Book Review: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

“Hope is a powerful thing. Some say it’s a different breed of magic altogether. Elusive, difficult to hold on to. But not much is needed.” 

Caraval is a wonderous place of magic. Scarlett has always dreamed of going, but her Caravalcruel father will never allow it. When she receives tickets to Caraval as a gift from the infamous Caraval Master Legend himself, Scarlett and her sister Tella run away to attend the show with the help of a handsome sailor. Shortly after their arrival however, Legend kidnaps Tella, and Scarlett soon learns that Tella’s disappearance is part of the Caraval game, and whoever finds her first wins. With the help of the mysterious sailor and other characters of intrigue along the way, Scarlett embarks on a dangerous adventure into the heart of Caraval to find and save her sister.

I am not a big fan of young adult novels (yet I somehow keep reading them), so my expectations of this book were somewhat low simply based on the genre, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much I really enjoyed this reading experience. Yes, the protagonist is frustrating in her naïveté at times, but I understand that’s part of her figuring things out and growing as a person in the YA experience. Despite that, I loved this book and could not put it down! It is captivating and imaginative and kept me wondering and guessing at every twist and turn as to what would happen next.

Marketers have heavily compared this book to Night Circus, and there is a little bit of truth in that, mostly in the sense that there is magic and mystery and secrets. There are also complicated relationships, both romantic and familial, but the premise is not so much a competition between star-crossed lovers but rather a race against time for a girl to find her sister as part of an elaborate game.

The descriptions in this book of the many sights, sounds, and characters conjured fantastical images in my mind. I loved imagining all of the costumes and dresses specifically. The story is visually very interesting, and I can easily see this book made into a movie.

The story is magical, creative, dark, and even a little racy via the dark allure of some characters and some passionate romantic scenes as well. There are endless twists and turns that play out in a magical world so you can never be sure what is real and what is true. It is a fun and exciting read that kept me guessing and wondering to the very end.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Book Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

“We wear clothes, and speak, and create civilizations, and believe we are more than wolves. But inside us there is a word we cannot pronounce and that is who we are.” 

The setting is war-torn Chechnya in 2004. Explosions and disappearances are a way of life. After watching the Russian feds arrest his friend and set his house on fire, Akhmed is relieved to find his friend’s 8-year old daughter Havaa hiding in the woods and knows he must take her to a safe place. Sonya, a talented and overworked surgeon who is Constellationhaunted by the disappearance of her sister, agrees to take in Havaa in exchange for Akhmed’s help at the hospital. Meanwhile, someone is still looking for Havaa.

The heart of the plot takes place over only 5 days, but the whole story unfolds through various character perspectives and flashbacks throughout the previous ten years. At first the setting distracted me from everything else. I knew next to nothing about the Chechen wars and paused in between chapters to do some research and get a better understanding of the history. I was shocked to learn how much of the historical context of the novel is true, but it helped me grasp what the characters were facing and trying to endure.

The book gracefully dives head first into the strength and resilience that people are capable of when duty and dignity calls for it while highlighting the lasting effects of traumatic experience.  The story comes full circle, intertwining together the fates of the characters, materializing meaning in unexpected ways. While there is some hopeful resolution, there also remains a sense of emptiness and loss, which solidifies the book’s powerful impact.

In this book war is life. It’s a haunting story that transported me to a place I’m thankful I’ve never actually been, but it’s important to have exposure to perspectives and experiences different from your own to see what the world for others can be like. This book provided that for me, and it still left me hopeful.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Book Review: The Last One by Alexandra Oliva

“They’ll wait until I’m asleep – or nearly asleep – to strike. That’s how they do it; they blur the line between reality and nightmare. They give me bad dreams, and then they make them come true.” 

Twelve contestants compete in a new survivalist reality TV show, one that is rumored to LastOnehave unprecedented reach and special effects. As the contestants compete in teams as well as individually, they begin to understand the lengths to which the show producers will go. After the solo challenge begins, catastrophe strikes, and the contestant we know as Zoo struggles to decide what is reality TV and what is true reality.

Two words: dramatic irony. Dramatic irony exists when the reader knows things that the characters inside the story do not know. This book is dramatic irony to the extreme. Through most of the book, the reader has highly important information about which the protagonist is in the dark. For me personally, I struggle with dramatic irony. I prefer to learn information at the same time as the characters so that I’m embarking on their journeys with them. Knowing things that the characters don’t is a major source of anxiety and frustration for me as part of the reading experience, and it is not a style that I particularly enjoy. It was a hard book for me to endure.

