Genre: Contemporary

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{Review} Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

November 5, 2014 Review 2 ★★★★★

{Review} Station Eleven by Emily St. John MandelStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Published by HarperCollins on September 9, 2014
Genres: Adult, Contemporary, Science Fiction
Pages: 352
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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An audacious, darkly glittering novel about art, fame and ambition set in the eerie days of civilization's collapse, from the author of three highly acclaimed previous novels.

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time-from the actor's early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theatre troupe known as the Travelling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains-this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor's first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame and the beauty of the world as we know it.

I recently picked this up for an assignment on Canadian literature. I’d read numerous positive reviews – from JamieHannahKaren, and Blair – so I was really looking forward to this book. While literary science fiction is not a favorite genre of mine, the dazzling reviews were enough to sway me. Station Eleven is about a lethal flu epidemic that plagues our world and the ensuing aftermath. The narrative focuses on several characters each related, in some way, to a famous Hollywood actor who dies onstage during a production of “King Lear” in the opening pages. In an interview with the New York Times, Mandel said, “I wanted to write a love letter to the modern world, and a way to write about all these things we take for granted was to write about their absence.” I was pleasantly surprised by this insightful look into our world, our culture, and our humanity.

Part of what made this book so rich for me was how well Mandel developed a response to what exactly happens when 99% of the world’s population dies from an influenza epidemic. It’s about resilience, of the body, of the mind, and of the heart. I loved the multiple narratives in this book because it demonstrates so well how many different reactions are possible. A recurrent theme is that survival is not enough, and while Mandel writes characters who embody this concept, there are others who aren’t as mentally resilient.

These characters, though – they’re insanely realistic. I LOVE THEM. I ached for them. Their stories felt so tragic but so beautifully expressed. However, I don’t think there’s any way to explain these characters or their plots without ruining it all. Part of the enchantment of this book is the suspense: you don’t know how everything links together, and it seems to take forever to figure it out, but you do eventually.

The narrative has a wonderful sense of self-consciousness. You always have a sense of where you are currently in the timeline of the novel (which is long). I love this passage, which really exemplifies what I’m trying to describe:

“standing on a stool on his wondrously functional pre-Libya legs, the bullet that would sever his spinal cord still twenty-five years away but already approaching: a woman giving birth to a child who will someday pull the trigger on a gun, a designer sketching the weapon or its precursor, a dictator making a decision that will spark in the fullness of time into the conflagration that Frank will go overseas to cover for Reuters, the pieces of a pattern drifting closer together.”

We jump around from the moment the epidemic was unfolding and 20+ years after it happened, as well as a few memories from way before the epidemic. It really conveys a sense of shock when you go from completely normal – like our current world – to complete devastation and craziness. Super, super scary. I love when Mandel described the world 20+ years out, though, because it was so interesting to compare people who’s attitudes and experiences are so similar to mine, to a generation who grows up without any of the “modern conveniences” we are accustomed to (i.e. electricity, plumbing, gasoline, Internet).

For me, this book ticked every box: while the pacing is slower, it’s elegant and unique, and the characters and plot are expressed beautifully. Mandel is a wonderful storyteller. Her writing demonstrates that she put a lot of thought into the story, and it is completely controlled. That is the mark of an extremely talented writer; she knows everything but isn’t overhanded by revealing it all at once. If you enjoy books with interesting characters and emotional narratives, this one’s for you.

Collected Quotations

“‘It’s like the corporate world’s full of ghosts. And actually, let me revise that, my parents are in academia so I’ve had front-row seats for that horror show, I know academia’s no different, so maybe a fairer way of putting this would be to say that adulthood’s full of ghosts. . . . I’m talking about these people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped. Dan’s like that. . . . You probably encounter people like him all the time. High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.'”

“Hell is the absence of the people you long for.”

“Something I’ve been thinking about, which will sound harsh and I’m sorry: you said you’d always be my friend but you’re not, actually, are you? I’ve only realized that recently. You don’t have any interest in my life. This is going to seem bitter but I don’t mean it that way, V., I’m just stating a fact here: you’ll only ever call me if I call you first. Have you noticed that? If I call and leave a message you’ll call me back, but you will never call me first. And I think that’s kind of a horrible thing, V., when you’re supposed to be someone’s friend. I always come to you. You always say you’re my friend but you’ll never come to me and I think I have to stop listening to your words, V., and take stock instead in your actions. My friend C. thinks my expectations of friendship are too high but I don’t think he’s right.”

