Another Book Roundup

I haven’t been keeping up with full-length book reviews here, so I thought I’d just jot down a few lines about the books I’ve been reading lately.

  • The Last One, by Alexandra Oliva. A woman competes in a Survivor-like reality show, only to find the line between show and reality beginning to blur. As her Solo Challenge progresses, it becomes clear to the reader that something terrible has happened in the outside world, but Zoo thinks it’s part of the game-or refuses to see it. An interesting tale on how we can blind ourselves to the truth.
  • the-last-one
  • Low  Country Bribe, by Hope C. Clark. A Department of Agriculture employee finds herself mixed up with bribes and murder. Not my usual cup of tea, but I love Clark’s website Funds for Writers, and thought I’d give her fiction a whirl.
  • The Bookseller, by Cynthia Swanson. A woman dreams an alternate life in 1963 Denver. By day, she’s Kitty, a single woman who runs a bookstore with her friend. When she goes to sleep at night, she’s Katharine, wife to perfect husband Lars and mother to two beautiful children. But it turns out that perfect life isn’t so perfect, and Kitty struggles to make sense of the two lives she’s living.
  • bookseller

 

What I’m reading now:

  • The Light Between the Oceans, by M.L. Stedman. I’m reading this one for the book club, about a couple living on a lighthouse island in 1926 Australia, who decide to keep a baby washed up onshore in a boat. Like that won’t have devastating repercussions.
  • light oceans
  • Children of Earth and Sky, by Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay is my favorite fantasy author, and I’m finally reading his latest. Opening up one of his books is like coming home.
  • Children

So that’s what’s been going on in my reading world. Have you read any of these books? What are you reading these days? Let me know and we’ll talk about it!

 

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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I’ve been intrigued by the strange photo on the cover of this book for awhile now, but probably would never have picked it up if my book club members hadn’t suggested it. My sister didn’t realize it was a YA novel, though in the end it didn’t matter-this is a delightfully “peculiar” book no matter what the genre.

As a child, Jacob Portman loved his grandfather Abraham’s stories about the house of peculiar children he’d been sent to as a child-in order to protect him from the “monsters”. The children who lived there had odd powers or peculiarities-an invisible boy, a levitating girl, a boy who had bees living inside of him-peculiarities that were backed up by some old photos that his grandfather had shown him over the years.

As he grew older, Jacob realized his grandfather had probably been telling tall tales, and that the “monsters” were actually the Nazis during World War II. His parents had likely sent him to an orphanage in England to protect him, while the rest of his family was slaughtered. And the pictures? Weird camera tricks.

But then his grandfather is killed, supposedly by a wild animal; Jacob is sent to check on him that day, and his grandfather dies in his arms with some enigmatic words: “Go to the island, it’s not safe here. Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man’s grave. September 3, 1940.” And then Jacob sees something in the underbrush nearby, something decidedly monstrous.

Afterward, he suffers nightmares and anxiety, and his parents send him to a psychiatrist. Dr. Golan suggests that he look into his grandfather’s stories, if only to find some kind of closure. When his aunt gives him a book from his grandfather’s house, an Emerson book with Jacob’s name on  it, he finds a letter inside written to Abe from Headmistress Alma LeFay Peregrine, with a postmark from Cairnholm Island, Cymru (Wales), UK.

From this and various other clues, Jacob pieces together that his grandfather wanted him to find this Miss Peregrine and her home for peculiar children-and realizes that if he did, maybe they could shed some light on his grandfather’s secrets.

The book takes off from there, with Jacob and his father travelling to Wales, the discovery of the bombed-out house, and Jacob’s initiation into the world of the peculiar. The weird photos only add to the story; they’re old pictures the author has found through tag sales and private collections over the years. I find it an ingenious way to tell a story-in the author interview at the end of the book, Riggs says that he both made up a story around some of the pictures, and tried to weave others into the narrative as he went along. It’s inspired me to more frequently use pictures as story prompts; one might get a best-seller out of it!

Going in, we thought this book would be a creepy, kind of freaky read, but it was actually more on the whimsical side, and the recent previews for the movie version only reinforces this. It’s a fun, adventurous read, for YA readers, as well as those who have a taste for the peculiar.

Book Review 2016

Looking over my reading list of this past year, I thought I’d pick out some favorites, some not-so-favorites, the hits, the misses, and the abandoned.

I’ve read fourteen books this year (12 fiction and 2 non-fiction) and I’ve loved, or at least mostly liked, all of them. I’d have to say my top three favorites are:

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  • Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn.
  • City of Mirrors, by Justin Cronin.
  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs. I just finished reading this book and don’t have a review yet; stay tuned.

My least favorite book out of all of them has to be The Martian, by Andy Weir. Don’t get me wrong; I loved the movie, but the book was a bit tedious. Good story, but better told through a different medium.

