"All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened
and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you
and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse,
and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was."
Ernest Hemingway

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Little, Brown
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Sherman Alexie

The Summary
"Junior is a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation.  Born with a variety of medical problems, he is picked on by everyone but his best friend.  Determined to receive a good education, Junior leaves the rez to attend an all-white school in the neighboring farm town where the only other Indian is the school mascot.  Despite being condemned as a traitor to his people and enduring great tragedies, Junior attacks life with wit and humor and discovers a strength inside himself that he never knew existed.

"Inspired by his own experiences growing up, award-winning author Sherman Alexie chronicles the contemporary adolescence for one unlucky boy trying to rise above the life everyone expects him to live."

The Good
Let me state, first off, that I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for the simple fact that it was on the banned books list (again) for 2014.  Like Captain Underpants (yes, seriously) and The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Bluest Eye, Sherman Alexie's novel has managed to appear on the list not once, not twice, but five times since its original publication in 2007.  Although the banned books list for 2015 has not yet been released by the American Library Association, I have a suspicion that Alexie's novel will return to the list for a sixth consecutive year.

Now, while I did pick The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian because it ended up on another banned books list, I finished it because it is a great YA novel.  Sherman Alexie does a wonderful job bringing Junior's character to life, offering an intimate glimpse into the conflicts he faces and the difficult choices he must make--and the person he becomes.

Junior is a smart kid, and he makes an intelligent, insightful narrator.  He works hard to further his education and, at the recommendation of his teacher, sets out to learn at a local school beyond the reservation.  Not only does he face being ostracized by his community for leaving, he's initially ridiculed by his peers at Reardan and endures the abandonment of his closest friend.  He tells you his struggles, tells you what he thinks and feels, giving you a candid account of what it's like to be a kid who feels like a fish out of water.

Even though I didn't always relate to him, seeing how he has had much different life experiences, I always felt like I could connect to him.  In telling his story, he shows the real struggles that all teenagers face:  loss, love, friendship, failure, tragedy, bullying, parental and social expectations.  His story can really connect to readers, showing the overall experiences that all teenagers are likely to face in high school.  He's a wonderful, candid narrator with a heart of gold and he's a fantastic storyteller, appealing with his words and his illustrations.

There's just something about Alexie's novel that makes it so very enjoyable.  Perhaps it's Junior's illustrations, or his storytelling abilities, or his story as he recounts his sudden move from the Spokane reservation to Reardan--or, perhaps, it's a combination of all three elements.  Fine illustrations, a wonderful narrator, and a great story.  Either way, I found The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian an immensely enjoyable novel.

The Bad
Junior does use strong language and he touches upon mature themes, especially those entwined with his culture.  He faces hardships that I will never know or even begin to understand.  He has lived in a completely different world that, I'll admit, I have no knowledge of or experience with, which makes it difficult to relate to him.

But that's more a failing on my part than anything else.  His story actually gives me the opportunity to broaden my horizons and understand a place, a time, and, yes, a unique culture that I wouldn't have otherwise had the opportunity to see.

The Ugly

Puberty, peer pressure, coming to grips with one's sexuality, bullying, social and cultural expectations--it's a very messy business.


For more on banned books, check out the ALA website:  http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/classics

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

My Soul to Keep

Harper Voyager
My Soul to Keep
Tananarive Due

The Summary
"Jessica is an African-American journalist as ambitious as she is bright.  She is chasing the biggest story of her life, a story that strikes closer to home than she knows.

"Dawit is an immortal, whose ancient thirst for wisdom leads him to break the first commandment of his kind:  not to fall in love.

"Together they are about to pay the ultimate price for their ambition...and their desire."

The Good
Tananarive Due creates a fascinating and inventive novel in My Soul to Keep.  She pulls from religion and myth, drawing from a myriad of cultures and countries and continents, extracting fascinating bits of history to create an intricately woven story of loss and love, life and death and immortality--and all of its terrible implications.  My Soul to Keep is beautifully executed, crafting an exquisite story that's one part tragedy and one part family epic that tosses together a number of people (immortal and otherwise) into a tangled web.

