Everything, Everything, by Nicola Yoon: A Review

I chose to read Everything, Everything, by Nicola Yoon for the 2020 Popsugar Reading Challenge prompt #32, a book by a WOC (or, woman of color). I had several fantastic choices just from among my own bookshelves, so I didn’t have to look far. I added this book to my library after reading Nicola Yoon’s other book, The Sun is Also a Star for last year’s challenge. I fell in love with her breezy, hopeful style in the midst of tragedy and family drama. And Everything, Everything did not disappoint.

This book tells the story of Madeline, an 18-year old girl suffering from severe combined immunodeficiency. She has essentially been locked away inside her own home her entire life, with very little contact from the outside. The only people she has regular contact with are her mother and full-time nurse, Carla.

Madeline knows she must stay inside and that her mother is doing everything possible to keep her from getting sick. While not always, she is at present content with her life – with her books, her online classes and movie nights with her mom. But then a new family moves in next door, and Madeline’s contented life begins to turn inside out.

I couldn’t help being drawn into Madeline’s story. I felt very sympathetic toward her and her situation despite the sometimes foolish decisions she made. And the end that came was not the end I anticipated.

I chose the audio version of this book, excellently narrated by Bahni Turpin and Robbie Daymond. I enjoyed this book very much.

Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt: A Review

For the 2020 Popsugar Reading Challenge prompt #3, a book with a great first line, I chose to read Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt. I ran across this book sitting on my kitchen counter where my fourth grader had left it. He was reading it for school. Like any good mom, I picked it up and took a look at it to see what sort of material the school expected my children to read. I read the prologue, and I was hooked.

Here’s the first line:

The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.

The metaphor is carried along for a few more sentences and the book comes back to this image again later in the story. As I read this line, I could feel the hitch in my breath and the anticipation that comes from being at that top position of a Ferris wheel. This is the sort of sentence that drops you immediately into place within the fictional story world.

This is primarily the story of Winnie Foster, a ten-year-old girl living at the edge of a wood. She’s bored with her extremely orderly life, strictly enforced by over-protective parents. It is also the story of the Tuck family, who after drinking from a magic spring, are unwittingly blessed – cursed? – with eternal life.

The Tucks have been living as discreetly as possible, and have managed to keep their secret for 87 years. Until Winnie reaches her breaking point and runs away from home. She wanders into the wood and stumbles on the Tucks’ secret. The Tucks take Winnie to their home with the goal of getting her to agree not to tell anyone their secret.

Winnie doesn’t know whether the Tucks are telling the truth, or if they are crazy. She wants to go home, but is at the same time, intrigued by the lifestyle of this other family which is so different from her own. The situation grows even more complicated when it turns out Winnie was followed to the Tucks’ home by a curious stranger who seems to know more than he should.

I enjoyed this book very much. It is written for children, so therefore short. It didn’t take me very long at all to finish it. It is funny and surprising and even a little bit sad. I’m not entirely sure it lived up to the breathless anticipation initiated by that opening line, but it is still a good read. My son enjoyed it, and was anxious for me to finish it so we could talk about it. If for nothing else, that would have made it worthwhile to read this book.

Becoming, by Michelle Obama: A Review

I chose to read Becoming, by Michelle Obama for the 2020 Popsugar Reading Challenge, prompt #30, a fiction or nonfiction book about a world leader. I realize the First Lady of the United States likely does not qualify as a world leader in most circles, but I decided to go ahead with this book anyway. I think it’s close enough.

This book is Michelle Obama’s memoir, and she’s divided it into three segments: Becoming Me, Becoming Us, and Becoming More. In the first part she talks about her early life, growing up in Chicago’s Southside. Raised in a hard-working family of modest means, she eventually graduated from Princeton University, then going on to get her law degree from Harvard University. She met Barrack Obama shortly after beginning her career in corporate law.

Part two focuses on Michelle’s relationship with and ultimate marriage to Barrack, their early experiences in politics, and becoming a family. She undergoes a significant career change, taking a hefty pay cut in the process. In this section, Michelle talks about Barack’s growing political influence – from community organizer to state government to being elected Senator.

Finally, in the third part, Michelle talks about her experience as First Lady of the United States. She talks candidly about her time there, and her struggles to maintain her own identity as a woman, a wife and a mother. She covers the eight years her husband was president from transitioning into the White House to transitioning out.

I thought this book was well written. I especially appreciated Michelle’s candor in relating the personal experiences that shaped the woman she’s become. I chose the audio version of this book, narrated by Michelle Obama herself. This lent a feeling of sitting down for a personal conversation with the former First Lady, albeit a one-sided conversation.

I may not agree 100% with Michelle’s politics, but that doesn’t interfere with enjoying a good book. I can agree wholeheartedly with her ethics. She has an important and worthwhile message to share. It is always an enriching experience to see the world through someone else’s point of view. I enjoyed this book very much. And if you’re inclined to read it, I would recommend the audio version.

