All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

WARNING*** This post could potentially be spoiler-y, depending how sensitive you are to that sort of thing. Proceed with caution. That said, I feel like most people already know what the deal is with this book, so read on.

Cover image for All the Ugly and Wonderful Things
Cover image for All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

I was hesitant to read this book due to its subject matter. I knew that it involved drugs and the love between a grown man and a young girl, and I worried that it would be tawdry and disturbing. I read Lolita earlier this year, and while I recognize its value as a contribution to the canon, it still bothered me on a deep level. This did not have the same effect on me at all.

“A beautiful and provocative love story between two unlikely people and the hard-won relationship that elevates them above the Midwestern meth lab backdrop of their lives.

As the daughter of a drug dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents. It’s safer to keep her mouth shut and stay out of sight. Struggling to raise her little brother, Donal, eight-year-old Wavy is the only responsible adult around. Obsessed with the constellations, she finds peace in the starry night sky above the fields behind her house, until one night her star gazing causes an accident. After witnessing his motorcycle wreck, she forms an unusual friendship with one of her father’s thugs, Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold.

By the time Wavy is a teenager, her relationship with Kellen is the only tender thing in a brutal world of addicts and debauchery. When tragedy rips Wavy’s family apart, a well-meaning aunt steps in, and what is beautiful to Wavy looks ugly under the scrutiny of the outside world.“–Indiebound.org

What sticks out to me most about this novel is the simple, matter-of-fact way that Greenwood tells her story. There are a lot of ugly themes in this novel, yet the author barrels into them head-on. For so many people, a life like Wavy’s is not unusual, and Greenwood doesn’t tell the story as if we should feel sorry for Wavy. She simply offers the story to her readers as is, for them to take or leave as they wish. Wavy is a beautiful character–a child scarred by her mother early in life, who never quite outgrows the fears that her mother instills in her at an extremely young age. She is fierce, though, and strong–so much stronger than her delicate, ethereal frame and features would suggest. Kellen is a lovable oaf, whose kindness belies his appearance. I don’t think I’ve found a character so endearing in a really long time.

Wavy and Kellen are a conundrum for me. On the one hand is the reaction that is pre-programmed into us, to know that sexual exploitation of a child is wrong. On the other, though, you have Wavy relying on and loving the only adult in her life who has ever accepted and loved her purely for herself. Kellen is the only person who has never tried to change her or coax her out of her ways. He simply loves her, and isn’t that what we all want? Someone who sees and loves us, and doesn’t try to change us? In the end, I accepted this story for what it was: one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever read.

Was it disturbing? On a level, but one that was significantly less troublesome to my conscience than I expected. This is one of those “exception to the rule” situations that neither my heart nor my logical brain had trouble accepting.  So I was warned about this book, but I was not nearly as troubled by most of it as I expected to be.

I thought that this novel would be too much for me, which is why I passed it up when it was a Book of the Month Club selection. With its themes of heavy drug abuse, child neglect, and underage romantic interests, I was scared of it. When it won the BOTM Book of the Year award, I was, frankly, shocked that so many people could be moved by a story with such dark themes. If you, too, passed this up because you were afraid of it, I urge you to reconsider. Please read this book. It is unutterably lovely, and my poor words cannot do it justice.

 

A Madness So Discreet

A Madness So Discreet

Cover image for A Madness So Discreet
Cover image for A Madness So Discreet

Where has this book been?! The title seems familiar to me, but I cannot remember if it received any hype, or if I just remember seeing it hit the shelves and fizzle. It deserves more hype than it got, in my opinion, but these days it seems only paranormal romance and fantasy books get any hype at all. In any case, I tore through this one–couldn’t put it down.

“Grace Mae is already familiar with madness when family secrets and the bulge in her belly send her to an insane asylum, but it is in the darkness that she finds a new lease on life. When a visiting doctor interested in criminal psychology recognizes Grace’s brilliant mind beneath her rage, he recruits her as his assistant. Continuing to operate under the cloak of madness at crime scenes allows her to gather clues from bystanders who believe her less than human. Now comfortable in an ethical asylum, Grace finds friends and hope. But gruesome nights bring Grace and the doctor into the circle of a killer who will bring her shaky sanity and the demons in her past dangerously close to the surface.” —Indiebound.org

First, this novel is dark. Really dark. Especially in the beginning. We all know that insane asylums in the 1800s were not happy places to be, and that inconvenient people, especially women, could be remanded to their custody for anything from a fainting spell to infidelity. I assume that this author, having done her research well, did not invent any of the “treatments” inflicted upon our protagonist, Grace. To read the beginning of this novel felt a bit like rubbernecking–you know you shouldn’t look, but you can’t look away.

