"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

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Governess Affair

Courtney Milan
The Governess Affair
Courtney Milan

The Summary
"She will not give up...

"Three months ago, governess Serena Barton was let go from her position.  Unable to find new work, she's demanding compensation from the man who got her sacked:  a petty, selfish, swinish duke.  But it's not the duke she fears.  It's his merciless man of business--the man known as the Wolf of Clermont.  The formidable former pugilist has a black reputation for handling all the duke's dirty business, and when the duke turns her case over to him, she doesn't stand a chance.  But she can't stop trying--not with her entire future at stake.

"He cannot give in...

"Hugo Marshall is a man of ruthless ambition--a characteristic that has served him well, elevating the coal miner's son to the right hand man of a duke.  When his employer orders him to get rid of the pestering governess by fair means or foul, it's just another day at the office.  Unfortunately, fair means don't work on Serena, and as he comes to know her, he discovers that he can't bear to use foul ones.  But everything he has worked for depends upon seeing her gone.  He'll have to choose between the life that he needs, and the woman he is coming to love..."

The Good
After hearing so much about Hugo Marshall and Serena in following novels, I felt like I needed to go back and visit their story--and I'm glad I did.  I absolutely loved reading The Governess Affair.  On the one hand, I enjoyed filling in the gaps of my knowledge; on the other, I found The Governess Affair to be a supremely satisfying romance.

Plus, I loved the humor and heart.  I loved how Serena was able to go toe-to-toe with Hugo, who was one of the most feared men in the Duke of Clermont's employ; I loved how Hugo treated her gently, after her ordeal with the Duke of Clermont, and how he was able to gain her trust with even the smallest actions.

And I liked the way that Serena and Hugo's relationship developed.  I mean, at first, he treats her like he would treat any problem; however, as time goes on, he begins to see her as the indisputably tough, incredibly intelligent, and unexpectedly resilient woman she is.  When he grows to admire her--and when she learns to trust him in return--it's so supremely satisfying.

I loved it.  I loved the whole thing.

It's short, yes, but it's incredibly sweet and it's certainly worth reading.

The Bad
No complaints.

The Ugly
The Duke of Clermont.

I hate him.  I knew I would hate him, because I'd read of his exploits in both The Duchess War and The Heiress Effect.  However, the reality is that I hated him even more after reading The Governess Affair.  He deserves every terrible thing to befall him.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Unfinished 7

W.W. Norton Company
Okay.  So, I started reading Bonk by Mary Roach after I finished reading Packing for Mars.  After reading a review on Goodreads that cracked me up, I decided I would give it a try--and I kind of regret it.

First off, Mary Roach is hilarious.  I liked Packing for Mars, and I think I could have enjoyed Bonk if I just hadn't been traumatized by some of the stories.  I like to think I'm not a prude, but when sex leads to disfigurement, count me out.  I just can't do it.  It gives me this weird squirmy feeling inside, and I just can't cope.

Mary Roach is a great author, but I just don't think I can handle Bonk.


Gallery Books
I picked up Tyler Oakely's Binge out of curiosity.  I'd seen it in the YA section at my local library and I thought it might fit my Read Harder Challenge, so I thought, "Why not?"  It seemed interesting and it would help me mark off one of my challenges.

Wrong.  On both accounts.

Oakley is a pretty funny, I'll give him that; however, I just wasn't taken with his memoir.  I like that he's so very candid about his experiences, even the most embarrassing ones, but I found there is something as too much of a good thing.  Oakley tells me a little more than I would normally like to know about his personal experiences, and I just found myself quietly closing the book and returning it to my library.


Death of a Darklord by Laurell K. Hamilton had so much potential.  It was beautifully written, it carried intricate characters with interesting talents, it had magic and fantasy and adventure.  It struck all the right notes for me.  I was so excited to read it, especially as I started in on the first couple of chapters.  I was intrigued by the villain and I wanted to see where the story would go.
Wizards of the Coast

And then I made the mistake of looking up the book on Goodreads and discovering, much to my astonishment, that it was part of a series.  I learned Death of a Darklord is a stand-alone novel in a series roughly based in the same world (or something along those lines).  Not necessarily a bad thing, right?

Except it's part of a horror series.

When I picked up Death of a Darklord, I expected a fantasy novel.  I expected magic, mischief, adventure, trials and tribulations, before eventually culminating in a relatively happy ending.  There's always a little tragedy in every fantasy story; however, I always expect to find a satisfying conclusion, if not an outright happily-ever-after.

Death of a Darklord is a horror story.  It's full of tragedies, one after the other--and it literally doesn't get any better.  If I'd gone into this novel with the knowledge I was reading a tragic story, I probably would have been fine with it.  As the cover gave no inclination as to what I would find, I started reading with the expectation of a good ending and I was incredibly disappointed.  I put it aside without ever really finishing it.


