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.

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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.

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 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.

The First Twenty Minutes

The First Twenty Minutes is not an old book. It came out in 2012. In terms of science and discovery, it’s pretty ancient. Gretchen Reynolds’ book on exercise science was cutting edge when it came out. For those of you who are into fitness and follow the latest trends, much of her book has already become common knowledge. But it’s still worth reading.

Getting into shape does not have to mean running for hours on a treadmill. A hard interval work (even one that only lasts 20 minutes) can accomplish as much as a much longer, slower run. Weight lifting has plenty of health benefits associated with it, besides muscle growth. Our bodies are designed to move, even if that only means standing up from your desk every twenty minutes or so and pacing around your office.

And that about sums up this book. If you want to know the science behind all of those claims, Reynolds has it for you. I got a little lost in the science sometimes. Most of the terms rang faint bells from my high school biology class. A lot of it still didn’t mean that much to me. I think she could have spent more time bottom-lining things and less time spelling out the exact experiments that were conducted.

I did think the findings were interesting, and even though I said much of it was common knowledge, I’m sure you’ll find some things that you hadn’t heard before. I know I did. And even what I already knew I liked having confirmed.

Reynolds’ mostly focuses on the science and lets the facts speak for themselves. I really liked the parts where she let her own voice come through a little clearer, which was mostly in the introduction and conclusion. So my biggest critique of this book, which I think should be a compliment to Reynolds, is that I wish she’d been herself a little more.

I still recommend this book to anyone who needs a little motivation to get out there and move more. Just about every aspect of your health can be improved through some form of movement. If you already exercise and want to understand more of the science of what is happening in your body, this is a good book. If you just like to learn things, this is a good book. All in all, I would say this is not a great book, but it is a good one. Four stars.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder

Cinnamon and Gunpowder is the story of Owen Wedgwood, British chef extraordinaire, and Mad Hannah Mabbot, captain of the pirate ship the Flying Rose. Mabbot murders Wedgwood’s employer and kidnaps him, promising him that his life will be spared so long as he provides her with a delicious Sunday night dinner every week. As Wedgwood adjusts to life at sea, he also learns that much of what he took for granted on land is simply not true.

I really enjoyed this book. It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me rethink the human condition and the nature of good and evil. All of the ingredients, as Wedgwood would say, for a five star book are there. And yet, it’s just four stars.

The beginning of the book is packed full of swashbuckling fun. I really like Mabbot’s relationship with her crew. I liked how she called Wedgwood “Wedge” and I liked the crew’s nickname for him, “Spoons.” But then the book takes a gradually more serious turn, as the true nature of the Pendleton Trading Company and the opium trade come to light.

I think the whole issue of exposing corporate corruption and making up for past mistakes is a great theme for a book. And it is a serious topic that deserves serious consideration. But  Eli Brown changes the tone of his story completely. I think it would have greatly benefited from a few more light-hearted moments in the second half.

I also could have done with some forewarning of what was coming. I didn’t know much about this book before I read it, so I started out with swashbuckling fun and expected it to continue on until the last page. The swashbuckling continues, but the fun doesn’t. Maybe if I had been better prepared for that, I would have made the transition better. Now that you know, you’ll have to report back to me once you finish the book.

Despite my difficulties with the tone, it’s still a great book. It doesn’t have quite the ending I wanted, but it has the ending the stories and the characters needed. It falls short of the five star mark, but at four stars, I still highly recommend it.

A Man Called Ove

All I knew about this book going on was that it was about a grumpy old man with a cat who somehow reminds every single person who reads it about their grandfather. I really think I enjoyed it more because of that, so if you haven’t read it yet, all you need to know is that it’s fantastic and you should.

SPOILER WARNING: If you completely skipped over that first paragraph, I’m telling you, you’ll enjoy this book more if you don’t know what’s coming. So stop reading this and go read that.

For those of you who have read it, were you as surprised as I was? If anyone had told me that a book about a widower trying to commit suicide would be funny and heartwarming and incredibly relatable, I would never have believed them. But A Man Called Ove is all of that and more.

I could most definitely imagine either of my grandfathers stomping around their house, checking radiators and grumbling about young people and their foreign cars. And there’s something very admirable about Ove’s insistence on doing the right thing in the right way, even when he’s ungracious about it. But I think my favorite character is Parvenah.

Parvaneh is Ove’s new neighbor, a pregnant Iranian woman who’s bumbling husband and two energetic daughters keep unwittingly messing up Ove’s suicide attempts. Parvaneh is the only one who realizes what is going on (at least at first) and embarks on a mission to keep Ove alive.

The whole arc of the community pulling together to save Ove and Rune, combined with Ove’s backstory of always fighting the bureaucracy and losing was immensely satisfying. I wanted to stand up and cheer when he finally came out on top.

The end of the book had me on the edge of my seat. The first time Ove tries to hang himself, I wasn’t all that invested in whether he succeeded or not. By Sepidah’s birthday party, I was terrified that he was going to go through with it. And then he has his cardiac event and I was going to be furious at Frederick Backman if Ove finally decided he wanted to live only to die of natural causes.

The epilogue is bittersweet. Life goes on, and that means death goes on too. The community changes, but the more things change the more they stay the same, as shown by the annoyed young Saab driver who buys Ove’s house.

Missing, Presumed made me question whether or not everyday life makes a good story. A Man Called Ove has restored my faith that everyday life is the best story there is. Five out of five stars.

