The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden

How can you not read a book with a title like that? Unfortunately, as books like The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu prove, books don’t always live up to their title. Emma Trevayne’s story of a young boy who helps support his family by robbing graves did not disappoint.

This book was written for 8 to 12 year olds, and I think it would capture that audience perfectly. The villain is suitably villainous the hero isn’t overly heroic and everyone gets the ending they deserve. The characters are developed well, the plot paces itself out perfectly and my only real complaint is that I wanted more of it.

Legends about fairies vary so much you can do just about anything you want with them. Trevayne juggles the mythology deftly, weaving it seamlessly into her story. That’s not always easy to do, but it flows so smoothly here, it seems effortless.

As an adult reader, I would have liked a little more depth to the story. Everything wrapped up a little too quickly and neatly to leave me really satisfied. On that basis, I’d give it a solid four stars. For the intended audience, an argument could be made for five out of five.

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Hyperbole and a Half

If we’re judging books by their covers, Hyperbole and a Half is a very satisfying book. It’s got a great heft to it, and it has thick, glossy pages that are color coded for each chapter, or comic, or whatever you want to call each section. For content though, it falls disappointingly short.

The first section is hilarious. It had my sister in tears, which doesn’t happen very often. Brosh makes a fine, strong start to her collection of comics. But she doesn’t live up to that initial promise. There are good bits here and there, but overall it is disappointing, and made more disappointing, in my opinion, by the high expectations set at the very beginning.

Not all of the comics are funny, nor are they all meant to be. But some of them struck me as downright sad. Not the ones about depression, which I’ve never struggled with and so won’t try to comment on, but just the ones about being an adult. Yes, motivating yourself to be a productive human being can be hard, but it’s not impossible. And for some reason, those comics struck a nerve with me.

On further reflection, I decided that I didn’t like her take on being an adult because it is everything that the previous generation likes to criticize millenials about. I won’t deny that some of what they say, and some of what Bosh portrays in her comics, doesn’t hit close to home, but millenials are more than capable of being responsible, mature, functioning adults. As someone who often has to struggle at work to make my older coworkers see me as an adult, it infuriates me to see millenials portraying themselves that way.

So maybe that’s just me being overly sensitive, but it sort of ruined the book for me. Also, I love dogs, have owned dogs my entire life and plan to continue doing so, but if all I knew about having pets came from this book, I would never in a million years consider getting one. Her dogs sound terrible. And I realize the title of the book is Hyperbole and that she probably exaggerates things for comedic purposes, but it struck me as too much.

Oddly enough, I think Bosh and I would get along pretty well. From what I can tell, there’s a lot of common ground there. Which makes it all the more surprising that I just didn’t like her book. Maybe you’ll find it more to your taste than mine, but for me it rates two stars.

We Should All Be Feminists

The issue of gender equality is huge and complicated and We Should All Be Feminists is about fifty pages long, so obviously there is a lot more to be said on this topic than what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie manages to cover here, but it’s a great start. This is an essay adapted from a TED talk, so if you’re really against reading (curious: if you’re really against reading, what brought you to a book review blog?) you could go watch that instead. I haven’t, but I’m betting it’s pretty solid.

Adichie covers topics like why we call it feminism when it’s really about egalitarianism, what gender discrimination looks like in 21st century America, as well as places around the world, primarily Nigeria, which is her native country, and why men should be just as invested in this topic as women. (In other words, why we should all be feminists.)

This is a concise, well-written, excellently argued stance on the importance of feminism. I’m going to start carrying a copy around with me and anytime I find myself struggling to make a point, I’m just going to hand whoever I’m talking to the book and tell them to read it. Adichie does a much better job of explaining feminism than I ever will. It doesn’t get that elusive fifth star, but it rates a very solid four.

Lumberjanes Vol. 1

I’m in the middle of a fairly intense online class, which means my recreational reading has been cut to the bone. It seemed like a good time to revisit graphic novels. I got out Noelle Stevenson’s Lumberjanes Vol. 1 because I loved Nimona so much.

Lumberjanes are no Nimona, but I still really liked the book. I felt like I was jumping into the middle of the story, and I’d appreciate a little back story about what this camp is, what brought our cast of characters there and so on, but I’m still hoping some of that comes up in later volumes. I thought the characters had a good mix of different but complementary personalities and styles. I liked the story and the pacing and one of my favorite lines ever now has to be “I AM GOING TO CATCH A FISH BY WRESTLING IT AWAY FROM A BEAR!”

Like the pilot episode of a tv show, this volume whetted my appetite for more of the story, which should be the main purpose of any first installment, whatever medium we’re talking about. Even though it doesn’t rate Nimona’s five stars, I could gush about it for a while and really want to give it four stars.

BUT

Those field manual inserts at the beginning of each chapter were awful. They were boring and full of typos and by the third one I was skipping them. The fact that I could skip them means there was no reason to include them at all. If you want to do something like this, do it well. Throw in some jokes or some foreshadowing or at the very least proofread them.

