Tag Archives: CBRIV

#54: Arcadia by Lauren Groff

My final book of 2012!

There are some sort-of-spoilers ahead, but if you know the plot of the book, you can probably guess what will happen.  I don’t give away anything major, but talking about the timeline will give strong hints at what happens in the book.

ArcadiaArcadia was a great read because I liked it a lot right away, then felt uneasy as things fell apart, then was depressed by the end, but still a little hopeful.  The book takes a predestined path, but I still had hope that there would be change.  I immediately wanted things to work out and end well.  While predestined, it was in no way boring or clichéd.

The book starts as a group of hippies settle down to create a utopia where everything works because everyone works.  Little Bit is born as the caravan is heading to Arcadia to set up home.  There are older children, and more to be born, but Bit is the first commune baby and his tiny body (the littlest bit of a hippie ever made) marks the birth of their beginning.

Flash forward five years.  The commune is thriving under the guidance of Handy, the group’s leader, although “leader” isn’t a term any of them would use.  However, he guides the people into groups, organizes the work and everyone looks to him for instructions and approval.  Bit’s father, Abe, is also well thought of, but it is Handy who rules the roost.  The people adore him and crave his attention and love.  He uses this to make everyone better and stronger.  Groff uses this to make me immediately wary.  Anyone with that much power over people is going to be able to use it for personal gain.  Worst is when they think they’re doing the right thing and working for the greater good. But his people love him, and I miss his presence when the bus pulls away with most of the group with it.

As the story continues, the commune grows and what Bit sees and experiences is as close to perfect as anything can be.  His parents love him, the community adores him and he delights in how everything fits together.  Perhaps it is because this is the only world he’s ever know, but he can see that it is right.  People do what they are best at and everyone works as one group so that no individual is lacking.  They live off the land, they worship drugs and nature, they drop acid and plant gardens, and it is wonderful.

And like many wonderful things, it eventually all goes to shit.

I love the idea of a commune.  My lefty liberal self wants everyone working together and doing what they love and what they are best at so that everyone has what they need.  I like the idea of a small community where everyone knows everyone and you can rely on any neighbor in times of trouble, and also to celebrate goodness.

My realist self understands that this doesn’t work.  Human nature doesn’t fit in this shape for long, no matter how many people want it to.  As soon as there is one tiny crack in the foundation, everything begins to break.  At first it’s a bit of seepage and the few people who notice it try to plug it up, but it turns into a crack and more water trickles out.  Eventually it’s a hole and water begins to pour until finally it shatters and thunderous rivers wash away almost everything that was left.

Arcadia doesn’t stand a chance.

The hardest thing for Bit is that his parents believe in the common good so Bit believes in what Arcadia has the potential and power to be.  But human nature and the outside world push against this until it’s wrecked.  People begin to define what Arcadia means to them as an individual and don’t understand that it is a community.  Some people work  hard, others stretch out and enjoy the rewards.  I wasn’t sure if Handy saw what was happening.  If he did, did he care?  He’s almost always drugged and seeing visions and continues to gather the people around him so he will be loved and adored and praised.

As years go by, Bit is forced to come to terms with what was and how to incorporate it into where he is now.  If everything changes, can you hold on to the ideals that you believe in?  What happens when other people remember the same events with anger or sadness or horror?  How is it that his version of Arcadia is so different than his friends’ and is it best to let things go when you know that no matter how much you love it, you can’t have it?

The character of Bit makes this story.  I wanted to stay with him and I wish he was in other books, even if he’s only in the background.  He’s not perfect and he often steps back from what is happening, but it is fascinating to see someone who was lucky enough to be raised in an environment that was as close to perfect as it could have been for him.  He becomes Arcadia and lives on with the ideals and hope and longing for goodness.

#53: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

I picked this one up because it was on the Barnes and Noble “Buy Two, Get One Free” table and I needed a third.  I thought I had read Amy and Isabelle and liked it, so I figured I’d test Strout out again.

OliveOlive Kitteridge has a very interesting structure.  Everything takes place in a fairly small town in Maine and each chapter is told from a different resident’s point of view with Olive connecting the stories and characters together.  Olive herself gets more than one chapter of her own, but she always passes through the other chapters.  Sometimes it might be one sentence, other times she is a major character, and in other stories she’s there long enough for the person telling the story to reflect on.  I found myself looking forward to spotting her, especially when I saw that she wasn’t going to play a major role in the story.

Another thing that I looked forward to was seeing what version of Olive would appear.  Just as in real life, she’s a different person depending on who is thinking of her.  Some people saw her as a horror.  Others depend on her for help.  Some think she’s a saint.  Others want her to feel miserable.  And of course Olive herself has her own version of who she is.

Each story adds a different layer and as I finished the book I wanted to piece everything together to try and define a solid personality for her.  One of the things that made this work and interested me was Olive’s own chapters.  She sees herself in a very specific way (as we all do for ourselves), and holding up her version with the other townsfolk was something I enjoyed.  The first chapter is her husband’s and I did not like her at all.  I was worried I wasn’t going to like the book because she was so difficult.  But then in other chapters I saw her as an extremely capable person who knew without any qualms what to do and who should do it.  In her own chapters there were moments of insight and glimpses at her regrets.  I liked how putting everything together didn’t make a perfect and finished puzzle.  Some people snapped into place easily while others were like jamming two pieces together that were not meant to fit.

