Sunday, April 30, 2017

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner

“I’m wondering what if. 
     What if the football hadn’t gone over the wall. 
     What if Hector had never gone looking for it. 
     What if he hadn’t kept the dark secret to himself. 
     What if . . . 
     Then I suppose I would be telling myself another story. 
You see, the what ifs are as boundless as the stars.” 
I ended up finishing all of my planned reads for April with two days left in the month. Rather than start in on May's goals, I thought I might grab a shorter novel off my shelf and squeeze one extra book into the month. I grabbed Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon, knowing that I could finish it quickly. I was also hoping that it would somehow match up with one of my remaining Popsugar Challenge categories (which are becoming increasingly harder to find books for). To my surprise, not only did this novel satisfy the "book with an unreliable narrator" category, it was one of the most engrossing and moving young adult novels I have ever read.

This novel is set in an alternative dystopian future, in which people that the government considers to be "impure" have all been relocated to Zone Seven, a poverty-stricken area where paranoia, violence, and terror pervade the atmosphere. Our narrator is Standish Treadwell, a young boy with a severe learning disability. At first, his narration concerns his personal struggles. He is bullied constantly, struggles to make friends, and lives a lonely life with his grandfather after his parents are forced to flee the government. As the story progresses, however, Standish's narration begins to convey a wider story about the oppressive regime he lives under.

When a new family is relocated to the house next door to him, Standish makes fast friends with a boy his age named Hector. His games of make believe with Hector give Standish a sense of fulfillment and joy that he has rarely experienced. However, his happiness is short lived. Hector stumbles onto a secret that he won't share, and that secret leads to him and his family being removed from the neighborhood. Determined to save the only friend he's ever had, Standish embarks on a plan to get Hector back and help take down the government of the Motherland.

What makes this novel truly remarkable is Standish's narration. His learning disability affects his ability to tell the story properly, and his tendency to skip around in time and drift in and out of fantasy makes it difficult for the reader to tell what's really happening and what is just a figment of his imagination. The whole story is a puzzle, and it's left for readers to determine all of the basics, like what country Standish lives in, who runs the oppressive government, and what is happening to all of these people who are disappearing. The events of the novel read like a horrifying folk tale, and sorting out what's actually going on is necessary to understanding the book. Maggot Moon is not set in a made-up world. It's set in ours. It's our job to put together the clues from Standish's unadorned and confusing narration to figure it all out.

Alongside the text are a series of illustrations which convey a short story of their own. The pictures concern the life cycle of a fly and a rat. The rat accidentally poisons itself and dies. A fly lays eggs on the rat's body, which eventually hatch into a pile of wriggling maggots. By the end of the story, one of the maggots has turned into a fly and flies away. Placed alongside Standish's story, it could symbolize anything from the futility of life to the birth of new possibilities. This secondary story adds an excellent additional layer of complexity to the text.

Maggot Moon won the Costa Book Award in 2012, the Carnegie Medal in 2013, and was a Printz Award Nominee in 2014, which shows that I'm not the only one deeply impressed with this book. I have a strong affinity for young adult novels that make you think, and this is one of the best I've read. Originally, I picked this novel up thinking it would be a quick read that I could stick in my classroom library afterward. It ended up being a new favorite that is staying in my personal collection. It's so nice to find such a gem when you really aren't expecting it.  

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (a book with an unreliable narrator) 28/40
TBR Challenge: (previously owned) 25/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 31 

Saturday, April 29, 2017

April 2017 Reading Wrap Up

I was lucky enough to read some really memorable books in April. I managed to get in three classic novels, read a few books I'd been meaning to get to for a while, revisit an old favorite, and find a new favorite. Here's how I did this month:

1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (4/5 stars)
  • Back to the Classics: A classic by a woman author
  • Classics Club: #79 on my list
  • Mount TBR: previously owned
2. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (4/5 stars)
  • Back to the Classics: An award-winning classic
  • Classics Club: #45 on my list
  • Mount TBR: previously owned
3. The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck (4/5 stars)
  • Classics Club: #45 on my list 
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book with one of the four seasons in the title
  • Mount TBR: previously owned
4. The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (3/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge:A book by an author who uses a pseudonym
  • Mount TBR: previously owned
5. Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt (2/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book with a subtitle
6. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling (5/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book you've read before that never fails to make you smile
  • Mount TBR: previously owned 
7. Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner (5/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book with an unreliable narrator
  • Mount TBR: previously owned

My current challenge status is:
I have read 30 books so far in 2017!

