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As of my "maternity leave," here are the stats of the past year: 74 books reviewed 9 guest posts 4 independent bookstores 3 d...

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget

I raced to get in the library queue for Sarah Hepola's Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget as soon as I read about its release. 

When drinking is such an ubiquitous part of the culture, where is the line between just enough and too much? Sarah Hepola spent a good chunk of her life drinking everyone she knew under the table. It impressed the guys, and was a big part of nights out with the girls. It loosened her up to write, helping her career take off with flying colors. It livened up her dating life. But it frequently ended up in blackouts, those elusive periods of time where she was still conscious and making decisions that would stay with her for a long time, but periods of time that she could just not recall.

This post actually took me a long time to just sit down and write, because Hepola’s work made me think long and hard about my own drinking. First of all, I haven’t had a blackout since college, but that’s in no way shape or form a self-congratulatory remark. I have certainly had more to drink than is within good judgement many, many times in my adult life. One of those times was very recently, and while I won’t go into here, I definitely sent some text messages that were probably better off staying in my head. One particular part in Hepola’s work was her statement (and I’m paraphrasing) that often women believe they were drugged when, in fact, they simply had too much to drink and blacked out. That was a particularly difficult section for me to read, as I have had experience in that arena. It’s not a story I want to spell out on this particular blog, but reading this research made me step back and reexamine what I remember about that night. I know I didn’t have enough alcohol to black out (three beers in two hours is what I call a “light night,” and my suspicions were confirmed that I was, in fact, drugged), but it was enough for me to turn inward and seriously examine my own drinking patterns.

There are few words to describe the impact this book had on me. “Good” doesn’t really work, because it’s about someone’s hard truths revealed through words on paper for the world to see. Hepola’s stories about dating when she finally gets sober are hard to read, because how do you go from wild times and great stories to just having to be…you. There was a level of dating I understood in her stories, being semi-mid-thirties and being out in the world mucking through the bachelors. I felt her pain, and it was pretty raw.

There was also a conversation she had with her best friend that stuck with me. While this memoir was about too much drinking, there was also an undercurrent of what it feels like to get older, and some of the reliance on alcohol being a panacea for that. (Hell, do I ever understand that one.) When she expressed frustration that those she knows who are married with (or even without) children can’t begin to understand how difficult it is to be single at an older age, I felt like I was stabbed in the heart, because I feel the exact same way. I have said many times that most of my friends have “dating amnesia.” It’s been so long since they’ve been single, and they were single at a much younger age than I am, and can’t even begin to recognize how absolutely difficult this is. It’s not to say, as Hepola recognizes in her book, that marriage isn’t hard and children even harder. It’s just a different life, and I felt that Hepola was writing my story in that anecdote. 

This book was incredibly affecting. This candid and raw memoir strikes a chord with anyone who has ever just had too much to drink and wishes they could take a night back. I think any person who has ever attended college can relate to this. (Well, ok, almost every person.) This book, however, is more important than simply being a memoir. Hepola uses her skills as a journalist to dig deep into the research on this very specific topic – women who drink until they blackout – to explain her choices and help her find a way into a sober future. I found this story and its supporting research to be one of the absolute best books I have read this year. Any woman who has ever had too much to drink should consider picking this up. I urge you to move past feeling bad about yourself – there were moments where her stories were just too read to deal with – and use it as a tool to uncover realities about yourself you want to – or don’t want to – face. 

For purchase below. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Marvels

I have mentioned before how much I adore Hugo Cabret, so I rushed to pick up Brian Selznick's new book, The Marvels, at BEA this year. It was love at first sight.

In 1766, a boy named Billy Marvel survives a storm at sea with his dog -- the only survivor. In 1990, Joseph runs away from his boarding school to find his eccentric uncle who may hold the key to the family secrets. These stories do not appear related at the outset, but the deeper Joseph digs, the more intricately related they become. Who is his uncle, really? And why does his home seem occupied by a family when clearly no one else lives there? Why do none of the facts line up? Joseph sets out to find the truth, and in turn, finds out so much more than he could have ever imagined.