I really enjoyed the final chapters because Olive is in her seventies and we’ve seen snapshots of her at different ages.  She’s still steadfast in who she is and irritated by the social norms that people insist on following, but she has moments that make her pause and wonder if she really was right all of the time.  She’s never apologized for anything in her life, but now that her journey is coming to an end, she has to wonder if she did right by people.  This is not some explosive moment that sends her out into the world to make amends.  She remains stoic and continues to be irritated by niceties and platitudes, but she does have small moments of reflection.  I was very pleased that Strout didn’t make her into a softer version and change her personality.  Olive is not one to change, or even really reflect.  When she does remain in these moments (and they aren’t always quiet ones) she’s able to analyze and judge just as she always has, but she’s also able to let the idea that other people might disagree with her be a valid option.

I enjoyed the book and found myself wondering which version of Olive I would have known.  I think I would not have liked her, but I wonder if I would have flat out hated her.

The most difficult thing about this book was that I started it and then switched to The Casual Vacancy and I’ve gotten the two incredibly confused.  I’ve forgotten which story is in which book since The Casual Vacancy is also told from different points of view.  As I wrote this review I often had to flip back through the book to confirm that yes, this did happen in this Maine town and not somewhere in Britain.

#52: Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer

Ladies and gentlemen… NUMBER FIFTY-TWO!!!


It might not look like it, but Gruden did support my goal.

After missing my goal last year, I am very pleased to have finished a few weeks ahead of time this year.  (I still have a few reviews to write and will finish with more than fifty-two!)

Layout 1And now… Shine Shine Shine.

I liked this book very quickly and realized it was going to be hard to review.  Trying to describe the plot is either going to simplify it and not do it justice or will cause people to make a confused face and back away slowly.

It is so good!

Instead of plot, I’m going to talk about characters.  And a little bit of plot.

Sunny was born bald.  And stayed bald.  No eyebrows, no eyelashes, no hair on her arms or legs.  She seemed to be just a big head that needed to be protected from the sun.  She had a mother who did protect her from the sun and from people in life who would be cruel.

Maxon was born into the wrong family.  An Appalachian family, poor and abusive.  They couldn’t comprehend his intelligence, his inability to take orders or follow directions  and why he doesn’t want to spend time in a run down house where sheep live in rusted out cars and where fists and belts make pleasant conversation.

Maxon and Sunny met when they were children.  Sunny’s mother quickly saw that Maxon was different and needed guidance.  Perhaps she knew what Asperger’s was or she just saw that he needed an understanding mother figure.  She began to teach him social skills – how to react to people’s voices and body language.  What phrases to memorize so he could respond to people in an acceptable way.  Sunny helps with this, letting him know when he’s doing things right.

As they grow older, Maxon falls in love.  It is logical and complete and he waits for Sunny to come to him.  He deals in absolutes and when they are both still young he recognizes that she is his mate.  His logic also recognizes that she will do other things but eventually will return to him, simply because they are supposed to be together.

It’s mathematical, logical, quantifiable and beautiful.

Years later Maxon takes his assigned place as Sunny’s husband and Sunny decides it’s time to take on the role of Perfect Wife, Perfect Neighbor, and Perfect Mother.  A wig appears.  False eyelashes.  Glued on eyebrows.  She has assigned herself this task and applies herself to it just as Maxon applies himself to his job at NASA.  He is confused by Sunny’s role, but she continues to train him in what she needs and how he should react.  He is in love and happy, but confused at the new formulas that are introduced.

And everything changes when a rock hits a rocket and a car hits a car.

This book works because of how carefully and thoroughly Netzer created Sunny and Maxon.  Again, trying to explain the plot feels impossible because it’s both complex logic and pure love.  Emotion and logic don’t often mix well, but here it is perfect.  Netzer created something amazing and her formulas throughout the book applying human emotion and reactions into math for Maxon to access are brilliant and way above my basic grasp of math.

I wanted everything to work.  The story is told with many flashbacks and even though I knew they were married, I still worried and wanted to be sure the pieces all fit.  When things began to change in present time, I worried that it was too late to fix misunderstandings and anger.  There is so much happening in this book that it could have easily fallen apart.  With Sunny on Earth dealing with her own crisis and loss of self and Maxon in space with a crisis of mechanics and possible destruction, I had to stay up way past my bedtime on a work night to find out how it all ends.

I love when a book is so satisfying.  Netzer really nailed it.  The plot, the characters, the love, the logic, the emotions… It’s beautiful and wonderful and I have no clue how she made it work.

#51: Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart by Joyce Carol Oates

How many times will I use the word “love” in this review?

I was introduced to Joyce Carol Oates in high school by a favorite teacher.  We read some of her short stories and I was in love with how dark and fucked up they were.  Some of my friends have told me that Oates was ruined for them in high school, and this is sad because her writing is amazing.

I’ve read several of her short story collections and novels and love how her mind works and the beauty of her writing.  Even her “lighter” fiction is still dark.  (I just looked up her bibliography.  I think I’ve read 1% of her work.  I knew she had written a lot, but I didn’t know how much!)  I love how her main characters are often older girls and young women who experience and do horrible things.  She is incredibly gifted at capturing how girls this age can completely shut down and let things happen to them.  Or, when they fight back, they fight hard and things are taken care of.

When I heard that she was writing children’s fiction, I imagined that it was going to be about a  sweet little kitten who burns down a forest.  When she got into YA, I was extremely happy because I knew it she would be a favorite, especially for students who liked Laurie Halse Anderson.  These weren’t going to be fluffy books – they were going to be realistic moments of pure fucked-upped-ness.  Big Mouth & Ugly Girl did not disappoint.  Freaky Green Eyes?  Holy shit.  Small Avalanches and Other Stories had some previously published works and I hope a new generation of high school readers loved them as much as I did when I first read them.

