The Weirdness by Jeremy P. Bushnell

unnamedThe Weirdness by Jeremy P. Bushnell is exactly that, weird. But in the best of ways. It’s a Faustian tale for the millennial generation.  Throw in a Devil-owned Lucky Cat, and well, you had me at hello.

Billy Ridgeway is kind of an odd, hipster-ish guy. He’s 30, works at a sandwich shop, and lives in Brooklyn. He’s a writer without much success and has a girlfriend who may or may not be that into him. But one day, Satan shows up in his apartment looking to make a deal. Help him retrieve his lost Lucky Cat in order to save the world from a fiery extinction, and he’ll grant Billy his one true desire – the chance to become a happily published novelist. How can Billy refuse?

If you aren’t sold by now, you might as well quit reading. Because if that synopsis doesn’t push all your buttons, this isn’t the book for you. Sorry. For those still with me, I really think you’ll love The Weirdness. It’s the perfect beachside romp filled with clever moments and well-written sentences. Bushnell gets NYC and failed writers in a way that makes this fantastical story feel very, very much like some truth you never thought you needed to know. The whole story is mostly just a giant metaphor of what writing is like these days, particularly being an unpublished writer. Which is pretty much just the most amazing metaphor, certainly the most fun, that I’ve read in a long while.

The Weirdness gets two thumbs up and several wet, sloppy kisses from me. I think most readers – from the casual to the very serious – can find something to love here. The sci-fi/fantasy kids get a nonstop, crazy adventure. The literary folks get beautiful writing and a plethora of smartly done literary devices and allusions. There’s religion and romance, if that’s your bag. And werewolves. Because someone out there always needs werewolves.

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

unnamedJames Baldwin is a literary legend who needs next to no introduction. Except that I feel like no one reads any Baldwin anymore. Is this true? Have y’all read anything by him recently? If Beale Street Could Talk is my very first and will not be my last. Now that I’ve read one, I intend to read his entire backlist. And I need y’all to do the same thing.

Tish loves Fonny and Fonny loves Tish. They are a young, sweet couple living in NYC just trying to create a home and a family of their own. But when Fonny is wrongfully accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman, he’s thrown in jail, separated from his now pregnant fiance.

And it’s heartbreaking. Heartbreaking because how much this fictional story embodies the harsh realities of life and racism and shitty people. The irony of the police force and the law system being the very evil they’re supposed to serve and protect us from. Baldwin’s writing is no nonsense and doesn’t allow you to make excuses for the fact in his fiction. He demands his readers see through the bullshit. But he does so by making you fall in love with these wonderfully drawn, full-bodied characters who will crawl inside your heart and stay there even when you put the book down. It’s a story of the human spirit pitted against the ugliness of humanity.

The novel is short, yet powerful. The ambiguous ending was expertly done. Baldwin’s talent with the written word had me underlining and highlighting and sharing quotes on Tumblr with every turn of the page. It’s a book that still feels so very relevant even decades later. Because we’re still trapped inside this horrific bubble of prejudice and racism and making people feel other despite knowing better by now. So perhaps we need James Baldwin now more than we ever have.

So, what’s your favorite Baldwin novel? Where should I head next?

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

1102116So I read this book and now I shall discuss it in this post. So get ready, y’all. Oh my goodness, I’m in a mood. But this should be fun, I promise. Anyway, I read this for multiple reasons: It’s our chosen book for April (my IRL book club), it was a booktube book club choice in March, and Adichie is such a queen of all writers that it was a thing that just had to be done.

Half of a Yellow Sun follows five different protagonists from different walks of life as they navigate the civil unrest/war that occurred in Nigeria during the 1960s and the turmoil following Colonialism. The pov switches back and forth between these five narrators and between the early 60s/late 60s. So basically, character driven African historical fiction.

And there’s a whole lot to love about this book. Seriously, it won many awards and well-deserved accolades. Adichie’s writing speaks for itself. Despite its 500+ pages, I flew through the story with a fervid pace. I cared about each character and needed to know what happened to them. I loved Adichie’s decision to jump between the now and then. To show us the effect of moments that hadn’t yet been divulged to us, the readers. And then to rewind and spill the beans in reverse. So good. And spectacularly effective.

What was a bit of a miss for me was bogging down the story with so many historical facts and figures and events. Sometimes I felt like the characters had a hard time rising above being mere historical vehicles. Instead of being living, breathing people they had a tendency every now and again to feel like dusty relics from a museum tour. That sounds so, so harsh. And it’s not meant to be, really. Some might even really enjoy this aspect. But I’d have preferred a little more subtlety to my story telling. Just a personal preference.

