Church of Marvels

51xDK-gCtHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Church of Marvels
Leslie Parry
Published May 5, 2015
320 pages

I picked up this book because it was compared to Geek Love and The Night Circus, two books that I LOVE. There’s something about a weird carnival/circus setting that I find irresistible. Usually circus books have an element of the dark and bizarre combined with surprisingly touching sentimentality that makes for a delightful juxtaposition with interesting twists and turns. And the characters! What’s not to love about a kid with flippers for hands or a bearded lady or a sword slinger or a creepy magician?

Based on the hype (and the title, for that matter), I thought this book would fit squarely into the weird carnival/circus genre. In fact, only short snippets of the book are set at the Church of Marvels, a carnival/circus spectacular on Coney Island. But the book was far from a disappointment. Even though it’s not all about the circus, it has all the best elements of a fabulous circus book: Continue reading

The Raven Boys

UnknownThe Raven Boys
Maggie Stiefvater
Published September 18, 2012
416 pages (hardcover)

I saw a rant on Book Riot recently entitled “Let’s Avoid Defining Beach Reads.” It is a denouncement of the “Great Beach Reads” display tables at Barnes & Noble (and the like) that include “an excess of travel lit, a lack of tragic historical, a great and overwhelming fiction theme that includes the sun on covers, and many violent thrillers that end in chase scenes.” The idea, of course, is that you can read all kinds of books “even on the beach.”

Yeah, yeah. We should all be reading Pulitzer Prize winners all the time. Life’s too short for a bad book and all of that. We get it. But here’s the thing: it is officially summer. In Atlanta, that means temperatures in the 90s (and above) with wicked, oppressive humidity. For nearly three months of the year, it is miserable outside. I’m sorry, but I just can’t handle something like The Orphan Master’s Son right now. It’s too much.

Beach reading is and should be escapist reading. When I’m staring at the ocean, trying to forget how freaking hot it is, “tragic historical” isn’t going to cut it. I don’t want to read about massacres or war or sadness. I’m all for fun, light, easy vacation fare! Somehow, that fluffy, mindless reading makes summer more bearable. Is it quality literature that you are going to gush about and gift to friends? No, probably not. But, sometimes, you just need a book with a shopping bag on the cover to help take you away.

So, what does great summer reading look like for me? Books like Mermaids in Paradise and Skios: silly, farcical romps that are breezy and laugh-out-loud funny. Sweet and charming best-sellers like A Man Called Ove. Quirky, cute, creative, and highly readable books like Where’d You Go, Bernadette. And, of course, fun, page-turner YA books that are post-apocalyptic (like The Hunger Games) or magical (like Harry Potter) or supernatural (like Beautiful Creatures). Continue reading

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry

23604559My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry 
Fredrik Backman
June 16, 2015
384 pages

When I was little, my dad used to make up stories for me. My favorites featured “Meetah, the Cheetah.” Every story was basically the same: they began with an adorable little girl (who looked remarkably similar to me, of course) calmly traipsing through the jungle. Her journeys were generally uneventful . . . until the end. The stories always concluded with a surprise encounter between girl and cheetah. And they always culminated with my father yelling (when I least expected it to ensure the loudest screams and giggles of surprise and delight): “I’m Meetah, the Cheetah, and I’m gonna eat ya!”

Stories told to little kids can serve many purposes. They can elicit sheer, unadulterated joy (as the “Meetah, the Cheetah” tales did every time). They can expand kids’ vocabularies. They can encourage creativity and imagination. They can serve as memorable bonding moments. And, if the storyteller is especially skilled, they can serve as the secret vehicles for important life lessons.

