Category Archives: book reviews

Review: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett

ManWhoLovesBooks_JKTF.inddTitle: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

Author: Allison Hoover Bartlett

Genre/Pages: Nonfiction/288

Publication: Riverhead Books; September 17, 2009

Rating: 4 BOOKMARKS

A riveting account of one man’s obsession with rare books, another man’s unrelenting efforts to catch him, and the woman who documented it all.

Persistent lying and stealing.  Check. Superficial charm.  Check. Lack of remorse or inability to care about hurting others.  Check. Narcissism and sense of extreme entitlement.  Check and CHECK.

John Charles Gilkey could be the poster child for Antisocial Personality Disorder and he’s fixated on rare books.  In him, Allison Hoover Bartlett finds an inconsistent and unreliable source who acts as her guide on a literary odyssey through the world of rare books and his obsession with possessing them through acts of fraud and theft.

Spending whole years researching Gilkey and Ken Sanders, the book dealer who made it his personal mission to catch him, Bartlett finds herself, at times, walking the fine line between right and wrong to get her story.  This conflict actually made the work all the more authentic and exciting.  Gilkey confides in her about crimes past and Bartlett wrangles with her conscience–should she report him and risk scaring him off, ending their professional relationship (and her research)?

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much details the world of rare books, making it seem enticing and almost seductive.  Each collector’s hunt for the book, the crowning jewel of his or her collection, keeps the dealers in business.  What used to be a rich, white man’s game is now seeing an influx of younger, more diverse collectors.

With colorful characters, steady pacing, tales of deception and illicit behavior, and dogged efforts to catch a criminal,  The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is an exciting, educational, and thoroughly entertaining read.  If you’re looking for a great nonfiction book for a challenge or just want a change of pace, I would recommend this book without hesitation.  Many thanks to Lydia at Riverhead for this review copy!

Do you collect rare or first edition books?  How about signed editions?  I have a few signed books–Jodi Picoult came to my local library a few years ago and signed two books for me and I went to Megan McCafferty’s book signing a few years ago at B&N.  I don’t have any rare or first edition books–the only old books I have are ones from my childhood that I keep for nostalgic reasons.

Review: The Collector by John Fowles

I was recently invited to write a guest review for Pattinase’s blog feature ‘Friday’s Forgotten Books’.  I selected John Fowles’s 1963 debut novel The Collector.  If you’ve never read this novel, it really is a forgotten classic–maybe even a forerunner of the psycho-thriller genre– but often overshadowed by Fowles’s later novel ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’.

Take a peek: Pattinase’s ‘Friday’s Forgotten Books’.       

Review AND Giveaway: Up For Renewal by Cathy Alter

WIN A COPY OF UP FOR RENEWAL!  See the review for details. CONGRATS to JESS of Book Reviews by Jess; She’s the winner!

renewalTitle: Up For Renewal

Author: Cathy Alter

Genre/Pages: Memoir/336

Publication: Atria Books; July 2008/Washington Square Press (re-release); July 2009

Rating: 3.5 BOOKMARKS

A year in the life of a woman who has committed herself to change, taking advice from glossy magazines on the big Fs: fashion, fitness, food, finance, and, ultimately, FINDING herself.

I’m a huge fan of essays and memoirs–Jen Lancaster, Bill Bryson, David Sedaris–are some of my favorite nonfiction writers.  I have laughed my way through so many memoirs that deciding to review Up For Renewal was a no-brainer–it was a memoir AND the premise hooked me!

At the age of 37, Cathy Alter’s life wasn’t exactly going according to plan.  Recently divorced and spiraling down a bleak pathlittered with sexual conquests and take-out food containers, Alter commits herself…to change.

Over the course of one year, Alter focuses on improving herself.  Each month she tackles a different aspect of her life–fitness, finance, fashion, relationships.  Using the magazines as her holy grail and life map, she charts a new course for herself and learns that sometimes it’s necessary to cross choppy seas to get to a safe harbor. 

An entertaining read, Alter doesn’t sugarcoat her bad behavior, nor does she apologize.  She takes responsibility for her actions–good and bad–and is able to learn and move on.  Though I had difficulty relating to some of Alter’sbehaviors, I enjoyed the memoir and found her writing to be witty and easy to read.  Her tirades against Saran wrap had me snorting with laughter.

That said (and since there is a giveaway associated with this review), some readers with more Victorian sensibilities might be a bit put off by profanity and adult situations.  Consider this fair warning.  For the rest of you corrupt little scoundrels, carry on!