That said, this book is still great. Aside from my own struggles with dramatic irony, this story is interesting, entertaining, and does a great job of exploring the psychological aspects of human nature and behavior under duress. It’s dark and captivating and attention grabbing. I really liked the varying reality TV personalities. Their characters and actions were consistent with a reality TV setup, and the insight into editing and production manipulation was on point (speaking as someone who worked in reality TV production). Zoo’s internal dialogue felt repetitive and a little long at times, but I like the juxtaposition of her solo journey with that of the reality show plot and how they unfolded together.

If you like dark books laden with suspense, unease, and exasperation, this book is for you. The agony of the anticipation lasts all the way to very last page. It’s an intense read that is very well written and grabs ahold of you from the start.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Book Review: American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis

“The only thing with less character than Chardonnay is wainscoting.” 

A Manhattan housewife lures in and befriends the doormen at her building, but her motive is not what you think. A woman provides a “relocation” service for pageant girls. A writer stands her ground while competing on a reality TV show. From book club secrets to life advice from cats, this collection of twelve stories is darkly comedic yet also steeped in truth.

AmericanHousewifeThe book satirizes the dark side of the feminine mind and the interplay of catty and manipulative relationships. It also emphasizes the strength and intelligence of the female characters as well, ringing the bell of truth at times. I found myself smiling and shaking my head, relating to them and laughing in part at the silliness of myself. I chuckled aloud a few times but then felt slightly disturbed at other times. The characters are witty, sassy, and sinister.

The title led me to think that all of the stories are related to the lives of women who do not work, but that is not the case. Some are housewives, some are writers, and some are undefined, creating a wider range of topics and themes. Also, not all of the stories are plot based. Some of them are written as simple advice or commentary, and I think the piece called Take It From Cats is the best.

However, I much prefer the plot driven stories. My favorites are Dumpster Diving with the Stars, Dead Doormen, and My Novel Is Brought to You By the Good People at Tampax. I loved the incessant and ludicrous procrastination of the character in the last story!

The stories are strange and creative and all very different.  It is a great collection that has something for everyone.

3.5 out of 5 stars

This Is Not About Kittens (Okay, Maybe A Little)

I may not always know what to say, but I continue to daydream and trust that words will come. Writing makes me look closer at things. It leads me to ponder things more deeply and to consider them from different perspectives.

Sometimes when I’m stuck on what to write, I tell the person closest to me about it. Giving voice to the obstacle sometimes helps me to work through it. My husband K in an effort to be supportive offers ideas, which usually consist of recent experiences that he and I had together. His latest suggestion involved kittens.

We recently went to look at a house going up for sale. It was a major fixer-upper but had great character. As we explored the big backyard, a strange noise floated up above the wind in the trees and rung in my ears. I froze, listening hard, and there the sound came again. Kittens!

I followed the high-pitched mewing to a stone fountain broken into pieces and IMG_0566overturned in a bed of monkey grass. There I found him – a tiny gray kitten, the giver-away of the hiding spot. I picked him up and snuggled him close to me as K scooped up his three siblings. They were so small and sweet yet fierce with their sharp claws in permanent protrusion from their soft padded kitten feet.

When we first ventured into the backyard, K and I saw a couple of adult cats watching us cautiously before jumping the fence and taking off. One of those was likely the mama of these kittens. Their place of refuge was a good one, complete with multiple hiding spots and cover from sun and rain. They ran to each other and huddled together as we placed them back where we found them, confident that their mom would return.

I thought about the kittens all that night and the next day. I tried not to worry, trusting that the mama cat would do her best because that’s the nature of things. Still, K and I brought over some kitten food. We quietly crept into the yard, anticipating listening for the sounds of mewing, but the stone fountain and monkey grass were empty. We searched the yard and called for the kittens but to no avail. Mama cat did her job and moved them to a new place, a safer place. We set out the food anyway just in case and silently wished the kittens well.

I appreciated K’s suggestion to write about this experience, but I decided against it. What was the moral of the story? What was the point? Yet I continued to think about it, to replay the events in my head, and as I did, the seeds of those thoughts began to grow and spark questions in my mind.

Those questions sparked conversations between K and I – philosophical conversations, and from there I have continued to ponder and question a plethora of beliefs and ideas, reconsidering my perspective on certain things I have thought to be true, all because I found some stray kittens and thought about the experience more deeply than usual.

