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Read All The Things! Reviews

A mini-me version of Read All The Things!

The Exorcist

The Exorcist - William Peter Blatty

The Exorcist is advertised as the scariest book of all time. I didn’t think I could call myself a true horror junkie until I had read it.

 

The story follows two main characters: Chris McNeal, an actress and mother; and Damien Karras, a priest who’s reconsidering his decision to become a priest. One day, Chris’s daughter, Regan, gets sick and starts acting strangely. Doctors can’t figure out what’s wrong with her. The mystery disease becomes so bad that Regan has to be strapped to a bed to keep from hurting herself or anybody else. Suspecting that Regan is possessed by a demon, Chris goes to Karras for help.

 

I love horror because it’s not really about monsters (or demons). Those things are just representations of society’s worries. Deep down, The Exorcist is about the fear of losing control. The demon takes over Regan’s body and uses it to humiliate her and to hurt people. Regan has no control of the creature inside her. The story is also about the fear of powerlessness. Chris tries everything to save her daughter. She becomes increasingly frantic as she runs out of options. Chris can only watch as the demon slowly kills Regan. That’s every parent’s worst nightmare. The Exorcist is probably considered one of the scariest books of all time because it taps into many of our most primal fears.  

 

“The demon's target is not the possessed; it is us the observers . . . everyone in this house. I think the point is to make us despair . . . to reject our humanity: to see ourselves as ultimately bestial, vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy.” – The Exorcist

 

If you’re squeamish or easily offended, then you need to stay far away from this book. It’s disgusting. There’s green vomit, diarrhea, and many inappropriate sexy times. Lots of cussing too. You’ll need a strong stomach for this one. The gross stuff is even grosser because a lot of it comes from a twelve-year-old child. I know that twelve-year-olds can be interested in sex (especially when they’re possessed by demons, I guess), but still, yuck.

 

“[Regan] advised me to keep my fingers away from her goddamned cunt.” – The Exorcist

 

What surprised me about The Exorcist is that most of it doesn’t focus on the exorcism itself. The exorcism is only a small part of the story and happens in the last few chapters. Most of the book is about the process of getting permission to do an exorcism. Since I’m fascinated by religion, I love this aspect of the story. It’s interesting to see all the steps that Chris and Karras have to go through to prove that Regan is possessed. It’s not easy to get permission for an exorcism. If permission is granted, the exorcism may not even work. The suspense in this story comes from wondering if Regan will be saved or not. The author keeps us guessing until the very end.

 

Karras is my favorite character because he’s complex, but I wasn’t a fan of most of the other characters. They range from one-dimensional to completely insufferable. I especially dislike detective Kinderman. His stuttering, repetitive dialogue massively grated on my nerves. I was tempted to start skimming every time he showed up on the page. His murder investigation did add extra drama to the plot, though, so I guess I can forgive the author (a little).

 

So, is The Exorcist the scariest book of all time? I’m not sure. It’s gross and cringe-inducing. Some parts of it are suspenseful. I was creeped out by the demon taking control of Regan’s body and contorting it in painful ways. But, I can’t say I ever felt scared while reading.

 

Now I need to watch the movie. I’ve never seen it, so it will be interesting to see how it compares to the book. 

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil - Stephen Collins

You know you wanted to read this book as soon as you saw the title. Who wouldn’t want to read about an evil beard?

 

The main character, Dave, lives on an island called Here, where beards are not tolerated. Everything on Here needs to be neat, orderly, and changeless. Then, one day, Dave grows a giant beard. He doesn’t mean to grow it. It just happens. The beard grows so fast that it starts taking over the island. The residents of Here have to figure out what to do about it.

 

The art in this graphic novel is done in gray pencil drawings. The drawings aren’t always super-detailed, but they do a great job of capturing the bland sameness of Here. They get the point across.

 

The plot and characters have the humor and quirkiness you’d expect, but the story is surprisingly deep. Since I’d seen this book described as a “modern-day fable,” I knew the theme would go deeper than evil beards, but I didn’t expect it to resonate with me so much. I had planned on reading a few pages of this book before bed, but I ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting. It was too weirdly important for me to put down. I needed to finish it.

 

The story is about xenophobia, distrust of the “other,” and fear of change. The novel starts with Dave, but as the plot progresses, the residents of Here seem to forget that Dave exists. They only see his problematic beard. They don’t take the time to understand that Dave is embarrassed by his beard and just wants to fit in on the island. The islanders have a lot of “What to do about the beard” discussions, but Dave isn’t invited to the conversations. They forget that Dave is a human and not just a problem. Even though the plot of The Gigantic Beard that was Evil is silly, there are a lot of parallels between it and the real world. I guess that’s what makes a good fable, right?

 

The job of the skin is to keep things in”The Gigantic Beard that was Evil

 

My only criticism of the book is that the layout is choppy. Sometimes, one sentence is chopped up and scattered over a whole page of panels. For me, this layout disrupts the flow of the story because I kept getting distracted by the pictures while hunting for the next part of a sentence. The writing does have a nice, poetic rhythm to it, once you locate all the words and read them together.

 

If you’re ever in the mood for a bizarre fable about out-of-control facial hair, check this one out.

The One And Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan - Patricia Castelao, Katherine Applegate

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so divided over a book. My adult-brain has one opinion, and my child-brain has the complete opposite opinion.

 

The One and Only Ivan is based on the true story of a gorilla that was captured in Africa as a baby. He was named Ivan, trained to paint pictures, and lived in a cage inside a shopping mall for 27 years. As people learned more about caring for exotic animals, public protests got Ivan moved to a zoo. For the first time since he was a baby, Ivan was able to run around and interact with other gorillas.

 

“Gorillas are not complainers. We're dreamers, poets, philosophers, nap takers.” – The One and Only Ivan

 

The book is narrated by Ivan, a gorilla. The story is simple and sparsely written, which makes it a very fast read. I finished the book in one sitting. It may also be a good novel for reluctant readers because they can blaze through it. The book looks thick, but there are illustrations, wide spaces between the paragraphs, and very few words on each page. I guess gorillas aren’t very talkative.