And now to step back from this love fest to talk about Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart.

BitterThe book starts in the late 50s in a broken industrial city in upstate New York.  Blacks and whites are clearly separated, even though the children go to school together and in some places the men work together.  There is clearly a black side of town and the kids know that they should not intermingle.  This is especially true for the black boys and white girls.

The book opens with the death of Little Red — a sixteen year old white trash white teen.  His body is found in the river with his skull crushed.  Iris Courtney hesitantly approaches one of the police officers to whisper that she heard he had caused trouble with some bikers in the area.

And then we skip back in time to learn more about Iris.

Iris’ parents are violently in love.  Persia, her mother, is beautiful to the point of pain and loves the attention she gets from men.  At times this attention is what she seems to allow her to even exist.  Iris is used as an accessory is picked up and put aside as needed.  As her parents become more and more abusive to each other and ignore her more and more, she retreats into her own world.  She begins to lose her emotions and finds herself distantly watching things that happen and wonders how she should feel.  She studies everything, trying to learn how people act, respond, cope, and live.

Meanwhile, on the black side of town, Jinx Fairchild is playing basketball beautifully and is beginning to be  scouted by colleges, even though he’s only sixteen.  When he’s on the court, everyone adores him.  Off the court, he’s just another black boy.  Like Iris, he tries to disappear in good behavior.  He doesn’t want to be noticed or to be an excuse or target for any of the whites in town.  He’ll be out of here in a few years and he needs to dominate on the basketball court while hiding everywhere else.

And then Little Red brings Iris and Jinx together.

For the rest of the book, Iris and Jinx live mirrored lives, only it’s a bent and twisted mirror and the reflections don’t quite match.  Iris begins to actually feel emotions, but only when she thinks of Jinx.  She tries to bring their lives together somehow.  She sees that they are forever linked and wants to keep this bond and let it grow and strengthen.  Jinx, on the other hand, is horrified by what happened and hates that the only other person who was there was this younger white girl.  He needs to stay away from her so he can stay away from his own mind.

As they get older, their lives continue to reflect each other.  Iris becomes what she thinks a young white woman should be.  Jinx becomes what he thinks whites want a black man to be, and painfully, what his black community wants him to be.  As Iris takes on the role of successful adult, Jinx finds himself more and more trapped by a world he willingly stepped into.  When Iris escapes she continues to study emotions and practice how she should act and respond.  Persia was all fire and drink and the only way Iris can think to escape this is to have no feelings at all.  Jinx feels too much.  He knows everything has changed and he hates how his life was decided when he was still in high school.

By the end of the book they have both made decisions that will define who they are until they die.  They each do what they think they are supposed to do, not necessarily what they want.  One has to wonder if they even know what they want.  They seem to stop making decisions and simply let things happen.

Their mothers also reflect each other.  Both start out as strong women and as they grow older and doors begin to close, they find themselves trapped by their own expectations of what they should or should not be.  Respect is lost and it breaks them both.

It’s a brilliant book.  Oates’ writing is simply stunning.  Sometimes her words twirl and spin slowly like honey being drizzled into hot tea.  Descriptions and moments spill silkily across the pages.  It is especially breathtaking when she does this during the darkest moments of the book.  Her descriptions of ugliness, pain and fear follow staccato beats, pulsing into your mind.  It’s poetry in prose form and as I read I had to pause from time to time to simply enjoy the rhythm of the book and reread the art of her writing.  I have a feeling I’m going to gloriously devour more of her books over the next few months.

#50: The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King

I’m doing the Dark Tower series on audio.  I’ve been slowly working my way through them and for some reason the audio helps when it’s been months and months since listening to the last one.  King also does a great job of summarizing what’s happened so far without retelling the entire story.  The only downside is not seeing how certain words are spelled so forgive me for any errors.

If you haven’t read the series, there are about to be spoilers.  You have been warned.


The tl;dr review: Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy continue on the Beam to the Tower.  They need to protect the Rose in NYC but can’t figure out how to get there and back.  The Beam brings them to a township that needs help.  Father Callahan from Salem’s Lot has Black Thirteen which will take them to NYC.  While they are in the town they need to help save the children.  Susannah is pregnant with a demon child and doesn’t know because her mind has created a new personality to protect the Chap.

The full review:

The book opens in Calla Bryn Sturgis, a small township that is plagued by the Wolves.  Every generation or so, they descend on the town and take the children.  Almost all of the children are twins and after being taken, they are returned to the town a few days later.  One from each set is now roont, the Wolves having taken something from their minds.  They become giants, growing in agonizing pain and they all keep the minds of young children.  The twin that is saved takes care of their brother or sister, hating the Wolves, but not knowing what to do.  As the saved twins grow and have families of their own, they wonder if this is the year the Wolves will return to take their own twins.

When the story starts, they’ve been given warning that the Wolves are returning.  The folk gather together to prepare to lose their children until one member decides to fight.  This is when Father Callahan stands up at the meeting, letting them know Gunslingers are near.

Roland,  Jake, Eddie, Susannah and, of course, Oy continue their journey along the Beam toward the tower.  They worry about what’s happening in New York in the times of Jake, Eddie and Susannah.  They fear for the Rose, knowing that it is protecting the Tower and that enemies are trying to destroy it.  After going todash, a state of moving through time where you cannot affect what is happening but can see everything clearly, they realize they need to move quickly to protect it.  As they try to figure out how to move back and forth from this world into their own, Father Callahan appears to let them know he has Black Thirteen, the wizard’s glass that will let them move through a Door.  Black Thirteen is the evilest of all the rainbow bends.  Callahan knows it will help the ka-tet, but even if they don’t want it, he will beg for them to take it away.