For a chance to win a  copy of Up For Renewal, simply leave a comment and tell me which magazines you love to read.  Contest ends Friday, September 4th at 8pm EST. 

Thanks to Minjae Ormes for the review copy!

Review: The Texicans by Nina Vida

texicansTitle: The Texicans

Author: Nina Vida

Genre/Pages: Historical Western Fiction/296

Publication: Soho Press; October 1, 2007

Rating: 3 BOOKMARKS

The wide open skies and sweeping plains of Texas are the backdrop for this Western fiction saga that tells of one man’s journey through life and the impact of those he meets along the way.

In an effort to diversify my literary diet, I recently accepted Nina Vida’s seventh novel, The Texicans, for review.  I’d never read much, if anything, in this genre and had some misgivings.  My tally sheet of Western History authors was skimpy at best–one Louis L’Amour novel–The Last of the Breed–which was set in Siberia and had nothing to do with the wild American frontiers of the 1800s, and no Larry McMurtry (of Lonesome Dove fame).  Happily, this book was a pleasant surprise!

The Texicans  tells the story of Joseph Kimmel, former trapper and school teacher, traveling from Missouri to Texas during the 1830s to settle his recently deceased brother’s affairs.  Along the way, Kimmel is waylaid by myriad obstacles.  After an escaped slave rides off on his horse, Kimmel struggles to survive, eventually finding himself caught up in the development of a new settlement. 

Perceiving mismanagement in Castroville, a restless Kimmel sets off without a true course, encumbered by a new (and unwanted) bride.  As they travel, the wagon fills with a cast of disenfranchised characters.  Kimmel is helpless to resist the tears of one young Mexican woman who is rumored to have a bit of magic in her.  Aurelia and her young daughter ride along with Kimmel’s wife Katrin, and three adult slaves and their two children.  The motley crew continues on, under constant threat of attacks by Indians  and rogue Texas Rangers.

Finally, the group finds a parcel of land and they create their own ranch.  Before long, conflicts with Comanches and Rangers shatter their peace.  The second part of the novel focuses on Kimmel’s internal conflicts–his unrequited obsession with Aurelia and his desire for revenge on a Texas Ranger who brought pain and suffering to his front door. 

Character development was strong and even minor characters were well-developed.  The characters were realistic because of their flaws, but I had trouble with the Kimmel-Aurelia angle of the story.  Kimmel’s wife was desperate to please her husband but he was so enraptured by mere thought of Aurelia that he couldn’t appreciate what he had.  Additionally, a large cast of minor characters were a bit challenging to keep straight.

Nina Vida’s use of language helped provide vivid imagery and the struggles of early settlers came to life.  Her attention to detail helped me picture a world that I knew little about.  If you’re looking for an introduction to the Western Historical fiction genre, this might just be the book for you.

Are you a Western Historical fiction reader?  Have you read any L’Amour or McMurtry? 

Review: Spin: A Novel by Robert Rave

spinTitle: Spin: A Novel

Author: Robert Rave

Genre/Pages: Fiction/352

Publication: St. Martin’s Press; August 18, 2009

Rating: 4 BOOKMARKS

An all-access pass behind the velvet ropes of New York’s trendiest hot-spots, Spin: A Novel, dishes on the frenetic and cut-throat world that is PR. 

With a little bit of fast thinking and a white lie or two, twenty-something Taylor Green finds himself on the right side of the velvet ropes at the opening of Domino, one of Manhattan’s hottest new restaurants. 

Kismet is smiling down on Taylor–not only does he manage to fast-talk his way past the ‘door dragon’, but also scores a career coup in the same night.  Just by being in the right place at the right time, he’s able to swoop in and snatch up a coveted Assistant position at Jennie Weinstein Public Relations (JWPR), the PR firm of the city.

With his new job comes new responsibilities and fabulous perks.  Coveted party invitations and oodles of swag come Taylor’s way, but he also finds himself at despotic Jennie’s beck and call.  Reminiscent of Lauren Weisberger’s Amanda Priestly (The Devil Wears Prada), Jennie Weinstein keeps Taylor hopping day and night with her imperious (and sometimes illegal!) demands and requests via calls, texts, and messages to his Blackberry.

As the novel progresses, a dramatic shift occurs: our provincial hero begins to assimilate to his boss’s nefarious ways.  Taylor’s family and friends don’t recognize him anymore; gone is the slightly bumbling, awww-shucks, guy.  In his place is a corporate assassin–he’s got some dirt on Jennie and isn’t afraid to wield the information, using it as leverage to secure himself better accounts and more responsibility within the firm.

