Bookish Tuesday, Non-Fiction

Nonfiction Book Club

After going through a bit of book club withdrawal over the evolution and loss of my former book club, I decided to start a new one at the bookstore with a focus strictly on works of nonfiction. Tonight is the sixth meeting and I can hardly believe it’s already been around that long! As nonfiction reviews seem to be the ones that are most followed from this blog, I figured I’d share with you the books that we’ve read and will be reading through the end of the year!

The very first meeting of the nonfiction book club, review can be found here.
Our second meeting – this one was met with some mixed reviews, most thought it tried a bit too hard to be the next Devil in the White City. Review can be found here.
Packing for Mars re-introduced me to Mary Roach and did, ultimately, inspire me to finish Stiff and Bonk after starting them for my other book club a few years ago. Overall, we found it enjoyable, but a bit too long – none of us were as curious as Mary was. Review can be found here.
This book really changed how I think about death – it also helped me handle my grief regarding the death of my grandmother. Overall, we liked it, but wish Caitlin had explored some death cultures and practices that differed more from her own. Review can be found here.
The Stowaway had us all talking about the 1920s and polar exploration, but ultimately we found it wanting – not much time was actually spend discussing or staying on Antarctica. Short read, but better suited to a long-form essay in a publication like the Atlantic instead of an actual book. Review can be found here.
Word by Word will be discussed by the group tonight! I just finished it (not even an hour ago) and I can’t wait to see what everyone thinks. Review for this one will be up on Sunday.
The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs comes to the book club highly recommended by a former coworker and wonderful friends. We’re collectively excited to read it and I can’t wait to start it tomorrow! It’s one of my longest nonfiction science/history books yet – we’ll see how I do – hopefully I’ll finish it on time!
The Soul of an Octopus is one of my husband’s favorite books of the last few years and when I pitched it to the group, they seemed interested as well. Another one that I’m very excited to read.
Another former staff member and friend has recommended The Poison Squad to the group – the members of the book club seem most interested in science, history, and true crime and as this incorporates them all, I hope it’ll be a hit!

Any Recommendations?

While our list for the rest of the year is set (we won’t be meeting in December), we’re always looking for new and exciting titles to read. If you have any recommendations, please let me know! In order to keep costs down, we only read paperbacks released in the US, but if a book is available in hardcover only right now, we can always keep it on our list for consideration later! And if you’re in the greater Philadelphia area looking for a book club to join, stop by the Towne Book Center & Wine Bar, 220 Plaza Drive, Suite B3, Collegeville PA 19426 on any of the upcoming meeting dates to join us!

Biography, Book Club, History, Non-Fiction, Travel

The Stowaway by Laurie Gwen Shapiro

Another Nonfiction Book Club selection, this one was selected for my new Antarctica-loving friend, Lenore!

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
It was 1928: a time of illicit booze, of Gatsby and Babe Ruth, of freewheeling fun. The Great War was over and American optimism was higher than the stock market. What better moment to launch an expedition to Antarctica, the planet’s final frontier?

Everyone wanted in on the adventure. Rockefellers and Vanderbilts begged to be taken along as mess boys, and newspapers across the globe covered the planning’s every stage. And then, the night before the expedition’s flagship set off, Billy Gawronski – a mischievous, first-generation New York City high schooler desperate to escape a dreary future in the family upholstery business – jumped into the Hudson River and snuck aboard. Could he get away with it?

From the soda shops of New York’s Lower East Side to the dance halls of sultry Francophone Tahiti, all the way to Antarctica’s blinding white and deadly freeze, Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s The Stowaway takes you on the unforgettable voyage of a plucky young stowaway who became a Jazz Age celebrity, a mascot for an up-by-your-bootstraps era.

Review

I was so excited to read The Stowaway – it sounded like such a fun adventure: kid stows away on a trip to Antarctica during the Jazz Age and Prohibition? Yes please! I love the 1920s, I love the flappers, I love everything about Gatsby-era NYC. But, as seems to be the case with my last few books and reviews, I found the synopsis just didn’t deliver as promised.