The two groups join together.  Roland is weary to the point of being broken when he realizes the townsfolk want to be convinced that the Gunslingers can either be hired or convinced to leave.  He has been through this many times and feels even more isolated from everyone, including the ka-tet.  He is more depressing here because although they’re all growing closer and these are the people who now know him best, you can tell they will never truly understand him and he will always feel separate from everyone.  It’s heartbreaking, especially because you’re not sure how much he will continue to sacrifice on his quest.  Even worse, his body is starting to break down and he’s not sure how long he’ll even be capable of being a Gunslinger.  Will ka even let him see the Tower?

When Callahan appears, I thought I was going to need to read Salem’s Lot, but happily, his story is retold (I’m not sure how much of it) and then goes on to show what happened to him after he left Maine.  I really enjoyed this part of the book even though it at first seemed to have nothing to do with the Tower.  However, because everything is connected and there is no coincidence in this world, I knew at some point it would circle back.  I’d say that most of this book is Callahan’s story, which was weird.  Actually, now that I think of it, this entire book is just a quick pause on the Beam.  It’s not really Calla Bryn Sturgis’ story even though it’s what brings Black Thirteen to the Gunslingers.  It’s more about Callahan and Black Thirteen and the Rose.  Roland begins to wonder if Callahan has become part of the ka-tet and what his role is in the quest will be.

Even though there wasn’t as much devoted to the Calla and the Wolves, it worked really well.  There was a tight timeline for how long the Gunslingers could stay and if ka will have the Wolves kill them and end their quest.  Roland has realized that Susannah did become pregnant by the demon when they rescued Jake and brought him back through the door.  Her mind has created Mia, daughter of none, to carry the Chap.  Although he lets ka decide most things, he struggles with this information and doesn’t want to tell Eddie or Jake.  When he does, they keep it from Susannah and aren’t sure if they should try to kill the child, or if that will cause Mia to kill Susannah.

The Calla bookends Callahan’s story and ends with a solid cliffhanger as Mia escapes to birth her Chap.

#49: Queen Bee of Mimosa Branch by Haywood Smith

Queen BeeI am not the target audience for this book, but I still liked it.

Main character:

Linwood Breedlove Scott.  Lin.  Lin Breedlove.  No longer Lin Scott.

Fifty-something years old.

Southern.  So very Southern.  Get your hair and lipstick straight because someone might see you at any moment.  Don’t you dare go out on the porch at night without checking your face in the mirror.

Divorced.  Badly divorced.  No-good husband got himself engaged to a stripper.  Thirty years of marriage and she finds out he’s spent every single penny on this girl, running Lin deep into debt.  When she tries to explain that he can’t be married to her while engaged to a stripper, she finally realizes the marriage is over.

Hot flashes.


Heading back to Georgia.

Her family is fucking crazy.  Southern crazy, which might be the best kind of crazy because you have to be proper even if your uncle is running around the front yard mostly naked because someone is trying to steal his shoes.  That someone is his wife, but he doesn’t recognize her all the time.  Still, this is not the time to forget your manners.  You better be polite when hauling his elderly body back up the front steps and into the house.

Penniless and with almost no work history, she’s forced to move back home with her controlling eighty-something year old mother, her sometimes lucid but always angry father, and the aforementioned aunt and uncle.  She’s also got a brother, but things fell apart between the two of them years ago and it seems like they can’t breathe the same air without getting into a fight.

So here she is, back home, feeling helpless and hopeless.  Pissed off at the world.  Stuck in a room under her parents’ roof, seething and miserable.

My reactions:

There was a lot about this book that I liked.  The friendships between Lin and her friends are wonderful to see.  They are also very Southern.  If they don’t like someone, they are beautifully polite as they imply that perhaps this lady should go fuck herself.  But of course none of them even know the phrase “go fuck herself” so it comes out as poetry and sweetness.  I learned that you can get a Ph.D. in Southern Bitch.  My Yankee self approves of this and while they might see me as coarse and rude, I am in awe of how prettily they can slit a girl’s throat.

The story is Lin coming to terms with who she is now that she’s fifty-something, divorced and living at home.  She needs to redefine herself in a town where everyone already knows where she is.

There’s a nice story line about dirty politics and how the world works when good people want change to happen in a town where people are terrified to ask even the simplest of questions.

And then there are the men in Lin’s world and Smith’s writing.


These guys suck.

I don’t know if Smith has an axe to grind or if it’s simply Lin, but the men in her world are terrible and I felt bad for how they were represented.  All of them are terrible and only after one thing, although it might not even be THAT one thing.  Lin is able to see her father and uncle in a different light through her mother and uncle, but even those moments are hazed over by how much she hates men.  Maybe not hates, but she definitely sees them all as pigs and dogs.

She has an interesting relationship with the guy next door.  She can’t decide if she hates him or loves him, but in either case, she wants to do him.  Hard.  Lots of doin’ it.

I could not figure out his character at all.  There are moments where Lin completely loses her shit on him and I couldn’t find what he had done to make her respond this way.  There is one giant scene where I was on Lin’s side, but then she went into this tirade and I was all “WTF is happening here?”  It defined the relationship from that point forward and I had no clue what happened.  It was obviously important because her girlfriends supported her and backed her up, but I do not know what happened.  Maybe I wasn’t paying attention when I was reading it, or maybe it was too Southern subtle for a damn Yankee to understand.