Let me say this, I loved this story.  I stumbled across it purely by accident when I was scrolling through the audiobooks on my local library website and, when I realized it conformed to one of my Read Harder Challenge categories, I jumped at the chance to read it.  Not only was I impressed by depth of the novel, which explores the human heart and the effect of immortality on man, I fell in love with the history Due included in her novel.

My Soul to Keep delves into a particularly dark part of American history, setting a portion of her novel in the Louisiana shortly before the Civil War.  She confronts the reality of slavery, the violence and loss that so many people faced on a daily basis, and she does a spectacular job of illustrating what someone like Dawit might have experienced during those tumultuous times.

Due also draws upon many different parts of history:  Chicago during the Jazz Age, Miami in the bustling modern world, Spain during the Inquisition, and even Ethiopia from Dawit's childhood, four hundred years before the story begins.  She weaves together an enchanting, sometimes terrifying story, that encapsulates a variety of human experience--a tapestry of history that reflects the beliefs, the culture, the language of each and every age she visits in her novel.

My Soul to Keep is exceptional in that regard.

But I really enjoyed the story, too.  It has a complexity that's thrilling, an undercurrent of suspense and menace that leaves the reader on the edge of their seat.  Although it sometimes seems to develop slowly--that is, it took a little longer than I expected for me to put together some of the pieces--I was pleased with how the narrative evolved, how Jessica changed when she learned Dawit's secrets, Dawit's actions in trying to protect his family and his flashbacks to his not-so-immediate past.

Since I listened to Due's novel as an audiobook, I have to say I was particularly pleased with the narration.  Peter Francis James does a stellar job of reading My Soul to Keep, melding flawless narration with an exceptional story.  His voice brought life to the characters, gave them a singularly unique voice and an emotional impact that left me nearly breathless at each chapter.

I loved My Soul to Keep.  It's just a good book all around, and it's probably one of my favorite this year.

The Bad
No complaints.

Seriously, none.  At just over eighteen hours, My Soul to Keep was a bit lengthy for my usual tastes, but I enjoyed it, nonetheless.  It took me about two weeks to finish the story, since I could only listen to it a couple of hours a day when I walked my dog or drove my car, or when I worked early in the morning before opening.  But if you're interested in it, I certainly wouldn't let the time present an obstacle.

Due's novel is worth reading, and I highly recommend it.

The Ugly
There were a few moments during which I had to stop the tape and take a minute to process what had happened.  Sometimes, it was difficult to proceed with the story, because it hurt to see how everything was starting to fall apart for Jessica and Dawit.  My heart was breaking for them as their lives took a turn for the worse.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic

Bellevue Literary Press
The Lives They Left Behind:  Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic
Darby Penney
Peter Stastny

The Summary
Willard State Hospital operated for 125 years before it closed its doors in 1995, after which more than 400 suitcases were discovered in the attic--each holding the belongings of someone who disappeared inside Willard and never left its campus again.

The Good
The Lives They Left Behind offers incredible insight into psychiatric care throughout the 20th century, providing an in-depth look at how psychiatric disorders were perceived and treated.  It's both informative and engaging, which I found beneficial when reading.  It gave me statistics, but it also gave me a face to put to the numbers, a unique story behind the cold, hard facts.

I was fascinated to learn that Willard received a disproportionately large number of women as patients, especially at the very beginning when the hospital opened its doors.  Many of these women were often committed because they didn't conform to social standards, suffered from what was then classified as a sexual deviancy, or struggled with other disorders such a menopause, chronic pain, anxiety, PTSD, etc.  Although I found it difficult (and heartbreaking) to read their stories, I was fascinated to learn about what women experienced in society and what society expected of them.

I especially liked that the authors gave an overview of the institution, of general psychiatric care, and zeroed in on specific individuals.  The Lives They Left Behind offers a look at the "big picture" and individual care.  It doesn't just tell you about the things that patients, as a single population, experienced, it gives you the opportunity to witness what one patient versus another experienced.  All stories are different, all treatments were different, and Penney and Stastny reflect that.

The Bad
Although I can say I thought Stastny and Penney did a great job of connecting to readers, showing both the technical and emotional sides of psychiatric care, I thought some of it was a bit dry.  It's an examination of psychiatry and mental health treatment, riddled with statistics and numbers, which sometimes made it feel more like an academic study versus an ongoing narrative of Willard patients.

