Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Burial Rites

If I had to choose one word to describe Hannah Kent's debut novel Burial Rites, I'd choose bleak. Before you close out this screen and rule out the book, let me tell you that it is a good type of bleak--chilly, dark, and harsh, with stories and characters that dig deeply into you. Burial Rites gives an alternate story and voice to Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who was executed in Iceland in 1830 for her part in murdering two men (incidentally the last instance of capital punishment in Iceland). History has remembered her as a heartless murderess and a witch.

Burial Rites offers an alternate story for Agnes's life. Having been condemned to death, Agnes is sent to live on a remote farm with district officer Jón Jónsson, his wife, Margrét, and two daughters, Steina and Lauga. She is frequently visited by Tóti, the newly-minted, uncertain assistant reverend who has been tasked with bringing Agnes back to God through lecture and fear before her death.

The family is initially horrified to play host to Agnes and want as little to do with her as possible. The reverend, Tóti, struggling to find his feet, does something that ends up rather radical. Instead of preaching and lecturing to Agnes, trying to scare her into redemption, he chooses to listen to her. Slowly, Agnes begins to share her life and her side of the story.

I used the word bleak to describe this book earlier. Part of that has to do with the subject matter--murder and anticipating one's death. There are not any moments of levity that come to mind. But bleak also describes the setting. Life in rural Iceland in the 1830s is a daily struggle against a harsh (but beautiful) landscape to simply survive. Agnes works alongside the family, and slowly they begin to listen to her as well, finding a person behind the label of monster and murderer. And when winter keeps them inside, they also begin to listen to Agnes.

Hannah Kent's writing matches her story--stark, down-to-earth, but also lyrical. Burial Rites is a very well-written book, and particularly impressive for a debut novel. Here's a small sample for you:
“Those who are not being dragged to their deaths cannot understand how the heart grows hard and sharp, until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it. I am barren; nothing will grow from me anymore. I am the dead fish drying in the cold air. I am the dead bird on the shore. I am dry, I am not certain I will bleed when they drag me out to meet the axe. No, I am still warm, my blood still howls in my veins like the wind itself, and it shakes the empty nest and asks where all the birds have gone, where have they gone?”
 Beautiful. But bleak.

Kent could have found herself constrained by her characters, limited because most of them were real people. But she manages to bring Agnes, Tóti, and the family to life, along with the Icelandic landscape. The almost-but-not-quite-mother-daughter relationship that grows achingly slowly between Agnes and Margrét was particularly moving.

My only criticism of the book was that at times it seemed to depend a bit too much on Agnes simply retelling her story. At the beginning of the book, her story and the retelling was woven into the plot and daily life on the farm. However, as the book continued on and Agnes began to share the events leading up to the murder, we spend a lot of time sitting by the fire listening to Agnes sit and simply recount what happened. Because it is winter and there isn't much plot-wise going on, Kent tries to add variety by switching between points-of-view, but it is only partially successful.

I recommend Burial Rites, especially if you've enjoyed the work of Geraldine Brooks or Barbara Kingsolver. Burial Rites will be published in September, but if you're like me and like to match your books to the season, I'd hold onto this one for late fall or winter.

4 stars.

I received an ARC of Burial Rites through NetGalley. Burial Rites will be released on September 10, 2013.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Newbery Award Winners--the 1920s

Over a year ago, Colby Sharp and Mr. Schu started the Newbery Medal Reading Challenge, encouraging people to read all of the books that have won the Newbery Medal (awarded every year since 1922  "to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.") I love many of the Newbery winners, so I decided to accept the challenge.

Here are some of my favorite Newbery winners, as an example:

When I started, I was four or five books behind. I just checked. Colby Sharp and Mr. Schu recently reviewed Kira-Kira, the 2005 winner. What about me? Oh, well, I'm happy to announce I've finished all of the winners from the 1920s!

Which isn't even a full decade of winners.

Why has it taken me so long to read eight children's books? Because, honestly, the early winners just aren't very good. I'm not an expert on children's literature, but a lot has changed in attitudes and the style of writing for children since the Newbery Medal was first awarded.

So, in order to spare you all from early Newbery-induced boredom, here is a brief summary of what you're missing (or not).

The Story of Mankind
by Hendrik Willem van Loon
Winner of the 1922 Newbery Medal
0 Stars

The Newbery Medal gets an inauspicious beginning with a non-fiction book: The Story of Mankind. The version I read was 704 pages. Now, I usually like history. But reading this was like having a very intelligent but condescending grandfather sit you down on a rainy day and give you a seven-hour speech on history, at time giving little asides on how now we should understand how important history is and why would we ever want to read a novel (gasp) when history is so interesting.