But overall, I loved the book. I still think Americanah is her stronger novel (although I think I’m in the minority there), but Half of a Yellow Sun is not to be missed. Honestly, Adichie can’t write fast enough to satisfy my cravings for the way she tells such a complete and enthralling tale.

Can’t wait to see what my Litwit ladies have to say when we meet later in the month to discuss. I’m nervous because I’m such a delicate Adichie fangirl and can hardly stand to hear a negative thing said, even if it’s coming out of my own mouth!

Happy Monday y’all!!

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

17333319The Litwits met on Sunday to discuss Hannah Kent’s debut novel released last year. Putting this book off for almost a year was next to impossible because so many of my online bookish friends loved, loved this story. And for the first time in a long time, I had to force myself to stop at 50 pages a day because I wanted to savor this gem of a book. I never wanted it to end.

Burial Rites is another novel that I don’t feel needs much introduction. It takes place in Iceland in the 1820s. Two women and one man have been charged and convicted of killing a man. Our protagonist, Agnes, has been sentenced to death by beheading. Kent writes of her final months living with a farm family as she awaits her looming death.

That’s not spoiling anything because this is a historical fiction novel based on the true story of the last beheading in Iceland. So…you know how it ends going in, but damn if you don’t hope and pray Agnes will find someway to beat her murder wrap. Whether or not she even committed the crime becomes almost a non issue as you fall in love with this orphaned, lonely, sad woman. I defy you not to want Agnes’s name cleared!

Beyond the central plot, Kent gives you so much else to love. The Icelandic landscape in all its cinematic glory and rolling hills and biting cold surrounds you and places you firmly within the story. Her writing is GORGEOUS. Her descriptions are lyrical and immersive. Some members did think she could be a bit long-winded at times and a little too dirty with her imagery (she doesn’t shy away from the nasty smells and ugliness of  bodily function), but others adored her language for its realism. Personally, I found myself reading the passages out loud – sometimes over and over again – mesmerized by all the pretty words.

Agnes was my favorite character, but many Litwits loved Margret as well. We discussed how Margret desperately didn’t want Agnes in her house, sleeping right next to her own two daughters. But once Agnes arrives in her pitiful state, Margret can’t help but feel for the doomed woman. What makes that so particularly interesting is how un-motherly Margret seems around her own children. Margret’s daughter, Lauga, quickly grows to resent her mother’s affection for Agnes creating such tension as the story unfolds.

We discussed the novel’s ending at length. Several of us felt the ending to be very abrupt, too rushed in its conclusion. Others thought this was done on purpose to emphasize the death that couldn’t be stopped. But it was just so sad.

So Burial Rites was a winner among the Litwits! We got a lot of good conversation in before our inevitable fall into the descent of television, tumblr, and fanfiction. Until next time ladies!!

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

16250900I’m handing this out for World Book Night 2014 and decided that before doing so I should probably give the thing a read, no? It won a Printz Honor when it was released and the sequel has been earning extra heapings of praise for both books. When choosing my WBN selection, I wanted something that lots of people, particularly young readers, could really sink their teeth into. A book with meat, plot, and purpose. Code Name Verity seemed just the thing.

Here’s where a synopsis should go, but I don’t want to reveal too much. How about…two friends are involved in some espionage during WWII that gets one of them captured in occupied France after their plane crashes. Oh, and the two friends (the pilot and the spy) are teenage/college-aged girls. Did that synopsis work at all? Just go read the thing.

SO GOOD. I could not put this down. I’d lowered my expectations going in because so many had warned me the book bored them and was bogged down under dull aviation details that wouldn’t interest anyone who wasn’t a pilot. Wein, herself, is a pilot. But I didn’t find this to be the case at all. The details that were included just made the story feel more authentic and gave the tone of the novel a gripping sense of realism.

The writing is wonderful and smart and emotionally riveting. The girls are well written and believable. The plot is nonstop – full of twisty, turny moments that genuinely shocked me more than once. It is so rare for a plot twist to find me unawares these days, but Code Name Verity pulled it off not once, but twice. The ending was gut-wrenching, and I can understand why so many previous readers were moved to tears. The story manages to be centered around a beautiful female friendship and themes of feminism in the best and most brilliant of ways. This is a book that shows you a thing instead of telling you a thing. And I loved it.

After having read and loved and read and hated a vast plethora of WWII fiction and nonfiction, I really didn’t think it possible for a book set during this time period to feel fresh and to teach me something I didn’t know. But Code Name Verity does this – excels at this – and deserves all its praise and accolades. I can’t wait to hand this book over to people of all ages in April and to get my greedy little hands on the sequel!!

