Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Good Lord Bird


The Good Lord Bird
James McBride
5/5


Published 2013

First Sentence
"I was born a colored man and don't you forget it."

Publisher's Description:

From the bestselling author of The Color of Water and Song Yet Sung comes the story of a young boy born a slave who joins John Brown’s antislavery crusade—and who must pass as a girl to survive.

Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry’s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town—with Brown, who believes he’s a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry—whom Brown nicknames Little Onion—conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride’s meticulous eye for detail and character, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.

Dear Reader,

The Good Lord Bird is a comical retelling of a somber issue set in the Civil War and focusing on slavery. To be able to write something with a comedic voice without taking away the solemnity of the topic of slavery is pure genius. The cast of the novel includes some true historical characters mixed with some forged from McBride's brilliant brain. Henry Shackleford is the main character, he is a young slave that gets "rescued" from slavery by John Brown, who mistakes him for a little girl and renames him Little Onion. The section of the book I loved the most was when John Brown renames Henry, I found myself trouncing on people to read that bit of the story (before I even finished the book). You know a book is good when you think you'll BURST if you don't share something from it.

The book is Little Onions journey through the South, to the North and back down to the South where it all ends on the historic raid of Harpers Ferry. Going into this, I didn't know much on that raid or even much about John Brown *shakes head in shame*. I like that McBride changed up the tone to something more light because this might have seemed like all those other books about the Civil War and slavery. I think it's important to continually throw books like these in our faces because society still needs them to learn. I know we've come really far but we haven't come far enough and we tend to forget the history that brought us to this point. McBride has written a book that everyone should read, it brings the shock of our tragic history to view with a voice completely unique and accessible

Getting back to the characters, Little Onion meets many historical figures like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman (although they play smaller roles in the book). One of the historical characters, Frederick Douglass, was written in a less than desirable light. This confused and worried me a bit (more because I was worried what historical accuracy fanatics might think), I was hoping this wouldn't destroy the books credibility. Upon researching this, I found an interview with James McBride that touches upon his creative approach to Frederick Douglass. In the interview, he talks about how the abolitionists were different from the "rugged people out West", that they were "people who made speeches and did politics". Douglass wasn't a perfect man and he actually did have a white German girl as a mistress who lived with him and his wife. The best explanation McBride gives in this interview is this, "Listen, don't meet your heroes. If you meet your heroes, you're always going to be disappointed. Frederick Douglass was a great man, but would I want my daughter to marry him? Probably not. That doesn't mean that I don't think he's a great man..." Isn't that SO true though! We put people up on a pedestal but forget that EVERYONE is human and has faults. People do great things, and those same people are bound to do crummy things as well, that is human nature.  

The language used to bring back the past is fantastic, that blues cowboy feel that John Brown oozes. McBride writes such picturesque settings that grab you and throw you into the action. He has such great physical descriptions of the characters as well. Brown and Little Onion are the heart of the book and the bond that develops is so strong it brought me to tears. Surprisingly, looking back at the humorous tone of the book, I wouldn't have thought that it could put me in that emotional state. I suppose this is the true essence of The Good Lord Bird, that it can make you laugh and cry at the same time.




Happy Reading,

AmberBug

P.S. - Below I've included some pictures of the historical characters of the book. If you're anything like me, you'd be stopping through the book to look up these characters anyways... I've saved you some time! 

John Brown
Frederick Douglass
Harriet Tubman




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Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Dressmaker


The Dressmaker
Kate Alcott
4 / 5


Published 2012

First Paragraph
"Tess pulled at the corners of the sheets she had taken straight from the line and tried to tuck them tight under the mattress, stepping back to check her work. Still a bit bunchy and wrinkled. The overseer who ran this house was sure to inspect and sniff and scold, but it didn't matter anymore."
Publisher's Description:
Just in time for the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titaniccomes a vivid, romantic, and relentlessly compelling historical novel about a spirited young woman who survives the disaster only to find herself embroiled in the media frenzy left in the wake of the tragedy.

Tess, an aspiring seamstress, thinks she's had an incredibly lucky break when she is hired by famous designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon to be a personal maid on the Titanic's doomed voyage. Once on board, Tess catches the eye of two men, one a roughly-hewn but kind sailor and the other an enigmatic Chicago millionaire. But on the fourth night, disaster strikes.

Amidst the chaos and desperate urging of two very different suitors, Tess is one of the last people allowed on a lifeboat. Tess’s sailor also manages to survive unharmed, witness to Lady Duff Gordon’s questionable actions during the tragedy. Others—including the gallant Midwestern tycoon—are not so lucky.

On dry land, rumors about the survivors begin to circulate, and Lady Duff Gordon quickly becomes the subject of media scorn and later, the hearings on the Titanic. Set against a historical tragedy but told from a completely fresh angle, The Dressmaker is an atmospheric delight filled with all the period's glitz and glamour, all the raw feelings of a national tragedy and all the contradictory emotions of young love.

