Book Review

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Publisher: Chiltern Publishing
Genre: Coming-of-Age Drama
Pages: 288
Format: Hardcover
My Rating: 5/5 stars
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Summary

In Little Women, Louisa May Alcott turns the everyday lives of four girls into an entertaining novel of love, loss, and the exceptional power of family. Based on Alcott’s own upbringing, Little Women is a recollection of her childhood experiences, and life lessons while residing in New England during the Civil War.

The adventures of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March are captivating as they take on the challenges of growing up—exploring the balance between familial duty and freedom  and society’s expectations of women in the 1800’s. During the uncertainty and scarcity of wartime, the March girls brave illness, romance, societal pressures, and unconventional career ambitions under the watchful eye of their mother, Marmee. Each of the March girls comes of age and discovers who they are through their endeavors, courage, and love of family in this classic novel. 

Thoughts

Every once in a while, Hollywood brings an adaptation of Little Women to the silver screen to remind us what a treasure this story is to behold. This December, audiences will be treated to a version that is sure to introduce the novel to a new generation of women and men alike. With a powerhouse cast of Meryl Streep, Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, and Timothee Chalamet, it will no doubt be entertaining.

Audience members and readers will likely identify with one or more of the March family members. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy are respectively the traditional elder sister, ferocious feminist, sensitive soul, and spoiled artist, respectively. Yet, they are fully realized characters with desires, flaws, and needs that transcend those labels. As such, the story’s relevancy has not diminished with age, and it underscores many of the challenges that even girls today face. New readers will discover timeless themes of familial duty, independence, courage, and generosity. 

What is most striking about this novel is that Alcott dared to re-imagine what a woman’s future could look like by sharing her own experiences through the character of Jo. While its feminist principles are somewhat dated—as its original publication date is 1868—Jo March remains a timeless role model. She defies convention in favor of following her own path to becoming a writer, despite the obstacle of her gender, undoubtedly helped along with the support of her family, especially Marmee. The adventures of the March family, set against the grim background of war, are both charming and life affirming—making Little Women a truly poignant novel that will remain so for each new generation of readers. 


For those of you who are interested, check out the trailer for the upcoming film below!


Guest blog post courtesy of Sharon Enck.

Book Review

Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Genre: Thriller/Horror
Pages: 706
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 5/5 Stars

Summary

20 years in the making, Stephen Chbosky’s second novel Imaginary Friend takes on a whole new genre compared to his previous best-selling novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Imaginary Friend follows seven year-old Christopher and his mother, Kate Reese, on the run from her abusive ex-boyfriend. She decides the small town of Mill Grove, Pennsylvania is the perfect hidden gem. However, one afternoon, a mother’s worst nightmare occurs when Christopher wanders into the woods and doesn’t come back out for six days.

When Christopher does return, he is different. He can do things he couldn’t do before, thanks to the nice man. His only goal is to build a tree house in the woods by Christmas, with the voice in his head guiding him the whole way. If he fails, the world as he, and everyone in the town, knows it will change forever.

Thoughts

Going into this, I was not sure what to expect because the premise itself is so different from my beloved The Perks of Being a Wallflower. But, I can say with confidence that Chbosky did not disappoint—I found myself tearing through the pages, desperately wanting to solve the mystery and connect the dots. Every character revelation and plot twist felt surprising yet inevitable, leaving me speechless by the end of it.

As with any good horror novel, I will probably have nightmares for a couple of days, but it was worth it to go on this journey with Christopher and his mother. The characters were so vivid that I felt like they were telling me the story themselves. It was terrifying, but in a thrilling way that really makes you think about the world and speculate about what lies beyond it—what we have control over and what we don’t, and what may lurk in the shadows.

Imaginary Friend reveals the power of family, of friendship, and of a mother’s love in the most bone-chilling, mind-blowing way. 20 years after his debut novel, Chbosky is back to remind us that no matter who we are or what our past is, we are not alone: in the the real world or the imaginary.

Book Review

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Publisher: Graywolf Press
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 264
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary:

What does domestic abuse look like? In what ways can domestic abuse be more than physical harm? What does domestic abuse look like between two women? What does domestic abuse look like when the perpetrator is smaller than the victim? These are some of the questions Carmen Maria Machado sets out to answer in her inventive new memoir In the Dream House.

In doing the research for this book, Machado sought out experiences that mirrored her own, but found the archive of literature and history to be lacking. This is her attempt at taking the first step in adding to that archive. She constructs her story through more than a hundred narrative tropes (i.e. stoner comedy, Chekov’s gun, man vs. self), resulting in an elaborately weaved and imaginatively told story that explores themes of abuse, queer relationship dynamics, queer world building, assessment of self-worth, and ultimately the emotional endurance that humans are capable of. 