War and Turpentine wasn't a bad novel.  It's based on Stefan Hertsman's grandfather, a would-be painter who lived through and fought in World War II.  Hertsman regales readers with embellished stories of his grandfather, his grandmother, his family, and, ultimately, his legacy.

It's an interesting book that reminds me of The Things They Carried, in that there are some truths buried beneath the fiction; however, it just didn't grip me like Tim O'Brien's earlier novel.  Personally, Hertsman's novel isn't for me.  I didn't care for the style or the feel of the novel, even though I wanted to enjoy it; I didn't like the characters, I didn't like the way they felt or the way they made me feel; moreover, I found myself growing bored with it at regular intervals and casting it aside for more interesting fare.

I'm sure it's a fine book, but it's just not for me.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Little Golden Book

Golden Books
Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Little Golden Book
Diane Muldrow

The Summary
"Little Golden Books:  not just for children anymore!

"One day, Diane Muldrow, a longtime editor of the iconic Little Golden Books, realized that there is hardly a real-life situation these whimsical books don't address.  In this age of debt, depression, and diabetes, can grown-ups benefit from a Little Golden guide to life?  Yes, we can!

"Muldrow's humorous yet practical tips for getting the most out of life--Don't forget to enjoy your wedding!  Be a hugger!  Sweatpants are bad for morale!--are paired with delightful images from the best-loved children's books of all time.

"Sure to conjure memories and smiles, this book is a perfect gift for anyone who cherishes the sturdy little books with the shiny cardboard covers and gold-foil spines."

The Good
This book was cute, if forgettable.  Personally, I think I liked the pictures the best, which pulled from all the classic Little Golden Books I read as a child with my parents.  I mean, I'd forgotten about The Saggy Baggy ElephantTootle, Nurse Nancy, and Animal Friends.  This book is really just a nostalgic trip through childhood to all the little books you've read as a child and completely forgotten over the years.

It's cute, and it's certainly worth perusing through to recognize some of the characters and book you enjoyed as a child.

The Bad
It's short, and it's not really what I expected.  It's good, it's cute, but it's one of those books at which I shrug a shoulder and simply place it back on the shelf.  It's not really eye-opening or life-changing, just a quick, nostalgic story with inspirational content.

The Ugly
Not a thing.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Skystone

The Skystone
Jack Whyte

The Summary
"We all know the story--how Arthur pulled the sword from the stone, how Camelot came to be, and the power struggles that ultimately destroyed Arthur's dreams.  But what of the time before Arthur?  What were the forces that helped create him?

"And how did the legend come to pass?

"Before the time of Arthur and Camelot, Britain had become a dark and deadly place, savaged by the warring factions of Picts, Celts, and invading Saxons.  The Roman citizens who had lived there for generations were suddenly faced with a deadly choice.  Should they leave and take up residence in a Roman world that was corrupt and utterly foreign?  Or stay and face the madness that would surely ensue when the Roman legions--Britain's last bastion of safety for the civilized--leave?  For two Romans, Publius Varrus and his friend Caius Britannicus, there can be only one answer.  They will stay, try to preserve what is best of Roman life, and create a new culture out of the wreckage.  In doing so, they will plant the seeds of the legend.

"For these two men are Arthur's great-grandfathers and their actions will shape a nation...and forge a sword known as Excalibur."

The Good
I actually picked The Skystone up at my local library.  It, along with several over books in the series, were available for only fifty cents a piece.  Of course, I couldn't simply pass up buying the whole thing and diving into the series.  It was a random purchase that, under normal circumstances, I probably wouldn't have made if I hadn't been prowling through the books one day.

And I'm pretty glad that I picked it up.

I love history.  I've always been a little fascinated by Roman history, and I've always been a fan of British history; however, much of my knowledge was sequestered to a handful of emperors and incidents in Rome.  I knew virtually nothing about England during the fourth and fifth centuries, so The Skystone was as informative as it was fascinating.

I learned a lot about British and Roman history, culture, and everyday life.  Not that I can remember any of it now, of course, but I feel like I learned quite a bit and I enjoyed a pretty great story in the process.  Personally, I really liked listening to Publius Varrus' story.  He was an interesting, capable character who took unexpected adventures that seemed to lead him from one place to another.

I thought he was unexpectedly eloquent for a soldier, but that's probably why I liked him.  He was pretty relatable.  I mean, he was basically just another person trying to survive in a world that (quite literally) wanted him dead; he's just your average soldier in the Roman Empire.  And yet his story was an adventure, and he did a wonderful job of telling me everything that happened.

Granted, I may not have liked his temper--and I certainly didn't like where it eventually led him--but I loved how his story involved a host of historical figures and culminated with the Lady of the Lake.  While there's no magic involved and, honestly, I pretty much expect magic in anything that stems from Arthurian legend, I was enchanted by how Arthur's legacy begins in The Skystone.