My favorite novel of the month was Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner. The unorthodox narration and unsettling plot made for a very engaging and complex read. This is a new favorite for me.

I also liked revisiting Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I really enjoyed looking back at one of my very favorite series, especially with the new illustrations from Jim Kay. I also liked The Man in the High Castle a lot, because it really made me think. I love science fiction that does that.

My least favorite read this month was Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History. It was an interesting read and I certainly learned a lot from it, but it was a bit scattered for me. The humor missed the mark as well.

I'm starting to inch towards the halfway marks of my challenges, which is great, because it's not halfway through the year yet. I'm hoping to keep this pace up in May!

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

"As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all - the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them."

Some of the categories in my Popsugar Challenge this year have me re-reading some favorites from the past. One such category is "a book you've read before that never fails to make you smile". Immediately, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone sprang to mind. Happily, I was given the illustrated version of the novel last Christmas, meaning that I can use this book for part of my TBR Challenge as well, since I haven't read this particular edition of the story yet. It's so nice when reading challenge categories overlap!

Like many kids growing up in the 90s, Harry Potter was a huge part of my childhood. I was at just the right age to attend midnight book releases and movie premieres as each new installment of the series came out. There was an excitement surrounding these novels that I had never felt before and doubt that I'll ever feel again. Everyone was reading Harry Potter and almost everyone loved it. I rarely read books twice, but I've read each book in this series multiple times. They never fail to hold my interest. It's actually hard to put into words the fondness I feel for these stories. When I walked into the recreation of Diagon Alley at Universal Studios for the first time and saw those books come to life, I very nearly cried. So yes, this is most definitely a book that always makes me smile.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is the story of a young orphan boy named Harry, who is sent to live with his aunt Petunia, uncle Vernon, and cousin Dudley after his parent die under mysterious circumstances. He has a difficult childhood, as his aunt and uncle deeply dislike him and his cousin bullies him constantly. What's more, he seems to be able to make strange things happen, like grow his hair back overnight after a bad haircut, or transport himself to the top of a building to get away from his cousin.

His life is irrevocably changed on his eleventh birthday when he learns that he is a wizard. He is accepted into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a school for magic that becomes an important refuge for him. It takes him away from his horrible aunt and uncle, teaches him all sorts of incredible magical skills, and allows him to make friends and fit into a community for the first time in his life. His previous life, which consisted mainly of living in a cupboard under the stairs and being harangued by his aunt and uncle, is replaced with a wondrous one full of magic wands, spell books, and enchantments.

As he navigates his way through the school year, he begins to learn details about his past and his parents. They were killed by a powerful dark wizard named Voldemort, and Harry quickly learns that his destiny is intertwined with this villain's. On the night Voldemort murdered Harry's parents, he tried to kill Harry too, who was just an infant at the time. For some reason, the curse he cast backfired and nearly destroyed him, while Harry emerged unscathed, except for a scar on his forehead in the shape of a lightning bolt. Figuring out what happened that night and why is one of the most important questions of the series. Harry only scratches the surface of it in this novel.

Much of what happens in The Sorcerer's Stone is concerned with establishing the Potter universe, introducing a colorful cast of characters, and laying the groundwork for a story that stretches over seven novels. Each novel covers the events of one year at Hogwarts. Aside from the universe building that occurs, this first book sees Harry trying to prevent the Sorcerer's Stone, a powerful magic object, from falling into the wrong hands. His quest to protect the stone leads him into several dangerous and suspenseful situations which show off his bravery, intelligence, and kindness; through his acts, we get a glimpse of the wizard he will become.

This novel, more than any other I've read, has the ability to take me away from reality and stick me into a world of fantasy and magic. Rowling's writing is engaging, well-paced, and endlessly whimsical. Put simply, she is a master storyteller. The world she creates swallows the reader up from head to toe and makes them long to be at Hogwarts with Harry and his friends. This is children's literature at its absolute finest.

Aside from the writing style, the characters Rowling creates shine. Harry's pals, Ron and Hermione, feel just like childhood friends you had growing up. Headmaster Dumbledore is the wise old grandfather figure everyone adores. Draco Malfoy is that spoiled, awful child from school that you couldn't stand. Severus Snape is the mean, hateful teacher whose class you used to dread. Every character, from the major players to the minor ones, feel real. They are so well-written that their names stick in your head and you remember all sorts of details about them. Once you read the books a few times, you honestly feel like you know these people in real life, and that's not something I've experienced with any other series.

