Thursday, April 30, 2015


Mortality by Christopher Hitchens (2012)

In 2010, best-selling author and high-profile atheist Christopher Hitchens learned that he had cancer, which ultimately killed him just a year and a half later. Mortality is his short eye-opening account of his time in what he called "the land of malady."

The work begins with his first thoughts after diagnosis and carries through to fragments of writing he never finished, before ending with an afterward written by his wife. He touched on many subjects: the duality of coming to peace with death while still trying to live, public reactions to his illness, the etiquette of talking to sick people, his fear of losing his voice and his ability to write, his thoughts about Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture, and his changing feelings about the sentiment "whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger." He covered a lot in about 100 pages, and it goes very quickly.

I haven't read any other Hitchens, save for an article here or there, so this was maybe not the Hitchens book to start with. I picked it because it's short and it's about death and that intrigues me. It does contain a lot of insight, but I don't really know Hitchens so it's a bit strange to start with his final thoughts. Perhaps I should have read God Is Not Great, and a number of times I've thought of picking it up, but I kind of feel like he'd be preaching to the choir.

Still, Mortality gave me a taste of his style and left me with some food for thought. If it intrigues you at all, give it a try - it's a meager investment in time and effort. Pair it with Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. They would complement each other in their different but common perspectives on how people experience the end of life.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Bunker Diary

The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks (2015)

Linus thought he was just helping out a blind man, but as soon as his back was turned he was chloroformed and brought to a basement prison. Others soon followed. They were clearly underground, with only an elevator moving between them and their captor. They didn't know why they were taken, or by whom, or if they'd ever be able to escape. Linus passed the time by writing the story of their lives in the bunker.

The second prisoner to arrive was a 9-year-old girl named Jenny, followed by a drug addict named Fred. Next came Anja and William, both professional business people, and finally Russell, an older man who was a well-known physicist. There didn't seem to be a pattern, nothing they had in common. They began to think their captor just got gruesome pleasure about of watching them and torturing them.

The ways in which the captor tortured them were creative and rather thought-provoking. Like, he made them request food and other supplies before he would send them down on the elevator, but although he gave them food he wouldn't give them books, so they were stuck with nothing to do all day. The captivity was clearly planned, which is obvious from the way the bunker was set up. There were cameras everywhere, and when the inmates tried to tamper with them, they were gassed. The captor also messed with their sense of time to disorient them. So although he (mostly) didn't inflict direct violence on them, he made their captivity extremely difficult to endure.

The Bunker Diary was just released in the US but has already won a Carnegie medal in the UK. The Goodreads reviews are all over the place; it's apparently a very polarizing book. The negative criticism mostly surrounds the violence and bleakness, but I find that unfair. I think you have to evaluate a book for what it is, not for what you want it to be. I mean, it's a book about people being held captive and tortured. What did these reviewers expect?

The story maybe didn't go the way I wanted it to, but it was quite effective in evoking feelings of fear and helplessness, and did a great job of getting inside the main character's head. A couple of the characters were less well-developed than the rest, but considering how short and spare the novel was, I felt like I had a good picture of most of them. Most importantly, it was a total page-turner that I couldn't put down.

If you're up for an unusual book with a lot of tension, and aren't easily upset by the horrors that people can inflict upon one another, you may want to check this out.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Written in the Stars

Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed (2015)

If Naila wants to see her boyfriend Saif, she must be extremely careful and sneaky. Even though they live in the United States, her traditional Pakistani parents do not allow her to date or to attend dances or parties where there will be boys. When Naila is eventually caught at a dance with Saif, her parents are incredibly angry and whisk her away on a vacation to visit their family in Pakistan. As their trip is extended again and again, Naila becomes nervous about getting back in time to start college. But then she learns that it isn't a vacation at all - her parents are trying to arrange a marriage for her.

