book review: paper towns

Title: Paper Towns

Author: John Green

Genre:  Fiction, Young Adult Fiction

Publishing Date: 2009

Paper-Towns-Cover-Art
Paper Towns, John Green

REVIEW

Favorite Quotes:

“If I am ever told that I have one day to live, I will head straight for the hallowed halls of Winter Park High School, where a day has been known to last a thousand years.” (pg. 21)

“That’s always seemed so ridiculous to me, that people want to be around someone because they’re pretty. It’s like picking your breakfast cereal based on color instead of taste.” (pg. 36)

“It’s so hard to leave—until you leave. And then it is the easiest god-damned thing in the world.” (pg. 192)

“Before he was this minor figure in the drama of my life, he was—you know, the central figure in the drama of his own life.” (pg. 267)

Synopsis: Margo Roth Spiegelman and Quentin Johnson (Q) grow up as neighbors. Even though a traumatic childhood event ties them together, they’ve never been more than mere acquaintances. That is until their senior year in high school when Margo shows up in Q’s bedroom window one night and convinces him to join her on a spree of vengeance-fueled pranks. After spending the night wreaking havoc on their frenemies together, Margot doesn’t show up for school the next day. Instead, she vanishes—leaving clues as to where she has gone in her wake. Clues that are just for Q.

Opinion: 

I loved The Fault in Our Stars. I loved it so much, I even read Looking for Alaska (which is a big deal because I prefer not to re-read authors). Paper Towns was selected by my book club for our February read, and I was excited to have an excuse to pick up Green again.

That being said, this book reminded me exactly why I don’t re-read authors.

Having read all three of these Green books, it’s impossible to miss the similarities. Green builds the same relationship between the central male and female characters. One is unfathomably amazing and sophisticated and desirable and unattainable. And the other is hopelessly in love with him or her.

Such is the set up for Fault and Alaska and alas, for Paper Towns–with Margot as the endless object of Q’s completely one-sided affection.

What Green does so well, however, is capture the essence of uninhibited teenage infatuation, youthful exuberance, and even adorable immaturity. His portrayals of teenagers are so accurate they’re both amusing and nostalgic.

Part I of this book—the all-night prank extravaganza—sets Paper Towns up for success with a quick pace and plenty of action. Likewise, Part III—the graduation-day road trip—is engaging, dynamic, and full of humor. It’s Part II that felt labored, repetitive, and painful, like taking the longest route possible to get to a destination.

Despite that, this book was enjoyable to read overall. And even with an accurately portrayed juvenile ensemble, it managed to touch on some complex and critical adult themes—identity, vanity, what makes life worth living, and how much do we truly know about ourselves and others. From screennames to dialogue to teenage eccentricities, Green once again captures the essence of humans at their most vulnerable age—when we struggle to know nothing and everything all at the same time.

Overall: 3 out of 5

Who Should Read This Book: If you’re an adult who loved other John Green books, I wouldn’t read this one. If you’re someone who hasn’t read other John Green books, I would read The Fault in Our Stars or Looking for Alaska, but again, not this one. But if you’re a detached, misfit, or misunderstood teenager looking for a relatable read with some important heavier themes, Paper Towns is the Green book for you.

book review: the night circus

Title: The Night Circus

Author: Erin Morgenstern

Genre:  Fiction, Fantasy, Magical Realism

Publishing Date: 2011

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
The Night Circus,
Erin Morgenstern

REVIEW

Synopsis: Le Cirque Des Revs is a traveling attraction open only at night. It arrives without warning. It leaves without notice. But within its black and white striped tents is a world that blends the boundaries between reality and imagination. And two young magicians—Celia and Marco—are bound to the circus as dueling competitors in a high-stakes game of which neither understands the rules or more importantly, the consequences.

Opinion: 

Remember when you were a young kid and you read a book that transported you somewhere surreal, somewhere wonderful, somewhere magical? That’s how I felt when reading this book. Its pages hold ideas and settings that are more vivid and unique and fantastic than those of my own dreams. It made me long to visit Le Cirque Des Revs—or at least hope that someone adapts this dreamlike story into a film.

After a slow start (first 50 or so pages), this book picks up pace as you begin to see how the different characters are woven together with the night circus as the unifying thread. And by the time you’re grasping the overarching plot—two dueling magicians are fighting unknowingly in a competition to the death—it’s a full-blown magical, star-crossed love roller coaster ride.

