Reflection: The Reconstructionist by Nick Arvin

26 Mar

One of the most difficult things to do as a book blogger is write a review of a book that you didn’t love or hate, that you had “meh” feelings about. What’s worse is when you don’t know why you had those feelings. (I’m totally not making you excited to read this post, aren’t I?) With Nick Arvin’s new novel, The Reconstructionist I am torn about my feelings for sure, but I thankfully can point to the exact reasons. Which is why I’m writing this review only a few weeks after I finish the book, while it’s fresh. Aren’t you proud?

I absolutely loved half of this book – the first quarter and the last quarter. The middle half I was pretty much just pushing myself through it, in the hopes that there would be a pay-off at the end. And there was, a great, well-crafted pay-off. The middle though. It was rough. Here’s the synopsis from Goodreads.com:

At a loose end after college, Ellis Barstow drifts back to his home town and a strange profession: reconstructing fatal traffic accidents. He seems to take to the work immediately, and forms a bond with his boss and mentor, John Boggs, an intriguing character of few but telling words.

Yet Ellis is harbouring a secret. He was drawn to the reconstructionist’s grisly world by the fatal crash that killed his half-brother Christopher and that still haunts him; in fact his life has been shaped by car accidents. Boggs, in his exacting way, would argue that ‘accident’ is not the right word, that if two cars meeting at an intersection can be called an accident then anything can – where we live, what we do, even who we fall in love with.

For Ellis these things are certainly no accident. And he harbours a second, more dangerous secret, one that threatens to blow apart the men’s lives and which, as the story’s quiet momentum builds, leads to a desperate race towards confrontation, reconciliation and survival.

There is a lot of suspense built into this story, and Arvin does a great job at using the suspense of the story and giving the reader just enough to keep them going. I’m pretty sure that those little nuggets and hints are what kept me going through the very quiet middle to the end, where – as promised – all is revealed. Ellis is a complicated and well-rendered character, who is ultimately relatable and very real. His life is defined by a series of events on which he really has very little direct impact. But he is profoundly driven by them, whether he admits that to himself or not.

If you’re at all aware of the pattern of books that are…problematic… for me, you know that high on the list of issues I have is believability. Plot is usually my main motivating element as a reader, and while this had a strong undercurrent of plot complexity, a lot of it was character heavy. And character heavy in a way that, to me, was beyond my ability to take it seriously.

**SPOILER ALERT** (If you haven’t read it, skip this next paragraph.)

Most of the middle half of the book is a spiritual quest for Ellis and Boggs though it’s not clear exactly what each of them are seeking out. The moment at the lake when they meet over a dead body,  I actually said out loud, “Are you serious?” The journey until that point had been a stretch for me – why these men would start visiting old crash sites wasn’t a stretch, but I had a hard time understanding Boggs’ motivation. Ellis’ were clear enough – the man was totally and completely guilt driven – but I don’t think until Boggs went off the map, there was any sign of an impending breakdown. His drive wasn’t clear to me, and therefore Ellis’ reasons for following him started to go off the rails. The dead body that neither of them seem all that surprised to see was the point at which I mentally scoffed and stopped having faith in the narrative. And then the fact that neither of them call the cops until it’s basically an afterthought? The believability factor was a distant memory in that moment for me.

**SPOILERS OVER**

I do like the way that the book ended, and though it had the potential to feel hokey, I don’t at all think it was. It felt like the right and inevitable end to the story. The plot wrapped up neatly enough that the suspense created early in the book felt justified and logical. I think that I would’ve really liked this book had the middle half been significantly shortened and/or felt like less of a hallucination. I’m not sure if that was the intention – I know that unintentional sleep-deprivation is a huge part of Ellis’ journey – but I needed more from the story to justify that tonal and narrative shift from the beginning and the end. I know as I was nearing the end of the book I had a realization that it felt a little like the author had a page count to hit, so he fattened up the middle to meet that goal. I doubt very much this is actually the case, but that’s never a good feeling to have about a novel.

