BONUS BOOK: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

“There are moments when history and memory seem like a mist, as if what really happened matters less than what should have happened.”

Genre: Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “[Meet] the Cooke family. Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke. As a child, she never stopped talking; as a young woman, she has wrapped herself in silence: the silence of intentional forgetting, of protective cover. Something happened, something so awful she has buried it in the recesses of her mind. It changed Rosemary – and it destroyed her family. Now Rosemary’s adored older brother is a fugitive, wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism. And her once lively mother is a shell of her former self, her clever and imperious father now a distant, brooding man. And Fern, Rosemary’s beloved sister, her accomplice in all their childhood mischief? Fern’s is a far more terrible fate than the family, in their innocence, could ever have imagined.”

Review: I must admit; I am completely beside myself with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. This novel is tremendous. As the cover says, it has one of the best twists I’ve ever read (no spoilers in this review, I promise). A major reason this novel is so successful is the narration. Rosemary is  an unreliable narrator (far better than Rachel from The Girl on the Train) and reveals the secrets of her past in a disjointed, non-chronological order. She starts in the middle of her story, before jumping back, forward, back again. This method of storytelling was fascinating, as reading about each “version” of Rosemary gradually helped me understand what had happened to her family.

“My father was himself a college professor and a pedant to the bone. Every exchange contained a lesson, like the pit in a cherry. To this day, the Socratic method makes me want to bite someone.”

Fowler’s writing is exquisite. She transported me into each moment and was extremely effective at turning Rosemary’s feelings into my own. There’s a particularly beautiful scene where Mrs. Cooke helps her daughters get ready to play in the snow; the elation both girls feel is tangible. When Rosemary was jealous, I felt jealous. When she was sad, I felt sad. It’s no small feat to incorporate a reader into a fictional world, and Fowler excels at it.

“It wasn’t the flashes of anger – he’s been angry for as long as I could remember, a foot-stamping, middle-finger-thrusting, boy-shaped storm. I was used to that. His fury was my nostalgia.”

I can’t go into too much additional detail without running the risk of spoiling We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, but I can safely say that this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Beautiful prose, a captivating story, and a flawed but redemptive heroine; what more can a reader ask for?




BONUS BOOK: The Arsonist by Stephanie Oakes

“I am thinking about the first words of another book. It was a pleasure to burn. More than anything, it was a pleasure to live.”

Genre: Mystery, Adventure, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Molly Mavity is not a normal teenage girl. For one thing, she doesn’t believe that her mother killed herself three years ago. And since her father is about to be executed for his crimes, Molly is convinced that her mother will return to her soon. Finally, the hole in her heart will stop hurting. Pepper Al-Yusef is not your average teenage boy. A Kuwaiti immigrant with serious girl problems and the most embarrassing seizure dog in existence, he has to write a series of essays over the summer… or fail out of school. And Ava Dreyman – the brave and beautiful East German resistance fighter whose death at seventeen led to the destruction of the Berlin Wall – is unlike anyone you’ve met before. When Molly and Pepper are tasked with finding Ava’s murderer, they realize there’s more to her life – and death – than meets the eye. Someone out there is lying to them. And someone out there is guiding them along, desperate for answers.”

Review: The Arsonist is told in a somewhat unconventional form, through letters Molly writes to a comatose Pepper, essays Pepper writes to his counselor in order to graduate high school, and journal entries by the late Ava Dreyman. The plot sounds interesting enough, with two intrepid teenager’s launched into a murder mystery that spans continents and decades. Unfortunately, The Arsonist comes off as incredibly far-fetched. Am I really supposed to believe that two teenagers tracked down the address of a suspected war criminal and began questioning him at his door? Does Oakes really think the reader will believe that the same two teenagers traveled to Germany, broke into a suspect’s house, and were held at gunpoint by said suspect before discovering a missing relic and escaping? These moments, and others like them (particularly Ava’s experiences once she makes it to the U.S.), made me roll my eyes and become increasingly critical of the novel. The plot also felt disjointed; I had a hard time integrating Ava’s perspective into the overall story line, and I still don’t fully understand what happened to Pepper’s mom or the nature of the relationship between Mr. Mavity and Mr. Al-Yusef. There were certainly some nice moments of writing, with Oakes doing a good job of giving both Molly and Pepper independent and unique voices (again, Ava’s perspective was the weakest link for me; she came across as unnaturally proper for someone her age).

“That day, I climbed to the top of the train bridge behind my childhood home on Syracuse Road, the one  I lived in before my family split apart like an orange.”

The Arsonist is a good novel if you’re looking for a story about teenagers with ridiculous lives. But if you prefer more grounded fiction, as I do, then you’ll likely find The Arsonist excessive, unbelievable, and ultimately uninteresting.