Dear Reader,

This book reminded me of why I enjoyed Mrs. Poe and The Other Typist - it was a fun novel, but chock full of historical details which I always appreciate.  The story began with a young serving girl (Tess) who quits her job the day the Titanic is to set sail - and manages to finagle herself passage on board the ship with the illustrious fashion designer, Lady Duff-Gordon: a real-life (and larger-than-life) icon of the fashion world, and a true survivor of the ill-fated ship.  In fact, many of the characters that Alcott brings into her story were real people who survived the disaster, which lends a really interesting aspect to it all.  The actual story of the ship and its sinking only take up the first few chapters; the rest of the book details the outcome of it, focusing particularly on the senate hearings which were initiated by Senator William Alden Smith upon the survivors' arrival in New York City, via the Carpathia.

The book is intriguing right from the start because you love to hate Lady Duff-Gordon right from the get-go.  She is haughty and condescending and definitely entitled, feeling as if the world is there for her use (and abuse) only.  She walks all over people throughout the book, and part of the reason you want to keep reading is simply to find out if she ultimately topples from her precarious perch.  (I won't tell, though - you'll have to find out for yourself!)

The other characters are much more pleasant: I took immediately to the friends that Tess made aboard the ill-fated ship.  The humble crewman, the rich automobile man, and even the Unsinkable Molly Brown!  They are all endearing and their strong personalities make the rest of the book enjoyable.  Tess, meanwhile, doesn't seem to have much of her own personality, but that may be due to her former life, which was spent in service of people who mistreated her.  In America, you see her begin to believe in and discover herself.

You'll definitely want to ride along on the Titanic (even though you already know where it's headed), squeeze your way onto a lifeboat, and make sure that you stick close to Tess' side as she builds her new life - it's certainly an interesting story!

Yours,
Arianna
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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Spring Fever


Spring Fever
P.G. Wodehouse
4 / 5

Published 1948

First Sentence
"Spring had come to New York, the eight-fifteen train from Great Neck had come to the Pennsylvania terminus, and G. Ellery Cobbold, that stout economic royalist, had come to his downtown office, all set to prise another wad of currency out of the common people."
Publisher's Description:
[Another] antic [novel] from comic genius, P.G. Wodehouse...Spring Fever is a light-hearted comedy involving love and various complications.

Wikipedia Description:
Spring Fever is a novel by P.G. Wodehouse, first published on May 20, 1948, in the United Kingdom by Herbert Jenkins, London and in the United States by Doubleday and Co, New York. Although not featuring any of Wodehouse's regular characters, the cast contains a typical Wodehousean selection of English aristocrats, wealthy Americans, household staff and impostors.
Dear Reader,

Well.  That Publisher's Description up there left a little bit to be desired, eh?  I couldn't find any good "official" descriptions of the book out there, so I dug up what Wikipedia had to say - it seems to help a little, I think.  Although nothing seems to be doing this book justice.  It's hilarious.  And I'd expect nothing less from Wodehouse.  The man is a comic genius.  I am constantly laughing out loud while reading his novels.  His wit and sarcasm blend well together, producing works which you just want to devour in one sitting.

The plot of the book was also what can usually be expected from Wodehouse fare: several bumbling people who are all yearning for one thing or another, and the ridiculous situations they get themselves into whilst trying to sort things out.  The main players in this book are Stanwood Cobbold (a former football player who is regularly compared to a cow or a hippo, depending on Wodehouse's mood), Augustus Robb (Stanwood's manservant, a former burglar who found his calling after a religious awakening), Mike Cardinal (a handsome and clever Hollywood type who is head-over-heels in love with a lord's daughter who will have nothing to do with him), Lord Shortlands (the aforementioned lord, who wishes to elope with the cook), his butler Spink (who is Lord Shortlands' unscrupulous rival in love), and two of the lord's daughters, sweet Terry and bossy Adela.  All of them become mixed up in each other's lives, and stumble over each other trying to race to the finish line that usually is the winning of another's hand in marriage.  They get themselves into humorous scrapes, particularly ones involving the imbibing of too much alcohol and/or mistaken identities. They vie for affection and are sometimes cutthroat in their means of attaining it.  And they are hilarious as they do these things.

I think the best of Wodehouse's writing are the characters he imagines up, as you can see from my list above.  Everyone stands out and all of the personalities are painted vividly and distinctly.

One thing that did bother me slightly was the ending, which - while not giving anything away, I hope! - left one person not getting what he wanted.  Thus, I waffled between giving this a 3.5 and a 4.  I know, real life never works out so neatly & all, but - it does in Wodehouse's clever worlds!  Everything always seems to fall just into place, right when it needs to.  I think that's what I adore most about escaping into his worlds for a time.  No matter how messed up things seem to be getting, you know in the back of your mind that Wodehouse has a master plan, and you can feel reassured that things will all work out just dandy in the long run.

