Beartown Duology by Frederik Backman

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“Bears shit in the woods and everyone else shits on Beartown.”

Fredrik Backman is one of my favorite modern authors. There’s an increasingly small number of his works that I haven’t read. My Backman journey began in March 2017 with A Man Called Ove. Eleven months later, I saw Backman’s newest book, Beartown, was available on Audible and, without knowing a single thing about it, I purchased it and began listening…

“Everyone has a thousand wishes before a tragedy, but just one afterward.”

For those who are unaware of this fact, Beartown is about a girl who was raped and the ripple following this tragedy. Because of this, there are a few incredibly intense, somewhat graphic scenes. The audiobook may also magnify the intensity of these elements. Nevertheless, if you can make it through these, there is a treasure worth seeking. Backman has a sharper, clearer perspective on life and the way a community of people functions together in the wake of controversial tragedy than anyone I have ever read.

“What is a community? It is the sum total of our choices.”

Beartown feels real. Painfully real. As someone who grew up in a small town, some of the “mob scenes”, so to speak, were incredibly relatable. Morality becomes vague in the surge of consensus and conflicting interests. What was formerly black and white becomes grey. A cliff becomes a slope. Oftentimes, it is the loudest, most determined voice that prevails. Backman observes moral decline and offers a powerful commentary on society. It is his “state of the union” address to the whole world and it has the power to shatter you.

“Loneliness is an invisible ailment.”

Unfortunately, Beartown would have been better left standing solo. Its follow-up novel, Us Against You lacked much of the reality and poignance that made Beartown so magnificent. Perhaps Backman felt as though he had unfinished business in Beartown. The story leaves one with a partially resolved unease, so I can see why this would be his feelings. In Beartown, Backman simply seems content to offer his thoughts on humanity and the various dynamics of a community. In Us Against You, however, he seems compelled to offer hope, closure, and comfort to both reader and characters. I would not discourage reading Us Against You, as it did have some merit on its own. I just caution you to not expect the quality brought to us in Beartown.

If you have wondered what makes a person, a family, a community shatter…if you have wondered how to pick up broken pieces without knowing when or how they broke…then Beartown may offer some comfort (or, sadly, familiarity) to you.

It is a story that will challenge the way you think and act. It will, if you let it, impact the way you live today, tomorrow, and forever.

“We stand tall if you stand tall.”

Buy Beartown Here

Buy Us Against You Here

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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I don’t understand the point of being together if you’re not the happiest.

My mind is Gillian Flynn’s bouncy ball. Up, down, over, up, down, up…

This book toyed with my heart and mind more than any book has done in a long time. Imagine the emotional turmoil that Titanic leaves you with (yes, the pain is still very fresh for me as I saw it for the first time just over a week and a half ago), but this time your mind is sucked in too. I hated this book. I loved this book. I still don’t know what to make of it.

I picked up this book knowing three things about it:

  1. It was called Gone Girl
  2. It was by Gillian Flynn
  3. It was (is) extremely popular

The whole book I was trying to discover if it was a thriller, horror, romance, etc. I have finished the book and I still don’t know how to categorize it. This is an incredible work of art. Flynn’s characters are unpredictable yet believable. Her twists had me yelling in my empty apartment at my kindle. A few times I actually thought I was gonna pass out. I simply couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to satisfy my burning curiosity.

Now, there are a few things I just have to mention. Not to take away from the magnificence of this heart-wrenching book, but just a few things that my conscience was poking at me for. Language and sexual content. The sexual content, it can be argued, was contextual. I think it was a bit excessive and more explicit than I would prefer, but you can dismiss me as a conservative and plunge right in if you like. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. The language was, without doubt, excessive and not entirely contextual. I think fifty pages could have been shaved off Gone Girl had each profane word been removed. As with every review, I want to remind you that this is not a reason to avoid the book, but rather to assist you in your efforts to read with discernment.

Here is typically where I would include a summary about the book. I can barely do so without adding spoilers. Nick is a lazy husband who thought he could maintain the fires of love without ever adding more kindling. Amy is a wife with a long past and a sharp mind. One day—their fifth anniversary, actually—Amy goes missing.

If you are emotionally secure…mentally stable…and okay with those two things changing, then this book is for you! Any book that makes me think about it almost nonstop for days after reading it is a must-read.

Buy Gone Girl Here

Holding Up The Universe by Jennifer Niven

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“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” – Albert Camus

I hesitate to write this review, which is why I decided to hide behind the great Albert Camus would be a wise way to start. To give a bit of background, earlier this year I read All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven and it instantly became a favorite of mine. To go even further in depth, I am a sucker for YA romance. Everything, Everything is one of my all-time favorite books. Oftentimes, I find myself wondering at what point is a story too cheesy for my liking (I have yet to hit that point in a YA book I’ve finished, shockingly). Some amazing ones I have read recently are:

Everything I Never Told You

All the Bright Places

Everything, Everything

The Sun is Also a Star

Before I Fall

This is a genre I am fairly new to, but one I have quickly grown to like. I like the innocence, the flirtatiousness of it. I enjoy the ways these books grip my heart and do with it as they please. But, to cut to the heart of it, I did not like Holding Up the Universe. I feel this book could have been very great. In fact, I remarked to my fiancée today that this would have been a great book if Jodi Picoult had written it. I felt that Jennifer Niven compromised. She went for something bold but then made choices along the way that undermined the otherwise stellar premise and purpose of the novel.