Still, even though this is a world I do not live in, it did make for an interesting visit.  Things ended nicely, the way you expect a Southern party to end.

#48: Switch by Carol Snow

Quick and easy premise:

Fifteen year old Claire is a girl with normal and fairly easy teenage problems.  Nate, the love of her life, sees her as a bro.  Her body, while strong from swimming, isn’t going to turn any heads.  She’s average.  Well, she would be if it wasn’t for two things: she hangs out with her dead grandmother and she sometimes switches bodies with other girls.

OK, so everything is normal and quiet about her except for that whole switching bodies.  Turns out that electricity does something to her and she wakes up as someone else.  The first time it happened was quick and weird and the result of a science experiment at school.  She tried to put it out of her mind.  But the second time she woke up in a strange body she freaked the fuck out.  Wouldn’t you?  It’s the middle of the night, there’s a crazy thunderstorm, you wonder how you got into someone else’s room and then you catch sight of yourself in the mirror and HOLY SHIT THAT ISN’T YOU!!!

Luckily she falls asleep, wakes up in her own body, and her grandmother is all “Uhm, yeah.  That’s a thing you can do now.”

So she does it.  Grandmother Evelyn hangs out and when electricity shoots Claire into someone else, Evelyn slips into her body and holds it for her until she falls asleep and returns.  The other girl sort of hangs out, neither dead or alive, asleep or awake.  As soon as Claire falls asleep, Evelyn moves out of her body, Claire moves back in, and hover girl returns to her own body.

When the book starts, this whole thing is commonplace to Claire.  There’s been a few uncomfortable nights, but for the most part she waits for a thunderstorm to roll in, closes her eyes, wakes up in a new body, goes back to sleep and wakes up back at home.  Easy, breezy, lemon squeezy.

But then…

When Evelyn is hanging out somewhere else in the house, Claire gives herself one hell of an electrical shock.  Not expecting to be shot into a new body, she sits up in bed and tries to figure out why this happened.  Shrugging, she figures she’ll go back to sleep to reset the whole deal, but she is curious to find out whose body she’s in.

She looks into the mirror and falls in love.

She’s beautiful.  More than beautiful.  She’s perfect.  The kind of girl who looks amazing no matter what she wears.  The kind of girl who makes boys fall over themselves just to get a glimpse of her.  The kind of girl who can roll out of bed and be stunning.

The girl that Nate has been trying to meet.

Larissa.   Even her name sounds luscious.  Gorgeous Larissa, visiting the beach town where Claire lives year round.  Hating the beach town.  Scornful of the boys who think they are worthy enough to even speak to her.

Things get fun for a bit.  Claire, ever unhappy with her swimmer’s body, pulls out just about every article of clothing from Larissa’s closet and has a one woman fashion show.  It’s like playing dress up Barbie, except it’s her body now and she gets to admire it.  Well… it’s not permanently her body, but since she’s borrowing it, she’s going to squeeze as much fun out of it as she can.

But too soon she realizes that she needs to go to sleep so she can go home and give Larissa her body back.

And then she wakes up and she’s still Larissa.

Oh.  Shit.

For the rest of the book, Claire has to figure out why she’s still Larissa, how to get her body back, how to keep people from finding out, and what to do about her grandmother.

Also?  She’s totally going to make out with Nate.  Hard.

This isn’t too challenging of a book and I liked how much fun Claire had in Larissa’s body.  At times she did feel a bit guilty for taking advantage of this body, but on the other hand… just look at this body.

I was a but surprised that she didn’t feel guilty or conflicted about her “relationship” with Nate.  At some point Larissa was going to get her body back and have no memory of Nate.  It’s pretty convenient that she’ll be leaving town as soon as this happens.  Claire creates a fake email account so that Nate can stay in touch with her.  Larissa.  Claire.  Claire/Larissa.

It’s kinda skeezy.

Getting back to the non-challenging parts of the book:

  1. There is a piece of foreshadowing that foreshadows so hard that the only way it could foreshadow more is if there was a bright red arrow pointing at it that said “FORESHADOW!!!”
  2. The set up of who Claire can switch with is a total cop-out.  Snow didn’t want to write a book where Claire could switch into older and younger people, and definitely not boys, so she comes up with a pretty bullshit set of rules that dictates what happens.  I get why she did it, but I rolled my eyes when I read it.
  3. There is very little fallout in this book.  Everything ends well and life goes on.  This goes back to my skeezy feeling about her and Nate.  She knows he’s out of her league, so she’s happy that she got to make out with him as someone else and now she’s probably going to cybersex him all the time with Larissa’s fake email.  Dude.

One thing that really pleased me about this book is that it was nothing like Wake by Lisa McMann.  It’s a sort of similar premise and I was worried that this was also going to be shit writing and easy answers.  Happily, the writing was good, there were some challenges in the plot, but it wasn’t anything that was going to keep you up at night.  Well, unless you’re paranoid that someone is going to take over your body during a thunderstorm.



#47: On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Ooof, how to review this?  I need to talk about the book before I can talk about what happens in the book.  Get comfortable because this is going to be long.

The previous knowledge I had of this book wasn’t actually about the book – it was about people’s reactions to the book.  When you pick this up, you’re also picking up the reputation of the book, and for me, it made for incredibly difficult reading.

I’ve heard many people refer to this book as their bible and that they’ve read it until it fell apart, marking up pages with their reactions or because a certain word or sentence or paragraph struck them with beauty or longing.  This concerned me because I was worried I wouldn’t get it.  I want to be in with the Kerouac lovers and their secret ways, but what if I hated it?  What if this was a club that I wanted to join, but the truth of the book went over my head?

