Beautiful Words #3

Some beautiful words for the week:

“Why are you so surprised that the heavens complain? . . . Didn’t we know the world would be turned upside down by what just happened? . . . Indeed, isn’t this the way it should be? . . . Isn’t it right that the sky is torn to tatters and the sea put in a frenzy? Would we prefer it if the world did not care?” (Abarat, Clive Barker)

“I am afraid. Not of life, or death, or nothingness, but of wasting it as if I had never been.” (Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes)

“There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and crate,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.” (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot)

“As I paddle along, I slowly become aware that it’s been fear keeping me out of this pool for so many years. I never came here before because I was afraid I’d make a fool of myself by not having the endurance to complete a lap. The swimming wasn’t what scared me; failure was. My fear locked me in a state of arrested development for so many years. Fear kept me from tackling my weight, which I understand has simply been symptomatic of my greater fear, growing up. I glide down the lane on my back and reflect on how good I feel right now. It’s not because I’ve lost more than thirty pounds. I feel incredible because I’ve stopped being afraid.” (Such A Pretty Fat: One Narcissist’s Quest to Discover If Her Life Makes Her Ass Look Big, Or Why Pie Is Not The Answer, Jen Lancaster)

The Ghosts of Belfast

Title: The Ghosts of Belfast
Author: Stuart Neville
Publisher: Soho Press, Inc.

I first read this book almost two years ago on my honeymoon, curled up in a tiny airport chair (the wedding diet was good not only for the wedding photos but also for fitting into absurd plastic chairs. Airports are the worst). My husband slept most of the way through our six-hour flight, but despite the un-honeymoon-like-subject matter, I couldn’t put this one down.

Quick summary: Gerry Fegan, the protagonist, is a former paramilitary contract killer in Ireland who, after years spent in prison for his crime and as a tentative peace has been formed between the various warring factions, sees dead people. More specifically, his dead victims–the ghosts of the people he murdered. He spends the novel avenging their deaths, while unraveling his own complicated emotions towards his community, former bosses, and new love interest.

Fegan is a man of few words, but the way Neville writes him makes me feel like I’m a fly on a wall in his head. Fegan feels really believable and, even though he though he is undisputedly the bad guy, I really felt emotionally attached to this character all the way to the end. Neville makes you care about what happens to him and Marie and Ellen (the mother/daughter he befriends). I think he accomplishes that by acknowlding Gerry’s flaws, but also showing the circumstances that led him to make the decisions he did and the behaviors that indicate real regret now, and by keeping the ensemble cast manageable. Sometimes authors get so excited about their complicated plot and cast of characters that you feel like you constantly need to check a map or list of characters just to remember who is who. I didn’t have any problem keeping up with this book.

The only criticism I have for this book is the ending. It felt a little cheap, emotionally, and was pretty much the only thing the entire book that “took me out” of the world, i.e., made me feel like the book wasn’t real (the ghosts I had no problems with, so this could be a me problem).

Let me know what you think!! Happy reading!!

 

Severance

Title: Severance
Author: Chris Bucholz
Publisher: Apex Publications, LLC

I am not one for urine jokes (or any bodily function jokes)–but persevere past the protagonists’ prank on the “Markers,” a particular gross clique, in the first chapter of this book and you will be rewarded. I first read Chris Bucholz’s work on Cracked.com, where he churns out underrated and hilarious articles. His best series, by far, are his advice guy articles and his apology letters. They are whimsically and darkly weird and very much elicit either a love or hate reaction. (Obviously, I love.)

This book, however, is not that. Unlike his articles, which strain the bounds of reality on purpose and as part of the joke, you can tell Chris really thought through Severance’s world. It still has enough weird that you know it’s him, and to delight all of the wacky sci-fi fans out there, but it’s tempered with a tightly structured plot and real relationships that make you feel real emotions. And books that can make me feel real emotions are my favorite. (My husband is a little less enthused about walking in on me crying over fictional characters).

I also appreciate that romance is not the primary relationship. Instead, it’s Stein and Bruce’s friendship and, more so, their wavering relationship with the community in which they live and its leaders. There is an old married couple that pretend to be blasé but end up joining the adventure and have an amazing romance, but not in the way you’re expecting. They’re the kind of couple that grew into each other after a long and beautiful life together, and then when push came to shove, they leaned into each and fought against the world with all they had. And they didn’t even really have to talk about it – they just knew. For my Burn Notice people out there, it’s very Michael and Fi. (Basically the highest compliment I can give).

The other thing I think this book gets really right is that nobody is safe. I hate when the good guys are seemingly immortal–there’s no tension if there’s no risk. It’s hard to care about conflict when you know what the outcome will be. Even if the rescue comes at the very end — Star Trek, I’m looking at you — it somehow cheapens the whole adventure. Bucholz, while no George R.R. Martin, does not guard his darlings like that. And the result is a very engaging, enchanting book.

If I had to pick a moral for this story, I would say that it is: people are terrible and dumb but they’re still OK. And they deserve a chance–and you do too. It’s realistic, but reassuring.

Let me know what you think! Happy reading!