I'm not saying that makes it a bad book--far from it!--but it does make it a little challenging, a little dense and dull.

The Ugly
The treatments inflicted on mental patients, even at revolutionary compounds like Willard, is very hard to stomach.  Not counting shock therapy, many patients underwent unnecessary operations and received drug prescriptions that often did more harm than good.  Some individuals were even hospitalized necessarily, especially women.

Josephine Smith, for instance, was hospitalized (at a different institution) for 75 years because her family didn't want to deal with her erratic behavior.  Lawrence Marek, who was taken to Willard, likely suffered from some form of mental illness; however, much of his behavior could be attributed to personal tragedies and struggles.

After Ethel Smalls arrived at Willard, she spent the latter half of her life committed because she complained of chronic pains and, most likely, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after losing two of her children and enduring years of abuse from her husband.  However, she wasn't treated for PTSD for two reasons:  she wasn't considered to have endured any real trauma, and only soldiers were said to suffer from PTSD.

Margaret Dunleavy, likewise, suffered with chronic pain from tuberculosis and her treatments for tuberculosis.  She, most likely, didn't have any mental disorder at all; rather, she was hospitalized after an unexpected outburst that was caused by several stressors--her work conditions, her disease, her unconventional relationship with her lover, among others--and her employers essentially decided she wasn't worth the hassle, recommending she be committed.  She spent the rest of her days at Willard.

And this is just a small sample of patients who were ripped from their lives simply because they were too much trouble, too burdensome to family, friends, or coworkers.  While some needed institutionalization, because they obviously suffered from some psychological or behavioral disorder, several others didn't need lifelong commitment--they needed more understanding, more empathy, and less time behind bars.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Unfinished (Part 4)

For every ten books I enjoy, I find myself stumbling across a book I simply don't like or one I don't care to finish.  Some books, I initially loved; others, not so much.  Regardless, I must sadly admit defeat and say I didn't finish a single book I have listed here.


Punk Planet Books
The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno was an interesting book.  I was initially intrigued by the  title and the cover, a gray cover with the white-and-blue image of a young boy (i.e. the boy detective) looking at what appears to be a severed arm.  It's a strikingly macabre illustration that made me first pick up the book; however, as I continued to read the novel, I was less enthusiastic.  While Joe Meno crafts an intriguing young adult novel about a boy still reeling from the loss of his sister to suicide, still struggling to find a new balance in his life and deal with his mental illness, I can't stay I stayed intrigued.

There's something about the tone of the novel that eventually put me off reading.  Part of it may have been the fact that Billy Argo, the Boy Detective, spent the majority of his adolescence in a mental institution, or the fact that Billy, once released, is dead set on finding out what happened to his sister, looking for killers who may or may not exist.  With facts like these, I couldn't help but predict one of two outcomes for the book:  one, Billy Argo is seriously deluded and ends up hurting and/or killing someone in the pursuit of "justice"; or, two, Billy Argo discovers his sister was murdered and then his world/case unravels.

I could have jumped the gun by predicting the outcome of the book.  I mean, I could be completely wrong about how The Boy Detective Fails ends; however, I wasn't ready to risk reading an entire book when my two options seemed so very unappealing.


Broadway Books
I really enjoyed Erik Larson's Thunderstruck.  As a lover of books and a lover of history, Thunderstruck seemed to hit all the right notes with me.  It helped me learn about an obscure part of history I simply didn't know and it introduced me to a startling new world of science and engineering, telling me about Guglielmo Marconi and his startling new invention, the wireless telegraph.  I mean, I really enjoyed reading Larson's book.

But I couldn't finish it.

Don't ask me why, but I couldn't seem to commit myself to more than a handful of pages at a time.  I'd read five pages, then stop; I'd read another six pages, then stop myself again, and promptly find myself distracted by another book.  (Like The DUFF by Kody Keplinger, or The Martian by Andy Weir--which I highly recommend, by the way--or A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin.)  It was a frustrating cycle and, eventually, I just gave up.

