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.

 

I Am the Messenger

I Am the Messenger

Cover image for I Am the Messenger
Cover image for I Am the Messenger

I put a lot of effort into liking this book. The Book Thief is one of my favorite books, so I fully expected to be blown away by this other novel by the same author.

“Ed Kennedy is an underage cabdriver without much of a future. He’s pathetic at playing cards, hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey, and utterly devoted to his coffee-drinking dog, the Doorman. His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery.
That’s when the first ace arrives in the mail. That’s when Ed becomes the messenger. Chosen to care, he makes his way through town helping and hurting (when necessary) until only one question remains: Who’s behind Ed’s mission?” —Indiebound.org

Have you ever had that reading experience that sort of feels like you’re out of your body? Your eyes are reading the text, and your brain recognizes that you should be connecting to the text and feeling things, but your heart just isn’t there? That’s how this book was for me. I’m not sure if it’s because I had trouble relating to Ed, the deliberate vagueness of the location (which annoyed me to an unreasonable degree), or if the events just weren’t written in a way that gripped me, but I finished this book very reluctantly.

Ed Kennedy is a character that really wishes he were cute and dimensional but is sort of flat and empty. He’s not nearly as amusing as he thinks he is, and even in his moments of introspection, connecting with him is difficult. None of the other characters were really interesting, either. In fact, the only one I felt anything for was a minor character somewhere in the middle who only lasted for a few pages.

The vagueness of the location frustrated me, too. I finally caught on that it was supposed to be Australia, but only because that’s where the author is from. The thing that gave it away was that Christmas happens in the middle of the summer, which was interesting to read about. As for specifics, he just refers to “the city” and “town.” We never get to know anything past that. I do not understand an author’s purpose for doing this, and it irritates me every time I encounter it in a novel. It feels like a glaring omission and makes the text feel dishonest. Is this irrational? Probably. But we can’t help what we like and don’t like.

The plot was odd, too. This go-nowhere kid gets playing cards with missions attached to them. He has to essentially be the guardian angel for the people who are the object of his mission. Sometimes this involves tough love and sometimes it’s an easy fix. What I didn’t understand is why this mysterious person giving him these missions–which are benevolent in nature–would use scare tactics and violence to force Ed to act. It’s incongruous with the nature of the endeavor, and it didn’t give me nearly as much of a warm, fuzzy feeling as if the unseen hand had found less malevolent ways to coerce Ed to do its will. Perhaps Zusak thought the fear and violence would add suspense to the novel, but it didn’t really work for this reader. And the end, though I know it was going for uniqueness and shock value, just felt like a cop-out. I was not impressed.

I know that several people have said they loved this book. I really, really wanted to love it too, but I didn’t. It was painful to read and difficult to finish. I’m going to recommend that, if you’ve never read Zusak, you read The Book Thief (and let it change your life) and just give this one a pass.

Everything, Everything

Everything, Everything

Cover image for Everything, Everything
Cover image for Everything, Everything

With all the buzz surrounding this book, I expected a good novel, but just how good was entirely out of the realm of expectation.

“My disease is as rare as it is famous. Basically, I’m allergic to the world. I don’t leave my house, have not left my house in seventeen years. The only people I ever see are my mom and my nurse, Carla.
But then one day, a moving truck arrives next door. I look out my window, and I see him. He’s tall, lean and wearing all black–black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely. He catches me looking and stares at me. I stare right back. His name is Olly.
Maybe we can’t predict the future, but we can predict some things. For example, I am certainly going to fall in love with Olly. It’s almost certainly going to be a disaster.” —Indiebound.org

First of all, I love Madeline. She is an incredible protagonist. She’s a positive and vibrant kid, despite all the adversity that she’s faced, and she makes a little joy go a long way. So when the pretty teenager next door moves in, this reader, at least, had a lot of feelings. Excitement, because yay, maybe she’ll finally have a little extra dash of joy in her life. And apprehension, because knowing how sick she is, and knowing how difficult love is and how difficult it is to be a teenager, it’s hard not to be pessimistic about the whole thing.