Reading the illustrated version of the novel added a whole other layer of magic to the reading experience. Jim Kay, who also illustrated the incredible A Monster Calls, has created some truly beautiful images to go along with the story. I was excited to turn each page to see what the next pictures would looks like. They perfectly match with the style and tone of the novel. If I ever have children, when I introduce them to Harry Potter, it will be with this version. 

The Harry Potter series owns a pretty big piece of my heart, and I very much enjoyed the chance to visit this universe again. I'm still waiting on my Hogwarts letter to arrive - until then, rereading these books are the best I can do. If anyone out there, by some chance, hasn't picked these novels up yet, I implore you to give them a shot. You might fall in love like I did.

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (a book you've read before that never fails to make you smile) 27/40
TBR Challenge: (previously owned) 24/60

Total Books Read in 2017: 30

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt

When I saw Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History on display at the bookshop a couple of months ago, I was instantly intrigued. I don't read a whole lot of nonfiction, but this one, with it's picture of a frog calmly eating another frog on the cover, really caught my eye. The inside flap promised an exploration of the stomach-churning practice of cannibalism, highlighting all sorts of species and cultures. It also happened to have a subtitle, making it a good choice for my Popsugar Reading Challenge. I decided to give it a shot and see if I could learn some interesting facts about this taboo and intriguing concept.

The novel is organized into 19 chapters, with each one focusing on a different aspect of cannibalism. The first handful of chapters concern mainly animals, with Schutt describing how some tadpoles, insects, and other creatures eat their siblings, mates, competitors, or progeny for reasons ranging from
decreasing competition for resources to increasing their ability to pass their genes on. He also dispels some popular myths about cannibalism in the animal kingdom, such as the false idea that female black widow spiders always eat their mates (as it turns out, this behavior has been greatly exaggerated). As the subtitle of the novel suggests, Schutt asserts that cannibalism among animals is a natural behavior triggered by certain environmental conditions. He also believes that it is more widespread than many scientists have believed in the past, which is a somewhat contentious claim to make.

After the animal chapters, Schutt explores cannibalism among humans, with chapters on topics such as the Donner Party, Pacific Island cannibalism and Kuru, the use of human parts in traditional medicines, and the modern trend of women consuming their own placentas. He also includes a set of chapters titled "Eating People is Bad" and "Eating People is Good," in which he explores how the current taboo surrounding cannibalism formed in Western culture and how cultures that developed without this taboo view the practice. While some of the chapters get a bit gory, he steers away from discussing famous man-eating criminals such as Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer out of respect for their victims. Indeed, the whole tone of the novel sticks to the scientific instead of the sensational, which is a plus or a minus depending on what a reader wants out of the book. By the end of his examination of human cannibalism, Schutt concludes that in times of desperation, humans will turn to cannibalism like most other creatures, but cultures that regularly engage in this practice are rare.

Despite the inherently intriguing subject matter, this novel was a bit of a tough read for me. While parts of it were very interesting and it was obviously meticulously researched, other parts of it meandered and seemed almost pointless to include. For example, Schutt includes chapters on Neanderthals and dinosaurs, two creatures so old that no argument for cannibalism among them could ever be scientifically proven. Also, a couple of his chapters are only about ten pages in length, meaning that there really wasn't much to say on some of his chosen topics. Why bother to waste the pages on them? I felt like the overall purpose behind this book was occasionally lost as it hopped around from subject to subject. At times, I grew bored.

Schutt's humor also largely missed the mark for me. It seems like he was going for a Mary Roach vibe with this book, meaning that he was attempting to mix scientific information with jokes and sarcasm to entertain the reader while teaching them something new. However, a lot of his jokes fell flat for me. At times, he seemed a bit mean-spirited and overly flippant, especially when he visited the placenta-eating advocate, whom he seemed to think was quite silly. He did try her placenta though, so I can't say he didn't give her way of life an honest shot. For a better example of a nonfiction book that successfully mixed humor and information, I would take Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers over Cannibalism.

Ultimately, even though I didn't completely enjoy the novel, I'm still glad I read it. I certainly know a lot more now about cannibalism than I did before, which I suppose was Bill Schutt's goal. I do wish that it was a bit more engaging, but it was definitely a unique reading experience that will stick with me for a while.

