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.

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.

We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman

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The lesson here . . . Sometimes people throw things away. That doesn’t mean those things aren’t really, really good. Most of the time, it just means that person didn’t know what they had.

In the style of Jonathan Tropper, Matthew Norman writes a humorous middle-age self discovery novel about a man named Andy.

Andy runs away from Omaha after his marriage falls apart, he causes a scene at his best friends wedding and loses his job. He lives in a tiny apartment in New York working as a bartender with an angry cat who he occasionally feeds cap’n crunch. Despite doing his best to avoid his hometown where his ex-wife, ex-best friend and family live, he suddenly has to go back when he finds out his grandfather is dying.

When he arrives home, he discovers that his ex-wife now lives with her new boyfriend in his old house, his mom has undergone a makeover to become a big right-wing radio personality and his ex-best friend is still mad at him. As he navigates each of the relationships he ran away from confronting, he also has to find a way to say goodbye to his grandpa.

Then he meets a young lady named Daisy. Daisy is quirky, mysterious and randomly decides she wants to make Andy whole again. She is determined to help him dress better, recover from his heartbreak and mend his life.

Though the plot is a bit typical – middle aged man is dumped by his wife, leaves his life in ruins and runs away before being forced to come home and confront/fix all his previous problems while he happens to meet a ‘different’ woman (she has tattoos! she dresses creatively!) who makes him see himself in a new way – the book is an enjoyable read. The ending is not extremely predictable and the characters don’t all fall into perfectly happy endings, which was much more satisfying than if they had.

If you liked “This is Where I Leave You” and “The Rosie Project” you will enjoy “We’re All Damaged” as well. A slightly wacky novel about getting back on your feet after life throws you a few curveballs, “We’re All Damaged” is a fun novel filled with humor, drama and devious squirrels.

Top Ten Characters You Wish Would Get Their OWN Book

Rachel Lynde from Anne of Green Gables

I’ve always wished I could read a book from Rachel’s perspective. I’m sure it would be delightfully crotchety and full of griping and gossip and conspiracies in Avonlea.

The Cemetery of Forgotten Books from The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

OK so this isn’t precisely a character, but I would love to see a collection of short stories or a novel encompassing all of what goes on in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. The main characters always visit and it shapes their lives, but we never get to really dive into it. I want to live there, see everything.

Joey from Winger by Andrew Smith

if you haven’t read Winger yet, it’s a YA book about a young man, Ryan Dean West, who goes to boarding school and all the self-exploration and growing up he does there. It’s self deprecating and sweet most of the way through, but ends with a sad sudden occurrence in relation to a close friend of his, Joey. I wont’ ruin it but I would love to delve deeper into Joey’s story and who he was. He’s such a central character to Ryan’s story, and yet he’s not. I always felt he deserved more.

Molly Carpenter from The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

Molly begins as Dresden’s best friend’s daughter, becomes his apprentice and then a future main/secondary character in this series. She grows from a gothy angsty high-schooler not knowing how to handle her life to confident, almost scary, powerful magical entity. It would be awesome to see the whole story from her point of view and get to know more of what she goes through, not just the bits and pieces we see in Harry’s story.

Poppet and Widget from The Night Circus

It’s not just that I want to experience more of the night circus, which I do, but the twins are awesome strange characters who wander and grow up in the circus. It’s their whole world. I would love to see a book just about them growing up as the circus grows and taking it over later.

Top Ten Tuesday is a Broke and the Bookish weekly feature that lots of book bloggers take part in.

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.

Jack Reacher, all around badass

Jack Reacher. Six feet, 5 inches and 220 pounds. Ex-military policeman and all-around badass. Maybe you’ve heard of him?

I was talking to my father one day and he started ranting a bit about the new “Jack Reacher” movie starring Tom Cruise. (Book-related ranting runs in the family). He talked about how the movie was based on a very extensive book series, but they had cast it all wrong.

Jack Reacher was supposed to be huge. Burly. Muscular. A giant. He stands out in a crowd, intimidates the bad guys and is able to throw down on any enemy who gets in his way. Though I am not usually one to pick up light crime-action novels, it made me curious, and I thought I’d give them a try.

“Killing Floor,” the first in the series, opens over breakfast. Reacher watches as cops burst into a diner to arrest him for a murder he didn’t commit. He is interrogated and jailed, though there is no evidence against him. Reacher becomes intrigued by the cop’s inability to realize he isn’t the murderer, but he stays out of it. It isn’t his problem.

Suddenly, it becomes personal when he finds out that the person murdered is none other than his own brother, Joe. Reacher then takes down each criminal with his military-trained efficient and smooth kick-butt abilities. Reacher not only solves the town’s problems but gains a lady friend, Roscoe, who adds a little personality and love interest to the plot.

After “Killing Floor,” I read “Die Trying.” Now, I’m currently on “Tripwire.” This stumbling-upon-a-crime scenario seems to be pretty common so far in the series. In the second book “Die Trying,” Reacher helps a woman on the street and ends up being thrown into a vehicle with her, kidnapped and held as part of a rebel militia scenario. In “Tripwire,” he is digging pools in Key West when a detective comes looking for him, is killed and then Reacher follows the detective’s trail to discover himself once again involved in something very twisted and personal.

Each book has a crime element, a love element and a lot of action. There is plenty of running, fighting, shooting and scheming to keep you turning the pages to see whose butt gets handed to them next.

Reacher, though not a deep character, is entertaining because he is so incredibly calm, cool and proper. He believes in being polite, treating women well and minding his own business. He only gets involved when a wrong needs to be righted, and then he doesn’t give a damn what is legal, only that justice be served, often in blood.

The Reacher books are quick, entertaining reads that will keep your attention on any beach, flight or rainy afternoon. I plan to continue reading and with 15 books in the series, I’ve only got 12 to go.

(See original article I wrote for our Get Out)