Monday, June 30, 2014

Book Review: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

From Goodreads:
Under the streets of London there's a place most people could never even dream of. A city of monsters and saints, murderers and angels, knights in armour and pale girls in black velvet. This is the city of the people who have fallen between the cracks.

Richard Mayhew, a young businessman, is going to find out more than enough about this other London. A single act of kindness catapults him out of his workday existence and into a world that is at once eerily familiar and utterly bizarre. And a strange destiny awaits him down here, beneath his native city: Neverwhere.
Before I do my actual review, I think fairness requires me to point out that this was originally written by Neil Gaiman as a six-part BBC mini-series, most of which I have seen (it's available via Hulu).  It's fairly terrible, but in a thoroughly enjoyable, mid-90's sci-fic/fantasy kind of way.  If you're a fan of somewhat dated and cheesy fantasy series (I'd compare it to early episodes of Christopher Eccleston's Dr. Who) you should give it a try.  The rest of my review, however, will be devoted to the book, which is a novelization of the series.

 The world-building, plotting, and general idea for the story get an A-plus, but I was fairly disappointed with the writing itself.  I went into it hesitantly, because despite the rave reviews for The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I just didn't love it.  This was my second attempt at Gaiman, and I just wasn't blown away.  The pacing was uneven - some parts seemed to drag on forever and others flashed by too quickly to be enjoyed.  I wasn't sure exactly what audience Gaiman was reaching for, either.  It felt too graphically violent in parts to be meant for a middle grade/young adult audience, but too simplistic and not quite developed enough for an adult novel.  I think the fact that this is one of his earlier works and that it was written for TV as opposed for reading shows.

Entertainment Value
I give the book slightly higher marks for entertainment value, because, as mentioned above, I think the creativity was astonishing.  I loved the world Gaiman created and think the characters were fantastic.  As I was reading, I kept imagining the story in visual format, as opposed to written.  It was only after I finished that I learned it was originally a mini-series, and that really brought it all together for me.  I think visual format really improved the story.  Unfortunately, the slow portions were hard to get through and there were times where I found myself wondering what the point of the whole thing was.

It's not one that I'm rushing out to recommend.  You should know that the book has rave reviews from many, many competent readers, and that there is obviously a reason Gaiman has the following he does.  For some reason, I just don't seem to connect to him on the same level that other readers whose opinions I trust do.  I do think those who enjoy bad science fiction/fantasy television should watch the series.  And I think that those who are familiar with London and would "get" the inside references may find the book more enjoyable than I did - it certainly has a lot of inside jokes that went right over my head, but that would be enjoyed by those with a better sense of London geography.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Best Non-Bookish Podcasts

Last week I posted about my nice little commute and the bookish podcasts I've been enjoying.  This week I want to highlight a few others that I'm loving, but may not be quite as book-related.

It's kind of hard to explain the concept of this one because, really, it's all over the place, but in the best way possible.  It's hosted by Tig Notaro, Kyle Dunnigan, and David Huntsberger, all comedians, and features a guest each with with a focus on a specific area of expertise, which they then discuss.  Hilarity plus learning things is basically my favorite ever.  Recent episodes include: the moon, puppeteering, film scoring, and materialism.  Not entirely family-friendly, but generally harmless.

Kind of similar to Professor Blastoff, in that three hilarious people talk about science and sciencey-type things.  In this case, all of the episodes revolve around a "gruesome, gory, or otherwise horrible topic."  They cover the science, history, news and pop culture of topics like child labor, leeches, tumors, wasps and hornets, and shipwrecks.  It's hosted by Toren Atkinson, Kevin Leeson, and Joe Fulgham - and my favorite episodes are those featuring Dr. Rob Tarzwell, who cracks me up every time.  Not for the squeamish or those easily offended by (hilarious) jokes about death and dying.

This is storytelling at its best, although at times also its raunchiest.  The live show that the podcast is based on and from which many of the stories come, is dedicated to giving story tellers the place to tell the stories they never thought they'd share.  It's got a little bit of appeal for everyone, with some stories that are heart-wrenching and others that are just hilarious.  A new favorite, but not one that I'd play on a family road trip, due to the aforementioned raunch.