 

“Humans waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot. Everyone knows the peels are the best part.” – The One and Only Ivan

 

When I was a kid, my favorite books were Black Beauty and The Call of the Wild. If a book had an animal narrator, I wanted to read it. I would have loved Ivan; the elephants, Stella and Ruby; and Bob, the dog. Animals were easy for me to relate to as a kid because both kids and animals are powerless. They have to do whatever the adult humans tell them to do. I would have completely loved Ivan’s story, especially because it’s based on true events.

 

As an adult, I struggle with talking animal stories. They always feel emotionally manipulative. In this book, animals and kids are “good,” and adults are “evil.” If you don’t like stories about animal abuse, you might want to avoid this one. Parts of it are pretty depressing. When it comes to animals, it’s very easy to manipulate a reader’s emotions, and that makes me rebellious. I don’t like super-manipulative books.

 

I also have issues with stories that personify animals as much as this one does. Animals should be treated kindly, and gorillas should never be kept in shopping malls, but animals aren’t humans. Expecting an animal to behave like a person is dangerous. If a gorilla gets scared, he’s not going to think logically about the situation. He’s just going to bite your face off and run away to munch leaves or something. No regrets. My adult-brain prefers books that show animals realistically and not personified.

 

My favorite part of the book is the end. I like that it isn’t perfect. Ivan is a giant gorilla that was raised in captivity, so there’s no perfect solution for what to do with him after he’s removed from the mall. The book also shows his problems adjusting to life with other gorillas. Getting what he wants doesn’t solve all of his problems. His new life comes with a new set of challenges.

 

Since this is a children’s book, I’m going to listen to my child-brain on this one. I was an extremely picky reader as a kid, but this book would have become one of my favorites. The characters are relatable, and the story is humorous without glossing over the hard stuff. If you have a kid who loves animals, I’d highly recommend this book.

Challenger Deep

Challenger Deep - Neal Shusterman

This is one of those books that people either seem to love or hate. When I told the Internet I was reading Challenger Deep, I got a lot of mixed reactions. Some people said the book is weird, boring, and confusing; others said it’s brilliant. I was a little hesitant to start reading, but after I finished it, I decided I’m firmly in the “love” camp.

 

Caden is a boy who lives in two worlds. He’s trying to function in the real world, but his thoughts are aboard an imaginary ship that’s heading for Challenger Deep. Eventually, Caden ends up in a hospital where doctors fight to control his ship-themed hallucinations.

 

If you’re interested in books about mental illness, then this is a must-read. It completely thwarts the stereotypes typically seen in YA illness books:

 

Love isn’t magic. Challenger Deep shows that illnesses can’t be cured with love. Caden’s family loves him, but he’s still sick. He finds a girl who he’s kind of interested in, but he’s still sick. Unlike in a lot of YA books, love doesn’t magically fix his problems.

 

“There are times I feel like I'm the kid screaming at the bottom of the well, and my dog runs off to pee on trees instead of getting help.” – Challenger Deep

 

Doctors aren’t magic. There is still a lot to learn about treating mental illnesses. Doctors make mistakes and educated guesses. Sometimes it’s not even clear what illness a person has. This book shows doctors trying and failing to figure out how to make Caden better.

 

Medicine isn’t magic. Sometimes, a sick person can’t just swallow a pill and instantly get better. Many types of medication need to build up in a person’s body for weeks before anybody even knows if the medicine is working. If it’s not working, the medicine needs to be changed. Switching medications can cause many nasty side-effects. Challenger Deep doesn’t shy away from showing all that unpleasantness.

 

“They all think medicine should be magic, and they become mad at me when it's not.” – Challenger Deep 

 

Mental illnesses aren’t sexy. Many YA books have that “depressed, angry bad boy” character. That character shouldn’t be a sex-symbol. He should get help before he hurts himself or somebody else. In Challenger Deep, there’s nothing sexy about Caden’s depressed behavior.

 

“Dead kids are put on pedestals, but mentally ill kids get hidden under the rug.” – Challenger Deep

 

Endings aren’t always perfect. Sometimes illnesses go away. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they go away for a while and then come back. Caden’s story might not have a happy ending. 

 

Tragic backstories aren’t required. There’s a stereotype in books (and in real life) that mental illnesses are caused by something traumatic that happened in a person’s past. A lot of mental illnesses are caused by chemical imbalances. A person can be born with a chemical imbalance or develop one later in life. Caden doesn’t have a tragic backstory. He’s just a sick kid.  

 

Obviously, there is a lot this book does right, but I still have a few issues with it. It took me a long time to get interested in the story. I think I was over halfway through it before I found myself wanting to pick it up. The story switches back and forth between Caden’s ship hallucination and his real life, but it doesn’t feel like much is happening in either of those places. The hallucination is vividly bizarre, but it isn’t “real,” so there’s not much suspense there. Caden spends most of his real life wandering around, hallucinating. There isn’t much suspense in that, either. I felt like I was just sitting around, waiting for something to happen in the plot.

 

The story becomes a lot more interesting when the connections between the hallucinations and Caden’s real world start showing up. I enjoyed trying to spot the connections before they were revealed. I also really admire the way the author moves between the hallucinations and Caden’s real life. I reread parts of the book just to find out how he manages those transitions so smoothly. It’s impressive.

 

Also—this isn’t a criticism of the book—but I wondered how Caden’s family could afford to keep him in a hospital for nine weeks. Can you imagine how expensive that would be? Either they’re rich, or they have the greatest insurance in the history of insurance. Nine weeks in a hospital! Can people really afford that?

 

Anyway, I can see why this book is getting so much attention from readers and award committees. It’s a gritty depiction of mental illness, and it’s definitely well-written and unusual.

Guys Read: Funny Business

Guys Read: Funny Business - Eoin Colfer, Christopher Paul Curtis, Kate DiCamillo, Adam Rex, Jack Gantos, David Lubar, Jon Scieszka, Paul Feig, Jeff Kinney, David Yoo, Mac Barnett

When I was a kid, I was what everybody called a “reluctant reader.” Basically, if you put a book in my hands, I’d do everything in my childish power not to read it. Jon Scieszka’s picture books are some of the first books I remember reading on my own and actually liking. His strange sense of humor worked on rebellious child-me.

 

I was very interested to see what kind of anthology Scieszka would curate. The Guys Read series is aimed at “reluctant reader” middlegrade boys, and the theme of this particular book is “humor.” Like all anthologies, this one is a mixed bag. A few of the stories are great, a few are terrible, and most are somewhere in between.