From the beginning of this book I was hooked. The first half is told in Selznick's classic illustrations, and the story of the Marvels was beautiful and heartbreaking. After Billy is rescued, he helps build the Royal Theatre and his progeny become some of the most beloved and well-known actors for generations to come. It's a sweet story until one son, generations down, doesn't want to be an actor. The family falls apart. When we move into the written portion of the story, I was confused for a few pages but still drawn in. As I moved through the actual prose, though, it all started to become clear.

This book was like going on a date with a guy that seems intriguing but may not actually be your type, yet the more time you spend with him, the more you realize that you are falling fast and you don't ever not want to be around him. At first you were just interested, but now you are fascinated and moved and curious. You never want to stop talking. Except here it is reading.

Once I put two and two together, I found that I was so moved and happy and overwhelmed with joy at this book that I never wanted it to not be in my life. The ending moved me to tears. It was unexpected and joyous and sad. I love that I can add this book to my collection and revisit it over time. Lovely. Just so, so, so lovely. 

For purchase below. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things

You may remember my love of Jenny Lawson's first book. Well, thank goodness for follow ups, know what I'm saying? I basically stalked the publishers for Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things at Book Expo. No, seriously. I wasn't allowed to linger, so I just paced in front of their booth until the book dropped at 2pm sharp. I was the first in line. [Bows head and walks away shamefully...KIDDING. TRIUMPHANT, DUH.]

Mental illness affects approximately 20% of the population give or take. For those who suffer from it at any point in their lives, it can range from frustrating to flat out debilitating. It's invisible other than the pain you can see on your loved one's face. Jenny Lawson, who has suffered from her own maladies throughout her life, has tacitly agreed with her readership to find humor in her darkest hour. This collection of essays is based off of her agreement to be furiously happy, in other words, to refuse and refuse and refuse to give in to the biggest liar of all -- depression. To promise to push forward and find that which keeps you going, be it taxidermied animals or fly fishing in a hurricane.

You may recall from my BEA post that I not only waited days to get this book, but I quietly stalked the publishers booth for an hour before the drop. I was the first one to get the book, but hey, who's bragging. (Me. I am.) I was over the moon, and I read this sucker in no time. I loved Jenny's first book, and this book meant quite a bit to me. Jenny's story about walking through New York City in the snow in her slippers was honest and real, and she knew how crazy she looked but didn't care. Because being furiously happy isn't about looking your best for others -- it's about doing what feels best for you. Finding those small joys in life, the ones that make going on another day feasible.

I'm not going to give away too many stories in this book because it's one you really need to and should absolutely read for yourself. You don't have to have dealt with mental illness to get it. Sometimes we just feel down and it's easy to relate to Jenny's world...well, some of it. She wasn't buying large metal chickens in this book, but she does go to Australia and dress up as a kangaroo. So this book is absolutely, definitely worth your money. I only wish that my crazy work schedule would allow me to go to a reading and signing, but I trust that Jenny and I are still on good terms.

This book made me laugh out loud, it made me tear up a little, and brought out the empathy in me. It made me grateful that Jenny has Victor and her daughter, and her menagerie of animals both alive and dead. I loved her raccoon story (just read it already), and I now appreciate why she has two now. You will also appreciate it when you click the link AND JUST BUY THE DAMNED BOOK. 

For purchase below. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients' Lives

I typically love books that tell the "day in the life" stories of a specific profession, so I snatched up Theresa Brown, RN's The Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients' Lives when I saw it was available as an advanced review copy. I'm glad I did!

