Monday, May 22, 2017

The Heart Goes Last

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood (2015)

The economy has collapsed and Stan and Charmaine live together in their car, driving from place to place to avoid being attacked. But they learn about a way out: they can move into a nice community and live in a lovely house and have good jobs. The price? Spending every other month in prison, while their house is inhabited by a couple who are in prison on the opposite months. They sign on, and for a while it works out pretty well. The prison is fairly nice and they have jobs there too, and they get into the routine of being separated every other month and then coming back together in their house. But when one of them gets a little too interested in one of the people who lives in the house while they are away at prison, things begin a slow downward spiral.

In order for the experimental town of Consilience (Cons + Resilience!) to work, everyone must abide by very strict rules. For one thing, once you sign on, you're there for life. For another, your lives must be totally separate from your Alternates, the people you share your house with. You don't have have many possessions: the lawnmower at your house belongs to the town and is shared with your Alternates and if they don't take care of it, you just have to suck it up. Jobs are assigned, in prison as well as outside. Charmaine was proud to have a job that not many people could do, but she needed to not think very much about what she was actually doing. If anything falls out of whack - like having an affair with one of your Alternates - it puts you in grave danger.

The Heart Goes Last is a dystopia, but a more subtle dystopia than is typical since it's the most like real life in many ways. The town of Consilience is a corporate solution to some serious societal problems, and it's a solution that does not hold human life at a very high value. People are not able to exercise very much free will, nor do they have many rights. I don't know how far in the future it is supposed to be. The economy has tanked, leaving many people without jobs, but there's not much other information about what's happening on a national, or global, scale. Technology has clearly advanced, though. There are sexbots that are quite realistic and available in a disturbing age range, and they're developing a surgery that alters a person's brain so that whoever they first see when they wake up is permanently imprinted as the object of their desire. It's all quite disturbing, as was intended.

Despite these elements, it's not an especially dark or depressing book, and that includes the ending. This isn't an environmental apocalypse or anything irreversible like that, it's more about corporate greed which is something that is not impossible to overcome. I had heard mixed reviews of this book when it came out and the Goodreads average rating isn't great, but I actually quite liked it. It's not my favorite of Margaret Atwood's book, but it's really hard to beat The Handmaid's Tale or Alias Grace.

This is the 5th completed book on my list of 12 for my personal reading challenge. Since we're in month 5 out of 12 it appears that I'm right on target, but in fact it makes me a bit behind. For one thing, I'm also supposed to be reading nonfiction in 8 categories and have only completed 3. Additionally, I usually try to get ahead early because over the summer I'll be reading nominations for our Community Read. This year I'll also be reading for the IPNE book awards. So I need to actually make more of an effort. But I guess that's why it's called a book challenge.

Have you read The Heart Goes Last? What other Margaret Atwood books do you love?

Friday, May 19, 2017

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (2007), narrated by Jim Dale

The end has come. I've just completed the final Harry Potter book on audio and now, after the final showdown with Voldemort and the death of so many characters, both major and minor, I'm a bit exhausted. I feel like I've been through a lot!

There's no going back to Hogwarts this year - Harry, Ron, and Hermione are on the run, hoping to find and destroy the remaining horcruxes and defeat Voldemort once and for all. Their journey takes them to places important to Voldemort, such as Godric's Hollow, where he was defeated when he killed Harry's parents. Godric's Hollow was also home to the Dumbledore family and to Bathilda Bagshot, author of A History of Magic. Harry learns uncomfortable truths of Dumbledore's youth and feels very conflicted, but remains determined on his quest. He also learns more about himself and his role in relation to Voldemort, which is not good news to him. It is pretty dark.

Meanwhile, Voldemort and the Death Eaters have taken over the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts. The Ministry instituted a registry for muggle-borns, Hogwarts attendance became compulsory, and you had to prove your blood status to attend. The class Defense Against the Dark Arts was transformed into Dark Arts. There was a point at which I was listening to this audiobook, reading American War, watching The Handmaid's Tale, and reading the U.S. news, and I was seriously getting confused about which thing was happening in which dystopia. (Ok, the U.S. isn't a dystopia yet, but the are some very concerning things being casually bandied about.)