Not Quite Narwhal

Title: Not Quite Narwhal
Author: Jessie Sima
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

The third time I gave a friend’s child this book this month I declared it to be my favorite book—not my favorite children’s book, but my actual, all-time, best ever, favorite book.

That was probably an exaggeration caused by the intoxicating smell of a fuzzy little newborn head, but not by much.

IMG_4973

It follows the adventures of an unicorn (I know, spoilers! But also, he’s on the cover?) trying to find his place in the world after being raised by narwhals. First, I love that it’s introducing kids to the magical world of narwhals so early. I have had multiple adults tell me that narwhals aren’t real creatures or ask if I just made them up—and not dumb adults, people I normally think of as smart and educated. In case you’re one of those people, here: [link]. They are real and they are awesome. Although, to be fair, drawing them on sparkly pages next to unicorns is maybe not the best way to teach kids to differentiate 🙂

Second, the book is just so pretty. From the cover to the sparkly beach party, it’s just gorgeous to look at and there is so much to capture young eyes! Not, like, newborn young though. It was a gift to his five year old brother. And to an almost three year old relative and to a not-yet born baby.

Finally, I like it because it seems like all of the baby shower invitations I receive now ask guests to bring books instead of cards. (Side note: does anyone else just end up bringing both a book and a card?? Books are great but not convenient for congratulating the mom-to-be!) Nobody wants to bring the same one as anyone else, especially when the 0-5 crowd has such an established canon of classics: Goodnight Moon; Love You Forever; Brown Bear, Brown Bear; Where the Wild Things Are; The Runaway Bunny, etc.

Let me know if you or your kids (or your friends’ kids!) have an opinion on this one! Happy reading!

Beautiful Words #2

Some beautiful words for the week . . .

“Listen. Slide the weight from your shoulders and move forward. You are afraid you might forget, but you never will. You will forgive and remember.” (The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver).

“Moral #1: “If you work hard, stay focused, and never give up, you will eventually get what you want in life.”

Moral #2: Sometimes the things we want most in life are the things that will kill us.” (Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller).

“Life, with its rules, its obligations, and its freedoms, is like a sonnet: You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.” (A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle).

“You’ll stay with me?’
Until the very end,’ said James.” (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, JK Rowling).

John Dies At The End

Title: John Dies At The End
Author: David Wong
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

It says book club right in the title, so, like any book club, I think I can assume you’ve read it even if you’re only here for some alcohol & snacks. (My fave? Hard cider + snickerdoodles). I’m going to exercise that prerogative now, so skip to the next paragraph if you’re not interested in spoilers: I cannot figure out why the title is “John Dies At The End” when he, basically, is the only one that doesn’t. I suspect that there is some cool, meta reading of the novel that solves this problem for me but I don’t know what it is. I suspect neither David or John would be concerned about it. The two are the most blasé guys I’ve ever met – and yes, I did mean “met.” You can totally meet fictional characters. Let me live.

Anyway, for being an underachieving slacker, David (both the pen name of Jason Pargin, the author, and the name of the protagonist), has a lot of virtues: he’s good with dogs, he takes care of intoxicated friends, he’s respectful to women, and he shows up on time to work most of the time. On the other hand, he makes some dumb mistakes. Which leads me to one of my favorite things about this book: the characters (well, the human ones) feel so real. There aren’t any characters that don’t have any flaws.

This book essentially covers two separate but related stories: the first is John and David’s discovery of “soy sauce,” the monsters that come from it, and trip to Vegas – funny, fast-moving, unpredictable chaos. The second story is the best (at least in my opinion): the monsters re-appear, causing chaos and confusion, and John and David bumble their way towards saving the world (and the girl). If you’re feeling kind of “eh” on the first story, stick around for the second. It’s a fast read, and you won’t regret it.

You’ve probably already realized this, but just as a warning: this book is weird. It probably fits best in the “science fiction” category, but it has some horror flavoring and some of the segues more typical of literary fiction. The opening “riddle” is a good litmus test – if you find it intriguing, you are in for a treat. If you think it’s dumb, this may not be the book for you.

Let me know what you think – happy reading!

Help for the Haunted

Title: Help for the Haunted
Author: John Searles
Publisher: William Morrow (imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)

This book is not for the faint of heart. Rarely does a book actually creep me out – yet this one did. It follows the life of Sylvie, a young girl whose parents were recently murdered, as she tries to figure out what happened to them, learn how to live with her temperamental older sister Rose, and come to terms with her parents’ unusual and controversial careers.

IMG_4937

My favorite thing about this book was its subtlety – a lot of authors cannot include religious themes without coming across as judgmental and condemning regardless of whether they are pro or con. This book had a more subtle, nuanced approach which made it feel like a part of the story and not just a lecture the author felt morally compelled to include. It was also subtle with the paranormal — in my experience, books that try to flirt with the boundary of fantasy and reality often end up disappointing readers who expect a “Scooby-Doo” ending – aka, for all of the “magic” to be explained — by leaning too fantastical or disappointing readers who like to be surprised or out-witted by the author by leaning too realistic. Here, the ending was satisfying (although, again – CREEPY route to get there).

