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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Station Eleven or: Eerie Dystopian that Could Actually Happen

    I've been wanting to read this book for a long while and finally got the chance to for my book club. It's often classified as science fiction which I get, but what's different about this novel is that everything is 100% realistic. It could literally happen tomorrow and that's what makes reading this such a nail biter.

   Arthur Leander is a world famous actor who collapses from a heart attack while performing King Lear on stage. His death is not a spoiler, I promise, it happens on page 1. From there readers follow his life (through flashbacks) and the lives of those who crossed paths with him at one point or another. The big catch is that the night of Arthur's death is also the night the world ends. 99% of the population is wiped out. And soon after that anything powered by electricity, gas, or battery dies too. No more air travel, internet, government, or hospitals. We're given details of life 20 years before and after the collapse and bits and pieces in between to form a narrative about art, survival, and civilization.



    So, that summary is kind of vague, but I don't want to give anything away. There's quite a few characters to keep track of and it would be better for you to just go read the book rather than me typing out a long summary of each of them! After finishing I realized how there wasn't ever really a main character because the story was told from multiple points-of-view. You know I love stories told from multiple POVs!
 
    This book wasn't what I was expecting when I heard it was dystopian mainly because of all of the flashbacks to before the collapse. There was just as much happening in the pre-collapse narrative as the post-collapse. It made the story more relatable, whereas so much dystopian fiction feels disconnected from my own world. Mandel certainly has a talent for making ordinary characters interesting to read about. There often wasn't anything special about the people in this story, but she had a way of making me sympathize with them and wanting to know what happened to them. I especially loved they way they were all interconnected with one another. It was like this web that spread over decades tying everyone together even if they never knew it.

    Like I said above, the disturbing part about this book is that it could happen to us at any moment. Nothing Mandel wrote about was out of the realm of possibility in the world as we know it. In our book club we talked about what skills we would have to offer if we survived what the characters here did. How horrifying would it be to never see your family again, trying to move on while assuming they are probably dead. Would we stay where we are or try to move somewhere more promising? So many questions are raised by the time I finished the book that I can't even begin to answer. I don't even want to think about answering most of them, it's too scary!

    There is so much more I could talk about but I think I'm going to leave it at that...hopefully this review is the little taste you need to bite into the book as a whole. Overall, a must read! Although it ends on a hopeful note, it left me a little depressed, so you've been warned!

4/5 Stars

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Underground Railroad and How It Stressed Me Out

    I don't want to make light of the events described in Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, but gosh, I feel like I need to watch several episodes of Friends to recover after this book. I finally picked it up when it was selected as a September title for the Diverse Books Club (@diversebooksclub on Instagram...check it out!). I'm always up for some great historical fiction, but reading this makes me feel the same way I feel when I watch movies like Deepwater Horizon or The Impossible. I think to myself, "Holy cow. I would not survive this. I cannot imagine the pain and suffering. I don't even want to think about it!" Stories like these have me holding my head in my hands the whole time because they're true. They really happened. I can't tell myself, "Well it's sad but it's just a story."


    The Underground Railroad follows Cora from childhood on a cotton plantation in Georgia through her young adult life as she tries to escape slavery and find freedom in the North. She meets friends and enemies along the way, gets captured more than a few times, and can't begin to know what it means to live a carefree life. She is aided by the the underground railroad, a network of allies and abolitionists working to help free slaves. Whitehead, however, takes it a step further and imagines the underground railroad as a literal train track underground that helps fugitives flee their owners. The story is told mainly through Cora's point of view (third person) but occasionally breaks to secondary characters.

    Like I said above, this book brought the 19th century South to life. So much so that I was practically groaning at the torture and punishments slaves were put through. I just cannot imagine treating human beings like they're property, animals. It's something I knew happened, but this Whitehead opened my eyes to it in a whole new way. There were so many heart-wrenching scenes throughout this book. I mean every time I thought maybe Cora could be happy, something horrible happened. I just wanted her to reunite with her mother, fall in love, have her own children, learn to read for crying out loud! I just wanted her to be able to relax! This was the most compelling part of the story: following Cora's journey. I had to know where she was going to end up.