“Survival is insufficient.”

5 Stars

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{Review} The Woefield Poultry Collective by Susan Juby

September 8, 2014 Review 0 ★★★★

{Review} The Woefield Poultry Collective by Susan JubyThe Woefield Poultry Collective by Susan Juby
Published by HarperCollins on March 8, 2011
Genres: Adult, Contemporary
Pages: 336
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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Woefield Farm is a sprawling thirty acres of scrub land, complete with dilapidated buildings and one half-sheared, lonely sheep named Bertie. It's "run" - in the loosest possible sense of the word - by Prudence Burns, an energetic, well-intentioned 20-something New Yorker full of back-to-the-land ideals, but without an iota of related skills or experience. Prudence, who inherited the farm from her uncle, soon discovers that the bank is about to foreclose on the property, which means that she has to turn things around, fast. But fear not! She'll be assisted by Earl, a spry 70-something, banjo-playing foreman, with a distrust of newfangled ideas and a substantial family secret; Seth, the alcoholic, celebrity-blogging guy-next-door, who hasn't left the house since a scandal with his high-school drama teacher; and Sara Spratt, a highly organized eleven-year-old looking for a home for her prize-winning chickens, including one particularly randy fellow soon to be christened Alec Baldwin.
Some Brief Thoughts

Oh, man. THIS BOOK. I don’t even know how to begin to explain it. First things first, the best thing about this book is the characters. Their special brand of hilarity reminds me a little bit of The Big Bang Theory – like, hilarious, but they’re not trying to be funny. They aren’t “nerds” like the show, instead they are a crazy cast of misfits… there is Earl, an old guy with his eye on retirement, who is a farmhand with basically no farming skills. There’s Seth, who is an irritating, sloppy blogger who is incredibly self-centered and conceited – but as he is forced to work on the farm, his character development is truly amazing. I was rooting for him in the end, which is NOT something I thought I’d be saying when I first opened the book! There’s Sara, who is also annoying, but in a much more endearing way; she only wants the best for her prize-winning chickens and is determined to get it from the folks at Woefield. And finally, Prudence… so sweet, hard-working, and determined, she’s a city girl and a “retired” writer who wants to make it on a farm. She reminded me so much of myself – her ideals, not necessarily her personality – and it was hilarious to see her try to make it all work.

Which is, essentially, the whole kit and caboodle of this book. Prudence wants to make the farm into a utopian land that is sustainable and profitable, but all she has for help are Earl, Seth, and Sara… which leave something to be desired. Each of these characters is prone to hair-brained ideas, and the best part is seeing how they turn out. You just never know, and I can honestly say EVERY “solution” had me busting my gut and shaking my head in wonderment.

Part of that is the animals – Woefield is pretty pathetic, especially at first, and all they have for animals are Bertie the sheep and Sara’s chickens. But holy cow, do they ever get up to some crazy shenanigans with these animals. You would think it would be pretty easy to take care of one sheep, but Earl and Seth show that is not the case….

There’s also a hunky guy, which in my opinion never hurts. BUT my favourite thing about this hunky guy is that, while I was rooting for him and Prudence to get together, HIS role, from his perspective, was about saving the animals at Woefield. (He’s a vet… even better.) He’s concerned about Bertie the sheep, not Prudence – and I love that he’s not playing her white knight.

Other things I loved: the farm life (I love farms), the fact that it’s in Canada, the grumpy characters yet the way they’re totally endearing, and the constant laughing out loud. I can’t even begin to describe the humour. I’ve tried to include some of the funniest quotes I could pull below, but I don’t know if just a few lines will accurately convey the situation. It is one of the funniest books I can ever remember reading, and if you are in need of something light, fun, and wholly entertaining, this should definitely be next on your list!

A few notes: This book was published in the US under the title Home to Woefield. Also, both Earl and Seth like to swear a lot, so this book is definitely at least a PG-13.