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (a book with a subtitle) 26/40

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

“The dead could only speak through the mouths of those left behind, and through the signs they left scattered behind them.”

Like many people, I first heard about The Cuckoo's Calling when the news broke that its author, Robert Galbraith, was actually a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. In an attempt to write in a different genre without all the pressure from her Harry Potter fame, Rowling decided to publish this mystery novel under a pen name. As a big fan of both Rowling and Harry Potter, I purchased The Cuckoo's Calling for my Kindle once the secret of her identity was revealed. However, the mystery genre isn't one that I typically read, so I wasn't in a big rush to start it. With one of my Popsugar Challenge categories this year being to read a book by an author that uses a pseudonym, I figured that now was the perfect time to give this one a shot.

The Cuckoo's Calling is the first in what is now a series of mystery novels starring private detective Cormoran Strike. At the start of the novel, he is approached by a client to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Lula Landry, a famous supermodel. The police have ruled the incident to be a suicide, but the client, Lula's brother, is convinced that foul play was involved. At first, Strike is hesitant to take on such a high profile case, especially one that the authorities have already thoroughly investigated. However, a recent breakup with his fiance and a lack of new cases have left him strapped for cash, so he agrees to take the job.

His investigation thrusts him into the glittering world of fame and high fashion, with clothing designers, actors, and musical artists making their way onto his suspect list alongside Landry's friends, boyfriend, and family members. The deeper Strike digs into the circumstances surrounding Landry's death, the more little inconsistencies, possible motives, and outright lies he uncovers. It quickly becomes obvious that there is more going on than what the police were able to determine. 

By his side throughout the investigation is Robin, his new secretary. She begins her work with Strike on the same day that he is offered the Landry case. She has just moved to the area and initially considers the job to be a temporary position until she is able to secure something better. However, she has always nurtured a secret ambition to help solve crimes, and she soon falls in love with the job, proving herself to be a talented and valuable assistant. Together, the pair must work to put together a complete picture of what really happened to the beautiful model and bring those responsible to justice.

I thought this novel was a very suspenseful and engaging read. The plot was suitably complex for a mystery, with lots of colorful characters and red herrings thrown in to keep the reader guessing. The clues and suspects were presented well and fit together nicely when the solution was revealed. It was a bit like watching an episode of Law and Order - easy to get lost in and totally fun. At some points the story did drag a little, but not enough to spoil my interest in it. Overall, reading this was a fun experience.

Aside from the plot, I also enjoyed the lead characters, Strike and Robin. Rowling gave Strike enough background to make him feel like a three-dimensional character. His painful breakup with his fiance, his injury in the war, and his unusual parentage, among other details, made him interesting and sympathetic without taking away too much time from the mystery that makes up the bulk of the book. Similarly, Robin was presented very well; she was a smart and capable woman with her head on straight. She felt like a normal person, which was a refreshing change from the helpless or oversexed female characters you often run across in books. I wouldn't mind reading some of the other novels in this series to watch Strike and Robin work together again.

J.K. Rowling's first foray into the world of mystery novels was successful. The Cuckoo's Calling isn't exactly high literature, but it is a very fun story to read and definitely worth the time for fans of mystery novels or fans of Rowling in general. The interesting plot and well-developed characters combine to make this book difficult to put down. It's a shame for Rowling that her pseudonym was outed before she had a real chance to see how the book did under the false name, but I'm selfishly glad it happened because I probably wouldn't have ever discovered it if she was able to maintain the secret.

Challenge Tally
Popsugar Challenge: (a book by an author who uses a pseudonym) 25/40
TBR Challenge: (previously owned) 23/60

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck

Readers seeking to identify the fictional people and places here described would to better to inspects their own communities and search their own hearts, for this book is about a large part of America today.

My pattern so far this year has been to read two classic novels per month, but this month I ended up with three on my TBR pile. One of my Popsugar Challenge categories was to read a book that has a season in the title, and it turned out that The Winter of Our Discontent was the only book I already owned that fit the bill. As Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors, this was by no means bad news. I did a little research online before I got started and I learned that this was Steinbeck's last novel, published in the same year that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. Several reviewers have noted that this book was a return to form for Steinbeck, an author who many considered at that point to have his best works behind him. It is often ranked up with The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men as one of his strongest novels.