The bedtime stories that Elsa’s grandmother, the titular grandmother in Fredrik Backman’s new book, told her about the Land-of-Almost-Awake did all of the above. The stories featured magical creatures like the sea-angel and a monster called Wolfheart and huge furry creatures called wurses. Sometimes, her grandmother told the stories in a secret language that she taught Elsa years ago. Continue reading

A Man Called Ove

18774964A Man Called Ove
Fredrik Backman
Published July 15, 2014
352 pages

When my husband and I moved into our new house a couple years ago, we took a big risk. Our tiny neighborhood of ten lots was brand new (a developer had purchased one huge lot and subdivided it into a neighborhood of ten lots). Only four houses were built at the time, and there were no residents yet. We loved the house. And we loved the idea of a small, cozy neighborhood on a quiet cul-de-sac.

But we had some concerns. What if all our neighbors turned out to be assholes? What if they were grumpy old curmudgeons who insisted on bickering constantly over boundary lines? What if we hated them all?

In the end, we took a leap of faith and bought the house. And, now that all ten houses have been built and occupied, we realize that we got very lucky. We know and like all of our neighbors (in fact, several neighbors have become really good friends). We have annual neighborhood block parties and progressive dinner parties. We go to brunch and lunch and yoga together. We have a happy little community plucked from a bygone era. And we love it.

Of course, I count my lucky stars. Because I know that, just as easily, it could have been a nightmare. We could have gotten a neighbor like Ove. Ove is fifty-nine years old (but acts like he’s about eighty-nine) and ridiculously set in his ways. Every morning at quarter to six, he takes it upon himself to patrol the neighborhood. He makes sure that no unidentified cars have been parked in the neighborhood lot for more than twenty-four hours (and, if they have, he gets them towed). He makes sure no bikes have been left out unattended. He makes sure that all signs (most of which he has erected) are being followed. He is a stickler for the rules, even if the rules are stupid. Continue reading

The Silence and the Roar

41MUnyTE87L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Silence and the Roar
Nihad Sirees
Translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss
Published in English March 5, 2013
154 pages (paperback)

In the heartbreaking afterword written for the English translation of this book, author Nihad Sirees closes by saying, “As I present my novel to the English reader, my heart is agonizingly heavy about what is happening in Syria, my homeland.” Sirees has been in self-imposed exile from Syria since 2012 due to personal and political harassment. This novel, which was translated into English just two years ago, was originally published in Arabic in 2004, and has been banned in Syria for years.

Do a Google images or news search for Aleppo, the city where Sirees was born, and you will be bombarded with photos and articles that are evidence of a decade’s worth of devastation and destruction. Daily, stories out of Syria prove that it continues to be shattered by war, rebels (like ISIS), and rocket fire.

The Silence and the Roar is set in a Middle Eastern Country whose precise location is never named. But, not surprisingly, it feels strikingly similar to Sirees’ home country. Needless to say, this diminutive novel is not light reading. Continue reading

The Memory Painter

22836956The Memory Painter
Gwendolyn Womack
Published April 28, 2015
336 pages (hardcover)

When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a neurosurgeon (I was clearly a weird kid). The brain, in general, was interesting to me, but I was particularly intrigued by memories. Why did I forget things that my brother remembered in detail? Why could I remember other things so vividly? And why didn’t my parents remember anything?

The brain’s capacity for memory is something that I still find fascinating, which is why I was initially drawn to this book. But, like my aspirations to become a neurosurgeon, this book was better in theory than in practice.

The Memory Painter opens with a description of an artist’s loft. Canvases cover every inch of wall space:

The paintings themselves were an eclectic ensemble. Each image captured a different time in history, a different place in the world. Yet the paintings had one thing in common: all depicted the most intimate moment’s of someone’s life or death. 

In one painting, a samurai knelt on his tatami, performing seppuku. He was dressed in ceremonial white, blood pooling at his middle. The ritual suicide had been portrayed in excruciating detail, the agony on the samurai’s face tangible as he plunged the blade into his stomach. Behind him, his “Second” stood ready, his wakzashi sword poised to sever the samurai’s head. In the next painting, an imperial guard on horseback dragged a prisoner across a field in ancient Persia. And further along the wall, an old man wearing a turban stared into the distance, as if challenging the artist to capture his spirit on the last day of his life. Continue reading