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle
by Hugh Lofting
Winner of the 1923 Newbery Medal
2.5 Stars

Do you remember the Doctor Dolittle movie with Eddie Murphy? Yes, I try to forget about it too. The book has very little in common with the movie. A very well-behaved boy goes on a journey with Doctor Dolittle, who has learned to talk to animals, and various animal friends to save Doctor Dolittle's friend/colleague Long Arrow. Some kids might actually enjoy this one.

The Dark Frigate
by Charles Hawes
Winner of the 1924 Newbery Medal
1 Star

"Yay! Pirates!" was my initial reaction when I read the description of The Dark Frigate. That was probably the most exciting part of the whole reading experience. Seriously. I fell asleep a lot while reading this book. In fact, I can't really tell you what happened in this book.

Tales From Silver Lands
by Charles J. Finger
Winner of the 1925 Newbery Medal
2 Stars

The curse of the condescending, grandfatherly narrator continues. In this book, we have a bunch of folktales collected from Central America and South America. The stories were interesting, but not written to be engaging at all.

Shen of the Sea
by Arthur Bowie Chrisman
Winner of the 1926 Newbery Medal
1.5 Stars

We move from a collection of real South American folktales to a collection of made-up Chinese folktales written by an American. There might have been a bit more variety in the stories compared to Tales From Silver Lands, but they come off stereotypical and seem written to teach a lesson instead of tell a story.

Smoky the Cowhorse
by Will James
Winner of the 1927 Newbery Medal
1 Star

I don't really like Westerns. I never went through a horse-loving phrase as a kid. In fact, I avoid inspirational horse movies, which seemed like its own genre for awhile. So, a life story of a cowhorse narrated by the horse himself in a strange dialect never had a strong chance of impressing me. The story ranges from Smoky's idyllic childhood, time under a loving owner, through a variety of challenging and abusive situations. Will he ever get escape?!

Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon
by Dhan Gopal Mukerji
Winner of the 1928 Newbery Medal
2.5 Stars

Just as Smoky was a horse telling his life story, Gay-Neck is the story of a...pigeon. Yes, a pigeon. I went into the book with very low expectations and was pleasantly surprised. Gay-Neck is a carrier pigeon in India who has various adventures and serves as a messenger in World War I. Mukerji shared several interesting tidbits about Indian cultures, Buddhism, and raising carrier pigeons.  This is also the first of the Newbery books set in other countries where the author is actually from the country he's describing (India), which means less painful stereotyping.

The Trumpeter of Krakow
by Eric P. Kelly
Winner of the 1929 Newbery Medal
2.5 Stars

The Charnetski family escapes to Krakow after their home is attacked by Tartars, bringing with them their family heirloom--a pumpkin (okay, the actual heirloom may be hidden inside). They find a home with the help of a local scholar,  and essentially adopt the girl who lives upstairs with her uncle when he becomes fixated on the study of alchemy. This book definitely has the most interesting plot of all the Newbery Medal winners so far, but everything that happens in the book is just too convenient and simple. Also, the children are too sickeningly well-behaved, polite, and smart to be believable.

These first eight books have made me appreciate how much children's literature has changed and, in my opinion, improved. Of these books, The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle is the only one I can imagine handing to a child. I maybe would give Smoky the Cowhorse to a kid if hypothetical kid was really interested in horses and westerns, but it would hurt a bit.

On to the 1930s! First up is Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, which appears to be the memoirs of a doll. I'm sure you can appreciate how enthusiastic I am to begin.

Wish me luck. I think I'll need it.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

So, if you haven’t heard yet (how’s life under that rock?), Neil Gaiman published a new book last month—‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’. Both of us, Zelda and Madeleine, loved the book.

Zelda: I have no negative things to say except it ended too soon. I read the inside flap description but that doesn't do the book justice.

Madeleine: I usually read a lot about a book before it comes out—the official description, the blurbs, and maybe a few reviews. When Gaiman first announced the book, there was no description, just the beautiful cover. As the publication date approached, I liked not knowing what to expect, so I avoided all descriptions and reviews. It was a good choice—I went into it without preformed opinions and was blown away by the story.

Zelda: The only thing that could have made this better is if Neil Gaiman read it to me himself.