    What I wasn't crazy about was the character development, meaning I didn't think there was much of it. Although we follow Cora from birth to young womanhood, I don't feel like I ever got to know her really well. I was certainly rooting for her, but it wasn't because I really liked her as a character (although I didn't dislike her), it was because she (and the other slaves) didn't deserve to be treated way she was. And if the main character wasn't completely fleshed out, you can imagine the secondary characters weren't either. I think the chapters from the other points of view were supposed to help with that but I found some of these more confusing or distracting than necessary or interesting (except for the one at the end...you'll know it when you get there!) I guess I found all of the characters to be rather cold and unapproachable (can that be a thing for characters in a book??).

    The other aspect of this book that bothered me was the timeline. There was a lot of back and forth between childhood and adulthood, past and present. The book definitely did not follow chronological order, which it wouldn't absolutely have to except I often had to reread sections to reorient myself about where I was in relation to where was a paragraph ago. I think Whitehead's goal here was to reveal certain things at certain times. He would often work backward as a way of introducing a new setting, but I found it a little jarring and disjointed.

    Overall, the need to know what was going to happen to Cora outweighed the things I didn't like about Whitehead's style choices. This was a great read, but definitely not because it gave me warm, fuzzy feelings. Instead, it made me angry about the injustices that took place in the past and the injustices that are still happening in the present. America may have made progress since slavery in the South, but we still have a long way left to go. I think that is Whitehead's real motive behind writing this story and he certainly drove it home for me.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Friday, September 1, 2017

This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

    I'm going to come right out and say that this book made me uncomfortable. It was beautifully written and had me totally engrossed the entire time, but I was certainly challenged while reading it. I picked this book up because there was so much buzz about it and I don't like being out of the book loop. I knew what the main idea was, but the story tackled it a little differently than I was expecting.


    Penn and Rosie are doing their best to raise their five children. Without really meaning to, they carry one big secret. Their daughter, Poppy, is not like the other little girls around her. She has to go into the bathroom to change into her pajamas at slumber parties and her parents spend hours on the internet researching hormone blockers. This is because Poppy used to be Claude. The story follows the family over a decade as they navigate life and learn about acceptance of others and oneself.

    Transgender issues and rights are not topics I am very familiar with and honestly, not ones I intentionally seek to learn more about. But I realize stories like this one are reality for people and families around me. And I really believe this gave me a perspective I wouldn't have had otherwise. Although this is only one story and there are many more unique stories out there, I feel my understanding of this challenging, but timely topic has been enhanced.

    I suppose the hardest thing for me to grasp about this story was how easily Rosie and Penn accepted the idea of Claude becoming Poppy. I don't pretend to know how to raise kids, or know what it means to love one's child unconditionally, but there was so little resistance coming from the parents which didn't strike me as very realistic. In general, I thought the majority of characters in this book were very accepting of Poppy's transformation. Clearly there are scenes that stand out to refute that claim, but I mean overall, and especially at the end (sorry, slight spoiler), everyone is just pretty much hunky dory about everything. It's not that I wish bad things for Poppy's character, I just had an impression that things for her and her parents would take a lot more time, explaining, fighting, pushing against the system, etc.

    No matter how I feel about the content though, Frankel is, without a doubt, an excellent writer. My favorite parts of this story were all the bits and pieces of the family throughout the years. How Rosie and Penn fell in love, "watching" the older boys grow up, Grumwald and Princess Stephanie (and how they came full circle!), Poppy and Aggie tapping on each other's windows and more. The real heart of this book is family and love and I can't argue with that.

 4/5 Stars

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Sourdough: A love letter to bakers and techies

    If you read Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore than you know what I'm talking about when I say Robin Sloan once again wrote a totally quirky but lovable book. Sourdough is like an ode to carbs. Or bread really. Mr. Sloan, you are a genius. Thankfully I had 2 loaves of bread (honey wheat & zucchini) in the house as I was reading this book, because take my word for it: You will want to eat an entire loaf within the first few pages.


