I recently finished In the Garden of the Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson.

Larson is also the author of The Devil in the White City, which I read and reviewed not too long ago, as well as a number of other historical and true crime books.

Once again he is in his element — bringing to life the people, the place, the time period, and, in this case, the delicate and often tense atmosphere. And yet…

I struggled with this one. It felt much more like a biography of William Dodd — the American ambassador to Germany during Hitler’s rise to power — and less like a chronicle of the tensions and balancing act associated with their safety in Germany in the early Hitler years. I suppose I just had different expectations.

This was much more about Dodd and the embassy/State Department politics than I expected and less about the interactions with the Nazis. Even so, it is not lacking in drama or suspense. This was the early days of the Third Reich after all. I’d certainly recommend it, but be prepared for more history and biography and less intrigue and action.

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The Rowling Ruckus

July 26, 2013

So by now I’m sure you’ve heard all about the not-so-new J.K. Rowling book.

If not, let me bring you up to speed:

Back in April, J.K. Rowling quietly published The Cuckoo’s Calling, an old-school detective novel under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. It got pretty good reviews and sold reasonably well for a book by an unknown author. Then, somehow Rowling’s identity as Galbraith (or Galbraith’s identity as Rowling?) got out.

With enough distance, it appears the leak originated from the law firm representing Rowling, but at the time there was talk of super-observant (or dedicated) individuals noticing that Rowling and Galbraith shared an editor and publishing company and subsequently uncovering similarities in the writing styles present in The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Casual Vacancy. In any case, once Rowling was outed, she confirmed that she had, indeed, written the book as Galbraith.

Some have suggested that it was a marketing ploy, pointing to skyrocketing sales after the leak of Rowling’s role as author, but I really think that’s unlikely. Of course the sales soared; that’s to be expected, but it’s not like she needs the money.

J.K. Rowling is a billionaire (the first to become one through writing, I might add — this according to something I read on the internet that may or may not be reputable and I can’t remember where I saw it in order to check my sources. Let’s all agree that I’m a terrible academic/information professional and move on, shall we?).

Rowling has stated that she wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling under a pseudonym because she wanted to write without the pressure of other expectations. Thinking back to the hype leading up to the release of The Casual Vacancy, I can certainly understand that desire and I kind of wish that she’d been able to keep up the pseudonym a bit longer (both for her sake and because it would be so much more explosive when she revealed herself down the line). I find it interesting that her chosen pseudonym is male. I’m sure there is plenty that could be read into that, especially given her history (she was advised to use initials so that readers would not be put off by a book with a male protagonist written by a female author).

Anyway, I, like everyone else, heard about this book and immediately looked up the blurb. And, well, it looks really good. So I requested it from my public library branch… Along with what feels like half of New York. I am currently number 322 on the hold list for 26 copies. I don’t totally know how collection development works in public libraries of NYPL’s size, but it’s possible that they may acquire more copies since the book is in such high demand.

All of this hullabaloo also reminded me that I haven’t actually gotten around to reading The Casual Vacancy. Interestingly, I was able to get that from NYPL immediately. There’s probably a backed up hold list now, so I’ll need to read it before my loan period is up, but I felt a nice little surge of victory in beating that particular rush. So I’ll be reading and reviewing that in the (somewhat) near future.

I’ve also got a few other galleys and library books going, so stay tuned for a few other reviews.

Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why offers a window into a teenaged world affected by suicide. Clay receives a shoebox of cassette tapes. When he presses play, he hears Hannah Baker from beyond the grave and she says that he is on the list — the list of people whose actions have in some way contributed to her suicide. One side of each tape in the shoebox is another person’s story and once you’ve listened to all the tapes, you pass the shoebox on to whoever is after you on the list. These are Hannah’s rules.

We follow Clay as he listens to all thirteen stories — as he goes through the grieving process and tries to understand and how even with these reasons, it doesn’t feel like enough.