The award for Most Mind-Blowing Book goes to Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch, and the Just Plain Weird award goes to Night of the Animals, by Bill Broun.

There were three books that I started with good intentions, but will join the Halls of the Unfinished:

  • Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. LeGuin. I hadn’t read a good craft book in a while, but I just wasn’t disciplined enough to get through this one at the time. I had better luck with Old Friend From Far Away, by Natalie Goldberg, which I’m still writing through.
  • Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain. I thought I’d really like this novelization of Beryl Markham’s life (the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic), but…I just didn’t. Maybe I’d have better luck with West With the Night, a memoir.
  • The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry. This book, about a family of lace readers in Salem, Massachusetts, has been on my shelf for a long time, and I finally started it a while ago and have been reading it between book club reads. I’m not sure if it will ever get finished.

The book club has really kept me on track with reading-if I didn’t have anyone else to read books with and have a deadline, it would probably take me a lot longer to read a book, and I certainly wouldn’t have read a lot of these titles, which would have been a shame. I can’t wait to see what great books the new year holds for me!

Have you read any of these books? What was your favorite book of the year?

 

 

The Wonder

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Lib Wright is a Florence Nightingale-trained nurse who is called upon to keep watch over a girl in 1959 Ireland who supposedly can live without eating.

Lib arrives from England ignorant of this country’s culture and Roman Catholic faith, as well as with her own prejudices and assumption. She meets Anna, the girl who allegedly hasn’t eaten since her eleventh birthday, which was four months before. The girl is clearly alive and spirited, but the nurse in Lib sees troubling symptoms: swollen feet and hands, distended belly, fine hair growing on the girl’s skin, bleeding gums.

Lib has been hired by a committee of local men, including the parish priest Mr. Thaddeus and Anna’s own physician, Dr. McBrearty, to determine if Anna is somehow secretly getting food, or if she is indeed a living miracle. Lib shares her two-week watch with Sister Michael, a taciturn nun who alternates 8 hour shifts with Lib.

Convinced that the whole thing is a hoax, Lib keeps a strict watch over Anna and writes her symptoms down everyday in her memorandum book. But very soon, Anna begins to get worse, and Lib fears the girl will die soon. She brings her concerns to Dr. McBrearty, but the man is too delusional to listen to her-he’s either hopeful that Anna is truly miraculous, or is convinced that she is(“scientifically” adapting to life without food. There is no help with Anna’s parents, either her inappropriately cheery mother or her resigned, fatalistic father. Everyone’s too wrapped up in religious fervor. Even Sister Michael, a fellow nurse, is determined to just do the job she was hired for: to watch.

As Lib gets to know the girl even as she deteriorates, she cannot simply stand by and watch her die. She finds an unlikely ally in William Byrne, an Irish journalist who is seeking a story on Anna, a man who stirs Lib’s emotions as well as the secrets she carries inside. But what are Anna’s secrets? Lib is convinced the answers lie within the girl herself, and the crux of the story is the mystery of why Anna won’t eat. The answer is shocking and heartrending, but the ending satisfied when I wasn’t so sure it would.

I’d call this book a psychological mystery; it kept me turning the pages, puzzling out the mystery of Anna.

 

Animals and Wonder

I have no finished book or watched movie for this week’s Book/Movie Review post, so I’ll just tell you about what I’m currently reading.

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Over a month ago, I began reading Night of the Animals, by Bill Broun, for the book club. It has an intriguing premise: in the year 2052, an 80-year old man named Cuthbert Handley believes he possesses “The Wonderments”, an ability to communicate with animals, a gift passed down to him by his grandmother. He believes he must use this gift to free all the animals in the London Zoo, and quick, because their lives are in danger from the suicide cults prevalent at this time. The problem is, Cuthbert almost certainly is insane-brought on by the death of his brother Drystan when they were children (who he believes is not really dead, only “missing”); the severe beatings and abuse of his horrible father; and his hallucinogenic addiction to a drug called Flot.

There’s plenty of insanity going on here-the suicide cults sweeping the globe believe that the comet Urga-Rampos passing by is their vehicle to the next life; they also believe that animals have no souls, are “empty vessels” and are therefore dangerous, as their own departing souls may “fall into” an animal’s body on the way out. Huh.

Since the story takes place in the future, the author has the difficult task of presenting this world to the reader-a British world run by the new aristocracy and the king “Harry 9”; a new form of communication called Wikinous, with skin panels and eye implants; where mental illness (or just a simple desire to escape) is dealt with under “Nexar Hoods”, where a person is basically reduced to a lump of jelly; and where Indigents (the extremely poor) are marginalized and scorned like pariah. It’s all a bit overwhelming in the first 100 pages or so, and my two other book club members just couldn’t get through it and decided not to continue with the book.