In the end, the means by which each of the characters arrives to their separate fates wasn’t enough for me. I didn’t see how the journey was necessary to reach some greater level of self-actualization or greater level of understanding about each other and the past. To me, Ellis could have reached the same conclusions without the epic quest and there wasn’t much new gained by that trip. Arvin certainly wanted there to be more, I could see that in the writing, but I didn’t see that it was realized successfully.

My poor review is all well and good, but I have seen great reviews of this book from several people I trust. I would encourage you to read it, and see if you agree with me. Was I too impatient was the subtly of the narrative? Did I miss something about the characters that made it all come together for you?

As I said, having mixed feelings about a book is tough. It’s tough as a reader, and it’s tough for someone who might think about picking it up. If it counts for anything, I have no compunction about not finishing books, and there was enough good and interesting in this book to make me finish it, and finish it quickly. The writing was beautiful, and I enjoyed the actual reading of it, if I was lukewarm about the final product as a whole.

Quick Hit: The Underside of Joy by Seré Prince Halverson

3 Feb

It’s really very difficult to suppress the urge to apologize at the beginning of every post I write now. Yes, my lapse between posts is ridiculous; yes, I’m super busy; and yes, unfortunately, this blog has to take a backseat. I wish it were different, but, alas it’s not. If you’re still reading my blog, I appreciate the loyalty, but we all just have to accept that the posts are going to be sporadic at best.

That being said, sometimes you stumble across a book that you just feel deserves the attention you’ve been neglecting elsewhere. Seré Prince Halverson’s debut novel, The Underside of Joy, is one of those books.

Halverson’s first book is notable not only because it was rescued from the slush pile where unsolicited manuscripts wait for an assistant to fall in love with them, but also because it IS her first. So many first books are clumsy or have odd pacing or feel forced. This book has none of that.

From the author’s website:

To Ella Beene, happiness means living in the Northern California river town of Elbow with her husband, Joe, and his two young children. For three years, Ella has been the only mother the kids have known. But when Joe drowns off the coast, his ex-wife shows up at his funeral, intent on reclaiming the children. Ella must fight to prove they should remain with her while she struggles to save the family’s market. With wit and determination, she delves beneath the surface of her marriage, finally asking the questions she most fears, the answers jeopardizing everything and everyone she most loves.

Rather than the fairy tale version of step-motherhood that pits good against evil, The Underside of Joy explores a complex relationship between two women who both consider themselves to be the children’s mother. Their conflict uncovers a map of scars — physical and emotional — to their families’ deeply buried tragedies, including Italian internment camps during WWII and postpartum depression and psychosis.

First of all, can I just say how much I adore the name “Ella Beene” for this character??

Secondly, the thing that I loved most about The Underside of Joy (and there were many things to pick from) is that, in a book that is set up as step-mother against mother, there really isn’t a good guy and a bad guy. Even though the book is told entirely from Ella’s perspective, Halverson manages to elicit empathy for both women – not an easy feat when the basic narrative structure invites a stark dichotomy between characters. But Halverson recognizes that life is not that simple, and nor are relationships and children. And because there’s no clear-cut winner or loser in this battle, there seems to be no easy answer or neat ending on the horizon. It is absolutely one of the most compelling conflicts I’ve read in a long time, and I absolutely ached for everyone involved.

Third, I have to admire an author that absolutely sells the story. I mean that in the best way possible, I promise. The time frame in The Underside of Joy initially feels too short for all the things that have happened, to happen. A mother gives birth for the second time, leaves her husband and children, the husband falls in love with someone else and gets married, and they are blissfully happy, all in three short years? I’m not sure why that felt like such a short timeline, but it did. Had Halverson not completely convinced me of why and how that was, not only feasible, but necessary for the story to progress as it does, I would’ve been much less impressed and far more dismissive of this as a typical first novel.

Highly recommended.

P.S. I really want to live in a town called Elbow. Just sayin’.

