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.

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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 Martian by Andy Weir

2Q== “I can’t wait till I have grandchildren. When I was younger, I had to walk to the rim of a crater. Uphill! In an EVA suit! On Mars, ya little shit! Ya hear me? Mars!” 

Mark Watney is a wise cracking, insanely intelligent and tenacious astronaut. He is abandoned on Mars, presumed dead by his team after a dust storm clobbers him with a piece of equipment and the team is forced to leave the planet to save themselves. He wakes up bleeding, but miraculously alive, and makes it back to the HAB (the NASA martian habitat) and realizes that he has to find a way to live for four years until the next team arrives. With no way to communicate, dwindling food stores, cramped quarters not designed for long term living and constant technical complications, Watney faces some pretty extreme challenges. But armed with a great sense of humor, wits and a lot of ingenuity, Watney finds a way to survive.

Whether it’s mixing his own poop into martian dirt or creating water from hydrogen and oxygen (without blowing himself up!) to grow potatoes or taking a cross mars trip in a contraption where he can’t stand up without putting a space suit on, Watney has a new adventure every day. His escapades are told through his space logs, which vary from highly detailed accounts of endurance to his complaints about the 70s TV shows and disco music left behind by the his teammates when they had to leave him behind.

Though his story can be a little technical at times, it doesn’t go beyond comprehension. The nerdy aspects of this book only add to it’s charm. Watney’s struggles to stay alive on Mars are hilarious and intoxicating. You’ll want to curl up in bed, call in sick to work and pretend to be isolated on a planet yourself just to enjoy this book at your leisure. It doesn’t matter if you’re usually a lover of fantasy, biographies, young adult or fiction, Watney’s exploits will appeal to anyone in need of a good book. “The Martian” is an adventure that will let you escape your daily tribulations here on earth to experience a new undertaking completely out of this world, with quite a few laughs thrown in for good measure.

New releases to lose sleep over

Holidays are great aren’t they? Not only do we get to buy books for our loved ones but people give us books! And certificates for books! And money to buy MORE books! It’s the best time of the year.

Here are a few upcoming releases to be excited about this holiday season and save some of that cash for.

           To be released: December 2, 2014

Haruki Murakami will be releasing “The Strange Library” next week and if you’re a bookworm – be really excited. Book nerds like us adore authors who write about their love of literature or set their stories in a place of books. Shadow of the Wind? Dash and Lily? Ex-Libris? So many great novels revolve around books within books. “The Strange Library” is about a boy and a girl who try to escape a dark and mystical library full of nightmarish things. SO EXCITED! Who doesn’t want to read about being trapped in a dark, surreal library? It’s a dream come true.

 

 To be released: January 6, 2015

SO YOU THOUGHT FLAVIA WAS GONE? Think again. Flavia may have been packed up to be sent away from Bradshaw at the end of the last book, but her new adventures will occur in the super secret boarding school for spies. New mysteries to solve, new murders to stumble upon. And all with fellow children her age who are uncannily intelligent! It’s a whole new world and I can’t wait to see what Flavia will get tangled up in next.

 

To be released: February 17, 2015

I can only imagine this will be yet another rollicking adventure with our favorite couple, Sherlock Holmes and his badass wife Mary Russell. They are on their way to California (always an excellent choice) and decide to stop by Japan on the way over. The mystery begins aboard their steamer and continues round the world, from Tokyo to Oxford.

                  To be released: December 23, 2014

I have not actually read Sundquists’s other book but I’ve read great reviews on it and this one sounds really funny too. I’m looking forward to checking out this author and seeing if he’s worth his salt! “We should hang out sometime” is Josh humorously investigating why he can’t seem to get a girlfriend. He has many adventures and mishaps and it promises to be an amusing trip into his world.

 

I’m sure there are many more upcoming. What are some of the books you’re excited for?

Hyperbole and a Half; dinosaurs, cake and rainbows

“Hyperbole and a Half” by Allie Brosh is like reading about the inside of your head – all the dinosaurs, cake, rainbows and overly emotional thoughts churning around into a colorful mess that constitute your life completely unfiltered.

We try really hard to keep all those dinosaurs and rainbows under control, but in this book, they roam free. I admit, maybe this isn’t everyone’s head (if you’re scowling at me right now, I mean you), but I loved it because it is a little bit like being inside mine.

It started the day I read the dinosaur costume entry, Menace, on Brosh’s blog. It was like making a new friend. I have worn a dinosaur costume, and I, too, have felt incredibly powerful waving my claws in the air, having a tail and roaring.

The best part is people not looking at you like “why is that human roaring?” because you’re a dinosaur now – you can roar to your heart’s content. So yeah, I was hooked.

Brosh’s blog is truly great. Each entry contains humorous stories and drawings to illustrate the ridiculousness that is daily life with blatant honesty. Her book “Hyperbole and a Half” is an extension of this.

In “Hyperbole and a Half,” we experience Brosh’s battles with depression, her childhood memories, her struggles to be a better person and even a little delicious cake stealing. Her writing is brutal, comical and wholly sincere.

There are many, many reasons to read this book, but here are just a few. You should read it if:

You love dogs.

You love cake.

You love books.

You like to laugh.

You are human.

The thing is, I think a lot of us can relate to Brosh’s book. It’ll make you chuckle, sure, but it’ll also make you think.