Serious battles broke out, and many died, including some pretty major characters. Kids are not coddled in this world, and when the shit really hit the fan, it was all hands on deck for the fighting and that means anyone aged 17 and up were expected to help out. This, of course, means that everyone was at risk for death and there were just so many sad moments.

But there's also hope. Many of the secrets revealed were dark ones, but many were enlightening in different ways and we finally got the truth that revealed one character in particular as much more brave and good than we thought - if only we had known before he died. But this is a book for young people so despite all the dark and ruin and death, good prevails over evil and that is what is important. My first time round with this book (and movie) I wasn't super keen on the epilogue that skipped 20 years into the future, but I really appreciated it this time. Maybe I just liked the extra assurance that things continued to go well for everyone.

I was thinking about classics and how much they permeate culture, and it's been so much fun to re-experience this one. I was already an adult when these books were released, and it's so strange now to think about how there was a time when Harry Potter didn't exist. Like, for my entire childhood and adolescence. I was trying to imagine what it would have been like to grow up with these books. There just wasn't anything comparable when I was growing up. I'm so glad I've been able to experience them even as an adult. There's just so much here about friendship and bravery and making hard choices, and the stories themselves with all the humor and fun characters are just delightful. I'm so grateful for this series.

When Harry Potter and the Cursed Child came out last year I had no intention of ever reading it, especially because it's a play, not a novel. But now that I've read A Raisin in the Sun and realized how much you really can get out of reading a play, I'm reconsidering reading it. Have you read it? What did you think?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Anything For You

Anything For You (Blue Heron #5) by Kristan Higgins (2015)

Finally I got to read the story about Jessica Dunn! She's been an intriguing minor character throughout this series and I'm so glad she got her own book. Jessica was nicknamed Jessica Does in high school because she slept around a lot. Mostly she did it to win over guys so they'd help protect her special needs younger brother from bullying. That is Jessica's life work, really - taking care of Davey. Their parents were drunks and as soon as Jessica was old enough she took Davey and moved out. She works her tail off trying to give them a good life, and that life doesn't have room for romance, especially with Connor O'Rourke.

The story open with Connor proposing to Jessica after an on-again off-again romance that has spanned decades, and she turns him down. Then we go back to their childhood, when Jessica's dog gets loose and attacks Connor, resulting in the dog being euthanized. (This was a pretty upsetting scene, so warning to those sensitive to animal deaths.) When animal control arrives, Davey is heartbroken and he never forgives Connor, who he sees as responsible for the death of his beloved Chico. Over the years Connor and Jessica hook up and break up, Jessica breaking his heart over and over again.

In most contemporary romances, what keeps the characters apart is just their own neuroses. Let's face it- there's much these days that prevents people who want to be together from being together. But this was a really good, believable setup. A woman who is completely devoted to the responsibility of caring for her brother who is unable to live on his own? And who despises her love interest? I can definitely buy that. Another of my romance pet peeves is that so many of the heroines are sexually inexperienced and need to be initiated by the hero, so Jessica was a refreshing change. (To be fair I haven't read a ton of contemporaries, but from my limited experience there are more virgins than one would think.)

Jessica's family situation was a pretty big part of the book. She is so great with Davey and I really liked reading about them. Although she feels a huge responsibility towards him, she isn't resentful at all. Quite the opposite: Jessica loves her brother more than anyone. It's a complicated situation though, and when their father arrives back on the scene swearing that he's been sober for three years, Jessica is thrown for a loop. She wants to believe it, but doesn't want to be disappointed yet again. I loved this part of the story. There was a great scene in which their father comes with them to a drum circle that Jessica takes Davey to regularly. It's not Jessica's sort of thing at all, and the scene was fairly silly, but it was fun and Davey loves it.

The romance, as I mentioned earlier, had a pretty good premise. It was really a difficult situation that felt totally realistic. I think Jessica could have been a little less bone-headed about things, but I also can understand where she's coming from. She grew up poor in a trailer park with horrible parents and for various reasons feels like she doesn't really deserve happiness. When anything good happens to her, she can't believe her good fortune and is immediately preparing herself for the disappointment of losing it. It's the same with Connor. She's convinced he'll grow bored with her, that he can do better, than there's no way they'll be able to live together because of Davey's meltdowns every time he sees Connor. Connor concocts a secret plan to win Davey over, which goes really well for a while until it completely backfires. Of course it all works out in the end, but getting there was quite a struggle.

