Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

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Virginia Woolf wrote: ‘English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache… the merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.’ And we’re such language based creatures that to some extent we cannot know what we cannot name. And so we assume it isn’t real. We refer to it with catch-all terms, like crazy or chronic pain, terms that both ostracize and minimize. The term chronic pain captures nothing of the grinding, constant, ceaseless, inescapable hurt. And the term crazy arrives us with none of the terror and worry you live with. Nor do either of those terms connote the courage people in such pains exemplify, which is why I’d ask you to frame your mental health around a word other than crazy.

I know that this is a very long quote to start my review with and I apologize. But it hit me hard as one of the best descriptions of what people with a mental-illness go through that I have read/heard in a very long time. I want everyone to read that passage.

I am not a John Green fan. I know that these days that’s a very unpopular thing to say but I’m just not. I read The Fault in Our Stars about 4 years ago and it was okay. But honestly just okay. I can’t remember if I read Paper Towns before or after I read TFIOS but I really hated that one. I read Let It Snow and couldn’t even finish John Green’s section. I think I tried Will Grayson, Will Grayson too and DNFed about 30 pages in. So I have given him a reasonable try and had given up.

When Turtles All The Way Down came out I thought the title was interesting and the cover attractive. But I had given up on John Green already so I was mostly ignoring the very small hype. But the other day I went with my best friend Elri to the library and I was picking out some easy vacation reads. TATWD was there and I looked at her and I grabbed the book, resolving to give him one last try and if I hated this book then never give his work a second glance ever again.

I did not hate this book.

There, I said it.

But I didn’t love this book either. I actually gave it 3 stars.

I think one of my biggest difficulties with John Green was that he tried too hard. He so desperately wanted to be deep that instead it felt cheesy to me. I think he might finally be getting to the maturity of a writer who can actually be deep. I also like that there weren’t a million and one f-words and incessant swearing and sexual language from the characters. This book was actually pretty PG. I’m not against some of that stuff in YA, but it can be a bit over the top and that’s how I’ve felt about his works in the past. This was refreshing to me from Green.

I liked Aza, I sympathized with her. I liked her best friend Daisy and I felt for what she had to put up with. I liked Davis too and how much he accepted Aza’s boundaries. Aza’s mom was sweet and Noah was too. I found the characters likable and the plot decent.

I don’t know why I didn’t love it. It may honestly be that I am still biased, I’ll admit to that. But it might also be that I felt that John Green is getting there, but isn’t quite there yet. I think I will give his next book a go. I might even consider buying this one as it is good enough to own. That says something right?

One final note: the texting actually resembled teenagers how teenagers text. FINALLY!

Buy Turtles All the Way Down here (you should do it, you know you want to, look how pretty it is).

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

This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

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Reese Witherspoon declared this her Reese’s Book Club X Hello Sunshine pick of October and so I decided to pick it up without any real knowledge of what the book was about. So I downloaded the audio and off I went on a journey with no expectations.

I loved it.

Honestly, every single second of this book was loved by me. It is a story of a family, a family in which the last born doesn’t want to be a “he” but rather a “she”, but really it is simply about a family.

I don’t tend to spend a lot of time reading LGBTQ+ books. I have read one or two, but I don’t personally seek them out like some of my friends do. Sometimes I feel like I really can’t relate to them at all because they seem to be pushing an agenda at times and then it can honestly come out seeming contrived to me. This book wasn’t contrived, this book was so real and so heart warming and yet heart breaking simultaneously.

Penn, the dad, was my favorite character. Maybe that I have ever come across in any book. The simple reason being he reminds me of Christian. Penn is a sweet man and all his moments are what will stick with me from this book. Staying in the ER so that he can talk to Rosie whenever she comes out, or maybe just so she will get a glimpse of him, because he wants to woo her. I loved that everyone did homework together under his supervision and only after he had made them “a really good snack”. I loved loved loved his stories that he told his wife and children (honest moment: Christian makes up stories for me regularly and this similarity may be the reason I most loved this book).

I think the biggest thing about this book is it simply felt so raw and real. You could have no relation to anyone LGBTQ+ or even really know anyone LGBTQ+, and you would still likely relate to this book in some way. Because reading (or listening to, like I did) this book feels like you have been invited to join the family. The characters were real and lovable and relatable and I felt like I knew them. In this book I laughed and I cried, I got anxious and fearful, and I had so much hope.

I don’t feel like I can adequately sum up this book. I don’t feel like I can give this book what it deserves in my review. I kept saying to Christian (and Elri, my best friend) “you have to listen to this book” and that’s my advice to you too. Whoever you are, whatever you are doing, stop and go listen to this book!

Buy This Is How It Always Is Here (I personally recommend the audio)

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

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

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She had just bought a three hundred and fifty thousand dollar diamond ring she didn’t much care for, a twenty-eight thousand dollar bracelet she quite liked, and a seven hundred and eighty-four thousand dollar pair of earrings that made her look like Pocahontas. For the first time in weeks, she felt bloody fantastic.