Fitting in eBooks: An Experiment

16 Jan

I’ve had an ereader – a first-generation nook – for a while now, several years at least. You would think that being a fairly early adopter of ereader technology would allow me to work ebooks into my habits and somewhat replace print books into my collection; but sadly that’s not been the case, and I’ve struggled with even fitting ebooks into my reading. I use NetGalley to read pre-release galleys electronically, and I buy a lot of my YA guilty pleasures on the nook store because I want to read them, but don’t want them to take up space. But largely I’ve stuck to a print books. I still have the mindset that, if I want to “own” a book, I want the print copy, as if the ebook isn’t really “owning” it.

Lately though I’m testing out a way to both own an ebook and a hardcover version, and make both of them work. I’m currently reading Stephen King’s newest novel, 11/22/63. I bought myself the hardcover before Christmas, and then shortly after, I got a Klout perk for an ebook version from Simon & Schuster. I’m reading them both, depending on the day and the situation, and it’s been nothing short of enlightening. Both in respect to how I use paper books and how I use ebooks.

Overall, I’m enjoying having both available depending on how and where I’ll be reading – and my poor purse (and shoulder) isn’t weighted down with a 900-page book. But the page counts are off – the hardcover has 849 pages and the ebook counts just under 700. So syncing my stopping place has been tricky to say the least.

But this method – reading both the paper book and the ebook at the same time – isn’t practical. I am most likely only going to buy one copy of a book, but if I were able to buy a bundle of the hardcover and the ebook together at a lower price than buying them separately (but at a higher price than one or the other costs individually), I would be increasingly likely to do so. There are some books that I still will only want in ebook, and some that I will wait and buy in paperback. But I don’t see many possibilities where I would want the hardcover and NOT also want the ebook version. I’ve been delightfully surprised by how easily I switch back and forth and how much I actually use that option.

I’m curious, have you done this dual reading thing? What are your feelings about bundling ebooks with hardcovers?

One other note about switching back and forth: the engaging nature of the a particular book might be a mitigating factor. Because I cannot put down 11/22/63 and pretty much want to read it all the time at every moment I can spare. So I’m more willing to make the effort involved in dual reading, but I can’t imagine that a book I’m feeling only meh about will encourage the same level of engagement.

Looking back at 2011… and ahead to 2012

3 Jan

It’s a new year. It’s also a new day, a new week, and a new month.  (Did you get that memo?)

Which also supposedly means a wrap up post for 2011. I posted my Top Five at Book Riot in mid-December, and for the most part they haven’t changed much. The Art of Fielding maintained it’s spot even after I finished it – and I ended up buying it for my dad for Christmas. I set a few goals as part of Reading Deliberately at the beginning of 2011: read more Chunksters, Classics, TBR List, and Non-fiction and Blog more. Ugh. I already feel the shame creeping in of what I didn’t accomplish. Ah well, new year, new goals, right?

Let’s break it down a bit though.

I didn’t reach my goal of 60 books, but I did read 53, finishing the last one (What Alice Forgot), just before I had to jump in the shower to get ready for a New Year’s Eve party. I’m actually pretty happy about that because it’s still an average of more than one book a week. Of course, I’d like to read more this year, but I would be happy with meeting the same number. Grad school for the entire year this year will do a number on my pleasure reading, so this is the best I can reach for.

I also read 19,046 pages, which I’m also very happy about. The longest book I read in 2011 was actually the first book I read: Gone with the Wind. At over a thousand pages, it beat out anything else I read by far. Not as many chunksters as I’d hoped though – only a total of five books over 500 pages.  I also completely failed at reading more Classics this year too. And only six of my books were non-fiction. And that whole “blog more” thing – that didn’t so much happen.

But out with the old, in with the new!

I’m vowing this year – okay, maybe not vowing, because that’s awfully strong language – I’ll be trying this year to keep some of those same goals in mind. I’m still going to be Reading Deliberately, if for no other reason than the fact that my personal reading time is going to be precise and limited. In that vein, I’m also going to try to read more books that have been heavily recommended by friends or fellow book bloggers, like for example Mr. Peanut which Rebecca at The Book Lady’s Blog has been pushing forever.

