Friday, October 24, 2014

Book Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio


Title: Wonder
Author: R.J. Palacio
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: February 14, 2012
Source: borrowed from a friend

Summary from Goodreads

August Pullman wants to be an ordinary ten-year-old. He does ordinary things. He eats ice cream. He plays on his Xbox. He feels ordinary - inside.

But Auggie is far from ordinary. Ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. Ordinary kids don't get stared at wherever they go.

Born with a terrible facial abnormality, Auggie has been home-schooled by his parents his whole life, in an attempt to protect him from the cruelty of the outside world. Now, for the first time, he's being sent to a real school - and he's dreading it. All he wants is to be accepted - but can he convince his new classmates that he's just like them, underneath it all?

Narrated by Auggie and the people around him whose lives he touches forever, WONDER is a funny, frank, astonishingly moving debut to read in one sitting, pass on to others, and remember long after the final page.


My Review:

In the past, I've often heard people describe various books as "tearjerkers".  And when I heard that, I would usually laugh, because I am not much of a cryer when it comes to my reading selections.  I generally reserve my tears for two things: personal issues, and videos of soldiers coming home and surprising their unsuspecting kids in school assemblies.  (RIGHT?!?!?)  But cry while reading a book?  NEVER!

Guess what?  Wonder is a tearjerker, y'all!

Wonder starts out from the perspective of our protagonist, Auggie, and it's hard not to love him from page one.  Having lived with a horrible facial deformity for his entire life, he is wise beyond his years (with an uncanny ability to interpret the world around him), but also harbors all of the insecurities and fears that you'd expect from a ten-year-old, let alone one who deals with being ridiculed on a daily basis.  I wanted to give him ALL THE HUGS by about page five.  His parents are pretty great too--you quickly see how lucky Auggie is to have such loving, funny, and protective parents.

However, I got even more enjoyment out of the chapters that were told from the perspective of his sister and several of his classmates.  The foundation of this novel is laid when you see how Auggie views himself--but that perspective becomes much richer when you understand how others see Auggie.  He and his classmates are at such a difficult age--the start of middle school is full of popularity contests, everyone is making or breaking a reputation, and trying to figure out if their inner image matches their outer image.  These challenges are made even tougher when ten-year-olds are faced with a classmate like Auggie.  Is it more important to be "cool" or to be friendly?  And is being friendly the same as being a friend?  (And does that matter to the person you're being friendly to?)

It's also interesting (and at times, sad) to see how the kids are influenced by their parents--not every parent is going to encourage their child to take the higher road, unfortunately.  This book was obviously written with young adults as the target audience, but as a parent, I also took a lot away from this in terms of the lessons I'd like to teach my kids about accepting and helping others.

And yes, I confess.  I cried.  During the last few pages.  (cue Usher)

It was worth the tears.  I hate it when this term is overused, but I think it's appropriate here: Wonder is going to hit you in the feels.

Wonder is the first book that my MOMS Club book club is reading together!  Any advice for us as we convene for the first time next week??  And of course...if you've read Wonder, what did you think?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Six Degrees of Separation: 1984

Let's do a little Six Degrees today!

As a reminder: the Six Degrees of Separation meme was created by Emma Chapman and Annabel Smith.  Basically, they pick a new book each month, and you start with your thoughts on that book...then, through free association, you link it to 6 other books.

This month's book is 1984 by George Orwell.  AND GO!

A year or so after I graduated from college (2006), I started making my way through some of the classics that I was never assigned to read in high school.  1984 was one of them, and I loved it.  This may have been my first real taste of dystopia (before Hunger Games/Divergent/etc made dystopia cool).

Other than working on the classics, another little reading project of mine in 2006 was trying to read my way through the library's fiction section alphabetically.  Yeah, I know.  I gave it up well before I was halfway through the A's.  But one of the books I remember from that project was...

How I Paid For College by Marc Acito

Honest to God, the only reason this book continues to stick out for me is because of the title and the cover.  They are, admittedly, hard to forget.  That said, I just re-read the book description on Goodreads, and I have absolutely no recollection of that plot.  I also gave it a 2-star review, so apparently it was a little bit awful.  Don't you hate that though, when you read a book and then years later, you can't remember a single thing about it?

There are GOOD books with college themes too, though!  That happens to be one of my preferred settings for a novel.  An example would be...

I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

I have mentioned this book on the blog before (here!), and it continues to make the list of my all-time favorite novels.  I connected with so many elements of the novel as Charlotte made her way through a rocky freshman year of college.

Since we're talking about all-time favorite novels, let's give a shout-out to one of mine that I've never mentioned on the blog before...

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

Fun fact: my original college major was pathobiology, and I wrote several of my college admissions essays about this book.  I read it during my junior year of high school, found it completely fascinating, and then decided that I wanted to major in pathobiology, go to graduate school for public health, and eventually work at the CDC to find a cure for Ebola.