Don’t get me wrong, The Stowaway is a fun book – the story of our determined young man who doesn’t even think far enough ahead to bring a change of clothes when he swims to the frigid-water-bound-sailboat, would have been better suited to a long form article, perhaps in The Atlantic or another magazine structured for the form. At just about 200 pages, it felt like mostly filler of what was an otherwise unremarkable life (I’ve already forgotten our main subject’s name, Billy, I think?)

What promises to be an adventure of exploration is really only 25-30 pages in Antarctica, the rest of the book focuses on the journey (and the attractive and loose women encountered on said journey), and our wayward teenagers life before and after the expedition. While many of the others who sailed with Captain Byrd and were of note have already either a, written their tale, or b, been the subject of a biography, Billy’s story has ample material because of the detailed scrapbooks his mother kept throughout his life, as well as he correspondence with them from the journey.

The journey of one young man to Antarctica, who was kicked off of the expedition multiple times before finally being allowed to stay, has all the promise of a good book (and film material), but alas, I just don’t think there was enough to Billy’s life and story to warrant a full book about him and his singular act of rebellion and adventure.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Available for purchase with free international shipping from Book Depository.

Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Young

There are blurbs on this book from authors I love, and the description of it is Vikings meets Wonder Woman made it a “total Sarah pick” as our Macmillan sales rep told me. So of, course, eventually, I had to read it.

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
Raised to be a warrior, seventeen-year-old Eelyn fights alongside her Aska clansmen in an ancient rivalry against the Riki clan. Her life is brutal but simple: fight and survive. Until the day she sees the impossible on the battlefield: her brother, fighting with the enemy – the brother she watched die five years ago.

Faced with her brother’s betrayal, she must survive the winter in the mountains with the Riki, in a village where every neighbor is an enemy, every battle scar possibly one she delivered. But when the Riki village is raided by a ruthless clan settling in the valley, Eelyn is even more desperate to get back to her beloved family.

She is given no choice but to trust Fiske, her brother’s friend, who sees her as a threat. They must do the impossible: unite the clans to fight together, or risk being slaughtered one by one. Driven by a love for her clan and her growing love for Fiske, Eelyn must confront her own definition of loyalty and family while daring to put her faith in the people she’s spent her life hating.

Review

This books makes me remember why I don’t read YA anymore, unless it’s one of my personal fab five: Sarah J. Maas, Leigh Bardugo, Renee Ahdieh, Marie Lu, or Ruta Sepetys (who, coincidentally all have books coming out in the next six months, all but one of which I already have advance copies for and the fifth has been promised!!). That’s it. That’s my YA short list. Am I missing out on other great titles? Of course I am. But I’m also the buyer of the adult books at the store and my free-choice reading time is incredibly limited, so I want my YA selections to be top notch. And with a blurb on the cover from Renee, along with the aforementioned Vikings and Wonder Woman comps, I figured this one was a pretty safe bet.

Alas, not so much. The cover is beautiful, the premise promising, the execution though… eh, not so much. Despite a strong showing of love and support, I just didn’t see all the things the other author fans raved about. I felt like the characters fell flat – I didn’t really get a sense of any of their personalities, nor that any of them had really changed, despite the fact that by book’s end, the world and warring factions were in a different position than when they started.

The world was also described as richly developed, which, shocker, it’s a forest. She’s really good at describing a wooded forest. Now, if you’ve never seen one, then yes, it’s very good. But I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of central Pennsylvania. I’m good on forests, thanks, as are most readers in the US, save for a few western states that are mostly deserts, but also sparingly populated.

And then the plot, again, meh. Romeo and Juliet in a vaguely Viking-inspired world. And while the brother-sister dynamic should play first fiddle, based on the description and established premise, it really didn’t feel like it was fully realized. And after the initial battle, up until the end battle, there really weren’t too many catalyzing events taking place. It was 250 pages of filler between two, admittedly well done, battle scenes.

