Cover Wars

Ever since I moved to the UK two years ago I’ve been obsessed with book covers. Book covers can vary vastly between North America and the UK. It has made me realize that I do judge a book by it’s cover. Take MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood for example. I am Canadian and an Atwood fan, so I’m going to read her latest book no matter what. But based on the covers I’d be much more likely to pick up the UK version. Let’s take a look.

But why is this the case? And what drives book cover design?

For the most part I have found that I prefer the North American cover of most books. I suspect that after years of book buying and working in a book store I have been conditioned by the North American book industry about what to expect. But then a book like The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer comes along. Two very different covers, both of which I’d pick up.

Some have noted that the North American cover of The Interestings is a bit too feminine for a book that would appeal to both men and women equally. The UK cover resolves this nicely, but what’s the deal with those clouds? Just distracting.

In a new weekly feature called Cover Wars I am going to look at cover design a little more closely. For the most part it will involve cover comparisons and polls,  but I will also be looking at what experts like Chip Kidd have to say and how iconic cover designs like those from Penguin came about. I can’t wait to see how this evolves over time.

Why Are You So Sad? by Jason Porter

why-are-u-so-sadI can’t remember why I thought I wanted to read Why Are You So Sad? The title and concept make it sound a wee bit depressing, but it’s not. In fact, Jason Porter takes us on a rather fun filled journey into the the malaise that seems to pervade North American culture at times.

Raymond, our protagonist, is slipping. Not only is he falling into a depression, he is convinced that all of humanity is and it will lead to our extinction. To explore this theme further he comes up with the mad capped idea to write a survey and had it out to his fellow employees at an IKEA like furniture behemoth. Part of the fun of the novel is seeing how his co-workers react to and fill in the slightly odd survey.

My favorite part of Why Are You So Sad? is that Porter leaves us with two alternate endings. I was a firm fan of the first ending. Is that because I read it first? At any rate, it gave the book a Choose Your Own Adventure feel.

Who would like this book? This book is certainly not for everyone (mom, if you’ve read this far I mean you). Porter is a very contemporary American voice that has been compared to George Saunders and David Sedaris. I would also add Canadian Douglas Coupland to this list. The book is a quick read with some provocative ideas, but is unlikely to go down as a work of great literature. I enjoyed it and consumed it in almost one sitting. In a way it can be compared to Where’d You Go, Bernadette? but for a younger, pre-family generation. Both are funny and deal with mental health in contemporary American culture.

See what other bloggers have thought. And let me know if you’d like your review to be included here.

Fourth Street Review

My Like in Books

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

barracudaukA couple of years ago Australian writer Christs Tsiolkas burst onto the North American literature scene with The Slap. I didn’t read it. It was about a man who slaps a child who is not his and controversy ensues. It appeared to stirring up controversy for controversy’s sake. But it would not go away!

Tsiolkas has a new book out now, Barracuda. It is about a young swimmer destined for greatness, but who’s life somehow goes down the tubes. The topic attracted me much more than The Slap, so I decided to give it a try. It is edgy, political, and somewhat controversial, but Barracuda is also highly readable. That Tsiolkas is a great writer is without a doubt. That he is also someone with a couple axes to grind may also be true.

One of the most important things Tsiolkas does in his novel is highlight Australian culture. I think most of us think that Australian culture can’t really be all that different from North American culture, with the notable exceptions of climate and beaches. Tsiolkas takes the reader into the working class of Australia and shows many of the biases and racial prejudices that exist in Australia today. Given the number of Australian friends I have I found this shocking and troubling. But then, most of my Australian friends are highly educated (we met in grad school) and middle class. And apparently class makes a difference. In that way, I’d say Australia is more like the UK than i had imagined.

Who would like this book? This book would be great for a book club. It creates discussion and makes the reader think. It is political not only in it’s look at class, but also sexuality. Although both Barracuda and The Rosie Project are Australian, they present utterly different worlds. Barracuda would also appeal to the sports minded as it is about competitive swimming.

Robbie Burns Night Special: Scottish Literature

Aye, tis once again Robbie Burns night. Last year to celebrate I did a brief round up of the Scottish literature I had read since moving to Edinburgh. This year I’ll continue the tradition in grand style because I have actually read – and enjoyed – a fair bit of Scottish literature in the past year.

Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole. Ok, I’ve let a few great books like this one slip in because they are set in Scotland, though not necessarily by a Scot. Brockmole wrote this book while visiting Scotland from her native America. And besides, there is nothing more Scottish than the Isle of Skye.

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan. Fagan’s use of language in this novel is exquisite. She fills the dialogues with a beautiful mixture of Scots and English that highlights the (many) differences in the two languages. I cannae recommend this book highly enough.