I am also frequently skeptical when authors use first-person with protagonists substantially different than themselves – here, a male author writing from the perspective of a female child. But Searles does a fantastic job. It felt realistic without being patronizing – there was nothing that felt out-of-character or “jarred” you out of the book’s reality. It’s easy to sympathize and fall in love with Sylvie, to understand her frustration at therapy, her reluctance to really rebel against her sister, and her waves of emotions about her parents. Without spoiling the story, there are two scenes that really hit home for me in capturing Sylvie: when she brings a homemade good-bye gift to Mr. Boshoff, her therapist, that shows how much she has been listening to what he has and hasn’t said about his own life, and when she offers candy to malicious trick-or-treaters who had only showed up to tease her about her (dead) parents.

If you want a happy story about sisterhood conquering all, this is not the book for you. But if you want an intriguing coming-of-age story, light some candles and dive right in! Happy reading!

 

my grandmother asked me to tell you she’s sorry

Title: my grandmother asked me to tell you she’s sorry
Author: Fredrik Backman
Publisher: Atria Books

IMG_4932

The first passage that made me cry:

“I’m not stupid, Granny,” she whispers. “I know you did all that stuff tonight to make me forget about what happened at school.” Granny kicks at some gravel and clears her throat. “I didn’t want you to remember this day because of the scarf. So I thought instead you could remember it as the day your Granny broke into a zoo–“

I would continue down the list, but I’m afraid I’d have half the book in here and I’d get sued for reproduction. Let me say, though, that I mean that in a good way. (Not the suing, the crying). This book hit home for me in a lot of ways, from the divorced parents to the go-getter mom just trying to navigate everyone’s needs, including her own. And it does it so in beautiful, unpresumptuous language that captures all sorts of universal truths.

It’s strange how quickly the significance of a certain smell can change, depending on what path it decides to take through the brain. It’s strange how close love and fear live to each other.

Okay, enough with the sappy, here are the deets: Elsa is seven and struggling with bullies at school and her divorced parents’ new families at home. It’s all okay, though, because she has her grandma and her grandma’s amazing fairy tales—until, all of a sudden, she doesn’t. Her grandma post-humously leads her on a quest that connects her fairy tales with the residents of the flat in which they lived, and, eventually, there is lots of closure for lots of people. Be warned: grandma’s first career was as a medical doctor in war zones and refugee camps, and many of the flat residents came to know her through that work, i.e., experienced significant trauma that still effects them.

Before you accuse me of never criticizing anything, let me say that, as a dog lover (check out my Instagram for puppy overload), I was not pleased with the wurse. I refuse to believe that a medical doctor told her grandchild to feed a dog chocolate. For a while, I sustained a belief that the wurse was actually a magical being or at least an exotic animal whose nutritional needs were perfectly met with chocolate and cookies, but, well — I don’t think that’s what the author intended.

Other than the wurse, I loved how this book dances around the line between reality and fantasy, between what actually happens and what we perceive happening. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think a mere recital of what physically happened often doesn’t fully capture what people experience. Adding a fantastical element can help flesh out how people see their circumstances and why they react the way they do. If books are really about exploring the human experience–which I think they are–then fantasy serves an important role here.

Ultimately, I would definitely recommend this book — but I’d also recommend you read it in private. (Unless your local coffee shop is totally okay with you bawling).

Beautiful Words #1

Some beautiful words for the week . . .

“Let’s say you have an ax. Just a cheap one, from Home Depot. On one bitter winter day, you use said ax to behead a man. Don’t worry, the man was already dead. Or maybe you should worry, because you’re the one that shot him.” (John Dies at the End, David Wong).

“And we’ll be saying a big hello to all intelligent life forms everyone . . . and to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys.” (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams).

“‘Now and then, though, someone does begin to grow differently. Instead of down, his feet grow up toward the sky. But we do our best to discourage awkward things like that.’ ‘What happens to them?'” insisted Milo. ‘Oddly enough, they often grow ten times the size of everyone else,’ said Alec thoughtfully, ‘and I’ve heard that they walk among the stars.'” (The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster).

“She starched and ironed her face, forming it into just what people wanted to see.” (Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston).

 

 

 

 

Welcome

Hi! I’m Alaina, a Midwestern who would love to be in a book club except she’s too busy and she doesn’t actually like hanging out with people. But she still has opinions the world needs and a voracious appetite for the written world, so here we are: if you like book reviews, book discussions, beautiful words, fictional characters, and a little sass, please keep reading.

My favorite books are the ones that break your heart — that pull you so inextricably into the world they create and make you feel for their characters, whatever those emotions may be. I think fiction books are best when they teach you something about the human experience.

My second favorite books are the ones that let you escape; when they open a side door and say, “Hey, come play in this world, the one where politics aren’t so terrible, or cancer doesn’t exist, or an average person can turn out to be really special and really change the world for good.” I’m always up for a trip down the rabbit holes.

My least favorite books are math books.

If there’s a book you’d like me to review, let me know! I love recommendations. And if you disagree with my review, let me know that too! You’re probably wrong, but I’d love to talk about it 🙂 (Just kidding — I’m sure you’re accomplished and handsome and smart. Who else would be reading this blog?)