Review: Everything here is beautiful – Mira T. Lee

34262106My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date read: October 21, 2017

Published by PENGUIN GROUP Viking, 16 January 2018

Verdict: It broke my heart.

Find it on Goodreads.

Two sisters: Miranda, the older, responsible one, always her younger sister’s protector; Lucia, the vibrant, headstrong, unconventional one, whose impulses are huge and, often, life changing. When their mother dies and Lucia starts to hear voices, it’s Miranda who must fight for the help her sister needs — even as Lucia refuses to be defined by any doctor’s diagnosis.

Determined, impetuous, she plows ahead, marrying a big-hearted Israeli only to leave him, suddenly, to have a baby with a young Latino immigrant. She will move with her new family to Ecuador, but the bitter constant remains: she cannot escape her own mental illness. Lucia lives life on a grand scale, until inevitably, she crashes to earth. And then Miranda must decide, again, whether or not to step in — but this time, Lucia may not want to be saved. The bonds of sisterly devotion stretch across oceans, but what does it take to break them?

Told from alternating perspectives, Everything Here Is Beautiful is, at its core, a heart-wrenching family drama about relationships and tough choices — how much we’re willing to sacrifice for the ones we love, and when it’s time to let go and save ourselves.

This book broke my heart. In a million pieces.

At its heart, this novel is about the bond between two sisters (I love that!): Miranda, the older, more responsible one, and Lucia, the younger one who everybody loves. After their mother’s death, Lucia starts to hear voices and spinning out of control, leaving her husband Yonah to have a child with a younger man, Manuel/ Manny, being in and out of hospital, seemingly to get better to then just spiral out of control again. Mira T. Lee tells a complex story, dealing not only with mental illness, but also talking about experiences with immigration (Miranda and Lucia are Chinese-American, Yonah is from Israel and Manny is a illegal immigrant from Ecuador), about finding a home in the world, about finding a way to be happy. If there was one criticism of this book it would be that sometimes the author took on too much and the scope becomes too broad (the story spans different cities in the US, Ecuador, Switzerland, and China…).

What impressed me most was how complex the characters and their interactions were; even when they were at odds with each other, each stayed sympathetic to this reader. The story is told very effectively from alternating viewpoints; each time recontextualizing what happened before and adding even more depth to the story. It takes about a third of the book before the narrative shifts for the first time to Lucia’s viewpoint; everything we see from her point of view is coloured by what we saw before.

Mira T. Lee shows the difficulties of loving a person with mental illnesses, but also how difficult it is to be that person. There is a point in this story where every time Lucia does something Manny cannot understand, he blames her illness, never thinking that maybe he is not innocent in how their relationship evolves (cheating on her when she just had their baby, not understanding why she wants to work when they move to his family in Ecuador, and so on and so forth). Miranda does the same to a lesser extent: in her desire to protect her kid sister she loses sight of the fact that Lucia is still a grown-up who is allowed to make decisions her older sister would not make. She also hopes that just by making sure her sister takes her pills that the situation will be under control, simplifying the complex situation to a dangerous extent.

There are no easy answers in this book, nobody is wholly innocent in how events unfold (except for Lucia’s and Manny’s daughter, obviously), but the characters stay sympathetic throughout, they were believable in their growth and their failures, and absolutely worth spending time with.

First sentences: “A summer day in New Jersey.  A house with a yard. The younger one, four, likes to fold her body over the seat of her swing, observe the world from upside down.”

I received an arc of this book curtesy of NetGalley and PENGUIN GROUP Viking in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Immortalists – Chloe Benjamin

30288282Verdict: Wonderful ode to the bond between siblings.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date Read: September 1, 2017

Published by PENGUIN GROUP Putnam, January 9, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

If you were told the date of your death, how would it shape your present?

It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.

Their prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11, hoping to control fate; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists probes the line between destiny and choice, reality and illusion, this world and the next. It is a deeply moving testament to the power of story, the nature of belief, and the unrelenting pull of familial bonds.

In 1969, four siblings visit a mystical woman who tells each one the precise date of their death. This knowledge will define each sibling’s life in various ways, be it because they live their life in spite of the knowledge or because of their knowledge. It is a novel about fate and agency, about finding a place in the world, about family and selfhood, about mistakes and guilt and forgiveness.