Jack Whyte's novel grounds Arthur and Excalibur in reality.  Like I said, there isn't any magic involved, but the way that Whyte carefully crafts a realistic world in which the magic of Arthur can grow--the way he so craftily plants the seeds for the legend throughout his story--is captivating.  I loved it.  I loved being able to find those subtle clues, and I can't wait to learn more about Arthur's heritage.

The Bad
It took me a very long time to get through this book.  Varrus is a thoughtful and engaging narrator, and I found his story fascinating.  I loved learning about the culture and history of Britain during the time of the Roman Empire; I loved the detail and depth of the story; I loved the intricately described places and characters.

However, I often lost myself to other things.  While I liked Varrus, he did have a habit of droning on and on.  More to the point, his story is a long one--and this book is only a tiny piece of his life.  He's writing at the end of his lifetime, but he's only telling us a part of his story from his time as a Roman soldier to the eventual creation of the Colony.  (I don't think I'm ruining anything by saying that; rather, I think it's pretty obvious what happens from reading the cover.)

It's maybe half of his life, and it feels like it takes ages to get through his story.  Like I said, it's a great book, but it does take a while to get through it.  I often found myself distracted by other books and different projects, so it took me many months to finish this book when it probably should have only taken a couple of weeks.

The Ugly
I have to admit, The Skystone is a bit graphic and slightly explicit.  If it's not local Picts and Celts slaughtering invading Roman soldiers, it's some disease or another wiping out a community; if it's not Publius Varrus' memories of war, it's his more tender moments with his lovers, and then his wife.  It's a hard look at what real life might have been like in a particularly tumultuous time in Britain's history.

It's a fascinating and engaging novel, but it might not be for everyone.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Read Harder Challenge 2017: Part 4

This month, I finished a few more challenges, including:
  • Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative.
  • Read a book published between 1900 and 1950.
  • Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.

American Street
Balzer + Bray
First up, I read American Street by Ibi Zoboi, which follows Fabiola as she adjusts to life in America with her rowdy cousins and her reclusive aunt.  When she arrives in Detroit, she is confronted by a terrible crossroads that will change her life and haunt her as she goes in pursuit of the American Dream.  A fascinating inspection into the immigrant experience, American Street  was made all the more compelling by the fact that the author, like Fabiola, was emigrated from Haiti when she was only a child.

Overall, I liked American Street.  It's a good, solid book with interesting characters, a wonderful narrator, and a heart-wrenching story.  However, I often found myself divided, because I both loved and hated this book.  It inspired a lot of emotions, not all of them good, but it also made me think and it made me feel and it compelled me to read on through Fabiola's story even when I felt my interest waning.

But, most of all, I loved the hints of magical realism seeded throughout the story.  Fabiola has very strong beliefs and she particularly believes in the ilwas of Vodou, which adds a layer of mystery, a thin veil of magic that enriches her story.  You don't really discover if Bad Leg is really Papa Legba, or if he really is just some junkie off the street, like Fabiola's cousins say, but it's that uncertainty that imbues a certain strength in Fabiola's belief and offers uncommon insight into the landscape of Vodou.

John Carter of Mars (Barnes & Noble Collectible Editions): The First Five Novels
Barnes and Noble
Next, I conquered A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who also happens to be author of Tarzan of the Apes.  I picked up A Princess of Mars because I had it on my shelf and, more to the point, it seemed like an acceptable escape from reality; however, I wasn't always enchanted with the story.  I mean, it was really just mindless fun.

Originally serialized in 1912, A Princess of Mars is the first of many novels of the Barsoom Chronicles penned by Burroughs.  It follows John Carter, a former military man from Virginia, who finds himself ambushed in Arizona--and transported to a different world.  Mars (known as Barsoom to the native peoples) is a seemingly desolate land populated with dangerous creatures and war-like citizens, and Carter must find a way to survive if he eventually hopes to return to his home world.

For much of the story, it's really just Carter being really impressive with his super-strength and incredible agility and uncanny ability to learn languages--that is, unless he's rescuing the damsel in distress or endearing himself to the local wildlife.  Something interesting or incredible usually happens at the end of every chapter, so it's a bit of a page turner when Carter isn't boring you with facts that are obviously wrong or making you laugh with physics that could obviously never happen.

New Directions
Last, I checked out Paris Spleen by Charles Baudelaire.  Paris Spleen is a short collection of poetry originally written in French in 1896 by Charles Baudelaire--and none of his poems are about love.  I found it exceedingly difficult to find a collection of poetry that didn't talk about love, because everyone likes to talk about love and relationships and affection.  They're warm, fuzzy feelings to which everyone can relate.

