Book Club

REVIEW: The Midnight Library

“Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices… Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”

The average adult makes approximately 35,000 decision a day – some consciously, others not. And each decision results in a specific direction or outcome that would be different, were we to make a different choice.

At 35, Nora Seed is sad. She’s just lost her retail job at String Theory, a guitar shop, that she’s held for 12 years. Her cat, Voltaire, was found dead on the side of the road. She’s estranged from her older brother. She does not want to live and is certain she will not be missed. So she makes a choice to end her life.

But life had different plans.

Nora doesn’t die. She ends up in a sort of limbo, in between life and death, at the Midnight Library. Staffed by her elementary school librarian, Mrs. Elm, Nora is presented first with a doorstop of a book that holds all of her regrets. There are so many, she can only read a couple at a time. Mrs. Elm has her close the book and focus on the choices she can make. Each book in this infinite collection, is a version of her life that goes a different way simply by making a different choice.

But Nora is done making choices and she’s ready to die. She want’s to die.

Mrs. Elm says if that were the case, she would not have ended up at the Midnight Library.

“Want,’ she told her, in a measured tone, ‘is an interesting word. It means lack. Sometimes if we fill that lack with something else the original want disappears entirely. Maybe you have a lack problem rather than a want problem. Maybe there is a life that you really want to live.”

And so, an adventure of sorts begins. Whenever Nora steps into a new life, she can stay and settle in, or if she remains disappointed, she can return to the library. There is a catch though, while there are infinite books meaning and endless amount of lives and possibilities, there is not an endless supply of time. The duration of her time to decide is unknown.

What could end up being a book of doom and gloom or pointless repetition ends up being a gem of a story — no, stories — about the possibilities that life can offer. The audiobook version narrated by Carey Mulligan as extra depth. Author Haig delivers so many good nuggets about patience, kindness, creativity, and curiosity. And there are important reminders, like this one:

“There are patterns to life . . . Rhythms. It is so easy, while trapped in just the one life, to imagine that times of sadness or tragedy or failure or fear are a result of that particular existence. That it is a by-product of living a certain way, rather than simply living. I mean, it would have made things a lot easier if we understood there was no way of living that can immunise you against sadness. And that sadness is intrinsically part of the fabric of happiness. You can’t have one without the other. Of course, they come in different degrees and quantities. But there is no life where you can be in a state of sheer happiness for ever. And imagining there is just breeds more unhappiness in the life you’re in.”

The Midnight Library came into my life at an important time. When I, along with so many others, are dealing with major Covid pandemic fatigue. When I, along with so many others, have a loved one that deals with depression. When, I along with so many others, are getting by turning off the news, and turning to books. Especially books that remind us there is so much to experience in this life, even if every day isn’t picture perfect.

REVIEW: Anxious People

The first book of a new year is important. I always want to start strong, with a book I really enjoy. It feels like a way of starting the year off on a good note. Last year, despite all that was bad in 2020, I read some really good books. I kicked off the year with The Dutch House by Ann Patchett and Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane and adored them both. This left me equal parts thrilled and terrified that I had read the best books I would read in 2021 before the end of February. And that was mainly true. You can check out my best and worst reads of 2020 column I co-authored with my Snotty Literati partner, Jennifer Spiegel.

So after the complete shit-show that was 2020, I was excited to turn a new page, pun intended, and was hoping my first pick of the year, Anxious People by Fredrik Backman would deliver.

The premise is a failed bank robber bursts into an open house and takes eight extremely anxious people hostage. Everyone, including the bank robber, is not who they seem. On appearances, they are annoying, irritating, total idiots. But as time passes, and times is invested, we learn there’s so much more than that superficial first layer. And as I read it, I knew this was the best book I could have chosen to kick off a year that is still recovering from the pain of the previous twelve months.

I hope Mr. Backman knows how special this book of his is. I am considering writing him a letter. Do people still do that? In the meantime, I will address him here.

Dear Mr. Backman,

Thank you.

Thank you for writing a book that so fully captures how idiotic, complex, annoying, beautiful, flawed, genuine, short-sighted, short-tempered, and insightful, and caring people can be. Thank you for writing a book that reminds us how far patience and a kind gesture can go. Thank you for writing a book that made me roll my eyes, laugh out load, and catch my breath. Thank you for writing a book that is a great reminder that it’s really hard some times to not be an idiot, that we are all idiots at one time or another, and we would all be a little better off if we offered up a little grace.

Consider me a forever fan.

The Alice Network

The Alice Network is historical fiction beautifully told between alternating chapters that focus on Charlie St. Clair, an unwed pregnant woman in 1947 New York who is looking for her lost cousin Rose who has disappeared while living in Nazi-occupied France; and Eve Gardiner, who in 1915 was living in France while fighting the Germans as one of very few female spies in the Alice Network.

In 1947, Eve is drunk and bitter, and she’s Charlie’s best help in finding Rose. But can Charlie convince Eve drop drop her hibernation act and put down the booze?