Once I started reading this book, I could not stop! I was completely captivated by the descriptions of Pakistani culture, and I needed to know how things would turn out for Naila. She was being treated so unjustly and I wanted everything to turn out well for her. There is a lot to love about this book, but I think the best part for me was that I really didn't know how it would end. It seems obvious that being forced into a marriage is bad and Naila should be with Saif, but this novel isn't quite that black and white in many ways, and at one point it began to seem quite plausible that she would remain in Pakistan in the marriage her parents arranged.

I also just loved the descriptions of life in Pakistan. Everything from the house where Naila's family lived, to the markets, the food, the clothing, and the obvious cultural differences. Her family's expectations for behavior were so different than what I am used to, it was kind of shocking at times. There were parts I found not quite believable, but I know they are realistic. Parents shunning their kids for what seem like minor infractions seems impossible, but I have heard stories like this before. After Naila is caught with Saif at the dance, her parents say "We've lost you...You are gone." What kind of parent would say something like that to a kid because she snuck out to see a boy? But I know that parents do reject their kids for reasons that seem ridiculous to me, and I know that in some cultures people have very particular ideas about family and about how people should behave.

It was hard to see Naila go through this rejection, and withstand almost constant criticism. She's really a nice, well-behaved person by American standards. But like I said, this book isn't black and white, and Naila had allies even among her traditional Pakistani family. Even those who weren't allies weren't necessarily terrible people, they just had different views on life than she did. It was fascinating, heartbreaking, and hopeful.

I always like reading stories about cultures different from my own, and when they take the form of a truly gripping novel that is definitely a bonus. Aisha Saeed is one of the founders of the We Need Diverse Books movement and I'm delighted that she has added to the diversity in young adult literature by writing a novel that I'll be happy to recommend.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Calling Me Home

Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler (2013)

Isabelle McAllister has found herself getting friendly with her hairdresser, Dorrie, and now that friendship may be tested when she asks for a giant favor. Dorrie doesn't know why the elderly white lady suddenly needs to drive from Texas to Ohio, but she's sure there must be a good reason and agrees to help. On the long car ride, Isabelle tells Dorrie a long painful story from her youth. Isabelle's story, which begins in 1939, is interspersed with the present-day road trip and Dorrie's personal struggles as a single mother with a kid in trouble and a new boyfriend she's afraid to let herself fall for.

Does this strike you as a cross between Driving Miss Daisy and The Help? Me too. It's actually not a bad idea for a story, but it could have been executed better. There are a lot of coincidences, and neat tying-up of various threads. None of the characters felt real, but much of the story sounded like I had heard it before. It was all a bit trite and predictable. I grew particularly weary of Dorrie referring to Isabelle as "Miss Isabelle." Do people actually do that? It sounded fake to me, but I know little about the South and I hear that things are different there.

Isabelle's back story was about a forbidden relationship with a black man, so the whole novel was infused with racial issues. It made sense in the story from Isabelle's youth, but I found some of the current story hard to swallow. I mean, I know we have serious racial issues even now, but when Dorrie made a comment about staying in a hotel overnight with Isabelle, she asked herself "How many people have spent the night with someone of another race?" I thought "Probably a lot of people, actually. You don't get out much, do you, Dorrie?" Again, maybe things are different in Texas.

Dorrie could have been an interesting character. A single mother who owned a business and was starting to date a guy who seemed fairly perfect (long overdue for her!) should have been a strong character. But I felt myself getting annoyed at her constant insistence that she didn't deserve this guy, and the way she kept calling her son "dumb" and saying she wanted to "wring his neck." I'm fine with characters being imperfect, but she seemed less like a person than just a collection of characteristics all slapped together.

This book was chosen for my book group and though it wasn't a book I would have picked out myself, I thought it sounded like a good enough story. I didn't dislike it as I was reading it, and in fact looked forward to seeing how the story unfolded. But when I finished, I was more than ready to move on and I don't think it's a book I'll remember or recommend.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Top Ten Favorite Authors

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish.