Collected Quotations

“My heart kind of hurt when I looked at her. Not because I was in love, but because I could tell from looking at her that she didn’t hate herself. Not only didn’t she seem to hate herself, she barely seemed to think about herself. How fucking glorious must that be?”

“It’s been a pretty tough day,” he said. “No sense making it worse with a salad.”

“The old man kept going about how he could never keep her home, how she loved to roam. He said she should have been a sheep in the foothills of Scotland. Now if that wasn’t a load of shit I don’t know what is. I’ll tell you why that sheep roamed. The fences around here was held up with goddamn binder twine and half-assed prayers. That’s why.”

“I think Prudence is one of the busiest people who ever lived. Probably only God and Jesus and the devil are more busy than Prudence.”

4 Stars

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{Review} The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

August 22, 2014 Review 3 ★★★★★

{Review} The Thirteenth Tale by Diane SetterfieldThe Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Published by Anchor Canada on June 18, 2013
Genres: Adult, Contemporary, Historical Fiction
Pages: 416
Format: Paperback
Source: Gift
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Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to her apartment above her father's antiquarian bookshop. On her steps she finds a letter. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain's most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history. The request takes Margaret by surprise - she doesn't know the author, nor has she read any of Miss Winter's dozens of novels.

Late one night, while pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter's personal story, Margaret begins to read her father's rare copy of Miss Winter's Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.

As Vida Winter unfolds her story, she shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden as she remembers her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Margaret carefully records Miss Winter's account and finds herself more and more deeply immersed in the strange and troubling story. In the end, both women have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets. As well as the ghosts that haunt them still.

My Expectations

I distinctly remember one of my high school friends, Chelsea, telling me that I had to read this book, and another friend vehemently echoed her. Why I didn’t immediately jump on the bandwagon is beyond me, and I can’t believe it’s been approximately five years since that initial recommendation. At any rate, this was an impulse pick at the bookstore that my father kindly got for me.

My Thoughts

My initial reaction to this book was that it reminded me a lot of Kate Morton. I have been a fan of her work for years, though I haven’t reviewed any here, and she has a way of writing mysteries that is thrilling and all-consuming. The Thirteenth Tale is much the same; Setterfield sets up a historical mystery early on and continually weaves separate threads of the story.

I absolutely love this kind of historical fiction with a mystery element. I adore historical fiction, but even more than that, I love deep, dark family secrets. (I’m not sure why… my family has none that I know of!) The Thirteenth Tale is about two women, Margaret Lea and Vida Winter, and both have a dark, twisty past that makes for riveting reading. There are twins: multiple sets of twins. There are ghosts. There is a wicked governess. There are sadistic, mentally deranged parents. It is something out of a Gothic novel; more to the point, The Thirteenth Tale is almost entirely convincing as a Gothic novel itself.

I wish I could take more about the plot because THIS BOOK IS EVERYTHING I WANT IN A BOOK but I truly believe this is best read without too much given away. I don’t think you should know more than the back cover will tell you. So I have to leave it there.

Not only is Setterfield’s grasp on the conventions of mystery telling above par, she also has a knack for getting at the root of human emotion. She captures brilliantly the essence of our feelings and her characters are always relatable, I think perhaps because she describes human emotion as something that is unique, yet at the same time is equally raw and present for each of us. I particularly love the following passage, in which the doctor comforts Margaret during a difficult moment:

“‘I know,’ he said, ‘I know.’ He didn’t know, of course. Not really. And yet that was what he said and I was soothed to hear it. For I knew what he meant. We all have our sorrows, and although the exact delineaments, the weight and the dimensions of grief are different for everyone, the colour of grief is common to us all. ‘I know,’ he said, because he was human, and therefore, in a way, he did.”

I’m such a sucker for these dark emotional reads that this kind of writing is an instant hit with me. That being said, I don’t know how anyone could not appreciate the simplicity and care with which Setterfield is able to draw away the pretensions we, as a culture, use to hide our emotions.

The historical element and Setterfield’s beautiful writing already made The Thirteenth Tale an instant favourite for me, but the fact that it appeals to avid readers in a major way made it even better. You may remember that I love books on books. It’s just something that has always appealed to me. Margaret Lea is a voracious bookworm, and the way Setterfield writes about Margaret’s love for writing is instantly relatable. Check out some of my favourite quotations I’ve included at the bottom of the post to see what I mean.

