AMWAP Book Review: Big Fish by Daniel Wallace

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Book length: 192 pages

The following AMWAP book review: 192 words.

Disclaimer: It is hard to give a book review in  only 192 words.

AMWAP Review of Daniel Wallace’s

Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions

Big Fish is a humorously-told series of short, fantastical “myths” about Edward Bloom’s adventures in Alabama as a younger man. Contrasting with this are the more mundane, realistic narrations given by Edward’s son, William. While the stories of Edward’s life read like something from The Odyssey, it becomes clear that his son’s personal quest is to discover the true nature of his father before Edward dies.

Adults who want to understand their parents beyond the title of “mom and dad,” will likely find hidden gems in this book.  I think it also has merit for those who are trying to process the illness or death of a parent. As a twenty-something reader (and only child) who lost my mom to cancer, Big Fish hit home in a way that was a bit melancholy. However, the book is also funny and abstract enough to be more thoughtful than depressing.

Ultimately, Big Fish whimsically conveys some universal themes for anyone: a father’s desire to be remembered as a great man, a son’s desire to be closer to his fading father, and the looming question of what it means to truly be known and loved.

 

AMWAP Book Review: Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology

 

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Length: 297 pages

The following AMWAP review word count: 297 words

*AMWAP  stands for “as many words as pages.” I made this up as a challenge for myself. I’m not OCD…just quirky.

My AMWAP Review of Norse Mythology

Thanks to some recent superhero films, most of us recognize the names, “Loki and Thor.”

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(Oh, hey guys.)

And if you enjoy any type of  fantasy, you likely know who Neil Gaiman is, too.

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However, many of us don’t know much more about Norse mythology than what we’ve learned from Marvel.

Gaiman, the king of modern mythology, seeks to fix that by paying tribute to his roots with Norse Mythology .

This work consists of sixteen myths, arranged in a narrative arc that traces the Norse gods from origin to end.  It’s a quick read.  I appreciated that each story was short and engaging while also fitting into a larger, more complete story. We also come to know the characters more deeply with each chronicle.

My only dissonance with the work comes from own expectations.  Excepting the origin story of the gods (which was plenty weird, but dryly told), the rest of the content didn’t seem as creative as some of Gaiman’s other works.

The reason behind this is, of course, not an issue: these stories aren’t Gaiman’s to tell. But they are Gaiman’s stories to retell to us, the modern reader.

Does he do that?

I think so.

The voice of the work is humorous and knowledgeable, as if Neil has gathered us around the campfire to tell us about these ancient, mighty, childish heroes of the North.

I laughed at the antics of Thor, at the constant conclusion that “it is always Loki’s fault,” and at challenges and tricks that shocked and delighted me.  I also learned about the Norse concept of Hell (or Hel), the origin of the phrase “mind’s eye,” and countless other gems.  Ultimately, I come away from this work feeling pleasantly interested in, and more connected to, Norse mythology as a whole.

 

 

AMWAP Book Review: Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

Note: AMWAP Reviews are a thing I made up. Each book review is exactly the same amount of words as number of pages in the novel being reviewed. I like to challenge myself to read a few books a month, but don’t always write a review. If there’s a book you would like to see reviewed, leave it in the comments! -Katie

 

Length: 406 Pages, The following review: 406 words

Jae-Jones’ debut novel is a dark, romantic fairy-tale for young adults that combines traditional folklore with modern themes of self-discovery. Nineteen-year-old Liesel seems plain and responsible, but she has a wild streak, and a fierce talent, buried beneath her familial duties.  As a child, she danced to the music in her head and played games with a mysterious boy whom she pretended was the Goblin King. As years pass, she grows into a stifled composer living under the shadow of her beautiful sister and gifted brother.  When her sister is taken to the Underworld by the (very real) Goblin king, Liesel must accept the reality of her childhood imaginings. Armed with tenacity, Liesel travels to the Underground, where she discovers that the Goblin King and his domain are more complicated, and more connected to her own passion, than she ever would have guessed.