Blogging more – I really want to do that. I really do, but I’m going to have to balance my commitments a little more strictly this year. That means at least one blog a week here, and at least one a week over at Book Riot. If I can do more, I will, but that’s what I’m shooting for, for now.

As part of my running 30 for 30 list, I’m going to work on Jane Austen, and Harry Potter, though I don’t know if I can take another crack at Anna Karenina until I get a different translation.

I’m also starting my “Take a photo every day for a year” task, which you can follow on Tumblr and on Flickr.

It’s going to be a great year. What are your reading goals? And resolutions?

One Week and Counting…

22 Dec

I can see you doing the math in your head. One week? Until what?? Christmas is in less than a week. New Year’s is more than a week away. That countdown is one week until I move. I’m not really moving that far away, just one floor up, from my room to my roommate’s Master bedroom, but I still have to pack all of my books. And while I’m about halfway down, I think I might have finally reached my breaking point.

This morning, I packed 14 boxes worth of books. And in the process of doing so, I realized how many I have that I really and truly will never, ever read. In the last several years – actually since the beginning of this blog – my reading tastes have changed, fairly dramatically. Not too many traditional chick lit novels for me anymore; my guilty pleasures are now purely YA. I just don’t have the patience for chick lit anymore, they’re no where close to being anything I can relate to anymore, but I own so very many of them, and most of them in hardcover.

But that’s just one category! I had a realization this morning that I really do not need to own so many books, that I likely will never re-read most of the ones I have read, and that space in an urban apartment is at a premium. There are only so many ways to squeeze one more bookshelf into a room. I think one of my projects as I unpack will be to not only sort my books and actually develop some kind of system where now there is none, but also to set aside two piles: one to donate to my local library book sale (which I’ve posted about before), and one to sale to my local used book store for store credit.

As we approach the end of the year, I’m listening more and more to those Christmas wishes I listed and thinking about what they really mean. It’s not the physical book that matters so much anymore; it’s the act of reading, the experience of enjoying it, and then the ability to share that in any way I can. And downsizing is a big part of that.

So as I’m packing up this week, I’m mentally keeping track of books I’m okay with moving onto another home, and pulling aside a handful of books I want to read before 2011 is done.

Somewhere in the middle of all this packing is Christmas, and then right after the move (I mean the day OF the move), I’m flying to Boston for New Year’s. Which means I’ve got a lot of reading time between now and midnight on Dec. 31st. Keep an eye out for my Best of 2011 sometime after Jan. 1st.

All I Want…Thankfully Reading & Christmas Wishes

16 Nov

Thanksgiving is in 8 days. EIGHT. DAYS. Where on Earth has this year gone? This Fall? It feels like I was just gearing up to start my Master’s and now my first semester is just about over. My mom is slightly incapacitated because of a bike accident and a dislocated thumb, so it’s quite possible that I will be responsible for Thanksgiving dinner this year. Which is fine and dandy except that I work until 9pm the night before. So I’m likely going to be very busy on Turkey Day itself, but I’d like to try to get as much reading in as possible, since one of my rare holidays off includes the post-Thanksgiving Friday.

Jenn at Jenn’s Bookshelves is hosting the third annual Thankfully Reading Weekend, which has the simple goal of reading as much as possible during the four-day weekend of Thanksgiving. That is a challenge I can get behind! Especially with all the books I’d like to finish before the end of the year, a weekend devoted to reading, food, football, and family is one I can absolutely support.

With this holiday approaching quickly though, I’ve started to think about my Christmas lists – both what I would like and what I want to give. You would think that, as a book lover, my wishlist would be full of new books and book-related accessories, maybe even a new eReader. But I find that my wishlist is going to be impossible to fulfill. Blame it on maturity, blame it on not having another inch of space to devote to any new things – let alone more books, I’m all about the intangibles this holiday season.

I wish not for new books, but for all the time in the world to read them. And review them.

I wish not for an iPad, but for the modesty to be happy with the gadgets I’ve already got and the patience to use them most efficiently.