Holding Up the Universe is about Jack Masselin and Libby Strout. Jack has prosopagnosia, which is the inability to recognize faces, even those of his loved ones. Libby Strout has made her way into the news as “America’s Fattest Teen”. This book has received lots of criticism about being insensitive towards issues such as obesity, anxiety, and cognitive disorders. I do not think it is insensitive, at least not intentionally. I just do not think Niven did enough research.

The characters felt very faked and flat. Their two-dimensionality made it hard to fall in love with them and that’s even with listening to a well-done audiobook version of it from Audible. Their relationships, interactions, and lives felt too constructed and I was not very engaged or interested in what happened with them. But the plot was the reason I stuck with it.

***SPOILER ALERT DO NOT READ THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO SEE A SPOILER***

Halfway through the book, Libby and Jack expectedly fall in love. Three-quarters through, they break-up. It is here that I became re-intrigued. Again, I love a good romance as much as the next guy or girl, but I also love things that are unique, which this seemed to be shaping up to be. The book took a turn and it began to be about finding meaning within yourself and not seeking acceptance and fulfillment from other people as your identity. And then it happened. Right at the end of the book, as the two characters have come to terms with who they are and accepted it…they fall back in love and the final quote is from Jack who says when he is with Libby, he is home. Moreover, he suddenly can identify Libby’s face…even though I don’t think that’s how a cognitive disorder works. I felt that Niven had built to an amazing point with a great message and then let it all fall flat at the end.

***SPOILERS OVER***

To sum up what you may have missed, Niven basically ruined her entire book in the final pages. It was sitting at about a three-star read for me before the end and then it fell to a two-star. This all being said, I understand that some people do enjoy this book and the characters. I would caution you. This is not a particularly good YA romance. See the list of books above if you would like a better one to read. A hearty round of applause for All the Bright Places, but a disappointed shoulder slump for this novel. I guess I’ll just have to go read Everything, Everything yet again to make up for it…

Buy Holding Up the Universe Here

Almost, Maine by John Cariani

“Here I am at the end of the world, and I have nowhere to go, so I was counting on staying here.”

For no identifiable reason, this play stole my heart. It is everything a good play should be—witty, charming, magical, satirical, sappy—the only issue is it seems to make absolutely no sense at face-value. If you dig a little bit deeper…it still makes no sense.

Almost, Maine is a set of nine beautifully satirical vignettes that I would call “the anatomy of love” (Almost, Maine is truly a better title; this is why I don’t name things). It addresses nearly every facet of love—a rather impressive feat. It’s a whimsical work, with a weight and depth far surpassing expectations. Through the tears of laughter, one suddenly realizes that there is a dark reality to these short, seemingly comical scenes.

“Almost” is not quite a town but also not a nothing either.

EAST: You’re in unorganized territory. Township Thirteen, Range Seven. It’s not gonna be on your map, cause it’s not an actual town, technically.

GLORY: What do you mean?

EAST: See to be a town, you gotta get organized. And we never got around to getting’ organized, so…we’re just Almost.

“Almost” is a place anything can happen from love. Medical conditions can heal, hearts can literally break, love can be measured in bags, and people can shrink from the loss of love and hope. This play made me think several times of Brother’s Grimm Fairy Tales and the Wizard of Oz. Except this one bit harder. There are portions that cause you to laugh until you are stopped short by the shocking realization that it is an accurate representation of the beautiful beast called love.

It is rather hard for me to put this review into words. If you are comfortable reading plays, I highly recommend this one. It is a stunningly clear commentary on the most blinding of things, a voice cutting through an unknown silence. The main reason I am unsure how to approach this review is because with most satirical works the author is trying to point out some issue that requires attention and usually some level of maintenance and repair and change. But this does not particularly feel like an attack on love. Instead, it felt like he had finally gotten to the heart of what love truly is in many regards.

“You can be hurt and be bleeding or bruised…”

Some of the downsides to this play is that it does not have an extremely specific and observable plot. The characters are lovable, though, and the scenes are poignant and thought-provoking. Certainly worth the short amount of time it takes to get through it.

One more thing: this play is difficult to find. I do not think it is available on Kindle and my library seemed to have no idea it even exists. However, there is a place online that has the full text.

“I won’t be able to love you back. I have a heart that can pump my blood and that’s all. The one that does the other stuff is broken. It doesn’t work anymore.”

Buy Almost Maine here

Caraval by Stephanie Garber

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Rare is it that I finish a book, stand up, and clap out loud for it. A tip of the hat and a bow to Stephanie Garber. Whimsical, fantastical, breathtaking, this novel appealed to me for so many reasons.

1. I’m a sucker for YA romance. I know to many it’s the worst things ever but oh well get over yourself.

2. I’m an enormous fan of books that can make me feel something. This book had me (still has me) on my toes. I trusted no one, no situation, nothing. I embarked on the rollercoaster under the stars, plummeting through darkness. And the smells! Oh goodness the smells and sights and feels in this book. I may just read it over immediately to enjoy it again. It’s as though I could smell and taste and feel the astounding game of Caraval. Truly breathtaking work of art.

3. Often times in books with many twists the twists become so many that the plot no longer makes sense. Not so with Caraval. This book twists and turns like no other and leaves me wanting more. It piques my curiosity and engulfs my mind and heart in an insatiable thirst for more Caraval and, namely, for answers to all my questions.

All in all probably one of my favorite books I’ve read all year. 5-stars for this awe-inspiring book.

Buy Caraval Here