Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Castle in the Air

by Diana Wynne Jones

HarperCollins, 1990

Source: public library

Read it because . . . I love Howl’s Moving Castle


Many moons ago,* I read this review over at things mean a lot and learned that Diana Wynne Jones wrote two companion books to Howl’s Moving Castle. Since I completely love and adore Howl’s Moving Castle, I decided I absolutely had to read Castle in the Air and I was going to do it for the Once Upon a Time Challenge and it was going to be Awesome.

Well, I read it. But folks – and this pains me to say this – it was not awesome.

I know. It doesn’t seem possible. Diana Wynne Jones not be awesome? After I finished reading Castle in the Air, I had the hardest time admitting out loud that I didn’t like it. It’s been a few months since I read it so most of the specifics have already left my brain, (and I don’t even want to skim the book to refresh my memory), but from what I remember the book felt not like the carefully work I’ve come to expect from Jones but like it was haphazardly thrown together. I never connected with any of the main characters. When Sophie, Howl and Calcifer arrived on the scene, it felt like a last-minute decision, like Jones suddenly remembered that this was a companion to Howl’s Moving Castle and she better find a way to tie the books together.

Did anyone else feel this way about Castle in the Air, or am I alone in my disappointment? I haven’t given up on Jones, but I don’t think I’m going to read the third book in the series, either.

Other reviews: BookLust, Chachic’s Book Nook, Dogear Diary, things mean a lot,

Did you write a review?  Let me know and I’ll add it to the list!

*I just realized that I started this review the exact same way I started the Howl’s Moving Castle review I wrote two years ago.  Weird.

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She Got Up Off the Couch:

And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana

by Haven Kimmel

Free Press, 2006

Source: personal copy

Reread it because . . . I reread A Girl Named Zippy recently, so this was the logical next step


After rereading A Girl Named Zippy last month, I simply had no choice but to reread Haven Kimmel’s follow-up memoir, She Got Up Off the Couch. Like Zippy, this is a great plane read; when I started reading it this time around I actually found an old boarding pass inside (my preferred bookmark when flying). I don’t usually leave bookmarks in books after I’ve finished reading them, so this was a pleasant surprise. No year on the boarding pass, though, so I’m not sure when it’s from. My guess is 2007 or 2008.

Anyway. On to the book!

Not being a huge fan of sequels, Kimmel never intended to write a follow-up to Zippy. When she was out on book tours promoting Zippy and her novels, she was, naturally, asked about the people she had written about in her memoir – where they were now, etc. But the question she was also repeatedly asked was whether or not her mother ever got up off the couch (where she had spent most of Kimmel’s childhood). In the preface, Kimmel writes:

The first time I heard the question a little bell rang on a faraway hill, and I knew if I ever did (and I wouldn’t) write a follow-up (which I absolutely would not do), that would be the subject and that would be the title.

Of course I gave in to the six or seven people clamoring for a sequel. In the beginning I didn’t intend to write anything but a continuing portrait of my family, in particular of my mother. Toward the end of Zippy my father and I watched Mom pedal away on my new bicycle, riding toward points unknown; we knew something was afoot but we didn’t know what. She Got Up Off the Couch begins at that point – it seemed an appropriate jumping-off place for a book about an individual woman in a very particular place. But when Rose read the final draft she pointed out that Mother’s evolution, personal as it was, is also the story of a generation of women who stood up and rocked the foundations of life in America. They didn’t know they were doing so – they were trying to save their own lives, I think – but in the process they took it on the chin for everyone who followed. I know my own mother did.

I will never do anything half so grand or important. I couldn’t tell this story any way except through my own eyes, but that doesn’t make me the star of the show. As Zippy was a bow to Mooreland, Indiana, this is a love letter, humbly conceived and even more modestly written, to my father, my brother, the sister who is my very breath of life, and most of all to the woman who stood up, brushed away the pork rind crumbs, and escaped by the skin of her teeth. It is a letter to all such women, wherever they may be. (xv-xvi)

In many ways, She Got Up Off the Couch is just like Zippy. It’s a collection of first-person narrated childhood anecdotes that sound like they’re coming straight from the mouth of a kid. Some of them, like the chapter, “A Short List of Records My Father Threatened to Break Over My Head If I Played Them One More Time,” are so side-splittingly funny I have been known to lose the power of speech, I’m laughing so hard.