Great storytelling. Super compelling. I really couldn’t put it down. Plus there’s handsome Finn. Better than a lot of historical World War I/World War II fiction out there. Oh, and the audio version c’est magnifique!

4/5 Stars

Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan

Green-IslandIn the opening pages of Shawna Yang Ryan’s Green Island, we are transported to 1947 Taiwan, a county overtaken by violence and fear as it succumbs to Martial Law. Here we meet Dr. Tsai and his wife, confined to their home as she’s laboring with their fourth child. Shortly after their daughter’s birth, Dr. Tsai is heard speaking out against the Chinese Nationalists. This public dissent results in his arrest and imprisonment on Green Island for more than a decade. He returns a shell of the man he once was, to a family that is struggling to embrace him.

Green Island, narrated by Dr. Tsai’s youngest, and unnamed, child, is an epic journey of historical fiction and political unrest spanning 60 years and two continents. I was hooked immediately and found myself angry, saddened, and frustrated by the horrific events at the hands of power-hungry, fear-mongering people. Ryan has crafted a truly engaging story of family bonds and betrayals that will keep you turning the pages and thinking long after the last page is read.

4 Stars

Fate and Furies

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff is one of the most talked about books from 2015. After Snotty Literati read it, we couldn’t stop talking about it.

Check out our conversation about Fates and Furies and chime in with your own thoughts in the comments!

Fates and Furies Cover Image

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

Signs Preceding the End of the WorldEvery year, I try to read a handful of books I might not normally read. These aren’t books that are “out of my comfort zone” like zombie apocalypse, vampire YA stuff… but books that can expand my reach and reading experience. Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera is the perfect kind of book to do this.

Signs, written in Herrera’s native Spanish and translated by Lisa Dillman, tells the story of Makina, a young Mexican woman making the dangerous trek across the U.S./Mexican Border to deliver an unmarked package and find her brother. Marina’s brother crossed over a year ago, with the sketchy promise of land acquisition.

In just 107 pages, Herrara give us a glimpse into a world many of us don’t know, but may talk–or even argue–a lot about. It’s a world of many unknowns and uncertainties; and one that delivers a solemn punch about the realities of how humans choose to treat one another.

4 Stars

Sunday Sentence: February 23, 2014

The Sunday Sentence is “simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.” author David Abrams.

Snap 2014-02-23 at 09.38.58

“What his son, Marty, never fully understood was that deep down there was an Ethel-shaped hole in Henry’s life, and without her, all he felt was the draft of loneliness, cold and sharp, the years slipping away like blood from a wound that never heals.”

From The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
by Jamie Ford

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone GirlI can’t stop hearing about Gone Girl. It’s everywhere. Every best book list for last year. Every bookstore has tables and tables of it. Every airport has it. Everywhere! People are telling me I HAVE TO READ IT. I mean, I see or hear about it as much as I hear that Call Me Maybe song.

Confession time: Hey, I just met you and this is crazy… but I love that Call Me Maybe song. Seriously… way too much. It’s on my iPod. I listen to it every time I workout. I listen to it when I don’t work out. It’s a total guilty pleasure just the way good pop songs are supposed to be. Despite all this, I am kinda convinced all the air time, over-exposure and gazillion parody videos that came from Call Me Maybe will probably resign Carly Rae Jepsen to one-hit wonder status, because how can she ever do anything bigger than that? It might be impossible. And if you are wondering what on earth this has to do with Gone Girl, I am getting there.

I first read Gillian Flynn when the Book Babes selected Sharp Objects for book club a few years back. We all read it, were super creeped out and loved it. Ms. Flynn was already starting to get quite a following with this book and her next one Dark Objects. But not a Carly Rae Jepsen-level following. You want to be good but not YouTube crazy parody good, which I am not quite sure how you even do with a book… but I think you catch my drift.

Fast-forward several years and everyone has read this Gone Girl book and is stark-crazy raving about it and Gillian Flynn is the new “Mistress of Mystery”. (I am making up that moniker, but someone has probably penned that nickname and if not, okay, I’ll take credit for it). And thank goodness this is her third book so she really can be the Mistress of Mystery and not the “Carly Rae Jepsen of Mystery”. Now if that Jepsen girl has another bona-fide hit, my iPod and I will be thrilled, but my analogy here will be screwed. And what’s that analogy again? Be popular, but not Carly Rae popular.

So, back in December, one of the Book Babes selected Gone Girl for our February read and we were all pretty excited. Here’s the non-spoiler overview:

Nick and Amy Dunn have been married for five years when the recession forces them out of their cushy writing jobs in Manhattan and back to Nick’s Missouri river hometown to care for his declining mother. Amy misses the life left behind—one of privilege and minor celebrity status as the namesake of her parent’s wildly successful children’s book series—Amazing Amy! Life in Missouri is hard hit by the recession, houses in the Dunn’s neighborhood are foreclosing and Amy is declining. Nick is trying to make the move back home work. Going in on a bar with his twin sister Margo, he’s the only one with a job. Long hours take time from the marriage. They take away the spark as well. The day of their five-year anniversary, Nick gets a call he never expected. Racing home, he finds an open front door, a ransacked living room, lots of blood and no Amy.