Another thing I love about the author?  His word choices.  Oh, how I wish we would still use words today like Wodehouse used to - I finished the book a few days ago, and still can't get "flippertygibbet" out of my mind (definition: one who, er, likes to play the field).  And calling girls "ducky"!  It's just all too charming, really.

Yours,
Arianna
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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Judging a Book by Its Lover


Judging a Book by Its Lover: A Field Guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere
Lauren Leto
5/5


Published 2012

First Sentence
"The first book I ever loved was a book about a monster in a child's closet."


Publisher's Description:


Want to impress the hot stranger at the bar who asks for your take on Infinite Jest? Dying to shut up the blowhard in front of you who’s pontificating on Cormac McCarthy’s “recurring road narratives”? Having difficulty keeping Francine Prose and Annie Proulx straight?

For all those overwhelmed readers who need to get a firm grip on the relentless onslaught of must-read books to stay on top of the inevitable conversations that swirl around them, Lauren Leto’s Judging a Book by Its Lover is manna from literary heaven! A hilarious send-up of—and inspired homage to—the passionate and peculiar world of book culture, this guide to literary debate leaves no reader or author unscathed, at once adoring and skewering everyone from Jonathan Franzen to Ayn Rand to Dostoyevsky and the people who read them.

Dear Reader,

This book was included in the BookRiot Quarterly box, check it out. Anyone who loves getting surprise mail, especially book related, should check out this subscription. Judging a Book by Its Lover isn't a book I would have picked up on my own, the Author is the co-creator of the popular site Texts From Last Night. I wouldn't have thought her to be someone who has a lot to say about books and literature but how wrong that is! After enjoying every little chapter, I can now say that I will be following her on twitter and other social media sites to devour more of her bookish knowledge. She is extremely well read but not elitist about it, she isn't afraid to put down her own tastes and make fun of anyone and everyone. I find it very compelling that she has the balls to do this and this book shines because of it.

Every chapter has something to enjoy, whether it be a comical review or advice on how to impress someone with your book reading prowess (even if you haven't read the book). I came away from this book adding quite a few "to-reads" and discovering things I didn't even know about myself. One of my favorite chapters was called, Petition to Change the Term from "Bookworm" to "Bookcat". The title says it all, and I stand behind her on this 100%. I will admit, there were times in this book that I felt a pang of anger when she jabbed at a favorite Author of mine, but I had to remind myself this was all in jest and she does it to everyone, even the most acclaimed.

Another section of the book that had me on the floor laughing was the part that stereotyped the reader by their favorite Author. I found myself ashamed to admit that a few of these nailed it straight to my heart, and a few others I giggled about knowing it described perfectly other people in my life. I think the best part of this book is the connection you get with Lauren Leto, knowing she is just another reader like you... but how she is sharing these funny tidbits to connect you to the world of other readers. She tells you a little about herself, growing up without many friends, bumping into walls because she can't put a book down long enough to look where shes going. All those little quirks about her, those are the things that I related to most and she pulls you into her world before she bashes her hammer down on your favorites, bringing a little reality to the world of literary snobs. I loved everything about it.

I can't help but want to shove this book into every hand I know who loves to read. It's quick, witty and makes your stomach hurt from all the laughter. Bravo to BookRiot and Lauren Leto for this wonderful reading escapade, I will be picking this book and referencing it for years to come.

Happy Reading,
AmberBug

P.S. - I feel lucky to have read two favorites within the past month, but it always leaves me worried that my next read will be criticized all the more because of that. Keep that in mind when you read the next few reviews, I might be a little less gracious with me ratings. 

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane


The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Neil Gaiman
5/5


Published 2013

First Sentence
"It was only a duck pond, out at the back of the farm."


Publisher's Description:

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.

Dear Reader,

Magic! Pure magic! I LOVED this book. The magic in this book was wonderful, it took me right back to those childhood memories that I miss. Do you remember those moments when you were that young reader, that impressionable one? Remember the feeling you got when you read something so magical that gave you shivers? THIS does that, or at least for me it did. It's so adult, but yet has all the charm of a children's fairy tale. Maybe that impression comes from the main character being a child who happens upon a family with magical powers.

This boy has a normal family, not too happy or too sad, and has a love of reading that is extremely relatable to any reader. It brings you back to when you read a book under the covers with a flashlight, reading while walking around and even while climbing the stairs, bringing your book with you everywhere... THAT kind of love for reading. I want you to close your eyes, think back to that time in your childhood that had you captivated by a magical story. Close the eyes, remember that time and breath slowly... so slowly that you don't wake. If you wake... the magic will disappear in a cloud, like a dream. THAT is how this book feels.