But the underlying tone of She Got Up Off the Couch is heavier than that of Zippy, and in it there are just as many moments that make my heart splinter as there are that make me laugh. Kimmel tells her mother’s story the way most of us remember our childhoods: in bits and pieces. Within those fragmented memories is a growing understanding of the significance of the events unfolding around her. The child who told the stories in A Girl Named Zippy is still present in She Got Up Off the Couch, but she’s maturing, and so a serious tone cannot help but creep in amidst the hilarity. There are more reflections on family members and friends in this follow-up, too, and those chapters are told with such a raw tenderness and love I cannot help but love these people myself. And no matter how many times I read it, I still cannot get through the chapter about her brother without weeping.

At the heart of She Got Up Off the Couch is a woman who found the strength and courage to reclaim herself, and that is the reason why, as much as I love Zippy, I love this book even more. I will never do anything half so grand or important, either, but it is because of her – and all the other women who escaped by the skin of their teeth – that shooting for grandness is even an option. To all the women who got up off the couch: thank you.

Other reviews: Bookfoolery and Babble

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MWF Seeking BFF:

My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend

by Rachel Bertsche

Ballantine Books, 2011

Source: public library

Read it because . . . I read this review and it sounded interesting


Two years after moving to Chicago with her boyfriend, Rachel Bertsche realizes there is a gaping hole in her life: she has no local best friends. Seeking to remedy the situation, she decides to embark on a year of friend-dating – 52 first dates in all – hoping at least one of them will lead to a new BFF. In MWF Seeking BFF Bertsche recounts her experience, sprinkling her friend-date anecdotes with discussions on current research and studies on friendship.

MWF Seeking BFF was an entertaining read. Bertsche is a humorous, open writer, and I never stopped being impressed by her pro-active approach to solving her best friend dilemma. I was pleasantly surprised by her inclusion of friendship facts and studies, and was pleased that she inserts her friendship research findings in the middle of her anecdotes with relative ease. She cites studies that highlight the positive affect friendships have on both mental and physical health, the stigma attached to admitting loneliness, and the overall decline of adult friendships in our society. Her book brings to light a subject few people are willing to discuss for fear of sounding “pathetic”: that many adults have only a few (if any) really close friends, and that making friends is much more difficult once you grow up.

As I read, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own friendships. Like Bertsche when she began her search, all of my best friends live rather far away. (Most live in a completely different time zone.) I have friends here, but no one I would feel comfortable calling at 2 am (which, in my mind, is one of the differences between a friend and a best friend). I’m not complaining, mind you. I have amazing friends and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. And I am, overall, pretty content with my life. But Bertsche did get me thinking about my local friendships and whether or not it’s time to expand my friendship horizons a bit.

My only quibble with the book are the repeated declarations concerning the Inherent Differences in the Friendship Needs of Men and Women. I am rather uncomfortable with absolutes and so I cringed every time Bertsche said something about men needing one kind of friendship and women needing another. I don’t think the issue is quite that black and white.

Overall, an interesting read. I recommend it.

P. S. This all started as a blog, which you can find here. (Confession: I haven’t looked at it yet.)

Other reviews: Book Addiction, Curled Up With a Good Book and a Cup of Tea, S. Krishna’s Books, The Written World

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Why We Broke Up

by Daniel Handler; illustrated by Maira Kalman

Little, Brown and Company, 2011

Printz Honor Book (2012)

Source: public library

Read it because . . . I love Daniel Handler as Lemony Snicket and I wanted to see if I would love Daniel Handler as Daniel Handler


Note: I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was a bit disappointed by how this book ended. While I will talk about the ending in this review, have no fear – I will speak of it in the vaguest terms possible. If you still don’t want to know anything about the ending, though, you probably shouldn’t read this.

Why We Broke Up is a letter from Min to her ex-boyfriend Ed explaining just that: why they broke up. Accompanying the letter is a box of mementos from their relationship, and it is through Min’s explanation of each souvenir that the story of their relationship, from beginning to end, is told. Hindsight, they say, is 20/20, and as Min relates the stories behind the items she recognizes all the little flaws in the relationship that led to the break-up. She understands, too – with a clarity and wisdom beyond her years – why she and Ed stayed together in spite of the warning signs.