I’ve also heard many people say they loved it when they were younger but when they went back and read it years later they didn’t like it.  This makes me suspicious because people say the same thing about Catcher in the Rye.  I love that book, but many people say you only like Holden when you’re young and when you go back and read it later you realize the book isn’t that great.  It also feels snobby.  “Oh yes… that book.  I read it when I didn’t know a thing about life and thought it was great, but now that I’m older and mature and have had real life experiences, I realize how silly and naive it is.”

And this brings me to my next obstacle before I even opened the book: hating something because it’s popular.  I get it.  I understand that there are times when something is so THE BEST THING EVER!!! that you don’t want to have anything to do with it.  I felt this way about the movie Titanic.  Everyone was talking about how it changed their lives and I was all “Yeah, no.”  (I did catch it on HBO or something years later, and yes, it is a good movie.)  My sister feels this way about Facebook.  She is determined to be the last person on Earth who doesn’t have an account.  People feel this way about a lot of authors because it’s cool to not like the mainstream.  Looking at reviews and general conversation about On The Road, there’s a lot of “Ugh.  I have no interest in reading that book.  What’s the point?”  This made me want to like it, because fuck that logic, and it also made me ready to hate it, because fuck Kerouac.  Win win!

With these thoughts, I settled in and began to read.

And stopped.  And started again.  And stopped.  And flipped back a few pages.  And read the wikipedia entry.  And started again.  And was frustrated with it.

I have a confession: I didn’t realize this was a novel until a good way in when people kept referring to the main character as Sal.  Sal?  How is that a nickname?  When I got to the wiki page I was all “Oh.  I feel dumb.”  Of course he changed it into a novel because then he could tell the truth while not having to get the facts perfect.  I approve of this.

I immediately lost track of which character was which.  Because they were based on real people I kept trying to remember who was Allen Ginsberg and forgetting who the characters were.  I felt like I should make a chart of everyone and how they knew each other.

Of course I was able to remember Dean.  Oh, Dean.  We’ll get to you later.

The language threw me for quite awhile.  I tend to like books that have their own rhythm and slang and language and dialect.  It takes me a few pages to get into it, but then I’m good to go.  But I kept getting hung up and getting frustrated and thinking about how people carry around tattered copies with notes frantically scribbled in the margins.  Were the words that I was failing to comprehend someone else’s mantra?

And then I got angry with the entire thing.  I decided that Sal was an elitist white boy who was slumming for fun.  Sure, there were times when he ran out of food and had to suck on cough drops to keep going, but he was able to wire his aunt to get money if he needed it.  I never got the sense that he was going to get abandoned somewhere.  He always had the option to go home.  This made me even angrier when he would wax poetic about how wonderful it must have been to be a slave and only have one purpose in life.  How wonderful it must have been to feel the sun on your back while you worked.  How wonderful it must have been to see a job completed when you returned home from a day of work.  Later he meets up and falls in love with a beautiful Mexican girl.  He gets a job picking cotton and loves the work because he can rest on the warm soil and enjoy the feeling of his body as he moves through the field.  He quickly realizes he’s not cut out for the work and when his Mexican love and her boy come to help, he is heartbroken that their bodies have been designed for this kind of work and his has not.  Happily, he can pick up and leave anytime he wants because he can.  All those other folks who have to do this so they can get paid and just barely get by? How lovely it must be to only have that one purpose in life.

Are you fucking kidding me?

At this point I had a long back and forth email conversation with a friend who proudly subscribes to On The Road as a bible.  She has a tattered copy.  She loved it in high school, in college, and now.  She was really depressed that I wasn’t getting it and I felt like I was letting her down.  She pointed out that Sal is sad that his body is useless when it comes to real work and that the only thing he can do is sit and write.  He is jealous of those who can create with their bodies, either through physical work or through jazz.  The black jazz players have experienced things that Sal never can and he is in awe of their music and what it does to him.

I get it, but I was still really aggravated at the romanticized notion of what life must be like if you’re not while.  For a lot of people, it really sucked.

However, this email exchange did get me motivated to get back to the book and just read it without judgement and to put aside its reputation.  This kicked me into a different mindset and I really enjoyed Sal’s last trip.

And now we get to Dean.

Dean exhausted me, and not in a good way.  If you’ve never experienced someone in full on mania, you are very lucky.  Kerouac does an amazing job capturing the nonstop motion of Dean and while I did not enjoy these parts, I do realize that it’s incredibly good writing.  My problem was that Dean frustrated me because he is so out of control and everyone loves it, or at least accepts it.  They let him lead them, they get swept up in his mania, they make excuses for him, and they love him.  It drove me crazy.  At times I actually got physically uncomfortable because I wanted someone to walk away from him and be done or at least try to take control over the relationship or realize how he was not a good friend.  (More on that last part in a bit.)  I hated that he was the energy behind everyone because he’s so destructive.

I don’t know if this was an intentional metaphor or if it came from reality, but Dean’s relationships are just like his cars.  He gets a new one, mostly by stealing it, fills it with friends and plans, and then runs it until it is unfixable.  Several times Sal calculates how long it takes Dean to drive a long distance and it is ridiculous.  He doesn’t need sleep when he’s manic and he pushes the car as hard as he can.  As soon as it won’t run, he grabs another and away he goes.  His friends are the same way.  If someone is useful to him, he latches on.  His energy either willingly sweeps them along or overpowers their hesitance and off they go.  When something happens where a friend slows him down or somehow judges him or angers him, the friend is cast aside.  And when it comes to his women, they are sometimes as wrecked as the cars.

