The Gone-Away World

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I find it interesting that a review on the cover of this Nick Harkaway novel states that it “reads like a surrealist smashup of Pynchon and Pratchett, Vonnegut and Heller…” Considering that I hate 3/4 of those authors and have never even heard of the fourth, I was startled to find that I ABSOLUTELY LOVED THIS BOOK. It just goes to show that reviews mean nothing and I should probably stop writing.

There is nothing in this book to dislike. It’s got a brilliant plot and likeable characters, and it’s witty as hell.  The nameless narrator extrapolates endlessly, but somehow it doesn’t annoy. It’s always fascinating backstory and hilarious anecdotes. Yet despite all the hilarity, this book is dark. And sad. It leaves you feeling a little bit hollow because it makes you realize, better than most, how quickly the world can change and take everything that makes sense with it.

I read a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction, and as much as I like the concept, a lot of it has begun to read the same. This book completely broke the mold and gave me something entirely new to explore. An apocalypse that involves ninjas, literal dream-monsters, and the most terrifying bombs you’ve ever heard of.  This novel can make you laugh out loud and the next moment be afraid to go to sleep. I plan on reading a lot more of this author’s work. He’s an excellent writer that deserves a lot of attention.

Because this is one of the best books I’ve ever read, I’m not giving away anything about the plot. Just please trust me when I say that you absolutely must read it.

13.57 through 13.61

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13.57–Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

This is a great book for video game lovers, but also for the rest of us as well.  It’s a fantastic sci-fi that’s extremely unique.  The world as we know it has been wiped out by climate change and war.  People live in extreme filth and poverty, with the exception of a few lucky, wealthy citizens.  In order to escape their harsh reality, most people spend all of their time in a virtual reality world called The Oasis.  When the billionaire creator of The Oasis, the richest man in the world, dies, he launches a massive “egg” hunt within The Oasis.  Whomever can solve his three riddles and find the treasure will win his entire fortune and take over his company.  One boy manages to crack the first riddle after years of no progress, and becomes the target of every wicked and greedy treasure hunter.  Suddenly, this game becomes life or death.

This novel (by a Texan! Woo!) is so incredibly well written.  Wade Watts is the protagonist and the narrator, and his voice serves the plot well.  He’s funny and smart, but a hopeless (and kind of adorable) geek.  His crush on the girl of his dreams leads him to form an alliance with her, and she’s a valuable ally and support for him.  It’s a great story of friendship and loyalty, and will please gamers everywhere with its references to popular and obscure games alike.

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13.58–Doll Bones by Holly Black

This is a nice, creepy story for middle grade readers.  Poppy is being haunted by a china doll, and when she and her friends investigate the doll’s history, they discover that it is inhabited by the restless ghost of a murdered child. The friends launch a quest to give rest to the child’s soul.  Though it’s nothing near as haunting as a Mary Downing Hahn book, it’s still a nice addition to the children’s horror genre, which is sadly lacking in new material.  I liked it and would recommend it to kids who are looking for a good ghost story.

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13.59–Somebody Up There Hates You by Hollis Seamon

This book was terrible.  Don’t even bother.  It’s sad, because it’s about a kid with cancer, and it feels wrong to knock it, but…that’s life.  The narrator is poorly written and the plot was uninteresting.  It felt like it wanted to be The Fault in Our Stars, but it fell sadly short.

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13.60–Loki’s Wolves by K. L. Armstrong and M. A. Marr

This book draws attention to Norse mythology, which seems to have been overshadowed lately by Greek, Roman, and Egyptian.  The story is exciting and creative, and the character conflict adds an extra layer of intrigue.  The descendants of Thor and Loki, two boys who are rivals, must decide if they can work together to save the world, or if they are destined to destroy it as once their warring god-ancestors did.  Diction and syntax could have been better, but it was still a great story that I would recommend for kids (also middle-grade readers).

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13.61–A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff

I really want to see more by this author. This is a wonderful novel for children told in multiple voices.  It truly is a tangled plot, but it’s wonderful how it all comes together in the end.  In a world where everyone has a Talent, one child wonders if she will ever discover her own, and another girl, an orphan with a Talent for baking who wonders if anyone will ever adopt her.  Their worlds collide and both will find more than they ever thought possible.  It is such a feel-good book it just warms you from the inside out.  The best part?  Between every chapter is a recipe for a delightful dessert. I’ve tried several and they’re all so yummy! I love hand-selling this one.  It’s a sweet novel that kids will love.

13.56–The Ocean at the End of the Lane

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If Neil Gaiman hadn’t already been one of my favorite authors, this book would have landed him a firm spot that list.  At this point I would say that he is very near the top. I can’t possibly capture how beautiful this novel is, and I loved it from start to finish.

Perhaps the only disappointment is how very thin the volume is.  I want more from Gaiman.  More more more.  But it is what it is and it was beautiful nonetheless.   There is something about Gaiman’s novels that sets them apart from anyone else’s–a feeling one gets while reading them that what he’s writing is actually truth, and one should keep a wary eye out for the supernatural that exists all around us.  It is at once somber and fascinating, mysterious and illuminating. I find myself often wanting to shake Gaiman’s hand (or give him a big hug, because, let’s be honest, he’s awesome and I love him) for A) opening my eyes to the miraculous world, both seen and unseen around me and B) providing me with a delightful reading experience every time I crack the spine of one of his novels.