I still intend to finish reading Thunderstruck.  I want to find out what happens with Marconi's machine, how a brutal murder in London is connected to the wireless telegraph--and how a mild-mannered physician became what he became.  One day, I'll have answers to these questions; one day, I'll finish reading Larson's book.

Today, however, just isn't that day.


The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor was an interesting novel.  Part mystery, part drama, it combines vaguely supernatural elements with human desperation and tragedy.  It's a strangely compelling narrative.  I'd liken it to watching a train crash: you simply can't look away from the devastation.

I listened to it as an audiobook, listening to John Holdsworth's personal tragedies as his life and story begin to unravel, listening as Holdsworth investigates the haunting at Jerusalem College at Cambridge--and, admittedly, I was hooked for several hours.  However, I hit a point in the story when I simply didn't want to hear anymore.  Perhaps, it was the antics of the Holy Ghost Club; perhaps, it was the macabre images of ghosts and corpses; perhaps, it was Frank Overshaw's imprisonment in a mental institution.

Regardless of the cause, I found I couldn't bear to witness anymore and I had to put the story aside and move on to something happier.  Something with a little less gore, I thought.  Something that wouldn't make my stomach squirm quite so much.

As a sidenote, I'll point out that John Telfer was an extraordinary narrator.  I loved how he gave a different tone, different voice to each and every character.  I couldn't help but enjoy how he managed to give each character a uniquely distinguishable voice.  It was wonderful, and I'd love to find another story narrated by him.


Image result for a game of thrones book
Last, but not least, I must admit failure with one very special, very wonderful book:  A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin.

I absolutely loved reading George R.R. Martin's novel.  I loved the way the book felt:  heavy with stories, full of suspense, riddled with elements of fantasy--and don't forget the dragons.  But, for some reason, I just couldn't muddle through A Game of Thrones.  Like Thunderstruck by Erik Larson, I couldn't stay committed to just one book.

I became distracted by other books, by slimmer volumes that offered immediate gratification, by stories that weren't quite so...tragic.  It's a grim story, blood-soaked and twisted.  And after witnessing a number of harrowing misadventures and horrible deaths, I found myself less and less inclined to finish reading A Game of Thrones.

I suppose having the story ruined by the HBO show didn't help matters either.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A Darkness Strange and Lovely

A Darkness Strange and Lovely
Susan Dennard

The Summary
"After helping the Spirit-Hunters save Philadelphia from the walking Dead, Eleanor Fitt must now face the thing she couldn't stop:  her brother's death, her mother's deteriorating health, and the sting of unrequited love.  But when she encounters the necromancer Marcus again, she must seek the help of Joseph, Jie, and the gorgeous Daniel--who have all fled to Paris.

"On her way to France, Eleanor meets Oliver, who claims to have known her brother.  Though friendly, Oliver harbors a secret involving black magic that entices Eleanor.  Trying to resist it, she rejoins the Spirit-Hunters in hopes of stopping Marcus.

"But the Dead have taken over Paris, and there's a whole new evil lurking.  Eleanor is now forced to make a dangerous decision--and her choice could mean life or death for everyone."

The Good
Oddly enough, I devoured this book.  Something about it appealed to me and kept me riveted to the page.  I can't say why, either.  It's packed with action, a handful of decent characters, a few plot twists I didn't expect, and I was somehow hooked--drawn inexplicably into a crazy, wild story that crosses the Atlantic and drives right into the heart of Paris.

I'll be the first to admit that A Darkness Strange and Lovely isn't a great book.  I mean, it isn't an epic or an immediate classic, but it's fun and interesting--and it appealed to me on a certain level.  I liked the idea of zombies using the catacombs of Paris to take more victims, to create more havoc.  It's an intriguing concept.  It's exciting and full of heart-pounding action, a few fascinating inventions and weird (read:  mad scientist) science, but it's fun to read.

I can't really tell you why, but I really liked reading Susan Dennard's novel.  I liked it well enough that I managed to finish it within a couple of days.

The Bad
A Darkness Strange and Lovely doesn't have the best writing.  It isn't always compelling and, admittedly, it lost my attention a couple of times.  Granted, I still finished it in, like, two days, but it's not a great novel.  It's dark and grisly, but it has a bad habit of throwing up unnecessary smokescreens that I found annoying and, more often than not,  offered zero explanation for magic.