I almost want to pretend the inserts weren’t there and give this book four stars, but they were there, and they drag the rating down to three stars. Most definitely worth reading but also most definitely room for improvement.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

I grabbed this book based purely on the title. Rhoda Janzen writes about revisiting her Mennonite roots after her marriage ends and a car accident leaves her seriously injured.

Janzen’s writing is funny and sweet and insightful, but it also seemed kind of disconnected to me. I know a memoir isn’t necessarily a linear story, but I still kept expecting things to transition into each other and instead felt like we were hopping from moment to moment with no real connectivity there.

I will applaud Janzen for facing a very difficult time in her life with humor and courage. And for furthermore having the courage and honesty to turn this slump into a well-written book. But I don’t actually know Rhoda Janzen at all and sometimes found myself wondering why I was reading all about her failed marriage and her family quirks. Some of it felt like I was reading things that are really none of my business.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is an excellent book, but I don’t think it was a great book for me. If I was grading this based on objective execution, I’d give it four stars. (An argument could even be made for five, but I like to save that for books that really, really earned it.) For my own reading enjoyment, it gets three. I know that’s not a stellar recommendation, but I do still recommend it. You might not love it, but I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy it.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

I don’t know if the gaps in my history education are common across America’s public school system or if it’s a weakness unique to my alma mater, but I know far more about the ancient Egyptians and the Medieval serf system than I do about, say the Cold War. (My mom gets really upset when I call the Cold War history, by the way.)

My point is, my history knowledge is pretty spotty, and gets spottier the closer we get to current events. (Where is the line for that, anyways? Who decides?) I have a pretty fair grasp of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, but my understanding of World War I is sketchy and most of what I know about World War II can be learned from The Diary of Anne Frank and Schindler’s List.

So I set out to correct this with books, starting with the much-acclaimed biography of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt covers everything between his birth and his presidency. And I do mean everything. While I appreciate a thorough biography, I did not need an exact list of all of his kills on his extensive hunting trips.

It took my over a year to read this book, but only because I put it down for about ten months. I really had to slog through his childhood. Roosevelt was a sickly child, and Morris delivers a minute account of his illnesses, treatments, relapses, and everything else you never wanted to know. By the time I was reading about his courtship of his first wife, I was bored with him, which is not something I ever expected from the man who led the Rough Riders in their famous charge up San Juan Hill.

After my ten-month hiatus, I picked the book back up and finished it in about two weeks. Once his political career gets moving, everything becomes exponentially more interesting. The book ends with McKinley’s assassination and I’m looking forward to Theodore Rex, which covers Roosevelt’s time in the White House.

Morris writes a very fair and balanced biography. Roosevelt accomplishes extraordinary things, mostly through being an overly opinionated workaholic. His more questionable decisions, like his support of James Blaine’s presidential run despite his moral objections to the man, are left to stand on their own, without condemnation or excuse.

One criticism I read of the book was that it didn’t give a very good overview of the time period. If you want to know everything that happened to Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War, for instance, this book will tell you all about it. If you were hoping for an explanation of what exactly prompted the war, it’s a little more vague.

This is true enough, but my rebuttal would be that this is Roosevelt’s biography, not a history of the Spanish-American War. If that’s what you want, I’m sure there are books out there for you. Also, I think reading about Roosevelt’s political battles did leave me with a pretty good understanding of expansionism and what the political climate of the time was and how this all erupted into fighting in Cuba.

Overall, I give this book 4 out of 5 stars. If you start about 150 pages in, it might even rate a full five.

News of the World

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd makes a living by travelling through the small towns of Texas, reading newspapers to audiences for a dime a person. It took me a little while to get my head wrapped around this, considering our news-saturated world, but in 1870 many people couldn’t read and those who could often had difficulty getting their hands on a paper. So it makes sense.

Captain Kidd is a great character. At 71, he really is getting too old for this, but that doesn’t stop him from agreeing to take Johanna Leonburger back to her family after she is rescued from the Kiowa raiders who killed her family and kidnapped the girl four years ago. Kidd doesn’t exactly have a destination, so taking a 400-mile detour isn’t that big of a problem. Corrupt officials, road bandits and Indian raiders make the journey a little more interesting, but I get the impression there’s nowhere really safe to travel in Texas.

The bigger problem is that Johanna never wanted to be “rescued” from her new family, isn’t thrilled to be delivered to an aunt and uncle she doesn’t remember, and has forgotten all but a handful of English and German words. Somehow, despite all this, she and Kidd bond beautifully on their journey south.

I’ve never read any of Paulette Jiles’ books before this, so I don’t know if she habitually refuses to use quotation marks, but the dialogue did throw me off for a bit. Usually I absolutely hate when authors do things like this, but the story flowed so smoothly I ended up adjusting to it quickly. There’s an odd style to the story that I don’t know how to describe, except that a bunch of unconnected details somehow weave together to form a coherent picture of Texas. I would not try to write like this, nor would I recommend anyone else attempt it either, but Jiles makes it work.