I enjoyed the plot. I enjoyed the characters. I enjoyed the writing. But mostly, I enjoyed this book for its imaginative scenes within the circus walls: the ice garden, the merry-go-round, the cloud room, the grandfather clock. Morgenstern portrays magic and illusion in such a unique, intimate way that you can’t help but believe it must be real.

Overall: 4 out of 5

Who Should Read This Book: Adults who love logic-defying, limitless, magical stories. Those who are looking for a 19th Century romance novel that reads like a fantasy-mystery-thriller. Anyone who wants to be transported to a literary world of creative brilliance that’s so beautiful, you’ll want to savor every last word.

book review: defending jacob

Title: Defending Jacob

Author: William Landay

Genre:  Fiction, Crime Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Publishing Date: 2012

Defending Jacob, book cover
Defending Jacob,
William Landay

REVIEW

Synopsis: In a small, upper-class Boston suburb, a 14-year-old boy has been stabbed to death. And the primary suspect quickly becomes Jacob Barber, the only child of Assistant District Attorney Andy Barber. The story, told from Andy’s perspective, follows the Barber family through the months leading up to and through the trial, as evidence slowly mounts against the brooding, intense, anti-social Jacob.

Opinion: Defending Jacob was the second book chosen by my newly formed book club. I haven’t read a crime drama in quite some time (A Time to Kill is the last one that comes to mind), so I was eager to tackle this one.

From a crime-drama-thriller-twist-ending perspective, Defending Jacob did not disappoint. After a slow start, this novel picked up the pace after about 50 pages and never slowed down. It was like reading a movie. And I was constantly changing my mind about what I thought happened—leaving me feeling like an outside detective on the case.

That being said, the story did have a tremendous flaw for me as a reader. Landay never lets the reader know for sure whether or not Jacob is guilty; it’s up for him or her to infer based on the details given. But Landay paints Jacob in such a poor light, that by Part III, I didn’t care what happened to him. As a result, I wasn’t pulling for any particular outcome—guilty, innocent, or otherwise—which made the final twists and turns of the story fall flat.

The other strange part of this novel is that it takes such lengths to carry the reader through the lingering months leading up to the trial and even through the trial itself. So when what seems like a climax happens with more than 50 pages to go, it leaves you wondering, what else is going to happen here?

If I were writing this novel, I think I would have condensed the pre-trial and actual trial portions, and added more meat to the post-trial twists. So much happens after the trial and it’s breezed over as if the author was simply tired of writing and wanted to wrap it up.

Overall: 3 out of 5

Who Should Read This Book: Fans of crime dramas, for sure. Those who are looking for an exciting page-turner with plenty of twists at the end. Book clubs looking for an intense read and a less intense discussion.

book review: a heartbreaking work of staggering genius

Title: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Author: Dave Eggers

Genre:  Biography, Memoir, Humor

Publishing Date: 2000

a heartbreaking work of staggering genius book cover
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,
Dave Eggers

REVIEW

Favorite Quotes:

“Because I was afraid that you’d be unpopular and would be cast out for being a near-orphan and having funny ears and living in a rental and would grow up with an interest in guns and uniforms, or worse, I’ll find you under the covers reading Chicken Soup for the Prepubescent Soul and lamenting your poor lot, I got dressed and went to that comics stores that’s open ’til eight, and we got two packs of cards and one of them has a hologram in it…” (pg. 84)

“We are wearing what we always wear, shorts and T-shirts, having decided, after thinking about what to wear and then remembering not to think about what to wear, to wear what we would have worn had we not been thinking about what to wear.” (pg. 244)

“My mom used to kill us when we took school pictures without her knowledge, before she would approve of our outfits. Of course, there’s a reason we didn’t tell her about Picture Day, and that reason is spelled P-L-A-I-D.” (pg. 326)

Synopsis: At age 22, Dave Eggers loses both of his parents to unrelated cancers within five weeks of one another. Orphaned along with his three siblings, Eggers becomes the primary caretaker for his eight-year-old brother. In the memoir, Dave recounts his parents’ final days and the challenges, failures, and triumphs (but mostly just challenges and failures) that follow when he moves across the country to California in an attempt to start a new life for himself and his brother.

Opinion: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (AHWOSG) was one of the books I pulled from my mom’s bookshelf after she passed away. I had heard of the title but had no idea what it was about. After reading the premise, I was intrigued and decided to give it a go.

Part I of this 11-part, 437-page memoir is, in my opinion, the best. In this section, Eggers walks through the demise of his mother’s health and the sudden, unexpected loss of his father. And he does it with such impeccable honesty and authenticity. Having just watched my mom die not even a year ago, I was amazed by Eggers’ ability to so accurately capture the heartbreak and humor that can coexist in our most difficult moments.