This book had me at “Dear Ed.” I love epistolary novels, so I was thrilled to pieces when I discovered that this entire novel is one long letter. I love it, too, when, rather than dump a ton of information in the first chapter, an author reveals their characters’ backstories bit by bit. (Wait, didn’t I just say the same thing a week ago in regards to Love Medicine? Hmm, I must really like this particular literary technique.) This novel is one long reveal that leads to the big reveal: why, precisely, Min and Ed broke up. Even as Min outlines all the little reasons why they broke up, it’s clear that there was some cataclysmic event that brought the relationship to a screeching halt. (It brought my relationship with the novel to a screeching halt, too, but I’ll get to that in a minute.)

But above all, what I liked most about this novel is that, unlike many YA novels, it presents the idea that a relationship needs more than passion and love to survive. Ed and Min have very different personalities, they run in completely separate social circles, and they have few overlapping interests, hobbies, and core values. On the other hand, they’re strongly attracted to one another and genuinely care about the other person. When Ed tells Min that he loves her, I believe him (as much as I believe any teenage boy). But love and passion aren’t enough. I know all the romantics in the world are about to shoot me, but hold up! I’m not saying they’re not important, I’m not saying they shouldn’t be at the heart of every relationship. I’m saying there has to be more there if a relationship is going to survive.

At one point in her letter Min writes,

Ed, it was everything, those nights on the phone, everything we said until late became later and then later and very late and finally to go to bed with my ear warm and worn and red from holding the phone close close close so as not to miss a word of what it was, because who cared how tired I was in the humdrum slave drive of our days without each other. I’d ruin any day, all my days, for those long nights with you, and I did. But that’s why right there it was doomed. We couldn’t only have the magic nights buzzing through the wires. We had to have the days, too, the bright impatient days spoiling everything with their unavoidable schedules, their mandatory times that don’t overlap, their loyal friends who don’t get along, the unforgiven travesties torn from the wall no matter what promises are uttered past midnight, and that’s why we broke up. (85-86)

Why We Broke Up, this is why you and I broke up: because the cataclysmic event that ended Min and Ed’s relationship was such a clichéd ending I wanted to throw the book against a wall. I felt like it negated nearly everything Min said for the first 300 pages of the book. Part of it wasn’t a cliché, (the part alluded to in the above quote), and if you had just stuck with that you and I would still be together. (Well, except for the whole Al thing. I saw that coming a mile away.)

Did anyone have a different reaction to the book?

Other reviews: The Bluestocking Society, Books With Bite, Jenny’s Books, A Novel Source, YA Book Nerd

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Love Medicine

by Louise Erdrich

HarperPerennial, 1993; originally published in 1984

Source: purchased many years ago

Reread it because . . . it was time


Love Medicine was the first Louise Erdrich novel I ever read. My introduction to Erdrich’s work came via a Native American Literature course I took as an undergrad, taught by the university’s writer-in-residence, Janice Gould (who had fantastic taste in literature; I loved most of the reading she assigned). Over the next couple of years I devoured nearly everything Erdrich wrote. When I decided recently to finally reread some of her work, I knew I would start with Love Medicine since it was both the first Erdrich novel I ever read and the first she wrote.

Love Medicine was also one of the first novels I ever read with multiple narrators. This is a tough book to start with if you’ve had little experience with this literary technique. Not only does Erdrich switch narrators from one chapter to the next, but she moves back and forth in time and between first- and third-person narration. To add to the confusion, there are a plethora of characters, and you need a family tree just to keep track of who’s related to who and how.

Erdrich handles this deftly. She never info-dumps on the reader; instead, she introduces the characters organically and give them each an opportunity to tell their own story in their own time. In doing this she creates realistic, multi-dimensional characters more successfully than if she spent pages describing their histories and personalities.

Before rereading this, I really couldn’t remember anything about it other than the novel’s narrative style. Once I started reading, however, I was delighted to discover how familiar it felt. Yes, most of the book had escaped my memory, but more of it was lurking in my brain than I initially thought. As I was re-introduced to the characters the book started floating back. Marie’s name triggered a grin; Sister Leopolda’s name incited a shudder; Gordie’s name made me want to weep 200 pages before it should have.

There is one passage, however, that stuck with me even after I forgot all the others. Upon rereading it I find that it still moves now me as much as it did years ago. I don’t normally include large quotes in my reviews, but I’m sharing this one because it is a great example of why I love Erdrich’s writing. There is so much grief in her work but there is strength and light there, too.