But Baudelaire doesn't base his poetry on warm, fuzzy feelings; instead, he examines a darker side of human life.  He looks at the every day pleasures of intoxicating drink, sensuous women, and fine art; however, he also shines a lot on oppression, city squalor, mistreatment, malice.  His work couldn't be farther from warm, fuzzy feelings, like love.

It worked for my Read Harder Challenge, but, I will admit, it's definitely an acquired taste.  Baudelaire is really something else.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

When Churchill Slaughtered Sheep and Stalin Robbed a Bank

When Churchill Slaughtered Sheep and Stalin Robbed a Bank
Giles Milton

The Summary
"More addictive and mind-blowing true tales from history, told by Giles Milton--one of today's most entertaining and accessible yet always intelligent and illuminating historians.

"In the second installment of his outrageously entertaining series, History's Unknown Chapters, Giles Milton shows his customary historical flair as he delves into the little-known stories from history, including when Stalin was actually assassinated with poison by one of his inner circle; the Russian scientist, dubbed the "Red Frankenstein," who attempted to produce a human-ape hybrid through ethically dubious means; the family who survived thirty-eight days at sea with almost no water or supplies after their ship was destroyed by a killer whale; or the plot that served as a template for 9/11, in which four Algerian terrorists attempted to hijack a plane and fly it into the Eiffel Tower."

The Good
Giles Milton's work is as entertaining as always in this latest addition to his series, History's Unknown Chapters.  Personally, I loved learning new things about history that I didn't know, like the rehearsal for D-Day that saw more than 900 casualties.  Or the spy who broke into Auscwitz.  Or the man who broke into Buckingham Palace and decided to hang out in the Queen's chambers.  Or Guy Gabaldon, who captured several hundred Japanese soldiers without even firing a bullet.

When Churchill Slaughtered Sheep and Stalin Robbed a Bank is pared down into manageable, bite-size sections, which makes Mileton's book both easy-to-read and accessible.  Don't want to hear about how Charlie Chaplain's grave was robbed?  Skip it!  Don't care to hear about Stalin's assassination?  Then move on to the next chapter.

This book is great if you like random facts, if you like history, or if you like learning about weird, quirky people and strange happenings across the globe.  It's highly entertaining and it's accessible, which I--and I'm sure other readers--appreciate.

The Bad
As I discovered with When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain, When Churchill Slaughtered Sheep and Stalin Robbed a Bank is a book to be read at short intervals.  I loved the random facts, the quick anecdotes that taught me something new; however, I mostly read it in between other books or when I was waiting--like waiting for an oil change, or waiting for a seat at a restaurant, or waiting for my boyfriend to pick me up.

It's more of a short, entertaining read to be taken up at short intervals, rather than consumed in one large gulp.

The Ugly
Reality truly is stranger than fiction.

Monday, May 15, 2017

American Street

Balzer + Bray
American Street
Ibi Zoboi

The Summary
"On the corner of American Street and Joy Road, Fabiola Toussaint though she would finally find une belle vie - a good life.

"But after they leave Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Fabiola's mother is detained by U.S. immigration, leaving Fabiola to navigate her loud American cousins, Chantal, Donna, and Princess; the grittiness of Detroit's west side; a new school; and a surprising romance, all her own.

"Just as she finds her footing in this strange new world, a dangerous proposition presents itself, and Fabiola soon realizes that freedom comes at a cost.  Trapped at the crossroads of an impossible choice, will she pay the price for the American dream?

"In her stunning debut, Pushcart-nominated author Ibi Zoboi draws on her own experience as a young Haitian immigrant, infusing this lyrical exploration of America with magical realism and Vodou culture.  Unflinching yet filled with joy, American Street is an evocative and powerful coming-of-age story."

The Good
I read American Street as part of my Read Harder Challenge, and I can't say I regret my decision.  American Street is a provocative, thoughtful novel that portrays both immigrant experiences and, in some cases, daily life in urban areas.  It's beautifully written, well-paced, and fascinating; it's a book that makes you think, makes you feel.

I loved the hints of magical realism seeded throughout the story.  Fabiola is a very spiritual person.  Her beliefs are strong, and her faith in the ilwas of Vodou is even stronger--and, as time goes on, she begins to spot the ilwas work in her daily life.  I found this added a layer of mystery, a thin veil of magic that enriches her story.

Granted, you don't really discover if Bad Leg is really Papa Legba or just some junkie off the street, like Fabiola's cousins claim, but it's that uncertainty that imbues a certain strength to Fabiola's belief and offers uncommon insight into the landscape of Vodou.  It's magical, yet it's firmly grounded in reality as to relate to readers, to connect on a deeply personal level.

The Bad
Personally, this book made me miss being where I am.  I mean, I couldn't stand the cold, gray landscape Fabiola describes.  It felt cruel, sterile and cold.  It made me want to go outside and climb into a tree to really appreciate the cool, green shade.