Olly is a wonderful character, too. Both of these kids have their share of heavy burdens that seem too difficult for kids to bear. Unfortunately, sick and abused kids are all too common in our messed up world. It’s no wonder that they are drawn to, love, and support each other. I thought, perhaps, that I could predict exactly where this love story was going, but I was wrong.

Perhaps that’s what I loved most about it. It seems as if it’s going to go in one direction, but despite Madeline being trapped in her own house for literally her whole life, this novel still manages to be full of adventure, suspense, and excitement. I would argue that there is a villain, and that villain is found in the most unexpected place.

The relationships between characters are perhaps the most moving part of the novel. Obviously, the reader is simply smitten with Olly and Madeline, but the relationship between Madeline and her mother, or Madeline and her nurse are equally, if not more, moving than Madeline’s romance with the boy next door. I found myself really wanting to play Phonetik Scrabble because it sounds like a lot more fun than regular Scrabble.

This has to be one of the best YA books I’ve read in a really long time. It’s full of heart, full of adventure, lots of soaring highs and devastating lows. There’s probably more emotion packed into these 300 pages than many entire series have in them. I highly recommend it, for those few people who haven’t read it yet!

Clan of the Cave Bear; Pigs In Heaven; Pax

Clan of the Cave Bear; Pigs In Heaven; Pax

There really isn’t a time when I’m not playing catch-up on this blog because I spend a lot more time reading than I do writing about the books I read, but I really am trying to get up-to-date on the books I’m reading. I hope someone is still reading this and finding useful suggestions for all of their reading needs.

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The Clan of the Cave Bear

The first book I’m reviewing today is Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear. I tried to read this book when I was in middle school but it was just too much for me to get through at that age. This second attempt at reading it was successful, but it really took forever for me to get through.

“This novel of awesome beauty and power is a moving saga about people, relationships, and the boundaries of love. Through Jean M. Auel’s magnificent storytelling we are taken back to the dawn of modern humans, and with a girl named Ayla we are swept up in the harsh and beautiful Ice Age world they shared with the ones who called themselves The Clan of the Cave Bear.
A natural disaster leaves the young girl wandering alone in an unfamiliar and dangerous land until she is found by a woman of the Clan, people very different from her own kind. To them, blond, blue-eyed Ayla looks peculiar and ugly–she is one of the Others, those who have moved into their ancient homeland; but Iza cannot leave the girl to die and takes her with them. Iza and Creb, the old Mog-ur, grow to love her, and as Ayla learns the ways of the Clan and Iza’s way of healing, most come to accept her. But the brutal and proud youth who is destined to become their next leader sees her differences as a threat to his authority. He develops a deep and abiding hatred for the strange girl of the Others who lives in their midst, and is determined to get his revenge.”–Indiebound

I really wanted to like this novel more than I did. I would not say it is a novel of “awesome beauty and power.” It is much less interesting than all that. I admire Auel for her ability to work with a period in history about which little is known. It is an imaginative book, to say the least. But there was very little that stirred my emotion. Though she tried to make me care about the characters, I really did not. I think that perhaps this is a flaw of the time period in which she was writing. The style was so antiquated and old that I really did not connect much with the story or the characters. The character I felt the most emotion for was actually the villain. He was easy to hate, but no one else was really easy to love.

When the plot moved, my interest spiked, but it felt stagnant most of the way through. It could have been much more engaging. Less description, more story. And the violence against women, regardless of whether or not that’s the way cavemen lived, was really off-putting. That also took away from the story for me. I definitely won’t read the rest of the series, but I’m glad I finally alleviated my curiosity and finished the book.