The plot concerns Ethan Hawley, a husband and father living in a quiet New England seaside town with his family. He is descended from a line of prominent sea captains, but has fallen in social rank in his community since his father lost the entire Hawley fortune on a series of poor investment decisions a generation ago. He now works as a clerk in a grocery store owned by an Italian immigrant, a fall from grace that continually troubles him. While Ethan lives an honorable life, provides for his wife and two teenage children, and tries to make the best of his situation, his family and friends continually needle him to try and restore glory to the Hawley name through various risky means. His friend urges him to skim profits from the store he works at, his banker tries to persuade him to spend all of his savings on shady investment opportunities, and his children continually complain about being poor and ask when the family will be rich again.

Ethan brushes off these suggestions and annoyances for a long time, but a man can only take so much poking and prodding before he breaks. In a moment of internal crisis, he decides to abandon his high moral standards and behave as unscrupulously as everyone else around him. He embarks on a scheme to become rich again, and the decisions he makes set into motion a series of events that rock his whole community and cause him to reconsider his feelings towards himself and towards human behavior in general. 

I really enjoyed this novel, and my favorite aspect of it was how quiet it is. Reading the plot summary might lead one to think that the story becomes suspenseful and dramatic, but it actually maintains a calm tone throughout. Ethan is an extremely relatable character. He is goofy, loves his wife and children, and maintains a good sense of humor almost all the time, despite the many barbs thrown his way by his disappointed family. He lives honestly, but he wonders if his tendency to be "good" really comes from a firmly held belief system, or if he is simply too lazy to scheme and cheat like other, more successful people do. Another possibility he considers is that maybe he merely enjoys other people thinking that he's an honest man, so he behaves in a way that will uphold that reputation. He's not entirely sure of who he is, and this characterization makes him believable and draws readers into the story.

Another strength of this novel was its focus on moral standards and what constitutes right and wrong. When Ethan decides to try abandoning his morals to increase his wealth, he is confident in his ability to return right back to the straight and narrow path after he secures enough money to live comfortably. He sees that beneath the veneer of respectability his town maintains, there is a world of theft and corruption that he isn't getting a piece of. Would it really be so bad to dip a toe into those waters and make some money for himself? What's the harm in participating in the system that has brought happiness and success to so many others? Grappling with these ideas becomes the biggest conflict in the novel, as it turns out that Ethan is better at scheming than he expected, and the consequences of his actions bring him as much guilt as they do cash. Instead of financial worries, he now has to find a way to live with his moral worries, which are ultimately harder to deal with.

The Winter of Our Discontent is a novel that raises a lot of questions about the state of society as a whole and the personal morality of individuals. Ethan's efforts are incredibly effective, but what is the ultimate cost of his behavior? It is worth it to help nurture an increasingly unjust society if it makes you rich? Is it okay to participate in it for just a little while if you go back to living honorably afterward? Is it even possible to go back to being honorable at all once you've done wrong? If society is already corrupt, are you a fool if you don't grab hold of any opportunity you can? Steinbeck uses Ethan masterfully to explore these difficult concepts and comment on how Americans accumulate wealth, an area as rife with abuse in 1962 as it is today. This is certainly one of Steinbeck's finest works, and one that I know I will be turning over in my mind for a long time to come. 

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#40 on my list):  9/12
Popsugar Challenge: (a book with one of the four seasons in the title) 24/40
TBR 2017 (previously owned): 22/60

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

“Can anyone alter fate? All of us combined... or one great figure... or someone strategically placed, who happens to be in the right spot. Chance. Accident. And our lives, our world, hanging on it.” 

 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1963, making it the perfect choice for the "award-winning classic" category in my Back to the Classics challenge this year. The novel tells the story of an alternate history of the United States - one in which Germany and Japan won WWII. In this universe, Japan has taken possession of the west coast of the U.S., renaming it the Pacific States of America (P.S.A.), while the German Reich has established itself in the eastern part of the U.S. Between the two regions lies a neutral zone known as the Rocky Mountain States. The book begins 15 years after the end of WWII, and is set mostly in the P.S.A. This alternate country is quite different from the America we know today. In the German-held areas of the country concentration camps are still active and slavery for African Americans has been reinstated. Life in the P.S.A. is a little better, but strict control is maintained over what used to be the American people, and Jewish people are still living in fear of being found out and sent to the Reich. What America used to be like is little more than a dream, and former U.S. citizens have become resigned to their new way of life. This is not a novel about resistance fighters trying to reclaim America; this is a novel about a people who have been completely and utterly conquered.