While I did love Margaret – especially because she is such a passionate reader – my favourite character by far was Aurelius Love. Margaret befriends him fairly early on in the book and he becomes a part of the central mystery/storyline in a really interesting way. He is jovial and friendly, and reminded me of the kind uncle who’s always helping you out. (Though I believe he is Margaret’s age.) It is hard to pinpoint exactly why Aurelius is so likable but I think his tragic involvement in the mystery has a lot to do with it.

Finally, a note about the conclusion: Setterfield brings it full circle, and I didn’t notice how exquisitely she does this until I thought about the book at length. At the beginning of the book Margaret says that she prefers fulfilling endings that are closed and leave little doubt behind, whereas her father values uncertainty:

“Contemporary literature is a world I know little of. My father had taken me to task on this topic many times during our daily talks about books. He reads as much as I do, but more widely, and I have great respect for his opinions. He has described in precise, measured words the beautiful desolation he feels at the close of novels where the message is that there is no end to human suffering, only endurance. He has spoken of endings that are muted, but which echo longer in the memory than louder, more explosive denouements. He has explained why it is that ambiguity touches his heart more nearly than the death and marriage style of finish that I prefer.”

This book ends both ways. I’m like Margaret’s father, and as I read that last sentence – “And that is all.” – I almost didn’t want to continue. Ambiguity is something I love in endings. Setterfield also includes a short “Post Scriptum,” however, that answers questions that were left hanging. It fulfills both parts of me as a reader: I’m left with some ambiguity, but all my questions about random characters and plot points were addressed.

I highly, highly recommend this, especially if you are a fan of historical fiction. This is a new favourite for me and one that I can see myself rereading and rereading in years to come.

Collected Quotations

“How long did I sit on the stairs after reading the letter? I don’t know. For I was spellbound. There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic. When I at last woke up to myself, I could only guess what had been going on in the darkness of my unconsciousness.”

“Contemporary literature is a world I know little of. My father had taken me to task on this topic many times during our daily talks about books. He reads as much as I do, but more widely, and I have great respect for his opinions. He has described in precise, measured words the beautiful desolation he feels at the close of novels where the message is that there is no end to human suffering, only endurance. He has spoken of endings that are muted, but which echo longer in the memory than louder, more explosive denouements. He has explained why it is that ambiguity touches his heart more nearly than the death and marriage style of finish that I prefer.”

“All children mythologise their birth. It is a universal trait. You want to know someone? Heart, mind and soul? Ask him to tell you about when he was born. What you get won’t be the truth: it will be a story. And nothing is more telling than a story.”

“I have always been a reader; I have read at every stage of my life and there has never been a time when reading was not my greatest joy. And yet I cannot pretend that the reading I have done in my adult years matches in its impact on my soul the reading I did as a child. I still believe in stories. I still forget myself when I am in the middle of a good book. Yet it is not the same. Books are for me, it must be said, the most important thing; what I cannot forget is that there was a time when they were at once more banal and more essential than that. When I was a child books were everything. And so there is in me, always, a nostalgic yearning for the lost pleasure of books. It is not a yearning that one ever expects to be fulfilled.”

“All morning I struggled with the sensation of stray wisps of one world seeping through the cracks of another. Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes – characters even – caught in the fibres of your clothes, and when you open the new book they are still with you.”

“I am human. Like all humans, I do not remember my birth. By the time we wake up to ourselves, we are little children, and our advent is something that happened an eternity ago, at the beginning of time. We live like latecomers at the theatre: we must catch up as best we can, divining the beginning from the shape of later events. How many times have I gone back to the border of memory and peered into the darkness beyond? But it is not only memories that hover on the border there. There are all sorts of phantasmagoria that inhabit that realm. The nightmares of a lonely child. Fairytales appropriated by a mind hungry for story. The fantasies of an imaginative little girl anxious to explain to herself the inexplicable. Whatever story I may have discovered on the frontier of forgetting, I do not pretend to myself that it is the truth.”