I understand their decision, and I almost put it down myself. But I pushed on, wanting to give the book a chance, and also because I simply love crazy Cuthbert and have to find out what happens to him. The book evens out after the first few chaotic chapters, and I especially enjoyed the section that flashes back to Cuthbert’s youth with his brother and his grandmother.

It seems to take forever for Cuthbert to actually get into the zoo to do the deed, and once he does, he engages in long, crazy conversations with the animals (entertaining at first, and then a bit tedious). My attention was once again refreshed by the introduction of a new character named Astrid, a young park officer who may or may not be linked to Cuthbert, and who is a recovering Flot addict herself (she’s approaching the dreaded “second withdrawal”, a good ten years after the first).

So that’s where I’m at-Cuthbert wandering around the zoo with his bolt cutters, looking for his long-dead brother Drystan, talking to animals and unleashing some chaos, while Astrid has shown up along with the park officers, the media, and the much-feared Red Watch, who will neural-pike you first and not even bother to ask questions later. The comet is coming and the death cults are stirring. What will happen? I’ll let you know when I finish!

the-wonder

I’m also reading The Wonder, by Emma Donaghue (of “Room” fame), about an Irish girl in the mid-1800’s who seemingly can live without eating food. Lib Wright, a nurse who trained under Florence Nightingale, has been called upon to help observe the child and confirm whether or not she’s a living miracle. I’m hoping to have that book finished by next week, and I’ll give a review.

Happy reading!

Big Magic

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I’ve been hearing wonderful things about Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Big Magic” ever since it came out, and since I’ve read and loved her memoir “Eat, Pray, Love” and her novel “The Signature of All Things”, it was time to finally get to it.

And I’m so glad I did. In this highly readable and entertaining book, Gilbert shares her personal philosophy about living a creative life, whether it’s writing, art, music, crafts, or any other way of “making things.”

The book is divided into six parts entitled Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust, and Divinity. In each, as you might imagine, she talks about the fear that keeps us from creating (the fear of, well, just about everything); of giving ourselves permission to create, to diligently keep at it, to trust in the process, and that more than a little bit of grace may be involved.

She holds it all together with her idea of “Big Magic”. Quite simply, Gilbert believes that ideas are alive; they are energetic life forms that swirl around us all the time. She believes that ideas want to be made manifest, specifically through us. If we open ourselves to these ideas-with the above-mentioned tools and tricks of courage, permission, persistence, and trust-amazing things can happen. She’s not suggesting that we just sit and wait for the idea to enter us like a bolt of lightning (see my post from yesterday about “inspiration”); rather, that through hard work and a trust in the process, an idea may decide to come alive through us.

Sound a little wacky? Maybe, but she has some impressive examples of how this has happened to her in her own life-not only the hits, but also the misses. Sometimes an idea decides to pass you by and be conceived through someone else. That’s okay. Go on to the next project, keep creating, be open and generous and enjoy the process (you hear that? Have fun!). She debunks the myth of the tortured artist, and suggests that, yes, you can actually enjoy making art, and that it is its own reward.

Gilbert is a wonderful storyteller, and she weaves a bit of her own magic here in this book. I soaked it up like a parched rag. If you’re feeling a bit parched for some wise advice on living the creative life, I suggest you read this book.

Dimestore: A Writer’s Life

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At the beginning of the memoir class I’ve been taking through my public library, the teacher suggested that we, you know, actually read a few memoirs, to get a feel of how they can be constructed or the different lenses by which an individual’s life can be seen through. I’ve only read a few in my life (Eat, Pray, Love by Liz Gilbert, Operating Instructions, by Anne Lamott). It was time to pick up another one.

I chose Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, by the novelist Lee Smith. Never heard of her? Me, neither. But it doesn’t matter. Her memoir recounting her childhood in Grundy, West Virginia (before “Appalachian Culture” was considered a cool thing), and her adulthood as a writer, teacher, wife and mother, stands on its own as a wonderful piece of writing.

Each chapter is a long essay concerning a certain time or phase in her life, beginning with “Dimestore”, in which she recounts her memories of her father’s dimestore in Grundy. “Recipe Box” circles around her mother in the kitchen, the food and friends that passed through it. “Kindly Nervous” explains the prevalence of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in her family, including both her parents, and most tragically, her son Josh. There’s some darkness here, but she doesn’t dwell there-this book is mostly a celebration, of her heritage, of writing, of life itself.

If you’re interested in writer’s lives and how they’re formed and informed (as I am), check this one out.

(I already screwed up my “Master Plan” for Nablopomo; this piece was supposed to be posted on Wednesday under “Book or Movie Reviews”, and instead I did a writing prompt piece that was meant for Mondays. Oh well. I’ll get back on track for the rest of the week.) Happy Blogging!