Twelve hours in a hospital is both a long time and a blink of the eye. New patients are admitted, some stay stable, others leave -- whether it's of their own volition or not. These hours are life changing in so many ways, and Theresa Brown tends to her patients on the oncology ward with as much care as she would want taken of her own family. Lunches barely get eaten, life-altering drugs must be administered, and patients much be cared for emotionally as well as physically. This particular night sees Brown with four patients, each with a different personality and different needs, but all of whom keep her on her toes.

As I said before, I really enjoy these "day in the life" memoirs because I feel they give laypeople a strong sense of how a normally full day goes in jobs that we will never work. My life and work is crazy but I don't hold people's lives in the palm of my hand, and for that I am grateful for people like Theresa Brown. As I read this book I did a lot of reflecting on my own time in the hospital and how I took for granted the men and women who served as my nurses, both on the regular floor and in the ICU. I remember their kindness and their empathy; I remember one's very no nonsense attitude but very needed at the time; and I remember that I was cared for so very well. Reading Brown's book made me send up some happy universal vibes for the men and women who helped save my life, even as my attending doctor never walked in to my room. RN's are the heroes of our hospitals, so find a nurse today and give him or her a hug.

I would easily argue that this book contains the whole enchilada. Not only did we have four patients with differing needs, but Brown also did a superb job of chronicling her day so that it felt as though we were on her rollercoaster with her. Anyone who has worked a high stakes job that requires large efforts of juggling large quantities of information can relate to the need to constantly just keep going down the list of things that need to be done. Brown has a gift of storytelling, and I felt as though I was there. I also appreciated the research that went into this book. When a topic came up that needed a little explaining, Brown took the moment in the book to describe what the layperson needed to know in order to understand what was happening to her patient or to put an incident in historical perspective. It was really fantastic and heightened this book to a level of must-read.

One day, many years ago, I was complaining to my mom, a respiratory therapist, about how my boss at the time was making big deals out of everything. One thing about working in the theatre that always drove me nuts was this idea that what we were doing was high stakes. Now, let me be clear, when I am hired for a job I take it seriously and do my best, but make no bones about it -- what we do doesn't determine whether people live or die. I tried to work by that mentality to keep things in perspective. So I was complaining to my mom, and she said something that always stuck with me. "If you make a mistake," she said, "you can fix it and everything is OK. If I make a mistake, someone dies." That is the rule I live by, which has always made me grateful for the healthcare professionals out there. So to Theresa Brown and all of you who do this every day -- thank you.

For purchase below.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Nightfall: A Novel

Nightfall was another big book at Book Expo this year, so I picked it up on my way through the publisher's booth. While YA dystopian lit isn't usually my jam, I saw Jake Halpern at an author's panel and his passion for his work really sold the novel.

Every twenty-eight years, the sun falls and night arises. It's about to be Night on the island, and everyone is getting ready to leave for distant shores, where they will continue to live in daylight until it is time to return home. Everyone is frantically rushing to get out of town, and when the boats arrive, there is a mass push to get on them. What no one notices is that three of their youths are missing. Marin, her twin brother Kana, and their friend Line have missed the boats off of the island. As they frantically search for a way off the island, they find themselves stalked by creatures that would make even the heartiest man whither. Can they survive Night, or will they die trying to leave?

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. In order for me to really get into a fantasy or paranormal novel, it has to have a great story first. It also has to have strong characters. I really found myself drawn to Marin. She is young, but she is strong -- and the reason they all miss the boat is her insistence that no one leave without Line. He had gone to search for a necklace of Marin's that he felt responsible for losing, and Marin felt it was her responsibility to make sure he did not get left behind. She also holds a deep secret about that necklace, a secret that may fracture her and Line's relationship. I found this conflict point to be incredibly interesting and was happy to see that followed through. I also appreciated, from an audience perspective, that Halpern and Kujawinski played this out through the book by weaving it in and not waving a big flag as a plot point.