I won't deny that I've been a fan of Gaiman before this book came out and I'm happy to see him slide into a more public view after this book became a bestseller. He is definitely an Author with a niche and one that most people who might not be into supernatural or fantasy would rather pass up but I find The Ocean at the End of the Lane very accessible to anyone. I like that he created an approachable book, maybe even to sway non-fantasy readers over to the magical side a bit more. I think Coraline was another of his more approachable and acclaimed works, and this story has a lot of similarity. Apparently, Gaiman has a way of reaching everyone while writing about children in a magical world. Maybe everyone can relate to that feeling of wonder and magic? Whatever the reason, I can easily give this recommendation to just about anyone (although I will warn this isn't a children's book, parents be warned). Pick this up and read it today.

Happy Reading,
AmberBug

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Monday, March 17, 2014

We Have Always Lived in the Castle


We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Shirley Jackson
3 / 5


Published 1986

First Paragraph
"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.  I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance.  I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise.  I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and
Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom.  Everyone else in my family is dead."
Publisher's Description:
Visitors call seldom at Blackwood House. Taking tea at the scene of a multiple poisoning, with a suspected murderess as one's host, is a perilous business. For a start, the talk tends to turn to arsenic. "It happened in this very room, and we still have our dinner in here every night," explains Uncle Julian, continually rehearsing the details of the fatal family meal. "My sister made these this morning," says Merricat, politely proffering a plate of rum cakes, fresh from the poisoner's kitchen. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson's 1962 novel, is full of a macabre and sinister humor, and Merricat herself, its amiable narrator, is one of the great unhinged heroines of literature. "What place would be better for us than this?" she asks, of the neat, secluded realm she shares with her uncle and with her beloved older sister, Constance. "Who wants us, outside? The world is full of terrible people." Merricat has developed an idiosyncratic system of rules and protective magic, burying talismanic objects beneath the family estate, nailing them to trees, ritually revisiting them. She has made "a powerful taut web which never loosened, but held fast to guard us" against the distrust and hostility of neighboring villagers.

Or so she believes. But at last the magic fails. A stranger arrives -- cousin Charles, with his eye on the Blackwood fortune. He disturbs the sisters' careful habits, installing himself at the head of the family table, unearthing Merricat's treasures, talking privately to Constance about "normal lives" and "boy friends." Unable to drive him away by either polite or occult means, Merricat adopts more desperate methods. The result is crisis and tragedy, the revelation of a terrible secret, the convergence of the villagers upon the house, and a spectacular unleashing of collective spite.

The sisters are propelled further into seclusion and solipsism, abandoning "time and the orderly pattern of our old days" in favor of an ever-narrowing circuit of ritual and shadow. They have themselves become talismans, to be alternately demonized and propitiated, darkly, with gifts. Jackson's novel emerges less as a study in eccentricity and more -- like some of her other fictions -- as a powerful critique of the anxious, ruthless processes involved in the maintenance of normality itself. "Poor strangers," says Merricat contentedly at last, studying trespassers from the darkness behind the barricaded Blackwood windows. "They have so much to be afraid of." --Sarah Waters

Dear Reader,

My first and only prior exposure to Shirley Jackson was from the short story that many of us were made to read in high school English class, The Lottery -- that highly disturbing story of a town where people are chosen at random each year to be stoned to death by the rest of the citizens. So I suppose I should have excepted this book would be odd and disturbing, as well. This was a short book, but it certainly packed a lot into its 200 pages - it certainly really got under my skin, and I won't quickly forget it. Jackson seems to really like exploring the experience of being the outsider, the shunned member of society. She paints a vivid picture of the eccentric, reclusive Blackwood family. And then she slowly reveals the secrets which this odd family and their creepy house harbor.

I really cannot decide what I thought of this book, though. I certainly loved the kind of singsong, young voice that the narrator employs - Merricat is a teenager, and it shows through the first person storytelling. She has also been quite emotionally stunted, and that also is evident from her incredibly superstitious and very simple nature. She wants to withdraw from the world - no, not only that: she wants everyone else to cease to exist, save for her older sister and protector, Constance. I imagined while reading this that I was hearing the kind of creepy-but-childish music which horror movies often employ, the kind where a single voice is singing a nursery rhyme over the slightly off-kilter and lonesome rendition of it on a music box. (Is that description working for everyone? Maybe I'll have to find a YouTube clip...) I think there were times when this book moved slowly and a little bit too oddly for me, but I definitely would recommend a young reader check this out around the time of Halloween; it seems appropriately bleak for that season.

On a very different note, one odd thing I just could not get out of my mind while reading this book was: who the heck was paying the utility bills?? The Blackwoods have electricity and running water, and yet absolutely no contact with the outside world regarding those sorts of things. Was it an oversight by the author? Was it an assumption she wrote in that those things were somehow taken care of? Hmm...what do those of you who have read it think?
Yours,
Arianna
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Monday, March 10, 2014

Worst. Person. Ever.


Worst. Person. Ever.
Douglas Coupland
3/5


Published 2013

First Sentence
"Dear Reader..."


Publisher's Description:

A razor-sharp portrait of a morally bankrupt and gleefully wicked modern man, Worst. Person. Ever. is Douglas Coupland's gloriously filthy, side-splittingly funny and unforgettable novel.