It’s a tale as old as Hades and Persephone. And it’s undeniable that S. Jae-Jones took blatant inspiration from Phantom of the Opera and Labyrinth, too.  Honestly, there are a few times when it’s a little too much. For instance, Wintersong’s Goblin King bears an uncanny resemblance Bowie’s Goblin King (down to the two differently-colored eyes). Still, Jae-Jones expands this character in ways that makes him angsty and interesting in his own right. In fact, character development is something that this author does really well.  The main character, Liesel, toes the line between complacent young woman and fiercely-passionate feminist in a way that will resonate with almost any female reader.  Her relationship with music, too, is evocative and unique. Ultimately, this protagonist’s complexities, and her unexpected decisions throughout the book, give this story a fresh spin.  The author’s writing is lyrical and descriptive with some unnecessary repetitions. I enjoyed her style, though it is not for readers who prefer more action-driven writing. My main criticism of this novel is that the pacing seemed slightly off.  With minor tweaking and editing, this book had enough plot to be two separate novels. As it is, the story comes across as a little unbalanced.

This novel is labeled as YA, but I actually think there is more there for the emerging New Adult audience (twenty-thirty somethings).  Adult lovers of music, fairy-tales and dark romances will gobble up this escapist novel with hidden depth. Wintersong renewed my inner-teenager’s passion for Labyrinth and Phantom of the Opera, while giving me some brand new characters to love.

 

 

 

AMWAP Book Review: The Light Between Oceans

Note: What is an AMWAP review? It’s a thing I made up. It stands for “As Many Words as Pages.” My AMWAP book reviews are uniquely crafted towards a specific word count. It’s my little way of keeping things snappy (and driving myself crazy).

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The Light Between Oceans

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Pages:343

      The following book review is 343 words.

With The Light Between Oceans (2012) M.L. Stedman wrote the “first novel” which only exists in most writers’ daydreams. The story reads like a classic, and maybe it will considered as such one day. Meanwhile, it’s already a New York Time’s Bestseller, an O Magazine favorite, fodder for book clubs everywhere, and the basis for a 2016 film with an all-star cast.

Like I said: not bad, Stedman, not bad.

When a stoic WWI veteran (Tom) sets off to become the lighthouse keeper of uninhabited Janus Rock, he meets a passionate young woman who steals his heart (Isabel). The two marry and are happy in their own little world on the island—until Isabel’s series of miscarriages begin. Wracked by grief and loneliness, Isabel believes it is a miracle when an infant washes ashore in a boat. The little girl-Lucy- will draw them together as they become a family, and pull them apart as the truth struggles to become known. Meanwhile, a woman named Helen is haunted by the disappearance of her husband and baby daughter…

Some things about this story read like a fairytale: the idyllic setting of Janus and the coastal town of Partageuse, in which the author’s familiarity with her birthplace of Australia shines through. Other elements are more fable. The story is driven by consequences of the characters’ actions and questions of right and wrong. However, I found the most prominent thing about the novel to be the realness of the characters’ emotions: Tom and Isabel’s complicated love for one another; Isabel and Helen’s maternal grief; the rage of betrayal; the quiet emptiness after an internal storm.  Stedman expertly conveys the many facets of human emotion which are woven through every important relationship which can exist between two people.

Loss is real in this story. Love is real. Right is real. Wrong is real. Perhaps, more real than anything, is the idea that the lines between these experiences are not clearly marked—not at all.

This exquisitely written page-turner had me underlining sentences while soaking them with my tears.

That Gingerbread Feeling

 

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(Pictured: My grandparents’  Christmas Day table, as it was always set, up until a few years ago: holly plates, glasses and teacups.)

The other night I was listening to John William’s Home Alone score. One of the loves Dane and I share is for film scores–his all time favorite film score composer being John Williams (THE man). I’m actually not sure who my favorite is.  I default to Hans Zimmer (the other man) , but I guess I tend to be much more drawn towards specific scores than composers. But we can talk about film scores another time.

Anyway, I’ve never really stopped to pay much attention to the words that the choir  kids are singing in the main title of Home Alone, “Somewhere in my Memory.” Have you? Here they are, in any case:

Candles in the window,
Shadows painting the ceiling,
Gazing at the fire glow,
Feeling that gingerbread feeling.
Precious moments,
Special people,
Happy faces,
I can see.