Closed Doors by Lisa O’Donnell. Like The Panopticon, O’Donnell gives us a slice of Scottish life that you will not find in the books of Alexander McCall Smith. Set on a small island off the coast of Scotland, O’Donnell looks at small town life and family through the lens of a young boy. This book might not be as well known as her The Death of Bees, which i still haven’t read, but it does showcase he writing abilities.

Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan. Again another book written by an American, but a more Scottish subject you’d be hard pressed to find. Horan recounts the life of that venerable man of letters, Robert Louis Stevenson. Although he traveled the world quite extensively his language and sensibilities remain thoroughly Scottish throughout his life.

The Missing Shade of Blue by Jennie Erdal. I read this book quite recently and have not yet had time to post a review. It is about a French translator who has come to Edinburgh to work on a translation of David Hume, one of Scotland’s famous philosophers.

Have you read any Scottish literature lately? What are your favorites?

Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan

under-wide-and-starryUnder the Wide and Starry Sky is the latest novel brought to us by Nancy Horan of  Loving Frank fame. As with Loving Frank (about Frank Lloyd Wright), Horan has chosen another real-life topic to explore in her latest novel. This time it is the Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, or I suppose more properly the life of his wife Fanny.

There was so much I learned in this novel about Robert Louis Stevenson. As a new immigrant to Edinburgh, I knew that he grew up here and was sickly as a child. Beyond that, aside from his major works, I knew nothing about him. He truly had an astonishing life in which battles with illness played an important role. With Fanny, he moved all over the planet seeking health – France, Switzerland, upstate New York, California, Australia and finally Samoa. I know! Samoa? And remember this was all at the end of the 19th century when travel was not as easy as it is now.

In spite of all this travel and action, I did not terribly enjoy Under the Wide and Starry Sky. The writing was superb. That is one thing we can say about Nancy Horan. But for me the main thing that separated this book from Loving Frank was the topic and the time period. Whereas I was really interested in learning more about the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the turn of the century time period, I have never had an interest in RLS. I know that should have been a tip off that perhaps the book wasn’t for me, but as I say Horan is an astounding writer. And I am trying to learn more about Scottish culture and history.

Who would like this book? Really, this book is more about Fanny than Robert Louis Stevenson. As such it follows in a long line of books recounting the life of a steadfast wife supporting her artistic husband, specifically, The Paris Wife and Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. I like both of those books more than this one simply because of the characters portrayed and the time period. If you are interested in RLS, Scottish literature or the time period, then Under the Wide and Starry Sky is a great book for you. It is full of great writing, fantastic tales and adventuresome journeys.

Have you read this book? What did you think? Send me a link to your review and I will include it here.

I received a copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

the-interestingsSee? This is what happens when I clean off my desk. I read The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer weeks ago and then dutifully shelved the book, and in the process I forgot to actually write the review. My thoughts are no longer fresh, but I will try my best.

The Interestings is about a group of young people who meet at a summer arts camp. The novel traces the lives of this group of six individuals as they grow, marry, have children and move into middle-agedom. Throughout this period there are some key friendships, but also some shifts. And of course, at the heart of it all there is a scandal. If you know me then you know that this novel is right up my alley.

What impressed me most about The Interestings, however, was the writing. For some reason, I had always slotted Wolitzer into the category of chick lit without having read her. Boy, was I wrong. And I should have known how wrong I was when Wolitzer called out the New York Times on their gender bias in book reviews. Wolitzer is a first class literary writer. She has a straight forward sensibility and draws characters beautifully.

Who would like this book? If you like a novel with a strong ensemble cast, then The Interestings is your book. The characters and the friendships in the book highlight many of social movements of the later half of the twentieth century. That is to say, The Interestings was not written in a vacuum. Wolitzer was clearly aware of the world surrounding her characters and brought that into the story. I think this would be a perfect read for a book club of long standing friends who came of age together during the 1970s and 80s.

Have you read The Interestings? What did you think? Send me a link to your review and I will include it in my post.

River City Reading

my little heart melodies

Mini-Bloggiesta: To-Do List


Yep, it’s that time of the year again, time for a little house cleaning. Bloggiesta happens twice a year with two additional Mini-Bloggiestas to help all of us bloggers keep our blogs looking and working their best. This is my first time participating and I have quite a bit I’d like to accomplish.