Thoughts:

What I love most about this book, and there is a lot to love about it, is the way in which it pushes the boundary between nonfiction and fiction through the exploration of narrative tropes. While this memoir explores themes that are heavy and at times difficult to emotionally process, the reader is guided along by Machado’s incessant wit and playful prose; making this book fun to read despite the nature of its subject matter. Additionally, Machado annotates her experience with motifs from folk literature (i.e. taboos, ghost cries, girl mistakenly elopes with wrong lover) creating a dream within the tightly constructed world. 

Subsequently, this is a book that can easily be read over and over again and even seems to invite just that. There are whole worlds in this work that is part memoir, part literary criticism, part musing on pop-culture, and even part dissection of the music of Aimee Mann. I suspect that each time I reread this book, I will find something new to admire and obsess over. 

In the Dream House became instantly important to me not just because of the innovative way in which it is written, but because it seeks to put in place a framework for a more complete history that previously did not exist. As with her critically acclaimed short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, Machado has again brought attention to an aspect of modern queer life that was once invisible.  For this reason and many more, this book will enthrall its readers throughout its course until the wind carries the story away. 

Book Review

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Publisher: Penguin Classics
Genre: Gothic Drama
Pages: 304
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

Are we all running from our reflections? Must there always be a great price for being extraordinary? Oscar Wilde paints a painfully clear picture of human nature, its propensity towards sin, and its struggle with conscience in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

A young man in late nineteenth-century London endowed with remarkable beauty sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for eternal youth. In a fit of narcissistic despair, he prays that he may forever remain as beautiful as he has ever been. His portrait—painted by a friend who is infatuated with Gray—bears the marks of his moral deterioration while he stays handsome and appears to be not a day over 21.

Quite the scandal in 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray tiptoes around themes of homosexuality and substance abuse, the former being considered an unspeakable sin during that time, even worse than the latter. It was revised and republished in 1891 with a few edges softened to better suit the audience of the time.

Thoughts

It is interesting what Wilde classifies as sin in this Gothic novel. Perhaps in an unconscious effort to concur with the ideals of nineteenth century English society (in spite of his rebellious nature and general disagreement with said ideals), Wilde’s protagonist primes himself for sin by indulging himself in sensual art and music, which are invariably pagan or Eastern. Did Wilde really believe the East and “the Orient” to be godless, or was he merely tired of rebelling and, for once, wanted English society to nod along with him?

Either way, our protagonist (also the antagonist) doesn’t disappoint. Dorian Gray warms up with regular debauchery and, over a course of twenty years, spirals into actual crime. His portrait grows horrific while his person remains aesthetically angelic.

A fascinating read for the most part of it, it is a dramatic novel with only a dash of fantasy but an era-appropriate amount of misogyny. The plot unfurls steadily and tapers towards a gripping climax. The reader is caught among the many facets of the marvelous Dorian Gray, even as they converge and bring him to face the reflection of his soul.

Book Review

“The Purloined Letter” by Edgar Allan Poe
from Edgar Allan Poe: Collected Works,
introduction by A.J. Odasso

Publisher: Canterbury Classics
Genre: Horror Fiction Classics
Publication Date: November 2011
Pages: 724
Format: Leather-Bound Hardcover
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

The third in Poe’s series of detective stories, “The Purloined Letter” follows the work of amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin. The detective is presented with a case that has otherwise stumped the Parisian police, the theft of an incendiary letter. After hearing the story of the theft, and the methods applied to find it, Dupin makes short work of recovering the letter himself.

The actual recovery takes up only a little of the story. What is important is the extraordinary means by which Dupin was able to solve the mystery: the key being the use of a singular kind of logic. Dupin’s success was achieved in immersing himself in the psychosis of the criminal in order to better understand him. By these means he is able to predict his opponent’s actions. So successful is this line of reasoning, that a deep empathy is unveiled between criminal and detective, an empathy which reveals not only the location of a letter, but also exposes the foundations of that which makes up C. Auguste Dupin.

Thoughts

As we move into spooky season, with the cold hands of fall brushing the backs of our necks, our thoughts turn inwards. The time for reflection and consideration has come. We will explore the landscapes of our own inner selves, shedding and releasing those things which no longer serve us in order to make space for new growth. I can think of no better representative of this somewhat macabre period of personal death and rebirth, than master of morbid himself, Edgar Allan Poe. I would like to focus on what I consider to be the perfect opener to the season of self-reflection, Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.”

“The Purloined Letter” presents a compelling case for the duality of the human soul. Empathy of the variety used by Dupin comes from an understanding born of personal experience. The experience, in this case, does not mean that the detective has engaged in illicit activity. Instead, it implies that his psychological make-up is such that he has subversive impulses. By allowing himself to experience the emotional current of another, recognizing and understanding this person completely, Dupin is also recognizing these qualities within himself. Any allegiance to lawful life is therefore a choice, born out of social and moral awareness, rather than inherent feeling. Dupin could as easily be a notorious criminal as he is a celebrated sleuth.

