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Celtic Gothic – The Night Swimmer by Matthew Bondurant (Audio)

The audiobook edition of The Night Swimmer by Matthew Bondurant, narrated absolutely perfectly by Hillary Huber, will be the first on my list of best audiobooks of 2012 (if I get one posted this year.)
The Night Swimmer opens with excerpts from The Journals of John Cheever referring both to Revolutionary Road (about the dissolution of a marriage) by Richard Yates and to the accidental death of children by poisoning, so a reader will know right away not to expect this story – about a man’s winning a pub in a contest sponsored by an brewery and moving with his wife to start a new life in Ireland – to be a lighthearted story in the style of the TV show Cheers. The cover design of a ruined lighthouse on a rocky outpost on the edge of the Atlantic is another strong hint.
A heavy sense of foreboding hangs over the book from the start. The story is told by Elly, Fred’s wife, who carries The Journals of John Cheever like a talisman, and, like a character from one of John Cheever’s stories, is happiest when in the water. Narrator Hillary Huber captures the mixture of regret and remembered happiness with which Elly remembers life with Fred – the good times they had and the gradual coming apart – and how her deep passion for open-water swimming lures her away from Fred and his pub, The Nightjar, and into the dangerous waters off the island of Cape Clear.
Here are the opening lines:

It began with a dart, a pint, and a poem, three elements that seemed to demonstrate the imprecise nature of fate. When Fred stepped up to the line, the dart held loosely in his hand, you could see in the way he carried his body the assurance of a man who was well prepared. Fred was always lucky, but to say that now, seems to remove something essential from him. In fact, it is Fred who should be telling you this story, for he was the one preparing for this all along. Not me.

Now, listen to them as read by Hillary Huber on Audible.com.
I’m not going to outline the book’s plot because the inexorable unfolding of events (because they’ve already happened to Elly and her husband) contributes so much to the impact of this atmospheric, contemporary gothic. I’ll just say that the Ireland of The Night Swimmer has more in common with the feudal Ireland of the past or the mystical, myth-shrouded Ireland of the early saints than with the quirky Ireland of Ballykissangel, say, or the cozy Ireland of Maeve Binchy’s fiction.
The Night Swimmer would be great for a book group because it could spark spirited discussions of how the author intended the reader to interpret this part of the story or that, and also more lofty talk of chance, fate, predestination, national character, love, family, and human nature.
This was the first book I’ve read by the author of The Third Translation and The Wettest County in the World, but it really impressed me and I would like to read more. Its descriptive language, first-person point of view, and the subtle undercurrents of meaning make The Night Swimmer an ideal audiobook, especially with the right narrator. If you’re wondering whether to listen to it or read it, I recommend listening to it!

The Night Swimmer (audiobook)
Bondurant, Matt
Huber, Hillary (Narrator)
AudioGO, 2012
978-1-60998-746-6
9 hrs., 56 min.
8 CDs

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this audiobook from AudioGO. I would have liked The Night Swimmer just as much if I had bought it or borrowed it from the library, though.
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Bloggiesta, Olé!

Why bother with spring cleaning this weekend when spiffing up your blog, reorganizing book piles, planning blog posts, and making book lists would be so much more satisfying? I’m signing up for my first-ever Bloggiesta blogathon March 30-April 1. According to Suey at It’s All About Books, Bloggiesta is a chance to:

  • spend time that weekend (as much or as little as your schedule allows) working on your blog
  • create a to-do list to share on your blog and link up with other participants
  • hopefully participate in several mini challenges and learn something new
  • connect with other participants through blog hopping or Twitter
  • make new blogging friends!
  • come away at the end of the three days with a spiffed-up blog!

I hope to spend quality blogging time in the company of other book bloggers who will procrastinate along with me on cleaning, laundry, and other projects (which can certainly wait another week or two) and STOP procrastinating on blogging projects.
My weekend is Sunday/Monday, so I may lag behind everyone else, or it might turn out to be more of a mini-blogathon for me, but here’s my to-do list for participating. (This means I’ve already accomplished one of the items on the above list!)