Madeleine: Neil Gaiman read a bit of it to me! Well, me and a couple hundred other people. I was very lucky to get to see him when he stopped for a reading in Minnesota. Here’s a blurry picture from my phone that proves how close I was (third row).

Madeleine: I almost felt bad going—he had been up until 3 AM the night before signing things. Here I am promoting author abuse by attending his readings. But he was very gracious about everything. The evening as a whole was wonderful. And, you know, I proceeded to contribute to author abuse by getting my copy signed.

Zelda: You mentioned the cover earlier. Let us discuss the cover for a moment. Gorgeous. Just stunning. I love the title, the font…everything.

Madeleine: Did you know? There’s a picture on the back of the book of a child standing on a drainpipe—that’s a real picture of our esteemed author. I’ve heard that the book is a bit autobiographical. I can definitely see the unnamed narrator as a young Neil—bookish, thoughtful and aware, and able to see the supernatural in everyday life.

Zelda: I’ll admit, I cried a little bit before I even really knew the characters. For such a short book I was surprised at how much I cared about the characters and for how well developed they were.

Madeleine: At the reading, Gaiman talked a bit about how the book came about. He usually chooses to write his books, and plans them out. ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ started out as a short story for his wife. He couldn’t tell where the story was going, but kept writing. He finished and looked at this word count and realized he had written a novel. I wonder if the characters and the story felt so real and organic, because they weren’t planned out, but came from some subconscious pool (or is it an ocean?) of story and myth.

Zelda: Gaiman has always impressed me but this was so creative and engaging that he brought himself to a whole new level. This was better than I thought it would be and I just want to tell everyone I see to read it. Maybe I am gushing too much and now someone will read this and then be disappointed, but I can't help it.

Madeleine: I agree.  ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ may be my favorite book by Neil Gaiman yet. It’s a simple story, but it’s dark and beautiful and evocative.

Zelda: Just go read it. All I can say is you won't regret it.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Dad Is Fat

Jim Gaffigan is my favorite comedian. I don't mind swearing but I love that he can make me laugh until I cry and still be considered a clean comic. He can make ordinary things hilarious, like cake and bears. I adore his standup and have seen him live once. Someday I will meet him and it will be fabulous!

This book was really funny but not as funny as his standup. I almost wish I would have listened to it but I couldn't wait for the audio to be returned so I read it myself. He reads the audiobook so the jokes would have stuck with me a little better. Next trip I take I will bring it with me.

This book is pretty much all about his family and the trials of having five children in a tiny apartment. It was as diverse as his standup but I still enjoyed it. It got a lot funnier toward the end but it was a quick read that had me smiling and laughing. If you don't care to read about family and kids then you should skip this one. There aren't many jokes that aren't family based. He even pokes fun and being considered  "Family Friendly" which in his mind is "Great I am boing and awful. Kids love it so parents will hate it." I got a kick out of that.

If you've never listened to Jim Gaffigan stand up Beyond the Pale is where it's at. "It" being quality entertainment and quotes you can use on a daily basis. I quote Jim Gaffigan most days and if I don't actually quote him, I'm thinking about it.

I think I would have given this book 5 stars if every chapter had a different subject that he joked about. It was funny and I liked that it was pretty much all about his family but it could have been a little better. That being said I still give this 4 stars since it still made me laugh a lot and Jim Gaffigan is awesome.

Monday, July 8, 2013

We wish you a scary Christmas ♫

With NOS4A2, Joe Hill truly steps out of his fathers shadow and becomes a master of horror in his own right.

I read his Heart Shaped Box a few years ago, partially because of the cover and partially because of the blurb by Neil Gaiman. It wasn't until after I had finished and went looking for more information on this new author that I discovered his pedigree. I've since read 20th Century Ghosts and Horns, which until today was the only horror novel to make me cry.

NOS4A2 is the story of a 140 year old, creepy man who steals children and takes them to Christmasland. What is actually about, however, is the depths of a mother's love and how far she'll go to save her children.

Victoria McQueen has had the strange ability to find lost things since childhood. She simply hops on her bike and after riding through a covered bridge near her house, she finds herself exactly where she needs to be. Her ability is so strong that she's able to continue riding through the bridge long after it had been torn down. One day as a rebellious teenager, she runs away looking for trouble and ends up in Christmasland. She's the first person to show up uninvited, so of course Charlie Manx, the only resident is *very* interested in her. She's able to escape this horror land, but has beenb haunted ever since.  Fast forward 12 years: Vic is living with the first guy she met after escaping Christmasland and their son, Bruce Wayne. Awesome name, right? Except that they all call him Wayne for some stupid reason.  Oh, and Vic is getting phone calls from the dead children of Christmasland. When Charlie Manx returns and kidnaps Wayne, Vic will and does do everything in her power to save him.