People bring their minor but pressing issues with each other before John Hodgman, who decides their fate in a mock-court-style podcast.  Recent cases include an older brother who expects his younger brother to wake him up each day, a brother and sister who can't decide where to park, and a husband who is tired of helping his wife dye her hair.  This is one where I feel like my description never quite accurately tells people how funny the show is.  It's funny.  Give it a try.  Also, mostly clean listening - I'd play it with my mom in the car.

NPR, so you know I'm all over it.  It's hosted by Linda Holmes, Stephen Thompson, and Glen Weldon and features news in the world of pop culture, with discussions on topics like Buddy Movies, Grief, Dream Sequences, and Pop Culture Punching Bags.  It also has a segment at the end of each episode where the hosts discuss pop culture artifacts that are making them happy.  I've gotten some great blog, book, movie, and music recs from them.

More NRP, this time hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, Radiolab is pretty much straight up science.  That said, it is never dull and is always fascinating.  It combines music with stories and, of course sciencey facts across the entire spectrum of sciences - from anthropology to chemistry to physics to sociology.  Doesn't air weekly, but I always get excited when I see there's something new listed.  Also, perfectly suitable for family consumption.

This American Life is my longest running podcast obsession.  It is the one podcast I refuse to miss out on and never skip an episode of.  Each week has a theme (Kindness of Strangers, Except for That One Thing, No Place Like Home) and Ira Glass takes the listener through three or four stories revolving around that theme, all found from various every-day Americans and their experiences.  Family-friendly, heart-warming, and frequently hilarious, but always fascinating.

Hosted by comedians Erin Gibson and Bryan Safi, this one irreverently tackles news and pop culture isses that are important to "ladies and gays."  I lurve me some feminism, and this is done with tons of sarcasm and snark.  The way the two play off of each other is super funny and fun to listen to, although it's definitely not something I'd classify as a family show.

So those are my favorites, what are yours?  I'd love any suggestions!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Book Review: Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog by Kitty Burns Florey

In its heyday, sentence diagramming was wildly popular in grammar schools across the country. Kitty Burns Florey learned the method in sixth grade from Sister Bernadette: "It was a bit like art, a bit like mathematics. It was a picture of language. I was hooked." 
Now, in this offbeat history, Florey explores the sentence-diagramming phenomenon, including its humble roots at the Brooklyn Polytechnic, its "balloon diagram" predecessor, and what diagrams of famous writers' sentences reveal about them. Along the way Florey offers up her own commonsense approach to learning and using good grammar. Charming, fun, and instructive, Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog will be treasured by all kinds of readers, from grumpy grammarians and crossword-puzzle aficionados to students of literature and lovers of language.

Very well done.  Florey manages to combine just the right amount of wit and humor into a potentially dry subject.  I get that not everyone is as fascinated with sentence diagrams as I am, but they hold a special place in my heart because they are both logical and fun to figure out and also because of Dr. Susan Wink's Advanced Grammar class in college.  Florey does the subject justice, and her writing style is a pleasure to read.

Entertainment Value
Here's where you might get lost.  I was absolutely in love with every word of this book - but I love diagramming sentences.  I've had this book on my TBR forever and I'm so glad I finally picked it up over spring break (yes, that's how far behind I am on reviews).  That said, I think there's a limited appeal when you're dealing with non-fiction about grammar.  I, for one, devoured it, but I think those who aren't as excited about grammar as I am may have more issues with the entertainment value.

It's a must read for grammar fans and word nerds.  Those who are fans of language, linguistics, and grammar must give it a try.   But if you're not a huge fan of the technical aspects of language or writing, it may not be an ideal read as it delves into the more detailed aspects of grammar and usage.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Let's Discuss: Bibliotherapy


I've been hearing a lot lately about bibliotherapy and the power of books to affect mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.  Articles like this one and this one describe institutions and individuals who are implementing bibliotherapy as a supplement or alternative to traditional therapies.  In the bookish world, this seems to be a super popular idea.  In fact, just today my husband sent me an article proclaiming the benefits of bibliotherapy.  It seems like something I'd be a big proponent of, given my special interest in the experience and treatment of depression, combined with my book obsession, but I'm not going to lie: I have some reservations about how effective this will wind up being on an individual basis.