This book’s prologue was absolutely bloody brilliant. It had me engaged immediately and I could not stop reading there (I actually read it again when I finished the book – it was that great). Chloe Benjamin had me, hook, line, and sinker. I needed to know what happens to the children and how the knowledge of their death date will influence their lives.

Each section of the book then follows one of the children until the day they die; I especially found the first two sections following Simon and Klara to be brilliant and unputdownable. They move to San Francisco in search of a place for them: Simon is gay and Klara wants to become a stage magician instead of anything serious. Simon’s story broke my heart, from his family’s rejection to its inevitable conclusion; Klara’s story was equally engaging and their relationship was absolutely beautifully executed. The following two sections following Daniel and finally Varya were still great but more difficult as those two were not as easily likable as their younger siblings.

It is fitting that I read most of this book while on holiday with my sister because at its heart this novel is about siblings – and I do love stories about siblings a whole lot. Weirdly enough, I gravitated towards the younger, less responsible siblings for a change (I have talked elsewhere how I am the Bert in most of my relationships). I think this shows how brilliantly the characters were constructed and how real they felt. As such the characters and their believable interactions were the best part about this book.

I received an arc of this book curtesy of NetGalley and PENGUIN GROUP Putnam in exchange for an honest review.

 

Friday Favourites: Book Edition #1

I like talking about the things I like (who doesn’t, I guess), so I will be trying to post about my favourite book related things regularly (I will aim for every second friday but I’ll have to wait and see if I can manage that). I will talk about my favourite authors and why they rule, about my favourite genres and why they make me happy, my favourite books and why they stick with me. And so on and so forth. There are so many things I love about books, I am sure I will be able to go on for a while. So without further ado, here’s this week’s thing I love:

Kassandra by Christa Wolf

4412083

Mit der Erzählung geh ich in den Tod.

There are no words to describe how much this book means to me. The first time I read it in my teens, it overwhelmed me but also made me feel awed; I have reread this book plenty of times but still, I am in absolute awe in the face of the work of genius Christa Wolf has created here.

“Kassandra” is part stream of consciousness, part eulogy, part feminist manifesto. The daughter of Priamos is sitting in front of the castle in Mykene and knows her life is nearly over; most people she knows are dead and the Troy she grew up in isn’t anymore – but she is still strong, still herself, still unashamed and thinking back on her life. Christa Wolf created a wonderful character, her reimagining of Kassandra is vivid and undeniably brilliant. Kassandra is flawed, her fall is very much her own making, but she owns it, herself, everything; she is always herself even in the face of tragedy, she does not lie to herself, does not make herself out to be more than she is, she is my absolute hero. Her relationship with Aeneas still to this day is my favourite fictional relationship; her refusal to agree to morally wrong decisions even if her disagreement does not change a thing is something I aspire to.

The book is short but every sentences, every word, every contraction is deliberate and packs a punch; not one sentence is without a reason in the greater flow of this work. A mixture between long, run-on sentences and short ellipses makes this book insanely readable but at the same time forces the reader to pay attention to every single thing going on.

I love this book, have loved it for a long time and will definitely keep rereading it forever.

What are your favourite re-tellings? It is one of my favourite types of books and I am always looking for recommendations; especially for re-tellings with a feminist twist (because I am nothing if not predictable).

 

Review: The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

30555488My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date read: October 14th, 2017

Published by Fleet, 2016.

Verdict: Gutwrenching, important, not without its flaws.

Find it on Goodreads.

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven—but the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

It took me forever to read this book – it is brilliant, don’t get me wrong, but so exhausting in the terror it depicts. Colson Whitehead uses a very matter-of-fact way to talk about the horrors of slavery (and there were plenty) that makes what happens somehow all the more horrific. It is mesmerising in its cruelty and devastating it its matter-of-factness about the atrocities of slavery.

In this book, the Underground Railroad is just that: a system of railroads underground that help slaves escape. We follow Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, on her escape from it and through many different states, each different from the one before but all somehow horrible. Even in the more progressive states you can feel the hatred and the imagined superiority of the white majority. Everything that happens is painfully believable and all the more horrific for it.

Every second chapters deals with a different character; I enjoyed these interludes a lot, as they read like short stories with all the punch that genre can have while also being part of the greater whole of the novel. The chapter focussing on Cora’s mum broke my heart, even more than it had already been broken. I found this device very effective and brilliantly executed.

