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2015 Spring Round-Up

Happy June, all you readerly types!

Spring just flew right on by, didn’t it? I am happy to say that while :ahem: enjoying bountiful spring showers and helping my preschoolers wrap up their year, I did manage to get a few books read. Here is the 2015 Spring Round-Up for Earl Grey and a Million Words.

#2. Yes Please by Amy Poehler

yes-please-9781447283287This was a fun read! I have enjoyed Amy Poehler’s work since Upright Citizen’s Brigade somehow made its way onto Comedy Central in the late ’90s. Though I didn’t always understand the performance art vibe of the quirky sketch show, I liked the brazen energy of that little blond woman. This book acts as a scrapbook of her childhood, the formation of her career, the heartache of divorce, and the joy she finds in her sons and her deep friendships with other funny women. The section devoted to Parks and Rec made me predictably weepy, and her reflections on motherhood are sincerely charming. I especially appreciate how much she focuses on embracing joy in life and being kind. It feels so genuine, and reappears constantly as she describes crummy jobs and meeting big-time celebs on SNL. Through the highs and the lows, be kind to your heart. Laugh a lot. Help when you can. It’s all great advice.

Yes Please is an excellent autobiography; I am only sad that I didn’t wait and purchase this one on audiobook. She reads the book herself, and I can only imagine it’s a riot.

Caffeinated Accompaniment: Amy declares in her book that she drinks tea instead of coffee, as it has always been the beverage she drinks with her Bostonian mother while they chat. In this spirit, I recommend Paris Tea by Harney and Sons: a bright, fruity black tea with dreamy vanilla tones.

#3. The Martian by Andy Weir

martianI had read about this book on a Best of the Year list somewhere, so I picked it up in paperback toward the end of March. I won’t lie: this took me a long time to read. It’s a fantastic sci-fi survival story, but it focuses intently on very real science. It was the most frustrating part of the book for me — as I am not the most tech-minded person out there — but also the thing I admired most about it. Weir took real-life space travel protocol and extrapolated it out into a very readable, suspenseful book. It became a bestseller overnight for good reason. Hell, there’s even a movie adaption:

If you don’t mind reading page after page of water condensation logs and satellite trajectories, you will be rewarded with plenty of laugh-out-loud gallows humor provided by our protagonist Mark Watney. He’s stranded on Mars after a freak accident during a sandstorm, but he’s not ready to throw in the towel just yet. His tenacity is impressive, though perhaps misplaced: the terrain is unforgiving, the supplies are low, and Mark has an unfortunate gift for making things explode. Armed with botany skills and an annoyingly vast array of 1970s music and TV shows left behind by his crew mates, Mark tries his damnedest to stay alive long enough to get rescued. That is, if anyone ever realizes he’s still up there.

I would definitely recommend this one. It opened me up to the world of hard sci-fi, and I am excited to see what they do with the film.

Caffeinated Accompaniment: For the truly brave of heart, you could do as Watney does and enjoy some Martian coffee: a caffeine pill dissolved in water.

#4. Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix

CBJccHTUYAATN2cI love this book! I’ll say that again: I LOVE THIS BOOK! This was a spot-on recommendation from a friend of mine who knows I enjoy horror stories. The book itself is formatted like an Ikea catalogue, with glossy, wide pages, order forms & advertisements, and chapter headings resembling product descriptions. This book manages to combine the soul-sucking nature of retail work with the chilling ambiance of a haunted house. Imagine, if you will, a haunted house. Now imagine a superstore that resembles a gigantic house. Think ghosts can live there?

They totally can.

At the Cuyahoga branch of Orsk, an unabashed copycat of Ikea, the workers are starting to notice some strange things. Gross smells, misplaced furniture, water stains, and creepy scrawling notes in the bathrooms are becoming too prevalent to ignore. One night, some of them stay behind to figure out what’s really going on when the store closes. They’re in for far more than affordable living room sets and knockoff Swedish cabinetry.