 

“Your brain is doing some great work when it's laughing.” – Guys Read: Funny Business

 

For me, these are the standout stories:

 

“Best of Friends” by Mac Barnett is about an annoying kid who tells his classmates that he won a sweepstakes. Suddenly, everyone wants to be his best friend. The characters in this story are all morally gray, so I automatically liked it.

 

“Artemis Begins” by Eoin Colfer is autobiographical (I think?). Eoin’s younger brother breaks their mother’s acting award, and his older brother goes to great lengths to keep the younger brother out of trouble. It was interesting to learn that many of Eoin’s story ideas come from growing up with rambunctious siblings.

 

My favorite story is “A Fistful of Feathers” by David Yoo. It’s about a boy whose parents attempt to replace him with a pet turkey. The plot is completely ridiculous, but somehow it’s also compelling. The characters are unique enough that I wanted to keep reading to find out what happens to them.

 

I wasn’t sure if I liked or hated “What? You Think You Got It Rough?” by Christopher Paul Curtis when I finished it. It’s about an abusive grandfather who tells his grandson a disgusting story about hotdog nipples. The ending is too sappy for me, but the story is well-written and gross, so it somehow stuck in my mind.

 

It’s hard for me to critique this anthology because I’m about as far from the target audience as you can get. For me, none of these stories are funny. They’re creative, entertaining, and totally disgusting, but I don’t remember laughing while reading. I can see how this book would appeal to young boys, though, so if you have a young reluctant reader, you might want to try this anthology.

Through The Woods

Through the Woods - Emily Carroll

This book consists of five spooky short stories that take place in the woods. I’ve never read a graphic short story collection before, and I’m fairly new to sequential art books, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

 

“It came from the woods. Most strange things do.”Through the Woods

I am completely in love with the art. I’ll have to check out Emily Carroll’s other work because it’s beautiful. Admittedly, I haven’t read many graphic novels, but this is my favorite art style I’ve come across so far. I especially like that the author/illustrator uses slightly different colors for each story. Some of them are bright and bold with big blocks of color. Others are more subtle and realistic.

 

The stories remind me of campfire tales. They’re odd, but they don’t have a lot of depth or explanation. In most of the stories, the lack of depth and explanation didn’t bother me, but one of the stories is a bit confusing because the ending isn’t explained very well.

 

My favorite story in the collection is “Our Neighbor’s House.” It’s about three sisters who are left on their own until a mysterious man in a big hat shows up. I like the bold colors, and I wasn’t expecting that ending.

 

In “A Lady’s Hands are Cold,” a girl is forced into a marriage she doesn’t want. At night, in her new house, she hears strange music and sets out to find where it’s coming from. This story probably has the weirdest love-triangle ever.

 

I might have missed something about “His Face All Red.” (Possibly because I was reading this book while working, as responsible adults do. In my defense, it’s an entertaining book.) This story is about a man who kills his brother. I thought the story ended suddenly, and I didn’t totally understand the ending.

 

“My Friend Janna” features two women who are running a psychic scam, but one of them might not be faking her psychic abilities. This story isn’t as gripping as the first two, but I like the colors and the spooky illustrations.

 

I had no idea where “The Nesting Place” was going when I started it. It’s about a young girl who is staying with her brother and his wife after the death of her mother. The brother’s wife may not be who she seems. The story has a lot of suspense, but the ending was kind of “meh” for me. I think I was expecting something crazier.

 

I was on the fence about reading this book, but I’m very glad I did. It’s worth reading for the gorgeous art alone. The words are just the creepy icing on top.

I Am Nujood, Age 10 And Divorced

I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced - Nujood Ali

This review is of the English translation of a French book.

 

This book was a complete impulse buy. One day, I was browsing the nonfiction at a used bookstore and came across a book cover with a photo of a little girl. The title said the girl was 10 and divorced. I had to know what the heck was going on. This is the clickbait of book covers.

 

Nujood Ali is born into a poor family in Yemen. Her parents can’t afford to feed all of their children, so when Nujood is 10, she’s “married” (married=sold) to a man in his 30s. Nujood is beaten and raped by her husband until she finds a way to escape and get to a courthouse. The judges and lawyers at the courthouse have never encountered a 10-year-old who wants a divorce, and they do everything they can to help her. Nujood makes international news as “the youngest divorcee in the world.”

 

This book is meant to raise awareness about underage marriage, especially in the Middle East. In countries all over the world, young girls are given to older men because of cultural traditions or poverty. Forcing a child to become a wife is psychologically damaging to the child, and many child brides commit suicide. Underage marriage has to be stopped because children need to be children. It’s not healthy to force them into adult roles. Nujood’s story is unusual because she was able to escape from her husband and get help, but she’s not the only child bride in the world. Underage marriage is surprisingly common.

 

I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced shows the best and worst of humanity. The men in Nujood’s life (including her father and brothers) treat her like property. Women don’t have many rights in Yemen, and children have even fewer rights. Nujood’s family is so poor that the children have to beg for money and food on the street. It’s not an easy existence.

 

“In Khardji, the village where I was born, women are not taught how to make choices.” - I Am Nujood, Age 10 And Divorced

 

When Nujood escapes from her husband and gets to the courthouse, things change. The people who work there are amazing. They take Nujood into their homes to keep her safe from her husband and father. Then they get her a divorce and make her story as public as possible so other child brides know that help is out there.

 

“My mind was made up: I’d do whatever I had to. I was ready to climb mountains to keep from finding myself lying on that mat again, night after night, all alone against that monster.” - I Am Nujood, Age 10 And Divorced

 

This book achieves its goal of raising awareness, but I have some issues with the writing. The story is aimed at Western middlegrade/young YA readers, and it feels kind of shallow. I don’t need graphic details about Nujood’s abusive marriage, but I would have liked more info about the legal system in Yemen. The author(s) were probably worried about boring their target audience, but I think the story is compelling enough that it could have included more details without losing its readers.