I realized that finding those kittens and reflecting on the story gave me insight. I did not know it at the time, but it was an experience that for a few minutes caused me to be present and thankful.  From that experience I was able to appreciate the small moments that make me see and feel something outside my normal realm and routine. It distracted me from myself and presented something new and wonderful. From there I could reflect on writing, on what I wanted to say.

This is why I don’t simply give up when I don’t know what to say when I write.  Writing has made me more conscientious of my world. I realized that I don’t write so much as to make an impact as to influence. I write because the act influences me. It makes me a better person, and it has given me a better and happier life.

Book Review: One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

“The law of probability combined with the law of large numbers states that to beat the odds, sometimes you have to repeat an event an increasing number of times in order to get you to the outcome you desire. The more you do, the closer you get. Or… basically, sometimes you just have to keep going.”

Ed is a software company mogul accused of insider trading, suspended from work, and OnePlusOnewho is avoiding facing his family. Jess is a single mom working two jobs and struggling to provide for her daughter Tanzie, stepson Nicky, and giant dog Norman. When Tanzie, a child highly gifted in math, has a chance to compete in an elite math competition and potentially win enough money to secure a place at a respected private school, Jess will do what it takes to make it happen. Her world collides with Ed’s through a few chance encounters, and Ed suddenly finds himself invested in helping Jess and her kids (and Norman) make it to the math competition, which is just a road trip away. Shenanigans ensue, secrets are revealed, and bonds are forged and strengthened.

Jojo Moyes is a talented writer who creates interesting and memorable characters. This book is no different. Although for me it didn’t quite have the emotional impact as some of her other books, this one is still a rollercoaster ride as the characters struggle to overcome personal challenges. None of them are perfect, and that’s what makes them so relatable yet also unique.

I’m a sucker for the dog in any story, especially a lovable one like Norman who plays a part in the family dynamics and in the plot. I love Jess’s supermom character. Her desperation to provide sometimes propels her forward without thinking her decisions all the way through, but her heart is always in the right place. She is the guiding force for her kids Tanzie and Nicky and is an easy character to root for, even when she’s kicking in the side of someone else’s car. Ed, who is much more selfish, is less likable, but he grew on me through redemptive interactions with Jess and her family. All of the characters learn, grow, and change, which makes for a satisfying read.

This book explores the concepts of family support systems, unconditional love, honesty, and forgiveness. The bullying plot line is a hard and frustrating one, as it should be, but it emphasizes the important themes of leaning to be true to oneself, regardless of the opinions of others. It’s a great story complete with fun, laughs, tears, and drama, and it’s another great book by Jojo Moyes.

4 out of 5 stars

The Unseen World by Liz Moore: A Book Review

“Only humans can hurt one another, Ada thought; only humans falter and betray one another with a stunning, fearsome frequency… She would fail other people throughout her life, inevitably, even those she loved best.” 

Ada’s father David is the most important thing to her. For thirteen years David has beenUnseenWorld her teacher, her best friend, her guide. Ada’s life has revolved entirely around him and his work in his computer science lab, so when David begins to forget things and disappear for hours at a time, Ada’s world as she knows it rapidly changes. As David’s mind disintegrates, Ada must navigate the coming years without him. Life grows more complicated as she moves in with her father’s long time friend, and evidence surfaces that David may not be the person she thinks he is.

I think the experience of admiring and idolizing a parent and then gradually realizing that parents are fallible human beings is something to which everyone can relate.   The reverence with which Ada views her father is so powerful that it’s easy to feel the confusion, frustration, and protectiveness that Ada feels when her father’s health begins to decline.  The relationship between father and daughter is the foundation of the story, and the author does a wonderful job of portraying some of the complexities of that relationship.

The characters are clearly written and consistent, their actions aligning with their personalities so the interpersonal dynamics work well and were convincing. The last third of the book felt a less cohesive for me during the jumps in time back and forth to Ada’s adulthood. I didn’t connect as strongly to the older Ada as I did to the younger one, but perhaps that that’s because we spend less time with her in her adulthood than in her youth.

Still, I liked this book much more than I anticipated. The pacing was consistent through most of the book, and the cryptology as well as the mystery surrounding David’s history and eccentricity kept me interested. As the beginning of the story unfolded, I had so many questions about Ada and her upbringing. I felt like I was slowly turning these small corners, each one revealing another piece of the puzzle, which kept me wanting to keep going along with Ada as things began to unravel.

4 out of 5 stars