Let me start by saying that I am hugely supportive of therapists, friends, and family members recommending medical, scientific, or fact-based books on mental illness to those suffering from it.  I'm quick to do so myself.  There are a lot of great "this is what depression is" books out there that can provide a foundation for understanding your own issues or those of a loved one.  But I don't know that I'd consider a therapist recommending Co-Dependent No More or Listening to Prozac to be bibliotherapy any more than I'd consider a doctor recommending a book about living sugar-free to a diabetic to be bibliotherapy.  So we'll take those recommendations out of our discussion.

That leaves us with a few other options for bibliotherapists to recommend: experiential memoirs and novels.  I think you could also make a case for poetry as a third category, but I think most poetry can either fit pretty broadly into the fictional category or the memoir category.  Another way of categorizing books that help a person cope with either a significant life event or a mental illness would be books that help you process your own experience and books that provide an escape.

What I would argue in terms of bibliotherapy for both types of books is that one size does not fit all.  I'm going to use Hyperbole and a Half as an example in terms of experiential memoirs.  I love the site and the book and I recommend it all the time.  But despite the fact that the author struggles with depression and I have struggled with depression, I don't identify that closely with her experience.  I appreciate her experience, but I don't read it and think "That's me!"

The problem is even more difficult in terms of novels.  Yes, a person can do a Google search for novels about depression and recommend the top results to a person struggling with depression, but my own personal experience has been that finding the right book at the right time is much more organic than an Amazon algorithm.  If I were to name the novels that have meant something to me during times of depression, even novels that I feel like were life-changing in terms of helping me cope, I wouldn't name a single novel that is specifically about depression.  All of the books that have touched me in the right place at the right moment have been serendipitous choices that I don't think could be prescribed like a medication.

Obviously, bibliotherapy isn't something I've tried.  I have read some of the literature that is promoted to librarians interested in the topic by the ALA (The Helping Troubled Teens series).  I'd be interested to hear other people's opinions on bibliotherapy, of course.  Do you think this is a viable form of treatment?  Who would you trust to provide bibliotherapy?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Best Book-Related Podcasts

In terms of my commute, I am both lucky and unlucky.  But mostly just lucky.  I drive a bit over thirty minutes each way to work.  I know in places like LA that's no biggie, but here in burb-land it's a fairly long drive.  However, I've got several things going for me:

A) My commute is gorgeous.  I drive right through the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.  This is, no lie, a view of my daily commute.  Add in an amazing sunset for my drive home at night.

B) My commute is mostly interstate, which means I don't have to do much thinking other than how gorgeous the view is and whatever I'm listening to at the time, which leads me to...

C) My commute is perfectly timed for podcast listening.  Most of the podcasts I enjoy are right about an hour, maybe a bit more - which means one fits perfectly into the hour or so a day I spend in the car.  

So, what, you ask, are my favorite podcasts?  Happy to oblige!  These are my favorite bookish podcasts and next week I'll post my favorite non-bookish, mostly comedy podcasts.

Of all the podcasts I have listed here, this one is the most likely to be NSFW and is, therefore, one of my favorites.  I also like it because I feel like, of all the podcasts I listen to, it focuses the most on readers' advisory type programming.  They talk almost exclusively about specific titles and on giving out recommendations.  It's also one of the most difficult to listen to in my car, because it's hard to add to my TBR list while driving!

Hosted by Jeff O'Neal and Rebecca Schinsky, this weekly podcast focuses more on book and publishing industry news, with a few title highlights each week.  It's an excellent way to keep up with what's going on in bookish current events.  Clean and suitable for public consumption.

This one combines book reviews, author interviews, and news from the world of publishing from various NPR programs, including All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Fresh Air.  Also clean and suitable for listening to in public.

This one isn't specifically book-related, but I think it's close enough to deserve inclusion on the list.  It's a game show featuring trivia and word games that I think will thrill any book lover's soul.  It's also hilarious and they have a different guest every week.