Pigs in Heaven
Pigs in Heaven

The next book, Barbara Kingsolver’s Pigs in Heaven, I managed to enjoy despite realizing most of the way through that it was actually a sequel to a book I haven’t read yet. It is the story of Taylor and her adopted Cherokee daughter Turtle. When Turtle witnesses something no one else sees and ends up on TV after saving a man’s life, the Cherokee nation comes after the mother and daughter, claiming the adoption isn’t valid.

I don’t think I’ve read anything by Kingsolver that I don’t like. She establishes excellent rapport between characters, even if they’re supposed to dislike each other. She makes me laugh constantly, even when the situation calls for gravity. I did not feel like I was missing any part of this story despite it being a sequel.  The story stood very sturdily on its own two feet.  I really enjoyed every element of this novel, and I look forward to reading the first one, even if I did read them in the wrong order.

Pax
Pax

I was immediately drawn to this last novel because it is just so cute. And beautiful. The bookseller at Blue Willow Bookshop told me I would really love it, but sadly I was not completely taken with it. Perhaps, without her rave review, I would have loved it more. But it was very highly hyped to me and my own reading of it didn’t live up to her enthusiasm.

“Pax and Peter have been inseparable ever since Peter rescued him as a kit. But one day, the unimaginable happens: Peter’s dad enlists in the military and makes him return the fox to the wild.

At his grandfather’s house, three hundred miles away from home, Peter knows he isn’t where he should be with Pax. He strikes out on his own despite the encroaching war, spurred by love, loyalty, and grief, to be reunited with his fox.

Meanwhile Pax, steadfastly waiting for his boy, embarks on adventures and discoveries of his own. . . .”Indiebound

I did really enjoy this book. I thought the relationship and the bond between Pax and Peter was really sweet and quite moving. But there was something off-putting about the vague setting and time period, and I did not connect with the human characters much. The only character for whom I felt any warmth was Pax. He’s such a sweet fox and I was really attached to him. I also was somewhat disappointed in the Jon Klassen illustrations. For such a talented illustrator, I felt the chosen scenes did not contain enough color or creativity. They were bland illustrations that didn’t really add to the value of the book at all.

I wish there had been more to this story, but for me it wasn’t the grand, beautiful children’s book that I was led to believe. Yes, it was a sweet story and a good book for children to read, but it wasn’t one of those that swept me off my feet as an adult.

Fates & Furies

Fates & Furies

Fates & Furies
Fates & Furies

I’m giving this book its own post because I really liked it. The next book on the list is a young adult one, and I feel that it would take away from the power of this one if I blogged about YA in the same post.

As a bookseller and someone who follows a lot of bookstores and book blogs, I had seen a lot of hype surrounding this book. Usually, I can resist this sort of thing, but when I saw that this was POTUS’s favorite book of the year, I had to see what all the fuss was about.

“From the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of The Monsters of Templeton and Arcadia, [comes] an exhilarating novel about marriage, creativity, art, and perception. Fates and Furies is a literary masterpiece that defies expectation. A dazzling examination of a marriage, it is also a portrait of creative partnership written by one of the best writers of her generation.
Every story has two sides. Every relationship has two perspectives. And sometimes, it turns out, the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets. At the core of this rich, expansive, layered novel, Lauren Groff presents the story of one such marriage over the course of twenty-four years.
At age twenty-two, Lotto and Mathilde are tall, glamorous, madly in love, and destined for greatness. A decade later, their marriage is still the envy of their friends, but with an electric thrill, we understand that things are even more complicated and remarkable than they have seemed. With stunning revelations and multiple threads, and in prose that is vibrantly alive and original, Groff delivers a deeply satisfying novel about love, art, creativity, and power that is unlike anything that has come before it. Profound, surprising, propulsive, and emotionally riveting, it stirs both the mind and the heart.”–Indiebound

I will try to get through this review without giving too much away because most of the fun in this novel comes from the bomb going off at the midway point (figure of speech; there’s no bomb–or is there?). There is a catalyst event at which point the perspective changes from one character’s to another’s. What I loved most about this novel is the exploration of two people experiencing the same things for years and years, but each experiencing them in completely different ways. It is a hard-hitting lesson in personality and point of view, and it shows that people may share life together and go through many of the same things at the same time, but their personal histories can influence them so much that the way they experience and feel things vary widely.