 

Also, I was slightly confused about whose story I was reading. The book is written in first-person from Nujood’s point-of-view. But, Nujood is a pre-literate 10-year-old. She only knows how to write her name. Obviously, she didn’t write this book. She worked with a French journalist cowriter, and sometimes the narrative seems like an adult trying to sound like a 10-year-old. Since I read a translation of the original book, it feels like there are a lot of layers of authors/translators between me and Nujood. I kept wondering if the adults were putting their words in Nujood’s mouth. This book would have been more comfortable to read if it was a piece of journalism instead of a first-person narrative. The target audience might not have liked that, though. Kids don’t usually read newspapers.

 

Obviously, I have some mixed feelings about this one. It’s a quick read that raises awareness about underage marriage, but I’m not a fan of the way it’s written.   

Furiously Happy

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things - Jenny Lawson

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read this book. Nonfiction isn’t really my thing (unless it’s nonfiction about religious cults, but that’s a long story which doesn’t belong here.) Anyway, one day I was walking through Target after a dental appointment. My teeth were throbbing, and I had a massive headache, and I suddenly found myself standing in front of a shelf full of psychotic glitter raccoons. That’s when I thought, I need this book in my life.

 

I’m so glad that post-dentist me decided to put this book in the cart. I loved it.

 

Furiously Happy reads more like a series of blog posts than a regular memoir. Jenny Lawson suffers from several mental illnesses, and each chapter talks about a different situation she found herself in while trying to live with her illnesses. Some of the chapters are deep and honest, but most of them are just hilarious. My favorite chapters are the ones where Jenny goes to Australia with her friend to photobomb koalas and count kangaroo vaginas. I like those chapters because I’m impressed that people get free trips to Australia in exchange for writing about it. I’ll totally write about Australia if someone will send me there for free. (Do you hear that, Australia? If you give me plane tickets, I’ll write about you.)

 

I don’t think I’ve ever laughed at a book as much as I laughed at this one. Jenny has a very unusual way of looking at the world and her illnesses.

 

I know what a lot of you are thinking: Illnesses aren’t funny, and you’re horrible for laughing at sick people. Usually, I’d agree, but if you’ve lived every day of your life with a disease that can’t be cured, sometimes you have no choice but to laugh at it. I know this because I have a mental illness that can’t be cured. It’s nowhere near as bad as Jenny’s, but it has gotten me into some ridiculous situations. Actually, the whole reason I was wandering through Target in a post-dentist pain-fog was because the mental illness causes chronic teeth grinding, which leads to unpleasant dental appointments, which leads to me impulse-buying glittery raccoon books. So this book’s entrance into my life can be blamed on chemical imbalances.

 

A few times, I got slightly annoyed while reading Furiously Happy. Occasionally, the writing got too rambley for me, and I wanted it to get to the point. It also seems like Jenny sometimes intentionally misunderstands questions or does things that make life difficult for the people around her. I got annoyed at her for that. But, those are minor criticisms. I had a lot of fun reading this book.

 

One part of the story that I especially appreciate is the author’s discussion of medication and its side-effects. Admittedly, I haven’t read a ton of books about mental illness, but I’ve never come across one that discusses medication. When you swallow a pill that changes your brain chemistry, odd things can happen. Until I read this book, I hadn’t noticed that nobody really talks about medication side-effects. So, Furiously Happy inspired me to talk about them right now:

 

I take a pill that sometimes causes random dizziness. A few days ago, I was spying on the mailman. (I swear I’m not a pervert. I thought he was bringing a package for me, but I didn’t want to talk to him, so I was hiding.) I was peeking around a corner, watching the mailman deliver mail, when I suddenly fell over and smacked my face against a brick wall. I didn’t even know I was falling over until my face was rudely introduced to bricks. Basically, I’m the worst spy ever. The dude I’d been spying on saw me randomly face-plant into the side of my house. Then I had to talk to him. And, he didn’t even have a package for me!

 

“Don’t make the same mistakes that everyone else makes. Make wonderful mistakes. Make the kind of mistakes that make people so shocked that they have no other choice but to be a little impressed.” – Furiously Happy

 

I could have sat on the ground and wallowed in my surprise face pain, but I chose to laugh, get up, apologize to the mailman, and go on with life. I guess that’s the point of Furiously Happy. If you live with an illness, you’re going to have bad days, but you’re also going to have a lot of good days. Enjoy the good ones and don’t let the bad ones get you down.

 

“It’s about taking those moments when things are fine and making them amazing, because those moments are what make us who we are, and they’re the same moments we take into battle with us.” – Furiously Happy 

Brides of Eden: A True Story Imagined

Brides of Eden: A True Story Imagined - Linda Crew

I know a little about the Brides of Christ, so when I heard there was a fictionalization of their story, I knew I had to get my hands on it.

 

In 1903, a preacher who calls himself Joshua moves to Corvallis, Oregon and sets up a new church. At first, everything goes well, but when Joshua’s preaching strays too far from what’s in the Bible, the men in Corvallis chase him into the wilderness. But, he doesn’t go alone. A few women from his congregation go with him. After that, things get weird.

 

This is a hard book to review because it’s based on a true story, and the author is working within the confines of history. The book is short, fast-paced, and written for a young adult audience, so I was able to finish it in a few hours. The story hooked me immediately. I couldn’t put it down, even though I already knew the basics of the plot.

 

The story takes place over several years and is narrated by Eva, the youngest of the women who refuse to give up on Joshua. Eva is confused because everyone in her life is telling her something different. Her mother, brother, and sister love Joshua; her father hates him; some of her friends disown her for following him; and others encourage her not to give up on him because he’s trying to help people. It’s easy for the reader to understand Eva’s confusion and feel bad for her. Everyone in her life is pressuring her to do something different.

 

The most interesting part of this book is that it shows the culture of rural Oregon in 1903. Back then, religious freedom and women’s rights weren’t really things. When Joshua’s church becomes a public nuisance, the police look the other way while the townspeople try to murder Joshua and harass his congregation. Men have no trouble getting their wives and daughters sent to mental institutions for refusing to abandon their religion. And, when Eva is raped, she becomes a “ruined” woman. Very few people care about her body or mind, but everybody cares about her virginity and marriage potential. I guess 1903 was a terrible time to be a woman with a non-mainstream religion.

 

Eva’s father is a product of his time, but I still have a lot of respect for him. He knows that Joshua is dangerous, and he refuses to lose his family to the preacher’s abuse. Even though Eva argues, and runs away, and behaves like a teenage tyrant, her father refuses to let Joshua have her. He loves Eva, even when she makes really bad decisions.