  • Start some personal “Best of 2012” lists
  • Catch up on reviews (maybe by doing mini-reviews)
  • Catch up and comment on blogs I follow through Google Reader
  • Create a page of book lists and readalikes
  • Learn how to put a darn home page link in my WordPress custom header and remove my RSS feed option that doesn’t work!

I first heard about Bloggiesta from one of my new favorite book bloggers, Zara at A Bibliotaphe’s Closet, but I didn’t pay much attention until I saw it mentioned again at the Adventures of 2.0 blog. Does it sound like fun? Want to join in? Sign up here.
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Waiting on Wednesday – Fear by Michael Grant (YA)

“Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we’re eagerly anticipating. This week’s pre-publication “can’t-wait-to-read” selection is:

Fear

Michael Grant

Publication Date: April 3, 2012

There are many young adult series of which I have read the first one and left it at that, but not the Gone series by Michael Grant. This is book #5 and I need to find out what’s going to happen to Sam and Astrid and all the other kids in a small California town who were left behind one day when everyone aged 15 and up disappeared suddenly and without warning in the first book, Gone.
Over the course of the series, the kids who were left to manage with no adults and a dwindling food supply have been trying to figure out what happened (a dome/force field of some kind), whether the scary mutations that some of the kids are experiencing can be stopped, whether it’s good or bad to disappear on your upcoming 15th birthday, and, of course, how to fight off the bad (rich) kids, the forces of evil, and the Darkness monster. (There are several plot threads to keep track of, including the role that Little Pete, Astrid’s autistic brother, plays in the whole catastrophe.)
The story seemed to lose a little momentum with book #4, and I wondered if the author had to extend the series past an originally planned trilogy due to the books’ popularity, but I’m counting on the author to answer at least a few questions in book #5!
These books are page-turners that teens looking for action and suspense who don’t mind a touch of science fiction verging on horror will eagerly devour.

Gone series so far:
Gone
Hunger
Lies
Plague

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The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont could become A Separate Peace for a new generation. But, in a coming of age story, what a difference 40 years make!
However similar in setting (New England prep schools) and themes (friendship, betrayal, guilt) they may be, The Starboard Sea isn’t likely to replace A Separate Peace as assigned reading, except in maybe the most progressive of schools – due to the adult activities of the late ’80s teenagers in this novel, who are more sophisticated and are growing up faster (at least, in some ways) than the prep school boys just before World War II in John Knowles’ classic novel. I don’t want to spoil the author’s careful construction of The Starboard Sea by giving away details of the narrative that are revealed over the course of the story, so I’m just going to speak very generally about the plot in this review.
Jason Prosper has washed up at a third-tier prep school on the Massachusetts coast for his senior year (Class of 1988) after the death of his roommate, best friend, and sailing partner at his last boarding school.

For years, I’d been happy to simply experience my life as an extension of Cal’s. Another limb that picked up the slack. While knowing him, I’d always searched for similarities. For anything that might make us interchangeable. Cal and I looked alike. Both of us had wild brown hair that turned woolly when our mothers forgot to have it cut. Our bodies were trim and athletic. We were sporty sailors, lean and lithe, not larded or buff. We walked with the same crooked swagger and low bent knees. Each of us had a cleft in our chin, a weakness in the muscle that we thought made us seem tough. But there were differences. Cal had broken my nose by accident and joked that my face was asymmetrical, that he had caused my good looks to be a millimeter off. I had to agree that he was the movie star and I was the movie star’s stunt double. My eyes were a dull slate gray, Cal’s were magnetic. His eyes were two different colors. One was green. Not hazel or tortoiseshell, but a rain forest green. The other varied from misty gray to violet: his mood eye. My face received comfortable, comforting glances, but people stared at Cal. He commanded an electric attention. The only other physical difference between us was obvious at the end of a summer’s day. Cal’s skin tanned olive brown, and mine turned red with blisters. Cal belonged on a postcard from the Mediterranean. I, on the other hand, would always be Prosper the Lobster. At least, that’s what he called me.