Jennie Weinstein isn’t accustomed to people standing up to (or blackmailing) her, but just how far is she willing to go to shut Taylor Green down for good?  Will Taylor come to his senses and see that his new-found false values are only propelling him further from the people who care about him most? 

A gritty account of the not-so-nice aspects of the PR world, Spin: A Novel sheds light on how the industry (sometimes?!?!) works–journalists, gossip columnists, sales and marketing people, brand and restaurant owners, and PR firms enjoying their quid pro quo “moral” code.

So, is Spin: A Novel a Roman à clef?  Robert Rave did work for Lizzie Grubman, a well-know publicist who has been described by New York Magazine as, “…the most powerful girl (female publicist) of all.”  A few of Jennie’s more outlandish stunts seem to have been pulled from the headlines of the New York rags, but I’ll leave you to decide how much of Spin is based in reality and how much is spun from Rave’s imagination.

Thanks to Marnie at MB Public Relations for this review copy.

Review: The Wish Maker by Ali Sethi

wishmakerTitle: The Wish Maker

Author: Ali Sethi

Genre/Pages: Fiction/432

Publication: Riverhead Books; June 11, 2009

Rating: 2.5 BOOKMARKS

A sweeping saga told in lyrical prose about one Pakistani boy’s coming of age during a climate of political and social change.

Ali Sethi’s debut novel, The Wish Maker, is an ambitious novel–almost an epic–spanning two decades (plus flashbacks), several governments, and much social and political unrest.  Make no mistake, Sethi is a masterful storyteller with a mature voice that belies his young years–he was in his early 20s when he wrote this novel–but I felt that the story suffered from information and sensory overload.

The Wish Maker tells the story of Zaki Shirazi, a young boy growing up in a house filled with women.  Zaki’s mother is a journalist who writes for a magazine and leans toward the liberal left, while his grandmother is more of an old-fashioned conservative.  Zaki’s cousin also lives in the house and struggles to find herself throughout the novel.

The pages were filled with scores of secondary characters and it was challenging to keep everyone straight.  Additionally, unfamiliar terms and foreign phrases were peppered throughout and  I looked up several to give myself a more solid understanding of the story and dialogue.   

This book could very well go on to receive much critical acclaim–the writing is wonderful–but for me it had too much going on and ambled along accounting for all the daily minutia of Zaki’s days.  I appreciated the imagery and characterization but felt that there was no real resolution with some characters and that some of the secondary story lines just petered out.

Thanks to Matt at Penguin Books (Riverhead) for this review copy!

How about you?  Have you read this novel?  Am I way out in left field with my review?   What’s your take?  

Review: The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf

silenceTitle: The Weight of Silence

Author: Heather Gudenkauf

Genre/Pages: Fiction/373

Publication: Mira; July 28, 2009

Rating: 3.5 BOOKMARKS

Employing multiple narrators, Heather Gudenkauf weaves a suspenseful novel about two young girls who go missing from their beds early one summer morning.

In the pre-dawn hours of an August morning in Iowa, seven-year-old Calli Clark is violently dragged into the woods against her will.  Her fear is palpable, but Calli can’t call out for help because she suffers from selective mutism.  Nearby, Petra Gregory, Calli’s best friend and voice, is lured from her own bedroom after spying something from her window.  Does she see her friend or is it someone more sinister?

As the novel progresses, the narrators shift with each new chapter.  We take in the story through the eyes of Calli, her mother Antonia, her older brother Ben, Petra’s dad, and Deputy Sheriff Louis.  Through each of their narratives, we get the backstory about Calli’s mutism, the family dynamics of the Clark household, life in the Gregory house, and Antonia’s relationship with Louis.

Gudenkauf gives Calli a voice as a narrator despite the fact that she doesn’t speak, while Petra, Calli’s mouthpiece in life, remains silent–her perspective of the story untold.  Anxiety builds as the novel progresses and suspicion is cast on several characters.  Compounding the fear is the  local unsolved murder of another little girl who went missing from her bedroom.  Will Calli and Petra meet the same end?

The Weight of Silence is such a page-turner–I read it in one night, staying up until the wee hours to finish it!  The novel is rife with symbols–the woods, the yellow house, the music note chain–and themes of family, friendship, substance abuse, and loss.   This book would be ideal for a book club selection and comes with discussion questions at the end of the novel. 

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to review this book!