Today's list is top ten all-time favorite authors. "All time" is sort of tough because it means taking a long look back over my whole reading life. I set some vague parameters, like the author has to have more than one book (or series) and I have to have read the majority of their books.

Here's my list, just in the order that I thought of them:

1. Sam Savage
2. Elizabeth McCracken
3. Sarah Waters
4. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
5. Stephen King
6. Donna Tartt
7. John Irving
8. Chris Bohjalian
9. Margaret Atwood
10. Gillian Flynn

This was hard because I just don't spend much time trying to pick favorites. There are other authors I feel like should be on this list, but there's just no room: John Green, A.S. King, Ann Patchett, Geraldine Brooks, Stewart O'Nan, and Rainbow Rowell.

Conversely, it felt a little strange to put John Irving and Margaret Atwood on the list because I haven't read much of them lately, but I've been reading them and loving their books for so long I felt I had to include them.

It's just so hard!

Monday, April 20, 2015

High Fidelity

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (1995)

I've been reading Nick Hornby for years and even saw him speak several years ago (I think around the release of Juliet, Naked). But, embarrassingly, I hadn't yet read High Fidelity or Fever Pitch, perhaps his two best-known novels. I began rectifying that this week with a beat-up paperback from the library.

High Fidelity is about a thirty-something guy named Rob Fleming who runs a record store and has just screwed up the most major relationship of his life. It is clear he has not changed or matured since he was a teenager, and he mucks up every interpersonal situation he is confronted with, while being painfully aware he is doing so.

Rob is the kind of guy who just sort of lets life happen around him. For instance, he hired two guys to work part-time at the record shop and they started showing up every day and basically working full-time and Rob just didn't say anything about it. He's also emotionally immature, as proven by his behavior towards his ex-girlfriend Laura after she moves out of their flat and into the new flat of their former neighbor.

Some find Rob unlikeable, but as with all Nick Hornby's characters, I could totally sympathize with him. Yeah, he's far from perfect, but he's so earnest and honest (with the reader, not with the people around him) that I can't help but like him. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't want to be in a relationship with him, but the people around him aren't perfect either, including Laura. That is what is so wonderfully compelling about this novel though - everyone is realistically screwed up. Of course, this is all wrapped up in Hornby's trademark humor, which I think is another part of what makes Rob so palatable.

It's been quite a while since I've read a Hornby novel (the last was Juliet, Naked in 2009) so it's hard to compare this one with the others. But it has everything I remember from his other novels - the neurosis, the angst, the humor - so I think it's comparable to them. It was sort of a strange choice since he has a new book out that I haven't read yet, but I've heard mixed reviews of it. Has anyone read Funny Girl? What did you think?

Friday, April 17, 2015

Doomsday Book

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (1992)

In a not-so-distant future, historians are able to delve into their research like never before by actually traveling to the periods they're studying. Kivrin is preparing to visit 1320 so she can learn about how people lived in the Middle Ages, while avoiding the plague that came a bit later. The techs and faculty send her off nervously, despite all their careful preparations, and almost immediately find themselves in the midst of an epidemic. When Kivrin arrives in the Middle Ages she takes ill herself and wakes up in a village not knowing how to find her way back to the rendezvous spot.

Doomsday Book is both science fiction and historical fiction and both parts of the story were engrossing and enjoyable. I knew I'd like Kivrin's story set in the time period she has studied for so long, yet remains unfamiliar. All the ways in which she prepared so she could blend in were fascinating, and the relationships she developed with the people she met there were interesting and sometimes touching. She stayed with a family and grew close to the two daughters, the twelve-year-old already betrothed to a much older man. The youngest daughter was completely unsuspecting and therefore a fount of information. Kivrin had to be more guarded around the adults, some of whom didn't quite believe her story: that she had been attacked in the forest and couldn't remember anything about her former life. As trouble settled on the village, the inhabitants came to depend on Kivin's help, just as she began to lose hope of ever returning home.