BONUS BOOK: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

“We reached for each other, and I thought of how many nights I had lain awake in this room loving him in silence.”

Genre: Adventure, Mythology, Fantasy, Romance, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Achilles, ‘the best of all the Greeks,’ son of the cruel sea goddess Thetis and the legendary king Peleus, is strong, swift, and beautiful – irresistible to all who meet him. Patroclus is an awkward young prince, exiled from him homeland after an act of shocking violence. Brought together by chance, they forge an inseparable bond, despite risking the gods’ wrath. They are trained by the centaur Chiron in the arts of war and medicine, but when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, all the heroes of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the cruel Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.”

Review: This is the best adult fiction I’ve read since Euphoria and Room! What a tremendous first novel by Madeline Miller. I’ve always been interested in Greek mythology, but Miller breathes new life into this retelling of the story of Achilles. Given that she spent ten years working on this novel, the craftsmanship and detail should come as no surprise. While I was somewhat unfamiliar with Achilles’ story before reading this book, I knew from the very beginning that things couldn’t end well for the star-crossed lovers. Miller manages to write a novel that is equal parts romance and adventure, all while breathing life into a remarkable cast of characters. Patroclus is the real showstopper of the book, but I also loved reading about Thetis (Achilles’ goddess mother), Agamemnon (ruler of Mycenae and frequent source of conflict with Achilles), and Deidameia (mother of Pyrrhus). I was particularly impressed with Miller’s writing; she manages to be poetic and poignant without preaching or overstepping. I particularly loved how she tied the beginning and ending together with a very simple word: this.

“I found myself grinning until my cheeks hurt, my scalp prickling till I thought it might lift off my head. My tongue ran away from me, giddy with freedom. This, and this, and this, I said to him. I did not have to fear that I spoke too much. I did not have to worry that I was too slender, or too slow. This and this and this! I taught him how to skip stones, and he taught me how to carve wood. I could feel every nerve in my body, every brush of air against my skin.”

“At first it is strange. I am used to keeping him from her, to hoarding him for myself. But the memories well up like spring-water, faster than I can hold them back. They do not come as words, but like dreams, rising as scent from the rain-wet earth. This, I say. This and this. The way he ran. His eyes, solemn as an owl at lessons. This and this and this. So many moments of happiness, crowding forward.”

It’s beautiful, clean, emotive writing. I loved the short chapter format of The Song for Achilles, but felt that some of the middle chapters (particularly the ones focused on preparing for the war in Troy and the early years of the war) dragged; I would have preferred more chapters spent on the training Patroclus and Achilles received while living with Chiron, rather than the war. As a whole however, The Song for Achilles is an outstanding book and I can’t wait to read Miller’s second novel, Circe!



The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson

“Gilly, if he looks peaky, we carry him next door as fast as we can. I ain’t gonna be sued by no big Virginia lawyer.”

Genre: Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “At eleven, Gilly is nobody’s real kid. If only she could find her beautiful mother, Courtney, and live with her instead of in the ugly foster home where she has just been placed. How could she, the great Gilly Hopkins, known throughout the county for her brilliance and unmanageability, be expected to tolerate Maime Trotter,  the fat, nearly illiterate widow who is now her guardian? Or for that matter, the freaky seven-year-old boy and the shrunken blind black man who are also considered part of the bizarre “family”? Even cool Miss Harris, her teacher, is a shock to her. Gutsy Gilly is both poignant and comic as, behind her best barracuda smile, she schemes against them and everyone else who tries to be friendly. The reader will cheer for her as she copes with the longings and terrors of always being a foster child.”

Review: As I was reading The Great Gilly Hopkins, I had the strangest feeling of déjà vu. It wasn’t until I looked up the book cover for this blog post that I realized I had read this book before (the cover of the version I borrowed from the library was different). As a child, I’m sure that I gravitated to The Great Gilly Hopkins after reading and loving Paterson’s Bridget to Terabithia. Apparently Paterson has an affinity for writing books that end up frequently banned or challenged (although The Great Gilly Hopkins isn’t challenged for the reason I initially expected; see below). I enjoyed reading about Gilly’s transformation from a confused, angry child into a capable and loving young adult. Her relationship with her foster brother, William Earnest, was particularly endearing. As in Bridge to Terabithia, Paterson’s writing in The Great Gilly Hopkins was occasionally equal parts humorous and eloquent.

“To stop being a ‘foster child,’ the quotation marks dragging the phrase down, almost drowning it. To be real without any quotation marks. To belong and to possess. To be herself, to be the swan, to be the ugly duckling no longer – Cap O’Rushes, her disguise thrown off – Cinderella with both slippers on her feet – Snow White beyond the dwarfs – Galadriel Hopkins, come into her own.”