The tension in this book was almost unbearable! It took me 2 weeks to finish, but that's only because I'm taking summer grad classes, but every second I spent away from this book was agony.  I could not stop talking it up to random people I'd meet out and about, and when I teared up at the end, people just couldn't resist asking what I was reading. All of the characters were so well written I can't gush enough. Read this book.

**You'd think that a book where Christmas is the scariest part would be less terrifying during the summer. For instance, The Snowman by Jo Nesbo would have much worse had I read it in winter. But somehow, the fact that most of NOS4A2 takes place in July makes it all the more frightening.
**How screwed up do you think it would be to grow up in the King household?

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


Wow. I mean WOW. This book was so engrossing I don't even know what to say about it yet. I loved it. There. I loved it.

The plot. THE PLOT!! It's so genius and creepy and fantastic. Bodies shelved like books? Check. The Librarians are the only ones who can "read" them. Done. The bodies are called Histories and wake up sometimes and they have to be "re-shelved" creepy and sold. AND, as if you needed more convincing, murder!

I read some mixed reviews on this one and frankly that makes me sad. Don't over think it! Just enjoy the uniqueness of this and the fun characters. This was really well written and that is something all the mixed reviews agreed on. Some were questioning why the archive exists. Honestly, I didn't even think about that. I was told it exists by the author so it exists. I didn't any further explanation yet. I imagine book 2 will tell me more. Yes, this is a series. On the plus side, book 2 has a great cover that follows the same style, so kudos to your cover gods, Victoria Schwab. (C'mon January of 2014!! You will bring me a great book AND winter. We can't go wrong together!)

Wait for it, another book without absent parents?! Step back and enjoy the family life. Now there was death in the main family but her parents are still there. Through the whole book! I'm liking this trend. Do other authors just start out with some parents then they get to the end and say, "Oh shoot...they had parents didn't they? Well...maybe no one will noticed...yeah they won't notice." Well, we noticed.

Romantic interests. This is another one with a female character that didn't need to be saved every 5 seconds and wants some independence, but is open to some making out. I approve of this.

The next book is called Unbound and I have no idea where they will head with this one but I don't care. Sign me up. Where can I apply to be a Librarian here? I have no experience with dead bodies, but I'm willing to learn. Also, I can be a bit jumpy and I'm not a good runner but I could chase them if need be. For at least a minute.

Ok, I've rambled long enough. 5 stars to this lovely book.

Go read this. Seriously, drop what you're doing and go read this book.


I do love a dark and murky murder mystery. Silenced is like that. I read the book prior to this one but you don't have to. The main character is the same but I couldn't really remember anything about the first one. That is the problem with reading so much and having my memory start to go already. This book follows a completely different mystery. The first one was a bit more twisted but this plot was more intricate.

I sort of have it figured out but not right away. The main character and I aren't really similar and she does some things that make me question her but I like her anyway. The writing is easy to get wrapped up in and the mystery kept me coming back for more.

Not that this is the most important but the covers of these two books are so nice! They look like good dark murder mysteries. 

I also felt that the plot was a little ridiculous so I was kind of worried when I started the book. It wasn't what I thought it would be. I was thinking terrorists the way it was headed and I find terrorism books kind of boring because there is no surprise in that. Oh the terrorist did it? Yeah, I got that when it started with the terrorist group...thanks. 

This book also kind of plays on this fear that people with money and connections can make anything happen. Anything. They want to close your email? Piece of cake. Cancel your flight back to your homeland? No big deal. Delete your identity? Already done. Wait, what?! They can do that?! Even to imagine that happening to someone makes me a bit uncomfortable and I love that fear. It isn't overdone and overloaded. That sense of a lack of security is enough. 

It was nice that the author didn't lose sight for where this was headed. Sometimes if the plot is overly complicated it doesn't seem plausible or there are too many side plots and I get distracted from the main plot or forget about it entirely. Then I come back and go "Oh yeah! That's what this book was about? Why?" Kristina Ohlsson did a great job mixing the plots together and not changing the characters from who they were in the first book. Changing personalities is another thing I have a problem with at times. Too much change and you might as well write a whole new book.

I can't wait for more by this author, must read more great murder books while I wait!

I give this one 4 stars. She is sold writer and I look forward to more from her.