“I opened a window, climbed out into the whiteness and walked across the snow. All the grief I had kept at bay for years by means of books and bookcases approached me now. On a bench sheltered by a tall hedge of yew I abandoned myself to a sorrow that was wide and deep as the snow itself, and as untainted. . . . Mostly, and most terribly, I cried for myself. My grief was that of the infant, newly severed from her other half; of the child bent over an old tin, making sudden, shocking sense of a few pieces of paper; and of a grown woman, sitting crying on a bench in the hallucinatory light and silence of the snow.”

“People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in the ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic.”

Join the Convo!

Have you read The Thirteenth Tale? What did you think? Did you love the bookish references as much as I did? Who was your favourite character? If you have read The Thirteenth Tale, do you have any recommendations for similar books? I would love something else like this!

5 Stars

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{Review} Nowhere But Home by Liza Palmer

August 8, 2014 Review 3 ★★★★★

{Review} Nowhere But Home by Liza PalmerNowhere But Home Published by William Morrow on April 2, 2013
Genres: Adult, Contemporary
Pages: 384
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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Queenie Wake has just been fired from her job as a chef for not allowing a customer to use ketchup . . . again. Now the only place she has to go is North Star, Texas, the hometown she left in disgrace. Maybe things will be different this time around. After all, her mother - notorious for stealing your man, your car, and your rent money - has been dead for years. And Queenie's sister, once the local teenage harlot who fooled around with the town golden boy, is now the mother of the high school football captain.

Queenie's new job, cooking last meals at the nearby prison, is going well . . . at least the inmates don't complain! But apparently small-town Texas has a long memory for bad reputations. And when Queenie bumps into Everett Coburn, the high school sweetheart who broke her heart, she wishes her own memory was a little spottier. But before Queenie takes another chance on love, she'll have to take an even bigger risk: finding a place to call home once and for all.

Cover Talk

I love this colour – the scene is so cute and the cover model’s clothing is quirky and fun, just like this book. It deserves an A in my book!

Expectations

I first heard of Nowhere But Home via a recommendation from Hannah from So Obsessed With, and once I saw that Ellice from Paper Riot and Asheley from Into the Hall of Books also read and loved it, I knew I had to get to it.

My Thoughts

The impressions I had of Nowhere But Home from reviews were that there were many similarities to Friday Night Lights, as well as a mouth watering emphasis on Southern food. While these seemed like great aspects of the story to me, they weren’t attention grabbing. I think I’m quintessentially Canadian in that football holds little interest (at least compared to many Americans), and I’ve never tasted Southern cooking. I was still drawn to it though, and I am so glad I took a chance on this book.

Here are ten reasons why you NEED to read this ASAP:

1. The Cooking

While a book about a prison cook doesn’t necessarily sound like high quality literature, IT IS. This book is so moving, and in such unexpected ways. Queenie’s reluctance to work at the prison is understandable, but ultimately she jumps in with both feet and gives it her all. The scenes with her and her two assistant prisoners are incredibly emotional at times and are very revealing. Queenie denies so much to herself, but in these raw moments where she is cooking it becomes clear who she really is.

I’m not sure that I would have ever said that how a writer describes food is important or revealing, but after reading Nowhere But Home I think my idea about food in literature has changed. Reading this book felt like my favourite comfort foods, and I think it’s because Palmer spends a good portion of the book placing her characters in situations involving wholesome, delicious meals. Palmer starts the beginning of every chapter with a description of the food that Queenie eats in the following pages (e.g.: “Croque monsieur on country white bread, potato leek soup, a giant class of cold water, and an old-fashioned doughnut”). The characters and the reader are always closely connected to food and I found that surprisingly comforting.

[Side Note: Thinking about food in novels, I was reminded how awesome the food always was in the Harry Potter novels. Remember those start of school feasts? Amazing.]

2. Queenie

As the main character of the story, Queenie is the star of the show – and does she ever deliver! Queenie is so humble and so real. I related to her a lot… her lack of self-confidence and her heaping helpings of self-deprecation really echoed with me. As Asheley wrote in her review, “Queenie has been all over the place in an effort to avoid going home, back to North Star, because that’s where both her heart and her heartache lies.” She is someone who has struggled a lot in life and Nowhere But Home chronicles her journey of healing and self-discovery. As cheesy as that sounds, it’s something I can relate to completely, and I think many others will, too.