Somewhere in my mem’ry,
Christmas joy’s all around me,
living in my mem’ry,
All of the music,
All of the magic,
All of the fam’ly home here with me.

As I sat listening to this song in the glow of the Christmas lights, I was struck by its meaning. The first verse conveys the feelings you have when you’re young at Christmas. You are mesmerized by all the beauty of the things happening in the moment: the lights, the people, the presents. The second verse is more about what happens as you get older.

In one sense, some of the magic fades. Time goes by more quickly, the pressures of things to get done increase as life responsibilities go up. However, and more significantly, the passage of time also does something amazing  as each new Christmas is stacked upon memories of the last. It creates something beautiful to unwrap each December alongside the lights, the scents and the traditions.

Sometimes we all have a few long stretches of years where we get to share our Christmases with the same loved ones, the same recipes, and the same annual outings. Even so, no Christmas is the same. But then there are the Christmases where someone important is missing, or maybe when someone new has entered the picture. These stand out in our lives, linked by their connection with this powerful time of year.

I’ve learned about that over these last few Christmases, as so many loved ones who defined my childhood have passed on and as I’ve experienced Christmas as a wife (and now) as a mother.  Still, I can see those Christmases as a child so clearly. I can feel them, even as I appreciate this new Christmas for all that it is. It’s painful. It’s joyful. It’s beautifully bittersweet.

Somewhere in my mem’ry,
Christmas joy’s all around me,
living in my mem’ry,
All of the music,
All of the magic,
All of the fam’ly home here with me.

What a poignant time of year this is, that it allows us to see a kaleidoscope of our lives… All the big things, anchored in Christmas.

~As you think about this time of year, what Christmases jump out to you the most? What is different, this year? What things can you count on to be the same?~

 

 

Your Last Autumn

It drifted in twirling pathways

Of deep grey rain and golden sunbursts

On the mountains

–Your last autumn.

Anxious finches, the rustling light on leaves.

The world in memory. The world in preparation.

Only in Fall

Can the world be angled so differently.

Your eyes were a cerulean blue,

Like the sky,

Your last autumn.

I wonder what moments were focused in those lenses.

Crinkly-smile lines and warm sweater hugs?

The final leaf falls, in a sigh.

But now it is some other Fall,

And I see grays and golds

And blues

And you.

-Kathryn Gustafson, 2016

AMWAP Book Review: Here on Earth

*Note: What is an AMWAP review? It’s a thing I made up. It stands for “As Many Words as Pages.” My AMWAP book reviews are uniquely crafted towards a specific word count. It’s my little way of keeping things snappy and driving myself slowly insane.For instance…The following book review is 309 words long.

Here on Earth

Pages: 309

Last night I finished reading Alice Hoffman’s Here on Earth (1997).  In case you are unacquainted with her, Hoffman’s got this raw-but-lyrical quality that leaves you feeling like you’ve been emotionally stripped bare at some kind of intervention, but that (somehow) you were thoroughly enchanted by the entire experience. It’s fitting that she often writes about magic, because her stories are spellbinding.

Recently, Here on Earth caught my eye. I read a New York Times Book Review that called it, “a Wuthering Heights . . . profound.”  Sadistic though it may be, I’ve always loved Emily Bronte’s twisted love story and the way it makes prickle with goosebumps of anger, passion, and regret.

And that’s pretty much the exact same effect of Hoffman’s Here on Earth.

5159The story successfully carries the haunting themes of Wuthering Heights into a setting of 1990s America as it follows the return of March Murray to her small hometown.  When March re-encounters Hollis, the childhood love she never let go of, the passionate bond between them grows.  As their relationship illuminates the ghosts of their common past, it also begins to cast a destructive shadow over their lives.  Despite the absence of Bronte’s moors, the rural Massachusetts setting of Here on Earth carries a ghostly mystique of its own.