I started this book on a road trip to Iowa and completed it by the time we settled into our hotel. The action moves quickly, even before any of the hapless employees realize the sinister nature of the Orsk building. It’s a unique setup for a horror story and is filled with characters you root for as they try to figure out a way to escape their horrifying ordeal.

Caffeinated Accompaniment: If you’re anything like our disgruntled retail saleswoman Amy, reluctant protagonist, you’ll opt for a refillable styrofoam cup of gas station coffee. If you’re more like me, you’ll raise a delicious (though slightly overpriced) cup of Starbucks in honor of this consumerist nightmare.

#5. Feed by Mira Grant

feedFeed is a dystopian horror story set in 2040, one generation after The Rising. The Rising refers to the fateful outbreak of Kellis-Amberlee, a virus which turns humans into zombies. We view this world through the eyes of Georgia Mason, voracious Newsie in this frightening place. She works with her brother Shawn and their partner Buffy as they try to make a name for themselves in the highly competitive blogosphere. In this future, blogging has become a more credible news source than mainstream outlets, as most network news stations refused to report on the Kellis-Amberlee virus when it first struck. In a life-changing development in their journalistic careers, Georgia, Shawn, and Buffy win a spot following the presidential campaign of a Midwestern senator and hit the road with his whole political team. But politicking after The Rising is a lot different than it used to be: zombie animals, frightened communities barricaded behind chain link fences, constant blood tests, and security sabotages make the campaign trail a potentially deadly place. In the face of viral outbreaks and political backstabbing, Georgia is determined to deliver the news…no matter the cost.

This was an interesting read, but I didn’t find myself as invested in the story as I had hoped. I will say, the world-building is phenomenal. It’s filled with detailed descriptions of daily life, public policy, transportation procedures, and security features in a world where zombies are just a normal part of the everyday. I really enjoyed that aspect of the book. The main characters, however, did not feel as real to me as the world they inhabited. Georgia is a no-nonsense, high-stakes news reporter from the first page, but her initial motivation is never terribly clear to me. She rants about the power of the truth extensively and has a reputation for being a newshound, but most of the blog excerpts we read are not actually news stories. They are opinion-laden editorials about why she likes reporting the news so damn much!

About halfway in, when the plot thickened and the team was threatened from every possible direction, I was already kind of burned out on Georgia’s truth and justice monologues. I think if her news obsession had been portrayed as more of a growing realization that the search for truth was deeper and different than she had imagined it would be, if there had been some hint of naïveté at the beginning, I think I would have been able to relate to her better. As she is, she is a very strong lead character. She’s just flat.

The other characters feel equally flat, except maybe Buffy. She’s introduced as a sort of in-her-own-world boho figure, writing fiction for the site and never stepping into any zombie hot zones. As the novel progresses, we also learn she’s incredibly skilled in computer programming and creating secret bugging devices, as well as being devoutly religious on the down-low. She’s an interesting character, though unfortunately we don’t see as much of her as we do Georgia and Shawn. Also, just as a side note, Georgia and Shawn’s relationship is very awkward to me. They joke about their codependency, but it does little to lighten the feeling that their togetherness is excessive. Having a sibling myself, I couldn’t 100% get behind their repeated declarations of love for each other. Maybe if I lived in a world overrun with zombies, I would feel differently about it.

I recommend this one if you are interested in zombie stories, but otherwise it didn’t resonate too strongly with me. I might eventually read the others in this trilogy, but I’m still unsure.

Caffeinated Accompaniment: Even in this screwed-up version of the future of America, there’s still Starbucks. So treat yourself to a Vanilla Creme Frappuccino and watch the world end.

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#1. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

dark-places-book-cover“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.” – Libby Day

Dark Places is the story of Libby Day, sole survivor of the Kinnakee Kansas Massacre. There’s usually a variation somehow including the words “satanic” or “farmhouse” when discussed in schoolyard chants or sensationalist newspaper articles. Libby Day’s mother and two sisters were brutally murdered in the wee morning hours of January 3, 1985, and her older brother Ben is in prison for the crime. Eight-year-old Libby escaped by climbing out a window and hiding in the snow until dawn, losing some toes and part of a finger in the process. Now, Libby is in her early 30s and all the money from well-wishers is drying up. Unable to function normally since the massacre, she’s desperate for cash so she won’t have to work in an office with human beings, whom she seems to roundly despise.