I’m left with mixed feelings about this book. I do think that depression, mental health, and suicide are important subjects that should be discussed in teen literature, but it is necessarily a touchy subject. Throughout Thirteen Reasons Why Asher sprinkles in allusions to warning signs to look for, but in many ways I feel like this book places too much of an emphasis on other people. Even in Hannah’s few attempts to reach out for help, we’re seeing more of the other people than her. (Almost) all of the stories are about what other people did and not how she reacted or really felt about these actions. She’s passing judgement from on high and condemning people, yet never really getting to the heart of the matter.

The redeeming moments come in some of the parts where Hannah does manage to reach out, or in Clay’s reactions to the information Hannah is sharing. Thirteen Reasons Why barely scratches the surface when it comes to showing how a suicide can shatter a community, but it does a good job of showing how it can shake an individual.

I would certainly recommend this book, especially to facilitate dialogue (the edition I had from the library even included a short interview with Jay Asher and a list of group discussion questions), but as with everything, readers should be aware that while it can increase awareness, this book by itself does not necessarily provide a comprehensive view of mental illness and teen suicide. It is, though,  a good place to start.

The Arrivals — Review

July 13, 2013

I picked up The Arrivals by Melissa Marr at BEA and was immediately sold on the story. Chloe wakes up after a night of drinking thinking that the hangover and guilt of ruining five years of sobriety are all she has to contend with. Except she doesn’t wake up in Washington, D.C., but a different world called the Wasteland where there are monsters aplenty, but answers to questions about why Chloe is there and how things work in this new world remain scarce.

The other Arrivals — Jack and Kitty, brother and sister from the Wild West; Edgar, a Prohibition-era bootlegger; Francis, a former hippie; Melody, a trigger-happy 50s housewife; and Hector, a former carnie— take Chloe back to camp and teach her the ropes, but things in the Wasteland are changing and Chloe has to adapt quickly while the others try to figure things out.

The Arrivals has everything — engaging characters, twists and turns, and a different world with all manner of strange inhabitants. Marr’s storytelling keeps you reading and guessing.

I loved reading about these characters and this world. Even before I finished I was starting to cross my fingers for a sequel (there’s no reason to expect one, but a girl can hope).

The Arrivals is a great summer read. It moves quickly and the characters are people with whom you wouldn’t mind spending a few hours. By the time it’s done you might find yourself wishing you’d read a bit slower.

It came out earlier this month from William Morrow Books, so venture forth to your local bookstore or library or what-have-you.

Matilda on Broadway

July 13, 2013

Last night I got to see Matilda on Broadway.

I’ve been so excited about this show. It started out in England (beginning in Stratford, then moving to the West End) and got great reviews. Matilda has finally come to New York where it has continued its streak of critical acclaim, winning a number of Tony’s, as well as additional awards in the theatre community.

But to be honest, even if the reviews were bad and the award committees indifferent, I would still have wanted to see Matilda. I love Roald Dahl’s books, and Matilda, with its emphasis on being true to yourself and the power of books, stories, and imagination has always had a special place in my heart. I own the movie adaptation of the book and watch it fairly often. Seeing the Tony performance just confirmed my burning need to see the show — it’s an adaptation of an awesome book and it looks spectacular!

So anyway, (due to circumstances I won’t go into here) a family friend was unable to use her tickets for the show and generously offered them to me.

And so, a dream came true.

Matilda was everything I could have hoped for and more. It was hilarious and heartbreaking, sweet and inspiring. The cast was superb. I can’t even begin to express my awe at the talent, especially considering the average age is so young.

My favorite line has to be when Matilda asks Ms. Honey, “am I strange?” I desperately wanted that to be on one of the t-shirts, but, alas, I remain unsatisfied. That is a missed merchandising opportunity if ever there was one!

But seriously, the show made Dahl’s story come alive. It’s magical and inspiring and I have to go read the book again. If you get a chance to see this show, I highly recommend it. I’d see it again in a heartbeat.