Though I openly recommended this book to everyone while still in its early chapters, I would be more selective in my recommendations having finished it.  Literary triumph? Definitely.  Disturbing? Definitely.  Just don’t tell your teenager to read this alongside Wuthering Heights, okay?

Overall, Here on Earth is a choice autumnal read for those who know what they are in for:  a dark and compelling re-imagining.  It poses some pretty interesting questions about romantic possession, redemption, revenge and what might have happened if Catherine and Heathcliff had gotten a chance to be together, “here on earth.”

Tell Me About Your Books.

Hey readers! I just wanted to announce an idea that’s been on my brain lately.

I love reading and I read, well, everything.

I think most Hardcore Readers have several, hypothetical “stacks” of books surrounding them at all times: entertainment reads, classics, nonfiction, genre fiction, bestsellers, award winners, children’s books, comic books….you get the idea: a little bit of everything. (Coincidentally, that’s kind of what my blog is).

Anyway, while I’ve done a few book reviews on here before, I would really like to focus more on them with my blog. I’ll be done with my MA later this year, and I would like an outlet to keep writing about what I read/ sharing ideas about books with other readers. It may start out slow at first, but I’d like to get it up to a weekly read/review.

What am I going to read?

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Everything, anything, all kinds of things: books that make me look intelligent when I walk around with them in my hand, and books that might seem…well, stupid… to the general public.

I’m of the mindset that readers should not be embarrassed to read YA, mystery thrillers, –whatever  novels keep you flipping those pages to wind down after a long day.

I also think that we should always push ourselves to read different books than the ones that immediately comfortable.

As readers, we challenge ourselves to explore worlds that we never would have known existed otherwise. That’s one of the best things about reading, right?

Why am I telling you all this? Because I want your help.

Starting now, I will be keeping an ongoing list of book suggestions. I make no promises about the order of my reading–but I would like suggestions for all kinds of books, from all kinds of readers. So if there’s a book that you love, or hate, or just want to talk about–please leave a comment and share it with me!

 

 

 

Standing Desks: What’s the Big Deal?

My husband has been talking about standing desks for awhile now.

While his past jobs have kept him physically active, he now works a desk job which means that he sits at a computer for most of the day. After work, he comes home and pays bills. Recently he also started online classes (we are both going to school with SNHU online); this also keeps him sitting, glued to a screen.  Lately, he’s had more back problems than ever and has felt down about the sedentary nature of his daily routine.

He’s a tall, strong guy and he wants to use his body and stay healthy.  He’s basically Mr. Incredible, and therefore I really think he doesn’t want this to happen:

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I also want him to be happy and healthy of course, so I was totally supportive of the whole standing desk idea for our home office, even though it seemed a little weird to me.

This weekend the stand came in and assembly began. He converted his Monster (HUGE) Desk into an adjustable desk with a crank that can raise or lower the height so that it can be used while standing or sitting. It looks like a Mutant -Monster desk now.

“You’ll use it too?” he kept asking me, excitedly, “I mean, do you think you’ll like it?”

I just kind of shrugged, “Sure, I guess. Maybe.”

In all honesty, I couldn’t picture it. I am ADD and I get distracted enough as it is. I usually have to do like five things before I can settle in to on my writing projects or grad school assignments: coffee, blanket, computer glasses, music. . . toddler MUST be napping or I can’t focus at all.Then it takes me about 20 minutes, after settling in, to stop the circuit of rabbit-trailing articles or checking social media and actually begin the work at hand.

I could only imagine how distracted I would get standing up. That just didn’t seem -well- cozy/settled to me. Also, I chase a  1 year old around most of the day and exercise on a fairly regular basis, so I don’t really struggle with feeling inactive.

But yesterday I had to write a paper and I wanted to use the office. Why not? I figured. I’ll give the Mutant Monster Desk a try.

Then it happened.

I realized that standing desks are FREAKING AMAZING.

I mean, I am totally, completely IN LOVE with them.