It continually led me on to one misadventure after another, propelling the story forward with one event after another, culminating in an obvious (to the reader) conclusion.  I felt there were a few gaps in the story:  why was Marcus in France to begin with?  I mean, it's not like it was a particularly compelling destination.  And why doesn't anyone explain circumstances--and magic--to Eleanor when it would keep her out of danger?

Basically, Eleanor is a loaded cannon.  And, instead of teaching her how to aim in the right direction or, you know, telling her to keep a burning match away from the fuse, they all (but Oliver and Joseph, in particular) seem content to let her walk around in ignorance.  She could had been spared a lot of problems and everyone else could have been saved a lot of trouble if they'd just told her the truth.


The Ugly
Flesh-eating zombies.

Oh, and soul-sucking demons.

And reanimated animal corpses.

Friday, April 15, 2016

A Doll's House

Hard Press
A Dolls House
Henrik Ibsen

The Summary
Nora Helmer is a housewife:  she dutifully cooks and cleans, takes care of the children, and oversees her husband's home.  Flighty and lavish, Nora is doted upon by her husband, Torvald, and plays house for him.  But when their home and their very livelihood is threatened by an outside force, Nora's decisions will come back to haunt her--and it will shake her marriage to its very foundation.

The Good
A Doll's House is an interesting play and, I think, definitely worth reading at least once, because it offers insight into the life of a 19th century housewife and all the expectations that go along with it.  It's sharp in its telling, pinpointing marital flaws and social issues with uncompromising candor.

I found it particularly fascinating to see how Nora grows up in an instant.  When things begin to fall apart when her marriage--and, yes, her very life--is threatened, I thought it was interesting to see how she began to suddenly view herself through new eyes.  She begins to see her own self-worth, which is certainly an astonishing thing for a housewife who has known nothing else.

I was also intrigued by her final speech when she decides that things must change--that she must change if she's ever going to survive, if she's ever going to become her own person.  Her moment of clarity is sudden and brilliant:  her happiness is important too.

And she will stop the cycle, as she states when she tells Torvald she has never been happy and decides to leave:
Torvald:  Not--not happy! 
Nora:  No, only merry.  And you have always been so kind to me.  But our home has been nothing but a playroom.  I have been your doll wife, just as at home I was Papa's doll child; and here the children have been my dolls.  I thought it great fun when you played with me, just as they thought it was great fun when I played with them.  That is what our marriage has been, Torvald.
Her transformation is astonishing, and her decision would have been unheard of.  The fact that she made a decision for herself at all would have been surprising in the heavily moderated and monitored Victorian society.  It's actually pretty fascinating, and I think that Henrik Ibsen does a fantastic job of capturing the drama of a fractured domestic life.

The Bad
A Doll's House does have a few moments where it grows dull and dry, making it difficult to slog through the dialogue.  Honestly, the last five pages or so were exactly what I was waiting to find--that's exactly when the real drama unfolds and Nora shocks everyone (her husband included) by making a decision against convention.  Everything else just feels like idle chatter.

The Ugly
Nora is essentially a doll.  Her husband dictates everything in her life--her clothes, her shoes, her manners, her religious beliefs, her children's education, and more--and, when she makes decisions for herself (for the health of her husband, mind you), she is chastised and even threatened.  She's given no leeway, no sense of individuality, and, essentially, no hope.

It's a horrifying situation.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

World War Z

Random House
World War Z
Max Brooks

The Summary
"We survived the zombie apocalypse, but how many of us are still haunted by that terrible time?  We have (temporarily?) defeated the living dead but at what cost.  Told in the haunting and riveting voices of the men and women who witnessed the horror firsthand, World War Z is the only record of the plague years."

The Good
I ventured back into Max Brooks' zombie-infested world recently with the help of an audiobook.  Already an ardent fan of World War Z, I was intrigued by the idea of actually listening to the story and, since it featured a full cast (among them Nathan Fillion, Martin Scorsese, and, of course, Mark Hamill), I couldn't wait to get started.  While I was a little disappointed to learn I found an abridged copy after borrowing it from my library website, I wasn't disappointed by the storytelling.