Three Souls by Janie Chang

Three-SoulsWhat made me pick up Three Souls? I think subconsciously I’ve been seeking out historical fiction all year, but more than that even, I wanted something Chinese and feminist with a deftly paced plot. I got that and much, much more in Janie Chang’s novel set against the backdrop of the beginnings of World War II and the Chinese civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists.

Leiyin is a young mother who awakens to find herself at her own funeral. She remembers nothing of her life. Her three souls surround her as she realizes something is barring her entrance into the Afterlife and eventual reincarnation. As her lost memories play out before her, Leiyin must watch and process all the missteps and egregious mistakes she’s made in her short 24 years in order to understand how to make amends for her discretions.

I think Three Souls is a novel best read cold. No need to know any real plot points about who Leiyin is or was. No need to start guessing her transgressions before even opening the book. Can you imagine being stuck in some sort of limbo having to watch your life literally pass before your eyes? All the embarrassments and bad decisions? The moments where you realize how awful of a person you’ve been at times? To feel buried under the weight of a debt or a horrific fuck up that you might never be able to mend?

That, for me, was the most compelling aspect of Three Souls. Janie Chang has created such a masterfully drawn, full-bodied female character filled with darkness and joy and despair and folly and good intentions. Leiyin won me over almost immediately as a person who transcends the page – who walks and talks and breathes. Watching her watch herself stumble and fall and learn and grow and falter and wobble was heartbreaking and inspiring and infuriating. She stayed with me even when I wasn’t reading the novel and will, no doubt, be with me long after. She’s the perfect example of an often unlikeable character who grabs hold of a reader and won’t let go despite her flaws.

I just kept reading and reading and telling myself, “Good God, this book is so good.” Which, I guess, surprised me in the best of ways. It’s at once page-turning and cerebral. The ending came as a complete surprise, and I wouldn’t have changed a single thing. Janie Chang is now firmly situated on my authors to watch list and I hope you’ll give her a chance, too!

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Thanks so much to the publisher and TLC Book Tours for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. Check out the other tour stops here!

About the Author:

Janie-ChangBorn in Taiwan, Janie Chang spent part of her childhood in the Philippines, Iran, and Thailand. She holds a degree in computer science and is a graduate of the Writer’s Studio Program at Simon Fraser University. Three Souls is her first novel.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

11297Haruki Murakami. Just writing those words evokes so many feelings and ideas. Readers in Japan treat his release dates similar to the release of each new Harry Potter novel, lining up outside bookshops at midnight. He’s a BIG DEAL. And he pissed me off.

Norwegian Wood follows, Toru, a young man going to college in Tokyo who is dealing with the aftermath of his best friend’s suicide. He weaves in and out of relationships with various women, including Naoko, the ex-girlfriend of said best friend, and Midori, a vibrant fellow college student who’s dealing with her own loses.

And that’s pretty much it. Murakami’s only straightforward and traditionally plotted novel was written merely as an experiment to see whether or not he could do such a thing. At best, it’s a beautifully written character study and exploration through the mind. At worst, it’s an ass-backwards misogynistic romp led by literature’s most boring male protagonists of the all times.

First things first, I loved the writing something fierce, and I can’t wait to explore Murakami’s other works no matter how problematic his gender renderings can be. I loved Naoko and Midori both as strong, yet different, female characters. Naoko’s internal emotional and psychological struggles were realistically drawn. Midori, my favorite character, was full of life: bright, bold, brash, and beyond clever. Unfortunately, Murakami couldn’t  just leave it at that.

Instead, we see these amazing women and many more of Tokyo’s young female population tremble and succumb to Toru’s irresistible sexual force. All of the women in this novel sleep with Toru. All of them. And for what reason? I can’t find a single damn one. He’s dull, without personality, and barely even speaks to them half the time. He’s no James Bond, that’s for sure. Even Naoko, who was never even able to sleep with the supposed love of her life, gives in to Toru during a particularly emotional scene, and I ain’t buying that. AT ALL.

I’ve heard this kind of ridiculousness continues in Murakami’s other endeavors, and that worries me. But I’m willing to push onward on the strength of his writing. After all, if Toru had disappeared from Norwegian Wood’s narrative (or even just the sex), the book would have been fabulous. And I like sex as long as it makes sense and serves a purpose. The only purpose I found here was a male writer’s wish fulfillment. Oh well.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

unnamedKaren Russell is on my list of six authors I want to read for the first time in 2014. I’m starting at the beginning with her first novel, a collection of interrelated short stories all set in the same swampy, beachy area of Florida. The hype in my head was MASSIVE and there was no way Russell was ever going to live up to such a beast.