I really have no criticisms of this story. I mean, Colleen (the heroine from Waiting On You) and Connor's twin sister, went into labor and had her baby in about 10 minutes but that really didn't affect my enjoyment of the story at all. I also find it slightly annoying that every single romance heroine changes her name when she gets married (it's 2017!) but that responsibility doesn't lie entirely with Kristan Higgins so I can't fault her for it.

I love the little town she has created and the people she has populated it with. One of the things I like most about her storytelling is her sense of humor, and the way she integrates it into stories that involve serious issues. She often does this through scenes with secondary characters. For instance, Pru and Carl, a couple who have been married since before the series started always lend a bit of humor to every situation. They're an older couple who enjoy being super open about their adventurous sex life. These stories also all have dogs in them, in this case Chico Three. Pets always add a bit of levity. (This is the second book which contained a dog toy that my dog also has. The first was Squeaky Chicken; this time it was Squeaky Purple Dinosaur. I guess we shop at the same place?)

All in all, I've really enjoyed this series and I'm a little sad that it's over. It's funny because I hated the first book by Higgins that I picked up, so I'm really glad I gave her another try by impulsively downloading a galley of the first book in this series a few years ago. I suspect that her writing has just gotten better over time so I probably won't go back and read any of her older books, but I'll be happy to try her newer ones!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Most Memorable Mothers in Books




Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week is a mother-themed freebie. I was going to do a split list of best/worst mothers in books, but as I began making the list there were a couple I couldn't categorize in those terms but really wanted to include. So instead I'm listing the most memorable mom characters I can think of.

1. Margaret White from Carrie by Stephen King
Most terrifying mother ever.

2. Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
She's one reason I couldn't do a best/worst list. I mean, she's totally ridiculous but I really enjoy laughing at her!

3.  Bridget's mom from Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding
Like Mrs. Bennet, this lady is just too much. I loved how she was portrayed by Barbara Rosenblatt in the audio version.

4. Molly Weasley from the Harry Potter series
She had like a million kids, knit them all handmade sweaters, and still found time to fight evil.

5. Rosa from The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky
One of the worst mothers I've ever encountered in a book. But like some of the others I really enjoyed reading about her.

6. Caroline Ingalls from the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
This lady put up with a lot, but always found time to do fun things with her daughters. And anyone who can move into - literally - a hole in the ground and make it feel homey deserves some sort of award.

7. Diana from I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
Moms in teen books tend to either be horrible or absent, but this mom really had a life, and secrets, of her own. She felt so real!

8. Min's mom from Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie
Definitely a bad mom. Min's sister was getting married and their mom deliberately ordered Min's dress too small and then spent months harping on her about eating sweets or carbs or, you know, anything good. She wasn't convinced her daughter was pretty enough to get a decent guy, so it was incredibly satisfying when the lady finally got her comeuppance from Min's fantastic boyfriend.

9. Mrs. Frisby from Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
She may have been a tiny field mouse, but this mom was super determined and knew how to get stuff done.

10. Patricia Noah from Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Last - but definitely not least - is the one nonfiction mom on my list. (I don't count Ma Ingalls because she was so fictionalized.) Not because there aren't a ton of awesome real moms out there (obviously!) but because I don't read enough nonfiction. Trevor Noah's mom is totally amazing and in some ways his memoir is more about her than about himself.

And an extra shoutout to Marge Simpson! She's obviously from tv, not books, but is one of my very favorite fictional mothers out there. (Oh gosh, I could make a whole list of the best tv moms, too.)

Who are your favorite mothers in books, or those you love to hate?