 

I wish the characters had been better developed. I know they’re real people, and we probably don’t have many details about their lives, but they didn’t have much personality. Some of the characters’ actions also felt forced to me. The author tries very hard to help the reader understand why these women follow Joshua into the woods, but since Joshua’s character is underdeveloped, I didn’t see the appeal of him. If I had seen more of his personality, maybe the characters’ choices would have been easier to accept.

 

Also, I don’t usually say this, but the plot moves too fast for me. This is a very short book that covers several huge moments in Eva’s life. It probably moves quickly because we don’t know much about the real Eva’s life, but I wish the story had been slower and more detailed.

 

Despite a few issues, I really liked Brides of Eden. This is one of those stories that need to be told. Brides of Eden might be a perfect book for anyone who wants to read a fast-paced story that’s stranger than fiction.

Geek Love

Geek Love - Katherine Dunn

I’ve written and deleted this review so many times because this book has stumped me. I liked it, but I can’t say I enjoyed reading it, and that’s a very hard thing to explain.

 

Geek Love is about sibling rivalry. The Binewski family uses drugs to give birth to deformed children for their freak show. As the children grow up, they start competing against each other, wanting more and more attention from the crowds who come to see their deformities. Eventually, the siblings resort to mutilation and murder to get rid of the competition.

 

This is one of those books that will make you uncomfortable. Nothing is off-limits. Since the story is about bodies, there is a lot of discussion of body parts, functions, and fluids. There’s even a scene where the younger brother scrapes mold off the older brother’s balls. He does it with magic—which I guess is more sanitary than doing it with your fingers—but still, yuck. If you’re squeamish, you should probably avoid this novel.

 

The characters are extremely well-developed and extremely unlikeable. Crowds come to the family’s carnival to see “freaks,” but the true freakishness of these characters is on the inside. They put money and fame before anything else and will do whatever it takes to get attention, including abandoning babies who aren’t deformed enough to draw crowds. There’s no limit to the characters’ depravity, which makes them interesting to read about.

 

My favorite character is Chick. He’s the youngest child and the only one who doesn’t have a competitive personality. He’s really sweet. I was hoping his storyline would have a happy ending, but the other people in this book are way too messed up to let that happen. Chick’s magic becomes a weapon in his siblings’ quest to destroy each other.

 

The characters are well-developed, and the writing is brilliant (with lots of gory details), but I still had a lot of trouble getting through Geek Love. It was very easy for me to put the book down and not pick it back up. This is one of those novels that have amazing characters and an interesting world but not much action. I spent the first few hundred pages waiting for the plot to start. When there is action, it often happens so quickly that it’s slightly confusing. The pace of the story was always too slow or too fast for me. I was either confused or bogged down in details.

 

When I finished the book, I still had a lot of questions, especially about Arturo the Aquaboy. Arturo is able to convince thousands of people to cut off their limbs so they look like him and are no longer “ordinary,” but what’s so appealing about Arturo? Are people just envious of the attention he gets? Why would anyone want to be like him? He’s a horrible person with no redeeming qualities. The book’s narrator, Oly, is his willing slave and spends most of her time with him, so I feel like I should have seen something good about Arturo that would make people listen to him. And, if thousands of people are cutting off their limbs, then won’t limbless people become “ordinary”? I don’t know, but I definitely wouldn’t cut off my limbs for Arturo. (Or for anybody else. Probably.)

 

“There are those whose own vulgar normality is so apparent and stultifying that they strive to escape it. They affect flamboyant behavior and claim originality according to the fashionable eccentricities of their time. They claim brains or talent or indifference to mores in desperate attempts to deny their own mediocrity. These are frequently artists and performers, adventurers and wide-life devotees.


Then there are those who feel their own strangeness and are terrified by it. They struggle toward normalcy. They suffer to exactly that degree that they are unable to appear normal to others, or to convince themselves that their aberration does not exist. These are true freaks, who appear, almost always, conventional and dull.” – Geek Love 

 

Reading Geek Love made me think about how much ability people should have to change their bodies. In my culture, tattoos, piercings, and plastic surgery are normal, but where’s the line? Should people be allowed to cut off their limbs? Stick pins in their skin? Inject chemicals into their bloodstreams that change how fetuses grow? Also, who gets to make up the rules for body modification? In the book, a man shoots at Oly and her siblings because he doesn’t think deformed children should be alive, but the children love being “freaks.” Who gets to decide which types of body modification are okay and which aren’t?

 

I can see why this book is considered a modern classic. It’s thought-provoking and deeply unsettling. However, I struggled to finish it because of the pacing and the lack of plot.  

The Night Circus

The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

On the surface, The Night Circus seems like a book I’d love. It’s got some magic, a historical setting, a nonlinear structure, beautiful writing, and is heavy on description. But, is it possible to have too much of a good thing?

 

Seriously, if I have to read one more long-winded description of a circus act, I’m going to lose my mind.

 

The Night Circus follows a group of characters who set up a magic circus. Two of these characters, Marco and Celia, are illusionists who have been trained since birth for a competition that will take place between them, but life becomes messy when they fall in love and try to end the competition.

 

“Most maidens are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves in my experience, at least the ones worth something, in any case.”  - The Night Circus

 

This is one of those books that leave you in awe of the writing. The author is massively talented and has a big imagination. Even though there is too much description, this book has the richest imagery I’ve come across in a long time. I actually reread pages because the writing is so detailed and atmospheric, and I wanted to know how the author did it.

 

But, I think the mysterious atmosphere turned out to be a double-edged sword. The atmosphere held my interest, but in order to create it, the author has to keep the reader very distant from the characters. The characters always know more than the reader, and we’re not allowed into their heads very often. I never felt like I knew them or connected with them. I never got invested in their lives.

 

The characters are kept mysterious, and the plot is, too. Actually, the book doesn’t have much of a plot. It meanders from event to event. Even the competition between Marco and Celia isn’t as suspenseful as the synopsis makes it seem. For most of the novel, the reader doesn’t know the stakes or rules of the contest. We’re expected to go along with what’s happening without knowing the reasons behind it.

 

The competition actually turns out to be kind of anticlimactic. There’s no head-to-head duel or dramatic action scenes. Basically, Marco and Celia have to keep making the circus bigger and more extravagant until one of them becomes exhausted and can’t do it anymore. They have to keep trying to out-pretty each other. Since magic can be done from a distance, Celia and Marco aren’t even on the same continent for most of the story.

