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The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

My Christmas wish list had one thing on it this year: a copy of Liz Gilbert’s The Signature of all Things (Penguin Group, 2013). Thankfully, I got it. Then it sat on my shelf for four months. FOUR MONTHS! Ostensibly, it was because I was in the middle of a few other books. Then I found other books to read, and then others. Eventually, I realized I was avoiding reading it. I knew why. Just before Christmas, I (unintentionally) read one negative review of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book. The reviewer panned it, their biggest complaint being that it was really about masturbatory sex.

Well. Combine that with the fact that it was about moss, science, and history (I mean, come on, moss?), and it was almost enough for me to skip it. But I am a Liz Gilbert FAN (the capital letter kind), so I did read it. And loved it. Just exactly as much as I hoped I would.

I love Liz mostly because Eat Pray Love and Committed, as well as every essay, TED Talk, Facebook post and interview she has put out there are all consistent with who she is: a woman on a mission to understand how things work, and make her findings understandable to everyone else through her glorious authorial voice. I loved The Signature of all Things because it does this in a most ambitious way. It is a brave thing, given what many of her peers are writing about (time travel, dystopian futures, and manipulative modern characters like those that inhabit Gillian Flynn’s horrible book Gone Girl), that Gilbert would choose to write a quiet masterpiece about an ugly spinster who lived in the 1800’s and studied the evolutionary habits of mosses as her life work. What could be less sexy? What could be less compelling?

And yet, what could be more powerful?

By imagining a woman of 200 years ago, Gilbert strips her of the labels we paste on women today, and uncovers the timeless issues that face all women. The Signature of All Things is the story of Alma Whittacker, born in 1800 to a rich American botanist. Instead of being petite, beautiful, and smart (the current trend in female protagonists: Hello, Katniss!), Alma is large, unlovely, and smart. Yes, Alma explores her own sexuality, and it is a powerful part of her story, but The Signature of all Things is really about Alma’s quest to assimilate the sum of her experiences, which are profound, into an understandable theory of life. Not everyone, I understand, spends a good part of everyday pondering the very small (at times) or very large (at times) divide between science and spirituality, but I do, and Alma Whittacker certainly does and, thankfully, Liz Gilbert does.

What an ocean of story Gilbert has created for reader’s to immerse themselves in! I surfaced once in a while to marvel at the amount of research (and envy the amount of travel) that went into the book, and then ponder the size of the blender that mixed it in so seamlessly with the story. If you are on the fence about reading this book, just read it. If you love Liz Gilbert, you will likely love it. If you detest Liz Gilbert (maybe Eat Pray Love was a bit too whiney for you?) my guess is you will still find yourself enjoying this book.

Go, Liz!

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Posted by on May 7, 2014 in Fiction, Uncategorized


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Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell

Most people under thirty (and many people over thirty) are edgy these days; our soft, organic, human curves honed to sharpness by the razor edges of technology. Our minds are edgy, as television and movies are edgy – jumping from thought to thought, chore to chore, channel to channel. Rainbow Rowell is edgy, too, and so is her writing. Rowell manages to skim along that razor with skill, keeping pace with the new way we think. Her writing seems effortless. Her fiction is fresh, exciting, and fun, along with being edgy. It’s also very, very real.

Fangirl (St. Martin’s Griffen, 2013)is a fairly straightforward story – twin sisters go to college. Each of them finds their own way. They have boyfriends, make new friends, work hard, make mistakes, etc. The rub comes as the sister’s co-dependent relationship crumbles. Cath, the painfully shy main character, is stretched to her limit as her sister Wren abandons her for her new friends. Cath buries herself in the world of fiction, particularly the fictional world of Simon Snow: reading it, writing fan fiction, and using it as an escape mechanism. Rowell weaves Cath’s story together with the fictional story of Simon Snow, and then throws in snippets of the fan fiction that Cath writes as well. Taken together, it’s a kaleidoscope of a story, a hall of mirrors in which one plot line is mirrored in another story, and again in another, distorted a bit each time. All of this is sewed together so seamlessly, it’s hard to see the skill involved in making this story sing.

But sing it does. Rainbow Rowell is writing great fiction, with great characters, great plot, and a sincere message. Somehow, she gets it just right. The characters shine as individuals; none of them perfect, all of them human and recognizable as facets of ourselves. There is enough movement to sweep you along, enough jumping to keep you tensed and ready to spring, enough humanity to grab hold of your compassion and tug you away from your own world into that of the characters.

If you are a fan of John Green (The Fault in Our Stars), you’ll likely enjoy anything written by Rainbow Rowell – they have similar messages and writing styles, and they use unconventional and powerful tools in their story telling that makes them interesting to read for people who have grown up in the digital age.