The Ugly
Fabiola endures so much for a girl her age.  She survives the earthquake that destroyed Port-au-Prince in 2010; she is forced to travel to Detroit alone, because her mother is detained by customs; she must acclimate to a new school, a new culture--and no one, not even her aunt and cousins, seem willing to help her.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this book.

This book does not pull punches.  I'm not even joking.  It's violent, it's hurtful, it's bloody, it's dark, it's tragic--and it really doesn't get any better.  Fabiola is thrust into a new world, moving from her impoverished community in Haiti to a violent neighborhood in Detroit.  She's confronted with some very harsh realities that will, ultimately, break her heart.

I realize this book actually shows some of Zoboi's experiences (if you read the author's note, you'll see just how autobiographical Fabiola's story really is); in fact, it might encapsulate the reality of American life in impoverished urban areas.  However, I did not like the violence or the bloodshed or the drugs or the hard truths that American Street makes you confront.

I mean, for some people, American Street may very well be a portrayal of real life.  I may not have had to deal with many of the things Fabiola encountered--drugs, alcohol, gang violence, prescription abuse--but I know they aren't uncommon experiences, even in more rural regions where I live.  So reading American Street is an uncomfortable wake up call, it's a slap in the face because you can't look away from the glimpse of reality it presents.

I felt divided while I was reading this book, because I both loved and hated it.  It inspired a lot of emotions, not all of them good, but it also made me think and it made me feel and it compelled me to read on through Fabiola's story even when I felt my interest waning--or my heart breaking.

It's a very good book, but know you're getting into a world of heartache before you pick it up.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Superman: American Alien

Superman: American Alien
DC Comics
Superman:  American Alien
Max Landis

The Summary
"This is not a Superman comic.

"This is the story of Clark Kent, a Kansas farm boy who happens to be from another planet.  It's the story of a scared young kid with impossible powers, of a teenage delinquent with a lot to learn, of a reporter with a nose for the truth who's keeping the biggest secret the world has ever known.

"This is not the Superman you know.  Not yet."

The Good
I liked Superman:  American Alien.  It was a fun journey from Clark Kent's childhood to the increasingly competent Man of Steel.  I really enjoyed each of the stories, which portrayed a separate experience from Clark's life.  Each one was different and each one was unique, offering insight into the different events that shaped and challenged Superman.

I also thought it was interesting how more people than just the Kent family were aware of Clark's secret.  For instance, the doctor who treats Clark recognizes his unique capabilities and understands he has very different needs from the average human; likewise, the local sheriff is aware of Clark's special "talents" when he becomes entangled in a violent scuffle on the outskirts of town; and, of course, his two closest friends have always been aware of his strange powers.

Superman has always had friends and family, and he has always had a select few individuals (like Batman, for instance) who have known his secret identity.  It was interesting to see just how widely that net stretched and how community members, who were aware of Clark's origin, rallied around the family to protect him.

Personally, I'd never thought much of how Clark Kent grew up and how his family managed to mask the fact that he was an alien from the great wide world.  It took an entire community to hide the reality of his origin, including cover-ups and forged documents.  I found it fascinating to see the ways in which a small town in Kansas managed to adopt a little alien boy and make him one of their own--and what they would do to protect him.

The Bad
I'll be honest, as much as I liked American Alien, I found I preferred Superman:  Birthright by Mark Waid.  Like I said, I enjoyed American Alien, but, while I was reading, I couldn't help comparing it to Birthright...and, well, it just sort of falls short.  It's a fun book, it offers great insight into the character and history of Superman; however, I found it lacking when placed beside Waid's version of Superman's origin story.  In my books, Waid just does it better.

The Ugly
Bad things tend to happen around Superman.

I take that back.  Correction:  Superman tends to get in the middle of bad things, especially if that means he can protect someone he cares about.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Navel Gazing: True Tales of Bodies, Mostly Mine (But Also My Mom's, Which I Know Sounds Weird)

Gallery Books
Navel Gazing:  True Tales of Bodies, Mostly Mine (But Also My Mom's, Which I Know Sounds Weird)
Michael Ian Black

The Summary
"You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll call your mom.

"New York Times bestselling author Michael Ian Black pulls no punches in this hilariously honest memoir, a follow-up to the acclaimed You're Not Doing It Right.  When Michael's mother receives a harrowing medical diagnosis, Michael begins a laugh-out-loud examination of health, happiness, and the human body from the perspective of a settled (and sedentary) husband and father of two.  With trademark wit that has made Michael's other books popular favorites, Navel Gazing is a heartfelt and poignant memoir about coming to terms with growing older and the inevitability of death.  It is also a self-deprecating and deliciously frank remembrance of exercise failures, finding out his is part Neanderthal, and almost throwing down with fellow author Tucker Max.