Any bookish podcasts you listen to that I should check out?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Book Review: Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

From Goodreads:
Astonish Me is the irresistible story of Joan, a ballerina whose life has been shaped by her relationship with the world-famous dancer Arslan Ruskov, whom she helps defect from the Soviet Union to the United States. While Arslan's career takes off in New York, Joan's slowly declines, ending when she becomes pregnant and decides to marry her longtime admirer, a PhD student named Jacob. 
As the years pass, Joan settles into her new life in California, teaching dance and watching her son, Harry, become a ballet prodigy himself. But when Harry's success brings him into close contact with Arslan, explosive secrets are revealed that shatter the delicate balance Joan has struck between her past and present.
This is an amazing example of a character-driven novel that is completely enthralling.  We follow the main characters over the course of approximately 25 years, getting small glimpses of their lives at various points.  What could have wound up feeling very disjointed and disorienting is done skillfully and in a way that allows the reader to be fully present at each moment, even as the action jumps forward and backward in time.  I also found the characters and their emotions to be both sympathetic and believable, particularly Joan.  I love it when an author is able to create a character who makes poor, even unlikable or distasteful choices, but still presents as human and sympathetic.  I don't always like what Joan does, but I understand why she does it and I hurt for her as she's doing it.

Entertainment Value
I was utterly captivated by the characters.  I sometimes struggle with getting into character-driven books, but this one was just fascinating.  I loved the dance world Shipstead creates, even though I have absolutely no experience in it other than my obsessive watching of dance documentaries.  I was also captivated by the romance between Jacob and Joan and the way it changes over the years.

I think this is a must read for fans of competitive/professional ballet, for those who enjoy family dramas with a more literary bent, and those who enjoy character-driven fiction dealing with relationships.  I can't say enough good things about it and how much I enjoyed reading it.  You'll see it on my best of list at the end of the year for sure.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Book Review: The Fever by Megan Abbott

From Goodreads:
The Nash family is close-knit. Tom is a popular teacher, father of two teens: Eli, a hockey star and girl magnet, and his sister Deenie, a diligent student. Their seeming stability, however, is thrown into chaos when Deenie's best friend is struck by a terrifying, unexplained seizure in class. Rumors of a hazardous outbreak spread through the family, school and community.

As hysteria and contagion swell, a series of tightly held secrets emerges, threatening to unravel friendships, families and the town's fragile idea of security.

A chilling story about guilt, family secrets and the lethal power of desire,The Fever affirms Megan Abbot's reputation as "one of the most exciting and original voices of her generation" (Laura Lippman).
I'm quickly becoming a fan of Abbott and her particular brand of twisted/dark suspense that also has a measure of "ripped from the headlines" story-telling (click here to see a real life story closely resembling the one in this book).  I love that she's not afraid to write characters that aren't likable, especially girl characters who aren't likable.  I liked the way she examined several facets of the "issue" (girls experiencing outbreaks of seizures, facial tics, etc), including the reaction of the adults in the town.  I think she was spot on in the political issues it brought up regarding the HPV vaccine and the local environment/potential environmental toxins.  My one critique would be that I found the ending to be a little bit hard to swallow - and honestly, I would have been fine with something more open-ended.

Entertainment Value
Yes, yes, yes!  I loved every moment of this one, including the somewhat unbelievable ending.  While I'm not sure how I'd evaluate the ending in terms of literary merit, in terms of being entertaining and shocking me, I loved it.  I'm ready for the Lifetime Original Movie based on this book to be released as soon as humanly possible.  It was fabulous all around.

If you liked Dare Me, I think you'll also like this one.  It's great for fans of dark and somewhat twisted domestic drama and for those who enjoy the mean/crazy girls trope as much as I do.  I highly recommend giving this one a try.  