But there were also a number of sentences that didn’t make sense. Despite my best efforts, I can’t figure out what feeling Gilly was trying to convey by the following quote:

“God! Listening to that woman was like licking melted ice cream off the carton.”

Overall, however, I didn’t find The Great Gilly Hopkins to be particularly mesmerizing, and the fact that I didn’t even remember having read it as a child (whereas books like Walk Two Moons and Bridge to Terabithia have stuck with me for decades) reinforces that this book is not one of my favorites. I also found parts of the book to be offensive, as outlined below.

Reason for Ban/Challenge: The Great Gilly Hopkins has been challenged because of Gilly’s occasionally profane language.

“Though Gilly’s mouth is a very mild one compared to that of many lost children, if she had said `fiddlesticks’ when frustrated, readers could not have believed in her and love would give them no hope.”  – Katherine Paterson

However, I was more shocked by the racist comments Gilly made in the first part of the novel. Exhibit A: the exchange between Gilly and Trotter after Gilly fails to bring Mr. Randolph over for dinner.

Gilly: “He’s gone. Some weird little colored man with white eyes cam to the door.”

Trotter: “Gilly! That was Mr. Randolph. He can’t see a thing. You’ve got to go back and bring him by the hand, so he won’t fall.”

Gilly: “I never touched one of those people in my life.”

There were a number of additional racist comments made throughout the book, which contributed to my two-star rating.





BONUS BOOK: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

“My friend, I was born for soft days such as these.”

Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend the court as ambassadors and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the peace treaty’s anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high. Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen’s Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift – one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.”

Review: There’s no denying that Rachel Hartman is a talented and lyrical writer. The first few chapters of Seraphina actually made me feel like I was reading something in the same vein as Ella Enchanted (which is huge praise coming from me, as Ella Enchanted is definitely in my top ten books of all time).

“The world inside myself is vaster and richer than this paltry plane, peopled with mere galaxies and gods.”

The descriptions of Goredd and the palace were excellent and I found the dragons of Seraphina to be unique and, by extension, fascinating. I particularly loved Orma, Seraphina’s draconian uncle with little sense of humor and no sense of irony. Concerning uniqueness, I don’t think I’ve ever read another book where music played such a pivotal and illustrious role.

“A feeling rose in me, and I just let it, because what harm could it do? It only had another thirty-two adagio bars of life in this world. Twenty-four. Sixteen. Eight more bars in which I love you. Three. Two. One.”

However, it took me a long time to wrap my head around Seraphina’s “mental garden of grotesques” (seriously… I had no clue what was going on). I also found that the plot moved at a really, really, REALLY slow place. It felt like Hartman made a trade off between world building and pacing. Interestingly, one of my favorite parts of Seraphina was actually the “Cast of Characters” glossary at the back of the book. As it turns out, Hartman can be a very humorous writer when she wants to be.

“Regent of Samsam – the regent of Samsam

Abdo – a dancer in a pygegyria troupe

A pygegyria troupe – and there’s the rest of them now”

I wish she had incorporated more humor into the actual story, as it might have negated some of the plot drudgery. I do think Seraphina’s story – particularly her journey to self-acceptance – is inspiring, but don’t feel an immediate need to read the second book in the duology.



BONUS BOOK: Wonder Woman by Nancy Holder

“They were starting to overlap their sentences again – like lapping waves of words rising and falling into each other.”

Genre: Adventure, Fantasy, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Before she was Wonder Woman, she was Diana, princess of the Amazons, trained to be an unconquerable warrior. Raised on a sheltered island paradise, when an American pilot crashes on their shores and tells of a massive conflict raging in the outside world, Diana leaves her home, convinced she can stop the threat. Fighting alongside man in a war to end all wars, Diana will discover her full powers… and her true destiny.”

Review: Like 99.9% of the rest of the world, I really loved the Wonder Woman movie. I went into it not understanding what all the fuss was about, and came out feeling empowered and wishing I had my own wrist bangles to “boosh” together. In my desperation to cling to the Wonder Woman high, I did something I’ve never done before: I requested the movie novelization from my local library. This turned out to be a mistake, for three main reasons.

  1. I almost always prefer reading a book before seeing its movie complement. I feel like seeing the movie first ends up spoiling the book, whereas reading the book first ends up adding to my movie-watching experience. However, when I have done things in the reverse order, I almost always still find the book worthwhile because even though major plot points have been spoiled, there are so many nuances within a book that simply don’t translate to screen. However, the issue with novelizations based on movies is that you don’t get those extra nuances. Every major quote, every major moment, is copied exactly from the screen.
  2. Novelization writers give you too much detail in some instances (what is Holder’s obsession with giving the exact specs of the guns used in Wonder Woman?) and not enough detail in others. Holder described an aircraft as being “as huge at the Loch Ness monster.” Given that the Loch Ness monster isn’t real, this description tells me nothing about the size of the aircraft.
  3. Perhaps this is not true of all novelizations, but there were SO. MANY. TYPOS. I’m not just talking bad grammar (ex. using the word “passed” when the author clearly meant “past”), but legitimate spelling mistakes as well. So many sentences just didn’t make sense without some self-initiated edits.