This book sort of reminded me of A Man Called Ove. Captain Kidd is a likable and admirable character who does what needs done and doesn’t complain about it. His relationship with a bloodthirsty little savage who starts to call him grandfather is absolutely perfect. (I would call it heart-warming, but that doesn’t usually apply in situations where a little girl needs to be told that she can’t scalp people.)

The more I think about this book, the more I like it. Everything about it so understated and subtle that the full power of the story is sort of elusive. The more I try to nail it down, the more it slips through my fingers, but one thing I can state definitely is that this book deserves a full five stars.

Dear Fahrenheit 451

Annie Spence’s collection of letter to books might be considered strange to some people, but anyone who loves to read will understand it perfectly. There are books you love, books you hate, and books you’ve simply drifted away from over the years. Spence addresses them all as she encounters books in the stacks at her library, in her personal collection, and in strangers’ houses as she tags along to parties.

Spence’s sense of humor runs along the same lines as mine, meaning I really enjoyed her snarky jokes. I feel like I am, in every way, the target audience for this book. Also, I’m considering going back to school for my Library Science degree, and Spence really makes me want to follow through on that, if for no other reason than to shout “I dispense information to the masses!”

There are things I didn’t love about the book. There are a few spoilers thrown in here and there, mostly minor ones, and probably for books you’ve already read, but still. It’s the principle, Spence. You’ve gotta warn people about things like that.

The second thing, which is in no way Spence’s fault, is that I get the sense that our taste in books is just different enough that I’m not sure how applicable her recommendations are to me. That’s not to say that I didn’t find my fair share of titles to add to my to-read list, but I’m a little uncertain of how they’re going to turn out for me.

I’d give this book a very solid four out of five stars. It misses out on five mostly because, as much as I enjoyed reading it, I don’t think it will be as enjoyable the second time around.

The Wild Robot

Peter Brown’s book about Roz, a robot who gets activated by curious otters after the cargo ship carrying her sinks and her crate washes ashore on a wilderness island, is oddly heartwarming considering the main character does not have a heart. Roz’s programming does not, in my opinion, explain all of her decisions. I’m not sure if these human-like qualities are going to be explored further in the sequel, or if this is supposed to be a children’s book, so of course the main character is not going to be cold and calculating the whole time.

This is an excellent children’s book. I found it a little overly-simplistic and even the exciting moments didn’t seem all that engrossing to me, but I am 15 to 20 years out of the target audience. Brown keeps the tone fairly light, even when describing sad events, so I don’t think it would be too much for kids. Large sections of the book simply talk about Roz’s day to day struggle to survive in the wilderness and made me think of Hatchet, if Brian was a robot.

The ending was a bit heart wrenching, but I’m pretty certain everything will turn out all right in the end. Despite the cliffhanger and some curiosity over Roz’s fate, I’m not in a big rush to read book 2, though I imagine I’ll get around to it someday. For my own reading of it, I’d give it three stars, but I think it would rate a solid four for an age-appropriate reader. So if you’re an adult, I’d recommend you skip over this one. If you’re an adult with kids, by all means, give it a read with the little ones.

Reading People

Anne Bogel’s book on personalities is an excellent book to read at the beginning of the year. It motivated me to be a better version of myself, and should also give you some insight into your own brain to make unlocking that better version easier. Understanding your personality type means a lot more than figuring out which Harry Potter character you are. It means understanding why you act and react the way you do. Once you see what’s happening, you’ll be better equipped to modify behavior you don’t like and also become more understanding of yourself and the people around you. If you have New Year’s resolutions you’re hoping to stick to, this book might help you figure out what is most likely to work for you.

I found this book interesting, though not life-changing. Part of that is, I think I know myself pretty well. I understand my strengths and weaknesses, and I think I’ve accounted for them reasonably well. If you don’t understand yourself, this book might help point you in the right direction. Even if you don’t like what you learn, remember, it’s not your fault that you’re wired the way you are. and there are no “bad” personality types, though society does tend to value some over others.

What this book really did for me was make me more understanding of others. In particular, I don’t see eye to eye with some of my fellow Governing Board members at my church. While reading through the different cognitive functions in chapter 7, some of them jumped out at me. “Ah! That’s Steve!” (His name’s not really Steve.) And even though I still don’t agree with him, I now understand that he is thinking the way he is wired. It’s not his fault, and it’s not a bad thing. It’s just not how I work.

Bogel makes the argument, and I agree with her, that a diverse group is a strong group. So wherever you work with people, on the job, in the community, at home, we all bring different perspectives to the table, and we’ll work better together once we understand and appreciate how those different perspectives work.

She did sort of lose me in the last two chapters. I think that’s largely because the frameworks she covers throughout the book gradually became more complex and less familiar to me. This is only intended to be a brief overview of the frameworks that she has found most useful. She includes suggestions for further reading if you want to really did into any of them.

I’d give this book four out of five stars. I found it pretty useful. You probably will to, and even if you don’t, it will still be well written and interesting.

P.S. Anne Bogel runs a blog, Modern Mrs. Darcy, which covers all sorts of topics, including book recommendations. It’s worth checking out.