The Hearts of Men by Nikolas Butler

There are authors whom we read with the dedication of a lifelong relationship. We know their distinct voice, their turn of phrase, their favorite words that they slightly overuse. We know their admiration or disdain for strict grammar. We know their ability to turn a simple sentence into a piercing memory. Or maybe we simply know the feeling that each of their creations gives us, those distinct moods that they encompass in each of their works.

I have always said I loved “Shotgun Lovesongs,” a book whose characters I could not name today nor whose major plot points I could expound upon. But it was one of those books that I will always remember because of how it made me feel. The dusty dryness of small town dirt roads, the taste of whiskey on your tongue on a hot day, mistakes long gone but never forgotten, bright joyful memories just slightly tinged with despair and regret – these feelings, these sensations, that was that book. I will never forget it, in my own way.

So though “Shotgun Lovesongs” will always be on my list of suggestions to friends looking for a new book to discover, I cannot say the same of “The Hearts of Men.”

A generational saga that revolves around a Boy Scout camp, Camp Chippewa, starts in 1962. It opens with Nelson Doughty, 13, the Bugler for camp. He is lonely, bullied, precise and passionate. He plays his horn with the pure love and dedication that some of us never find for anything in our lives. In that hard summer at the camp he stumbles into a friendship with a boy named Jonathan. Through it all Nelson believes in doing what is right, no matter what.

Years pass. Abuse, war, divorce, loneliness. Both men grow in different directions.

Nelson becomes the Scoutmaster for the camp and in the second piece of the book Jonathan comes back with his son. Then in the third, Jonathan’s daughter-in-law and grandson return for their last summer.

Each of the three parts shows the bravery, steadfastness and kindness of Nelson. But revolving in and out of his life are male characters whose darkness show the more damaging and shameful aspects of humanity. Alcoholism, infidelity, lies, physical abuse, rape, emotional abuse. So it goes.

The female characters in this book seem to exist only to be the victims of the male characters. One is married to an abusive husband, one is another’s mistress, one is a stripper in a seedy club, one is a sweet mother with a close relationship with her son – which was the one positive female plot point until she is raped by another man and almost killed. And, of course, unable to save herself – she must wait for a male character to save her.

Their places within this narrative felt like a painfully true reflection of how women are treated and seen by men.  As women, fear of men is something we learn and live with until the day we die. Being scared to drink a drink at a party, clutching mace in our pocket when we walk down a dark street at night, trying not to make eye contact with the guy following you down the street yelling at you to smile more, having friends walk you home – just in case.

We live our lives trying to maneuver within of the inherently dangerous state of simply being female in a male dominated society. I think that every woman who reads this book will feel the horrifyingly deep helplessness of the main female character because we are able to relate to it on an all too real level. It is, in one word, traumatic.

This book started as a novel that seemed to be a beautiful ode to camping, to honor and growing up, but it definitely ended on a different note. It slowly spirals into a depressing three part storyline that only makes us sadder as we continue to turn the pages. Are men really this awful? Are women really only seen as things to abuse, to pay for, to use, to keep, to conquer, to shut up, to save?

There is no ray of hope, no sun breaking through the clouds after the storm, no ultimate moment of redemption for most of these characters. Nelson is good and kind all way through, but he is the exception that proves the rule.

Books to be excited about in 2017

33652490    May 9, 2017

Murakami’s new short story collection, “Men without Women” promises to be tales about men from all walks of life ending up alone. From the descriptions it strikes me as a Murakami version of ‘This is How You Lose Her’ and I cannot be more excited for this release! I’m sure it will be as beautiful and surreal as all of his books have been.

For those that haven’t read Murakami previously – he is like reading a dream you’ve almost forgotten but thoroughly enjoyed.

29906980  February 14, 2017

“Lincoln in the Bardo” is a novel that takes place over the course of one night. When Abraham Lincoln buries his son Willie, he later returns to his grave under the cover of darkness. Visited by ghosts and written in what I can only assume will be the usual lovely prose of Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo promises to be haunting in the best sense of the word.

33151805  May 2, 2017

Guilty pleasure alert! If you need to escape into a good thriller occasionally, Paula Hawkins might be a good author to start picking up. “The Girl on the Train” was interesting while being slightly disturbing, so I can only hope that Hawkins pushes that instinct further in her newest novel, “Into the Water.” A story about a single mother who ends up dead at the bottom of a river and the daughter (and secrets) she leaves behind – I am excited to hibernate away a weekend with this read in May.

25489134  January 10, 2017

Not long to wait for this debut novel by Katherine Arden. ARC reviews have been raving over this novel seeped in Russian fairytales with a little of Cinderella’s stepmother mixed in. A young girl named Vasilisa grows up honoring the spirit creatures around her due to the guidance and fairy tales of her nurse.  But when her mother dies and her father remarries, the city-bred woman he brings home demands they stop their traditions, which brings misfortune on their village. When crops fail and danger befalls her home, Vasilisa must make a choice to save them, even if it goes against everything her Stepmother wants. A story that promises to be full of magic, history and a touch of rebellion, “The Bear and the Nightingale” sounds like a wonderful read for the new year.