She’s also really funny, which is the perfect comedic relief to her tough problems. One of my favourite lines from her is something she says to her sister, Merry Carole: “Maybe I was going to point out the tragedy of One-Minute Wes being your only sexual experience. I mean, what kind of whore are you?” Queenie is fun because she’s someone you can laugh at and with, while still appreciating her softer vulnerable side.

3. Everett

The biggest issue with the romance was there wasn’t enough. I loved both Everett and Queenie and I loved them together. Their high school romance was of the “wrong side of the tracks” variety, and it was at once gratifying and heartbreaking to watch them try to come back together later in life. At times I feared they would never be able to make it work:

“I gather myself, take a deep breath, and run and run and run. I need to flush the grief I feel for what Everett and I had. That sweetness I just saw with Arrow was what I always loved about him. It’s not as if I understood in the beginning what it meant to fall in love with someone. I knew love didn’t mean that things were going to work out or made people nice. Love, to me, even at a young age, was complicated. I knew it didn’t stop people from leaving or from hurting you. Love seemed to give people a free pass to treat you poorly.”

Everett’s struggle to come to terms with the fact that he would have to defy his parents’ expectations was so realistic – the entire romance felt incredibly real, not like something from a “bodice ripper” – and I loved how they both refused to give up on each other.

4. Merry Carole

All of the characters really came to life; Palmer spent time with each one carefully crafting larger than life personalities for them. Merry Carole and Queenie, sisters that love each other to bits but also have a lot of negative feelings between them, are real and relatable, especially for anyone who has a sister. There is unconditional love there, but the best part of the relationship between these two characters is their quiet attempts to fix their mistakes. As I mentioned before, Nowhere But Home is about healing, and Queenie’s relationship with her sister is definitely one that needs a little TLC.

5. Palmer’s Writing

Part of what made this book so beautiful was Palmer’s gorgeous writing. It isn’t a fast-paced novel and it’s not plot-driven; the focus is on the characters and their inner growth (which is something I typically prefer). Palmer’s style is authentic: everything from the food to the characters to the setting to the emotional highs and lows feels completely accurate. My one tiny complaint is that I felt the dialogue could be stilted at times, but Palmer’s hard work in the character development department and her flair for description more than made up for it.

6. Small Town Setting

I love small towns and I love reading about them, so North Star, Texas was a lot of fun for me. Palmer writes, “I’ve been coming to this parade my entire life. It’s one of those things your hometown does that you think is ridiculous and yet you wouldn’t miss it for the world. The entire town shuts down and everyone just has fun.” It’s the sense of community and belonging that people tend to feel in small towns that makes them see so idyllic to me. (And, as I’m from one, reading about them always reminds me of home.)

On the other hand, small towns really have their dark sides. Queenie has always felt like an outsider because of her mother’s bad reputation, which both her and her sister inherited. It’s a place that, in a lot of ways, still feels like high school. The community is focused on secrets, gossip, and drama, and when something rocks the boat it sets the whole town on fire. I loved how Palmer incorporated both the good and bad aspects of small-town Texas; it’s all the more realistic for that. (Speaking of which, Kacey Musgrave‘s music just reminds me so much of North Star.)

7. Football

Fairly early on in the novel Palmer writes, “However you praise the Lord, be it Baptist, Methodist, or Catholic, the true religion of Texas is football.” And boy, does Palmer sure prove that. North Star bleeds football through and through. Best of all is reading about Cal Wake, Merry Carole’s son who becomes starting quarterback as a freshman. (Even I know this is a big deal and I don’t watch football!) He is such a sweet kid, and watching him work so hard towards his dreams despite all the naysayers is inspiring. I think I get why Friday Night Lights is so popular now!

8. Second Chances

Queenie returns home with her tail between her legs and from that point on, second chances becomes a major theme. While Nowhere But Home is obviously about coming home, it’s also about moving forward. It’s all about Queenie coming to terms with her past and facing some dormant problems head on, while finding out what she really wants from life. Queenie says, “I’ve lived my life based on what ‘they’ think. Who are they? They don’t love me. They don’t know me. And they sure as shit don’t care about what happens to me. Yet every decision involves thinking about what the judgmental and anonymous ‘they’ would think. What would they do if I stopped caring what they think?” In a lot of ways I personally can get hung up when I feel like I’ve blown my chances with something, but Nowhere But Home shows that it’s never too late and it’s always worth a second (or third, or fourth) shot.