The little boy in this novel could easily be the little boy down the street, or your own little boy, or even you.  He’s an everyday, un-special character whose life is changed for a brief period of time when a man commits suicide in a car down the street.  The violent act awakens a great evil whose malice, until that point, had been contained.  Suddenly, his comfortable, sleepy world is shattered, and fear lurks everywhere.  When even his family ceases to be a refuge, he finds unusual allies in the women that live in a house down the street–strange women who claim that the pond in their field is, in fact, an ocean that they crossed long ago from the old country.   The magical women in this story are ancient and wise, their immense power springing from their being supernatural.  The evil in the story is older seemingly than time itself, and knows how to worm its way into every human mind and heart.  All this is set in a grey and dismal landscape that matches the brooding, fearful plot.

Perhaps I say this every time I write about him, but I love Gaiman’s effortless creativity.  If he strains to think of something unique or moving, there is no evidence of it in his final draft.  This book is no exception to that rule.  Though he uses mythology as a foundation, he makes it his own, giving it his signature twist. Let us all take a moment and worship at the altar of Gaiman.

Now that that’s over, I must recommend this book to everyone.  Perhaps you don’t love fantasy but you appreciate story. Or horror. Or cerebral novels. Or simple beauty.  Gaiman is a natural, incredibly gifted storyteller, and this novel especially, I feel, can appeal to a wide audience.  Five stars for this one.

If you’ll excuse me, I think I need to read it again.

13.55–The Paris Wife

Cookie Monster (seriously, who are you?) likes to leave comments on my blog, and he reminded me that it’s been too stinking long since I kept up with this.  I’m sorry to the friends who loyally follow this blog. I’m not used to reading at such high volume, and the reason I haven’t been writing is because I don’t know how to keep up with what I’ve read! I’m at 89 books for the year so far, so I’m majorly behind on the blogging!

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The Paris Wife by Paula McLain is one of those books that evokes the whole spectrum of emotions: romantic feelings, sighing tenderness, hope, adoration of the characters, and then a slow fade to disbelief, frustration, despair, anger, and finally hatred.  I actually listened to this in audiobook format because I really feel like long drives are a waste of reading time.  Does anyone else feel that way?  So I listened to it in the car on the long drives between my parents’ city and my own, and back and forth to work.  It was a good way to take the book in, getting the added depth to the characters by hearing their voices.

Of course, being a historical novel about people who actually lived (Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson), there is no way for the author to change the course of proven events.  Their beginning was a happy one, incredibly romantic. Hemingway was a rogue and a charmer, but he fell for her truly and deeply.  They moved to Paris in the early years of their marriage, and as his fame grew were introduced and became friends with some truly famous people (F. Scott Fitzgerald sound familiar?). I was almost as in love with him as Hadley way.  But he was an unhappy, restless man, and a pawn of the times and his fame. His love for her, while never seeming to diminish, changed so thoroughly that she couldn’t ultimately endure it.  It’s a sad ending to so enchanting a couple.  I feel fine saying all of this because, of course, he was married multiple times in real life.

By the end of the novel, I hated him almost as much as I hate his novels.  He was a lost man, and in being so he was absolutely detestable.  Hadley was a sweet girl, but incredibly naive, even into her womanhood.  In this way she was absolutely infuriating.  She endured his behavior for far too long, and it made me so sad.  Their beginning was so lovely and wonderful, which made their ending so much sadder.

The audiobook is very well produced, and Carrington MacDuffie reads the voices very well.  I don’t have a lot of experience with audiobooks (I prefer the tangible, page-turning variety), but I was very happy being able to “read” while I was driving.  I can’t judge if it was a good audiobook compared to others, because it’s only about the third audiobook I’ve ever experienced.  But I enjoyed it, so I’d recommend it.

It’s a good book.  It kept my attention throughout and made me feel a lot of different things.  The characters are well-developed, as is the plot, and despite my frustrations I liked the book.  I also liked that it served to reinforce my detestation of Ernest Hemingway.  Thanks for validating my feelings, Ms. McLain.


13.54–Jinx

15818254Jinx by Sage Blackwood is one of the best new fantasies for kids I’ve read in a good long time.  This one got a lot of buzz before it came out (at least at our store), and all of our people in charge of buying and promoting kids books were raving about it.  It definitely lived up to its reputation.  I loved it!

Jinx is an orphan, of sorts, who lives with two step-parents who hate him.  One day, his step-father takes him out into the forest–called the Urwald–that surrounds their village, intending to leave him there.  Jinx, knowing that bad things happen to those who step off the path, is frightened.  But salvation comes from an unexpected source, and Jinx’s life will never again be as he knew it.

There are several things to love about this book:

1) The plot has everything a good fantasy adventure book needs.  There is plenty of action, magic, secrecy, suspense, betrayal, and redemption.  I liked that the romantic element was missing.  It was, refreshingly, more about the love between a boy and the man he would like to think of as a father.