Monday, May 15, 2017

A Raisin in the Sun

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (1959)

The family at the heart of this classic play live on the South Side of Chicago after WWII. They share a small apartment: the matriarch, her two grown children, her son's wife and their son. They have only a two-bedroom apartment, with a bathroom they share with another unit. They all want more: Beneatha is a smart and ambitious young woman who hopes to be a doctor but isn't sure how she'll pay for medical school. Her brother, Walter, wants to start a business but doesn't have the capital. Mama just wants a bigger, nicer house for the family in a better neighborhood. When the play begins she is expecting a large check, and there is lots of anticipation of the check's arrival and speculation about Mama's plans for it. The people in this family want the same things we all do, but a black family in 1950s America have an uphill battle when it comes to achieving their dreams.

In this edition, a few scenes have been restored from the original version. When the show was first produced they had been removed from a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the practical concern of running time for the show. But they seem important and it's tough to imagine the play without them. For instance, when the family puts a down payment on a new house and prepares to move, their neighbor, Mrs. Johnson, comes by to visit. She keeps talking about what a "proud-acting bunch of colored folks" they are, as though their desires for a better life somehow means they feel superior to others who have more modest aspirations. Mrs. Johnson also tells them about other black families who have moved into white neighborhoods and were bombed. This is important because the family also receives pressure from their future neighborhood not to move there, and the fact that they are also getting the same pressure from their own community is significant.

Another cut scene was when Beneatha changes her hair to a short afro. Her disinterest in conforming is already clear to us from her desire to be a doctor, but this change is an important outward display of her individuality. It is spurred, I think, by her relationship with a Nigerian man and her new interest in Africa. One of the things I loved most about Beneath is the way she follows her interests and tries new things. Not one to be held back by racial constructs, finances, or anything else, she has tried out a number of different hobbies, many of which required buying expensive items, like photography equipment and a guitar. When her mother and sister-in-law question why she flits from one thing to another, Beneatha says "I don't flit! I experiment with different forms of expression."

I never read plays. The handful of Shakespeare I read last year were the first plays I've read since The Cherry Orchard in college. Of course Shakespeare is all about the language - those plays are thin on plot and the characters aren't really developed. So I had it in my head that that's just the nature of plays - you really need to see them performed for them to really come alive. But this all felt as real to me as a novel. There's a decent amount of description of the setting and people's appearances, which helps. But the characters seemed so real and there was so much feeling that came through in their dialogue and the bits of direction that accompanied it. Now I'd really like to see it performed!

A Raisin in the Sun was the May choice for the Classic Book-a-Month Club. I've read three in a row and liked them all. The next two are The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville which doesn't really interest me and Paradise Lost by John Milton which, ugh, no. I may rejoin in August with some Jane Austen. They're reading Northanger Abbey, which I just read last year but I might just pick another Austen that I haven't read yet for that month.

Friday, May 12, 2017

American War

American War by Omar El Akkad (2017)

The Second Civil War begins in 2074. Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina seceded, calling themselves collectively "The Free Southern State" in response to legislation prohibiting the use of fossil fuels in the United States. A secessionist suicide bomber killed the president in late 2073 and the Southern states declared themselves independent just under a year later. The war lasted for around 20 years and on the day of reunification a plague was deliberately let loose at the capital in Colombia, MO the effects of which lasted another decade. The terrorist responsible remains unknown, which of course means the main character of the novel must be that person. (I don't think that's a spoiler, as it seemed perfectly obvious to me from the beginning.)

Our protagonist is Sara T. Chestnut, called Sarat. As the novel opens she is 6 years old, living in a shipping container with her parents, twin sister Dana, and older brother Simon in Louisiana, which is outside of the Free Southern State (FSS) but more-or-less aligned with it. As Sara grows up her situation worsens, beginning with the death of her father and the family's escape to Camp Patience, a refugee settlement in the FSS where the family lives in a tent for 6 years. Sarat only leaves after a horrible massacre by the Blues (the Northerners) rips her remaining family apart. With the compensation received, the remainder of her family is able to finally settle in a house in another part of the FSS.

Throughout all of this, Sarat remains a staunch supporter of the Southern cause. Although the war began over the use of fossil fuels, she never once expressed an opinion on the issue. She used fossil fuels and when she was running her household she insisted on using this old technology, but I think it was more out of her allegiance with the South than any personal opinion on the issue. Her views on the war seemed to be that she was from the South and had been hurt by the North and therefore hated them. There was little nuance or real understanding of the issues outside of her own personal experiences. Confusingly, despite her allegiance to the South late in the novel there's a part where she says, "Fuck the South and everything it stands for." This was literally the only time she expressed anything negative towards the South and I have no clue how it fits in with her worldview, since the author doesn't let us inside her head.