9. Social Class

Class divisions are a BIG deal in North Star – they’re what separated Queenie and Everett, and Queenie feels they forced her out of town. As Queenie says, “North Star has always been about appearances. Without the Wakes, who knows who they’d feed on? They might have to take a look at their own pillars of society.” I loved Palmer’s realistic approach at how different segregations of society can rip on one another. By the end of the novel, Palmer shows that there is no “bad guy”, and that everyone has problems. Getting Queenie to realize that she alone is responsible for her decisions and her self-worth is a job and a half, but watching her figure it out is a lot of fun.

10. Grief

In a sense, a lot of the issues Queenie works through in Nowhere But Home concern her dead mother and the unresolved feelings she has there. The grieving process is hard no matter what, but Queenie’s position seems impossible at times. It’s hard to know how to cope when you miss a person you hated. It’s heartbreaking at times to read, but seeing Queenie come through it for the better is so rewarding, and the role her job at the prison plays in it is surprising, heartwarming, and thought provoking.

I wholeheartedly recommend Nowhere But Home (as you can probably tell from this over-the-top review…) and it’s a book I think so many readers will enjoy. Its Southern elements will appeal to those who love the states under the Mason-Dixon Line, but it’s a character-driven story that is equally touching and uplifting. As Hannah wrote in her review, “It’s funny, but not fluffy. It’s sad, but not depressing. It’s Southern, but not a stereotype. It’s this perfect blend – like mixing sweet tea and lemonade – that resulted in a read I won’t ever forget.” In other words, it’s a must-read, and you need to give it a chance!

Collected Quotes

“I can’t be the only one faking it. I’m not the only lonely small-town girl drowning in this big city. I’m not the only refugee feeling invisible and alone. I’m not the only one who wants to scream, ‘NOTICE ME! I MATTER!’ Maybe everyone is faking it. Maybe they’re just better at it than I am. People walk around me on the street as if I’m not even there. It’s quite something. I left North Star because I was tired of every move I made being tracked and judged by a cabal of gossiping ladies. I oftentimes wished I could go unnoticed as I move through my life in that tiny town and now here I am. Utterly invisible. Dreams do come true, kids.”

“It wasn’t until I grew up a bit that I realized real love is more about the beauty of the everyday. It’s not an accident that every love story seems to end with the couple walking off into the sunset together. I think about Everett and Arrow walking the Paragon land every morning and how I had no idea he did that. I know things about Everett only the most intimate connections yield and yet have no idea how he spends his mornings.”

5 Stars

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{Review} Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

August 5, 2014 Review 1 ★★★★★

{Review} Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour BookstoreMr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Published by HarperCollins on September 9, 2013
Genres: Adult, Contemporary
Pages: 256
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco web-design drone, and serendipity, sheer curiosity and the ability to climb a ladder like a monkey have landed him a new gig working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. But after just a few days on the job, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything, instead "checking out" impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with gnomic Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he has embarked on a complex analysis of the customers' behaviour and roped his friends into helping him figure out just what's going on. But once they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, they discover the secrets extend far beyond the walls of the bookstore.

With irresistible brio and dazzling intelligence, Robin Sloan has crafted a literary adventure story for the 21st century. Evoking both the fairy tale charm of Haruki Murakami and the enthusiastic novel-of-ideas wizardry of Neal Stephenson or a young Umberto Eco, but with a unique and feisty sensibility that's rare to the world of literary fiction, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like: an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave, a modern-day cabinet of wonders ready to give a jolt of energy to every curious reader, no matter what the time of day.

Cover Talk

Any book with books on its cover is sure to draw me in, and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is no exception. Plus, it kind of reminds me of Mr. Ollivander’s shop in Diagon Alley from Harry Potter… which is an immediate win in my books.

Expectations

You may have noticed by now that I am a sucker for books about books. (Remember Ex Libris and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry?) So it should be no surprise that Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore had great appeal for me. It’s about a young man who starts working in a mysteriously secretive bookstore, owned by a Mr. Penumbra. Everything about Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – right down to its delightfully bookish cover – just screams “Katy.”