Yes, you read that right.  This is, indeed, a book about Ebola.  Timely, yes?  (Also, I think we can all agree that changing my major to family studies was an unfortunate decision for the entire world circa NOW.)  Even though my career goals did not stay the same, I still have a lot of curiosity and interest in biological sciences, and this book continues to be a favorite.  An interesting read for sure if you don't know much about this disease (beyond what you hear in the media).

Nonfiction!  Haven't talked about that a lot around here lately.  I actually just looked on Goodreads and saw that my last nonfiction read was...

Sous Chef by Michael Gibney

WHAT?  I read that back in MARCH!  It's a bit atrocious that I have read zero nonfiction since then.  Thank goodness that Nonfiction November is coming up.  This book was very entertaining though, and reminds me of why I need to get back into the groove with nonfic.

So let's see, what other nonfiction books are on my favorites list (other than The Hot Zone)...

My Life by Bill Clinton

Me sharing the former president's autobiography as a book on my favorites list does absolutely nothing other than reveal the fact that I am an unapologetic liberal and fan of Bill Clinton.

Wait, you're not supposed to discuss politics in mixed company!  Quick, think of a good memoir that's less political for us to talk about!

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Phew, that's better.

This is the strangest train of book thought I've ever had...although, I just realized that I started with 1984 and ended with Steve Jobs...and Apple had that famous commercial based on 1984 way back when.  CRAZY, RIGHT??  I'm a genius.  (Not really, just very sleep deprived, as Tater Tot has croup at the time of this writing.)

Have you read any of these books, friends?  What did you think?  And feel free to share your six degrees as well!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Review: Man V. Nature by Diane Cook


Title: Man V. Nature
Author: Diane Cook
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: October 7, 2014
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

A refreshingly imaginative, daring debut collection of stories which illuminates with audacious wit the complexity of human behavior, as seen through the lens of the natural world.

Told with perfect rhythm and unyielding brutality, these stories expose unsuspecting men and women to the realities of nature, the primal instincts of man, and the dark humor and heartbreak of our struggle to not only thrive, but survive. In “Girl on Girl,” a high school freshman goes to disturbing lengths to help an old friend. An insatiable temptress pursues the one man she can’t have in “Meteorologist Dave Santana.” And in the title story, a long fraught friendship comes undone when three buddies get impossibly lost on a lake it is impossible to get lost on. In Diane Cook’s perilous worlds, the quotidian surface conceals an unexpected surreality that illuminates different facets of our curious, troubling, and bewildering behavior.

Other stories explore situations pulled directly from the wild, imposing on human lives the danger, tension, and precariousness of the natural world: a pack of not-needed boys take refuge in a murky forest and compete against each other for their next meal; an alpha male is pursued through city streets by murderous rivals and desirous women; helpless newborns are snatched by a man who stalks them from their suburban yards. Through these characters Cook asks: What is at the root of our most heartless, selfish impulses? Why are people drawn together in such messy, complicated, needful ways? When the unexpected intrudes upon the routine, what do we discover about ourselves? 

As entertaining as it is dangerous, this accomplished collection explores the boundary between the wild and the civilized, where nature acts as a catalyst for human drama and lays bare our vulnerabilities, fears, and desires.


My Review:

Potentially the best book I'll read in 2014.  Just wanted to state that up front.

When was the last time I read a collection of short stories?  (That question was going to be rhetorical, but I just looked it up, and it was This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz, which I also loved.  Why am I not reading more short stories??)  Anyway, it's been too long, because Diane Cook has reminded me how amazing shorter works can be.

Each of the stories in this book tackle a different aspect of human nature.  How do social status and power affect our animal instinct to survive?  What is the stronger human desire, monogamy or strong offspring?  If we come into good fortune, is it our obligation to share that with those less fortunate?  The list goes on and on.  (That's not an exaggeration, I will gladly show you the excessively long note on my iPhone that I created while reading and mulling everything over.)  No matter what the focus, every story sucked me in immediately, and had my wheels turning all the way to the very end.
What makes these tales exceptional is that they are concisely written (no long, boring passages to pull you out of the action), but are still crafted in such a way that the "moral of the story" is not always obvious.  You will most definitely be contemplating this book long after you put it down.  (Or, you can do what I did, and start a Facebook message with another reader (Hi, Monika from Lovely Bookshelf!) to discuss all your philosophies and WTF moments along the way.  This would be an amazing book club book for the discussion possibilities!)