Throughout the book Sarat is stubborn and rather bone-headed, convinced she knows more and is smarter than everyone else. She didn't want the war to be over and I don't know why except that she seemed like she wanted to be miserable and to suffer. It's true that she went through a lot, but so did everybody else. I never could figure out why she was supposed to be so special. The lack of insight into her character was frustrating and, unfortunately, a bit typical of literary fiction.

The whole story is from the point of the South, yet I couldn't help but see them as in the wrong. Is that intentional, or am I just bringing in my own biases based on being a liberal New Englander? It's hard to tell, but it was interesting to think about as I read. I'll admit there have been times I wished the South would secede as that part of country seems to have a completely different culture and worldview than the part where I live. (I suppose there are advantages to being all one country, but I do wonder how different it would be if we were instead a number of very small individual countries, like Europe.) I found the idea of the Second Civil War compelling, and the way it played out was as good as any dystopia, though I do wish we got more about how people fared outside of the South. From the viewpoint of the FSS, living in the North was much easier but I don't know the details. Was it just safer or were they living in comparative luxury?

I gave this book 3.5 stars because I was unable to get to know or understand the main character around whom the novel centered. Otherwise, it was pretty strong. El Akkad's writing style and world-building were quite good and I can see why this book garnered such high praise in the reviews. The author is originally from Cairo, but has also lived in Qatar and Canada before moving to the United States, which gives him a pretty unique perspective and I'd really love to know how his experiences in these different political climates has shaped his views and contributed to this novel.

Have you read American War? What other brand new books have you read recently and want to recommend?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli (2016)

As the title suggests, this very short book (81 pages without the index) contains seven lessons on physics. We learn about general relatively, quantum mechanics, particles, gravity, black holes, the architecture of the universe, and the role of humans in all of this. Each chapter is like a simple but beautiful essay on the topic at hand, though later chapters do build on the information that came before.

I am not a science person. Although I was generally a good student in high school, I barely passed my science classes and never felt like I really understood them. In college I took two sciences, one of which I found really interesting (Marine Biology) yet was shocked every time I sat down to take an exam because it seemed like it was for a different class than the one I was experiencing. As for physics, I lasted one quarter in high school - not even a semester - before dropping it to take music. (Despite how upset my guidance counselor was about this decision, it is one I have never regretted. My senior year music teacher was awesome. More than 25 years later we're even friends on Facebook.)

My point is that science is something that interests me in a documentary-about-owls kind of way not an understanding-astrophysics kind of way. This book wasn't at all what I had in mind when I picked science as a category on my 2017 Personal Reading Challenge. But a coworker mentioned hearing positive reviews of this book and considering how short it is I decided it was worth a try. Because the truth is that I want to understand these concepts. I want to understand the universe I live in. I even tried watching Cosmos at one point and managed to get through a handful of episodes before losing interest. Understanding difficult abstract concepts is not something I put a lot of time or effort into.

But Rovelli approaches these topics in a way that geared towards the layperson, and what makes this book truly stand out is just how beautifully he writes. You can't help but by infected by his sense of wonder at the universe as you read these essays, even if you don't grasp every single thing. And I definitely didn't.

I am still thinking about a sentence very early in the book illustrating how time passes more quickly higher up: "If a person who has lived at sea level meets up with his twin who has lived in the mountains, he will find that his sibling is slightly older than he." I understand time passing differently for someone who is in space, but surely these two brothers are not separated by more than a few time zones? But I moved on through the book, getting what I could out of it and not letting myself get stuck on the bits that were, for me, impossible to grasp.

It was easy to get through a book which such lovely passages as this one:

"A handful of types of elementary particles, which vibrate and fluctuate constantly between existence and nonexistence and swarm in space, even when it seems that there is nothing there, combine together to infinity like the letters of a cosmic alphabet to tell the immense history of galaxies; of the innumerable stars; of sunlight; of mountains, woods, and fields of grain; of the smiling faces of the young at parties; and of the night sky studded with stars."