Meet Raymond Gunt. A decent chap who tries to do the right thing. Or, to put it another way, the worst person ever: a foul-mouthed, misanthropic cameraman, trailing creditors, ex-wives and unhappy homeless people in his wake. Men dislike him, women flee from him.

Worst. Person. Ever. is a deeply unworthy book about a dreadful human being with absolutely no redeeming social value. Gunt, in the words of the author, "is a living, walking, talking, hot steaming pile of pure id." He's a B-unit cameraman who enters an amusing downward failure spiral that takes him from London to Los Angeles and then on to an obscure island in the Pacific where a major American TV network is shooting a Survivor-style reality show. Along the way, Gunt suffers multiple comas and unjust imprisonment, is forced to re-enact the 'Angry Dance' from the movie Billy Elliot and finds himself at the centre of a nuclear war. We also meet Raymond's upwardly failing sidekick, Neal, as well as Raymond's ex-wife, Fiona, herself 'an atomic bomb of pain'.

Even though he really puts the 'anti' in anti-hero, you may find Raymond Gunt an oddly likeable character.

Dear Reader,

Before we go into the review, can I just point out how the first sentence of his book is the same way we start out our review. That is style, and Coupland gets kudos for that.

I really wanted to share with you my love for Douglas Coupland but this is not the book to bring you to the Coupland side. The story is about exactly what the title says, Worst. Person. Ever. This guy, Raymond Gunt, has everything going against him... but to me this is because he is a terrible person, just awful. While I don't particularly like it when the main character is detestable, I think it works in this book for what Coupland was trying to do. So the question really becomes, what was Coupland trying to make here? At first, the book seemed to be a parody of Fifty Shades of Grey. Mostly due to the relationship Raymond has with his ex-wife. I'm not saying this is really anything like Fifty Shades but you can tell from a few sentences here or there that Coupland was making jabs in that direction.

The premise for the book seems quite simple, Raymond being hired (by his ex-wife) as a videographer for the next American reality show (sounding an awful lot like Survivor). The story goes absolutely kabloowee when we find out that poor? Raymond has the world pitted against him at every turn. We don't even get to this island, promised from the beginning, until the very end of the book. Now don't get me wrong, Raymond has so much shit happen to him, you start feeling bad for him UNTIL the next despicable thing he does (which is just as often as bad things happening to him). This was justifiable karma to me, but it still made me cringe when he opened his stupid big mouth. I do have to say this, only Coupland (and maybe a few other Authors) can pull off writing a character with a horribleness such as Raymond.

I like that Coupland doesn't let you get comfortable, finding yourself constantly slapping your forehead and shaking your head. For those that haven't experienced Coupland yet, I would strongly suggest starting elsewhere but for those who know what he's like, I would pick this up. I've been reading some reviews out there and I think when people don't understand who he is a writer, they mistake him for a writer who uses gimmicks or just likes to "shock" people. That is only half true (haha), Coupland likes to try new things and he always stretches the boundaries with every book he writes. Even though I don't consider this one of his best, I do think he succeeds in creating the Worst. Person. Ever. I'll be attending an event with Coupland and Palahniuk coming up soon, Coupland is promoting this book (I believe), so I'm looking forward to hearing more about his thoughts. If I have anything to add after hearing him speak, I'll post them here or as a separate post about the event itself.

Happy Reading,
AmberBug

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Saturday, March 8, 2014

Mother, Mother


Mother, Mother
Koren Zailckas
3.5 / 5


Published 2013

First Sentence
"Her face was the first thing William Hurst saw when he opened his eyes from his not-so-sweet dreams."


Very appropriate author-selected epigraph: 
"A family is a tyranny ruled over by its weakest member." --George Bernard Shaw
Publisher's Description:
Josephine Hurst has her family under control. With two beautiful daughters, a brilliantly intelligent son, a tech-guru of a husband and a historical landmark home, her life is picture perfect. She has everything she wants; all she has to do is keep it that way. But living in this matriarch’s determinedly cheerful, yet subtly controlling domain hasn’t been easy for her family, and when her oldest daughter, Rose, runs off with a mysterious boyfriend, Josephine tightens her grip, gradually turning her flawless home into a darker sort of prison. 

Resentful of her sister’s newfound freedom, Violet turns to eastern philosophy, hallucinogenic drugs, and extreme fasting, eventually landing herself in the psych ward. Meanwhile, her brother Will shrinks further into a world of self-doubt. Recently diagnosed with Aspergers and epilepsy, he’s separated from the other kids around town and is homeschooled to ensure his safety. Their father, Douglas, finds resolve in the bottom of the bottle—an addict craving his own chance to escape. Josephine struggles to maintain the family’s impeccable fa├žade, but when a violent incident leads to a visit from child protective services, the truth about the Hursts might finally be revealed.
Dear Reader,

Let me first admit that one of the reasons I finally HAD to read this book was so that I could stop getting that darn Meredith Baxter song stuck in my head for weeks straight every time I saw this book on my shelf!  Not that I don't love that song, but man is it catchy, and I couldn't shake it.  My poor boyfriend had to listen to me singing it all the time, and then it only got worse while I was reading the novel, haha.  Luckily, I'll pass it on (perhaps to my sister?) and can finally rid my brain of that song, 24/7!  Probably.