If I had a choose a favorite story from the collection, one that is sure to stick with me, it's "Somebody's Baby."  In it, new mothers are left in constant fear as an unknown man camps out in their yards and threatens to steal their babies.  If I have ever read anything that better encompasses the intense worry that women have as mothers, I'm sure I don't remember it.  "She felt shot at every day of her life since she'd begun having children."  Yes, every bit of that one resonated with me.  And even if that doesn't sound like it would be your particular favorite, I'm sure there's one in this collection that will touch you just as deeply.

I'm all done gushing.  If you have any doubts left about my opinion on this book, I'd be amazed.

As always, much thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Diane Cook on Twitter.




Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Banks of Certain Rivers...redux!

Hello readers!  You may remember that last year, I did a review for a novel called The Banks of Certain Rivers by Jon Harrison.  I was reluctant to review it at first, because it was self-published, but the book ended up being exceptional and quelled any fears I had about its self-published status.

That said, The Banks of Certain Rivers found a publisher this year!  It was released by Lake Union Publishing on September 23.  I was asked if I would mind re-posting my review in honor of this updated edition, and I wholeheartedly agreed, because it's good stuff.

So, feel free to enjoy my review again HERE.  And congrats to Jon Harrison on the new edition!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Book Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson


Title: The Haunting of Hill House
Author: Shirley Jackson
Publisher: Viking
Publication Date: October 16, 1959
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a "haunting"; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.


My Review:

My MOST favorite thing about October reading is the excuse to read spooky, creepy novels.  Each year, I try to make time during this month for at least one Halloween-ish read that's been on my TBR list for a long time.  This year, I'm reading rather slowly this month, so I knew I had to choose just one.  The Haunting of Hill House got the distinction because it's a bit of a supernatural classic, and I've heard nothing but good reviews from my favorite reader friends.  (Plus, I was under the (mistaken) impression that it was the inspiration for the 1959 Vincent Price movie, House on Haunted Hill.  Not the case, but the movie is good anyway--do watch!)

Overall, this book fell into the "good not great" category for me.  I'll admit up front that this could be an issue of spoilers.  The edition that I read had an introduction by Stephen King at the beginning, and since I will read literally anything that that man writes, of course I jumped into it first.  But wouldn't you know...it was full of spoilers.  CHOCK FULL.  Why in the world would you put an introduction on a novel that is full of giveaways about the ending?  Ugh.  As soon as I realized that I was getting too much info, I stopped reading the introduction, but the damage was done.  Therefore, I went into the novel already knowing what would happen to the protagonist (Eleanor), and that made the conclusion lose its edge for me.

Despite the spoilers, I still felt a little underwhelmed by my Haunting of Hill House experience.  The events were spooky, but not necessarily scary.  I often had more fun figuring out the dynamics between the characters (especially Eleanor and Theodora) than I did watching Hill House's ghosts play their nocturnal games.  I guess, after so many reviews telling me that this wasn't a book to read alone in the dark, I was expecting more thrills and chills.

I don't mean to pan the book so much though, honestly.  It was still fun to read, and definitely great for October--grab your fleece blanket and a cup of tea, and this is perfect for a fall afternoon.  Even if it's not particularly scary, it is a "literary" thriller, so it's interesting to see how the characters play off of each other, and how Eleanor in particular manages to change throughout the book.

The Haunting of Hill House was middle-of-the-road for me, but I still think it's worth a read...especially if you don't get the ending ruined for you beforehand, like I did!

Have you ever read the introduction of a book, only to find that it's got spoilers from the novel in it?  This has happened to me before Hill House as well.  What is up with that??

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Gone Girl: Book vs Movie. The Verdict Is In!

I don't get to see a lot of movies these days.  We don't have easy access to a babysitter, and when we do go out alone, we generally prefer an activity that lets us talk with each other, rather than sitting quietly in a dark theater for two hours.  In 95% of cases, I have no idea a movie has been released until it makes it to Netflix.

But I sure as heck knew Gone Girl was coming out.  WOOT WOOT!

After I read, and positively adored, the book in 2012, movie rumors were already being circulated.  (You can check out my review HERE.) I was cringing, because (go ahead, say it with me!) THE BOOK IS ALWAYS BETTER THAN THE MOVIE.  They were saying Reese Witherspoon might be Amy (ughhhhhhhhhh) and that alone was making me nervous for the adaptation.

However, as you know by now, the movie was made and started getting some pretty decent reviews, so I knew I had to see it.  My darling husband had zero interest in this flick though, so I gathered a group of my mommy friends, and this past Thursday we made a night of it.  Of the 5 of us, 3 had read the book, and 2 hadn't.  So we got some interesting perspectives within the group.

Here are my thoughts, and yes, HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.  You have been warned!

