Over the past month or so I’ve sped through Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy of books set in Gilead, Iowa (I’m calling it a trilogy here because there are three of them and they are connected. This is not a trilogy in the standard sense though).

Robinson won the Pulitzer (2005) for Gilead (as well as a bunch of other awards) and it’s not at all hard to see why. It takes the form of a journal or letter that John Ames, an aging minister in Gilead, is writing to his young son. Ames recounts stories from his life, stories about his family, and of growing up in a family of ministers, and weaves them together with pieces of wisdom — trying to leave some semblance of information and guiding faith for his son after he is gone.

Now I am not a religious person. And, were I religious, I would be the “wrong” religion for this book. And yet I still felt that it spoke to me on a deep and personal level. Gilead is a book of quiet contemplation. Faith is an important part, but it felt like less of a faith in a Christian God (though there are passages from the Bible) and more of a belief in being and doing good.

Home is the second of the Gilead books and it focuses of the happenings at the Boughton (Ames’s lifelong friend — a Presbyterian pastor) household. At age 30, Glory Boughton has returned to her childhood home to take care of her ailing father. Her brother, Jack — the prodigal son, absent for 20 years — returns to the old house as well and both try to make peace with painful pasts.

This book is, again; fantastic. The minutia of the characters’ interactions (and how the information gained adds to what the reader knows from Gilead) is superb.

While Gilead and Home take place (mostly) simultaneously, much of Lila takes place much earlier. This book exposes the motivations and inner thoughts of Lila — Ames’s younger wife.

I must confess that I liked this book the least of the three — though it’s possible that this is due in part to the fact that the voice is incredibly different (almost jarringly so). Lila lives a rough life before she meets and marries Ames — a fact that is hinted at, but never fully revealed in earlier books. Gilead and Home are quiet and internal. Lila focuses a great deal on trust — both her trust of others and their trust of her. There are more characters who feature in this book and influence Lila’s life in various ways. It’s not that she doesn’t have agency — she takes control often enough — but she doesn’t seem to recognize her own role in things.

As previously mentioned, I read these in pretty quick succession, so I’ll be interested to see if my feelings change about Lila if/when I read it with more distance from the other narratives.

I can see how Robinson’s style might not be for everyone. These books are pretty much entirely character-driven, so for those who with little patience for stories where “nothing happens,” you might want to skip these. Her prose is amazing though, and though this isn’t fantasy or scifi, it almost feels like world-building in a weird way in that readers get such a nuanced look into the lives of these characters.

Lila came out in October, and you can really start with any of these since it isn’t a trilogy/series in the traditional sense. I tend to think that reading them in the order they were released (Gilead, then Home, then Lila) reveals and builds on information in a fascinating way, but it’s really personal preference. Honestly, whichever one you can get your hands on is the one you should start with.

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This review is qualified by the fact that I have not yet read Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, which incorporates tales of her adolescence with social commentary and observations of women’s lives. How to Build a Girl, though not strictly autobiographical, appears to draw on many of the same experiences as an adolescent music writer. I cannot personally speak to any similarities, but some Goodreads reviews (which should generally be taken with the largest possible grain of salt) suggest there are enough to be distracting.

There you have it. That’s my disclaimer/fair warning/what-have-you. Onward!

I really enjoyed this book. It felt bold and awkward and earnest and so very teenaged. So many of the experiences (particularly with her exploration of early sexuality) and her reactions/rationalizations are incredibly cringeworthy. Johanna, our protagonist, does not experience her feminist awakening quite as early as I want her to (despite her nod to the Riot Grrrl movement), but as much of this book reads like a reflection I can almost view this as her older self looking back with a “hindsight is 20/20” attitude.

Johanna reinvents herself as a drinking, smoking, hellion as a way not only to save her family, but to escape emotionally from her poverty and uncertainty-ridden family life. When she is her alter-ego she is a shameless and ruthless— talking explicitly about sex with rockstars and ripping bands to shreds.

But what happens when Johanna stops to look at this persona she has built and realizes that it isn’t so great?

How to Build a Girl is speckled with words of wisdom about growing up, getting better, and becoming the person you want to be.

The Luminaries — Review

November 24, 2014

Eleanor Catton won the Booker Prize for The Luminaries and while it took me a few tries to get into it, it is undeniably an impressive work of literary and historical fiction.

The book might be over 800 pages, but I don’t really have that much to say about it. It is a bigliterary fiction book. In listing the approximate page count I think I’ve lost some of you already and that’s fine, but for those of you still with me I do think that it is work the time investment.