One thing I loved about this book was the way Groff shows the passage of time. With a few exceptions, she chooses to narrate events surrounding parties thrown by Lotto and Mathilde, and demonstrates their evolving life and relationship through their morphing group of friends, their upgrades in living situation, and reveals big life events through conversations between characters. I thought this was really unique.

Then of course, there’s the “drop” (to use a dubstep term, sorry), where everything changes and everything you thought you knew about the story so far gets turned on its head. I honestly had no idea what was coming. It took me so much by surprise and, even though I was already enjoying the novel for it’s kinda sweet and really saucy love story, the second half was even more enjoyable.

Most of all, I think what makes this book a masterwork is Groff’s ability to portray humanity in all its flawed, messy glory. Lotto and Mathilde are great characters. I really enjoyed both characters, for all of their flaws and vices. I think part of the difficulty that authors face in writing characters that feel real is making them a little good and a little evil without putting them on a pedestal. I imagine that it is hard to spend so much time with a character without making it obvious that you’ve fallen in love with them–even in their badness, it shows when authors adore their characters. Groff keeps her distance very well, and we see every side of her characters, from the perspective of themselves and from others.

Overall, I think this is a fantastic novel well deserving of all the hype surrounding it. It is one of the best books I read last year and I think there’s a little something in it for everyone! It’s a must-read for anyone who loves contemporary literature and potentially award-winning fiction.

Two Books Read Simultaneously (Because One Scared Me And I Couldn’t Read It After Dark)

Two Books Read Simultaneously (Because One Scared Me And I Couldn’t Read It After Dark)

I have mentioned in a previous post that I am very suggestible. Even the hint of something scary is enough to set my mind whirring into all sorts of horrifying possibilities. So when I tried to read Night Film by Marisha Pessl, I was spooked pretty much constantly.

Night Film
Night Film

“On a damp October night, beautiful young Ashley Cordova is found dead in an abandoned warehouse in lower Manhattan. Though her death is ruled a suicide, veteran investigative journalist Scott McGrath suspects otherwise. As he probes the strange circumstances surrounding Ashley’s life and death, McGrath comes face-to-face with the legacy of her father: the legendary, reclusive cult-horror-film director Stanislas Cordova—a man who hasn’t been seen in public for more than thirty years. For McGrath, another death connected to this seemingly cursed family dynasty seems more than just a coincidence. Though much has been written about Cordova’s dark and unsettling films, very little is known about the man himself. Driven by revenge, curiosity, and a need for the truth, McGrath, with the aid of two strangers, is drawn deeper and deeper into Cordova’s eerie, hypnotic world. The last time he got close to exposing the director, McGrath lost his marriage and his career. This time, he might lose even more. Night Film, the gorgeously written, spellbinding new novel by the dazzlingly inventive Marisha Pessl, will hold you in suspense until you turn the final page.”–Indiebound

This book is supposedly a thriller, but I would argue it’s slightly scarier than that, although what do I know about true horror? I can’t read it. Books like this are difficult to talk about without giving too much away, so I will just say a few things about it. First, I liked the characters a lot, especially McGrath’s two “sidekicks.” Each main character, even the deceased girl, Ashley, is nuanced and detailed in a way that few authors achieve without seeming to show significant effort. McGrath, though unlikable, is an excellent, flawed protagonist whose mission to prove himself ends up driving the story. My only complaint is that he is not tremendously believable as a father.

There are almost two endings to this story, and I enjoyed that immensely. You’ll see what I mean when you read it.