Rather than follow one particular character, the novel focuses on several different people living and working in this alternate version of the world. Some of the main players are Frank Frink, a Jewish man struggling to conceal his ethnicity and form his own jewelry business, Juliana Frink, his estranged wife who lives in the Rocky Mountain States and teaches judo, Robert Childan, an American antiques shop owner, Nobusuke Tagomi, a Japanese trade official, and Rudolf Wegener, a German defector. The narration skips around between these characters giving bits and pieces of the larger plot. In the opening chapters of the novel their actions seem largely disconnected from each other. However, as the story continues on, their paths begin to converge. Some characters end up meeting and interacting with each other, while others are only tangentially connected through the story. In terms of plot, this is not a particularly tight novel. There's not one solid storyline that every character participates in. Instead, this is more a book of ideas and social commentary.

One such idea Dick explores here is the way people can adapt to almost anything. Formerly American characters living in the P.S.A. consult the I-Ching before making decisions, worry about honor and customs in a very Japanese manner, and even speak in broken English in their heads. This stands in such stark contrast to the typical American spirit of "rugged individualism" that it was a bit unsettling to read. Even the insidious racial ideas of the Nazis have become commonplace and acceptable in the minds of Americans. At one point, Robert Childan has an unsatisfactory business dealing with a person he later finds out is Jewish. He immediately thinks,
“We live in a society of law and order, where Jews can’t pull their subtleties on the innocent. We’re protected. I don’t know why I didn’t recognize the racial characteristics when I saw him. Evidently I’m easily deceived. . . . Without law, I’d be at their mercy. He could have convinced me of anything. It’s a form of hypnosis. They can control an entire society.”
 Childan is correct in that he is easily deceived, but by the Nazis, not Jewish people. The irony is striking and sad. Americans in this alternate world have become so used to the ideas of those that conquered them that they do not think for themselves anymore.

At the center of the book is the man in the high castle, or Hawthorne Abendsen. He is author of a book about an alternative history of  his world. His novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, is a story about what might have happened if the U.S.A. and Great Britain won WWII. This book is banned in the German and Japanese-held portions of the country for it's "dangerous" ideas, but everyone seems to have read it anyway. This book within a book technique is very meta, and essentially places the author right inside his own work. The version of events in Grasshopper don't match up with how WWII really ended for us either, which creates another alternate history to read about.

The Man in the High Castle is definitely a unique reading experience. It deals with very uncomfortable ideas presented in an unflinching light. The story is twisty, confusing, and not incredibly cohesive. The characters are colorful, but lacking real depth or sympathy. However, there's something so engaging and interesting in its pages that you can't help but fall into it and start thinking about a whole lot of "what ifs". I've read a few other Philip K. Dick novels in the past (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and Ubik), but I think this one is my favorite so far. It's weird, but it's also intriguing, and it most definitely deserved its Hugo Award. I'm glad I gave this novel a try.

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics (an award-winning classic): 8/100
Classics Club (#49 on my list):  8/12
TBR 2017 (previously owned): 21/60

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

 “Dear God," she prayed, "let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry...have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere - be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.” 
 One of the categories in my Back to the Classics Challenge this year is to read a classic novel written by a woman. I have many classics by female authors on my TBR list, but I knew right away that I wanted to read Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for this category. Over the years, I've heard several people speak about this book with something akin to reverence in their voices. It's one of those stories that is special to a lot of people, so I was very interested to give it a shot.

The novel tells the story of Francie Nolan, a young girl growing up in Brooklyn in 1912. She is eleven years old and lives with her father, mother, and younger brother Neeley in a small apartment. Francie's life isn't easy; her family is very poor, her father struggles with alcohol addiction, her mother seems to favor her brother over her, and her quiet, bookish nature prevents her from making friends easily. However, despite the difficulties she faces in her daily routine, Francie manages to remain positive and take joy in the simple pleasures of life. Mundane tasks like selling junk to earn money for penny candy, helping her mother with errands, and checking out new books from the library are all opportunities for an adventure, and Smith describes Francie's childlike sense of wonder at the world beautifully.