Rainbow Rowell succeeded in making Eleanor & Park one of the best written YA novels of 2013 (see my review here), and she succeeds again with Fangirl. I recommend it for anyone fourteen and up.


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The Here and Now, by Ann Brashares

The Here and Now, by Ann Brashares

You know how a great book sucks you under and keeps you there for hours and you come up sputtering and breathless, wondering where you are? Ann Brashares’ new book, The Here and Now (Delacourt Press, April 2014) is not like that. It is an interesting premise and a fast read, but I skimmed through it. At 256 pages, I couldn’t really dive any deeper.

The Here and Now is a tale of time travel. A faction of people from a harrowing ‘future earth’ come back and colonize the present in order to escape the horrible conditions of the future. They follow strict rules to keep from being discovered: they keep to themselves, avoid ‘intimate’ contact with others, try to fit in as best they can. These rules are enforced (sometimes violently) by the leaders of the group of travelers. Prenna, our teenage protagonist, falls in love with Ethan, a ‘time native’, and the two of them start to unravel the precarious chain of events that lead to the dystopian future Prenna has escaped.

It’s a great plot, if only marginally developed. I was with Brashares the whole way, but it was also flat and lifeless. There was no meat on the bones; no flesh on the characters. They remained cardboard cutouts, manipulated around the plot. Ironically, there was no past or background given for any of the characters, particularly Ethan, the ‘time native’. With no motives and no glimpse into the psyche of the characters, it was awfully hard to become emotionally involved and, at times, to understand the cause and effect of events.

This book could have been great, another Divergent or Hunger Games for YA readers. Instead, it feels rushed and undeveloped. I got something out of it, but it wasn’t the experience I was hoping for. I haven’t read The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, the immensely popular YA books by Brashares, but The Here and Now falls short of its potential, despite its great concept and gripping plot. If I could go back in time, I’d advise Brashares to slow down; give us the time to immerse ourselves in this world she has created. But we need the whole world, not just the plot.


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Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos

Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos

As a recently appointed middle school librarian, I’ve been reading quite a bit of middle school fiction, which is different than YA fiction and, it turns out, just as appealing to adults. I laughed so hard reading Dead End in Norvelt that my husband nearly had to begin CPR on me. I went that long without being able to breathe. Seriously.

Dead End in Norvelt (Farrar, Straus, and Geroux, September 2011) was awarded the 2012 Newbery Medal for the year’s best contribution to children’s literature and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and rightfully so: Jack Gantos is a fantastic writer. He can write a scene, drench it in history, spin it into action, and set in on a plate with a side of laughter. He can create believable, quirky characters that you root for with all your heart despite their oddities. Most of all, though, Gantos knows how to tell a good story, one that’s hard to put down, that keeps you up and night, and that makes you laugh.

Dead End in Norvelt is set in Norvelt, Pennsylvania in 1962. The book’s 12-year-old narrator (also coincidentally named Jack Gantos) has been grounded for the summer. There are only two reasons Jack can leave the house:

  1. to help his father dig a bomb shelter in the back yard (by hand) and
  2. to help his elderly, arthritic neighbor write obituaries for the town newspaper (which turns out to be an alarmingly busy task, as the older people in the bucolic town of Norvelt are dropping like flies.)

Despite those limiting factors (or because of them), Jack manages to have an action-packed summer, one punctuated by dramatic events, each event triggering an uncontrollable nosebleed in our not-as-tough-as-he-wishes-he-was narrator.

This book is not for the faint hearted – I recommended it to reluctant reader, in hopes that the fast moving plot line and frequent hilarity would entice him to read it. He returned it two days later. “Mrs. Rutten, I could not read this book. I have a gag reflex problem, and every time the main character had a nose bleed, I had to vomit.” He shook his head sadly and dropped it into the return bin.

Okay, so maybe this book isn’t for everybody. But most people, kids and adults alike, will love it.


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Famous First Lines – TRIVIA!

Famous First Lines – TRIVIA!

I recently began my dream job – as a middle school librarian.  I am fully immersed in the world of middle grade fiction, library cataloging, textbook repair, and, oh yeah, middle schoolers.  I’m surprised how much I love them!  Readers and non-readers, doesn’t matter – kids are cool and interesting.

In order to make the library more interesting (and as a topic for the dreaded Library Display Board – replacing the head shots of long dead authors who had graced that particular wall for several years now), I decided to launch a trivia contest centered on Famous First Lines, all of them from children’s books.  The rules for the students are that they can use the internet to do their research (as long as they get an answer, I figure they are learning something!), but I’m curious to see how many adults will be able to guess without the use of a search engine.

I’m looking for Book Title and Author.  Give it your best shot!

Here’s the quiz:

1. Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

2. All children, except one, grow up.

3. In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.

4. You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but it ain’t no matter.

5. Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.

6. There was no lake at Camp Green Lake.

7. Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife.