If you’ve ever struggled with depression or felt overwhelmed by the total lack of control in your daily life, or if you’ve ever needed someone just to understand how amazingly frustrating it can be just to be a person existing in this world, you’ll relate. And I think we’ve all been there.

Brosh reminds us that we’re all human, and that, yes, life is hard. It’s hard and ridiculous and exquisite. We should be grateful just to be experiencing it every day, but most of the time, we aren’t.

We’re mostly caught up being infuriatingly human, and if we’re going to do that anyway, then we might as well laugh a little bit at ourselves, too.

‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ offers delightful dysfunction, adventure

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” by Maria Semple is a hilariously quirky rendition of a dysfunctional family in Seattle. Bernadette lives in a crumbling home with her genius husband, Elgin, who works at Microsoft, and her loving daughter, Bee.

Bernadette used to be a revolutionary architect in Los Angeles, but after a disaster with her project, she moves to Seattle to hide and pull herself together. Though she means to restore their decrepit home as a way to get back on her architectural feet, she ends up leaving it to crumble more into ruin instead. And with the aid of some bad luck, wild choices and a crazy mom at school, she too, begins to fall apart.

Bernadette’s downward spiral begins to gather speed when Bee gets perfect grades on her report card and they plan a family trip to Antarctica. Bernadette, experiencing full-blown social anxiety, doesn’t sleep and uses her online personal assistant out of India to book their vacation and make purchases so she doesn’t have to face people out in the world.

As the trip gets closer, Bernadette is unsure how she will face going to Antarctica when she can’t even make a call to the local restaurant to make a dinner reservation for the holiday.

As Bernadette battles her inner demons, she also deals with craziness from others. A mom at her daughter’s school is completely nuts, accusing Bernadette of running over her foot in her car, sneaking onto Bernadette’s property to cut out her blackberry bushes (a first step in a wildly funny confrontation that ends with no injuries but lots of property damage) and generally makes Bernadette’s daily struggles much harder with her trivial issues and overblown complaints.

Bernadette is a great character. She handles just about everything with a sense of humor and flair. Despite all her personal problems, she tries to focus on the most important aspect of her life, her daughter Bee.

Bee is incredible. She is smart, accomplished, loves to help other children at school and is excited to go to boarding school the following year. She cheers on her mother’s odd antics and humorous confrontations with full support and compassion. They’re best friends.

One day, when Bernadette’s father, an FBI agent and a psychiatrist all end up confronting her together in a complicated climax of events, Bernadette goes missing.

Bee, heartbroken but determined, sets off to find her mother, using emails, Post-Its, confidential FBI papers and her own smarts to bring her mother home.

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is a sweet and zany novel about a woman and the confluence of events that lead to her disappearance. Her story is funny, touching and surprising throughout.

As we watch the complicated and absurd plot unfold, we cannot help but be hopeful that Bernadette will find her way back to her family, her love of architecture and, ultimately, herself.

Saviors and Stereotypes

I don’t have anything against “Twilight.” OK, yeah, I do. I have a lot against “Twilight.” It’s not just the awful grammar, one-dimensional characters and trite dialogue, but the fact that Bella mostly seems to sit around crying and waiting for some guy to save her from violent situations as an abject gesture of love to give meaning to her life. Gross.

Back when these books became popular, my friend told me to read them before I judged them. So I did. And I regret it to this day. Except for the fact that I can now judge freely, so there’s that. Huzzah.

I realize that it can be enjoyable to read a book where a young man sweeps a young lady off her feet and makes everything better; I get that. I really do. I’ve never read a hardcore romance novel, but I’m sure that’s what they do in those books (among other things).

But since “Twilight” exploded all over bookstores like a burst appendix, the young adult sections have become clad in moody black covers with white rose petals and blood-red lips. The name of those sections have sometimes morphed into teen lit and, on occasion – to my everlasting horror – paranormal romance.

(If you’ve ever seen excellent writers like John Green and Markus Zusak in a paranormal romance section simply because they write YA books, you’d be horrified, too. You might even weep a little).

The ageless adventure and love plot between a young lady and a young gentlemen is being repeatedly rehashed in a lot of teen books like “Twilight” without any originality or substance. The fact, though, is that the young lady doesn’t have to be a helpless idiot for these popular plots to work.

So when I’m asked what young adult author I would recommend for a teen or adult that loves a little fantasy and a little romance, I often suggest Tamora Pierce.

In Pierce’s “Song of the Lioness” series, Alanna secretly switches places with her brother to pursue her dream of becoming a knight. In the “Immortals” series, Daine finds out she has a knack for magic, not just hunting, archery and horses. In the “Beka Cooper” series, we follow a young lady as she trains to be a member of the Provost’s Guard, a type of police officer who keeps the peace in city streets and tracks down criminals.

Almost all of Pierce’s books feature strong female characters who are pursuing their own goals in life. Sure, these young ladies engage in romance at one point or another, but they do it while still being independent, intelligent women with their own values and aspirations. And if they end up with a guy, it’s because they fell in love with someone who is their partner, not their savior.

Pierce’s books are refreshing adventures that will make a female want to kick off those petticoats and run around in pantaloons like a self-governing, forthright modern woman.

And the best part is, these books won’t make you hit your head against the wall, weeping for our future generations of young women. Not even once.