It was thrilling to hear the stories brought to life, to hear the voices of these characters that I'd envisioned in previous readings of World War Z.  I loved listening to my audiobook and, if I'm being honest, I finished it in a little over two days.  I popped in my earbuds and listened to my audiobook at every opportunity, listening to the brutal civil war in Israel during my car ride to work, listening to Todd Wainio recount the Battle of Yonkers as I walked my dog, listening to events unfold in the castles of England when I cooked dinner.

I couldn't put it away, I couldn't stop.  I was hooked from the introduction, just like I'd been hooked when I first picked up World War Z--when I read those first few stories and became embroiled in the conflict, in the desperation for survival.

The audiobook is just as addictive as the novel.

The Bad
I had an abridged copy of World War Z.

Honestly, I feel like I missed out on so much.  The audiobook barely looked at what happened in India and Japan, didn't even touch upon events in Russia, didn't recount what happened in the flooded catacombs beneath Paris or the Pacific Ocean, and it certainly didn't tell the reader what happened to the astronauts stuck on the space station orbiting Earth.

Those are the stories I missed, the stories I'd dearly loved to have heard.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed listening to the audiobook and I would highly recommended it to any fans of World War Z; however, I wish it had had more of the stories I'd enjoyed.

The Ugly
Zombies.  Horrible, mindless, flesh-eating zombies.

It's bound to make you queasy at some point.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Hanged Man

The Hanged Man
P.N. Elrod

The Summary
"On a freezing Christmas Eve in 1879, a forensic psychic reader is summoned to the scene of a questionable death.  Alexandrina Victoria Pendlebury (named after her godmother, the current Queen of England) is adamant that the death in question is a magically compromised murder and not a suicide, as the police had assumed.  After the shocking revelation contained by the body in question, Alex must put her personal loss aside to uncover the deeper issues at stake, before more bodies turn up.

"Turning to some choice allies--the handsome, prescient Lieutenant Brooks, the brilliant, enigmatic Lord Desmond, and her rapscallion cousin James--Alex will have to marshal all of her magical and mental acumen to save Queen and Country from a shadowy threat.  Our singular heroine is caught up in this rousing gaslamp adventure of cloaked assassins, meddlesome family, and dark magic."

The Good
I really liked P.N. Elrod's latest novel.  As an ardent fan of her Vampire Files series (which she wrote during the 1990s), I found I was equally enchanted by her latest series, Her Majesty's Psychic Service.  It's an absurd, adventurous tale full of action and Victorian science and psychics--and, quite possibly, paranormal activity.

It's a great deal of fun and, luckily, it moves at a pace that's satisfying.  It's very much a novel that hits you with something new each chapter and, while it does skirt perilously close to having too much action, it manages to unfold without overwhelming the reader.  The Hanged Man is also full of surprises, not least of all the identity of the hanged man for which it's named; however, it doesn't attempt to throw out any roadblocks or smokescreens to hide the true course of the novel.

No red herrings, so no worries.

Likewise, I was pleased with the characters:  I loved Alexandrina, and I enjoyed Brooks.  She's a mercilessly witty narrator, quick as a whip and equally ruthless with her fists, but she's intelligent and self-sufficient--and she makes a heck of an investigator.  I loved that she was so competent, that she was able to confront and solve mysteries without batting an eye.  Brooks was similarly interesting.  Admittedly, I liked him for the fact that he poses such an intriguing plot twist for future novels.  I'm curious to see where the pair will end up next.

Lord Goldaming's character was also a nice literary touch.  It was a pleasant surprise to find the seamless melding of Victorian literature, history, and expectation--that is, the readers expectations of Victorian culture.

The Bad
The Hanged Man is one of those fun, guilty pleasures.  There isn't much to it, not a great deal of depth, but the ride was fun.  I went into the book knowing this, so I wasn't surprised or even disappointed.

If I have one complaint, it might be that the book feels as if it ended before everything was fully explained.  I've yet to understand the significance of mirrors or the origin of the strange creatures Alexandrina encounters, which was a little disappointing; otherwise, I had quite a lot of fun with Elrod's latest novel.