Anyway, on to actually discussing the book, and not just the title.  So: there was definitely a point when I couldn't put this book down.  Zailckas pulls you in with a really gripping and confounding mystery, and all you want is to know what the heck is going on!  Not to mention the absolute craziness of "mother, mother" - watching her is like watching a train wreck.  It's hard to believe anyone could really be that psychotic, although I know it's not unreal.  I think one of the most thriller-esque qualities of this book for me was the idea that if everyone thinks the crazy person is the sane one, then there is a danger of the actual sane ones being condemned as the insane - and then actually starting to believe it themselves!  It's a terrifying thought.

The characters in this book were definitely engaging and pulled you in to their little world.  There wasn't a very wide scope to this book; it barely ever left its focus on the Hurst family, but I think that was a great plot device on the part of the author, to keep everything so narrow that the reader couldn't tell what was real or who was telling the truth.  There were certainly times I didn't know who or what to believe.  This book called vividly to mind the way I felt when reading Gone Girl, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed that mystery/thriller.  It is a delicious combination of slightly eerie and slightly insane and very much intriguing.

It's difficult to talk too much about the book without revealing things, but I will say I enjoyed the strong distinction between the characters, particularly those in the Hurst family.  A controlling mother, a victimized daughter, the rebel daughter (but: which daughter was which, really?), an autistic son, and an entirely helpless father, too busy caught up in his own messes to see what is going on with the rest of them.  Then there are the peripheral characters: the endearing social worker, the pushy social worker, the friend's mother who is a hardcore hippie...so many wonderful characterizations and stereotypes all show up in the book.  Again, I think it was a brilliant way for the author to emphasize how easy it was to pigeonhole these characters, in their world.  You'll have to read to understand what I mean!

Yours,
Arianna

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Friday, March 7, 2014

How Green Was My Valley


How Green Was My Valley
Richard Llewellyn
4 / 5


Published 1939

First Sentence
"I am going to pack my two shirts with my other socks and my best suit in the little blue cloth my mother used to tie round her hair when she did the house, and I am going from the Valley."
Publisher's Description:
Huw Morgan, about to leave home forever, reminisces about the golden days of his youth, when South Wales still prospered and coal dust had not yet blackened the valley. Llewellyn's characters fight, love, laugh, and cry, creating an indelible portrait of a people.
Dear Reader,

This was a beautiful little Welsh story of love (for family and for homeland), and propriety, and loss.  Among many other things.  It's hard to enumerate all of the emotions that sweep through one while reading this book, the story of the formative years of Huw Morgan, son and brother of South Wales coal miners.  I read the audiobook of this, and at first it was difficult to get into the rhythm and choice of the words, but once I did, it became as a comforting and familiar song.  Llewellyn's descriptions of certain small moments of life are delicious, as exemplified in this wonderful passage about Huw's first kiss:
"There is strange, and yet not strange, is the kiss.  It is strange because it mixes silliness with tragedy, and yet not strange because there is good reason for it.  There is shaking by the hand.  That should be enough.  Yet a shaking of the hands is not enough to give a vent to all kinds of feeling.  The hand is too hard and too used to doing all things, with too little feeling and too far from the organs of taste and smell, and far from the brain, and the length of an arm from the heart.  To rub a nose like the blacks, that we think is so silly, is better, but there is nothing good to the taste about the nose, only a piece of old bone pushing out of the face, and a nuisance in winter, but a friend before meals and in a garden, indeed.  With the eyes we can do nothing, for if we come too near, they go crossed and everything comes twice to the sight without good from one or the other. 
There is nothing to be done with the ear, so back we come to the mouth, and we kiss with the mouth because it is part of the head and of the organs of taste and smell.  It is temple of the voice, keeper of breath and its giving out, treasurer of tastes and succulences, and home of the noble tongue.  And its portals are firm, yet soft, with a warmth, of a ripeness, unlike the rest of the face, rosy, and in women with a crinkling red tenderness, to the taste not in compare with the wild strawberry, yet if the taste of kisses went, and strawberries came the year round, half of joy would be gone from the world."
You'll notice the odd cadence and play of the words -- this must have been the dialect which the Welsh used at the time; I'm not sure if it is still in use today?  My one solid conclusion from this book has been that Yoda must have been Welsh, because goodness - they do so love to switch their sentences around!  Haha.  But, to be serious, it's a beautiful melody to listen to.  The reader of the book - who I thought I disliked, having heard him also read Kipling's Kim - was a perfect choice for Huw Morgan's memoirs.  Listening to this recording recalled to me what listening to a Shakespeare play is like, with the iambic pentameter emphasized into a sort of song.