 

“I am tired of trying to hold things together that cannot be held. Trying to control what cannot be controlled. I am tired of denying myself what I want for fear of breaking things I cannot fix. They will break no matter what we do.” – The Night Circus

 

I also questioned why the story is set in the late 1800s/early 1900s. I’m not a history expert, but some of the small details seem wrong, and the characters don’t observe the social etiquette of the time. The setting adds mystery, but it also distracted me.

 

I think the synopsis might be misleading because readers can interpret it in different ways. If you like slow-paced literary fiction with beautiful writing, then you’ll love this book. If you go into it expecting a fantasy story with bold characters and a lot of action, then you’ll probably find it flat and lacking suspense.

 

This book didn’t give me everything I wanted, but the writing kept me happily reading.

 

“I couldn't tell the difference between what was real and what I wanted to be real.” – The Night Circus

A Love Like Blood

A Love Like Blood - Marcus Sedgwick

Charles Jackson is a British military doctor in Paris right after the liberation of the city during World War II. While exploring the newly freed streets, he peeks into an abandoned bunker and sees a man sucking the blood out of a corpse. Charles has no idea what he’s looking at. Is this a vampire? A murderer? A regular person driven crazy by war? Or something much, much worse? He devotes the rest of his life to finding out.

 

I have some mixed feelings about this one. It definitely reminded me of classic horror stories, so if you like the older stuff, you’ll probably enjoy this book. The writing style feels a bit old fashioned, but not overly old fashioned, which I enjoyed. The book is dark and filled with twists that the reader won’t see coming. The “vampire,” is pretty sinister. When he discovers that Charles is hunting him, he’ll do anything to get away, including sabotaging Charles’s career and murdering his friends. Charles can’t do anything about it because people question his sanity when he claims that a vampire is after him.

 

Charles is a strange character. He’s a little flat in the personality department, but he’s a classic horror antihero. He wants to do the right thing and sort out what he saw in the bunker in France, but he doesn’t always go about it in the right way. For example, he’s a creeper who will follow strangers across countries and have sex with suspicious women in allies. To get the information he wants, he’ll even resort to murder. As the novel progresses, his obsession with killing the vampire spirals out of control. Then, some odd things happen.

 

As always, Marcus Sedgwick’s writing style is engaging and quick to read. I finished most of this book in a day, and it was entertaining, but I still feel very “Meh” about it. I didn’t hate it, but it didn’t leave a huge impression on me. I think I was underwhelmed because this book doesn’t do anything I haven’t seen before. Above all, the story is about obsession, which is a very common horror theme. The author explores the theme nicely, but I was expecting more. I wanted something a little different. This book is almost like a retelling of classic vampire stories, but it’s not quite a strict retelling.

 

 

I had a few other issues with the book. The plot takes a very long time to get going. Once it does get moving, it goes quickly, but I still spent a lot of the novel waiting for something to happen.

 

Also, there is a surprising amount of untranslated French dialogue. This makes sense because most of the story is set in France, and the narrator isn’t completely fluent in French, but I felt like I was missing something. I don’t know any French.

 

I guess I don’t have too much to say about this book. It’s a quick and entertaining way to spend a few hours, but I wish it had given me more to think about.   

Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread

Make Something Up: Stories You Can't Unread - Chuck Palahniuk

I have a love/hate relationship with Chuck Palahniuk. I love him because he can somehow get away with writing the most offensive, politically incorrect, disgusting fiction ever. I hate him because I don’t feel smart enough to read his work. Somehow, I always have the feeling that he’s laughing at me while I struggle to understand what the heck is going on. I don’t always get the point of his stories. Many of them just seem offensive for the sake of being offensive. This totally messes with my over-analytical mind. I want to find meaning in these stories, but maybe there isn’t any.

 

If you’re new to Chuck Palahniuk’s work, Make Something Up is a great place to start. These 21 stories run the spectrum from clever and funny to completely unreadable. You’ll get a good sense of the variety of work the author produces.

 

For me, these are the standouts in the collection:

 

In “Zombies,” stressed-out high school students intentionally give themselves brain damage because they can’t live up to society’s expectations. The end of the story is unexpectedly sweet and sappy. It caught me off-guard in the best way. This is the only story that made me laugh out loud.

 

“In Miss Chen's English class, we learned, 'To be or not to be . . .' but there's a big gray area in between. Maybe in Shakespeare times people only had two options. Griffin Wilson, he knew that the SATs were just the gateway to a big lifetime of bullshit. To get married and college. To paying taxes and trying to raise a kid who's not a school shooter. And Griffin Wilson knew drugs are only a patch. After drugs, you're always going to need more drugs.” – Make Something Up

 

“Red Sultan’s Big Boy” is the story of a father who buys his psychopathic daughter a new horse. (After she poisons the old one.) Unfortunately, the new horse has some unexpected and disgusting talents. The suspense in this story kept me reading. I wanted to find out what nasty thing this horse can do. Since this is a Chuck Palahniuk story, I knew it would be really nasty.

 

“Listening, it occurred to Randall that the love people feel for animals is the purest form of love. Loving an animal, a horse, cat, or dog, was always a romantic tragedy. It meant loving something that would die before you. Like that movie with Ali McGraw. There was no future, just the affection of the present moment.” – Make Something Up

 

“Romance” stars an “average” man who meets an interesting woman and falls in love. He doesn’t mind that the woman is possibly “retarded.” They’re very happy together. This story has some twists I didn’t see coming.

 

“And when they're old enough I'm going to tell my little girls that everybody looks a little crazy if you're looking close enough, and if you can't look that close, then you don't really love them. All the while life goes around. And if you keep waiting for somebody perfect you'll never find love, because it's how much you love them is what makes them perfect.” – Make Something Up

 

In “Cold Calling,” a teenage telemarketer is verbally abused by people who think he’s from India. This story shows the way racism spreads.

 

In “Fetch,” a haunted tennis ball helps a young boy change a widow’s life. I love magical realism, and this story is magical realism done right. It’s quirky and unexpected.