Brief back story: Marie’s mother-in-law, the formidable Rushes Bear, has moved herself in with her son, Nector, and his family. There is no love lost between Marie and Rushes Bear; Rushes Bear is an extremely difficult person to get along with and it doesn’t help any that Marie is a Lazarre, which just gives Rushes Bear another excuse to despise her. (The Lazarres are on the lowest rung of the social ladder on the reservation.) Marie is pregnant when Rushes Bear moves in. When she goes into labor, Rushes Bear and Fleur Pillager deliver the baby. After the birth, Marie overhears this conversation in the next room:

“You take this,” said Nector. “The money’s yours.”

There was a clank as something hit the floor.

The door closed.

“If that Pillager won’t take it, you can,” said Nector.

“Not from your hands.”

“I’m your son,” he said.

“No more. I only have a daughter.”

“Her?” he said, almost laughing. “But she’s a Lazarre.”

“You shame me,” Rushes Bear said. “You never heard any wail out of her, any complaint. You never would know this birth was hard enough for her to die.”

I never saw this woman the same way I had before that day. Before that birth of the child, a son after all, Rushes Bear was a hot fire that I wanted to crush. After that, things were different. I never saw her without knowing that she was my own mother, my own blood. What she did went beyond the frailer connections. More than saving my life, she put the shape of it back in place. And even though her wild moods descended again, and again, with more violence until she was lost in those storms, sometimes for weeks, and even though sometimes she’d rise from her place behind the chair and bolt for home when we weren’t on guard, and even though she was more trouble to me than any child I ever had, I took care of the old woman every day of her life because we shared the loneliness that was one shape, because I knew that she was in that boat, where I had labored. She crested and sank in dark waves. Those waves were taking her onward, through night, through day, the water beating and slashing her unknown path. She struggled to continue. She was traveling hard, and death was her light. (104-105)

“More than saving my life, she put the shape of it back in place” – love it.


Other reviews: BookLust, Caribousmom, Regular Rumination, Shelf Love

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The Fault in Our Stars

by John Green

Dutton Books, 2012

Source: purchased from

Read it because . . . see lengthy explanation below

I almost didn’t read this book.

First of all, I completely forgot that I had pre-ordered it. When I got an email from telling me that my order had shipped, I had a minor panic attack. Last June I had to get a new debit card because in the wee hours of the morning someone tried to use it in California and Michigan simultaneously. (I was not in either one of those places. I here, asleep.) So my first thought was, Oh, &$@%, not again! Then I saw John Green’s name and remembered that I had impulsively pre-ordered it when I learned he was autographing all advance purchase copies. Oh. Whew.

But before I could read it, before it even arrived on my doorstep, I saw the word “cancer” in connection with this book, and suddenly I wanted nothing to do with it. 2011 began and ended with cancer: in January two of the people I love were fighting breast cancer and in December someone else I care about was dealing with the return of her cancer. Read a book about cancer? No. Absolutely not. I had enough cancer grief on my shoulders. I didn’t want any more.

When the book arrived I did my best to ignore it, but in the end, I caved in. I felt like I had to read it, because not only had I purchased it new, (I rarely buy new books for myself), I had pre-ordered it. Plus it’s John Green and I maybe sorta have a tiny book crush on him. (Who doesn’t?) So I read it. Even though I knew it would break my heart.

It did break my heart, but not in the typical tugging-on-the-old-heartstrings-YA-issue-novel sort of way. And not because it was a Book About Cancer and Cancer is Sad, or because it reminded me that while lots of amazing, wonderful things happened in 2011, it was also a year punctuated with grief. It broke my heart because the dialogue was sharp and smart, the characters quirky and flawed, the emotion raw and honest. It broke my heart because it was funny. It broke my heart because it was just a story about love and all that is amazing and beautiful in this world and all that makes life worth living and because it wasn’t trying to do all that, it just did.

And so. So because I am now a weepy mess I have to stop.  But before I do I just want to say thank you, John Green, for writing this.

Other reviews: books i done read, Book Monkey, The Bluestocking Society, Capricious Reader, Fyrefly’s Book Blog, things mean a lot

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Additional John Green reviews on The Alcove: An Abundance of Katherines

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