As the years go by and Francie matures into a young woman, her difficulties become more complex. She loves to write, but is discouraged by a teacher's hurtful comments.  She suffers the loss of a family member. Her family's money problems seem to continually worsen. Francie confronts these challenges with determination and grace, and always keeps moving forward. She, like most of the women in her family, is made of pretty strong stuff.
“People always think that happiness is a faraway thing," thought Francie, "something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains - a cup of strong hot coffee when you're blue; for a man, a cigarette for contentment; a book to read when you're alone - just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness.”  
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn doesn't revolve around one big plot. Rather, it is made up of all the little things that happen in Francie's life as she grows up. Her challenges, triumphs, feelings, and thoughts fill the pages, along with her observations about her family and her community. Smith does an excellent job of drawing the reader into Brooklyn in the 1900s. I was completely engaged and felt like I was a part of the Nolan family the whole time I was reading. As a quiet, bookish person myself, I loved Francie as a character. I very much enjoyed watching her grow up and learn how to navigate her world.
“She was the books she read in the library. She was the flower in the brown bowl. Part of her life was made from the tree growing rankly in the yard. She was the bitter quarrels she had with her brother whom she loved dearly. She was Katie's secret, despairing weeping. She was the shame of her father stumbling home drunk. She was all of these things and of something more...It was what God or whatever is His equivalent puts into each soul that is given life - the one different thing such as that which makes no two fingerprints on the face of the earth alike.”
Simply put, this novel was peaceful, charming, and surprisingly complex. I understand why it holds a place in many readers' hearts. Betty Smith has created a story that feels real and reminds us of what it is like to grow up and learn how the world works. This coming of age story deserves its popularity and its place as a classic.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (a classic by a woman author): 7/100
Back to the Classics (#79 on my list):  7/12
TBR 2017 (previously owned): 20/60

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Mount TBR 2017 Checkpoint 1: Mount Kilimanjaro

It's time for a Mount TBR check in!

1. Progress:

I have finished 19 out of my required 60 books for this challenge, which means that I am a little bit ahead of where I need to be to finish by the end of the year. If I were really climbing Kilimanjaro, I would be at a height of 6,124 feet right now. Impressive, if I do say so myself.

2. Biggest Surprises:

Out of the books I have read for this challenge, my biggest surprise so far was how much I enjoyed Black Beauty. I didn't expect much from this children's classic, but it's definitely wormed its way into my heart. I'm still thinking about it months later. It's made me look at horses in a completely different way, which I fully admit is crazy. I now firmly believe that all horses are noble souls trying their best to make it in a cruel world.

Another big surprise was how much I loved The Bell Jar. I related to so many of the fears and truths that Plath wrote about that I was completely engaged in the story. Esther's breakdown was beautifully written. This was my first 5 star read of the year, and has become a new favorite for me.

Things are going well for me in the challenge so far. I am hoping that I can keep up this pace to the next check in!

April 2017 Reading Plan

It's April, and I'm starting to run out of books that count for multiple challenges. I'm still on track with everything I'm trying to do, but try as I might, I couldn't align my Back to the Classics choices with my remaining Popsugar categories this month. It's okay, because I'm ahead of the game there, but I like crossing categories off multiple lists with one book. Anyway, I did the best I could getting things to match up with each other. Here's the plan for the month:

1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  • Back to the Classics: A classic by a woman author
  • Classics Club: #79 on my list
  • Mount TBR: previously owned

2. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  • Back to the Classics: An award-winning classic
  • Classics Club: #45 on my list
  • Mount TBR: previously owned

3. The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck
  • Classics Club: #45 on my list 
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book with one of the four seasons in the title
  • Mount TBR: previously owned

4. The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith
  • Popsugar Challenge:A book by an author who uses a pseudonym
  • Mount TBR: previously owned

5. Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book with a subtitle


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book you've read before that never fails to make you smile
  • Mount TBR: previously owned 

If possible, I'd like to finish these early enough to squeeze in one more Popsugar book. Let's see if I can make it.