The other part of the story, set at the college, was also quite good. The main character here was Dunworthy, the instructor who helped Kivrin prepare but nevertheless wasn't completely sold on the idea of this trip. He was determined to get Kivrin back, even as he dealt with the chaos and quarantine from the illness sweeping through the area. It was actually surprisingly humorous in parts. There was a whole cast of amusing characters thrown together during what was a disorganized and desperate time, including a group of American bell-ringers who had arrived to perform and became stuck once the area was under quarantine, and an overbearing mother who came to look out for her son whose academic stress, to her, was of just as much importance as the rampaging illness. Of course, it was a serious epidemic so this wasn't all fun and games as people got very ill and some died. All the while Dunworthy and his colleagues struggled to overcome bureaucracy and technology to save Kivrin.

Time travel tends to be very confusing to me, but here it was kept simple with some very basic rules. The cast of characters was large, but not unwieldy, and their many personalities added a great deal to the story. I liked both Kivrin and Dunworthy and continued to root for their success, while at times resigning myself to failure. (I really didn't know how it would go until the very end.) Everything about this book worked really well for me.

This was one of my choices for the TBR Pile Challenge, and I think is the last of the more lengthy books on my list. It was around 450 pages, and while it wasn't a quick read it was just a great story that I found completely engrossing. If you like historical novels or science fiction, or just want a good book that you can really lose yourself in, you may want to try Doomsday Book.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Anna and the French Kiss

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins (2010), narrated by Kim Mai Guest

Anna Oliphant is being forced to leave Atlanta her senior year and attend boarding school in Paris. She doesn't know a word of French and is upset to leave her best friend and her semi-boyfriend. But then she meets her neighbor Meredith and, soon after, the adorable and British-accented Etienne St. Clair. With her new group of friends, Paris suddenly doesn't feel so lonely. 

Ugh, Paris! I sometimes wish I had rich-people problems. But I do understand that it's difficult to uproot your life during these sensitive, dramatic years. Like many teenage girls, Anna doesn't have a whole lot of self-confidence. Forget making friends, she can't even order a meal at the cafeteria. So afraid to try her French or ask questions, she spends her first several weeks eating only the self-serve options of bread and fruit. But eventually, with the help of her new best friend St. Clair, she is even comfortable going to the movies.

St. Clair...adorable, unavailable St. Clair. You realize this is a romance, right? So their getting together is inevitable, but how do they get there? Even though his relationship with his long-term girlfriend is a bit rocky, he hates change. And Anna just assumes that no boy worth liking would actually like her back (how I remember those days!) So it's a long, slow, delicious crawl to the finish line with these two.

Of course there's lots of other stuff going on to distract them (somewhat) from each other, like St. Clair's mom's illness, and Anna's trouble with her semi-boyfriend back home. Anna is actually pretty interesting; she's passionate about movies and wants to be a film critic. She's exasperated by her father, who writes terrible sentimental novels that are made into worse movies (think Nicholas Sparks). Her best friend Bridget plays the drums and is not taken seriously because she's a girl. But then she has the opportunity to join the semi-boyfriend's band and there is where everything begins to get complicated between Anna and Bridget. Of course it's extra tough to deal with friendship issues when there's an entire ocean between you.

At times, Anna's behavior was painful and embarrassing, but I can't fault it because it is exactly the same sort of painful embarrassing behavior I remember from my own youth. Poor communication is usually a pet peeve for me in romance, but here it was the sort that actually exists. Like not believing what somebody says when they're drunk. That makes sense, right?