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to review!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Book Review: Chasing the Sun by Natalie Sylvester

From Goodreads:
Andres suspects his wife has left him—again. Then he learns that the unthinkable has happened: she’s been kidnapped. Too much time and too many secrets have come between Andres and Marabela, but now that she’s gone, he’ll do anything to get her back. Or will he?
As Marabela slips farther away, Andres must decide whether they still have something worth fighting for, and exactly what he’ll give up to bring her home. And unfortunately, the decision isn’t entirely up to him, or up to the private mediator who moves into the family home to negotiate with the terrorists holding Marabela. Andres struggles to maintain the illusion of control while simultaneously scrambling to collect his wife’s ransom, tending to the needs of his two young children, and reconnecting with an old friend who may hold the key to his past and his wife’s future.
Set in Lima, Peru, in a time of civil and political unrest, this evocative page-turner is a perfect marriage of domestic drama and suspense.
I loved the writing in the first two thirds of the book.  I really liked the characters and cared about what happened to them and how they would deal with the trauma of the kidnapping.  I also liked that the second part of the book deals with the aftermath and that we got to see what happened to the family and how they coped.  However, the last third of the book didn't seem like it went well with the first two thirds.  This was especially true it the last fifty pages or so, when I felt like several of the main characters acted in a way that we had been led to believe was not like them at all.  Andres in particular undergoes a change in the last few pages of the book that had me shaking my head.  We spend a large portion of the book in his head and his final actions just don't go along with his thoughts and feelings throughout the rest of the book.

Entertainment Value
This is where the book really shines - I absolutely devoured it.  I was into the story and captivated by the characters, especially the children.  Even though I didn't like the ending and didn't think it fit well with the rest of the story, discovering where things were headed kept me reading and interested.  I was also fascinated by the setting of Lima and the situation faced by citizens when kidnappings are frequent and involving the police isn't an option.

I think it's a decent read, definitely worth giving a try if the setting and intrigue appeal to you.  The ending really threw me off, but I thoroughly enjoyed the read up until that point.  I'm excited to hear what the rest of the reviewers on the tour have to say about it.

Thanks to TLC for providing me with a copy to review.  Click here to see the other blogs participating.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Comic Fridays: Saga, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughn

I know it's not Friday, but I have another post scheduled for tomorrow, so you're getting this one a day early:

From Goodreads:
When two soldiers from opposite sides of a never-ending galactic war fall in love, they risk everything to bring a fragile new life into a dangerous old universe. 

From New York Times bestselling writer Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina) and critically acclaimed artist Fiona Staples (Mystery Society, North 40), Saga is the sweeping tale of one young family fighting to find their place in the worlds. Fantasy and science fiction are wed like never before in this sexy, subversive drama for adults. 
This one is weird.  It's a good weird, obviously, but weird none the less.  Weird enough that I think it might be off-putting to those who just want to read a normal story.  We're talking never-ending space war, characters with tvs for heads, a spider-woman (not like spider man, like a woman's armless torso on a spider body), and a disemboweled ghost-babysitter.

I loved the main characters and their devotion to keeping our narrator, their child, safe from the various assailants who are chasing them across planets.  I also loved the dialogue, which I think was sarcastic and dry in just the right ways.  I grew to really care about all of our characters.  As far as the plot is concerned, your guess is as good as mine as to where it's headed, because bizarre seems to be the name of the game here, from the planet Sextillion (yeah, just like you'd imagine it) to fantasy-like forest beasts.

As far as the artwork is concerned, I can't rave enough about it.  It's just flat out beautiful to look at.  A lot of the world-building is done in the artwork (as it is in any graphic novel/comic), but I think it's done especially well in this one.

My one word of caution is that the term "graphic" is particularly weighty here, as the story is very graphic both in terms of violence and sexuality.  Enough that I probably won't continue to follow the series, even though I enjoyed the first volume so much.  It's something that's harder for me to see than read, especially in regards to depictions of sexual violence.  I loved the story, but ultimately don't think I can get past the amount of nudity and sex, particularly the combinations of violence and sex.