Grace struggles with the abuse she suffered, first at the hands of her family, and then at the hands of the people who are supposed to rehabilitate her (for an illness she doesn’t have). She is a powerful character with a hold on her emotions that borders on too strong. When she is removed from the clutches of the asylum, the reader hopes that perhaps her life will become a little lighter and brighter. In a way this is true, but in others, those rosy dreams can never be. Her life has already contained too much trauma to leave her completely happy. However, in her new life, she at least has purpose and friends, and the reader can’t help but enjoy her turn in fortune.

For cast of characters, this novel wins a lot of points. From the quirky voice who accompanies her in the dark at the asylum, to the doctor who rescues her, to her irrepressible half-mad friends, to the looming, terrible presence of this novel’s villains, each character is well-formed and wholly believable.

I also really enjoyed this novel for the sheer pleasure of reading about a subject I’d never encountered before. Asylums of this period hold a lot of interest simply for the bizarre way people approached psychology at this point–all the weird pseudoscience swirling around. It’s doubly interesting because it also explores the new fields of criminal psychology and, to a certain degree, forensics. I’ve only read one book about the actual history of early murder (especially serial murder) investigations, and the bumbling about of early investigators and stumped police would be amusing if it weren’t life or death for the people involved.

To wrap this up, this is a great novel. I’d recommend it to any fans of historical fiction, great female characters, and dark, twisted stories in which you’re not sure what’s right and wrong. It’s been out for a few years, and it definitely deserves more attention than it got.

Out of the Easy

Out of the Easy

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I’m struggling with this book, but not for the reasons you might think. I struggle with it because it’s just SO GOOD, and, as a bookseller, I want to recommend the books that are JUST SO GOOD to all the teens that come in and ask me what to read. But this is how I picture this scenario going down:

Overprotective mom/aunt/grandparent: “I’m looking for something for my daughter to read on her vacation this summer. She likes historical books. Can you recommend something for her?”

Me: “SURE! This is a fantastic historical YA novel set in 1950’s New Orleans! I loved it!”

OPM/A/G: “What’s it about?”

Me: “A girl whose mom is a prostitute, whose guardian is a brothel madame, who gets caught up in a bit of trouble when there’s a murder, and oops, then the mob comes after her.”

OPM/A/G: *glares, shoves the books in my direction, and storms off, never to return*

Okay, so maybe that isn’t everyone I meet, but it seems like a lot of the time I’m recommending books to parents instead of kids, and it’s a rare occasion when one says to me, “I don’t care if there’s cursing and sex in it.”

There isn’t cursing and sex in this one. Let me just put that out there. For a novel about hookers and gangsters in one of the most notorious cities in the US, it’s surprisingly clean. This novel has a lot of beautiful things to offer: it portrays deep, abiding friendships; it’s headed by a heroine who wants to better herself for her own sake, and who doesn’t compromise her desires for the sake of romance; it stresses the importance of a college education; and it shows that lies just breed more lies, and if you want to maintain good relationships (not to mention safety and sanity), you should probably tell the truth.

Josie is a girl who basically raised herself. Her mother is a beautiful but vain “woman of the night,” who is in love with exactly the wrong sort of man, and whose dreams are to achieve Hollywood wealth and fame, stay young and beautiful forever, and have every luxury imaginable close at hand. Good role model, right? Josie somehow manages to grow into her exact opposite: she hates attention, she never buys new things, and she dreams of going to college and escaping New Orleans. New Year’s Eve and early 1950 is a turning point for Josie, when she meets two people who become the hinges on which her story swings.

Ruta Sepetys is one of the most underrated authors I’ve ever had the privilege to read. Both of her novels occur in periods and places of history that people often overlook because of other simultaneous events (in Between Shades of Grey, she tells the story of a Lithuanian family displaced from their homes during Stalin’s cruel regime; most people focus on the atrocities of the Nazis during the same period). And her novels are beautifully written, deeply emotional, and very well-peopled. Her characters are easy to get along with. I found myself wishing Josie were a real person, whom I could visit in her bookshop and have tea with around the corner in the French Quarter.