This is an important book and one that deserves all the accolades it got, but it is also not without its flaws. Cora is a rather flat character even though she is at the core of this novel. I never got a sense for who she is as a person, but then again, this was probably intentional, rendering this girl’s story universal. The importance isn’t that these things happened to her, but that slavery happened to millions of people, many of which have been forgotten.

Cookbooks #1

I love love love cooking. It is one of my favourite things to do and I think I am reasonable good at it. My partner is a very good sport and tries all the recipes I want to try. To be fair, we have a very similar taste, so that definitely helps.

The last few months I have tried two different cookbooks, both I got from NetGalley to review in exchange for an honest review.

Sheet Pan Suppers – Raquel Pelzel

Published by Workman Publishing Company, October 2017

Verdict: Beautifully done, but not for me.

Find it on Amazon.

I love the idea of this: all types of recipes, to be done on a sheet pan. The book is divided into eight sections:

1 – Bits, Bites and Snacks
2 – Soups and Salads
3 – Veggies with a side of Vegetables
4 – Grain Bowls and Beyond
5 – Beans and Legumes
6 – Pasta, Bread and Pizza
7 – Breakfasts and Brunches
8 – Desserts

Now, quite a few of those things I would not have thought to prepare on a sheet pan; and I love this. I love being challenged and I like trying new things. So that was definitely fun. However, there were not many recipes that really spoke to me; I also found it to get  bit gimmicky after a while. Still, like I said, beautifully done and I think a different kind of cook might really get a kick out of this.

The Vegan Cookbook – Adele McConnell

Published by Nourish, September 2017

Verdict: Intriguing and tasty.

Find it on Amazon.

I enjoyed this one a whole lot. I thought the pictures were absolutely stunning (always an important factor when it comes to cookbooks!) and there were so many recipes I tried. The ones I did try were great. I especially loved the soups and I am looking forward to cooking more of those in the next few months (who does not love soups in the autumn and winter?).

I also like that Adele McConnell clearly labels which recipes are soy-free, lactose-free, and so on, as I have friends with food allergies and this helps with the selection a lot.

Overall, it is a great vegan cookbook with recipes I am sure non-vegans would enjoy and I am definitely going to buy it sometime soon.

 

 

Review: The Ship of the Dead (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, #3) – Rick Riordan

32508903My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Date read: October 8th, 2017

Published by Disney Hyperion, October 3rd, 2017

Verdict: As always.

Find it on Goodreads.

In the third book in Rick Riordan’s epic Norse mythology series, Magnus and his friends take a boat trip to the farthest borders of Jotunheim and Niflheim in pursuit of Asgard’s greatest threat. Life preservers are mandatory for this wet, wild, and wondrous adventure.

The good thing about Rick Riordan’s books is that you always know what you get. They are light-hearted, funny, fast-paced, and just lovely to read. Having said that – I think he might be running out of steam here.

I will not even try to give a synopsis because, like all the books in the Percy Jackson universe before this, it’s basically: group of demi-gods (or Einherjar) get send on a quest, they go from place A to place B – get attacked/meet a monster/get challenged – escape, go to place C – get attacked/meet a monster/ get challenged – escape, go to place D – get attacked/ meet a monster/ get challenged – and so on and so forth. The recipe works; the books are all insanely readable and fun but, especially the later ones get a little bit stale. Not enough that I stop reading them, mind, but enough to make me hope that Rick Riordan will actually manage to wrap them up sooner rather than later so that they can end on a high.

What I love about these books is how obviously aware of his readers Rick Riordan is – and he tries to write characters that many people can relate to. I find that especially important in Middle Grade books. He seems to have such a lovely, positive world view and his books reflect that. They always emphasize friendship and being there for each other and being a good person. I like that.

I think one of the reasons this book did not quite work for me is the fact how very dark the underlying mythology is: don’t get me wrong, the Greek pantheon is filled with dark and twisted tales but also with goodness and hope, Norse mythology? Not so much. It is filled with the knowledge that the end of the world – Ragnarok – is inevitable. And this grimness does not quite mesh with the light-hearted voice of the series.

But still, I enjoyed reading this book and spending more time in this world that feels familiar, it is comforting to know exactly what to expect and I needed that.