    Lois is a programmer who recently moved to San Francisco for a job at a robotics company called General Dexterity. They specialize in developing robotic arms. Alone in a new city, Lois finds herself depressed and malnourished until she discovers Clement Street Soup and Sandwiches run by brothers Chaiman and Beo. She is soon their most frequent customer and they are her only form of social interaction. When the brothers must close up shop and leave the country, Lois is crushed, until they bring her one last delivery: their sourdough bread starter. She has zero baking experience but quickly learns how to care for the starter and bake the bread. Proud of her new little hobby, Lois begins sharing the bread with those around her and soon finds herself applying to sell the sourdough at one of the local farmer's markets. Instead she is immersed in an underground experimental market of sorts. Her programming skills and new bread baking talent are combined to make an interesting and totally one-of-kind story. 

    That was a lengthy summary, but there were so many strange little details about this story, and that synopsis didn't even skim the surface! What I liked most about this book was Lois's character. She was the nice balance to all the quirkiness going on throughout the story. She was relatable and often provided a breath of fresh air among all of the eccentricity. I loved the little snide comments she would make to herself about her coworkers and acquaintances. 

    This book wasn't just all about baking, it also incorporated technology. More specifically it combined the two and explored the ways people could (potentially) live only off of food gel packets, grow food underground with lights, and use strange and interesting ingredients and tools to make ordinary food extraordinary food. This setting was unlike anywhere I'd ever read about. Many descriptions sounded like science, but I knew it was unlikely that most of it was real or accurate. If there was anything I didn't like about this book, it was probably these scientific explanations that I thought bogged down the story line just a tad. 

    As for the ending, I loved how it all came full circle in a way. Let's just say I was hoping what happened was going to happen, although I really had no idea it would until it did! Those are the best kinds of endings! Overall, I'll say I'm usually turned off by extreme quirkiness in the characters and plots that I read, but Sloan just seemed to do it in a really interesting and balanced way here. I credit the bread. Bread makes everything better.

Sourdough is released September 5, 2017! Thanks to my boss for the ARC!

4/5 Stars

Saturday, August 19, 2017

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness (not on the edge of my seat)

    I had heard great things about Andrew Peterson as a musician and writer from my brother and sister and law. When the Wingfeather Saga was recommended on the What Should I Read Next podcast to kids who love Harry Potter, I immediately put a hold on it at the library...I mean we're all looking for Harry Potter read-a-likes, am I right?

    I think for those reasons I had really high expectations for this story, and that's why it kind of disappointed me. But before you cross this one off your to-read list, let me tell you that I actually do plan on reading the next book in the series. Though it didn't leave a great first impression on me, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness set the series up for what I hope to be an exciting ride. And with the right audience, I think there's potential.


    Janner lives in Glipwood with this mother, brother (Tink), sister (Leeli), and grandather (Podo). Their little town sits between the Dark Sea of Darkness and the sinister Glipwood forest and is overseen by the mean and nasty Fangs of Dang (stationed there when horrible Gnag the Nameless took over the continent in a quest to conquer High King Wingfeather). As the oldest child, Janner feels the strong burden to protect and watch out for his siblings. It is this responsibility, along with his natural curiosity, that brings Janner to the conclusion that his mother and Podo must be hiding something important from him about the past. What could they be keeping secret and what does it mean for their family and for the world as they know it?

    It was hard to summarize this story for one of the several reasons I did not like it...there were so many weird names! I suppose that makes it more fantastical, but I thought it was confusing. What disappointed me the most was how the first three chapters set up an interesting world and backstory, but after that it all just kind of fell flat. I had assumed going into this story that there was going to be an epic journey or adventure (perhaps because the summary on the back of the book says "this epic adventure"???). Instead it was more about three siblings who kept getting into trouble in town and then someone coming to their rescue. In fact, it seemed to me the only purpose the character of Leeli served was to get captured and then rescued. I got bored. Every so often interesting bits and pieces of that world and backstory would make their way in and then it got boring again...until the very end when it really did get interesting. I won't spoil anything, but twist at the end is what makes me want to read the next book.

