Monday, March 28, 2016

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

From Goodreads:

A. J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. He lives alone, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. But when a mysterious package appears at the bookstore, its unexpected arrival gives Fikry the chance to make his life over--and see everything anew.

I can tell already that this will be a favorite from the year. This book was absurdly charming. There are sad bits but they didn't make me feel overly sad because the book is so optimistic and lovely and full of wonderful people with beautiful relationships.

It's also full of fun lines and dialog. One of my favorite bits from early on that gave me a chuckle- 
A.J. has never changed a diaper in his life, though he is a modestly skilled gift wrapper.
The exchange between A.J. Fikry and Amelia the publishing sales rep in the Moby Dick themed restaurant. Basically anything Maya says. The cop who starts a book club for cops. There is so much here to love. I grinned through most of the book and was sad when it was over.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

From Goodreads:

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

Neil Gaiman is hit and miss for me. I love his brand of magical realism...sometimes. Sometimes he wraps it up in a bit too much darkness and I find myself slogging rather than enjoying. Neverwhere was a slog for me while Graveyard Book was enjoyable. American Gods and this one, The Ocean at the End of the Lane are somewhere in between.

One thing I kept coming back to over and over while reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane is how much I prefer being an adult. I've said it before and I'm sure I'll say it again- being an adult is the best. Yeah, there's responsibility but also you can eat cake for breakfast and see a movie in the middle of the day. The boy at the center of this book mentions more than once that when you're 7 you're at the mercy of adults. You have to do what they say, go where they tell you to go, sleep when they tell you to go to bed. The narrative reminded me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's whole "high school is literal hell" analogy- having no freedom sucks. It doesn't matter whether you're at the mercy of parents and teachers or a paranormal being from "the old country" who is determined to confine you to smaller and smaller areas and make it so no one believes you when you say your babysitter is actually a monster. Kids are powerless and I think this book really nails that feeling.

So much of this book is just about childhood- the way adults will always take the known path whereas children will explore the hundred other ways from A to B. The way children imagine and fear and play. The way things shape our lives and we forget about them because we were young, even if we feel the echoes decades later. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

From Goodreads:

One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur's chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.

Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten's arm is a line from Star Trek: "Because survival is insufficient." But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.

Station Eleven is the best book I've read so far this year. As I read I thought, "This is post-apocalyptic fiction for people who are generally kind of tired of post-apocalyptic fiction."

Much of the book centers around the life and death of Arthur Leander, who had a heart attack less than 24 hours before the rest of the world came to a screeching halt thanks to a crazy flu that wiped out 99.9% of humanity. His existence should be inconsequential in the face of something much bigger but he echoes in the lives of survivors and serves as a reminder that ultimately it's the little things that matter the most.

At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen

From Goodreads:

After embarrassing themselves at the social event of the year in high society Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Maddie and Ellis Hyde are cut off financially by Ellis’s father, a former army Colonel who is already embarrassed by his son’s inability to serve in WWII due to his being colorblind. 

To Maddie’s horror, Ellis decides that the only way to regain his father’s favor is to succeed in a venture his father attempted and very publicly failed at: he will hunt the famous Loch Ness monster and when he finds it he will restore his father’s name and return to his father’s good graces (and pocketbook). Joined by their friend Hank, a wealthy socialite, the three make their way to Scotland in the midst of war. 

Each day the two men go off to hunt the monster, while another monster, Hitler, is devastating Europe. And Maddie, now alone in a foreign country, must begin to figure out who she is and what she wants. 

The novel tells of Maddie’s social awakening: to the harsh realities of life, to the beauties of nature, to a connection with forces larger than herself, to female friendship, and finally, to love.

This was the first book in a LONG time that I stayed up late to finish. It wasn't amazing or particularly complex but it was thoroughly enjoyable. It's more of a fluffy beach read than it initially appears.

I read this immediately after China Dolls, in which I had to fight SO HARD to like the characters. Maddie, however, is very likeable and becomes even more so as the book goes on. One of the criticisms I've seen of this book is that the main characters are all just spoiled rich kids doing what they want but...that's kind of the point. They're absurd and eventually Maddie realizes she doesn't want to be that person anymore. 

My one big criticism is that the love story left me going, "Wait, what?" They had the odd interaction then she saw him with his shirt off and suddenly they were both goners. That could have used a bit more development. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung

From Goodreads:

Chronicles the brutality of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, from the author's forced ''evacuation'' of Phnom Penh in 1975 to her family's subsequent movements from town to town and eventual separation.

I dated a guy in college who served his LDS mission in Cambodia. His occasional comments and recollections constituted 90% of my knowledge of Cambodia. The other 10% came from watching Tomb Raider (which had a few scenes filmed there).