This was a great audio choice because it was light and fun and fairly simple, all-around easy to listen to. The narrator was good, but I see that the next two in the series each have different narrators, which is odd. But I'll let you know how they are, because I'll definitely be continuing with this series.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Through the Woods

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll (2014)

In this collection of five graphic short stories, Emily Carroll lures the reader into dark places where things are just not right and anything is possible. In one story, three children are left alone when their father goes hunting, with explicit instructions of what to do if he doesn't return; in another, a young woman is married to an older man and moves into his house, which is full of secrets; in a third, a man sits in a pub watching his brother socialize, knowing that he has already murdered his brother so this can't be him. Each premise brings with it a bit of unease that only increases as the story progresses.

As is typical in horror, the endings aren't crystal clear and they're definitely not neatly tied up with a happy resolution. I didn't always exactly get the ending of these stories, but man, they were creepy. And sometimes it's the not-quite-getting-it that makes it even a little bit creepier because it remains mysterious.

I'm pretty sure I saw a review of this somewhere, but I will fully admit that the primary reason I read it is because of the cover art, which is representative of the vibrant, dramatic illustrations throughout.  My favorites were the stunning pictures of the house in "A Lady's Hands Are Cold" (which, isn't that a great title?) I am always impressed by how much can be conveyed by just one picture, and this collection includes many examples of just that.

The graphic novel is a great medium for scary tales and I'd love to find more. I tried Joe Hill's Locke and Key and it was all right, but I didn't love it even though I really enjoy his other work. Do you have any suggestions for scary graphic novels?

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Sum of All Kisses

The Sum of All Kisses (Smythe-Smith Quartet #3) by Julia Quinn (2013)

Before we even get started, we need to get this out of the way: The Sum of All Kisses is a terrible title. It may be the worst title of any book I've read. It's not even the type you can enjoy making fun of; it's just saccharine and cutesy and awful. Let's just accept it and move on.

In this third installment of the Smythe-Smith Quartet, we begin by learning about the duel that drove Daniel out of the country and left Hugh Prentice partially disabled. Hugh has patched things up with Daniel and will, in fact, be attending his wedding in a couple of weeks. But first is the wedding of Honoria and Marcus (who got together in Just Like Heaven.) Lady Sarah Pleinsworth is also attending these weddings and, unfortunately, she and Hugh keep getting stuck together even though they cannot stand each other.

Sarah hates Hugh because of what he did to her cousin Daniel. That whole escapade kept her at home during what should have been her first season out, a season in which no less than fourteen eligible bachelors found wives. She could have been one of them. Now, her chances of making a good marriage have decreased.

Hugh also feels terrible about what happened with Daniel, but there is much more to that story than Sarah knows. The worst of it is because of Hugh's awful father, who is an incredibly vindictive and abusive man. Now, Hugh is trying to keep his father away from Daniel while trying to deal with his changed life situation, now that his injuries have left him unable to do things he enjoys such as hunting and dancing.

As much as I liked Sarah, Hugh was the really interesting character for me in this novel. The duel with Daniel was ridiculous and came from Hugh having too much to drink and losing at cards. He's a mathematical whiz, and not used to losing. But the duel almost killed him, which would mean no heir, and his father was livid. Hugh tried to remind him that his older brother could still marry and father some kids, but they both knew that he was not the marrying kind, if you catch my drift. Hugh's feelings for his father, brother, and Daniel are all explored during this novel, as, of course, are his feelings for Lady Sarah Pleinsworth. But there's more to the situation with his father than she knows, and as their feelings for each other turn surprisingly romantic, it is clear they may have hurdles to overcome that are far more difficult than their initial dislike of one another.

This was a fun read! I think I still liked the first two books in the series better, but it still had the humor that I so enjoy in Quinn's writing and the storyline was pretty good. I can't say what made it weaker than the others to me, but somehow it just didn't grab me quite as much. But after that existential young adult novel I had just finished, I think it was exactly what I needed.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


Nothing by Janne Teller (2010)

One day, Pierre Anthon realizes that life has no meaning and he leaves his classroom to go sit in a plum tree. His classmates, upset by his new philosophy, decide they must do something that show him that life does in fact have meaning. What they do begins innocently enough, but soon escalates into competitive sacrifice and violence.