My Thoughts

Essentially, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore chronicles Clay’s discovery of a cult-like society that centres on books. It’s an incredibly exciting story that reads like an adventure novel; one of my favourite Booktubers, Ariel Bissett, called it “National Treasure for book lovers.” It’s happy and uplifting and fun.

One thing I absolutely loved was the randomness of the book. Part of it is Clay’s hunt to find the answers about Penumbra’s secret society: each step of the way he has to figure out or learn something new. But more than that, Sloan is always introducing such random concepts to the storyline, which makes it so fresh and fun. You’ll never know what to expect when you turn the page.

You know how sometimes people say that setting is just another character? Well, Robin Sloan definitely got the memo on that one. Of course, Penumbra’s bookstore is out of this world awesome:

“Inside: imagine the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side. This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up – three stories of books, maybe more. I craned my neck back (why do bookstores always make you do uncomfortable things with your neck?) and the shelves faded smoothly into the shadows in a way that suggested they might just go on forever. The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest – not a friendly Californian forest either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach. There were ladders that clung to the shelves and rolled side to side. Usually those seem charming, but here, stretching up into the gloom, they were ominous. They whispered rumours of accidents in the dark.”

Even though the bookstore sounds like the best place ever, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore isn’t all old-timey bookstores and leather-bound books. Google plays an important role in the plot and it also is a significant setting. The combination of Hogwarts-esque bookstore + super-modern computer headquarters makes for a really interesting backdrop.

The old vs. new setting isn’t the only way that Sloan makes a big contrast. There’s also older people and younger people, old technology and new technology, old ways of thinking and new ways of thinking. I love the way that Sloan intertwines different technologies and ways of life without making it seemed forced or unrealistic. There were many points that had potential for sci-fi or fantasy elements, but Sloan kept it genuine and modern, which I love. I think it’s more fun to imagine a place like Mr. Penumbra’s Bookstore in real life, when it actually seems realistic. It’s the perfect blending of old and new, which makes it the perfect book for someone like me, who loves history and speculative fiction pretty much equally.

I also have to mention how great Clay Jannon is. He is funny, geeky, earnest, resourceful, and smart in a relatable way – he’s not a genius or pretentious, he’s just a very bright, regular kind of way. He doesn’t know a lot about anything at the beginning of the book, but he is constantly teaching himself things and learning about new methods throughout the entire novel. It’s so much fun, because as the reader, you’re probably clueless too – so you get to accompany Clay on his journey to book cult wisdom. He is a fantastic narrator, and his personality really makes Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore come alive. (Mr. Penumbra is probably equally fascinating, but part of his charm is his mystery so I have to keep mum on that.)

For readers who like mystery, technology, history, adventure, or anything smart and witty, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a must-read. This one is a new all-time favourite that will definitely be read and reread many times in the years to come.

Collected Quotations

“San Francisco’s architectural style didn’t really make inroads anywhere else in the country, and even when you live here and you’re used to it, it lends the vistas a strangeness: all the tall narrow houses, the windows like eyes and teeth, the wedding-cake filigree.”

“He has the strangest expression on his face – the emotional equivalent of 404 PAGE NOT FOUND.”

“After that, the book will fade, the way all books fade in your mind. But I hope you will remember this: A man walking fast down a dark lonely street. Quick steps and hard breathing, all wonder and need. A bell above a door and the tinkle it makes. A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.”

“The nature of immortality is a mystery . . . But everything I know of writing and reading tells me that this is true. I have felt it in these shelves and in others. Walking the stacks in a library, dragging your fingers across the spines – it’s hard not to feel the presence of sleeping spirits.”

“When you read a book, the story definitely happens inside your head. When you listen, it seems to happen in a little cloud all around it, like a fuzzy knit cap pulled down over your eyes.”

“There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care. All the secrets in the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight. . . . Your life must be an open city, with all sorts of ways to wander in.”

Join the Convo!

Have you read The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry? Is it on your TBR list? Have you enjoyed any other of Gabrielle Zevin’s novels? Do you tend to like books about books?

5 Stars

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