Enter Lyle, member of the mysterious K.C. — Kill Club. He has an offer for Libby if she comes to one of their meetings and is willing to revisit the horrible night her family was destroyed. Did Ben really butcher their family, or were stranger things afoot that day in Kinnakee? Needing the money and hoping beyond hope she can salvage some kind of relationship with Ben, Libby sets out on the path to discover what really went wrong in one bad day.

I really enjoyed this book. I listened to the audiobook version (read by Rebecca Lowman, Cassandra Campbell, and Mark Deakins) with Joe when we were driving to and from the Chicago area last weekend to attend a wedding. (I made the joke around midnight in Missouri that listening to a story about a Midwestern axe murder that occurred IN JANUARY was probably not the *wisest* thing to do for our emotional states, but neither of us had any nightmares.)

If you’re into mystery and split narratives (told by multiple POVs between January 2, 1985 and the present-ish day), this might be right up your alley. I especially appreciated the raw, oddly endearing characterization of Libby: a mean, nearly feral woman whose heart was broken when she was 8 and has refused to ever fully put it back together.

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#12. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

eleanor and parkEleanor and Park is an unlikely love story about two misfits in the mid-80s who find out they fit with each other. Though that sounds like the plot summary for a lot of YA books about young relationships (minus the 1980s, probably), Rowell really has a gift for putting you inside the heads of our titular protagonists. The chapters are divided between the two POVs. Many shared moments are expanded for the reader, as they first read how Eleanor experienced something, then read how Park perceived the same event. Other chapters are internal revelations exclusive to that character; hard, secret truths about sincerity, identity, sex, family dysfunction, and abuse. I listened to this book on Overdrive, and the two voice actors reading as Eleanor and Park did a wonderful job.

Eleanor is the new girl on the school bus, a curvy girl with wild red hair and bright, unusual clothing like mens’ Hawaiian print shirts and scarves tied all around her arms. Park is a Korean-American teen who’s into punk rock and getting a driver’s license. When he gruffly tells her she can sit next to him on the bus that first awkward day, he sets off a chain of interactions that will bring them closer and closer together until they can’t bear to be apart. Sharing comic books and mix tapes, they are two bright, hopeful blossoms on the incredibly bleak landscape of their drab neighborhood, which Eleanor refers to as The Flats. Eleanor challenges Park and confuses him, in love with him but unable to fully trust the intentions of anyone around her. Park wants to love Eleanor forever, though at 16 years old, she skeptically remarks several times that they are no Romeo and Juliet.

It’s a real, raw story about falling in love for the first time, facing your demons, and listening to The Smiths on the way to school. I would highly recommend it.

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#11. The Giver by Lois Lowry

giverI have to begin this post by expressing my satisfaction with Overdrive, a library lending app that allows you to borrow eBooks and Audiobooks from your local library right to your devices. It is wonderful. I am actually a bit disappointed that I have not used it until now, but I intend on utilizing it quite a bit from now on.

I used to listen to Audiobooks quite a bit when I was living in Iowa City. I walked, biked, or took the bus wherever I needed to go, and I had ample time to listen to stories on my 20 minute walks to work, or on a solo bus ride to Coralville. One summer I listened to probably 10 full novels, since I had picked up hours working at the library removing old RFID tags from our entire collection of media. Well, this past month I have taken up walking and running once or twice a week, and remembered how much I used to enjoy Audiobooks. Browsing Overdrive, I saw that The Giver was available. A beloved elementary school classic, it was a title I had often seen but never picked up for myself.