“He had no idea if the masks they wore would keep out the gas or they had been designed to protect the rank and file.”

Based on this experience, I will never read a movie novelization again. Sorry Wonder Woman, but you’re better suited to the big screen, comic books, and original novels.



BONUS BOOK: My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul

“Everyone else had a passion; where was mine? How much happier I would have been to know that reading itself was a passion.”

Genre: Memoir, Nonfiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Pamela Paul has kept a single book by her side for twenty-eight years – carried throughout high school and college, hauled from Paris to London to Thailand and from job to job, safely packed away and then carefully moved from apartment to house to its current perch on a shelf over her desk. It is reliable if frayed, anonymous looking yet deeply personal. This book has a name: Bob. Bob is Paul’s Book of Books, a journal that records every book she’s ever read, from Sweet Valley High to Anna Karenina, from Catch-22 to Swimming to Cambodia. It recounts a journey in reading that reflects her inner life – her fantasies and hopes, her mistakes and missteps, her dreams and her ideas, both half-baked and wholehearted. Her life, in turn, influences the books she chooses, whether for solace or escape, information or sheer entertainment. But My Life with Bob isn’t really about those books. It’s about the deep and powerful relationship between book and reader. It’s about the way books provide each of us the perspective, courage, companionship, and imperfect self-knowledge to forge our own path. It’s about why we read what we read and how those choices make us who we are. It’s about how we make our own stories.”

Review: As evidenced by this blog, I’m an avid reader. Given a certain kinship I feel with other avid readers, I expected to love My Life with Bob: a book about books written by the editor of the New York Time Times Book Review, Pamela Paul. However, I found that Paul’s self-characterization led me to become increasingly frustrated and annoyed with her, which ultimately led to a lower book rating than I initially expected. On a positive note, I’ve rarely read a book that so accurately captures what it’s like to be an obsessive book nerd. It’s clear that Paul and I are cut from the same cloth, at least when it comes to our feelings about books. She was able to eloquently describe the reader/book relationship in a strikingly accurate way.

“Books gnaw at me from around the edges of my life, demanding more time and attention. I am always left hungry.”

I too have tracked my reading habits throughout my life, largely in the form of favorite quotes scribbled down in random notebooks. It wasn’t until just over a year ago that I decided to formalize my literary tracking and start an actual journal for book quotes. Since then, I’ve recorded every book I’ve read with at least one quote. In a similar vein, this blog has also become a book of books, and I certainly agree with Paul that these books of books are our enduring way of recording our lives without actually including the oftentimes humiliating details.

“Bob has lasted a lot longer than any of my abandoned teenage journals – I write in it still – and here’s why: diaries contain all kinds of things I wanted to forget – unrequited crushes and falling-outs with friends and angsting over college admissions. Bob contains things I want to remember: what I was reading when all that happened.”

But I did find major issues with My Life with Bob, largely because I didn’t like Paul’s self-characterization. My annoyance began about halfway through the book and spawned into an established dislike by the time I finished. I constantly felt like Paul tried to pretend that she didn’t have a privileged adolescence and adulthood, when all evidence stood to the contrary. When she graduated from college, her dad gifted her a Eurail pass to explore Europe, which she lost. Calling her dad to “self-flagellate and grovel and beg for another,” he answered the phone and said “I thought you were calling to wish me a happy birthday. It was yesterday.” Her father also funded her trip to China, asking for only one thing in return: that she bring him back a spittoon. She didn’t. While visiting and working in Paris (which she did over a dozen times while growing up), she refused to speak English to American tourists, pretending to be a haughty Parisian instead. If I had to characterize Paul (at least adolescent Paul) in three words based on this novel, I would say privileged, narcissistic, and selfish. Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but the last straw came on page 164, when she wrote about judging people based on the books they read. Her personal “test case” is The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, and she “has a hard time liking someone who loves it.” She goes on to say the following:

“I certainly wouldn’t want to be judged by The Fountainhead, which shows up in Bob, but which I read in a state of complete ignorance as bonus material for a class on twentieth-century architecture.”

After finishing it, Paul threw the book into the trash, where “it would never hurt anyone again.” I read The Fountainhead as a senior in high school and really enjoyed it. It was the first time I became attached to a physical copy of a book; sadly, I dutifully returned it to the high school library once finished. I think all of this means that if Paul and I met in real life, I might not like her and she might not like me. But that’s okay. Something tells me we would respect each other as readers anyways.