Jason doesn’t get a completely fresh start at Bellingham Academy  – where, he explains, “If you could pay, you could stay” – because he’s trailed by rumors, and a couple of old acquaintances have landed there ahead of him. Known to be a gifted sailor, Jason is immediately recruited by the sailing coach, but sailing is a pleasure he can’t allow himself, until joining the team becomes a means to an end other than winning races. Jason restricts himself to explaining nautical terms and how to sail to Aidan, a boat-shy fellow student, a girl with no real friends at Bellingham, whom Jason’s jock buddies ostracize and taunt but Jason secretly befriends.
The tension in The Starboard Sea swells gradually, blending events from the present and the past so well that I never got the impatient (“Tell me the secret already!”) feeling that I sometimes get when the first-person narrator holds back something big. (In addition to A Separate Peace, The Starboard Sea is getting compared in blurbs to The Secret History by Donna Tartt, but I think The Starboard Sea is better.)
If you’re in the mood for atmospheric fiction; you don’t mind a book whose characters aren’t unambiguously good or bad; and the privileges of the wealthy won’t make you so outraged that you won’t want to read about them, I highly recommend The Starboard Sea. I hope the author has the draft of a second novel well underway.

Disclosure: I received an electronic advanced reading copy of this book from St. Martin’s Press through NetGalley.

The Starboard Sea
Dermont, Amber
St. Martin’s Press, February 2012
Hardcover
9780312642808
$24.99

Read Janet Maslin’s review of The Starboard Sea in The New York Times.

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Waiting on Wednesday – Letters to a Friend

“Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we’re eagerly anticipating. This week’s pre-publication “can’t-wait-to-read” selection is:

Letters to a Friend

Diana Athill

Publication Date: April 16, 2012

I’m not usually a fan of collections of letters, because letters so often contain too much mundane detail, of little interest to anyone but the author and the recipient. And because they aren’t always carefully crafted, and might not be worth publishing, but are only there to fill out the collection. HOWEVER, I will make an exception for this collection of letters written by Diana Athill, probably because I wish it were her next memoir instead. Somewhere Towards the End was so good!
Read an excerpt from the U.K. edition of the collection, titled Instead of a Book: Letters to a Friend, here in the Telegraph. (I was reminded by Wikipedia just now that Diana Athill’s first memoir was titled Instead of a Letter, but the American publisher must have decided we wouldn’t get the reference, and shortened the title to Letters to a Friend.)

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How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr & Saving June by Hannah Harrington

Doing two overdue reviews in one post today! How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr and Saving June by Hannah Harrington are both realistic young adult novels that deal with grief after sudden death, so it actually makes sense to review them together. They’re not all that similar, but both have several scenes that might make tears spring to your eyes, so have tissues handy while reading if you’re a crier like me.
It’s refreshing in How to Save a Life, to have at least one of the two mother-daughter relationships in the book not be completely dysfunctional, and see it improve over the course of the story. Seventeen-year-old Jill MacSweeney is grieving for her father who died in an accident ten months ago, and still angry at the drunk driver who killed him, when she finds out that her mother has (insanely) decided to adopt a baby (sight unseen) from a pregnant teen she connected with online. To make matters worse, the pregnant girl, Mandy – just a little bit older than Jill – is traveling from Omaha to Denver to stay with Jill and her mother for a few weeks until the baby is born.
As readers, we get to know Mandy (naive and a little dishonest) from Jill’s point of view, and Jill (prickly and unappreciative of her friends and family) from Mandy’s perspective, as they sort out their mixed feelings while waiting for the baby. Mandy is afraid she’ll be as bad a mother as her own mother has been to her, sure that her baby will be better off with Jill’s mother. Jill, whose life and plans have already been upended once by the death of the parent she felt closest to, isn’t sure what she thinks of Mandy’s situation, but she’s sure she doesn’t like the idea of her mother starting over again with a newborn baby daughter.
Saving June is edgier than How to Save a Life, and the grief is more immediate. Just after her sister’s funeral, when the book begins, sixteen-year-old Harper Scott’s shock and sadness over her sister’s suicide is raw and new. No one knows why Harper’s seemingly perfect older sister June committed suicide right before graduating from high school. There were no warning signs, even in retrospect. Her mother wouldn’t allow her to go to college in California – a longtime dream of June’s – and there was boyfriend trouble, but June had still seemed to be okay.
The only clue to June’s state of mind that Harper finds is a mysterious mix tape filled with an earlier generation’s music that Harper never knew her sister listened to. When Harper, a prickly girl with Goth leanings (like Jill in How to Save a Life, by the way) hears at the funeral that her divorced parents plan to divide June’s ashes between them, she knows what she has to do.
After running into a brooding guy outside her house after the funeral who’s not the sort of person June would normally hang out with (i.e. not a prom king type), Hannah discovers a connection between June and this musically opinionated, annoying, but somehow sexy guy, Jake Tolan. She swallows her pride and asks him to drive her and her best friend Laney and the stolen urn of June’s ashes to California.
It’s a strange premise for a road trip novel, maybe a little unrealistic, but the book has definite teen appeal, with sparks of both sorts flying between Harper and Jake, the best-friend issues of Harper and Laney, passionate arguments over music, politics, and religion, and the partying that fills the trip. When they come to the end, they’re all a little more ready to face the void that June has left.