Ten stories – all of them odd, all of them weird. Most of them are narrated by a child or teenager. They feel like coming-of-age stories. Many of them are allegorical in nature. And none of them end neatly. I’d even go so far as saying only one of them actually has a traditional beginning, middle, end narrative structure. So you’ve got to let that desire go immediately.

You have stories about alligator wrestling theme parks (which will eventually become Swamplandia!), little girls who sled out to sea on a crab shell never to be heard from again, and girls raised by wolves who must go to a reform school to learn how to live as human. The characters are strange and often unsettling. It can be hard to connect with the absurd plot lines at first, but soon you begin to see the humanity bleeding through the weird. And Russell at 25 creates some of the most imaginative and audacious imagery I’ve read – maybe ever.

So why only four stars instead of five? It took me a while to get invested. It took me too long to get over my initial frustration at how she ends her stories – or doesn’t end them, so to speak. Once I was able to let that go and just enjoy these brief slices of life for what they were, I was swept away and didn’t want to swim back to the mainland. That’s the magic Russell has created. She took me places I did not want to go, kicking and screaming, and left me bereft with their absence by the collection’s end.

Swamplandia!, I’m coming for you.

A Room With a View by E.M. Forster

1649385E.M. Forster is an author I’ve always meant to read but never have. I started doing a buddy reads thing with my best friend and co-organizer of my Atlanta book club last year, and our most recent selection was A Room With a View. I quickly downloaded a free copy onto my Kindle and settled in.

Lucy is a young girl on holiday in Italy. She wants to break out of the constricting, conservative mold of proper English society, but constantly finds herself and her means thwarted by older cousin and chaperone, Charlotte. They meet many interesting characters abroad including an older gentleman and his younger son, George Emerson. The Emersons aren’t the right kinds of people, but George and Lucy share a kiss in a field of violets that puts Twilight to shame. After the incident, Lucy and Charlotte flee to Rome and then back to England where we discover Lucy’s become engaged to a colossal douchebag named Cecil. But then the Emersons move into the neighborhood and things get very interesting.

I’m glad I read this around Valentine’s Day. If you were unsatisfied with Twilight, try this! Seriously, a great love story not just between two lovers, but also between a woman and who she wants to be – free to love and live as she chooses. It’s short, sweet, and simple, but poses a lot of questions about English society and the changing of societal norms from the Victorian Era to the Edwardian period. Plot and substance! Plus, you can watch the miniseries that has Daniel Day Lewis. I repeat, Daniel Day Lewis.

Victoria wasn’t as enamored because she couldn’t connect or like any of the characters beyond George Emerson. She wanted to like and love Lucy but wasn’t able to. She thought Lucy did a whole lot of talking about breaking free without a whole lot of actual doing. This is a valid complaint (until the end, at least), but I just think she’s a product of her time. We can’t hold her to the standards we hold women to today, can we? I think that can be one of the hardest parts of reading literature over 100 years old.

Anyway, loved this and will be exploring Forster further. Highly recommended.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

251688Reading In Cold Blood changed my mind about reading nonfiction. Previously, I had stayed away believing the factual side of literature to be dull and filled with textbook-like passages where I zoned out after two or three words. Truman Capote showed me a different side – the narrative nonfiction side – and became a literary hero of mine. It’s a shame I’ve waited this long to read any of his fiction.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a short 90 page novella that most people think was only ever a movie. I admit that I fell into this category until I got to college and realized the source material was a Capote story. The narrator of the story basically becomes infatuated with a woman who lives in his building named Holly Golightly. She’s a progressive, hedonistic woman who has loud parties, drinks too much, and allows various men into her bed. Not the most shocking thing now, perhaps, but for a woman in the Forties this was dramatically offensive behavior. Men, including our storyteller, are infatuated with her. Capote chooses to focus only on the brief time Miss Golightly lives in this New York brownstone, but with his talent and expertise at the wheel we manage to learn quite a bit about Holly while still not learning all of her secrets.

I loved it. I love how Holly’s a wilder, darker thing in Capote’s imagination than the Holly brought to the screen by Audrey Hepburn. Both are compelling, but I prefer the written Holly as a sort of a high class call girl figure who mixes and mingles with mobsters.

The next three stories in this collection are equally as fascinating if a little less famous. My favorite of the three was “A Christmas Memory” which was made into a film starring Patty Duke, I think. It’s about a boy and an elderly woman who are the best of friends. You don’t often get to see such relationships explored as we so frequently shelve old people in the dusty back corners of our brains. I’m not ashamed to admit that the humanity and sweet sadness of this story brought me to tears. That doesn’t much happen to grinches like me so kudos, Mr. Capote, on inspiring my heart to grow three sizes larger.

Now I shall focus on reading all of Truman Capote’s backlist. And you should too.