There is also the storyline with Kana that I can't say much about, as I really feel like it feeds the story and you may be pleasantly surprised by it. You can kind of see it coming, but when all of the pieces of the puzzle come together, it's a great fit for what they authors were going for. This, combined with Marin and Line and the teamwork to get out of this situation alive, really heightened the drama and transcended the paranormal genre and allowed me to enjoy the story from a human perspective.

For purchase below.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Girl Waits With Gun: A Novel

This book seriously intrigued me at Book Expo America, and when I met Amy Stewart, she was so charming and lovely. So picking up Girl Waits With Gun was a total no brainer. 

It's 1914 and the three Kopp sisters are mowed down in their buggy by an obnoxious man in a motorcar. The reckless driver, the owner of a silk factory in town, refuses to pay, and when Constance, the most independent of the three, refuses to allow him to use his power so menacingly, she begins to learn that there is more to the story than meets the eye. There is power, there is blackmail, and there is kidnapping. Constance refuses to allow this man to harass her family and bully the town. Will she use any means necessary to stop a man who has the money and the power?

It is super hard not to absolutely love Constance Kopp. She is incredibly easy to relate to as a strong, independent woman, even in 1914. A big secret has kept her family out of society for some time, and as it was slowly revealed, I found myself with so much sympathy for her. It would take almost a decade for it to be considered okay to deal with what she did, although even today it's still a little touch and go. But as she weaves her tale, she never apologizes, and that was the most incredible part. It's what made her the strong woman that she was. No apologies. Life happens, and you deal with it accordingly.

I also loved the relationship that she and Norma, her next closest sister, had together with their brother, Francis. The brother keeps begging the girls to come live with him. He keeps insisting they can't take care of themselves. Now, we all know that's not true, especially so by the time you end this book. Their unwillingness to compromise their independence is really amazing. Even as Norma is expressing her annoyance at Constance, as she continues to almost beg her to not approach Mr. Kauffman or get involved in the mess that is near inevitable, really, they have clearly have a bond together than won't be broken. And it's not just about protecting Fleurette, their 13-year-old sister. It's clear from the second chapter that these two are thick as thieves, and as their story is revealed, it is clear why. The story is just so fascinating.

The strength of the women in this book was my favorite part. Whether it was the factory owner's sister and her annoyance at the mess made of it all, or the three Kopp girls, or the woman who ultimately spurs action in Constance when she reveals that she was taken advantage of and then lost her baby to the wealthy, powerful man behind it all, the women in this book make it worth reading. It was so refreshing to be able to pick up a book where the woman are strong and steady and driving the action. That, along with a strong story and a heinous villain and a great story arc make for one hell of a read. So yeah, I'm recommending it.

For purchase below.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Guest Post: Maggie Thrasher on Honor Girl

Today we are so lucky to welcome Maggie Thrash, the author of Honor Girl, to discuss her work and her choice of using a graphic novel to share her story.


Comics were the only way I could tell this story. It's a memoir, and it's pretty personal. In the past when I've tried to write about myself, I tend to get really awkward and sound like an alien masquerading as an especially self-centered human female. Comics are a way for me to zoom out of the quagmire of my perspective, and present myself objectively: There I am, that's what I look like. That's the kind of stuff I say and do. Here are the people around me. And here's what happened when I fell in love at my all-girls Christian summer camp and was never the same again.

I've never taken an art class, and when I started this I didn't have much experience with comics. The learning curve was steep. I studied the Scott Pilgrim books by Bryan Lee O'Malley very closely to figure out how to write a graphic novel. Scott Pilgrim is totally populist and unpretentious; it's essential to me. I love how the book just BEGINS. The first line is “Scott Pilgrim's dating a high schooler!” And you're just like, who is Scott Pilgrim? Who is this high schooler? I must know more!

I'm also a Donna Tartt fan in a deep way. Her characters can be out of touch with themselves, a little aloof from their emotions, a little self-deceiving. But you can see their raggedness, and how anguished they are.