The whole book is like that. It's like a love poem to science.

Now I'm under no illusion that I have actually learned everything in this book. Already I'm forgetting what I've read. But I do feel more confident about reading other books or articles on scientific topics because I know now that it's possible to for me to understand it. I just need to find sources of this information from those who express themselves as simply and beautifully as Carlo Rovelli.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Ten Things On My Reading Wishlist


Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week is all about the things we want to see more of in books. How fun!

1. Horror
This is a weird complaint considering how behind I am on both Stephen King and Joe Hill, but I wish there was as much to choose from as in other genres.

2. Teen books set in rural areas
There just aren't many teen books out there that depict rural life the way I know it from growing up in Maine.

3. Female characters who eat, especially stress eat
It's 2017 and I'm tired of every single female character being unable to eat every time she is the least bit upset. I don't think I've ever been unable to eat in my life. I eat when I feel sick to my stomach for crying out loud.

4. LGBTQ characters in adult books
Again, it's 2017. There are a ton of teen books with queer characters in them, which, hooray! But what about adults? We can't just leave it all to Sarah Waters (although she is amazing.) I was actually surprised when my former coworker who started the Queer Book Group at my library complained about having a hard time finding books to read, but it's true. What the heck?

5. Dialogue attribution
I know it's unfashionable and unliterary but please tell me who the hell is talking. You cannot launch into 20 lines of dialogue and only attribute the first line, because then I need to make up voices for the characters in my head and alternate them so I can keep track of who is saying what and that is just too much work. I don't know who decided it was a bad idea to include a dialogue tag once in a while, but this is a terrible idea and I'm sorry it has caught on.

6. Historical romances set in Russia
I love Regency England as much as the next person, but I also think that pre-Revolution Russia would be a fantastic setting and also these books don't all need to be about the Romanovs and their friends, please and thank you.

7. Historical romances set in the US
Ok, I read one by Lorraine Heath which I really liked and have been meaning to read the rest of the trilogy, and then I discovered Beverly Jenkins, and now Alyssa Cole wrote that great Civil War interracial romance, so there's not nothing. But there could be more! What about colonial New England or Gilded Age New York or a little romance between two pioneers during the westward expansion or involving a bootlegger during Prohibition? There's lots of fodder out there, people!

8. Chick lit
This whole genre seems to have died out and it makes me sad. Please come back. You were so much fun.

9. Strong female friendships
It doesn't have to be the center of the novel, but I'd love if a romance or historical or dystopia or whatever features a strong female friendship in its story. So often the heroine is a loner or has a group of casual acquaintances but I really love a great best friend in my fiction.

10. Short novels
I don't mean novellas, I just mean novels that are under 300 pages. There are many novels that could easily be under 300 pages, but they aren't. I have a bit of a commitment problem.

Oh, I thought of an 11th!

11. Historical romance couples who are equally matched in sexual experience
Almost always, the heroine is totally virginal and ridiculously naive, and the hero has a lot of experience but is totally swept away by the heroine's magical vagina when they finally do it. I mean, seriously. Can we have a lady who has had a sexual thought in her head? This is one of the (many) reasons why I so enjoyed Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover by Sarah MacLean. This heroine has a past and she is a grown-up in every way.

What would you like to see more of in books? I bet there are things I'd love that I'm forgetting!

Monday, May 8, 2017

Angel Catbird

Angel Catbird, Vol. 1 by Margaret Atwood (2016)

A genetic engineer has an accident that results in becoming part owl and part cat, with an ability to transform between his human self and catbird self. He then meets other half-cats and a villain who is (of course) half rat because rats are always evil. Everyone is very scantily clad.

I honestly have very little to say about this book. It was ok. There wasn't a lot to the story, the art was fine but not really my style, I found the dialogue a bit forced and awkward, and I didn't recognize Margaret Atwood in any of it. Atwood says in the introduction that she grew up on comic books and that this doesn't feel like the surprising departure to her that others may view it as. To me, it feels like maybe she's trying to write the kind of comic she enjoyed in her youth rather than writing something in her own style but in graphic form, if that makes sense. It's honestly not terribly creative, though it's also just the first volume in a series so perhaps there will be more to the story later on. I won't be following it though.