Overall, I loved it.  Rosamund Pike was an exceptional choice for Amy.  She does an equally good job being the serene, well-adored Amy and the calculating, I'mma-cut-you-with-a-box-cutter Amy.  Ben Affleck plays a perfect Nick as well--aloof, self-absorbed, kind of a jerkface, but still curries some favor as he tries to find his crazy-ass wife.  And Neil Patrick Harris is a CREEPY Desi Collings.

Beyond the cast: the soundtrack adds much suspense, especially at the end.  And I was impressed with how Amy's diary entries were handled, as flashbacks with her narration over them.  Much like in the book, they are well-placed throughout the story, and mislead you just enough (especially in the beginning) that you don't see The Big Twist coming.

But, you know, the book always has to be just a TEENSY bit better than the movie.  Right?  So I had two little things that I liked better in the novel.

1. The Big Twist.  When I was reading the book, I hit the end of Part 1 and had no idea, not one clue, what Amy was up to.  Then I read the first page of Part 2, and...there is a reason I used a nuclear bomb GIF in my original review.  KA-BOOM.  There were expletives spoken aloud.  The entire book was turned on its head, and I loved it.

In the movie, it didn't feel that way to me.  Granted, I knew it was coming, having read the book.  But even despite that, I was so excited for that big twist, and I felt like it wasn't as explosive on screen as it was on the page.  Perhaps because we had already heard Amy's voice continuously through flashbacks previously in the movie--so when she starts talking about her staged disappearance, it doesn't feel as shocking?  I'm not sure.  But for me, that twist felt better in print.

2. The pregnancy at the end.  One of the reasons I enjoyed this ending in the novel so much is because it was done with very little fanfare.  Part 3 of the book is not very long, and so the pregnancy is introduced, with some additional detail, but there isn't a lot of dialogue and it is kind of left hanging--very ominous, something that sticks in your head for a long time afterwards.  However, in the movie, the pregnancy is introduced, and then there's a lot of back-and-forth between Amy and Nick, plus the reveal to Go, and then on national television, etc. and it felt like too much.  I just wanted the pregnancy revealed, maybe reactions from Nick and Amy, and that was it--no more talking.  I wanted it more abrupt, to match the feel of the book.  However, I will say that my friends who didn't read the book seemed a bit frustrated at the lack of detail in the movie's conclusion (what happens next after the pregnancy is announced, etc)...so this is likely my own personal issue as I pick apart one of my favorite novels.

As you can see, those two tiny caveats are...tiny.  This movie was truly awesome.  In my eyes, David Fincher has done Gone Girl justice.  Well done, Hollywood!

Who else has seen Gone Girl (the movie)?  What did you think compared to the book?  Those who haven't seen the movie--are you tempted to do so, based on your reaction to the book?  Why or why not?

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Book Review: Larger Than Life by Jodi Picoult


Title: Larger Than Life
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Ballantine
Publication Date: August 4, 2014
Source: personal purchase

Summary from Goodreads

From Jodi Picoult, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Storyteller and My Sister’s Keeper, comes a gripping and beautifully written novella, now available exclusively as an eBook. Set in the wilds of Africa, Larger Than Life introduces Alice, the unforgettable character at the center of Picoult’s anticipated new novel, Leaving Time
 
A researcher studying memory in elephants, Alice is fascinated by the bonds between mother and calf—the mother’s powerful protective instincts and her newborn’s unwavering loyalty. Living on a game reserve in Botswana, Alice is able to view the animals in their natural habitat—while following an important rule: She must only observe and never interfere. Then she finds an orphaned young elephant in the bush and cannot bear to leave the helpless baby behind. Thinking back on her own childhood, and on her shifting relationship with her mother, Alice risks her career to care for the calf. Yet what she comes to understand is the depth of a parent’s love.


My Review:

This will be short and sweet, partly because I already said quite a bit about this selection earlier in the week, and partly because the novella is pretty short and sweet on its own.  This is a great precursor to Jodi Picoult's new book, Leaving Time, which is being released in about 2 weeks.  Despite the small size of Larger Than Life, by the time I hit the last page, I felt invested in the characters and was dying to know what would come next for them in Leaving Time.  This gives you an interesting POV too, because Alice (the protagonist in Larger Than Life) has disappeared after an accident when you encounter her in Leaving Time.  This will definitely leave you curious about where Alice's story will fit in to the longer novel.

This novella does not match exactly what you've come to expect from Jodi Picoult's novels.  No multiple-POV format, no legal case, no crazy-twist ending.  It does, however, include all of the emotional upheaval and deep character development that she is known for.  By the end, I was impressed by how many heart-wrenching scenes she was able to place into one small package.  No loss of passion here, that's for sure.

If the purpose of this novella is to get you ravenously interested in Leaving Time, then as you may have guessed: mission accomplished.

Have you ever read a "companion" book to a larger novel or series?  What did you think?  Was it helpful, or did it feel unnecessary?
 
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