The Ugly

It still stings.  Just a little bit.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Someday Angeline

Someday Angeline
Louis Sachar

The Summary
"Angeline could read before she was old enough to turn the pages of a book.  She mastered the piano without a single lesson, and she's always been able to predict the weather.  To bat that, so far, being smart has caused her nothing but trouble.  Mean kids at school call her a genius freak but, someday, Angeline hopes to be just another smart and happy eight-year-old.  For Angeline, someday can't come soon enough."

The Good
I really enjoyed Someday Angeline.  It was a sweet, heart-breaking little novel that I quickly grew to love.  Yes, it is meant for younger readers; yes, it's audience age does reflect in the writing.  But it's a great book, nonetheless., because it shows readers that all people--all the "freaks" and outcasts and outsiders, like Angeline--have a place they belong.  Everyone has a place, and everyone has someone that loves them.

I loved it.

And I loved Angeline.  Smart, sweet, and knowledgeable of just about everything, Angeline is a dynamic eight-year-old with a heart of gold.  Her relationships with her father and Goon (Gary Boone) and Mr. Bone is so nice.  They get along so well, and I love seeing how they change and evolve as characters--how they grow closer.  How Angeline grows among the people she loves, the people who love her so very much.

Overall, I really enjoyed--nay, loved--reading Someday Angeline.  It's short, it's sweet, it's well-written, and it's populated by quirky, lovable characters.  It's a fantastic children's book, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone who likes children's literature or, you know, if you have children who love to read.

Louis Sachar always seems to outdo himself when he writes.

The Bad
It is a book for children, which is reflected in the writing.  It's short and it's very simply written.  Don't get me wrong, it packs a bit of a wallop when you realize why Angeline's father kept her from going to Mitchell Beach, but it's not riddled with complex language or very mature themes.  It's appropriate for young readers.

But, at least, it's a quick read if you decide you really don't like it but still want to finish a book.

The Ugly

One of the worst things about school is the cruelty of other children to those considered outcasts.  Even teachers can sometimes be the enemy, because they care less about teaching their students and more about their own agenda, about being correct in the eyes of their students rather than teaching them correctly.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Kitchens of the Great Midwest

Pamela Dorman Books
Kitchens of the Great Midwest
J. Ryan Stradal

The Summary
"Kitchens of the Great Midwest, about a young woman with a once-in-a-generation palate who becomes the iconic chef behind the country's most coveted dinner reservation, is the summer's most hotly-anticipated debut and already a New York Times bestseller.

"When Lars Thorvald's wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine--and a dashing sommelier--he's left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own.  He's determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter--starting with pureed pork shoulder.  As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota.  From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva's journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, culminating in an opulent and emotional feast that's a testament to her spirit and resilience.

"Each chapter in J. Ryan Stradal's startlingly original debut tells the story of a single dish and character, at once capturing the zeitgeist of the Midwest, the rise of foodie culture, and delving into the ways food creates community and a sense of identity.  By turns quirky, hilarious, and vividly sensory, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is an unexpected mother-daughter story about the bittersweet nature of life--its missed opportunities and its joyful surprises.  It marks the entry of a brilliant new talent."

The Good
I was surprisingly enchanted by J. Ryan Stradal's Kitchens of the Great Midwest.  Although it ultimately revolves around Eva Thorvald, it delves into the lives of the people who have helped shape her life--her cousin Brock, her close friend Pat Praeger, her worst enemy Olivia, and her biological father, Lars.  It weaves together their lives, introducing the stories of many characters and developing their individual history, as well as their intertwined lives.

It's truly fascinating to see the connections between them.  I especially liked that each chapter was named for the dish that influenced Eva's life the most.  Each chapter reflects a specific period in her life:  the lutefisk her father used to make, the chocolate habanero peppers she grew in her closet, the sweet pepper jelly her cousin loved to eat, the golden bantam corn she used in one of her dishes when she cooked for friends--and each piece fits into the puzzle so meticulously as to reveal her entire life.

I loved the interconnected feeling of Kitchens of the Great Midwest, like a web that holds Eva and all the other characters together, like separate dishes that come together to form an excellent dinner.  All these ingredients come together to form an exquisite and intricate novel with wonderful characters, excellent storytelling, and fantastic narrators.