It escalates kind of ridiculously, in fact. But I'm not sure this is a story that should be taken literally. It's less realistic fiction, and more existential fairy tale. You know how fairy tales are full of casual violence and don't always make a lot of sense? It was kind of like that. Surreal. It kept reminding me of Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone.

My main question while reading, was why do they care so much what Pierre Anthon thought? I found him kind of annoying. It was rather hard to believe that every kid would buy into this need to prove that life has meaning by doing such crazy stuff, and not one of them would be like "Hey, maybe we're going a little too far here." But again, see fairy tales/not-making-sense above.

I read this for my Not-So-Young Adult Book Group because they wanted some YA in translation. This is the second in translation book (the first was 172 Hours on the Moon). Nothing was definitely better but I am sort of conflicted about it. The writing was definitely superior to our last work in translation, but I didn't find the story especially compelling. It won a Printz Award and John Green apparently loved it, so there's that. It was a very quick read - I read almost the entire thing in one sitting - so I may just need time to process it. I like it a little more as I think about it, though I don't think it's a book I'll rush out to recommend.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Top Ten Characters I'd Like to Check in With

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted by The Broke and the Bookish

1. Leonard Peacock from Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock.

2. Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

3. Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars. I mean, we know it's not going to end well for her, but I kind of feel like we all lost interest and abandoned her after the events of the story. But her story isn't over

4. Libby from Dark Places. Actually, I worry about all of Gillian Flynn's characters.

5. Sage from Almost Perfect

6. Auggie from Wonder. I can't imagine things would have gotten easier in high school, and I really hope he maintained his sense of humor and positive outlook.

7. Austin (and everyone) from Grasshopper Jungle

8. Tana from The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. I don't actually even remember how it ended, but I think it was sort of open and I'd really like to revisit this story.

9. Eleanor and Park from Eleanor and Park.

10. Petronella from The Miniaturist. She was so young and had to deal with a lot. I don't recall everything about how it ended (do I ever?) but she came into her own during the course of the story and I'd really like to see how things went for her later.

Most of these tend to be younger people, I guess because these books took place during their formative years and things could go so many ways after those times. What about you? Are there any characters you find yourself wondering about later?

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Attachments

The Attachments by Rainbow Rowell (2011)

It is 1999 and Lincoln is hired at a newspaper to monitor everyone's email. It's a pretty boring job, even with the upcoming millennium bug to deal with (remember that letdown?). But when his software flags a conversation between two women named Jennifer and Beth, not only does he refrain from sending them a warning about person email use, but he starts reading their conversation in earnest. Even worse, he totally starts falling for Beth.

Lincoln is totally charming in a way that I wish existed in actual men, but I'm pretty sure doesn't. (Thank you, Rainbow Rowell, for setting up unrealistic expectations.) He's still getting over his one major relationship and is living with his mother. He plays Dungeons & Dragons on the weekends and that is pretty much it for his social life. But he's such a kind and honest sort of guy, a guy with very simple needs and a good heart. Sigh.

Beth and Jennifer are super entertaining and I really enjoyed reading their email conversations. When the book begins, Jennifer and her husband are in disagreement about having a baby, and Beth is having relationship troubles with her musician boyfriend. I really enjoyed getting to know them both through their conversations, which were sometimes serious, sometimes silly, and frequently funny. The real fun begins, of course, when Beth catches a glimpse of Lincoln in the break room and begins crushing on him and referring to him as My Cute Guy. Of course Lincoln wants to approach her, but how can he do this after spying on her without it being incredibly awkward?