Stiff is Anything But

A book about cadavers would not be my first choice of reading material, usually, but Mary Roach came highly recommended to me and Stiff was the first book of hers that fell into my hands. And I’m very glad it did.

Roach manages to write about what happens to us, or at least our physical remains, after we die with equal amounts of humor and respect. Maintaining the dignity of the deceased has been an ongoing debate surrounding everything from medical experiments to composting methods. Roach maintains this dignity throughout her book, even with her lighthearted attempts to soften a very harsh subject.

I did start to lose interest in the book near the end. The section on cannibalization might be responsible for that, or the description of head transplants attempted on dogs. Both were pretty horrific. Or it could be that I had simply reached my limit on how much I wanted to know about dead bodies.

Either way, I greatly enjoyed Roach’s writing style, even when the content was grossing me out. I would strongly hesitate to recommend this book to anyone that I did not know very well. But I do not hesitate at all to recommend Mary Roach as an author. I’ve heard particularly great things about her study into space exploration: Packing for Mars.

Lyndsay Faye Saves the Day!

Hello, readers! I’m sure you’ve noticed that I haven’t been posting lately. I just haven’t found any good books to review for a while. I’ve been rereading a lot of old ones, but every time I try to break new ground, I end up stalling out and not finishing.

Enter Lyndsay Faye. After loving Jane Steele, I got Faye’s first novel, Dust and Shadow. It’s not quite a retelling, but it is a Sherlock Holmes story. In this case, Faye’s “What if” question was “What if Sherlock Holmes investigated the Ripper murders?”

I like Sherlock Holmes (the short stories better than the novels) so I was prepared to love Dust and Shadow. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but I did like it enough to bust me out of my slump, finish a book, and come here to write about it, so yay!

It’s been a while since I’ve read any Sherlock Holmes, but I think they do often get off to a slow start. I loved the end of Jane Steele so much I forgot how much I slogged through the beginning, but that one also took a while to get going. So it took me longer than it should have to really get into Dust and Shadow. I think I was about halfway through before I got really invested in the investigation.

Part of that might be because I’ve read other books on Jack the Ripper. Much of the beginning of the novel is a rehashing of the established facts, most of which I already knew. But once Faye laid the groundwork and sent the detective of Baker Street to work, I was hooked.

By nature of the historical facts, some of the scenes are gruesome. If that’s going to bother you (it should bother you a little, but if it’s going to ruin the book for you) then I do not recommend this one for you. I also found the ending vaguely unsatisfying, but very much in keeping with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original style.

Lyndsay Faye delivers meticulously researched and masterfully written novels. In my experience, she is 2 for 2. I’ll definitely be reading her other books and reporting back on what I think of them, but at this stage, I’m very confident in recommending any of her books.

Revisiting Neverland: Peter Pan Retellings

Months ago, I downloaded Kindle’s sample of UnhookedI really liked the direction the story was going with this girl whose parents had some mysterious connection with Neverland, but the sample ended right about the same time the story moved out of England and into the world of make believe. As I said, I really liked it, but not enough to buy the book to read the rest.

Months pass, I remember that public libraries exist, and I finally get my hands on the full copy of Unhooked. It was such a disappointment. I wasn’t a big fan of the ending. I felt like the beginning of the story set up a lot of unfulfilled expectations. But overall I couldn’t put my finger on what I didn’t like about the book. And then I read Alias Hook.

It was so much better. The books are very similar. Both make Captain Hook into a sympathetic character. By extension, this makes Peter Pan the bad guy. But how they go about doing that is very different.

In Unhooked, the protagonist and Hook are both teenagers, just like Pan. Pan wants to control Neverland and will stop at nothing to gain more power. He is unquestionably a villain. Hook is a former Lost Boy who has turned against Pan now that he knows the boy’s true nature. While I thought it sounded like a promising premise, it was ultimately unsatisfying.

Alias Hook focuses on a woman who has arrived in Neverland under mysterious circumstances, desperate to escape war-torn Europe and recapture her lost childhood. Hook, a full grown man, has been cursed to stay in Neverland, but with Stella’s reappearance, he learns that there may be a way to escape his prison. And it’s a fantastic character journey that I really want to discuss with you, but not until after you’ve read the book. So read it, get in touch, and we’ll chat. Seriously, I would love it if you did that.

In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I’m not going to go into more detail of the plot of either of these books, but I will talk about why I think Alias Hook works so much better. The idea of eternal childhood is central to the original Peter Pan. Hook isn’t a villain because he’s a pirate, but rather because he’s an adult. By putting Hook and Pan in the same age bracket, Unhooked loses that central conflict.

Alias Hook turns that conflict around by challenging whether eternal childhood is really such a good thing, but the same idea remains at the heart of Neverland. Pan is not the hero of the story, but he isn’t a true villain either. Because he’s still just a young boy, his ideas of right and wrong have not fully developed. He’s still cruel, but the point is that children have no grasp of the consequences of their actions, which is why they can be so heartless. Cutting off Hook’s hand is still a despicable act, but Pan has no notion of what it means to permanently maim someone.

If you want to read a Peter Pan retelling, I highly recommend Alias Hook by Lisa Jensen. If you decide to read a different one, I still really think you should find one that maintains the age difference between Pan and Hook. As with any retelling, fiddling with the details is what makes it new and fun, but the heart of the story has to stay in place.