Here is why:

  1. Something about the act of standing up actually helps keep my ADD brain on track. I did not expect this. I guess my body is saying, Okay, remember what you are here to do. You are standing up. You are not a lump. You are a person with a brain and purpose. Get to it. This is the complete opposite of what I expected to happen.
  2. I can actually stretch while I work. If I’m listening to music (which I always am when I am working) I can bounce/dance around a little.
  3. Movement makes me happy, as it does for most of us (even if we don’t realize it). Being able to use your body is a natural mood booster. I did not feel nearly as anxious  as I normally would about having to write a paper under a major time crunch. Being able to move and focus better were both huge stress-reducers.
  4. No added tension to my neck and shoulders. I have chronic headaches; any stress or discomfort seems to make it’s way directly to my noggin. Obviously, hunching over my laptop, as I frequently do, does not help the situation.  I actually had a really bad headache when I started working on my paper yesterday. However, the standing/stretching I was able to do while at the standing desk honestly helped to ease my discomfort.
  5. Energy. I finished my paper around midnight, which would normally be past my ideal bedtime. However, last night I felt almost hyper after my time spent at the standing desk.

So today, I couldn’t wait to get back in the office after Kora went down for her nap. I decided I would use the standing desk to spend some time researching benefits of . . . well . . . the standing desk. Here is what the research says, based on my findings here and here and  here.

  1. Those who used sit-stand desks were 78% more likely to report a pain-free day than those who used regular workstations, according to a Stanford University back pain study.
  2. The increased utilization of standing/sitting desks may help reduce obesity in our nation and the multiple related health concerns which accompany it.
  3. Did you know that an hour or more of daily sitting can actually lower your metabolism and your body’s good cholesterol, contributing to Type II Diabetes and Heart Disease? This is something that the increased utilization of standing desks could help combat. This is regardless of whether or not you exercise other times of the day.
  4. A 2011 study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that workers who were given sitting/standing stations sat a lot less and experienced improved moods. Happy workers are good.
  5. A 2015 study published in the Oxford Journal of Public Health shows that sit-to-stand desks in classrooms appear to be an effective way of reducing sedentary behavior (prolonged sitting) in a diverse sample of children. This means that using this option in schools could help the upcoming generation to establish healthier habits.
  6. Office workers who are equipped with sitting/standing desks may be WAY more productive. One study by the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health found office workers who stood were 46% more productive than their sitting counterparts. That a is HUGE productivity.
  7. Though research has not yet yielded significant data to support it, my personal case study has indicated that using a standing desk while listening to dramatic film scores may increase your likelihood of feeling like a super hero/villain/spy. This is always a good thing.

Okay, so you get the picture. I’m all about the standing now, and the standing desks. Does it sound weird to you?  Try it. Just try it. I dare you. And let me know what happens.

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All the Light We Cannot See: Doerr Illuminates the Heart in WWII Saga

The brain is locked in total darkness . . . yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. 

These words crackle over an old radio in Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See (2014). They represent a significantly fundamental idea to the novel’s main characters and to the reader’s experience of the book. Doerr’s World War II saga conveys the war’s beginnings through its aftermath via the alternating perspectives of a Nazi boy and a blind Parisian girl. Written in a sparse yet lyrical narrative, All The Light We Cannot See is a nuanced portrait of the oppressive darkness which reigned during this time in history, as well as the flames of humanity- and love-which managed to outlast it.

The (spoiler free-ish) story:

Werner Pfennig grows up in a poor, German orphanage with his beloved sister, Jutta. They live in a town where boys automatically become men who are condemned to a life of  mining as soon as they turn fourteen. When Werner is thirteen years old,his greatest fear is being sent into those mines, the same ones where his own father died. But another opportunity finds him first.  People whisper about the “big things” coming for Germany under Hitler’s leadership. While Werner doesn’t know much about the Reich, he does know that he has a burning desire to understand the world and a rare talent with mathematics and technology. His intellect- combined with his white-blond hair and blue eyes- secure him a place at the National Political Institute of Education where his skills are immediately put to use for Nazi warfare. Werner begins to learn other, non-academic, lessons as well: that being different is dangerous, that his intelligence makes him both valuable and captive, that life would be easier if he could only trade in his own thoughts and sense of morality for that of those around him.