Again, while these passages made me twitchy, I was really impressed by the writing.  I felt out of control.  But I also felt incredibly irritated that no one else seemed to see this as a problem.  Well, not Sal or other main characters.  There were a few stops where Dean was told he couldn’t stay long and it would be a good idea if he didn’t come back.

I’m skipping Dean and his women entirely.  I know people are not going to like this because they see his relationships as a driving and important force in the book, but I can’t do it.  The way women are portrayed in this book would double this review and it’s already exhausting.

We get to Sal’s final trip and I really liked it.  Part of it was because of the emails with my friend, but a bigger part was that Sal was going solo.  His latest book had been published, he had some money in the bank and he realized he could just pick up and go.  This, of course, it was draws many people to this book – the longing to just pick up and go.

And Sal does go.  He decides he wants to visit friends and see parts of the country that he misses.

And then Dean decides he needs to be part of this and Kerouac writes my favorite passage of the entire book:

Suddenly I had a vision of Dean, a burning shuddering frightful Angel, palpitating toward me across the road, approaching like a cloud, with enormous speed, pursuing me like the Shrouded Traveler on the plain, bearing down on me.  I saw his huge face over the plains with the mad, bony purpose and the gleaming eyes; I saw his wings; I saw his old jalopy chariot with thousands of sparking flames shooting out from it; I saw the path it burned over the road; it even made its own road and went over the corn, through cities, destroying bridges, drying rivers.  It came like wrath to the west.  I knew Dean had gone mad again.

My stomach sank at this.  I wanted Sal to be his own man.  I also paused because, holy shit, that is fantastic writing.

And this brings me to my final frustration and the end of this review: Sal’s realization of Dean.  (Spoiler alert!)  Dean, Sal and Stan head to Mexico and full on debauchery.  They want to squeeze every drop out of life in this moment.  They breathe in freedom.  I understand again why people revere this book.

And then Sal gets sick.

He becomes a useless car and Dean must abandon him.

In this moment, Sal realizes who Dean is and that while people want this madness, at some point it will burn.  You can’t expect him to be faithful to his friends.  Everyone in his life shrugs his madness off and excuses him as just being Dean.  The few people who do cut him loose still make excuses for  him, knowing he’ll never change and why would you want him to?

I was really looking forward to this moment.  The entire book was a love letter to Dean, and now that Sal realizes that he too can be set aside, there was going to be a flowing chapter about realization and despair and longing and abandonment.

One sentence.

Forty-five words.

And in the middle of this, he forgives him.  He at least knows Dean’s life is a mess and understands that Dean had to leave him behind in order to get back to it.  But still…  This entire madness leads up to forty-five words.

But this isn’t my story.  This isn’t me wanting to express my anger and irritation at Dean.  This is Sal’s story and his Dean and his understanding of who the man is.

I understand why this book is worshiped.  I understand why people clutch it to their hearts and want to be on the road.  I understand how and why people love it so much.

I didn’t, but I’m OK with that.  It wasn’t my language and it wasn’t my journey.

For those of you who have had to replace your copy because the spine finally gave up and pages fell out, I get it.

#46: A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass

I’m coming right out with it:

There’s a cat in this book and it dies.

I knew it was going to die from the moment it appeared, but FFS!  Can we get some books where stuff happens that doesn’t involve the death of a beloved pet?

Our protagonist in A Mang0-Shaped Space is Mia Winchell.  She’s been keeping a secret from everyone since she was eight years old and learned it had to be kept a secret.  She has synesthesia, only she’s never heard that term before and doesn’t know it’s a thing.  All her life she’s seen letters and words as colors and textures.  Intense sounds explode into colors in her head.  When she realized that other people don’t see the same things, she learned to pretend and hide it from everyone.

But she’s thirteen now and school is finally falling apart.  She can’t make the numbers be something different in math and she can’t make words match up to the wrong colors in Spanish.  After another F in math, she decides it’s time to tell her parents.

After a trip to the pediatrician and a disastrous visit with a cruel psychotherapist, Mia is sent to a neurologist to see if she has a brain tumor.  Lucky for her, the nearby neurologist is studying synesthesia and is able to tell Mia and her parents that while it isn’t a normal thing, it’s not going to kill her and it’s not something that needs to be cured.

Mia then explores her brain to see what else it can do.  She learns from others who have synesthesia and experiments with different stimuli to increase the sensations and intensify her reactions.

While she does this, it looks like she’s going to lose her best friend, have her first romance, continue to fail at school, and help a five year old boy.

I didn’t love it.

When the book started I was really into it.  You see Mia panicking and holding everyone at a distance.  She’s mourning the death of her grandfather and coming to terms with starting a new year in school.  She knows she’s not normal and wishes that she could just be liked everyone else.  It’s painful.  No one needs extra pain on top of the run of the mill teenage angst.  She has no one to talk to.

I thought that it was going to take a while for her to get caught or willingly reveal her secret, but it happens fairly quickly.   And then she takes off on a mad path to see what else she can do and how much she could control.

Here’s where things got weird for me.  On the one hand, I totally understood her celebration.  For the first time in her life she has a name for what she has… for what she IS.  She doesn’t have to hide it and she has an online connection to other people who have the same thing.  It makes sense that she’s eager to explore and share and learn.

But for some reason it fell apart for me here.  I didn’t feel like it fit her personality to shut everyone else out so completely even though she had kept them away from her secret for so long.  I wish there had been more exploration for this giant shift in personality.  I know that it makes sense, but at the same time I wish Mass had shown it more.