All in all, I’ve discovered that any time a book comes to me with great amounts of hype, I’m likely to find it lacking and it often won’t meet my standards. I’m told time and time again by customers that I must read this book or that, and I have to struggle not to show my disgust each time I’m told that I would just love beyond measure Where the Crawdads Sing. No offence to Delia Owens (I hear she’s great), but I’m not going to read a number one Indie bestseller, I’m not going to read a book that’s high on hype, it’s just not how I do my reading.

So maybe, if Sky in the Deep had come to me with just a cool cover and an awesome synopsis, I might have felt differently. But I spent the entire book waiting for it to get as good as the authors and other booksellers promised, but ultimately, I found it completely wanting. While I was given a copy of the companion novel that releases this fall, I don’t think I’ll be one of the early readers. I wish Adrienne Young luck, but it’s just not for me.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Available for purchase with free international shipping through Book Depository.

Contemporary, Fiction, Horror, Thriller

We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

A good friend loves Grady Hendrix’s books and so when I was looking to branch out and read a horror book on the beach, she told me I had to read We Sold Our Souls.

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
Only a girl with a guitar can save us all. Every morning Kris Pulaski wakes up in hell. In the 1990s she was lead guitarist of Dürt Würk, a heavy-metal band on the brink of breakout success until lead singer Terry Hunt embarked on a solo career and rocketed to stardom, leaving his bandmates to rot in obscurity.

Now Kris works as night manager of a Best Western; she’s tired, broke, and unhappy. Then one day everything changes – a shocking act of violence turns her life upside down , and she begins to suspect that Terry sabotaged more than just the band.

Kris hits the road, hoping to reunite Dürt Würk and confront the man who ruined her life. Her journey will take her from the Pennsylvania rust belt to a celebrity rehab center to a satanic music festival. A furious power ballad about not giving up, We Sold Our Souls is an epic journey into the heart of a conspiracy-crazed, pill-popping, paranoid country that seems to have lost its very soul.

Review

We Sold Our Souls is what I’ve started calling pop-horror, pop culture inspired horror. It’s not monsters (well, not in the traditional sense), nor is it supernatural (again, not in the traditional horror sense), and it’s not really what I think of when I think of scare-you-sh*tless horror movies or novels. There’s some psychological suspense and other thriller aspects to it, but it is first and foremost rooted in the American ideal of the rock star and band-lore. Its US paperback is clearly styled off of Rolling Stone because that’s what Quirk Books wants you to be thinking about when you read it – juicy Rock ‘n’ Roll gossip.

My opinion on the books evolved significantly from when I started reading, finished reading, and then sat back and started thinking about how to review it. In the end, I wound up so displeased I returned it in exchanged for David Epstein‘s Sports Gene, back in my current “safe zone” of nonfiction. But I didn’t start off feeling that way. I started off excited – as Greater Philadelphia suburb resident, I was thrilled. I knew the places, the story started off strong, perfect day-at-the-beach type of read, interesting but not requiring much brain power.

As I got deeper into the story, parts of it just didn’t line up, which, definitely supposed to be a bit confusing and disorientating. The violence started to feel entirely gratuitous and not like a real threat any longer. The tension felt forced, but I was still invested in seeing how the story ended. I wanted to know if Kris and Terry had their face off. And when they did, it was great. Hellstock ’19 was crazy (especially reading this in July, a few months before it theoretically happens), though a few parts regarding sexual assault were glossed over which bothered me – I’m sick of throwaway storylines about assault where nothing is mentioned or resolved, almost like it didn’t happen.

And then the story ended. And it was not a satisfying ending. I do not need a happy ending, but a satisfying conclusion that fits with the tone of the rest of the book would be nice. Or a feeling like the world or people changed a bit would be good. But once I put it down and thought about it for a few days, I just kept thinking, what was the point? There’s multiple hours of my life I got tricked into giving up for a book that ultimately fell flat. I’m glad people love it, it’s just really not for me. I like to see some sort of character growth or world-change in my fiction books, especially since I read so few – I’d like it to feel meaningful.

Rating: 5 out of 10 stars

Available for purchase with free international shipping through Book Depository.