8. “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

9. Buck did not read the newspapers or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tidewater dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego.

10. Call me Ishmael.

Have fun!


Posted by on October 8, 2013 in Uncategorized


The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a small tale of an unimportant man going on an unassuming errand.  At least, that’s what Harold Fry himself believes when he sets out to mail a letter to a dying friend.  But when Harold follows his own inner urgings and keeps walking, past the mailbox at the end of his drive, past the mailbox a few blocks down, and right through the small English town he has lived in for decades and out into the bigger world, his errand becomes a journey, and his journey becomes a pilgrimage. He wants, in some vague way, to make a difference.

Rachel Joyce could just as easily have been named this novel The Unlikely Awakening of Harold Fry.  It’s a spiritual parable that tells us how to recover from a grievous wound.  It shows us how to forgive and how to transform our pain into something helpful, something useful, something wise.  As Harold puts one foot in front of the other, each new experience opens him up, and the opening lets out a little more of what he has kept inside.

Joyce is a wonderful writer.  The details of the landscape and people Harold encounters on his journey are selected to enhance the metaphor of his awakening.  She offers us very concrete ways to experience his pain and anguish, as well as a way to glimpse the beauty and wonder of his journey.  Joyce is a master at pacing and suspense, revealing just enough of the past to keep us moving forward.  Joyce very delicately withholds the truth of Harold’s transgressions until Harold, and the reader, are ready to examine them in a compassionate way.  As Harold transforms his guilt and distress into forgiveness, his wife manages to change as well.  Her transformation is as telling as Harold’s, and both are as real as can be.

Joyce chooses to keep the reader at a distance from the central nugget of pain that is propelling Harold’s journey.  We glimpse Harold’s memories, but never quite experience the reality of his past.  I feel that she chose a little too safe of route as a writer and lost some of the power that is inherent in her story.  While the physical and emotional journeys were well crafted in parallel, there were a few times I felt Joyce could have trusted her writing a little more, and left the reader to find the depth in her words on their own.  I had a vague, dissatisfied feeling at the end, like I didn’t get to taste everything on my plate, but these small things are far outweighed by the sheer audacity of Harold’s story.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has a deep resonance, largely because we are all on a journey.  It may not be as epic a journey as Harold Fry’s, but a journey non-the-less.  If we choose to take up the call of the open road, to ‘make a difference’, as Harold Fry does, then our internal journey has begun.  Walk a while with Harold, and see the world with the fresh eyes of a newly compassionate person.  It’s a journey well worth it.

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Posted by on February 1, 2013 in Fiction, Uncategorized


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Goblin Secrets, by William Alexander

Goblin Secrets, by William Alexander

Before Goblin Secrets, by William Alexander, won the National Book Award in 2012 for Young People’s Literature, it was pretty hard to find.  I tried the library and local bookstore, but no copies were (or ever had been) in stock.  I finally found a copy in the Minneapolis airport a few days after the awards were announced.  I was hoping for a fantastic story, terrific characters, emotional depth, or astonishing writing.   In that sense, I was disappointed.  I never came across any of those things.  Instead, I found the characters to be confusingly flat, the book to be disappointingly short, and the universe that Alexander creates to have a faint shimmer rather than a solid mass.  Rather than give it a so-so review, I decided to bring in an ‘expert’ on middle grade fiction, since I don’t read a ton of it myself.  My ‘expert’ prefers to remain anonymous, even though I have raised her from infancy.  At eleven years old she reads constantly; everything from horses to Harry Potter, Nancy Drew to Narnia.  While on a long road trip recently, we collaborated on the following interview:

Q: What is Goblin Secrets about?

A: Goblin Secrets is about a young boy named Rownie whose brother used to be an actor and now Rownie finds goblins that teach him theater.  Rownie has searched his whole life for his brother, Rowan, and finally finds him turned into a puppet.  Rownie takes Rowan to the Goblins and tries to save him.

Q: Where does the book take place?

A: Goblin Secrets takes place in the world of Zombay.  It is different from the real world because it has goblins and some of the characters, like the guards, are half mechanical.

Q: What did you like about the book?

A: I liked reading about the plays and the different masks the goblins talked about.

Q: On a scale of 1 to 10 (ten being the best), how would you rate this book?

A: I would give it a 7.

Q: Was there anything about this book that you didn’t like?

A: I think there should be a sequel.

So there you have it- I just wasn’t in the target age group for this work, apparently.  And, lucky for eleven year olds across the land, there will be a sequel (of sorts).  It will be released in 2013, and is still untitled.  According to Alexander, it parallels the story in Goblin Secrets, sharing the same setting and borrowing a few characters.  In fact, he says, you can see one book happening in the background of the other.

Congratulations to Alexander on winning the National Book Award on his first novel!


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