After Part I, however, AHWOSG lost me. Eggers style is self-reflective, stream of consciousness, and more often than not, rambling. There are tangents that go on for dozens of pages at a time. And circuitous thought patterns that don’t really take you anywhere. I felt like this book was a series of memories and thoughts and obsessions strung together haphazardly, rather than a thoughtful, purposeful memoir with a clear route and worthwhile destination.

By the 300th page, I was just fighting to finish. And the grand finale was quite possibly the greatest letdown of all.

Perhaps AHWOSG was simply over my head. If someone told me “You just don’t get it,” I’d have to wholeheartedly agree. (I mean, it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize!!)

But it did provide a few chuckle-out-loud moments, and the first part was so well done that it was worth the rest, which I waded through laboriously like a fat person running under water.

If I had to sum it up in one word, that word would undoubtedly be this: Staggering.

Overall: 1.5 out of 5

Who Should Read This Book: It’s hard to say, really, since I didn’t connect with this one. But I’d image hipsters who grew up at the same time as Eggers would enjoy AHWOSG more than I did.

book review: me before you

Title: Me Before You

Author: Jojo Moyes

Genre:  Literature and Fiction

Publishing Date: 2012

me before you book cover
Me Before You,
Jojo Moyes

REVIEW

Favorite Quote:

“Some mistakes…just have greater consequences than others. But you don’t have to let that night be the thing that defines you.” (pg. 242)

Synopsis: Set in a quaint English town, Me Before You, tells the story of two unlikely companions—Louisa Clark and Will Traynor—who spend six months together and change each other’s lives forever.

Louisa Clark, born and raised in the small town where she still lives with her parents, never dreamed bigger than her minor existence. With no ambitions, no experiences, no passions, Louisa goes through the motions of life never questioning if there could be more.

Will Traynor once lived life to its fullest. A successful businessman from a wealthy family, Will traveled, explored, dared, adventured, and loved. But a motorcycle accident ended all that, leaving Will bound to a wheelchair with no use of his arms or legs.

Will is determined to end his life. And Louisa, hired as his daytime caretaker, is determined to change his mind.

Opinion: I pulled Me Before You off my Goodreads To-Read shelf because it had the highest average rating of the nearly 50 books waiting for me there. Although I adored it—and sped through it in a single, rainy weekend—I’m not sure it’ll actually best all those others still waiting on that shelf.

Me Before You is, at its core, a love story. It’s heartwarming, humorous, and screams to be made into film. I’d be lying if I told you there weren’t some tears let loose along the way.

It’s also a book about assisted suicide. It forces you to think through tough questions about whether or not it’s okay to give up on life: Is it possible to have nothing to live for? Is it right to force those who don’t want to live to stay alive?

I love books that shift your perspective as you read. Although, I never quite gave in to Will’s argument for suicide, I was guided to better understand it, and ultimately, respect it—all while holding out hope that he would still change his mind.

The one complaint I have about this book is related to the perspective shifts. The vast majority of the story is told exclusively from Louisa’s point of view. But a few chapters in the middle switch to the perspective of other characters: her sister, Will’s mother, Will’s father, and even a second caretaker. To me, these shifts were confusing (I kept forgetting I wasn’t seeing the story from Louisa’s eyes) and didn’t actually offer any new insight. I could have done without them.

Overall: 4 out of 5

Who Should Read This Book: Those who enjoyed A Fault in Our Stars (which, of course, is anyone who read it). Anyone who enjoys quirky and ornery characters combined with witty dialogue. Those looking for a sweet, but not-too-sappy romance or an easy read on a rainy weekend. And anyone who enjoys reading books in English accents.

book review: the invention of wings

Title: The Invention of Wings

Author: Sue Monk Kidd

Genre: Historical Fiction, Literature and Fiction

Publishing Date: 2014

The invention of wings book cover
The Invention of Wings,
Sue Monk Kidd

REVIEW

Favorite Quotes:

“He didn’t like any kind of talk about heaven. He said that was the coward’s way, pining for life in the hereafter, acting like this one didn’t mean a thing.” (pg 185)

“If you were a slave toiling in the fields in Carolina…I suspect you would think the time had fully come.” (pg. 311)

“How could I choose someone who would force me to give up my own small reach for meaning? I chose myself.” (pg. 320)

“The world depends upon the small beating in your heart.” (pg. 321)

“I’d chosen the regret I could live with best.” (pg. 322)