 

The novella, “Inclinations,” tells the story of a group of straight boys who con their way into a “Fag Farm,” a place where gay teens are turned straight. When the boys are forced to dissect the dead bodies of their ex-girlfriends, they plot their escape. This isn’t my favorite story in the collection, but the characters are memorable. The author does a great job of capturing the selfishness (and selflessness) of teenagers.

 

“To him the protesters at the front gate were the equivalent of the protesters outside abortion clinics. The Rock Hudsons tried to stop people coming here the same way do-gooders tried to block people going to murder their unborn kids. The irony was in how those same rescued babies got adopted by Rock Hudsons.” – Make Something Up

 

Finally, in “How a Jew Saved Christmas,” a department store worker uses everything she learned from watching CSI to uncover the identity of her Secret Santa. The main characters are over-the-top ridiculous. This is another story with a (somewhat) sweet ending.

 

Even though this book is a mixed bag of stories, I do like the questions they raise. They highlight the weirdness of modern life. The characters are often forced to choose between what they want and what the outside world wants for them. How much should a person give in to society’s pressure? If you’re happy, does it matter what the rest of the world thinks?

 

Like Chuck Palahniuk’s other books, this one will try very hard to offend you, but if you don’t mind some gag-inducing moments, the themes are thought-provoking.

A Long Way From Chicago

A Long Way from Chicago - Richard Peck

This was a forced read for me. I needed a middlegrade book with an unusual narrative structure for a lecture I’m working on, and my mentor suggested this one. I had never heard of it before. Honestly, I groaned when I looked it up online because I have a love/hate relationship with middlegrade fiction. Some of it is brilliant, but a lot of it is too silly for my adult brain. The cover of this book looks juvenile. The synopsis sounds extremely juvenile. I braced myself to grit my teeth and plow through it . . .

 

I’ve never been so surprised by a book.

 

A Long Way from Chicago is a composite novel. Each of the nine chapters is a linked short story about Joey, Mary Alice, and their eccentric grandmother. The book starts in 1929, when Joey is nine years old, and ends in 1942, when he’s eighteen. Each story is about an adventure he has when he leaves Chicago to spend a week in a rural town with Grandma.

 

“Adventure” again makes this book sound juvenile, but that’s the best word for it. The adventures are not unrealistic. Joey talks about the first time he sees a dead body, the first time he flies in a plane, and his desperate attempt to raise $2 for driving lessons. His grandmother helps him achieve his goals and learn important lessons—in her own bizarre way.

 

“‘Never trust an ugly woman. She's got a grudge against the world,' said Grandma, who was no oil painting herself.” – A Long Way from Chicago

 

The narrator’s voice is what makes this book readable for adults. Joey is an old man looking back at his childhood, so the voice in all of the stories is mature. The author never talks down to the reader. Also, the stories have a very historical feel to them. Small-town 1930s life is captured in a vivid, believable way. The town is struggling with Depression-era poverty/alcoholism/trust issues, but the problems aren’t shoehorned into the stories for educational purposes. The setting feels very natural. I’ve been reading a ton of historical fiction lately, and this little book is one of the better middlegrade historical novels I’ve read.

 

“The years went by, and Mary Alice and I grew up, slower than we wanted to, faster than we realized.”  - A Long Way from Chicago

 

Grandma is eccentric, but never in a childlike, unrealistic way. She’s actually one of the most complex adult characters I’ve come across in children’s fiction. I totally believe a woman like Grandma could exist. She values her privacy and hates small-town gossip, but she’s not afraid to step in when something goes wrong. She’s a strong woman who has a unique way of solving problems. Basically, she’s an elderly, cantankerous, Depression-era Robin Hood.

 

I enjoyed every story in this book (which I don’t say often about short story collections), but these are the standouts:

 

In “Shotgun Cheatham’s Last Night Above Ground,” Grandma invents an impressive history for a man who died in poverty.

 

“The Day of Judgment” starts with Grandma reluctantly agreeing to enter a pie-making contest and ends with Grandma scamming her way onto an airplane.

 

In “A One-Woman Crime Wave,” Grandma commits a series of small crimes in order to prepare a feast for the homeless drifters who wander through town.

 

“I don’t think Grandma’s a very good influence on us.” – A Long Way from Chicago

 

I’m struggling to come up with something I didn’t like. I guess, for adult readers, the stories are a bit predictable and repetitive. They all follow the same basic outline: kids go to Grandma’s house; Grandma does something potentially deadly; the reader finds out that Grandma has a good reason for what she does. The repetition isn’t a criticism, though, because this is a children’s book, and I don’t think I would have noticed it as a child. 

 

A Long Way from Chicago is a quick, entertaining read. I guess the lesson here is “Don’t judge a book by its cover . . . or its synopsis.”

The Game Of Love And Death

The Game of Love and Death - Martha Brockenbrough

Can Ethan have his own book? Please? It’s not every day I come across an amazing secondary character, and the end of this book didn’t have enough Ethan. What happens to him next? I need to know! I finished this book a week ago, but I’m still mildly obsessed with this character.

 

Now, with that out of the way, I can wonder why it took me so long to get around to reading The Game of Love and Death. It sat on my To-Be-Read shelf for over a year before I picked it up. I think there are two reasons for this:

 

1. It’s romance-heavy, which is not something I usually enjoy.

 

2. A lot of people have compared it to The Book Thief, which is one of my favorite books ever, and I didn’t want to make comparisons and be unfair to The Game of Love and Death. Not much can top The Book Thief in my world.

 

I shouldn’t have hesitated with The Game of Love and Death. No, it’s not The Book Thief, but I really liked it.

 

This historical fantasy novel follows four characters, Henry, Flora, Love, and Death. Henry is a rich white boy whose adoptive family isn’t feeling the sting of the Great Depression. Flora is an African-American girl who dreams of flying airplanes but is struggling to make a living as a jazz singer. Henry and Flora are the players in Love and Death’s game. Love tries to bring them together while Death struggles to pull them apart. If Henry and Flora don’t fall in love by the end of the game, their lives could be in danger.

 

“We do not choose whom we love . . . We can only choose how well.” – The Game of Love and Death

 

This is one of those books I could blather about for days. I have way too many thoughts. This review is going to be all over the place because we need to discuss everything.