If you like good characters, read this novel. If you like a suspenseful plot, read this novel. If you like stories that make you cry, and then laugh, and then laugh while crying, read this novel. I cannot recommend Ruta Sepetys highly enough. Please do yourself a favor and put this author on your list.

12.28–Wicked

12.28–Wicked

I revisited this one because it’s been quite a long time since I read it.  I remember sincerely loving the book, and marveling at the darkness with which Maguire writes. By the way, how gorgeous is this cover? Mine doesn’t look that good. Mine looks like this:

Not as pretty

Anyway, I don’t know how many people have read this novel, since it’s been out for years.  For those who haven’t, it tells the story of Elphaba, who is more familiar to fans of The Wizard of Oz under her identity of the Wicked Witch of the West (which I will now refer to as WWW).  In this first novel of Maguire’s, he gives the reader the backstory of the WWW, from her humble beginnings in the country of Munchkinland to her college years at Shiz to her rebellious youth in the Emerald City.  From the novel, the reader learns that Elphaba, or WWW, is not the evil villain we love to hate.  She has been misunderstood her whole life, ostracized because of her green skin, and villainized because she disagrees vocally with the Wizard’s politics.  By the time she meets Dorothy (in part four of the novel), she is middle-aged and beaten down, having suffered a lifetime of loss after loss.

I remembered virtually nothing about this novel.  In my mind it got confused with the musical, which I’ve seen twice.

It’s pretty fabulous

Because I’d forgotten the novel, I was amazed by how different the two stories are.  For one thing, the musical is optimistic. It is the touching tale of two friends that somehow manage to overcome obstacles to their friendship and also make changes for the good of Oz.  The novel, conversely, is not.  For one thing, Elphaba and Glinda do not stay friends the way they do in the musical.  There is a massive cast of characters that pass through Elphaba’s life, but their presence is always fleeting.  Maguire’s novel is also a lot more political.  There is the Wizard, who blew into Oz in a hot air balloon and deposed the reigning child queen, and who oppresses the people of Oz indiscriminately. Munchkins, Quadlings, Animals–all fall under the Wizard’s iron hand.  There is a religious group that closely resembles Christians, known as the unionists, who worship the Unnamed God and attempt with futility to convert people away from the “pleasure faith.”  In fact, Elphaba at one point joins a group that, if not extreme enough to merit the distinction of terrorists, come pretty darn close.  No, it certainly isn’t the Wizard of Oz that we know at love from novel and film.

Part of me really didn’t like reading it this time.  I still give it five stars, because it is masterfully written, is a great and engaging story, and is engrossingly creative.  But there is a hopelessness that dominates the tone of the novel, and sometimes I wasn’t in the mood to pick up such a downer.  The novel seems to hint that resistance to the status quo, to tyranny and oppression, and to evil itself, is a useless pursuit that should be abandoned so that one might have a happy life.  Maybe this is mostly true, as it seems like one person has little power to make change, but I didn’t want to read about it in every word of the novel!

Still, as I said, it is a masterful work.  Maguire has a very dry and sometimes offensive sense of humor, playing with things that one would not normally find amusing (for instance, senility in the elderly). His words are beautiful.  It is a novel that is effortlessly thoughtful, which forces the reader to contemplate their own complacency.  Maguire also creates wonderful characters.  Elphaba is, despite being prickly and somber, a character that the reader can love, though it may stem from pity.  She tries so hard to do the right thing, and it often goes wrong for her.  She is going against the whole of Oz, and one cannot help but admire her courage.  The other characters that come and go (Boq, Galinda, Fiyero, Sarima, Liir, Nessarose, and others) are, if not always fully rounded out, entertaining.  They complement each other well, and yet, simply by existing, create conflict between each other.  Their differing beliefs and ideals clash enough that very little outside strife would be necessary, though it often makes an appearance anyway.

I definitely think the novel has more value than the musical.  Don’t get me wrong. The musical is great–beautiful costumes and sets, catchy and sometimes moving songs, and an entertaining plot line.  But where the musical is fun, the novel is important.  It is a witty, dry, and entertaining commentary on the world in which we live today.  If you’re one of the last people in the world to read this novel, I recommend you get around to it soon!

Or she’ll get you


12.25–Labyrinth

12.25–Labyrinth

For those of you hoping I’d be reviewing the David Bowie movie or something along those lines, I’m sorry to disappoint you! No, this is definitely a book.