“In Pepperell, we were forced to deliver our message in a barn with the horses and cows. ‘As you see, there’s no room at the inn,’ Nina told them. ‘But, still, the wise men have come.'” (pg. 359)

“The time to assert one’s right is when it’s denied!” (pg. 362)

Synopsis: Based largely in Charleston, South Carolina during the 19th Century, The Invention of Wings shifts between the perspectives of its two heroines: Sarah Grimke, a wealthy daughter of a southern plantation owner, and Hetty “Handful,” the slave given to her on her 11th birthday. The novel follows the two girls as they grow, one shackled by society, the other by slavery. Over the course of the decades covered in the novel, both women face tremendous adversity, suffer devastating losses, and have nothing handed to them during their separate, unique, and equally moving journeys to take flight.

Opinion: This was the book selected by my newly formed book club for our first meeting in September. I imagine most folks were interested in it due to its setting in Charleston, but I’m sure having Oprah’s seal of approval didn’t hurt either.

I’m not new to Sue Monk Kidd. My mom introduced me to her after she fell in love with The Secret Life of Bees, which I also read and enjoyed. Although I don’t think the Bees will stick with me over time the way this novel most certainly will.

I can’t speak for other places in the United States because I’ve only lived in the South. But in the South, we don’t talk about slavery. It’s a dark, blind spot on our histories. We don’t think about it. We learn it briefly when we’re too young to comprehend it, and then we tuck it away and imagine it was all just a bad dream. Just hearing the word “slave” itself makes me wince in discomfort.

And that’s why I loved this book.

Not because it’s about slavery, but because it’s honest about slavery. It’s honest about what it was and why it existed and what it did to the people who experienced it firsthand.

I loved this book because it wasn’t some warm and fuzzy benevolent-slave-owner-befriends-her-slave story. Although Hetty and Sarah do bond on some level, it’s clear with every encounter that they are not friends.

I loved this book because both heroines end up having to create freedom for themselves. Because society wasn’t ready and no one was going to help them.

And most of all, I loved this book because it made me think about the horrors of slavery outside of the physical (which are horrible enough on their own). It helped me to begin to understand the psychological pain of being owned. The way it devastates one’s soul. The way it crumbles you from within.

Kidd says it best herself in her Author’s Note at the end of the novel: “History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another’s pain in the heart our own.”

In The Invention of Wings, Kidd successfully goes beyond facts and events to accurately portray an institution we struggle to understand or even acknowledge today. For that, I’m thankful to have read this book.

Overall: 4 out of 5

Who Should Read This Book: Kidd fans, of course. Anyone who feels trapped in society. Young women looking for books with incredible, strong heroines. Historical fiction lovers. And everyone who would like acknowledge slavery with less discomfort and more empathy.

book review: queen of the dark things

Title: Queen of the Dark Things

Author: C. Robert Cargill

Genre: Fiction, Fantasy

Publishing date: 2014

cover art for Queen of the Dark Things, a novel
Queen of the Dark Things, C. Robert Cargill

REVIEW

Favorite Quote:

If it stops hurting, it isn’t really love. (pg. 168)

Synopsis: A sequel to Dreams and Shadows, Queen of the Dark Things weaves together the stories of a handful of supernatural beings including Colby the wizard, the anti-hero who survived the horrors of Cargill’s first novel. In addition to Colby and his djinn (genie) named Yashar, we’re introduced to a new cast of characters in Queen of the Dark Things–dreamwalkers, Clever Men, gods, demons, shadows, monsters, and more–whose lives are woven together–for better or worse–by destiny itself. In this brooding fantasy thriller, Colby faces even tougher decisions with even graver consequences in an effort to save himself and his few remaining friends.

Opinion: Although book two did not have as many breathtaking sentences and pause-let-me-read-that-again moments, it was a heart-pumping fantasy page turner, and I loved every moment of it. Cargill pushes the imagination into far darker places than you ever thought possible, leaving you in awe of the creativity and evil he’s able to dream up.

Similar to Dreams and Shadows, Queen of the Dark Things touches on some critical themes: vengeance, destiny, choice, and morality. He makes you question what choices are really good ones, how much control we have over our own fate, what makes us powerful, and what does it mean to do something bad for the right reasons.

His action builds effortlessly, making these books a breeze and a pleasure to read. I could hardly put it down and was already aching for more when it was over. I hope there’s a third still to come in this well-plotted, well-executed series.

Overall: 4 out of 5

Who Should Read This Book: Anyone who enjoyed Dream and Shadows. Read that. Then read this. They’re both worth it.