 

The characters have huge personalities. Henry’s bond with his adopted siblings, Ethan and Annabel, is very sweet. You get the sense they’d do anything for each other. Flora is much quieter than Henry, but she’s also a realistic character. Life has not always been kind to her. She’s a tough loner who gets scared when Henry’s charm starts breaking down her walls. Love and Death surprised me because the author took their characters in unexpected directions. Love is sometimes a massive jerk who will do anything to win the game. Death is not always as cold-hearted as she appears.

 

The dialogue—especially Henry and Ethan’s dialogue—is snappy. I actually laughed out loud a few times. Here’s a sample of its witty brilliance: 

 

“‘Are you thirsty?’ she asked.


‘Like a camel,’ Henry said.


She led him to a chair by the window. Then she went to the kitchen, wishing she had something better than water to serve. She filled a glass.


‘Are you hungry?’ Food, she had.


‘Like a camel that hasn’t eaten anything in days.’


‘Ham or casserole?’


‘No self-respecting camel eats casserole. It could contain a relative.’” - The Game of Love and Death    

The Game of Love and Death is a historical fiction book, and it manages to capture many issues of the 1930s without completely overwhelming the reader. It discusses Hoovervilles, corruption, poverty, racism, homophobia, and classism. If you’re leery of historical fiction, I’d recommend starting here. The plot and characters are gripping enough that you can learn some US history without feeling like you’re being force-fed a textbook.

 

I already want to reread this novel (mostly because I miss Ethan), but I do have quite a few issues with it. First, I don’t really understand Love and Death. They’re supposed to be mysterious mythical creatures, but I want to know more about them and why they’re playing this game. The rules of the game could be clearer.

 

My next issue might be an “it’s-not-you-it’s-me” problem. Since I’m a romance hater, the middle of the book is too long for me. It mostly consists of Henry saying, “Please love me!” and Flora saying, “No.” It gets repetitive.

 

Finally, the story lost me at the end. I know this is fantasy/magical realism, but it gets a bit too bizarre for my tastes. The characters easily believe things that real humans probably wouldn’t. The end also tries very, very hard to drive home the point of the story. The message is “Even though death always wins in the end, love makes life worth living.” That’s a simple and beautiful theme. I didn’t need all that weirdness to make me believe it.

 

“Game or no, she would someday die, as all living beings did. But that wasn't the tragedy. Nor was there tragedy in being a pawn. All souls are, if not of eternal beings, then as pawns of their own bodies. The game, whatever shape it takes, lasts only as long as the body holds out.” – The Game of Love and Death

 

Despite a few issues, I can see myself rereading this book in the future. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would.

Echo

Echo - Pam Muñoz Ryan

When I heard that this middlegrade book pushes the boundaries of the genre, I knew I had to get my hands on it. I’ve liked Pam Muñoz Ryan’s other middlegrade novels and had high hopes for this one, so I ordered it without doing much research. I did not expect a 600-page cinderblock to show up at my door. Reading this book gave me an arm workout. Seriously, the hardcover version of this beast is heavy. Beautiful and very, very heavy.

 

This is a hard book to review because there is a lot going on in here. Echo tells four linked stories. The first is a fairytale: A boy called Otto meets three magical orphaned sisters in the forest. The sisters’ fate and magic becomes wrapped up with Otto and his harmonica.

 

In the second novella, Otto’s magic (or is it cursed?) harmonica becomes the property of Friedrich, a boy growing up in a small German town during the start of Hitler’s reign. This is my favorite of the novellas because Friedrich has a wonderful, supportive family. Even though the family members have different political beliefs, they still put family before everything else. When politics tear them apart, music and love bring them back together. The characters in this story are more complex than the characters in the other stories. I like that the author doesn’t give in to oversimplified evil-Nazi stereotypes. Friedrich’s sister is never vilified for her choices. This story shows that it is possible to love someone who is very different from you.

 

“Music does not have a race or a disposition! Every instrument has a voice that contributes. Music is a universal language. A universal religion of sorts. Certainly it’s my religion. Music surpasses all distinctions between people.” – Echo

 

In the next novella, the harmonica finds Mike, an orphan and music prodigy living in Pennsylvania. Mike and his little brother are adopted by an odd woman. At first, the boys are thrilled, but then they start wondering if the woman really wants them. This was the hardest novella for me to get into. I hated most of the adults in this story, which isn’t a criticism of the book because they were supposed to be unlikable (I think?), but they irked me. The adults in this one can’t seem to behave like adults. There is a huge miscommunication plot. The orphaned brothers have been through so much, and the adults cause them more stress by not telling them what’s going on. Also, the kids’ adoptive grandfather tries to use orphans to cure his adult daughter’s depression. I know this is a historical story, and child psychology wasn’t understood very well in 1935, but I was still cringing for the poor kids.

 

“Everybody has a heart. Sometimes you gotta work hard to find it.” - Echo  

 

The final novella is about a Mexican-American girl, Ivy, who moves to a farm with her parents. The farm’s Japanese owners were taken to a camp after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Ivy’s father is caring for the farm until they come home. Ivy is excited about attending a new school, but disappointment sets in when she realizes she will be going to a segregated school for Mexicans instead. The only thing that keeps her going is her love of orchestra and her harmonica. This novella does a fabulous job of showing the role racism played in US history. The themes of this story can still be applied to modern times. Unfortunately, racism and questioning how “American” certain racial groups are hasn’t gone away. If you’re a fan of Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising, you’ll like Ivy’s story. It shines light on the less-awesome parts of American history that are often overlooked.  

 

Echo pushes the boundaries of middlegrade because each novella ends on a depressing cliffhanger. Right when things look really bad for the characters, the story ends. As an adult reader, I could pick out enough foreshadowing to know where the book was headed. I was pretty confident that everything would work out for the characters, and most of the problems would be neatly solved. But, I wonder how much patience younger readers would have for this book. I read Echo in a few hours, but I think some kids might struggle to get through a 600-page cliffhanger-filled monster. This might be a perfect novel for kids who love to read and need something more structurally intricate than the usual middlegrade book.

 

The themes of Echo are the best part. In each story, the young characters lose their homes and find new homes. The novel shows that even if your life falls apart, you’ll still be okay. Just because things are bad now doesn’t mean they will always be bad. Considering that the average American family moves every 5 years, the message of this book could be comforting.

 

I can totally see why Echo has been winning pretty much every award ever this year. It definitely stands out from other books in the genre.