Lucky Suit, by Lauren Blakely: A Review

I picked up Lucky Suit by Lauren Blakely as an Audible freebie some months back. I finally got around to listening to it as it works well for the 2020 Popsugar Reading Challenge, prompt #15, a book about or involving social media. This might be sort of stretch as the social media involved is an online dating site and an online poker site. But I think I’ll go with it anyway.

In this story, Kristen has had too many failed blind dates set up by her grandmother, so she’s decided she is done with IRL dating. Unwilling to give up on the idea of a romantic partner, however, she turns to an online dating site and begins chatting with a few potentials. Then she meets one who could possibly be The One.

Meanwhile, Cameron is in Miami on business and meets Kristen’s grandmother at a car auction. He is amused by this “old lady” who acts nothing like one, and they quickly become friends. They join an online poker site and play a few rounds while waiting for the auction to begin.

When Kristen and Cameron finally meet in real life, both are intrigued. There is a connection between them, but something is just a little bit off. It isn’t clear if the relationship will survive the truth.

This was a fun romantic comedy. It was short enough I could finish it in a day. I haven’t read much romance fiction for awhile, and I really enjoyed this one. It was just the right sort of light reading I needed after the much darker fiction I’ve been reading lately.

The Stand, by Stephen King: A Review

The 2020 Popsugar Reading Challenge, prompt #17, bids me read a medical thriller. I wasn’t entirely sure what this meant. My first thought was of the Kay Scarpetta books by Patricia Cornwell. After perusing the suggestions by the Popsugar group on Goodreads, however, I ultimately settled on The Stand, by Stephen King. This was already on my want-to-read list after PBS put out their Great American Read list in 2018.

To be honest, I’ve avoided reading Stephen King’s books, never feeling that horror was a genre I could really enjoy. One of the purposes of this reading challenge is to expand my reading experiences, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I’m really glad that I did.

The Stand is the story of a man-made pandemic. A bio-engineered virus leaks out of containment and sweeps rapidly across the country. The first part of the book introduces a large number of characters, spending a bit of time on several. We meet Frannie Goldsmith from Ogunquit, Maine, a young college-age woman prone to the giggles who has just found out she’s pregnant. There is Nick Andros, a deaf-mute drifter who finds himself in the small Arkansas town of Shoyo when the epidemic hits. And Larry Underwood, a rather self-centered singer-songwriter caught up in the throes of sudden success who returns home to his mother in New York deeply in debt. These three, along with a handful of others, find themselves among the few survivors.

In the second part of the book, King makes what felt to me like a sudden shift. All those who survived the flu seem to have an unexpected psychic connection. They begin experiencing shared dreams, many of which are nightmares. The dreams direct them to one of two places where survivors are gathering, one in Boulder, Colorado and the other in Las Vegas, Nevada. The final section of the book brings the rising conflict between these two communities to its ultimate end.

Stephen King is a master of suspense. In this book he turns an innocent cough or sneeze into a terrifying threat. His characters are well-drawn and believable. My favorite is Tom Cullen, a man in his forties who is mentally challenged. Nick Andros encounters Tom as he is passing through Oklahoma on his way to Nebraska in response to a dream. Tom’s childlike innocence is funny and delightful in the midst of the truly horrible circumstances going on around him.

This story is brutal and gruesome. King doesn’t hold back on the horror. But there are also moments of humor and tenderness. The characters change and grow as a result of their circumstances. Some for the better, some not so much. The supernatural element of the story comes on very strong in the middle of the book, and with little preparation. Other than that, however, this is a great book. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

Memory, Sorrow and Thorn Series, by Tad Williams: A Review

This series by Tad Williams is one of my all time favorite fantasy reads. It was among the first books that made me fall in love with the genre, and one of only a handful I’ve read more than once. I read this series again now for both the 2019 Popsugar and ATY Reading Challenges. I also wanted to reread this series to refresh myself on the world of Osten Ard so that I could dive into the new series by Tad Williams, also set in this same world.

This series opens with The Dragonbone Chair. The story begins as the High King, Prester John, is about to die. He has reached the end of a long life after establishing his rule over much of Osten Ard. John’s two sons, Elias and Josua, along with representatives of all the regions under his rule, have been called back to the Hayholt, the home of the High King. Elias is eldest and heir to their father’s throne. It becomes quickly apparent that there is some deep unpleasantness between the two brothers.

The main character of the story, however, is Simon, a scullion boy who is far happier climbing about on the rooftops and listening to old Doctor Morgenes stories than he is performing his assigned tasks. Simon goes from boyish dreams of knighthood and glory to the harsh realities of civil war. He ends up fleeing for his life from the only home he’s ever known to join Prince Josua, who, though he never wanted the throne, is compelled to stand against his brother when under the influence of a power-hungry magician, King Elias releases a long-dormant evil.