And, speaking of narrators, I loved listening to Kitchens of the Great Midwest as an audiobook.  Amy Ryan and Michael Stuhlbarg make excellent narrators, bringing the characters of Eva and Lars and Brock and others to life.  It brings a little something extra to the novel, gives it a singular flavor that left me craving more even as I reached the final chapter.

Overall, I was incredibly pleased with Stradal's first novel.  It was an epic undertaking that mixed together some of the best storytelling and characters to make something positively wonderful.

The Bad
The language is a little strong in some spots (especially Brock's chapters, which are littered with an excess of expletives), and the novel deals with some very mature themes.  While I wouldn't exactly recommend it to younger readers, I don't think that should stop anyone else from reading (or listening) and enjoying Kitchens of the Great Midwest.

The Ugly
Life can be an ugly thing:  losing loved ones, dealing with complicated family ties and decaying marriages, enduring bullies, trying to find one's place in the world.  Eva, despite her many culinary gifts, is not spared these many sorrows--and, as you read, you realize she has a big heart despite the difficulties that conspire against her.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Something Strange and Deadly

Something Strange and Deadly
Susan Dennard

The Summary
"After her father dies and her brother mysteriously goes missing, Eleanor Fitt is left to deal with her family's declining financial state.  And with her controlling mother trying to marry her off, sixteen-year-old Eleanor doesn't think life could get more complicated.

"But then the Dead start walking.

"Desperate to solve the mystery of her brother's disappearance, Eleanor ventures into the private lab of the elusive Spirit-Hunters, who protect the city from supernatural forces.  Always a social misfit, Eleanor finally feels at home among the intelligent Joseph, feisty Jie, and extremely stubborn yet gorgeous Daniel.  But the more time she spends with them, the more dangerous her life becomes."

The Good
Admittedly, I really liked reading Something Strange and Deadly.  It's something of a guilty pleasure:  magic, zombies, romance--it's something dark and sinister and, oddly enough, fun.  While I can't say it's perfect, I enjoyed Susan Dennard's novel.  It has a strangely intriguing concept, a decent set of characters, and a narrator who isn't half bad.

It's not a complex novel by any means; rather, it sometimes sets out to deflect the readers attention by throwing road blocks in the way.  But it has a simplicity that makes it easy to read and, more to the point, makes it a quick novel.  I finished it in a couple of days and found myself oddly satisfied, even if the story ended with a bit of a cliff-hanger--and a number of unanswered questions.

Overall, I liked it.

The Bad
"Shut pan"?

Let me be honest, I hated that phrase.  It was used far too often, and it was just such a ridiculous phrase, so silly that I found it hard to believe it was an accurate phrase plucked from history.  I tried researching it, trying to find out what exactly it meant and where it originated, but I only found references of it in Old West slang, caught between words like "shave tail" or "gringo" or "horse feathers."

I mean, really?  I could maybe understand Jie, who seems to have some experience with the American west, but Eleanor?  As a proper young lady of the American semi-aristocracy, where would she have even learned it?

And, following the same vein of incredulity, I can't help but wonder why Eleanor seems like such a strange combination of prim, proper society miss and raging feminist.  I feel like she needs to be one or the other:  either she needs to embrace her feminist tendencies and completely balk against social expectations, including her mother's designs for an advantageous marriage, or she should better reflect the conventions of the day.

She shouldn't pretend to be a wilting violet one moment, fanning herself for a young man breaching social etiquette by taking her aside or taking her hand, and then turn around and sneak out of her house with another boy.  I need a little more balance, please.

Not that Eleanor does a very good job of reflecting the social conventions of 19th century Philadelphia.  But that's probably my biggest complaint with Dennard's novel:  inaccurate history.  Granted, I realize it reflects an entirely different age in which necromancy and zombies exist; however, I just couldn't stand that so many historical details were just plain wrong.  It annoyed me more than it probably should have.

In my opinion, if an author is going to write a fantasy novel set in the late 1800s in Philadelphia, either stick to said alternative timeline--where everything is different, including society and its expectations--or stay true to history.  Don't pick and choose.

And Eleanor Fitt's fascination with Shakespeare annoyed me.  Don't ask me why, but it did.

The Ugly

Ugly, horrible, flesh-eating zombies.