I recommend it for those who think they can handle the content though, on the basis of the brilliant dialogue and gorgeous drawings.  It's getting tons of rave reviews, but it's ultimately not going to be one that I really get into, despite my enjoyment of the story.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Book Review: Midsummer by Carol Giangrande

From Goodreads:
All her life, Joy's been haunted by a man she's never met -- her visionary grandfather, the artist Lorenzo. At work on digging a New York subway tunnel, his pickaxe struck the remains of an ancient Dutch trading ship -- and a vision lit up the underground, convincing him that he was blessed. 
As it turned out, his children did well in life, and almost a century later, his granddaughter Joy, a gifted linguist, married the Canadian descendant of the lost ship's captain. Yet Nonno's story also led to the death of Joy's cousin Leonora, her Aunt Elena's only child. It was a tragedy that might have been prevented by Joy's father, Eddie, a man who's been bruised by life and who seldom speaks to his sister. 
Yet in the year 2000, he has no choice. Wealthy Aunt Elena and Uncle Carlo are coming from Rome to New York City to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary. They've invited the family to dine at the sky-high tower restaurant above the tunnel where nonno Lorenzo saw his vision long ago. On the first day of summer, Elena and Eddie will face each other at last. Midsummer is a story of family ties and fortune, and of Minding peace as life nears its close, high above the historic place where nonno's story began.
I feel like maybe I have a bit of an unfair bias against novella as a format, probably because I see it as a tool that publishers use to eke a few more dollars out of their big name series books (cynical, party of one).  This one, however, may just change my mind.  First of all, it's not part of a franchise super popular series, and second of all, it's beautifully written.  The setting is perfect, the characters are all sympathetic, and I was totally swept up in the story of family drama.

Entertainment Value
A perfect Sunday night read.  I devoured it in one sitting easily given the short length, but it still packed a punch emotionally.  Family dramas are a particular love of mine, and I really enjoyed getting to know this one.  I wish there had been more Aunt Elena because I totally fell in love with her.

I think this is a good starting point for those like me who have avoided novella as a format.  It's beautifully done and certainly has the literary aspect I was hoping for in terms of writing.  It also has a great story that pulls the reader in completely.  Definitely recommend it.

Thanks to TLC for providing me with a copy to review.  Click here to see the other blogs on the tour and their reviews.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Book Review: High Crime Area by Joyce Carol Oates

From Goodreads:
Joyce Carol Oates is an unparalleled investigator of human flaws. In these eight stories, she deftly tests the bonds between damaged individuals—a brother and sister, a teacher and student, two strangers on a subway—in the fearless prose for which she’s become so celebrated. 

In the title story “High Crime Area,” a white, aspiring professor is convinced she is being followed. No need to panic, she has a handgun stowed away in her purse—just in case. But when she turns to confront her black, male shadow, the situation isn’t what she expects. In “The Rescuer,” a promising graduate student detours to inner city Trenton, New Jersey to save her brother from a downward spiral. But she soon finds out there may be more to his world than to hers. And in “The Last Man of Letters,” the world-renowned author X embarks on a final grand tour of Europe. He has money, fame, but not a whole lot of manners. A little thing like etiquette couldn’t bring a man like X down, could it? 

In these biting and beautiful stories, Oates confronts, one by one, the demons within us. Sometimes it’s the human who wins, and sometimes it’s the demon.
As prolific a writer as Joyce Carol Oates is, I don't think it will come as a surprise that this collection has some definite hits as well as some definite misses.  What I was hoping to find in these stories is exactly what the subtitle promises: tales of darkness and dread.  I particularly like Oates' brand of dark because she sticks to the realistic, for the most part.  Her tales aren't fantastical, they're examinations of the depths of the human heart as we see it in real life, particularly it's darker moments.  For the most part, in terms of writing quality, these stories lived up to my expectations.  They're just the right length and don't spell out all of the answers, leaving it up to the reader to ponder the outcomes.  I like an open-ended short story that leaves me thinking, and these fit that description for the most part.

Entertainment Value
While I appreciated and enjoyed several stories ("High Crime Area" and "The Rescuer" were my favorites), there were others that I found completely unmemorable.  I'd rather read a bad short story than one I immediately forget.  Unfortunately, I'd say about half the stories in this selection are rather forgettable.  Some fit the dark specification ("Demon" and "Toad Baby") but were just to bizarre for me to really enjoy.  As I mentioned above, I really enjoy her most when she sticks in the realm of the mostly-believable and doesn't try to get too experimental or fantastical.

There were some selections I loved and some that were only ok.  I definitely recommend giving Oates a try, especially if you're a fan of short stories, but I'm not sure that this collection is the one I'd start with.  If you're a fan of hers, however, I think there are enough good stories in here to merit reading it.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to review.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Audiobook Review: Noggin by John Corey Whaley

From Goodreads:
Listen — Travis Coates was alive once and then he wasn’t.