And again, this book scared the daylights out of me. I could only read it during the day. It’s so spooky, and it hints at some really dark and even perhaps demonic dealings that go on in shadowy locations around New York. There are also pictures in this novel, so you never know when you’ll turn a page and come face to face with something weird and startling. Because of this, I had to have something to read that was definitely less scary, and less adult:

Deep Blue
Deep Blue

“Deep in the ocean, in a world not so different from our own, live the merpeople. Their communities are spread throughout the oceans, seas, and freshwaters all over the globe. When Serafina, a mermaid of the Mediterranean Sea, awakens on the morning of her betrothal, her biggest worry should be winning the love of handsome Prince Mahdi. And yet Sera finds herself haunted by strange dreams that foretell the return of an ancient evil. Her dark premonitions are confirmed when an assassin’s arrow poisons Sera’s mother. Now, Serafina must embark on a quest to find the assassin’s master and prevent a war between the Mer nations. Led only by her shadowy dreams, Sera searches for five other mermaid heroines who are scattered across the six seas. Together, they will form an unbreakable bond of sisterhood and uncover a conspiracy that threatens their world’s very existence.”–Indiebound

All I really want to say about this book (so I can forget about it quickly) is that it is stupid. The plot is stupid, the characters are stupid, and the world-building is stupid. The stupid “mermaidisms” drove me insane (example: their money is called “currensea.” Stop.)!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The lines between the world we know and the fantasy world where mermaids exist are not well-blended, and it comes off rushed and sloppy. This book is about at the quality level of a made-for-TV movie. I’m not interested in the rest of the series. I’m totally disappointed because I think there is a lack of good mermaid literature in the book world, and I was hoping this would make up some ground. It didn’t. Even for children’s level reading, it was bad.

The Miniaturist

The Miniaturist

The Miniaturist
The Miniaturist

I spent a few weeks in YA-land in November, so I read The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton to escape from that trap. Sometimes it is hard to leave YA-land.

“On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her splendid new home is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant and leaves Nella alone with his sister, the fearsome Marin.

Nella’s life unexpectedly changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish it, she engages the services of a miniaturist–an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie ways.

Johannes’s gift helps Nella pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand and fear the escalating dangers around them. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation…or the architect of their destruction?” Indiebound

Overall impression: I really liked this book. It was skillfully written, with beautiful scene-setting and elegant character-building. Nella is a complicated protagonist, and one cannot help but sympathize with her as she tells her story. She is a girl for whom options are incredibly limited, so she does what people expect her to do and marries a man of means. This action comes with a certain set of expectations for her, but she soon realizes that nothing in the Brandt house is as it seems, and nothing goes as expected. Though things are difficult for her at first, she finds a way to cope, thrive, and love her new home. The reader cannot help but admire her for her wherewithal and yet pity her for her limited circumstances.

17th Century Amsterdam is a fascinating and someone dangerous place. I read a lot of historical fiction set in Britain, so it was nice to get away from that and read something historical from the point of view of a different culture. Nella finds life in the city of canals very different from the country town in which she grew up, and as she explores its culture, streets, and customs, so do the readers.

The most intriguing element of Amsterdam in this story, however, is one mysterious house where no one ever answers the door to Nella’s knock, marked by a strange symbol. Sometimes curtains move in an upstairs window. Somehow, despite this, the miniature figurines she desires are delivered to her regardless of her putting in her order or not. The reader and Nella both wonder and eventually obsesses about the Miniaturist. Who is it? Does he have special powers? Can he see the future, or does he imbue his figurines with the ability to change as Nella’s story changes? Nella must face and seek to answer these questions at the same time that she must adjust to the very normal changes faced by women without many choices and the very real dangers faced by a prominent household in times of turmoil dominated by faith.

This is a book that is slightly under-hyped in my opinion and could get lost in the shuffle of all the over-hyped books being released every Tuesday. I highly recommend this unique and interesting novel for fans of historical fiction and magical realism.