"Michael Ian Black may not have the perfect body.  Or be the perfect father.  Or husband.  Or son.  But readers will laugh as they recognize themselves in his attempts to do better.  And, inevitably, falling short."

The Good
When I first picked up Navel Gazing, I realized I recognized the author's name.  He was relatively famous, I knew that; I'd seen him on a screen somewhere, even if I couldn't remember exactly where.  However, I'd never recognized him as a writer.  It surprised me, and I couldn't help wondering if this wasn't just another book by a celebrity with a ghost writer.

Except Michael Ian Black isn't just another celebrity writing a book about his career; rather, he's a man writing about the trials of everyday life with a terminally ill parent.

He discusses his family and his life as he grapples with his mother's deteriorating health; he discusses his health and what he's not doing to improve it; he discusses his beliefs, his religion and how it impacts him as his mother grapples with one medical diagnosis after another.  It's a candid account on life in general and full of humorous musings on health, happiness, and faith.

I loved reading Black's memoir for the simple fact that I could relate to him.  When he talks about his health and his worries regarding growing older, yet he doesn't want to schedule another appointment with the doctor, I understood his fear of disease and his subsequent reluctance to do anything about it.  I mean, it sounds exactly like something I would do; in fact, it sounds like something I've done.

Likewise, when Black discussed his floundering attempts to become healthy and, for instance, decided to take up jogging as a healthier alternative to binge watching Netflix, I understood and connected with his experiences.  I understood his struggles with weight and physical exercise (it's exhausting), and I recognized his desperate desire to discover something deeper, more important in his running routine.
"The toughest thing about training for the half marathon was the time commitment:  hours per week, hours that could have been more fruitfully spent not running.  Why did I persist, week after week, through the summer heat and into the chilly days of autumn?  What was my fascination with running?  [...]  What did I want?  The truth is, I knew what I wanted from running, but I couldn't quite bring myself to admit it:  I wanted enlightenment.  And this is where are all my convoluted feelings about my body and Mom's declining health and aging and my own fear of death and praytheism congeal into a goopy sludge.  This is the nexus.  It is a stupid nexus, to be sure, but I could not quite shake the idea that running could save me."

I laughed at his self-deprecating humor, of course, but I enjoyed his candor and I connected on a personal level with his experiences.  I know what it's like to struggle with weight and health concerns (doesn't everyone?), and I know what it's like to hope that you can find something--anything--in physical activity.  You hope to find enlightenment, contentment, peace--you know, something--and it's always a little disappointing if you don't.

Overall, I loved the reading Navel Gazing.  It's fun and humorous, like it's intended to be, but it's also insightful and relatable.  It connects on a deeply human level, exploring our individual foibles and disappointments, our worries and fears and insecurities.  Personally, I came away from Navel Gazing with a familiar, "intense...almost electrical connection" to another human being.

It's a feeling that I'm sure any reader will appreciate after finishing Black's memoir.

The Bad
No complaints.  His humor is sarcastic, slightly odd, so I can see how it might rub people the wrong way; however, I loved his sense of humor and I loved his candor as he talked about his experiences as a child with a terminally ill parent, as a parent with children, and as a human being with health concerns of his own.

If I have one complaint it might be that Black sometimes skips quickly to the next thought without any segue or break between subjects.  It's pretty common through his memoir, but I think it's a pretty easy quirk to overlook.  He might jump to a new subject without warning, which could be construed as confusing or annoying (depending on how you look at it); however, I wouldn't call it a deal breaker.

The Ugly

Monday, May 8, 2017


Meagan Spooner

The Summary
"Beauty knows the Beast's forest in her bones--and in her blood.

"She knows that the forest holds secrets and that her father is the only hunter who's ever come close to discovering them.

"But Yeva's grown up far from her father's old lodge, raised to be part of the city's highest caste of aristocrats.  Still, she's never forgotten the feel of a bow in her hands, and she's spent a lifetime longing for the freedom of the hunt.

"So when her father loses his fortune and moves Yeva and her sisters back to the outskirts of town, Yeva is secretly relieved.  Out in the wilderness, there's no pressure to make idle chatter with vapid baronessas...or to submit to marrying a wealthy gentleman.

"But Yeva's father's misfortune may have cost him his mind, and when he goes missing in the woods, Yeva sets her sights on one prey:  the creature he'd been obsessively tracking just before his disappearance.

"Deaf to her sister's protests, Yeva hunts this strange Beast back into his own territory--a cursed valley, a ruined castle, and a world of creatures that Yeva's heard about only in fairy tales.  A world that can bring her ruin--or salvation.

"Who will survive:  the Beauty, or the Beast?"