I didn't actively dislike it, it just didn't do anything for me. As far as Atwood is concerned, I'm going to stick with her novels.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Little Book of Hygge

The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking (2016)

I've come a bit late to the hygge party, but now I might never leave. For the uninitiated, hygge is a Danish lifestyle/philosophy that celebrates coziness and togetherness and warmth. And according to Meik Wiking, CEO of The Happiness Research Institute and the author of this book - it's the reason why Danes are consistently found to be the happiest people in the world.

How does one achieve hygge? According to the book, some of the top things Danes associate with hygge are hot drinks, candles, fireplaces, Christmas, board games, sweets and cakes, cooking, and books. To make your home more hyggelig, Wiking suggests the following:
1. A hyggekrog (a cozy nook to sit in)
2. A fireplace
3. Candles
4. Things made out of wood
5. Nature (leaves, nuts, animal skins, etc.)
6. Books
7. Ceramic
8. Think tactile (have a variety of inviting textures)
9. Vintage
10. Blankets and cushions

If you want to see what this all looks like in practice, I recommend searching for hygge on Pinterest. I now have a hygge board where I'm saving all kinds of ideas to implement at home. The great thing about this is that unlike other design styles, hygge is cheap. (Well, the lamps recommended in this book to achieve the right levels of light are super expensive, but also not strictly necessary.) Anyone can buy candles and a snuggly blanket and make some tea and have friends over to cook together. Cooking simple comfort foods with friends is far more hyggelit than going out to a restaurant. Doing these cozy activities with others is one of the most important parts of hygge, the ideal group size apparently being 3-4 people. Small and casual is the name of the game.

This way of living is great to get you through the cold months, but it's not just for winter. Picnics, camping, and just lazing about on a warm summer day are also hygge. As is gardening, because it feeds into the idea of making things, another important element. Harvesting vegetables to cook or picking berries you'll later make into jam - with your friends, of course - are totally hyggelit. As is other crafting, like knitting. Warm sweaters and socks are essential elements and making them yourself is the height of hygge.

I'm not one for embracing trends, but now and then I find something that just works for me (like bullet journals!) and in this case, I've just found the name and specifics for something that I already wanted and didn't know how to get. For instance, I've walked into rooms and known that they felt like what I wanted to achieve at my house, but couldn't isolate the elements that made them feel that way. Now it all kind of clicks for me and I know exactly what to bring in to achieve the casual coziness I want. (Seriously, I am currently trying to buy an antique church pew.)

Needless to say this was a totally fun little book that I really enjoyed! The cover above is a slightly different edition. The cover and subtitle varies from my copy, but the cover art is so much better. On mine, there's just a teapot with candles on either side and that's it. There are many books about hygge that have been published recently and I've already grabbed another from the library and got on the wait list for a third. If you like Scandinavia or coziness, I do recommend checking this out!

Have you read this or other books on the topic? How do you hygge?

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Top Ten Favorite Covers of Books I Haven't Read


Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is a freebie about book covers. I thought it would be fun to list my favorite book covers that appear on books I haven't read. The ones that make me happy every time I see them even though I may have no interest whatsoever in actually reading them.


1. Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus
I have no idea what this is even about and I have no intention of ever reading it but it's one of my favorite covers ever. So tactile, so three-dimensional, so satisfying. Peter Mendelsund is the designer of his covers. (see also The Flame Alphabet.)

2. She Rises by Kate Worsley
I've actually heard that this book is good and would kind of like to read it someday. But for now I just enjoy the art.

3. Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum
I've heard from a trusted source that it's not very good so I'm just going to remain content enjoying the cover.

4. Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link
Reading this book is not out of the question, though I have no definite plans to do so. Her book Monstrous Affections also has a great cover.


5. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
I didn't like Arcadia so I probably won't read anything else by this author, but I do love this cover.

6. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
I read about a page of this book and it just wasn't my style, which is too bad because I love the beautiful cover and poetic title.

7. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
I tried to read it, I tried to listen to it, I failed. I wanted to love it as so many people seem to, but couldn't get very far at all because somehow it just seemed overly fond of itself. But I still love the cover.