First sentence: “‘Try it again,’ Percy told me. ‘This tme with less dying.'”

Review: City of Miracles (The Divine Cities #3) – Robert Jackson Bennett

31522139My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Date read: October 7th, 2017

Published by Broadway Books, May 2017.

Verdict: wow. wow. wow.

Find it on Goodreads.

Revenge. It’s something Sigrud je Harkvaldsson is very, very good at. Maybe the only thing.

So when he learns that his oldest friend and ally, former Prime Minister Shara Komayd, has been assassinated, he knows exactly what to do — and that no mortal force can stop him from meting out the suffering Shara’s killers deserve.

Yet as Sigrud pursues his quarry with his customary terrifying efficiency, he begins to fear that this battle is an unwinnable one. Because discovering the truth behind Shara’s death will require him to take up arms in a secret, decades-long war, face down an angry young god, and unravel the last mysteries of Bulikov, the city of miracles itself. And — perhaps most daunting of all — finally face the truth about his own cursed existence.

This was absolutely bloody fantastic. Robert Jackson Bennet managed to somehow add even more layers to an already layered series, enough so that I contemplated re-reading the first two books just to able to appreciate them even more. It is an impressively wonderful trilogy and a world I am very sad to have to leave.

This third and last book of this marvelous trilogy follows Sigrud; after the events of the previous book he has lived off the grid when the news of Shara’s death reach him and he decides to do what he considers he does best: revenge. While he was more at the sidelines in the earlier books, he now takes centre stage and the book’s structure represents this.

I adored this: I found Sigrud’s journey fascinating and him as a character wonderfully well-rounded and flawed, which is especially brilliant because he could have so easily become a walking trope. I am not usually a fan of the brooding, suffering, angry protagonist but him I adored. His development over these three books is believable and heartbreaking. Every single one of his actions, even the brutal ones, is infused with neverending sadness. He often acts without thinking and as a reader we follow: it is only in the aftermath of slaughter that Sigrud (and in extension the reader) pauses to consider that these were people, people with families of their own. There are no easy answers here and this is a big strength of this book and of Sigrud as the main focus. But even in all this sadness and horror, there is a sense of hope, of maybe finding a way to survive just for another day and another chance at making amends.

This is a very clever series, one that trusts its readers to think along and I love that in books. I had some things figured out in advance this time and could appreciate how brilliant the pieces were out in place. Still, even knowing what was to come in parts, this packed such an emotional punch when the big finale came along.

Very very worthy final book of a brilliant series.

First sentence:
“The young man is first disdainful, then grudgingly polite as Rahul Khadse approaches and asks him for a cigarette.”

Review: Every Heart A Doorway (Wayward Children #1) – Seanan McGuire

255338961My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date read: September 29th, 2017

Published by

Verdict: Lovely little creepy novella, full of whimsy and magic.

Find it on Goodreads.

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children
No Solicitations
No Visitors
No Guests

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.

No matter the cost.

I was having a week from hell at work (the weeks leading up to the winter term are usually like this) and needed something short and delightful to read. This absolutely fit the bill. Seanan McGuire has written a twisty little novella with a heart.

Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children is a boarding school for all those children who have travelled to other worlds and have come back not quite fitting in and longing to go back. Mostly those children are girls as they are more likely to get lost in a different world. Their parents want the best for them but cannot understand them or really know them and so these girls end up in this school, trying their best to either find their way back to the world they really feel at home or to find a way to find some approximation of happiness in this one.

The world Seanan McGuire has created here is absolutely stunning, from its well thought-out but cryptic system of categorizing the worlds the children have visited, to her understanding of how those worlds might shape visitors, to her wonderful asides that hint at larger stories worthy of being told. I adored the way she sets up here story and how she lets it unfold.

I did, however, find parts to be a bit clumsy. I cannot quite put my finger on it but I think it is the dialogue that feels unnatural and took me out of the story quite a bit. It is a problem I have encountered in her work before (I never did finish Feed for example): I often find her ideas to be mesmerizing and the execution then somewhat lacking. The characters themselves are interesting and feel like real, flawed people, but something in their interaction does not work for me. Here it did not bother me all that much because I found the world so brilliant. Which is why I cannot wait to read the next book in this (apparently losely connected) series of novellas.

First sentence: “The girls were never present for the entrance interviews.”