2) The characters are great.  They are well-rounded, amusing, have good rapport and believable interactions established between them, and are easy to feel either love, hate, or confusion for.  Jinx is the best, of course, but the sometimes-wicked, sometimes-lovable Simon Magus is a close second.  Blackwood recreates those tense years of our childhood, when our parents or guardians gave us instructions and we did the exact opposite.  Their relationship is constantly in flux, and, in addition to the magical adventure that we’re actually reading the book for, we also become engrossed in how their relationship will stand at the end.

3) It is a unique magical adventure! I get so tired of authors piggy-backing on the successful models that other authors have created.  While many seem to borrow obvious tidbits from Tolkien or Rowling or others, Blackwood has created a frightening, beautiful, magical world based on nothing other than his or her (obviously this is a pen name…the author photo on Goodreads is a tree…) imagination, and perhaps the imaginative inspirations caused by reading the Brothers Grimm and the like.

It has been a long time since I read a book quite like this.  It possesses both the classic feel of the fantasies we loved to read as children, and a fresh contemporary treatment of magic and family relationships.  I can’t recommend this book enough.


Two Works of Non-Fiction


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13.53–The Black Count by Tom Reiss

This historical work is the fascinating story of the real Count of Monte Cristo.  In a time when most of the world viewed people with dark skin as savages and lesser species, France was miles ahead of the pack.  Blacks could own land and have titles, and that’s precisely what Alexandre Dumas (senior) did.  He began his military career young and rose quickly through the ranks due to his size and his cunning.  Tom Reiss did fantastic research on this fascinating story, wading through the highly romanticized accounts of the Count written by his son, the famous author Alexandre Dumas (junior).  I highly recommend this history book to any fan of the colonial era and warfare.

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13.54–The Good Nurse by  Charles Graeber

This is the true, twisted tale of nurse Charlie Cullen, who over the course of a 16 year career murdered an estimated 300 patients.  Graeber takes his reader through the severely disturbed personal and professional life of this serial killer.  Finding clever ways to get medicines into otherwise healthy patients’ blood streams, he put them down like animals.  All the while, hospitals fired him on grounds of unusual behavior or harassing the female staff, but no one ever bothered to investigate the mysterious deaths of healthy patients.  It’s a fascinating look into the life and mind of a man without conscience, and despite the disturbing nature of its contents, I highly recommend it.


13.52–Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

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This is a novel that deserved its own blog post.  I was excited about this one for years, and when I found a copy in my store’s clearance section, I decided that it was time.  Reading it is an undertaking, as it is nearly 1,000 pages long, but the effort is well worth it.  It is one of those rare novels that makes its reader eager for the end of the novel, and yet hesitant to read too quickly because its entire length is a pleasure to experience.

First, I must disclaim that the novel has a slow start.  Susanna Clarke very deliberately writes in a style like some of the great English authors.  The novel takes place in about the same time period as a Jane Austen novel.  And her language is as intricate and flourished as Charles Dickens.  Fortunately, her subject is just slightly more appealing to a modern audience, both male and female, than either of these authors (both of whom I love; I’m  not knocking them; I’m simply acknowledging that they do not appeal to everyone).

Being of considerable length, the novel’s plot is difficult to describe.  Mr. Norrell is the only practicing magician that England has seen in 200 years.  He is rather stuffy and arrogant, and lives in constant fear that another magician will one day begin practicing magic.  When that magician, Jonathan Strange, does indeed make his presence known, Mr. Norrell takes him on as a pupil to maintain his own prestige and to limit Jonathan’s education.  This plan, of course, is bound to go awry, and it does.  Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange become rivals, as both have very different ideas about what magic should mean in study and in practice, and how to employ their magical skills to the benefit of England.

Within this there are several subplots.  There is the war between England and France, in which Strange aids the Duke of Wellington’s campaign against Napoleon.  There is another whole world within England–Fairy–and the “man with the thistledown hair” who steals humans away to use as his playthings.  Jonathan Strange himself must win his wife back from this nefarious villain.  Thus, though the novel is long, there is a lot happening, and the reader is never bored.  The plot only drags in the beginning, but picks up quickly and keeps its reader entertained until the very last page.

The style in which Clark wrote this book is part of its appeal.  Clark uses antiquated and elevated language to convey a society at the height of eloquence.  Even when the characters are arguing they always sound like elegant masters of language.  She also uses antique spellings of common words and sometimes gives only the first initial for place names.  It’s an interesting and engaging way to write a book in this century, and I admire Clark for undertaking the task.

There is no good way to describe how this novel makes its reader feel.  It’s like a mixture of Harry Potter, the Chronicles of Chrestomancy, and a Jane Austen novel.  The reader feels for the characters deeply, whether its sympathy or sorrow or anger and hatred.  For the good guys, you want what they want, almost more than anything.  For the bad guys, you want only to foil their wicked or misguided plan.  It’s a novel the reader can live in, wholly absorbed.  It’s a novel that stays with you, even when you’re not reading, and calls you back to it when you stray.