The Giver is a science fiction tale of Sameness. In the Community where Jonas has grown up, all the dwellings are the same. All the people are ultimately the same, a certain number of each young age group with the same tunics and hairstyles and bicycles. But to Jonas and his friends, it is a secure world. It is very safe and ordered in the Community, with simple family units expressing their feelings each evening and doing their Community-assigned jobs. There is no pain in his world, no confusion. But Jonas feels a little different than the other children in his Age 11 group. He can see things in ordinary objects that other people cannot, perceive small changes in things like apples or strands of hair. He doesn’t understand these odd visions until he receives his job assignment and meets The Giver. Through him, Jonas learns to question the rules and order of his Community, and even the people he cares for the most. And after he has received what The Giver has shared with him, he knows he can never go back to living the way he did before.

This is an excellent dystopian novel, and although it was written as a children’s book, its deceptively simple language and dark themes make it just as compelling for adult reading.

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#7. Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk

survivorA few weeks ago I started (and promptly finished) Survivor, a book that was recommended to me long ago and has been sitting — neon orange — on my bookshelf for the better part of a year. I have become quite a fan of Palahniuk’s novels over the last five years by bits and pieces, and the rapid, increasingly bizarre narrative in Survivor did not disappoint.

Tender Branson: fundamentalist terrorist? Domestic servant doused in bad luck? Or does the universe have a plan for even its most lost inhabitants?

Tender is one of the last surviving members of a death cult, checked on frequently by a listless social worker and called nightly by misguided souls on his phony suicide hotline. In the course of his lackluster existence, which he constantly questions as his fellow Creedish peers dwindle, he meets Fertility. She claims she can see the future, and Tender claims he doesn’t intend on having one. Between mysterious murders, premonitions, tips for getting blood out of fur coats, and a sudden media hype around Tender as a spiritual giant, Survivor tells a story about our contradictory desires for both destruction and redemption.

I quite enjoyed this book. The characters are complex individuals, sad people who make unreasonable, devastating choices but who don’t know many alternatives. The story of Tender Branson’s life is told by Tender himself into the black box of a hijacked airplane. It’s a thrilling set-up from the first page…Oh, that’s another interesting feature of the book: the page numbers are backwards, so as you read the book the pages count down to the end.

3, 2, 1.

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#5. Fragile Things & #6. Coraline by Neil Gaiman

FragileThingsShortFictionsandWondersPS_PaperbackPS_1213846460After reading American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane last year, I thought I might dive in to the other Gaiman books on my shelf.

Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things is a short story/poetry collection full of creepy vignettes and heartfelt nostalgia. I was blown away just by the first paragraph of the first story, a Sherlock Holmes/H.P. Lovecraft mashup of sorts called “A Study in Emerald.” What if the Old Ones…came? And then life continued as normal? It is ingeniously written, blending the narrative deftness of a detective story and the weighty gloom of supernatural horror, and got me excited for the remainder of the book. Some of my other favorites from this collection are “October in the Chair,” “Locks,” “Instructions,” “Feeders and Eaters,” “Goliath,” “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” and “Sunbird.” Fairy tales, body horror, flying saucers, even a brief immersion into the Matrix universe — the creativity and diversity are so impressive!

Coraline is a delightful book, one I have been meaning to read for quite some time now. I thoroughly enjoyed the film that came out, and even had the very great privilege to talk to Henry Selick about it at SXSW in 2009. Coraline is a bright young girl who considers herself an expert explorer. Though she feels her parents and her life are fairly dull, she learns to be brave under some nightmarish circumstances that occur in her very own house. The edition I read was filled with amazing artwork, including some particularly frightening images of the Other Mother.

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Can you tell that I was a little bit into Coraline? Coraline/me, right. Flo the Progressive Lady/Delia, left.

Does anyone have any more Neil Gaiman recommendations for me?

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#3. Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan (Illustrated by Maira Kalman)

Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.

From this simple dictum comes Food Rules, full of crowdsourced advice and generations-old common sense about not just what we eat, but how we eat and how we connect to the part of our life that has to do with food. It’s short, it’s poignant, and it will make you very hungry.

I definitely, definitely, definitely recommend the illustrated edition of the book. Maira Kalman brings these loose rules to life with humor and rich color.

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