The Luminaries is an intricate web of stories woven together with mystery, revenge, and fortunes lost and gained. There are pieces that don’t appear to be connected until the very end, which makes the last bit of the book really pay off.

This book definitely isn’t for everyone. It takes a while to get going and at first there isn’t much to really suggest why the reader should actually care about what’s happening, but if you give it a chance the intrigue of it all will pull you in.

If you have the patience for literary fiction that takes a little while to find the right pace, and enjoy historical fiction with different settings (New Zealand! Gold rush!) then I would definitely recommend this.

Save the Date — Review

November 9, 2014

Save the Date is about all (or, you know, some) of the weddings that author Jen Doll has been to and the crazy hijinks that have ensued. I have recently entered the season of life in which it seems everyone I have ever met is getting engaged, planning a wedding, and getting married. Apparently, the lasts for years. Needless to say, I look to books and humor to get me through these trying times.

I wanted to love this book, I really did. I enjoy all those wedding shows on TLC, as well as the scintillating Sunday brunch gossip of what crazy thing happened where, so how could I not love a book of wedding stories? Well somehow I managed it.

To start, the majority of Doll’s narratives feel… familiar — like these stories happen at pretty much every wedding happening every weekend.

This book is also presented as a sort of exploration of contemporary relationships, with Doll telling the reader about her relationship with each wedding date and what she may or may not have learned. This was somewhat infuriating after a while because, as in a sitcom, you find yourself pulling for a couple, only to find the beau replaced by a new incarnation in the next chapter. Obviously it’s real life and in the past, but her writing style left me feeling hopeful for one boyfriend’s prospects, only to be disappointed soon after.

The book had it’s moments. It’s pretty skim-able, but I’m not sure I would suggest buying it. Your public (or academic) library is your friend, folks!

Sabriel — Review

November 7, 2014

I initially decided to pick up Garth Nix’s Sabriel because it was one of those books that I kept hearing about every once in a while when talking about books and then we were coming up on the release of Clariel (which is part of that series) and there was so much buzz. So I got my act together and added it to my never-ending holds list at the library.

And I really liked it.

It has multiple forms of magic and a girl hero coming into her own and a snarky sidekick. What more could you possibly want?

There are hints of romance which I could really take or leave, but I get the impression it’s sort of important for plot things later on. In any case, the driving force of the plot in Sabriel is not the romance.

So here’s the thing. I enjoyed this book and went to find out which was the next book in the (then) trilogy (now it’s a series—Clariel is the fourth book). That’s when I realized it isn’t really a continuation of the story, though it is connected. At that point I decided that I wasn’t going to continue with the series.

Now if you follow me on instagram (which you should because I post all kinds of awesome book pictures … and sometimes pictures of my cat) then you’re calling shenanigans because you know that I picked up Lirael and Abhorsen in my last library visit. Well, everyone kept gushing about Clariel and as we’ve already established, I’m weak in the face of the giant monster that is book buzz.

So there you have it: I loved Sabriel and I buckled in my resolve to not read the rest of the series, so those reviews will show up at some point. Though I picked up four other books at the same time and have countless other ARCs and books I’ve bought that I should also be reading.

If we could just stop time for a bit so I could get some reading done that would be super.

We Need Diverse Books

November 7, 2014

I was initially going to write a long-ish expository post in which I’d ask you to think about your own reading habits as a child and the reading habits of children you know, then to think about the children’s, middle grade, and YA books you knew of, slowing leading you to the conclusion that we need diverse books, but I’m just going to jump straight there.

Walk down the aisle of any library or bookstore and pick up some books at random. Of the say 10 or 20 that you might pick up, how many do you think would be by women, people of color, or people in the LGBTQ community? How many of those books have protagonists who are people of color, in the LGBTQ community, are disabled, etc.? Feel free to actually do this exercise, but I can tell you that generally speaking, the answer is far too few.

We Need Diverse Books is a movement — now a nonprofit organization — that addresses this. They work with authors who write diverse books, as well as publishers, in order to produce more high-quality diverse books and get them into the hands of readers in the community.

There is nothing that I don’t love about this. Nothing.

And that’s why I’ve already donated to their Indiegogo campaign. I try not to make you guys spend money. I’m a huge advocate of using your public libraries and all that. But if ever there was a good cause that deserves your extra cash, this was it. Also, donations are tax-deductible, so it’s a win-win. The campaign is running through November 24 (though I’m sure they’ll take donations in other forms after the date).