This book can be summed up as indulgent and dramatic. It is exactly what you would expect of this kind of chick-lit novel. Everyone is out to get everyone else, the younger generation spends wildly and the older generation are stingy and pretend they have no money at all, mothers hate daughter-in-laws and fathers just try and keep their wives happy.

I really enjoyed this novel (although when I originally heard the title I actually thought it was a biography). Once I started reading it I couldn’t put it down and finished the 403 pages in just over 48 hours. The characters weren’t necessarily likable or relatable, but they were juicy and I wanted to find out what would happen next.

I am not sure how I felt about Rachel Chu and Nicholas Young’s relationship. They were almost a side plot in my opinion whereas the book set them up as the main event. This was more a soap opera kind of book than anything else. So if you’re expecting a romance, I would warn you that it is not the kind of book where you read all about the characters love lives, it was more the kind of book where the romance was necessary to induce all the drama. But the drama was worth the read.

I am interested to see where this trilogy goes and so I will be reading China Rich Girlfriend. Hopefully on my next vacation as Crazy Rich Asians was the perfect beach read.

Buy Crazy Rich Asians Here

The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

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I was lying in bed, Christian’s new job meant that I couldn’t talk to him until after midnight so I was scrolling through Libby looking for a way to pass the hours. I clicked on “Available” and then “Audiobooks” and then “Romance”. This was at the top of the list. I thought it looked light and fun and comforting.

That is the story of how I found this book. I love romance novels, they’re my guilty pleasure, and with our wedding less than 6 months away I am enjoying them even more. I also love the royal family and a fan-fiction that mixes the love stories of Prince William and Kate Middleton and of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle seemed like a really good idea.

The thing is, while I really enjoyed the beginning of this book and the end of this book, the middle was long and dragged. Instead of being 454 pages, this book could have been around 250 or 300 and been far more enjoyable and engaging. About half way through the book I realized that they had been together (on-again-off-again) for four years and thought “where else could this go”. As a result what was supposed to be a fun and light read for me ended up being a chore to get through (I did really want to know how it ended) and having several hours of boring audio in there.

One final complaint is I got all mixed up with the names. Gemma, Emma, Eleanor… they were rather similar. And sometimes it felt like a character would disappear for a while and then return and I would have no idea who they were. This is a pet peeve of mine in books.

My advice to all you romance readers looking for a royal romance would be to give this a go. I thought the characters were fun and I did enjoy the story. However I wouldn’t recommend the audio as it is so long (about 18 hours) and I would be willing to skim through some of the scenes that felt repeated. The beginning and the end were all worth it in my opinion but, unfortunately, I have to give the book as a whole only 3 stars.

Buy The Royal We 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

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

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I normally would not choose to display the movie or TV show cover of a book but I have done so this time because its hype as a TV show is what got me to pick up this book in the first place.

“I wish I’d be murdered… Then I’d never have to worry again. When you die, you become perfect. I’d be like Princess Diana. Everyone loves her now.”

The people in this book are messed up. You spend a lot of time sitting there thinking “did I just read that?” and having to read it again because it’s almost impossible to take it in. This novel is not nice. It’s not an entertaining read. This is a psychological thriller/drama that will leave you feeling like you’ve read enough of them for a while.

One reviewer that I follow on Goodreads put it very well:

"You know how you eat a bag of potato chips? You pull it off the shelf, and you begin with a small handful. And then you take some more. And some more. And before you know it, you are just eating the whole thing. In one fell swoop.

And then you feel a little sick afterward. Not sick to your stomach, but sick that you gobbled all those chips and enjoyed them so dang much when they really aren't good for you AT ALL.

That's pretty much analogous to how I felt about this book."

There is messy stuff in this book. The sexual content (warning, the book is full of it) alone is horrific, often manipulative and sickening, and left me skipping a paragraph here or there. I wouldn’t suggest this to someone with a weak stomach as there is also a fair amount of gruesome content in it.

So why did I read it?

I read it because it was fascinating. Flynn is a fantastic writer who sucks you in and you want to see how this is all going to end. About 2/3 of the way through I found myself thinking I knew who the suspect was, and right at the very last minute, in the last couple of pages, she turned the whole thing on its head.

I also read it because it felt like watching a horror movie that had no music. Normally when you read a book you can sense that something is coming, sort of like the scary music in a horror movie, but this book would slap you across the face with something brand new and unexpected. It’s not often you get a book like that and so I wanted to keep reading.

Finally, I was interested in the way Flynn dealt with women. Throughout this book, women are grossly undervalued and it is believed that they are simply the decorative and gentle sex whose greatest purpose is to please men. She didn’t tell you how to feel about that, she just told you the story.

I would recommend this book mostly for how good Flynn’s writing is. I may even read another of her books simply for the pleasure of experiencing her brilliant pacing, writing and storytelling… but probably not for a while.

I am now off to read something lighter and happier.

Buy Sharp Objects 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