Now he’s alive again.

Simple as that.

The in between part is still a little fuzzy, but he can tell you that, at some point or another, his head got chopped off and shoved into a freezer in Denver, Colorado. Five years later, it was reattached to some other guy’s body, and well, here he is. Despite all logic, he’s still 16 and everything and everyone around him has changed. That includes his bedroom, his parents, his best friend, and his girlfriend. Or maybe she’s not his girlfriend anymore? That’s a bit fuzzy too.

Looks like if the new Travis and the old Travis are ever going to find a way to exist together, then there are going to be a few more scars.

Oh well, you only live twice.
There are so many layers to this book that I can barely stand it.  It's one of the few YA titles that I'd classify as both literary and completely engaging.  Our main character is a teenage boy who was dying of cancer and agreed to an experimental procedure in which his head would be frozen and reattached to something (science wasn't sure what) in the future.

Travis expected to come back, but in the distant future.  Instead, he comes back only five years later.  Enough time has passed that his best friend, girlfriend, parents, and family have all grieved his loss and begun to move on, but not so much time that they are significantly different than they were when he died.  Not only is our main character dealing with the emotional ramifications of living in a stranger's body, he also has to deal with the experience of waking up from what feels like a night's sleep to find that everyone he knows has changed.

What amazed me was how thoroughly Whaley has fleshed out all of the ramifications of this, both in Travis's personal life and in the culture at large.  I feel like everything was thought through and no stone was left unturned in examining Travis's experiences.  He is intensely sympathetic, as are all of the characters in the book, even when Travis finds himself at odds with them.  We're put in Travis's head, but we can also see clearly the motivations of emotions of the other characters.

There's so much to rave about here, but I want to be sure to point out my favorite aspect, and that is how I think most older teens (or those of us who have been older teens at some point in our lives) can identify with Travis's predicament even though it is, at present, a scientific impossibility.  Whaley uses Travis's story to explore the same emotions that are involved in just growing up.  When you're in high school, you're sure that your relationships will never change.  Then you go to college, move away, make new friends, and things inevitably change.

I so completely identified with Travis's feelings of disconnection as he realized that his best friend and girlfriend have continued to live life while he wasn't there.  Doesn't everyone experience that after graduation?  When you come home for the summer and realize that your BFF who went to a different school had a whole huge range of experiences that you weren't a part of?  Or that your high school boyfriend who you thought you'd be with forever has met someone new and is torn between his relationship with you and his new life away from you?  It just killed me how spot on he got those emotions and expressed them through this science fictional story.  Brilliant.

Entertainment Value
You've probably realized by now that I absolutely adored this book.  But I don't want to push it off as being deep and literary only, because it's also funny and charming and engrossing.  The characters are all lovable and there are several unexpected moments of lighthearted humor and validations of the human experience.  It's also got some of the more emotional moments that readers might associate with books like The Fault in Our Stars where Travis reflects on his death and the illness leading up to it.  I couldn't stop listening.

Nicely done, although I was distinctly aware that an adult was reading a teenager's narration.  I think Whaley does an amazing job of creating a teenage voice, but the narrator sounds like an adult reading a teen's voice.  It took me out of the story several times, but was overall not a major issue.

You must read it.  Required.  Beware of some crude language (we're in a sixteen year old's mind, remember) but don't let that stop you from picking this one up.  It's beautifully done and I can almost guarantee that you will love it if you've enjoyed books like Eleanor & Park and The Fault in Our Stars.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

What's Making Me Happy This Week (13)

Starbucks Iced Mocha in a jug.  No further explanation needed.

This movie!  I've heard it mentioned in several places lately and finally got Luke to sit down and watch it with me.  He wasn't a fan, but I loved it.  If you like space disasters (or enjoyed The Martian) this is one you must see.  Just don't expect lots of alien action.  It's beautiful to watch and so suspenseful.  

This link, which provides a very helpful summary of the Hachette/Amazon dispute in an easily understood format.