Mia’s friendship issues worked well.  A lot changes for girls in the eighth grade.  Boobs start appearing.  Priorities change.  Boys become interesting.  Schoolwork become challenging in different ways.  There are plenty of books that just explore these issues.  Throw synesthesia in and you’ve got an entirely new path to explore these problems with.  Along with her best friend, Mia has other girl friends to share with and push away.  For the most part, I liked these scenes.

I did feel like some of the the conflicts got too easy.  Mia has a huge falling out with her best friend.  There are a few moments where the friend explains why she’s so hurt and it makes sense.  We see their relationships before Mia tells people her secret and to have it change so drastically so quickly didn’t work for me.

Her first romance, on the other hand, did work for me.  It was awkward and unexpected and it felt very realistic.

And then, of course, her cat dies and things change.

Why do the pets always have to die?

I think this is a great book to learn about synesthesia.  I liked the characters and the story, but overall it wasn’t a huge win for me.  It did make me wonder about my own math games.  Growing up, I assigned personalities to the numbers one – ten to help myself get work done, especially when it came to multiplication.  I always figured I had an overactive imagination.  Was that a mild form of synesthesia or did I just like to make up stories?

In case you’re wondering, eight is a fucking bully.  I hated that guy.

#45: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

This is a book that has been on a ton of READ THESE BOOKS OR DIE! lists since it was published last year.  I kept flipping through when I saw it in the store and added it to my TBR list, but for whatever reason, I didn’t pick it up.  Since the paperback was recently released, my book group decided it would be a good choice for October, so here we are.

There have been many reviews of The Night Circus in this and last year’s CBR. Several friends gave it five star reviews and have added it to their lists of favorites.  I liked it a lot, but don’t have the passionate love that they do.

It’s a fairly simple plot, which I like because then the details can get insane.  Two magicians have been dueling for ages, only they never go after each other directly, each choosing a student to fight for them instead.  Prospero the Enchanter is delighted that he has found a winning player when his five year old daughter is delivered to him.  Testing her skills he knows that she will be able to destroy anything Mr. A.H. can find.  The two agree to the same rules, although Mr. H. does pause and ask Prospero if he is sure he wants to bet his own daughter.  The pact is made and the game begins when Mr. A.H. plucks an orphan from obscurity and surrounds him with books to prepare him for the challenge.

Celia and Marco are doomed without knowing what has happened.

The two magicians leave much of the competition to fate.  They do not know how the game will be played, when it will start, or even what it will look like.  Years pass and the two students train constantly, even though they don’t know each other, don’t know the rules, and don’t know how the game is played.  All they know is that they will compete and one must win.

Fate chooses the game to be held as a circus.  Chandresh Christophe Lefevre is chosen by Prospero to bring Celia and Marco together.  Chandresh doesn’t know what’s happening, only that he wants to create an amazing circus, something no one has ever seen before.

Almost without realizing it, Celia and Marco begin the challenge within the circus itself.

Things get very confusing at this point, but it works because Celia and Marco don’t know what’s going on.  Marco isn’t able to travel with the circus and had to bind himself to it on opening day so he can keep track of Celia.  Celia doesn’t realize that Marco is her competition for some time, but knows that she must keep growing the circus from within.  She uses her magic to create amazement for the visitors.  They are enthralled with the tents, the food, the music, and the performers and are swept up in the fantasy.  No one ever pushes themselves to look for the wires and strings that must be holding everything together.  They simply smile and enjoy the magic, not realizing that it actually is magic.

It was obvious early on that Celia and Marco would fall in love, and of course they do, and of course this causes problems.  They still don’t know how the game ends.  If they try to quit or walk away, they can’t.  So, they keep creating magic and pushing themselves to strengthen their skills and create new levels of magic. Their respect for each other pushes them to create more and more powerful pieces and it seems that neither will win.

Eventually things are built too high and begin to crumble.  Marco realizes he made an unforgivable mistake when he bound the circus.  Chandresh and the other architects begin to push against the magic, not realizing what is happening. Celia slowly begins to understand the rules and doesn’t know what will happen to the circus performers once the competition is won.  They have become her family and she is terrified to hurt them, but knows she cannot walk away.

For me, the strongest aspect of this book was the supporting characters.  At times Celia and Marco’s story doesn’t feel like the main one, even though everything revolves around the two.  We have moments from other POVs and get to see the circus in very different way.  I wanted to know what the sacrifice was going to be and where it was going to touch.  No one was safe and I quickly sped through the last part to find out how it would end.  These characters played wonderfully against Celia and Marco because there was so much love and friendship.  Neither of them was raised with kindness, yet they responded to it and wanted to protect the others even if it meant losing the game.
I also enjoyed the pacing of the book because time felt fluid.  It was confusing at times to flip back and forth between the chapter headers to see when you were and what had already happened or hadn’t happened.  Thing slowed down a lot in the middle, but this worked for me because I felt like Celia and Marco were in a holding pattern.  They knew what they had to do, but not how to do it.  Or where.  Or when.  Or to whom.  When things started revealing themselves, the book began to pick up speed and fly to the end.

I was pleased with the ending of this book because a choice had to be made.  Neither could walk away and someone had to win.  The way they created the circus meant that it couldn’t continue forever, no matter how powerful their magic was, together or as individuals.

I wish the Night Circus was real.  Not so much the part with the cruel competition, but I want there to be a place where everyone believes in magic and  pauses for a moment to watch it happen all around them.