I wish not for new PJs, but for a calm mind and peaceful thoughts to sleep better.

I wish not for a new party dress, but for an occasion to wear it proudly.

I wish not for bottles of good wine, but for schedules and lives that allow me to drink with my girlfriends.

I wish not for plane tickets, but for the excellent company on the other end.

I wish not for gift certificates to restaurants, but for the right guy to ask me on a date to one of them.

I wish not for a new book bag or school supplies, but for the ability to budget my time well.

I wish not for a massage at a spa, but for the ability to find stress relief in my everyday life.

I wish not for new running shoes or workout gear, but the motivation and energy to make exercise a priority.

I have a feeling Santa’s going to struggle stuffing my stocking this year…

What are you wishing for?

51 days and counting!

10 Nov

First off, yes, I suck. I haven’t posted here in a very long time. Between school, work and Book Riot responsibilities, I’ve been a neglectful blog owner. So my apologies. Some of you still visit me, so I hope you’ll forgive the absence.  In completely related news, I haven’t really read much since the read-a-thon, and I’m going through serious withdrawal. I did go on a cross country flight last weekend, but because I’ve been horribly sick with a death cold, I spent most of the flights sleeping or reading for school. ::Sigh:: is it a normal response to grad school to want to quit because you miss your books? That happens right?

I have been posting on Book Riot:

  • First a look at how chick lit is changing (or dying) in the recession age.
  • I also posted a reading pathway to one of my favorites, John Irving. Want to work up to A Prayer for Owen Meany? Follow this guide.
  • In honor of the beginning of Movember, I posted a list of the best literary ‘staches.
  • And today, one I’m particularly proud of, The Write Stuff, a look at presidential campaign books.

But back to the topic at hand!

There are just over 50 days left in the calendar year. I know, right? Where did 2011 go??

But it also means that the major book sites are starting to post their Best of 2011 lists. While I think it’s a bit premature, even though they’ve read all the pre-release galleys for anything coming out in the next 50 days, I’m gobbling up the lists, anyways. I likely won’t publish my own “best of” until Christmas time. Though knowing my schedule around the end of the year, it might even be after the New Year that I get around to it. I finish classes and school work for the semester in mid-December, but I’m already figuring out the best use of my reading time from now until 2012. I’ve got to read 15 books by the end of the year to make my goal of 60. I don’t anticipate that being a problem, but it’s going to be a race, that’s for sure.

I’m actually really tempted to draw my last 15 books (well, 14 – I’m almost done with Practical Jean by Trevor Cole) from Amazon’s Best of 2011 list. As much as I dislike buying from Amazon, the list isn’t off the mark at all and I could easily pull my last 14 reads from books I already own. How’s this list sound for a final push toward 2012? (And yes, I’m linking to Powell’s no Amazon. It is #IndieThursday after all.):

And then taking into account the books I don’t own but want to buy:

That’s 15 books. And about a million pages. Okay actually, according to Goodreads’ page counts, it’s 7,007 pages.  Someone send reinforcements. Or liquor.

UPDATE: Read-a-thon: End of Event Meme

23 Oct

UPDATE: HOKAY, so, apparently my nook miscounted pages in The Monstrumologist. Because Goodreads and BN.com is saying the ebook is actually 448 pages. (Those pages did seem to take a long time to turn.) So I’m going with that total instead of 288. That puts me at a total of 844 pages. MUCH BETTER! I think the reason I was feeling so discouraged by my page count was that I thought it was taking me forever to get through a 288-page book. When it was actually 160 pages longer than that! Makes sense now…

My total money raised is now $168.80.

*****

Well, not as successful as I’d hoped, but Not A Bad Showing.

I’d planning on updating more on Twitter and Tumblr but I was focused on my books and then I was asleep. Whoops!

Final count:

2 1/3 books read:

Total page count:

684 pages. Not even close to the 1000 I wanted but it turns out sleep is more powerful than monsters.