The novel jumps back and forth between 2005 southern France, and the same location in the 13th century.  Alaïs and Alice are the same person living in two entirely different times–Alaïs in the ancient past and Alice in modern France.  While volunteering at an archeological dig, Alice discovers artifacts in a cave that launch her on the path toward her destiny–a picture of a labyrinth painted on the cave wall, a stone ring, and the skeletons of two people long-deceased.  The story then takes off almost like a Dan Brown novel (a bunch of baddies going after an ancient and mystical secret and leaving a huge trail of bodies that somehow no one really notices), centered around several things, namely the quest for the Grail and the Inquisition in Europe.

In part, it was this that confused me. I didn’t particularly enjoy the novel that much, and now that I think about it, it may have been the fact that I couldn’t pin down a central focus.  The jacket text makes it seem as though it’s more about the persecution of a sect known as the Cathars in France in the 13th century, who were considered heretics by the Catholic Church and were hunted down and burned.  In reality, this is merely setting for the shadowy, secretly-embarked-upon quest for the Grail, the truth about which is known by a very small group of people.  I suppose, though, that there was too much detail about the Cathars, and it got confusing keeping track of who wanted to kill the main characters because they were heretics, and who wanted to kill them because they were the protectors of the Grail.  There was too much conflict coming from every side, and it made me go cross-eyed.

It was a decent story, but I didn’t love it.  Alaïs and the people in her time were well-written and interesting, but Alice and the modern counterparts of the people from the past were somewhat lame.  Alice herself was a bit of a bimbo, and I didn’t really feel her personality matched all of the actions she was required to take.  If it had been real life, she would have been the first to give up her secrets and die…just saying.  The bad guys, with the exception of maybe one, were also kind of…not scary.  There was no moment when I was like, “Oh no! They’ll find the Grail first!” or “Oh no, he’s actually going to kill that dude!”  It was more like, “Ok, I know exactly where this is going…” and I ended up being right.

Overall, I thought the premise and the period in history about which Mosse chose to write were interesting and unique.  I appreciated that about the novel, at least.  But the rest of it–plot, characters, believability–all fell flat for me and made it difficult to get excited about picking up the book and reading more. And those are the most important parts of the books, so that super stinks :/ Sorry guys! Hopefully the next book will be a humdinger! It’s about Doctor Who! How could it not be?

I cried when I found out he was married


12.22–The Lace Reader

12.22–The Lace Reader

Not the best cover for the book, but it’s the cover I own, so I stayed faithful.

I would like to take this moment and say thank you to Brunonia Barry for writing a beautiful, haunting, intelligent novel that I found impossible to put down. Barry’s The Lace Reader is an elegant novel that packed an incredible amount of good things into less than 400 pages.  I think the best way to write this is to compile a list.

1. Character

The novel is mostly in first person, and its narrator, Towner Whitney, admits on the first page that she is unreliable, warning readers to warily trust her recounting of events. As if to prove this, she admits that her name isn’t even really Towner, but is, in fact, Sophya.  She is a woman who has health problems of multiple sorts, but whose mental health is by far the most abysmal of all.  It is clear she suffers from delusions and depression, though the reader does not discover how serious these are until the end of the novel.  She and most of the other important characters are very well-developed. May, her mother, is an agoraphobic feminist who houses abused women on a secluded island. Eva, her great-aunt, has the gift of Sight, which she channels through the patterns in the lace that she makes.  Cal, the villain, is a cult leader who has a special vendetta against Towner and the rest of her family.  Towner, despite her infinite flaws and her many weaknesses, is a protagonist I had no problems getting behind.  She deserved my empathy, and I cared for her as I would a long-suffering friend.

Thank you Google Images for filling in the gaps of my experience.

2. Setting

Although it is for the most part set in Salem, Massachusetts in the mid-1990s, Barry plays with time a lot, utilizing hallucinations, flashbacks, and dreams to enhance the story.  Still, the majority of these focuses on this beautiful section of the northeastern coast of the United States.  In the case of this novel, the location is very much vital to setting a mood, and the characters are all products of their physical place in space.  For instance, one of the supporting characters is a witch.  Some even believe that Eva is a witch, as well as the rest of the Whitney women.  Towner, her brother, and her love-interest are all expert sailors, and these play a significant part in the plot.  The history of Salem helps bolster the plot and set a tone for the entire novel, which is often one of suspicion, gloom, and religious persecution.  A great deal of it happens on a fictional island that is only accessible by one ramp, controlled by Towner’s reclusive mother–the perfect setting for the development and perpetuation of agoraphobia.