But, enough about the beautiful writing style - what of the plot itself?  Well, being a strong union supporter, I found it fascinating to watch the first stirrings of this political movement when the coal operations began to pay their workers less than living wages.  The Morgan family stands divided over the idea of unionizing, and I loved watching the back-and-forth discussion of the issues as they weighed the pros and cons of the movement.

Other of my favorite parts were those which followed Huw's entry into school and into the world of schoolyard fighting.   His pride in his heritage was the cause of a lot of his scrapes, so it was interesting also to watch how people reacted to his engaging in fights, based on their own pride or fear.

One cautionary side note which I must make because it affected my own reading of the book: DO NOT check out Wikipedia articles trying to familiarize yourself with a story (in my case, I wanted to know where it took place, as I lacked any background on the book and had no book cover to refer to).  I ended up inadvertently learning of quite a big plot point (in the first paragraph of the article!) which wasn't revealed until quite a ways into the book, and when it did come, I was hardly shocked (I had spent most of the book waiting for it to happen, wondering when it would).  I need to take this advice to heart not only for this book, but for all of them!  It can be quite a danger.  Not that I have a good alternate suggestion; Wikipedia can be a great resource for more fully understanding a book.  However...it can also be dangerous!!

All in all, a very enjoyable story, which did come as somewhat of a surprise, especially after I finished the book: there wasn't all that much to it plot-wise, it was just a wonderful narrative of a young life and (for me) exposure to a new place.  I understand why it is considered a timeless classic, though - and this despite quite a bit of controversy over the author's source material (he first claimed the book was based on his own life, but it was revealed he had never lived in Wales, nor spent time in mines, and that he had simply interviewed quite a few people who did).  No matter to me, though - it was still such a beautiful story, heart-wrenching when you think of how green Huw's valley originally was during his idyllic youth, and how black it had become from the strip mining that eventually took over the verdant lands.  Such a perfect metaphor.

Yours,
Arianna
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Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Goldfinch


The Goldfinch
Donna Tartt
4.5/5


Published 2013

First Sentence
"While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years."
Publisher's Description:

A young boy in New York City, Theo Decker, miraculously survives an accident that takes the life of his mother. Alone and determined to avoid being taken in by the city as an orphan, Theo scrambles between nights in friends’ apartments and on the city streets. He becomes entranced by the one thing that reminds him of his mother, a small, mysteriously captivating painting that soon draws Theo into the art underworld.

Dear Reader,

I finally got around to reading one of the most talked about books of 2013, The Goldfinch. This story follows Theo Decker, a boy who survives a horrible accident at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which then follow him throughout the years as he grows older. Theo becomes the sad orphan with loss surrounding him. During his teen years, he meets Boris, who he becomes best friends with. 

The book doesn't actually have much plot, it does have some big turning point events that bring us many philosophical questions. For Example, would Theo be different if he didn't become an orphan so young? This book brings up many "what if" questions, mostly about the choices made and events that play out. I don't want to delve to deep because as River Song always says, "Spoilers!" I can skim over some of the themes Tartt forces us to think about while reading this book. 

Theo and Boris give off this yin/yang personality types. Theo is the grounded, depressed and brooding type, while Boris just wants to have fun and follows whatever path benefits him the most. Boris views Theo's brooding as strange and doesn't understand why he can't just enjoy and let go. I loved the dynamic between the two. It was fun watching Boris pull Theo down the path of trouble, which undeniably gave Theo a more exciting life. So what is more important? Living a safe life that will include the stupid all american dreams of white picket fence. Maybe this isn't YOUR dream and I always hate how the typical American believes this is what we should strive for. Maybe this isn't for everyone! I think Boris knows this about life and he accepts that sometimes doing the "wrong" thing might be the "right" thing for him, later in life karma catches up and maybe not in the bad way you'd expect it to.

This book made me think, quiet a bit... about things that I haven't thought about in quite some time. I really understood the point the Author was making about grey morals and those borders you sometimes have to cross. Nothing is black and white, I know... such a cliche but so very true. You can't point a finger at someone and say they've never done something against the rules. Everyone has and everyone will, whether you repent for it in church or just sit and brood over it yourself... there's that moment when you ask yourself, "Why? Why is this wrong? Who made this rule? Who is the one who decides right from wrong?" My opinion is that it should be YOURSELF. You should decide if the consequences of your actions are morally wrong by how they'll make you feel. This is obviously easier done after you've been around long enough to learn from past mistakes but I do believe that the majority of people are inherently good people, and if given the choice (without a rule stapled to it), they'd chose the option that will be the best for everyone in the long wrong. Nobody wants to feel guilt, remorse or feel that stabbing pain from doing something you consider wrong. What if we took that out of the equation? That would be interesting, wouldn't it?