The Good
I enjoyed Hunted.  Granted, it wasn't quite what I expected, but, nevertheless, I enjoyed it.  I loved the subtle interweaving of Russian folklore with the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, and I liked the ethereal magic of the Beast's world.  I like the creatures Hunted envisioned:  Lamya the dragon, who could take on female shape; Borovoi, the leshy (or forest spirit), who liked to take on the form of a fox; the Firebird that inexorably draws Yeva; and, of course, the Beast.

It's a darkly magical world that's both breathtaking and dangerous, fascinating and deadly.  I fell in love with the woods that Meagan Spooner imagined, a cursed forest full of magical creatures--dragons, forest spirits, monsters, more--that exists just beneath the surface of human perception.  I loved even the simple descriptions of it:
"She instantly saw colors playing against the backs of her eyelids, pulsing in time with the not-quite-music.  Blue and white and green streaks of light shot across her vision.  She did not dare breathe to speak, but nodded instead, slowly, as though moving too quickly would jar the vision free.  [...]  All around were the trees, and the snow, and the underbrush, and the light in her mind's eye was transposed against the scene."

And when both Yeva and the the Beast speak of longing, of wanting something indescribable, it really struck a chord with me.  I mean, everyone has a goal, everyone has something in mind that they want and desire, something for which they hope.  Sometimes, it's just a longing that has no relief, no way to alleviate, because, until you find that indescribable thing, it's hard to even imagine what you want.
"I remember a life before that was good, but not the one I wanted.  I remember feeling as though nothing and no one in this world could ever understand the way I wanted, that pang that rings deeper than flesh and bone. 
"My longing for something else, beyond, into magic and dreams and the things everyone else seemed to leave behind as children.  For something I knew I could never truly find."

As silly as it may sound, I found those words spoke to me.  I think it's the feeling every reader gets whenever he or she picks up a book and dives into a new story.  For me, I feel like I'm always looking for something in the next book that will really connect with me, that will make me feel something incredible--that will take me away, for the briefest moments, from everyday reality.  Readers are always looking for something, looking to find something or learn something in a new book, and Hunted seems to capture that longing.

Oh, and I can't forget the dedication:

"To the girl
who reads by flashlight
who sees dragons in the clouds
who feels most alive in worlds that never were
who knows magic is real
who dreams
This is for you."

Who wouldn't fall in love with that dedication?

The Bad
Although I enjoyed Hunted overall, I found myself constantly stymied by my expectations of what Beauty and the Beast should be.  I read the cover, so I knew what I was getting into with this novel; however, I kept thinking back to Belle in Disney's rendition of the tale.  I couldn't get my mind to drift away from it, which colored how I began to think of Yeva and her story.

I think if I'd gone into this story with no expectations, without knowing the novel was based on The Beauty and the Beast, I would have enjoyed it more.  I liked it, don't get me wrong, but I was always expecting something else to happen, hoping Yeva would live up to some kind of expectation that she couldn't because she's a completely different character.

Reading it for itself, reading it without Disney's Beauty and the Beast in mind (a difficult thing to do, since a new version only recently came out), makes for a much better experience.  That is, if you go into it without the expectation of finding Belle--if you go into it thinking of Yeva as her own separate character with her own separate story and thoughts and feelings--Hunted is a genuinely good story.

The Ugly
Blood and gore.

Yeva is a hunter.  Her father is a hunter.  The Beast is a predator.  There's bound to be blood at some point.  And it only gets worse when Yeva sets her sights on revenge.

Friday, May 5, 2017

My Dog: The Paradox: A Lovable Discourse about Man's Best Friend

Title details for My Dog: The Paradox by The Oatmeal - Available
Andrew McMeel Publishing, LLC
My Dog:  The Paradox:  A Lovable Discourse about Man's Best Friend
The Oatmeal (Matthew Inman)

The Summary
"Dogs are funny creatures.  They fear the hair dryer but not the garbage truck.  They gleefully roll in the dirt (and other smelly things), yet they clean their private parts obsessively.  Their lives aren't lengthy, logical, or deliberate but an explosive paradox of fur, teeth, and enthusiasm.  Perhaps that's why we love them."

The Good
I probably laughed way too hard at this book.  As a dog lover and owner, I could certainly relate to the weird and funny and, sometimes, gross things dogs will do.  They are all these things and more--and, as Inman writes, that's precisely why we love them.

The Bad
The Oatmeal is an acquired taste.  If you pick up anything he's written, you'll see what I mean.

The Ugly
Nothing really.  It's a short, rather sweet comic about dogs and our love for them/their love for us, and it's a whole lot of fun to read.  Inman's humor can sometimes be a bit offensive, but his comics are worth reading at least once.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Charlie All Night

Charlie All Night
Jennifer Crusie

The Summary
"Dumped by her boyfriend and demoted from WBBB's prime-time spot, radio producer Allie McGuffey has nowhere to go but up. She plans to make her comeback by turning temporary DJ Charlie Tenniel into a household name. And if he's willing to help cure her breakup blues with a rebound fling, that's an added bonus.