How to Save a Life                                           Saving June
Zarr, Sara                                                         Harrington, Hannah
Little, Brown, 2011                                            Harlequin Teen, 2011
978-0-316-036061, h.c.                                    978-037321-024-4, soft.
$17.99 U.S.                                                      $9.99 U.S.

DIsclosure: I received electronic advanced reader’s copies of How to Save a Life from the publisher Little, Brown (Hachette Book Group) and Saving June from the publisher Harlequin Teen through NetGalley.

Other opinions about How to Save a Life (all good):
The Compulsive Reader
The Readventurer
Rhapsody in Books

Other opinions about Saving June (all good):
Adventures of 2.0
My Books. My Life
Popcorn Reads

Team Zombie or Team Unicorn?: Zombies vs. Unicorns (Audio)

I hope authors of young adult fiction who didn’t get invited to write a story for Zombies vs. Unicorns didn’t feel left out or unpopular. It seems the coolest young adult authors were recruited by editors Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier to contribute either a zombie or a unicorn story, depending on preference, for this anthology of short stories. Holly (Team Unicorn) and Justine (Team Zombie), on whose blogs the original argument took shape, contribute cheers and jeers before and after each story.
Listening to the razzing from the two co-editors on the Brilliance Audio edition, I kept picturing a boisterous party with Holly and Justine and cool authors Meg Cabot, Garth Nix, Diana Peterfreund, Libba Bray, Cassandra Clare, Maureen Johnson, Carrie Ryan, Scott Westerfeld, Naomi Novik, and other less-well-known authors (but who must be cool, because they were invited) all having a great time arguing over which make for better stories: zombies (disgusting creepy corpses, or powerful metaphors for the human condition) or unicorns (wimpy play ponies, or powerful mythical creatures.)
A female perspective is noticeable in many of the stories, but the stories should appeal to male fantasy readers, as well, and romance in the stories is not confined to heterosexuals. Many of the stories are darkly humorous – an immortal unicorn bent on suicide in one; a passel of adopted zombie children in another. The audience for the book is older teens, with graphic language and details in some of the stories, so this isn’t a good choice of audiobook for the family car trip.
I enjoyed most of the stories, but Meg Cabot’s story Princess Prettypants was my favorite of the humorous ones. It takes familiar elements of young adult chick lit (the girl with a cheating ex-boyfriend, the boy next door, the unpopular but faithful friend, the high school party in the house with no parents) and throws in a stately, live unicorn with a cringe-worthy name for Liz to deal with on top of having no car, no boyfriend, no money, and no invitation to the biggest party in town.
Professional narrators Ellen Grafton, Nick Podehl, Kate Rudd, Julia Whelan, and Phil Gigante read the stories, which is good, because, although the editors’ trash talk is amusing, you can definitely tell the difference when the professional voices take over.

Other opinions about the audio version of Unicorns vs. Zombies (all good):
Alaskan Bookie
The Opinionated Me
Presenting Lenore

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