What's making you happy this week?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Book Review: We Are the Goldens

Nell knows a secret about her perfect, beautiful sister Layla. If she tells, it could blow their world apart.

When Nell and Layla were little, Nell used to call them Nellaya. Because to Nell, there was no difference between where she started and her adored big sister ended. They're a unit; divorce made them rely on each other early on, so when one pulls away, what is the other to do? But now, Nell's a freshman in high school and Layla is changing, secretive. And then Nell discovers why. Layla is involved with one of their teachers. And even though Nell tries to support Layla, to understand that she's happy and in love, Nell struggles with her true feelings: it's wrong, and she must do something about it.
While I'm wouldn't classify this as literary fiction, I think it is wildly successful at what it sent out to be - a suspenseful family drama dealing with a hard subject.  While I found Nell's sister's relationship with the teacher a bit incredulous, I was blown away by Nell's family dynamics.  I loved how the author showed us how very much Nell looks up to Layla and the reasons why.  I also found Nell's inability to tell anyone about Layla's relationship to be completely believable, given the family dynamics we're shown.  She's the peacemaker and the one who doesn't make waves - and that characteristic is perfectly captured.

Entertainment Value
This one was in the zone of things I want from contemporary YA: an "issue", sisters, serious tone, lots of drama.  I loved it and read it in one sitting.  I was totally unbothered by some of the more ridiculous aspects of the book because I found the characters so compelling (see above).

I think it's a great choice for fans of contemporary YA issue books and also for those who are interested in family dynamics, particularly in families where children are affected by divorce.  The author does an amazing job of incorporating those elements into the story.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Happy Book Birthday to Push Girl by Jessica Love and Chelsie Hill

I am so thrilled to be celebrating with my friend Jessica Love today as her novel Push Girl is released!  Diversity in books has been a huge topic of conversation lately, and this book provides just that.

From Goodreads:
Kara is a high school junior who's loving life. She's popular, has a great group of friends and an amazing boyfriend, and she's a shoe-in for homecoming queen. Even though her parents can't stop fighting and her ex-boyfriend can't seem to leave her alone, Kara won't let anything get in the way of her perfect year. It's Friday night, and Kara arrives at a party, upset after hearing her parents having another one of their awful fights, and sees another girl with her hands all over her boyfriend. Furious, Kara leaves to take a drive, and, as she's crossing an intersection, a car comes out of nowhere and slams into the driver's side of Kara's car. 

When Kara wakes up, she has no memory of the night before. Where is she? Why are her parents crying? And, most importantly -- why can't she feel her legs? As Kara is forced to adjust to her new life, where her friends aren't who they seemed to be and her once-adoring boyfriend is mysteriously absent, she starts to realize that what matters in life isn't what happens to you -- it's the choices you make and the people you love.

Co-written by "Push Girls" star Chelsie Hill, whose real life closely mirrors Kara's experience, this novel will open the eyes of readers everywhere who have never met someone who lives with paralysis.
I can't wait to get my own hands on a copy this week, and I'm thrilled to have already found a copy in my library system's catalog.  If you're looking for a contemporary YA book featuring a diverse set of characters, this is the one.

Click here to see Jessica Love's Goodreads page and click here for her website where you can also find out information about her upcoming projects!

Monday, June 2, 2014

What I Read in May

May was such a nice month for our little family.  I had a week's vacation between semesters and we were busy pretty much every weekend.  I was able to travel to south Georgia to visit my Mema and my aunt with my parents.  And the highlight of my month was a trip to a farm with my besties Jacki and Jennie (We Still Read) and their precious families.

As far as reading goes, here's what I read in May:

The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower
The Book of You by Claire Kendal
Y: The Last Man, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughn
We Were Liars by E. Lockheart
Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill
One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak
A Rogue By Any Other Name by Sarah MacLean
Pretty Deadly by Kelly Sue DeConnick
Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag
Boxers by Gene Luen Yang
Saints by Gene Luen Yang
Things Come Apart: A Teardown Manual for Modern Living by Todd McLellan
Closed Doors by Lisa O'Donnell
We Are the Goldens by Dana Reinhardt
My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

Total Books Read: 16
Pages read in May: 3835
Pages read this year: 18,431