at a happy hour for emerging writers a few years ago. This was when I was dipping my toe into writing small pieces of my own, mostly essays and articles, that for the first time didn’t have anything to do with someone else’s book. I was eyeing the distant shore of writing a novel, but Kelly had already plunged in. She was in the process of revising the novel that had been on her mind for years: the story of one young woman and her freedom to love.

Today is the publication day of that book, Cairo in White.

Cairo in WhiteAs Cairo sweltered in the summer of 1986, eighteen-year-old Zahra faced the heat for a rendezvous with her secret lover.

But after climbing the Ahmeds’ wall and darting through an open door, Zahra came face-to-dace with the last people she expected to see: her parents. They were taking tea and arranging her marriage. But not to Jamila; love between two girls in Egypt was forbidden. Instead, Zahra will marry Jamila’s brother.

Twenty years later, Zahra’s American daughter, Aisha, steps off a plane at Cairo International Airport. Aisha is as headstrong as her mother, and she is determined to find a life and a family in Egypt. But she discovers more than she bargained for.

Will Aisha find acceptance, even a home, in a culture that once rejected Zahra? And will Aisha be free to pursue the love that she finds in Egypt? 

I’m very pleased to have received an advance copy of the book, and my review will be posted next week.

In the meantime, if you are a book blogger and would like to receive an e-ARC, I’m happy to send you one.

And if you’re in the DC area, come on out to her book launch party on Thursday, February 20!

As I’ve frequently found over the last few years running this book blog, the connections made with the writing community are priceless. I love meeting authors like Kelly, and I’m very glad I have the opportunity to support her work and the work of other local authors.

Keep on writing!

“A Snug Life Somewhere” by Jan Shapin

A Snug Life SomewhereTitle: A Snug Life Somewhere
Author: Jan Shapin
ISBN: 9781613862315
Pages: 294
Release date: November 16, 2013
Publisher: Cambridge Books
Genre: Historical fiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Review copy (TLC Book Tours)
Rating: 3 out of 5

Penny Joe Copper, the daughter of a shingle weaver more interested in labor movements than in putting food on the table, is determined to make a “snug life somewhere” for herself. In this pursuit, she moves to Seattle, where her younger brother is attending college. But a few months later, when her brother is killed in a labor demonstration, Penny finds herself the face of grief—propelled into the spotlight by no small degree by the slick, fast-talking Gabe Rabinowitz.

Penny, frozen by pain at her beloved brother’s early demise, hitches her wagon to Gabe despite her love for another young man, Marcel. As Gabe moves more and more into politics and demonstrations, Penny is given an unique perspective on the socialist movements her father so adored—and on the people the United States considers criminals.

Penny’s close proximity to Gabe does nothing for her opinion of him. “Men like Gabe, who take what they want, can be exciting or demeaning or dangerous for a time, but in the end they are simply boring,” Penny, as the much-older narrator, reflects.

Penny finds herself faced with a decision: does she turn Gabe in for illegal activities, thus risking her own reputation, or does she turn a blind eye? And will she ever figure out how to maintain a relationship with Marcel?

So, this was an odd read for me.

Jan Shapin is an interesting stylist; her sentences are well constructed, her characters are very unusual, and her voice is distinct.

I felt myself, strangely, pulled in more by the writing than by the story itself. Perhaps that is because, at times, the story feels more like nonfiction, verging almost on the academic about labor strikes and communist movements. Providing historical context in a novel is very tricky indeed; the author must provide enough information for the story to make sense, while also not letting the reader’s eyes glaze over.

While I wasn’t bored by these sections, per se, I thought they slowed down the story and kept the tension muffled. I never felt like we were heading to a climax or a big showdown. Perhaps that is indicative of the author’s more sedate style; in any case, I kept reading, so it was successful on some level. But I didn’t feel much satisfaction in finishing Penny Joe’s story.

I enjoyed the writing, but the narrative arc felt like it could have been bigger, with more at stake. But that’s not quite it either; there is plenty at stake, Penny Joe’s life and freedom and ability to love. But I never felt like these issues were quite articulated; it was left to me to assume what motivated her. Perhaps I’m a lazy reader, but this disconnect left me feeling rather restless toward the end of the book.

I was most drawn to the Copper family, which, as the book progresses, seems less and less cohesive. “We Coppers were an odd lot, partitioning off our lives, telling each other it was for their own good,” Penny Joe relates early in the novel. And then, later: “I had never known families where feelings were something others did not intrude upon.” Penny has an inbred habit of suspicion, but also the ability to embrace and live with people she doesn’t really seem to like. It certainly makes for some interesting life experiences for her.

TLC Book ToursDon’t just take my word for it! Check out what other people on the tour have to say:

Monday, February 10: Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Tuesday, February 11: The Road to Here
Wednesday, February 12: Ms. Nose in a Book
Monday, February 17: Priscilla and Her Books
Tuesday, February 18: Lisa’s Yarns
Thursday, February 20: Dwell in Possibility
Monday, February 24: Booksie’s Blog
Tuesday, February 25: The Written World
Wednesday, February 26: The Most Happy Reader
Thursday, February 27: Time 2 Read
Monday, March 3: Patricia’s Wisdom
Tuesday, March 4: Book Loving Hippo
Wednesday, March 5: Unabridged Chick

Or buy A Snug Life Somewhere from an independent bookstore or Amazon (a Kindle version is also available). Each sale from these links helps support Melody & Words.