3. Plot

This is, of course, the most important. At least to most people, although a novel rich in plot but lacking everything else would be rather unpleasant to read. After all, who cares what happens to a character that isn’t believable?  But Barry’s characters are, and so her rich plot is very much appreciated.  Towner receives a call from her brother, who asks that she  return to Salem from California because her great-aunt Eva has gone missing.  Her return forces her to face dark family secrets and memories that she has attempted to subdue by running all the way across the country.  Things escalate, as they tend to do, and…well, I won’t say anymore.  Just know that it’s a little mystery and suspense, a little mysticism and magic, and a lot of family drama.

4. Twist

There are lots of mini-twists in the middle that I really did not see coming. But holy cow, the end took my breath away.  Just be ready to get slammed in the chest with surprise.  And don’t go looking for it. Allowing yourself to get caught off guard is part of what is so magical about this novel.

Can you see your future?

A lot of people will expect witchcraft or fortune-telling to figure prominently in the novel. While Towner and Eva do seem to have a special talent for foresight, Towner spends much of the book hiding from these talents.  Do not expect this novel to focus heavily on the paranormal or the supernatural.  Those things are plot devices and make for interesting setting and premise, but the novel is truly about families reconnecting, old wounds healing, truths being revealed, and troubled minds being put at ease.  It is a beautiful novel, though often very sad, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a novel that keeps the pages turning. I couldn’t put it down and I wish there was more!


12.21–The Princess Bride

12.21–The Princess Bride

After years of wanting to read this book, I finally got around to it! Sadly, it was the e-reader version I bought when I was going to Ireland and planning on not buying books/lugging books in my backpack (which I did anyway).  This was the first real e-book I’d ever read, and it really took away from the reading experience. I cannot stand them! It also took me five months because I didn’t want to pick up my stupid phone and “read.”

Anyway, the book was pretty good, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I thought I would.  I know I’m going to get a lot of flak for this because a lot of people love the book as well as the film. Since everyone has seen the movie at least 500 times, I won’t go too deeply into the synopsis.  Everything that happened in the film happened in the book, though obviously in much more detail.  A few include:

My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

The dialogue in the book is fairly close to that of the film.  You get a lot more backstory on all the characters though. Much more on Inigo, for instance. The reader is privy to the death of his father.

Mawage

This guy was actually written with that hilarious speech impediment that we all love to imitate.

Here is the kiss that blew all other kisses away.  Don’t you just love them?

Ok, enough of that.  The novel is a lot more political than the film. Goldman writes as if he has simply abridged the narrative of the famous S. Morgenstern, the Florinese author who wrote The Princess Bride as a political and social satire. This gets really confusing at times.  Of course, the reader figures Goldman’s asides are also fictional, but he is extremely convincing, mostly because he tells anecdotes from his own life and the events leading up to his decision to abridge the old text.  He screws with reality  throughout the book and it frustrated me at times. It did, however, make it memorable.

I was really impressed that the movie was so close to the novel. I suppose that’s because Goldman worked on the movie too.  But the dialogue, especially the most famous lines, were almost exactly the same.  It gave the novel the same whimsy and frivolity of the movie.  The story, too, is the same we know and love, though more in-depth histories and rivalries of Florin and Guilder are present.

If Goldman had ended it with the escape of Westley, Buttercup, Inigo, and Fezzik from Prince Humperdink, it would have been the perfect ending.  However, there is the epilogue, or sequel (I’m not sure which), called “Buttercup’s Baby.” It’s a stupid name, for one.  Secondly, the plot is ridiculous. It plays with time entirely too much.  And it goes virtually nowhere. Also, there’s a pseudo-sex-scene between Westley and Buttercup and it sort of shatters their image of youthful and pure romance.

In the end, I did enjoy it, simply due to its similarities to the film that I adore.  But there are things that distracted from the story itself and I really wished they hadn’t been there.  While it was a clever way to write the novel, and I’ll admit I’ve never seen anything like it before, it was still fairly irritating at times.  I gave it 4/5 stars on Goodreads, but only because I felt guilty for rating it any lower. However, no matter the weird narrative, The Princess Bride will always hold a special place in my heart.