  • fix links on author archive page
  • update author archive page
  • add other bloggers’ challenge buttons
  • catch up on reviews
  • make reading schedule
  • copyright my blog

In addition to the things listed above, I’m also going to try to participate in as many challenges as possible. They are a great way to learn new blogging skills, and let’s just say that I am not that techno-savvy to start with.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

goldfinchAh, The Goldfinch, perhaps the most anticipated book of 2013. What can i say about it? It topped just about everyone’s Best Of lists, and yet I’m not sure it would have made mine if I had actually read it in 2013. That is not to say that i didn’t love parts of it. In fact, I read into the wee hours of the night on more than one occasion. But as a whole, I found it a little to long, and I felt that at times (you know when I’m talking about) Donna Tartt was writing both out of her comfort zone and genre.

To a certain extent I feel a little sorry for Tartt. Having a debut novel like The Secret History is a hard act to follow. For me it was the perfect book read at the perfect time, and it seems that almost everybody feels this way. I’ll be perfectly honest and say that i was disappointed in her second book, The Little Friend. From what i can remember of it, it was a little spooky for my liking.

The Goldfinch is a sprawling novel. I had problems getting into it at first, but once I did I was hooked. Tartt’s writing was precise and detailed. The psychological effects of what happened to our young protagonists were superbly wrought. The path his life took was inevitable, and yet I kept hoping he’d escape from his family legacy.

Once I got into the book (which took about 150 pages) I was hooked, right up until the end, in Amsterdam, where the novel once again fell a little flat for me. And this is the part when I say that Tartt was writing outside of her comfort zone, and perhaps outside of my reading zone. It was too long, too detailed. I just wanted things resolved.

Who would like this book? It doesn’t really matter what I say here, because The Goldfinch may well be the book of the year. If you are a person who reads and likes to be in the know, you are going to read it. It is a chunkster of a book, so if you like a long read, you won’t be disappointed. Although not all of the novel was set in New York, it did put me in a very New York frame of mind. Love that Manhattan lifestyle. Overall, I’d rate it a 4 out of 5, but alas, it was not the perfect novel that The Secret History was, so i can’t give it a 5.

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

panopticonThe Panopticon by Jenni Fagan seems to be one of the books people in the know are raving about. And it must be noted that they have been raving about it since 2012 when she was named one of the Waterstones Eleven. It deserves this attention and so much more. Fagan is truly one of the best young writers of our time.

The Panopticon recounts the story of Anais Kendricks, a teen who has spent her life thoroughly embroiled in the Scottish child welfare system. She is on her last chance after numerous run ins with the police, the last of which has left an officer in a coma. Drugs, thieving, violence they are all part of her repertoire, just as neglect and abuse are part of her past.

Given all of this, one might be lead to believe that The Panopticon is a desperate and depressing novel, but it’s not. That’s the thing about Fagan’s writing and storytelling. Her characters are still very human; they can love and make mistakes just like the rest of us. When I fist heard of The Panopticon I thought it sounded interesting, but to dark and gritty for me. There are disturbing aspects of the novel, but overall it was not a depressing read, it was just very real. I can say that i truly loved it and will be waiting for whatever Fagan does next.

Who would like this book? I would highly recommend this novel to anyone who likes great debut fiction. The Panopticon has an edge to it that one often finds in books by young, hot writers. Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson is similarly edgy. As a writer, I would group Fagan together with the likes of Lisa O’Donnell (Closed Doors) and Jenn Ashworth (The Friday Gospels). All three present an unflinching look at life in the UK.

Foreign Gods Inc. by Okey Ndibe

foreigngodsReading more diversely seems to be on everyone’s minds these days. I read to escape, so I love reading about other places and experiences far from my own. That is what attracted me to Foreign Gods Inc by Okey Ndibe. The story follows a Nigerian cab driver from New York on his quest back to his home village to steal the local god. This he hoped to convert into fast cash at a posh art shop back in New York. Yeah, this is pretty far from my own experience.

I ended up having very mixed feelings about the novel. I felt that the parts that took place in New York were well written and engaging. Before I started the book I was most looking forward to the parts set in Nigeria, but to me those sections fell short. In particular, Ndibe spent far too many pages recounting the fate of an early missionary to his village. On the other hand, the speech and diction of some of the village characters was brilliant.

So where does that leave me? Well, it has been about a week since i read the book, and over all my feeling are more positive than negative. The story was interesting, the perils of an America-returned villager were well cast and the family dynamics were heart breaking.

Who would like this book? This book appealed to the traveler in me. I love the exotic and to me Nigerian village is exotic, as is the life of a cabbie in New York. In some ways Foreign Gods Inc was reminiscent of Ghana Must GoBoth recount the experiences of African immigrants to the United States, and what it is like to return home. However, Ghana Must Go was a more finely crafted novel and more literary. Foreign Gods Inc is a faster read, that still provides valuable insight.

I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.