30644520  January 3, 2017

This book hits the shelves tomorrow and a lot of fans of Roxane Gay can’t wait. A collection of stories of women from different paths, from a stripper to an engineer, are what makes up this new release. Narratives that explore the intricacies of sibling relationships, marriages and friendships through self deception, love and societal expectations  – “Difficult Women” sounds like a sharp edged dive into the lives behind incredibly interesting fictitious women in modern America.

 

For fans of the Dresden Files and the Kingkiller Chronicles, both of the newest releases have yet to have a definite date so we will just continue to wait. (Not that we’ve waited impatiently for years already but… oh wait, yes we have.)

Obviously there are tons of great books to be excited about in 2017 but these are just a few I’m looking forward too! I’d love to hear what everyone else is excited for, so please feel free to comment/message me.

Happy New Year!

 

The Twelve Days of Dash and Lily

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Remember Dash & Lily? Kismet in the Strand Bookstore in NY! Mysterious notebooks, book love and adventures!

Dash and Lily found each other through a series of challenges left by Lily in a red moleskine notebook at the Strand in Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares, the original novel by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan. Extremely cute and clever, it gave us bibliophiles the warm and fuzzies all the way to the last page.

Now we have our sequel, The Twelve Days of Dash & Lily. Set one year after Dash & Lily fall for each other, fans of their first escapade will notice the change in tone in the initial few chapters. Quite serious and a bit sad, the book begins with Lily trying to take care of her grandpa after he has a heart attack. She isn’t her usual optimistic self, isn’t excited for christmas and to make matters worse, she and Dash seem to have drifted apart in their relationship.

When Lily ditches school, runs away from her family and feels completely unreachable; Dash decides it’s time to intervene. He arranges a set of clues to lead Lily on her own adventure. Each clue rekindles her joy in christmas and leads her back to him, and all those who love her.

Though not as warm or wondrous as the original – Dash & Lily enthusiasts will appreciate this second dose of the adorable pair. This bittersweet sequel is worth picking up to experience what happens next in their story. It brings back a little of that unique Dash & Lily magic to get you in the spirit for the holiday season.

And, fair warning, it might make you deathly afraid of glitter.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

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“Only different people change the world,” Granny used to say. “No one normal has ever changed a crapping thing.”

Elsa, 7-years-old, is astonishingly bright, creative and outspoken. These qualities lead her to be bullied at school and friendless. At home Elsa lives with her mother who is expecting a baby and has a new partner.  She doesn’t see her father as much as she wishes, he also has a new family. So she feels left out of both of her families in different ways and is an outcast at school.

Her grandmother is who Elsa’s world revolves around. She is her best friend, taking her on adventures and telling her tales about the Land of Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas where everybody is different like Elsa and nobody needs to be normal to fit in. Her grandmother does whatever she can to brighten Elsa’s day, whether it’s telling her fantasical stories, playing imaginary games or breaking into the zoo at night to show her the monkeys.

When Elsa’s beloved grandmother passes away, Elsa is left feeling alone and completely lost. Then her grandmother’s letters begin to appear, leading Elsa to people in her building that she didn’t know well before. Each letter is her grandmother apologizing for something, which helps Elsa to learn about her grandmother’s past and how she is connected to each recipient of the letters.

Through these letters Elsa experiences her own quest and expands the world she lives in to include new friends, neighbors and true stories that bring the fairy tales from the Land of Almost-Awake to life in a way Elsa never knew could be true.

Humanity in all it’s imperfections and varied challenges appear in Elsa’s letter delivery exploits.  An alcoholic, a well meaning cookie making couple, a overly fastidious neighbor (Britt-Marie! I wish I had read this book first!), a lurking dangerous figure and even a very large dog who becomes Elsa’s sidekick and protector.

“My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry” is not just about an incredible bond between a young girl and her grandmother seeped in fairy tales and imagination. It is a beautiful testament to the strength of stories, kindness, helping others, looking beyond first impressions and knowing that everyone has their own personal struggles.

I absolutely loved this book. Elsa’s grandmother is a superhero of the type that every child should have. Someone to encourage them to be creative and brave and adventurous but also tell them the truth and protect them no matter what. Her grandmother is hilarious, getting into all kinds of trouble but always with the best intentions. As her grandmother’s past unfolds and the stories of those around Elsa are revealed, we learn how wonderful and varied a life her grandmother truly had.

This wonderful novel about second chances, love, family and the magic of a well told tale is a must-read for anyone who loves to laugh, and believes each and every one of us could use a superhero in our lives.

Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

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Britt-Marie is a woman with challenges. A bit OCD, a bit unaware of social graces, a bit awkward and overly straight forward – Britt-Marie is easily misunderstood. She gives suggestions that come off as criticisms, she doesn’t easily interpret sarcasm, humor or emotion and she isn’t always sure why people do what they do. But behind all that is a woman with a sweet disposition and a big heart.