Another huge influence for me is the Twilight series. Those books changed me forever. There's a gravitas to that love story which I hadn't seen much before in YA. There's nothing whimsical or cute about Bella and Edward's love. It's not a crush. It's real and it's intense and it almost kills them multiple times! People get distracted by the vampire nonsense, but what Twilight is really about it how love KILLS you. That's how it felt to be in love with this girl at camp. I felt like I was going to die! Anyone who's been in love can probably relate to that. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! A Novel

I picked this book up Book Expo this year, and I was taken by the blurb. But then I read it and fell madly in love. This is Jonathan Evison's This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!.

Harriet Chance is 79 years old and has just lost her husband, Bernard, after a short fight with dementia. She receives a call telling her that her husband purchased an Alaskan cruise and the voucher is about to expire. While this is out of Harriet's comfort zone -- she likes order and comfort and Bernard's opinions -- she agrees to go with her best friend Mildred. In fact, it's the only way her beloved son and maligned daughter will allow her to go. When Mildred pulls out at the last minute and Harriet dares to go it alone, the tightly woven tale of her life begins quickly unraveling revealing to her that most of her life has been a lie. Family secrets are only as good as those who keep them, right, Harriet?

Let me start out by saying that this book was funny. It's not a typical family drama where, as secrets are revealed, the tension is heightened and you want to clench your fist. No, that is not Evison. He writes with such realistic absurdity that the only word that comes to mind is "charm." That's right -- this book was absolutely, positively charming. Harriet is a difficult character at first, but as you move through her story, jumping around in time throughout her entire life, you start to realize the life circumstances that have put her where she are. She is not a very sympathetic character, but few people are when viewed in two dimensions. She lives a long life full of twists and turns and choices -- and choices have consequences, for better or for worse.

Bernard was a horrible husband, but Harriet made decisions, too. Her children are not what they seem, but they are a product of parental choices. Harriet, when in full three dimensional color, is a positively wonderful and broken woman who did the best she could in life. I think what was so engaging about this book, besides the incredible prose and Evison's charming writing style and the full humor of it all, is that Harriet is, at the day, a character that we all can relate to, particularly as women. This was just such a lovely novel, and I found myself sitting and meditating on it as I closed it. I am grateful for having Harriet in my life, if only for a small time.

For purchase below.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Honor Girl: A Graphic Memoir

At BEA this year I picked up an excerpt of Maggie Thrash's Honor Girl and I fell madly in love. The publisher kindly provided me with a copy of the most gorgeous book I have seen lately. I am so grateful!

Summer camp has been a staple in so many young lives, and Maggie attended hers for many of her formative years. At 15 years old, having never even been kissed, she heads back to Camp Bellflower for Girls for another summer. She runs around with old friends, moons over the Backstreet Boys, becomes a rifle expert, and falls in love. This love is quite unexpected though, being with one of the older female counselors. As they spend the summer trying to stay away from each other yet exploring the attraction, they must keep this a secret or risk exposing themselves in a time and place where it’s just not accepted.

Teen angst shows up a lot in literature, so while it’s nothing new, it comes around again and again because it’s something we all know and can relate to on the simplest of levels. I didn’t necessarily struggle with my own sexuality as a teenager. (No one ever asks, “When did you know you were attracted to boys, Nicole?” The answer would be, “Since age four when I chased my first boyfriend down on the playground and kissed him.”) However, that doesn’t mean that I can’t understand what it feels like to suspect everyone’s looking at me and trying to make me out to be whatever they want in their own eyes. 

This is where Thrash’s graphic novel excels. It’s classic adolescence, where we all feel everyone’s always looking at us even when they’re not (because really, they are all concerned that everyone’s looking at them), and how we grow and explore and learn when we feel we are always being watched. Don’t get me wrong – the illustrations are fantastic. But it’s really the heart of the story, the summer at camp, the stirrings of attraction, and the never ending thoughts of that special someone, that really draws you in and keeps you with this story. Regardless of your sexuality, you’ve been there. The lack of concentration. The desperation you feel when circumstances keep you from seeing that person you are dying to see. (WHAT DO YOU MEAN I HAVE CHICKEN POX AND CAN’T GO TO SCHOOL? I NEED TO SEE JASON IN 3RD PERIOD CHEMISTRY!)