I'm always a little embarrassed that I know so little about other countries and world events so when this title popped up as recommended in my Overdrive app I requested it. 

The book is narrated from a child's point of view but I couldn't help but read it as a mother. These kinds of books devastate me since having children. I can't stop putting myself in the shoes of Loung's mother, desperately trying to keep her children alive while slowly watching them waste away from hunger and overwork. When the father was killed I bawled great big tears onto my nursing baby's head. I can't imagine being in that situation and losing Aaron. The women who survived the Khmer Rouge were made of stronger stuff than I am.

This book is absolutely phenomenal, even if it led to me squeezing Emmy until she squirmed while I promised her she would never know that kind of pain or hunger. Reading the cold facts of the Cambodian genocide doesn't do justice to the horror and privations experienced by the people. I think books like this should be required reading in high school- when you learn about the events you should also learn about the people.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

I Don't Know What You Know Me From: Confessions of a Co-Star by Judy Greer

From Goodreads:

You know Judy Greer, right? Maybe from The Wedding Planner, 13 Going on 30, Carrie, Arrested Development, or The Descendants. Yes, you totally recognize her. And, odds are, you already feel like she’s your friend. 

In her first book of essays, I Don’t Know What You Know Me From, Greer writes about everything you would hope to hear from your best friend: how a midnight shopping trip to Walgreens can cure all; what it’s like to wake up one day with stepchildren; and how she really feels about fans telling her that she’s prettier in person. Yes, it’s all here—from the hilarious moments to the
intimate confessions.

But Judy Greer isn’t just a regular friend—she’s a celebrity friend. Want to know which celebs she’s peed next to? Or what the Academy Awards are actually like? Or which hot actor gave her father a Harley-Davidson? Don’t worry; Greer reveals all of that, too. You’ll love her because, besides being laugh-out-loud funny, she makes us genuinely feel like she’s one of us. Because even though she sometimes has a stylist and a makeup artist, she still wears (and hates!) Spanx. Because even after almost twenty years in Hollywood, she still hasn’t figured everything out—except that you should always wash your face before bed. Always.

This was an emergency download. I am incapable of cleaning my house without an audiobook and my house was in dire need of cleaning. This book was immediately available from my library's digital collection and I generally really like Judy Greer so I nabbed it and got scrubbing.

When it comes to this kind of book, audio is really the way to go (especially when it's narrated by the author). Judy has such a distinctive voice and, like the blurb mentions above, she already feels like a friend. I'm not sure I would have enjoyed it nearly so much in print form, but as an audio book? It was lovely. And now my house is clean.

Coroner's Journal: Stalking Death in Louisiana by Louis Cataldie

From Goodreads:

The frank and unvarnished memoir of a life spent stalking death in the Deep South.

Baton Rouge is a little town with big-city problems. Rich with Creole history, colorful locals, and a strong sense of community, it's also the home of Napoleonic codes, stubborn cops, and a sometimes-troubled leadership. Baton Rouge-which literally means "Red Stick"-lives up to its bloody namesake.

And after more than ten years as a deputy coroner and then as its chief coroner, Louis Cataldie has seen his fair share of unusual and disturbing cases. They range from the bizarre to the heartbreaking: an LSU professor killed by a barn door; the bones of a young woman found scattered in a churchyard; and as many as three serial killers loose at one time under Cataldie's watch. He has worked the scene of one of the Malvo/ Muhammad Beltway Sniper shootings and had a hand in bringing to justice serial killer Derrick Todd Lee in a controversial investigation that was featured in an ABC Prime Time special with Diane Sawyer and Patricia Cornwell.

Coroner's Journal is an unflinching look at a world that television dramas such as CSI can only begin to show us.

The stories in this book were fascinating and sometimes heart-wrenching (I bawled any time children were involved). I kept getting hung up on the writing though! Cataldie is a coroner, not an english major and it shows. Where was his editor?? Sometimes when I write a blog post I'll go through and rewrite a sentence here and there- the key, though, is to delete the original version so you don't have two sentences next to each other saying basically the same thing. This is like Editing 101, yes? It was weird coming across those kinds of mistakes in a published work.

Also, Cataldie was needlessly melodramatic and occasionally included details that were clearly for shock factor. His book is chock full of bodies but he declined to detail the process of slicing someone open for autopsy until halfway through, when he described it on a four-year-old boy who had been killed in a fire. I mean, really? That's an emotional sucker punch and totally unnecessary.

All that being said, I came out really liking Cataldie. He seems like a good guy who genuinely cares for the victims that come to him. He played a big part in the post-Katrina cleanup and spent months IDing bodies and returning them to families. Good guy, good stories, should probably change editors (call me!) if he decides to write another book.