From the beginning we know it is inevitable that they will get together, and when they finally did I actually found it a little bit too quick and perfect and neat. But that hardly matters, because the getting there was just so much fun. I devoured this book in a couple of days and now I want more! But I've unfortunately exhausted Rainbow Rowell's catalog and now I'm just going to have to wait for Carry On, which will be published in the fall.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Bees

The Bees by Laline Paull (2014), narrated by Orlagh Cassidy

Flora 717 is born a sanitation worker, but as soon as she emerges into the hive it is clear she is not like other bees. She displays an aptitude for other jobs and spends times working in the nursery and foraging outside with bees in other kin groups. But there are other things she does outside her preordained role as well, things she must keep secret or she could be punished for treason.

Paull's novel describes a society that is unrecognizable to us, and this creative world-building is the great strength of the novel. Somehow she managed to put herself inside the mind of a bee and extrapolate from that what their world must be like. They rely on different senses, receiving much of their information from scent, and they can hear the "hive mind" in addition to individual voices, and transfer information without speaking. Their feelings aren't like ours either, with few emotions that could compare to ours, and different moral codes. Bees killed other bees without repercussion, but it was forbidden for anyone but the queen to breed.

The details of day to day life were also new and unfamiliar, yet recognizable if you know anything about bees. Their food includes "pollen bread" and the honeycombs are referred to as "the treasury." Flora spoke about her body as though it was a piece of machinery. When taking off she "started her thoracic engine" and the way she referred to her wings and legs was also kind of mechanical. The bees also had their own mythology, the stories collected in panels in a special area of the hive. One of the stories told of "the visitation" which, to us, is when a person comes and collects honey. It was just so fascinating, I could go on and on about all the details of Flora's life and home.

I chose to listen to the audiobook because it was narrated by Orlagh Cassidy, who is one of my favorites. She also read The Piano Teacher and Before I Go To Sleep. Her rendering of this novel was quite lovely and enjoyable to hear.

Reading this was like being immersed in a very different, much smaller, world. It's the sort of book that doesn't need much of a plot, but it still has one. The Bees has been long-listed for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction and I wouldn't be surprised if it made some other lists as well. It's one of the most unusual books I've read and, by the way, I am terrified of bees. We're getting a hive at the library where I work, which is not something I'm especially excited about, and I couldn't stop thinking about it while listening to this book. I don't think anyone who reads this can ever look at bees quite the same way again. Highly recommended for anyone who likes literary fiction.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015


March by Geraldine Brooks (2005)

In Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, the girls' father is absent for most of the story, and Geraldine Brooks has written a novel imagining his experiences in the Civil War. Based heavily on Alcott's own father, Brooks has brought to life a man passionate yet conflicted, holding himself and others to the highest moral standards. The Marches have had a long involvement with the Underground Railroad, and when Mr. March eventually goes off to war it's as a chaplain, not a soldier. He abhors violence and is a strict vegetarian. But of course he's not perfect, and when his actions fall short of his own expectations he is the last to forgive himself.

As usual, Brooks inserts the reader firmly in the novel's setting with her evocative descriptions. Details of war and of daily life are equally vivid and make the story feel genuine. Honestly, I kept forgetting that the people this story was based on weren't real, and would catch myself wondering if the real Mr. March was being accurately portrayed. There were some real historic figures in the story though, which is probably why I was so confused. Abolitionist John Brown made an appearance, as did Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The novel opens while March is off at war, but he looks back and recounts his early years and his marriage. His relationship with his wife was especially nuanced and realistic. They frequently miscommunicated, and some of their misunderstandings were significant. March recalls one particularly important moment when he looked to his wife and saw her approval, yet later when she recounts the same event she clearly did not approve and found his decision a betrayal to her.

Plotwise, the story was primarily about slavery and the abolitionist movement. March got to know some former slaves and their stories were, of course, heartbreaking. When March tried to help, it didn't always work out and he became consumed with guilt. Getting to know these former slaves was an education for March, and as much as he was devoted to his cause it became clear that their situations were more complicated than he realized and it wasn't as easy as he thought to determine how best to help.

There is always something comforting about reading another book by an author I like, especially when I've already heard that it's just as good as her other novels. That's what I was looking for when I picked this up, and I was not disappointed.