Thrash’s story is universal, and that’s what made my heart break when I read it. I understood her obsession with excelling with her rifle. It was the one thing she could do to take her mind off of her feelings. I understood her desperation to not let anyone find out about her feelings, and at the camp dance, the mix of that need with her desire to get the boy from the brother camp asking her to dance away from her. (Can I also say that if you are a Backstreet Boys fan from back in the day, this book is worth picking up for some fantastic references, including but not limited to an imitation night.) When the Honor Girl ceremony came around, I knew what was going to happen. That's what made it all the more difficult to read. 

I would also like to point out that this book is gorgeous. When it came in the mail, I just about lost my mind. It was stunning. I know that’s not necessarily a reason that one should love a book, but really, it was jaw-dropping. After I finished it I immediately put it on my shelf, and you all know I don’t keep books willy nilly. This copy just looks so beautiful and colorful and serene on my shelf. 

For purchase below.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Guest Blogger Charlotte: It's Kind of a Funny Story

Hi There!

This has to be my favorite book I’ve read this year. My last few reviews have all had this common theme of, basically, the author is trying way too hard to relate to his audience and it’s kind of gross. Its Kind Of a Funny Story doesn’t try too hard. It tries just the right amount and helped me remember why I spend so much time with books.

Craig Gilner is 15 and attends one of the top public schools in Manhattan. However, he’s not quite sure if he measures up to the other students at the school. The pressure at the school is getting the best of him. To make matters worse, Craig’s best friend Aaron is naturally and effortlessly great at everything… you know the type. Aaron is also dating the beautiful Nia, with whom Craig is in love.

When the pain becomes unbearable Craig does the right thing and sees a psychiatrist. He’s given Zoloft and his life begins to fall back into place. Feeling himself once again, Craig decides he no longer needs the Zoloft. In short order he falls into an even deeper depression than before. His life spirals to the point that he feels his only alternative is to seek immediate help. He calls the suicide hotline and is admitted to a psychiatric ward of a nearby hospital.

This is where the story comes alive. Seeing the other patients at the hospital helps Craig realize that his problems are not insurmountable. Craig begins to feel better with the help and support of those around him.

The novel is beautifully written and feels so authentic because it’s mostly based on the late author’s battle with depression and time he spent in a mental hospital as a teenager. The story isn’t trying to be something that it’s not and that’s rare. It’s laid our in a very straightforward and vulnerable way.

I think my issue with most of the books I’ve been reading lately (and why I appreciate this book so much) is that they’ve all had this element of what I’m going to call the “blind leading the blind effect”. This takes place when you have an obviously talented, funny, and entertaining writer who, for whatever reason, has chosen to take on a subject that for one reason or another he/she is “blind” to. And since we as readers have, for the most part, also never shared this experience, we are “blind” to it as well.

Blind means that the author has never lived what they’re writing about… or hasn’t in thirty years. They may have spent a day researching it to get the dialogue down, but they’re not speaking from a place of authority or past experience and it shows in their writing. Blind is your weird uncle trying to talk to you about your favorite band. It just doesn’t resonate. In other words, blind is what happens when someone just sits down and decides or is assigned to write a YA novel.

These books still make the NYT’s best sellers list because people outside of the intended demographic are reading them or buying them for their kids. It’s also that some of the stories are really fantastic so the author gets a pass. But a lot of the stuff I’ve read lately feels so contrived that I can’t help but cringe. There were no cringe moments in It’s Kind Of A Funny Story.

~ Charlotte

For purchase below.