Review: Furiously Happy – Jenny Lawson

23848559My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Date re-read: September 29, 2017

Published by Flatiron Books, September 2015

Verdict: I adore Jenny Lawson.

Find it on Goodreads.

In LET’S PRETEND THIS NEVER HAPPENED, Jenny Lawson baffled readers with stories about growing up the daughter of a taxidermist. In her new book, FURIOUSLY HAPPY, Jenny explores her lifelong battle with mental illness. A hysterical, ridiculous book about crippling depression and anxiety? That sounds like a terrible idea. And terrible ideas are what Jenny does best.

According to Jenny: “Some people might think that being ‘furiously happy’ is just an excuse to be stupid and irresponsible and invite a herd of kangaroos over to your house without telling your husband first because you suspect he would say no since he’s never particularly liked kangaroos. And that would be ridiculous because no one would invite a herd of kangaroos into their house. Two is the limit. I speak from personal experience. My husband says that none is the new limit. I say he should have been clearer about that before I rented all those kangaroos.”

“Most of my favorite people are dangerously fucked-up but you’d never guess because we’ve learned to bare it so honestly that it becomes the new normal. Like John Hughes wrote in The Breakfast Club, ‘We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it.’ Except go back and cross out the word ‘hiding.'”

Jenny’s first book, LET’S PRETEND THIS NEVER HAPPENED, was ostensibly about family, but deep down it was about celebrating your own weirdness. FURIOUSLY HAPPY is a book about mental illness, but under the surface it’s about embracing joy in fantastic and outrageous ways-and who doesn’t need a bit more of that?

I adore Jenny Lawson and her wit and humanity and bravery and just sheer weirdness.

This was one of the first memoirs I read when I decided to read more non-fiction (which by the way, brilliant decision on my end) and when I needed something fun and quick to read on my flight from hell back from holiday (I just have the worst luck when it comes to flying, but this time really took the cake) this seemed like the obvious pick. And I am so glad to have decided to re-read this. Jenny Lawson is an absolute hero – and beyond hilarious. I have so much respect for her honesty and her vulnerability and her bravery, but its her wit that lifts this beyond many of the other memoirs I have read since reading this.

Jenny Lawson is painfully honest about her struggle with mental illness – and the picture she paints s not pretty. I have so much respect for the fact that she gets up time and time again and that she found a way to deal with her illness. I cannot even image how hard that must be at times. I adore her manifesto of living “furiously happy” and I adore the strength she shows.

This time around I also really appreciated her relationship with her husband a lot more than the last time – he is the straight man to her weirdness and the picture it paints of their relationship is just beautiful. I love when people are happy with their spouses.

So, yes, brilliantly done memoir with humour and wit but also raw and honest pain. Which seems to be just my favourite type of memoir (not sure what that says about me). Also, she makes taxidermy sound a lot more fun than I thought possible.

First sentence: “Dear reader, Right now you’re holding this book in your hands and wondering if it’s worth reading.”

Review: The Relive Box and Other Stories – T. C. Boyle

34121921My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Date read: September 20, 2017

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing, October 2017

Verdict: Unpleasant characters, derivative storylines.

Find it on Goodreads.

In a nutshell:
Unpleasant characters in situations of their own making feeling sorry for themselves while screwing others over.

I do not think there was a single main character in these stories that was not seriously unpleasant, self-important, arrogant, and whiny. While this might not be a problem for other readers, I have recently come to accept that I do like my characters to have some redeeming qualities. This is especially true for short stories where you only have a limited amount of time with the characters. For the stories to resonate, I have to have some understanding for the characters. These did not feel real in the sense that I sure hope that people are more well-rounded than this (call me hopelessly optimistic if you will).

I also found the stories’ plots left a lot to be desired; the premises felt derivative and not inventive enough to distract from the characters I found unpleasant. Here I enjoyed the more speculative stories more than the realistic ones. This is especially true for the last three stories: these did not work for me and I finally gave up and skim-read the rest.

I have been reading a lot of short fiction this last year; it is a genre I have found a whole new appreciation for. When short stories are done well, they pack an unbelievable punch – but on the other side, if the stories do not work for me, they absolutely do not work for me. This time, I struggled. A whole lot.

_____
I received an arc of this book curtesy of NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing in exchange for an honest review. Thanks for that!