Britt-Marie unexpectedly leaves her cheating husband when she can no longer ignore that he is, in fact, cheating. When circumstances become too obvious to turn a blind eye, she decides she must go. She gets a job as caretaker of a recreation center in a small collapsing town named Borg, where most of the businesses have closed and the locals are barely holding on. Britt-Marie finds herself in a dirty recreation center no one uses (with a rat as a regular visitor) next door to a pizzeria/car repair shop/general store. Despite her best intentions to stay out of the way and simply do her job, she is drawn into the daily lives of a group of children needing a soccer coach and other local misfits who seem happy, if at odds with the world.

Though I enjoyed “Britt-Marie Was Here”, it felt so much like a book that almost, almost reached it’s real potential. Britt-Marie is a sweet character in many ways, but lacks the depth that would have made me care even more about her and her fate. The story itself has plenty of amusing moments and colorful people, but then ends feeling a bit unresolved. It felt like Backman had a wonderful premise for a book – the stage was set, the characters sketched out, the story began… and then it fell a little flat. Almost like he didn’t know where the story and characters were supposed to go in the end.

Not as amazing as “A Man Called Ove: A Novel” but still full of gentle warmth and sweet moments, “Britt-Marie Was Here” is a good book, it’s just not a great one.

The Girl of Ink and Stars

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I’m a sucker for a beautiful book.

I was on twitter the other day looking at what other people were reading and someone tweeted about The Girl of Ink & Stars and I admit, I took one look and wanted it. It’s not just the cover, which is lovely, but the inside pages are strewn with star trails. And it actually sounded like a great read.

Isabella is the daughter of a cartographer. He used to explore the world beyond Joya (their island) and make beautiful maps from his adventures. Then an oppressive Governor arrived. The Governor doesn’t let the people go beyond their small sectioned off part of the island, which is rigged with bells to alert his guards of anyone trying to leave. Isabella dreams of seeing beyond their little hometown after years of studying the maps on her walls and growing up with her father’s stories of the world that exists beyond their boundaries.

When Isabella’s friend from school dies in the Governor’s orchard, Isabella gets in a fight her with other schoolmate Lupe, the Governor’s daughter, and blames her. Lupe runs away into the forgotten territories to find out why their friend died. Wracked with guilt and regret, Isabella cuts off all her hair and disguised as a boy, joins in the search party to find her.

As the search continues, Isabella realizes there is much more to be saved than her friend. Their whole island is on the precipice of destruction.

Definitely written for young readers, the characters are simple and the plot is straight forward. Interwoven through Isabella’s trek into the forgotten territories are aspects of the myths she grew up with. The balance between good and evil, the concept of sacrifice for the greater good and ultimately, the end of a myth that began long before she was born.

Though it didn’t engross me the way I wish it could have, it was a fun read that kept me interested to the last page. As an adult reader, my biggest disappointment was that the characters felt flat. The author doesn’t give them enough depth that we really care what happens to them in the end.

Though it’s not a book I would highly recommend to adult readers, for a young reader just discovering fantasy and mythology, it may be a perfect choice.

All the Bright Places

  “I learned that there is good in this world, if you look hard enough for it. I learned that not everyone is disappointing, including me, and that a 1,257 bump in the ground can feel higher than a bell tower if you’re standing next to the right person.”

Theodore Finch and Violet Markey meet on the ledge of the bell tower at their school. Theodore is the sometimes strange, charming and erratic young man that often does weird things or gets into trouble at school. Violet is a popular, easygoing girl who recently lost her sister in a car accident. When they climb down off the ledge together, everyone assumes Violet is the hero – she must have saved Theodore. But in truth she was up there for her own reasons and they saved each other.

In the days that follow, Theodore reaches out to Violet and partners with her on a project where they must discover the wonders of their home state. Though hesitant at first, Violet agrees to partner with Theodore. They set out on adventures to explore places neither of them ever never knew existed. As they get to know each other, Theodore slowly helps her heal. Violet starts to write again, drive again and talk to her parents about her sister. She stops letting herself hide in the shadow of her sisters memory and begins, slowly, to live fully despite her loss.

The pairing of Violet and Theodore is uplifting and sweet in the beginning. We watch Violet heal, but as much as Theodore wants to get better, he can’t. He begins to feel the edges of what he calls being “asleep” come back to him. Those periods in his life where he fights not to disappear into his head, not lose himself for months at a time. Though at one point we get a hint of his illness when a counselor tries to speak to him about being bi-polar, he erases the counselor’s messages on his family’s answering machine and runs away.

“All the Bright Places” by Jennifer Niven is a story about loss, love, mental illness and suicide. It explores how anyone can be struggling with these issues, whether they’re the well liked cheerleader with great grades, or the school “freak” as some bullies call Theodore.

Violet and Theodore learn together that struggling with suicide doesn’t always have a definitive reason or easy cure to a happy ending. And though we wish it could be true, sometimes love is not enough.