   I think the right audience (middle grade readers) would probably gloss over the grievances that I have and might really like it. The quirky names, and funny situations will make them laugh. There's lots of action and likable characters. Themes like courage and sacrifice, as well as greed and grudges make for good conversation after reading.

    I'm holding out hope for North! or be Eaten, but I can't say I'm going to rush to read it soon.

3/5 Stars

Monday, August 14, 2017

Thoughts on Fitness & Fitness Junkie

Here are my health and fitness routines as told by memes:






Can anyone else relate? ;)

    A healthy lifestyle has never been an easy thing for me to maintain. I never have enough discipline. I would rather eat the cookie/brownie/pie. Vegetables just aren't priority in our house. My husband and I go on regular bike rides but we do it because it's something we enjoy together, not because we're trying to lose weight.

    I confess these things because I can relate to the main character in Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza's newest book Fitness Junkie. Janey Sweet is the CEO of the popular and thriving wedding dress company, B. When her childhood best friend and business partner, Beau, says that she must lose weight or lose her job, Janey initially thinks he's crazy. But before she knows it, she's sucked into the world of bizarre exercise routines, crazy fad diets, and some strange New Yorkers.


    What's great about this book is its commentary on today's health and fitness industry. I loved the way it poked fun at the levels of "health" people will go to in our culture. While some of the characters and situations were rather extreme, I thought there was definitely truth to be found. I mean, we all have those Instagram friends who clearly spend more time photographing their avocado smoothies than actually eating them, right? It was interesting to see how the various characters achieved their version of health and how they all reacted to the pushes and pulls of the behaviors around them. Some were hesitant. Some were desperate. Some believed in what they were doing wholeheartedly. Some were total fakes, and others just did what they felt they had to do.

     For a long while I was unsure where the plot was headed in this story. There were a lot of different directions I could see it taking and I have to say I was surprised at how much of a punch the ending packed in. Regardless of the sometimes implausible plot lines, I think the overlying message of self acceptance is one we could all stand to hear.

4/5 Stars

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Youth Lit. Goals & Tuesdays at the Castle

     At work I often get asked by parents, what are some "good, clean, appropriate" books for my kid/teen? I put it in quotes because I know what they're really looking for are quality stories minus vulgar language or steamy romance scenes. More often than not, parents are okay with violence. Even more often than not, parents aren't able to read everything before their kids do. I totally understand wanting to be cautious of watch young kids are reading. On the other hand, I don't believe kids become/do/model a behavior just because they read about it. I suppose it really depends on the reader themselves, their age, and what they know they can handle. This can be a very personal opinion, but one I'm always interested in discussing with others. Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

    I usually have a few titles to throw out but it seems the kid has either already read it or the book is checked out. I end up wandering the stacks pointing things out that I've heard are good or read a really long time ago.

    With that all said, I've made a goal for myself. I want to try harder to find more "good, clean, appropriate books" and then actually read them so I can enthusiastically recommend them in these situations. Because if I've learned anything in working with kids and teens it's that they aren't interested in checking out a book that I have half-heartedly recommended.

    I spent about an hour on good reads last week (oh wait, that's nothing new...) adding children's and YA lit to my to-read list and the first one I checked out was Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George. 


    Tuesdays at the Castle is the perfect example of "good, clean, appropriate" literature that I think parents are looking for. It was a fun, engaging story without any questionable content. This fantasy centers around Castle Glower and the royal family that lives within it. But Castle Glower isn't just any ordinary castle. Every Tuesday the castle grows and adds new rooms, stairways, doors, or secret passageways. It's almost as if the castle is alive. Princess Celie is the youngest daughter of King Glower the Seventy-Ninth and knows the ins and outs of the castle better than anyone. When tragedy strikes, Celie and those closest to her must use their wit to fight. It's a good thing Celie has the Castle Glower on her side!

    Perhaps one of the reasons I liked this story so much is because Castle Glower reminded me a little bit of the Hogwarts Castle with it's magically changing scenery. I love that the Castle Glower is a character all by itself. Though Celie is a young girl she is smart and tough. There are great themes of loyalty and family throughout the story. It had just enough conflict to keep me interested, but remained lighthearted. I would recommend this for anyone over the age of 8!

5/5 Stars