The last three I reserved for cookbooks. I love looking through beautiful cookbooks and have picked many of them up based on the beautiful, delicious-looking cover photos. I don't actually enjoy cooking though, so my fantasy is for someone to cook all of those things for me. At any rate, I don't recall the titles of the ones I've loved the most but here are three that I did identify as having seen before and really liked.

8. My Bread by Jim Lahey
I love rustic, earthy bread and that round loaf on the cover is even in a cast-iron pan. Someone recommended this book of no-knead breads to me and I went so far as to check a copy out of the library before remembering that kneading is actually the part that I like.

9. Art of the Pie by Kate McDermott
Who doesn't love pie? The title font and edge of a hand towel just make it that much more homey.

10. Baking by Dorie Greenspan
I think this is the one I recently saw on a return cart at the library and stood there looking through it while completely forgetting what I was there to do. So many delectable baked things, beautiful photographed. What I would not do for that cake on the cover.

I almost included the Smitten Kitchen cookbook because the cover is wonderful, but I may actually have made things from that one before. I definitely made some Smitten Kitchen recipes, though I don't recall if they were from the book or the website. Either way, there is no shortage of gorgeous cookbook covers to choose from!

What are your favorite book covers?

Monday, May 1, 2017

An Extraordinary Union

An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole (2017)

In the midst of the Civil War, a young black woman with a remarkable memory goes undercover as a slave to spy for the Union. Elle works in the household of a senator with an extremely spoiled daughter, both very loyal to the Confederacy. Southern belle Susie is self-centered and determined to get what she wants - and she sights her sights on Rebel soldier Malcolm McCall. But Malcolm is also a spy and he only has eyes for Elle. Can Elle and Malcolm work together to help the Union without being caught? And can a white man and black woman forge a romantic relationship in a society that views her as less than human?

Hot off the press! I've read so much about this book and, of course, totally love the cover (even though my library put a barcode on top of Elle's face - WHY??) You can't tell from this image, but it's a trade paperback and the cover is textured. So fancy!

It's hard to buy a happily ever after for an interracial couple during the Civil War but I know there were mixed-race couples even at that time. It just couldn't have been easy. But if anyone deserves happiness, it's Elle Burns. She is incredibly smart, and not just because she can remember everything she's ever seen and done in perfect detail. She's intuitive, resourceful, and has excellent judgement. Malcolm is ok too. He abhors slavery and finds it difficult to act otherwise, which he needs to as an undercover Rebel soldier. He obviously cares about Elle and appreciates all her best qualities, but she's definitely superior in most ways. I found them both believable though. They were good people, but not too perfect to believe.

The inherent inequality of their relationship is addressed a bit, and Malcolm is completely aware of what it looks like to outsiders, or even to Elle. Knowing how many white men enjoy taking advantage of slaves, Malcolm was sure to be clear with Elle that he wasn't just looking for a good time. He wanted a relationship and respected her as much as any white women (and way more than some of them.) Elle, too, had very mixed feelings about having sex with a white man. I also loved that Elle is not a virgin. I'm so sick of romances in which the heroine is completely unexperienced (and usually totally clueless) and the hero is very experienced and must teach her all the things. (But of course the sexytimes are better with her than any other woman because magic.) Having a past relationship gave Elle more nuance than most romance characters, and I think was integral to the maturity and strength of her character.

Being an undercover slave was fraught with danger, and there were some narrow escapes. As the attraction grew between Malcolm and Elle, Susie became more of a threat. She was part of a Vigilance Committee that rooted out traitors to the South, and her pettiness and disregard for people rose to the fore every time Malcolm resisted her advances. Interestingly, we were given a little bit of insight into why she was so horrible. It wasn't developed quite as much as I liked, but I appreciate that she wasn't wholly two-dimensional.

Overall I really enjoyed this story, which is the first of a series. I'm so glad to have found another author writing historical romances set in the U.S. I've also read Texas Destiny by Lorraine Heath, and both Forbidden and Breathless by Beverly Jenkins, but wasn't aware of other authors writing American historicals. I love a good Regency, but there's so much to explore here as well and it's nice to see another author doing just that.