March 2017 Reading Wrap Up

Image from

This month wasn't quite as successful as February was for me, but I did finish reading everything I had planned. Here's the final breakdown: 

1. Germinal by Ă‰mile Zola (4/5 stars)

  • Back to the Classics: A classic in translation
  • Classics Club: #32 on my list
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book by an author from a country you have never visited
  • Mount TBR: previously owned
2. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (3/5 stars)
  • Back to the Classics: A classic with a number in the title
  • Classics Club: #6 on my list
  • Popsugar Challenge: A novel set during wartime 
  • Mount TBR: previously owned
3. Letters from the Looney Bin by Thatcher C. Nalley (1/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book of letters
  • Mount TBR: previously owned
4. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (4/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge: The first book in a series you haven't read before
  • Mount TBR: previously owned
5. Hollow City by Ransom Riggs (3/5 stars)
  • Popsugar Challenge: A book with pictures
  • Mount TBR: previously owned
6. Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs (2/5 stars)
  • Mount TBR: previously owned 

I read two very memorable classics this month - the socially conscious Germinal and the post-modern classic Catch 22, both of which I enjoyed. I was also pleasantly surprised by how much I liked the first book in the Miss Peregrine series. I really like the world that Ransom Riggs created in those novels and I'm glad my challenges pushed me to finally read them.

My least favorite read of the month was the disastrous Letters from the Looney Bin, an independently published novel that ended up being very sloppy. Unless I stumble across something truly awful, this will most likely be my worst read of the year. At least I got it out of the way early!

My current challenge status is:

Heading into April, the plan is to keep pushing forward on my challenges, especially my Popsugar challenge. I want to finish the original 40 categories as soon as possible so I can unlock the bonus categories. One of them is to read a book that is more than 800 pages. I'm reading War and Peace for my Back to the Classics challenge this year, and I need that category to be available once I pick it up later on.

Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs

*This review contains spoilers for Hollow City, the second book in the Peregrine Series*

I finished up my reading for the month of March with the third and final book in Ransom Riggs' Miss Peregrine series, Library of Souls. This novel picks up immediately after the events of the second book, with Jacob, Emma, and Addison (the dog) facing off against a Hollow in a London train station. The scene is chaotic - they are still reeling from the revelation that the bird they assumed was Miss Peregrine in book two was actually her evil brother Caul, they have just been separated from the rest of their group by a veritable army of wights, and Jacob has discovered that he is able to speak to hollows. After using his newfound ability to force the monster to stand down, the group manages to slip onto a train and escape. From that point on, they embark on a dangerous journey to find the real Miss Peregrine, rescue their friends, and put an end to Caul's disastrous plans for world domination.

Much like Hollow City, this novel takes place over the course of a couple of days. Most of the action is centered in a loop called Devil's Acre, a slum in Victorian England where Caul has set up his headquarters. The setting is suitably ghoulish, with creepy and unscrupulous characters lurking around every corner. Also living in Devil's Acre is the enigmatic Myron Bentham, a man who has spent his life building a machine to allow Peculiars to travel between loops with ease. He both helps and hurts Emma and Jacob throughout the novel, making it difficult for the reader to determine where his loyalties lie. As many of the characters we know from the previous books do not appear in most of the novel, Myron, and a few other new characters, play a large role in the action.

While Library of Souls provided a definitive ending to the series, it ended up being the weakest of the three novels for me. There were long stretches were I was bored and had to force myself to keep reading just to get through it and see how everything ended. The story wasn't exactly bad, but it didn't have my on the edge of my seat either. I was not as engaged in the action as I was with the previous books, and I felt like Riggs was playing a bit fast and loose with the rules of his universe to accommodate an increasingly weird and complex storyline. This book was over 400 pages long and it felt like it.

Riggs' decision to isolate Jacob and Emma throughout most of the novel was an unfortunate one. The other Peculiar children don't appear until page 300 or so, and I keenly felt their absence. As I mentioned in my previous review, I'm not a fan of  Jacob and Emma's romance. Eliminating all of the other characters for most of the book meant that their relationship really took center stage in this novel, and I didn't enjoy that. After getting to know all of the other children more in Hollow City, I felt robbed of getting a chance to see them shine again here. Riggs' cast of supporting characters has always been more interesting than Jacob and Emma. Cutting them out of most of the last book felt wrong.

Despite the fact that I had some issues with Library of Lost Souls, it wasn't a complete disappointment. The ending was a bit odd, and at times it was stretching my suspension of disbelief, but it did provide a satisfying conclusion to the series. The parts of the adventure that were exciting were good enough to get me through the more boring parts. While I wish that this novel had all the mystery and wonder of the first book in the series, I'm not sorry that I saw the story of Miss Peregrine and her children through to the end. This is a solid little young adult series that I know I'll be recommending to my students.

Challenge Tally
Mount TBR: (previously owned) 19/60