But I digress, I believe Boris felt this way and this was one of those debates that popped back into my head like a long lost friend. I imagined myself running to meet this bundle of philosophy and wrapping my arms around it, attempting to untangle the mess it worked itself into. Getting back to the book, as you can see The Goldfinch wasn't what was expected, it wasn't the literary mystery I thought it would be. The mystery was more within the personality of the characters and how they'd turn out in the end. Maybe more of a "coming of age" story than a "mystery". Do I think this surprise stopped many people from enjoying the book for what it ACTUALLY was? Yes, I do... and that's a shame. But for those going into a book that throws you a curve ball in a different but welcoming direction, just embrace it... you'll thank yourself in the end. 

Happy Reading,
AmberBug

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Saturday, March 1, 2014

The People in the Trees


The People in the Trees
Hanya Yanagihara
4/5


Published 2013

First Sentence
"I was born in 1924 near Lindon, Indiana, the sort of small, unremarkable rural town that some twenty years before my birth had begun to duplicate itself, quietly but insistently, across the Midwest."
Publisher's Description:
In 1950, a young doctor called Norton Perina signs on with the anthropologist Paul Tallent for an expedition to the remote Micronesian island of Ivu'ivu in search of a rumored lost tribe. They succeed, finding not only that tribe but also a group of forest dwellers they dub "The Dreamers," who turn out to be fantastically long-lived but progressively more senile. Perina suspects the source of their longevity is a hard-to-find turtle; unable to resist the possibility of eternal life, he kills one and smuggles some meat back to the States. He scientifically proves his thesis, earning worldwide fame and the Nobel Prize, but he soon discovers that its miraculous property comes at a terrible price. As things quickly spiral out of his control, his own demons take hold, with devastating personal consequences.

Dear Reader,

Every now and then you read a book and after you've finished you sit there wondering if you liked it or not. This was one of those books. The People in the Trees is very well written, has all the makings of a good novel including adventure, science, culture, even a little bit of mystery. The book is essentially about this scientist who is invited to join an anthropologist to an island rumored to contain a lost tribe. Before we even get to this plot line, we're introduced to the scientist's associate, who is the narrator of the book. Even before that, we're introduced to the scientist through a scandal involving him and some children, yes... he was accused of inappropriate relationships with some of his children (who've been adopted by him). This is all within the first few chapters, after that the narrator (his associate) wants to clear his name and tell the story of a great scientist who did wonderful things and adopted children from this mysterious island (children who would have become destitute).

What I loved about this book was the vivid way the Hana Yanagihara describes this tribe, the people, the language, the customs, the novelty of it. Clearly, this is a book that involves so many controversial topics. If we come upon a hidden society/tribe, should it be kept a secret?  When first introduced to the tribe, you notice that the people have it together, more than we do even. They hunt, gather, trade, live, love... all the things that satiate our needs in life. Can technology bring them easier ways of doing things, un-complicating tasks that take time and effort? Yes! Should we bring this technology them to "better" their lives? This is a question that gets answered in the book and they results are rather interesting. Technology can be a dangerous thing, especially when brought into the wrong hands. It brought this question to my mind; Are morals and ethics culturally relative? I'd be inclined to say they aren't but this is a question that could create week long discussions.

The Author brings life to this tribe with intricate stories, the storytelling in the book is fantastic. We have this long lost tribe that apparently can "live forever", after performing a ceremony where they eat some meat from a local turtle (native only to this part of the island). There is much more to this ceremony and "why" they do this, you'll have to read it yourself to find out because it's fantastic made-up folklore, giving the tribe even more depth and interest. This is where the story starts to turn ugly, the turtle is found and the scientist believes he can use it to create eternal life. This life comes at a cost though, the elderly people of the tribe who've lived over a hundred years, closer to two hundred, start to act strangely. They become different, can't remember things, the body stays healthy and fertile while the mind slowly disintegrates. Perina, the scientist, believes he can harness the ability to skirt death while also removing the problems.

I don't think we're suppose to like Perina, at least I didn't. I understood he had a very scientific brain that didn't include much room for emotion, especially empathy but doesn't a person without empathy also describe a psychopath? This is exactly how I felt about him. I did like the many ideas and questions his personality made me think about though. I started pondering about the brain a little more, different personality types, what truly makes a psychopath. I could go on and on about the ideas this book burned into my brain. I think this might be why I gave it four stars. I didn't particularly like any of the characters, the story was solid but kind of slow paced but the Author brings you into this discussion, almost like he wants to have a fun lengthy debate about ALL sorts of things. I liked that, I really did. I would suggest this book to someone who likes pondering over profound ideas, maybe even someone who flirts with culture and finds anthropology fascinating. I will warn you ahead of time, there's things in the book that aren't for the faint of heart. If you can't stomach certain things involving child molestation, animal cruelty, etc... you might need to pass this up. I don't like reading about these things but can admit that they exist and books reflect life, sometimes we need to be reminded that life has horrible things in it.

Happy Reading,
AmberBug

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