"Charlie just wants to kick back, play good tunes and eat Chinese food. He's not interested in becoming famous. But he is interested in Allie. And after all, what harm is a little chemistry between friends?

"But suddenly their one-night stand has become a four-week addiction. Night after night on the airwaves, his voice seduces her…and all the other women in town. He's a hit. It looks as if Charlie's solved all Allie's problems…except one. What is she going to do when he leaves?"

The Good
I absolutely loved this book.

Charlie All Night is full of humor and heart.  Although I know Allie sets her eyes on Charlie for all the wrong reasons--and, on more than one occasion, I know their romance is set to blow up in their faces--I found their interactions both hilarious and heart-warming.  Allie and Charlie seem to get along well:  they fight and bicker like any couple, but they seem to harbor a genuine affection for one another.

It's wonderful to see how their relationship blossoms.  I mean, yeah, sure, they sort of turn everything into a mess (if it isn't Charlie accidentally publicizing their relationship over the air, then it's Allie saying just the wrong thing to get her boss on her tail), but it's just so funny how they manage to work together and, eventually, fall in love.

Personally, I enjoyed it and I had so much fun reading it.  I devoured it in an evening and I can't wait to read more from Jennifer Crusie.

The Bad
The main reason Charlie is visiting Allie's tiny town is because he's secretly investigating the radio station and everyone in it; however, that plot line sort of gets pushed to the wayside.  Readers aren't left hanging without any resolution, but it's kind of secondary to Allie and Charlie's relationship.  If you're more interested in what's going on in the back ground, I'm afraid the spotlight is only shined on it every once in a while.

The Ugly
Relationships can be ugly.

Between Allie dealing with the nuclear fallout from her last break up and Charlie adamantly insisting he's only staying in town four weeks, you know someone's heart is going to get broken.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Playing for Pizza

Playing for Pizza
John Grisham

The Summary
"Rick Dockery was the third string quarterback for the Cleveland Browns.  In the AFC Championship game against Denver, to the surprise and dismay of virtually everyone, Rick actually got into the game.  With a 17-point lead and just minutes to go, Rick provided what was arguably the worst single performance in the history of the NFL.  Overnight, he became a national laughingstock and, of course, was immediately cut by the Browns and shunned by all other teams.

"But all Rick knows is football, and he insists that his agent, Arnie, find a team that needs him.  Against enormous odds Arnie finally locates just such a team and informs Rick that, miraculously, he can in fact now be a starting quarterback.  Great, says Rick---for which team?

"The mighty Panthers of Parma, Italy.

"Yes, Italians do play football, to one degree or another, and the Parma Panthers desperately want a former NFL player--any former NFL player--at their helm.  So Rick reluctantly agrees to play for the Panthers--at least until a better offer comes along--and heads off to Italy.  he knows nothing about Parma (not even where it is), has never been to Europe, and doesn't speak or understand a word of Italian.

"To say that Italy--the land of opera, fine wines, extremely small cars, romance, and football americano--holds a few surprises for Rick Dockery would be something of an understatement."

The Good
Playing for Pizza was unexpectedly good.  Granted, I understood very little of the football plays--what does third down even mean?--or the jargon that goes along with the sport, but I enjoyed listening to Playing for Pizza with Christopher Evan Welch as narrator.  Like I said, it was unexpectedly good.  Rich and vibrant and, well, funny.

Admittedly, it took me a few chapters to really settle into the story, but, once I did, I had so much fun listening to Rick Dockery's story as he journeys to Italy and becomes a Parma Panther.  I especially enjoyed the descriptions Italy--the architecture, the culture, the history, the romance (courtesy of a secondary character from Georgia, who loved all these things)--and, of course, the food.

I was almost always hungry for food while listening to Grisham's novel, but it was totally worth it.

Overall, Playing for Pizza was an excellent choice for my Read Harder Challenge--and it was just a lot of fun.  It's fun, sweet and romantic, but it doesn't try to hide the bad things that happen; rather, it follows the ordeals of an ordinary person finding himself in an extraordinary situation and it rolls with it.  Moreover, while I did find aspects of it sweet and romantic, it didn't border on too sweet or too romantic.

Playing for Pizza struck a good balance, I thought, and it's written very well, narrated very well.  I mean, if you don't like romance, it has explorations of Italy and food and football; if you don't like football, it still has Italy and history and food.  (Did I mention food?)  Personally, I'm not a fan of sports; however, I enjoyed listening to the games in Playing for Pizza--and I couldn't understand half of it.

The Bad
If you don't understand football americano, then you might just struggle through some of this novel.  I did, and I even live in a state where you live and die by football.  However, I will note that I did enjoy the games and, more to the point, Playing for Pizza has a lot to commend it besides the football games.

The Ugly
Sports injuries.