As Werner struggles to accept his role in Germany, a blind girl named Marie-Laure is being raised by her father in France. Whereas Werner must reconfigure himself for the new world he has been placed in, Marie-Laure’s world has, for most of her childhood, been lovingly constructed around her. Her father teaches her to use her senses, to memorize models he has built of streets and buildings, to read Braille, to dream.   When Paris is bombed, Marie and her father flee to the home of her great uncle in Saint Malo, an eccentric man with a fascination for stories and radios. As Marie-Laure is exposed to her own losses and a world outside of comfortable bubble in Pairs, she becomes more curious and imaginative about the world around her. Just as the events of the war push Werner to become one of many, they also force Marie-Laure to become more independent and brave.  For most of the novel, Werner and Marie’s stories remain separate, though interwoven in numerous ways that they have no way of knowing.  The two characters finally converge in a powerful way at the story’s most climatic point.

Doerr spent the greater part of 10 years entrenched in his research, stating that it was his greatest delay in finishing the book.  And his attention to detail does come through in All the Light We Cannot See in a sensory-rich feast.  However, while this book may be seen as a memorial to WWII, it does not contain a straightforward account of historical events. This is not a book of linear facts. Instead, Doerr’s details tell about the horrors of the war solely through the characters’ experiences of them: a forbidden book of birds painted by an American illustrator, the measuring of noses done prior to entrance in Hitler’s academy, bulging bags of ownerless weddings rings to be sorted by a Nazi jeweler.

One area in which Doerr’s descriptions are particularly exceptional is when he describes things from Marie-Laure’s perspective.  The way her blindness impacts her perception does not give her a limited narrative, but a striking one. When thousands of fliers are dropped over the city of Saint Malo with orders to evacuate, Marie first hears the paper rattling in the wind, then finds one with her fingers and notes that it smells like fresh ink and gasoline.  Though she cannot read the words printed on the paper, she understands the meaning. Often, the characters in All the Light We Cannot See never learn the significance of what is occurring around them; many of these historically significant details are tucked away in the text purely to give the modern reader goosebumps.

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Doerr’s story is compelling in its focus on the inner-workings of his characters as they experience the war.  The author artfully conveys the fear that comes from making choices with dangerous and unknown repercussions. He shows hope in the friendship that grows between Marie and her uncle, Etienne.  He depicts the weight of personal, senseless loss through the events that befall one of Werner’s best friends, Frederick. He conveys the feeling that so many people had after WWII: a lifetime of answerless questions.

In this manner, All the Light We Cannot See is a story with two kinds of truth.  First, it is true in the well-researched details of its setting and history. However, and much more profoundly, it is true in the same way that all great stories are true; it makes us, the (you know, readers) understand things we didn’t understand before, ask big questions, and feel full of a broad spectrum of human emotion. If I’m being completely honest, I had to lie awake for awhile when I finished this book a couple of nights ago, sinking into a trembling puddle of feelings–an understanding of times and places that I will never understand fully, but that this novel has given me a sense of.

Doerr’s  lyrical writing style will probably attract  readers who enjoy poetry and fantasy; in many ways this novel often reads like it should belong to a different  genre than historical fiction. Reader who love fairy-tales and poems will likely think this author’s writing is exquisite, whereas those who are expecting a more traditional or straightforward war narrative may find it jarring.

However, given the descriptiveness of the novel, it has much easier readability than one might expect. In part, this is due to Doerr’s habit of “showing” (and hardly ever “telling”).  Another, more obvious, structural statement of this novel which impacts readability is that its chapters are never more than a few pages long, each with its own self-contained theme and perspective.  Meanwhile, the plight’s of the characters and the non-linear storytelling keep the pages turning quickly. While this structure is unusual, and may not appeal to all readers, it certainly has benefits. Doerr said that he started writing the novel when he was a new father, with very short spaces of time available for writing. From my personal experience, the novel is likewise well-suited to busy readers.

The structure of All the Light We Cannot See makes it feasible to pick up and read for only three minutes without getting lost . . . but I’m betting you are going to want to read it for more than 3 minutes.