Money raised:

$136.80

Not bad at all. I can be pretty happy with that number. Now for the traditional End-of-Event Meme:

  1. Which hour was most daunting for you?
    • Hour 7 actually. I’d just had some lunch and got really super sleepy. I took about an hour long nap before I could keep going.
  2. Could you list a few high-interest books that you think could keep a Reader engaged for next year?
    • The Monstrumologist was fantastic for keeping me awake and engaged. Plus it was spooky and totally appropriate for Halloween time.
  3. Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year?
    • Nope, everyone did a great job. I didn’t get many cheerleaders but I suspect that was because I wasn’t posting frequently.
  4. What do you think worked really well in this year’s Read-a-thon?
    • The mini-challenges were great and I think trading off hosting duties more frequently (if that’s true, maybe I just haven’t been paying attention) worked well.
  5. How many books did you read?
    • 2 1/3
  6. What were the names of the books you read?
    • Last 92 pages of Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close
    • The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
    • The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey
  7. Which book did you enjoy most?
    • Toss up between Girls in White Dresses and The Monstrumologist. They’re so different it’s hard to pick.
  8. Which did you enjoy least?
    • Obviously The Forest for the Trees. It was for school though, so that probably explains why.
  9. How likely are you to participate in the Read-a-thon again? What role would you be likely to take next time?
    • Very likely. Even though I feel asleep around Hour 16, and managed to wake up half an hour before the read-a-thon was over to finish my last book, this felt like a less successful attempt than in years past. Probably because of the low book count. I’d like to be more of a cheerleader, but I don’t know that I have the stamina for it, at least not until I finish with school.

Thanks for everyone who came by last night and cheered me on!

Read-a-thon Check-in: Hour 11

22 Oct

Well I’d hoped to be updating more frequently than this, but alas.

I’m doing well, but after that initial burst where I finished Girls in White Dresses, my productivity has been slightly down. I did manage to make a lovely pumpkin apple coffee cake thing. So at least my house smells good.

I’m reading The Monstrumologist right now by Rick Yancey, and I’m pretty convinced I’m not going to be able to sleep at all because I’m going to be terrified of things under the bed. Which is handy since I’ll be trying to stay awake anyway!

Thanks to all the cheerleaders who’ve come by!! And thanks to Melissa at One Librarian’s Book Reviews for hosting the mini-challenge that I won!! Woot Woot!

Hope you are all doing well out there, and I’m going to try to stop in soon!

Read-a-thon: Hour One! (It Begins…)

22 Oct

I’m up, I’m up. I swear I’m up!

Why is it that I always manage to go out way, way too late the night before a read-a-thon?? It happens every single time :-/.

Oh well. No better way to recover from a hangover than to read all day, right?

The traditional questions for hour one:

  1. Where are you reading from today?
    • Washingon, DC, USA
  2. Three random facts about me…
    • I learned how to swim before I could walk.
    • I’ve never read anything by Steinbeck.
    • I can’t whistle or snap my fingers on my left hand.
  3. How many books do you have in your TBR pile for the next 24 hours?
    • About 15, but I find that when I start to get sleepy, I’ll pull anything off the shelf to stay awake.
  4. Do you have any goals for the read-a-thon (i.e. number of books, number of pages, number of hours, or number of comments on blogs)?
    • I’m reading to support Reach Out and Read’s Military Initiative and First Book, so I’d like to read 1000 pages. At 20 cents a page that’s $100 for each organization.
  5. If you’re a veteran read-a-thoner, any advice for people doing this for the first time?
    • Well it’s a little late for this advice, but start with something easy, that you’ll finish fast, so you feel like you’ve accomplished something early in the game. Also if something isn’t working for you, put it down and read something else. This is read-a-thon, so the typical rules of “I must finish every book I start!” don’t really apply here.

Also, I was going to try to keep all my updates to Tumblr, but I realized that I signed up with this link, and the cheerleaders are going to get confused. So in the interest of not pissing off my cheerleaders, I’ll be posting here instead. Mini-challenges and things like that will probably be on Tumblr though.

So welcome! and good luck, fellow read-a-thoners!