Stone of Farewell picks up where the first ends. Prince Josua has been dealt a cruel blow, and most of his allies are separated, scattered across the world of Osten Ard. They flee toward a place of safety, a rallying point from which Josua can renew his fight against the dark forces his brother has unleashed on the world.

The final volume in the series, To Green Angel Tower, eventually brings all the action back to where the story first began – the Hayholt castle in Erchester. Here, the final battle will be won or lost. The mystery of the three swords is revealed at last. And surprising revelations come to light.

Tad Williams writes huge novels. Some might consider them too big, too wordy. But I feel that he has an incredible gift for evocative imagery that brings his stories to life. Here is one moment that caught my attention as I was reading through book two. Simon has been caught up along with some of this friends in a fight for his life. This passage follows his being struck nearly senseless and cast to the ground:

[Simon] was staring at a round stone, just a hand’s breadth beyond his nose. He could not feel his extremities, his body limp as boned fish, nor could he hear any sounds but a faint roaring in his ears and thin squeals that might be voices. The stone lay before him, spherical and solid, unmoving. It was a chunk of gray granite, banded with white, which might have lain in this place since Time itself was young. There was nothing special about it. It was only a piece of the earth’s bones, rough corners smoothed by eons of wind and water.

Simon could not move, but he could see the immobile, magnificently unimportant stone. He lay staring at it for a long time, feeling nothing but emptiness where his body had been, until the stone itself began to gleam, throwing back the faintest pink sheen of sunset.
(Stone of Farewell, Tad Williams)

In this passage, Williams shows Simon’s impotence to help even himself, let alone his friends, and I think something of his frustration at that fact comes through as he stares at a simple, unimportant stone. His entire reality has been reduced to this pinpoint focus, and he is powerless to affect anything.

While it may not be to everyone’s taste, it is precisely this style of writing that appeals to me. It is elaborate and detailed, and yes, it piles up into some very large books. But it is also what will keep bringing me back to Tad Williams’s books again and again. If you enjoy epic fantasy set in a richly detailed world and you haven’t yet read Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, I highly recommend it.

Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne: A Review

I’ve had several of Jules Verne’s books on my shelf waiting to be read for quite some time, and I managed to fit two of them into the 2019 ATY Reading Challenge. First, Around the World in Eighty Days for #50, a book that includes a journey, and second, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea for #15, a book by an author from a Mediterranean country.

Around the World in Eighty Days begins as a wager. Phileas Fogg and his companions are discussing the advancements in transportation. Fogg proposes it is possible to circumnavigate the globe in eighty days. When his friends scoff, Fogg proposes a wager.

A true Englishman doesn’t joke when he is talking about so serious a thing as a wager,” replied Phileas Fogg solemnly. “I will bet twenty thousand pounds against anyone who wishes, that I will make the tour of the world in eighty days or less. Do you accept?”

The story that follows is a series of wild adventures as Phileas Fogg travels by ship, train, sled and even elephant across nineteenth century India, China and America. He is pursued as a suspected bank robber, kidnapped by native Americans and sidetracked by a damsel in distress.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is the story of Captain Nemo and his famous submarine, the Nautilus. Though really, this is the story of Professor Arronax, a scholar of natural history. A strange creature has been spotted in the oceans around the globe and has been the cause of multiple disasters.

Professor Arronax is among one of several experts in various maritime occupations invited to help hunt down this mysterious menace. In the process of this pursuit, Arronax, along with his body servant and a Canadian whaler, is abducted by the master of the ship he had just previously been hunting – Captain Nemo, of the Nautilaus

Forbidden to ever leave and thus reveal Nemo’s secret, Arronax and his companions are nevertheless treated as honored guests. They embark on an extensive underwater tour of the world. Arronax is at first delighted as he is privileged to see things those in his profession can only dream of seeing from the surface world. Soon, however, it becomes increasingly clear Nemo never intends to release them, and Arronax and the Canadian begin plotting their escape.

Considered to be one of the “fathers of science fiction,” Jules Verne is one of those authors you often encounter on “must read” lists. Both of these novels are among his Extraordinary Voyages series which were apparently very popular at the time of their original publication in the late 1800s. I read these two along with a third – The Mysterious Island – via audiobook. While I enjoyed the first book very much, the second was not as much fun. And the third I found just plain boring. Verne was clearly writing at a different time, and for a different audience. What may have passed for normal then, is a little harder to swallow today. Especially his portrayal of women characters – those that even exist in these stories.

Overall, I still recommend Jules Verne. Though his novels are not all created equal. Of the three I read, there was a huge variation in how much I enjoyed them. Still, it is clear he meticulously researched his subjects that he wrote about.