Enter the police. Nick can’t stop lying to them, which doesn’t help matters. His disposable cell phone keeps ringing at the most inopportune times and he quickly finds himself in the role of leading suspect.

But let me tell you a little secret. Everything I told you is laid out for you in the first 30 pages. Flynn is known for writing super topsy-turvy, twisty-turny thrillers and Gone Girl taps out at 419 pages. So guess what? All is not as it seems.

Told in alternating chapters with Nick narrating his story in the present day and Amy’s story from a few years back, the reader is sent down a pretty twisted (read: crazy) rabbit hole to figure out who killed Amazing Amy.

I really can’t tell you anymore, except to read it. Gone Girl is a trip. A road trip into creepy crazy town. Flynn sets the stage well, keeping you guessing as you drive the car slowly up the hill and just as you make it over the top, the car starts careening out of control and you realize there aren’t any brakes. It’s a totally wild ride that ends in utter shock. Some of the Book Babes didn’t buy the ending. Some of us felt it couldn’t have ended any other way. Not one of us could stop turning the pages.

Rating: 3 stars
Pages: 319
Genre: Mystery

 

A is for The Angel’s Game – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Let me start by saying I love, love, LOVE Zafón‘s The Shadow of the Wind. It’s an all-time favorite and a must-read for book lovers. So with all that book baggage, picture me cracking open The Angel’s Game with mucho expectations. Now picture me disappointed when it fell mucho short.

Problemo Uno: Zafon used a key player from Shadow of the Wind and his role just didn’t make sense here.

Problemo Dos: Creepy kinda super-fantastical stuff which really isn’t my deal.

Problemo Tres: I just didn’t enjoy it.

So beware. But if you like creepy kinda super-fantastical stuff and you haven’t read and fallen in love with The Shadow of the Wind, then The Angel’s Game may be your cup of tea.

Rating: 2 stars
Pages: 544
Genre: Fiction

L is for Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

I have had this book for years. So many people wanted me to read Loving Frank by Nancy Horan that I found myself with two copies, one I purchased and one that was given to me. But with oodles and oodles of books lying around, it was one of many I needed to get to. Flash forward and back up to this past November, and LOVING FRANK was selected by my Book Club for our January read. And then I did something crazy (big surprise). I bought a version for my Kindle and gave away my two copies. It was on a lark I did this, and only after having read through the first few chapters. I was instantly smitten with Horan’s wordly–no, that’s not a typo for worldly–ways and confident the recipients would love it as much as I was. Having finished it just in time for tomorrow’s discussion, and to be on track for this year’s project, all I can say is… I am loving Frank. The book, rather, not so much the man.

Let me also say that prior to cracking this book open, I knew very little about Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW). Sure, in the peripheral pockets of knowledge I keep, I know he’s a major contributor to American architecture. He has two famous homes (probably more) Taliesen in Wisconsin and Taliesen West in Scottsdale (the latter I have actually visited). I also grew up in the southwest near a church inspired by his work full of clean lines, glass and nature. But his personal life, his drive and arrogance, his marriages and a rather scandalous affair in the early 1900s, I knew absolutely nothing about. My ignorance of FLW and his lover Mamah was absolute bliss when reading this captivating work of historical fiction.

In the early 1900s, Mamah (pron. May-muh) Borthwick Cheney was married and had just commissioned FLW to build a house in Oak Harbor. A masters-level educated woman who actively promoted women’s rights, Mamah was a leader and much ahead of her time. Her forward thinking ideas drew me to her and I liked her fire very much. Yet upon meeting Frank Lloyd Wright, her heart took over and the two of them found themselves quickly in a complicated, romantic entanglement; both FLW and Mamah were married to other people and both had children. They believed their shared love to be the truest relationship they had found and they would do anything to be together. Even if it meant Mamah leaving her very young children in the hands of her cuckolded husband and her sister to travel the world and follow Frank’s dreams. My love for Mamah was instantly lost; but I couldn’t stop reading. Horan’s blend of known facts and her own imagined dialogue between these two lovers was completely compelling.

There was a bit of detail overload at times on the architecture and landscape talk. But I had to know what would come of these two people and the families they left behind. I needed answers and outcomes, impacts and consequences. I could not understand a woman being able to abandon her children. As I turned the pages, I repeatedly wondered how could she do this (how any woman could ever do it)? Could she really be that selfish? Doesn’t she understand the gravity of her choices? How on earth would this turn out?

I won’t answer those questions for you; read it for yourself to find out.

Suffice it to say, if you know nothing or very little of the actual events, the story will take you in completely and when you least expect it, it will throw you. It will utterly throw you, jerking you up out of your comfortable reading posture forcing you to reread the pages you just read in utter disbelief. There are answers, there are outcomes–devastating ones, at that. And we are left with a fascinating account of what might have happened in the years that Frank and Mamah eschewed the world and everything in it for each other and, of course, Frank’s work.

Rating: 4 stars
Pages: 400
Genre: Historical Fiction