In this story, Poe’s detective is representative of the duality inherent in all people. A polarity which those of great imagination can access and utilize to transform their own perceptions. This theme feels very relevant to fall’s pensive mood. It speaks to the ideas which we might be examining within ourselves. Who have we been in the past, and who will be in the future?

So, curl up under a warm blanket with a mug of your favorite steamy beverage and submerge yourself into the world of Edgar Allan Poe. A world where nothing is as it seems. Stare into the glass of the double-sided mirror of C. Auguste Dupin. Walk hand in hand with Poe down the shadowed and winding road of an existence somewhere between the light and the dark.   

Book Review

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Publisher: Dutton Books, 2019
Genre: YA Fiction
Pages: 286
Format: Paperback
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

Turtles All the Way Down tells the story of Aza “Holmsey” Holmes, a high schooler attempting to solve a mystery while also struggling to co-exist with her mental illness. When fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett goes missing and a hefty reward is offered for information leading to his whereabouts, Aza’s best friend, Daisy, convinces her to investigate. Reuniting with her childhood friend (and Pickett’s son), Davis, in hopes of learning more about the case, Aza soon finds herself enamored with this kindred spirit and a relationship begins to develop.

Amidst the romance and mystery, however, Aza spends a great deal of her time trapped within her own mind. Suffering from severe OCD and anxiety, she lives with a constant fear that she will contract a fatal disease and be overrun by the bacterial colonies breeding beneath her skin. These intrusive thoughts regularly impede her daily life as she grapples with “thought spirals,” in addition to navigating the treacherous waters of friendship, romance, and sleuthing.

Thoughts

Fans of John Green’s other works will feel right at home within the pages of this book, which contains many characters and philosophies that have become classic Green staples. Turtles All the Way Down echoes The Fault in Our Stars in terms of the instant love connection between Davis and Aza, as well as the exploration of the meaning of life through untimely deaths. It is worth mentioning, however, that this is one of Green’s heavier works, as the reader spends the majority of the novel subjected to the intrusive thoughts of the protagonist. Aza spends a large portion of the novel wrestling with irrational fears and trying (and often failing) to fight her compulsions. Despite the discomfort experienced in parts of the novel, this only makes the story being told all the more important, as it provides a glimpse into the often-ignored realities of mental illness. Suffering from OCD himself, Green has remarked that this book is very personal to both himself and his experiences.

One of the most poignant aspects of this novel lies in the way Green alludes to deep, universal themes without explaining them too much. A theme explored both throughout the book and throughout Green’s writing is realizing and accepting that some things aren’t meant to be fully understood. Readers can take as much away from this book as they wish, at both a surface level and with deeper analysis of symbols and motifs.

At its core, Turtles All the Way Down sends a hopeful message, while still managing to stay true to the narrative of mental illness. Despite the sometimes darker aspects of the novel as Aza sometimes fails to grapple with her own mind, she continues to ceaselessly press on and chooses to believe that we have more control over our lives than we might believe. Turtles All the Way Down is the perfect read for those who wonder about our smallness, our vastness, and the integration of our seemingly-irreconcilable selves. The underlying sense of hope serves to soothe anxious minds and remind us that “your now is not your forever.”

Book Review

Relief by Execution by Gint Aras

Publisher: Little Bound Books, 8 October 2019
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 94
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

Beginning with an illustration of the “deep connection to the dead” felt from the European cobblestone streets, Gint Aras begins his story when he is just about to visit the Concentration Camp Memorial nearest to his former Lithuanian home for the first time, announcing his intention to imagine himself not as a victim but as a perpetrator. Switching to past tense, Aras describes formative moments and impressions in his life, from a childhood in the violent West Chicago suburb Cicero in a physically abusive Lithuanian immigrant family to his time in Europe and then back in America.

Aras charts his progression from one who silently accepts and ignores abuse to one who identifies and confronts this behavior, whether it be the Lithuanian complicity in Nazi atrocities towards Jews during WWII to more broad racism, Anti-Semitism, and physical violence. He then ends the memoir back with his visit to Mauthausen in present tense recognizing a “relief by execution” for both prisoner and guard.

Thoughts

The tense and section changes in Aras’ work were somewhat disorienting for me personally, but his easy, conversational style immediately made me feel as involved in his realizations as he was. Though I have not suffered PTSD or uncovered a family and national history of abuse and atrocity, reading Relief by Execution allowed me to experience the emotions and sensations of these moments along with Aras.

In my admittedly brief experience, I too “sense a deep connection to the dead any time I stand on cobblestones in Europe” (1). Aras’ narrative provides a clear individual perspective on how the aftermath of WWII still affects thought patterns today, suggesting that we may not have left those atrocities as far in the past as we may wish to believe.

Since Aras provides such a personal and approachable take on the complicated conceptions of ethnic identity, race, nationality, and abuse, I would recommend Relief by Execution to anyone (high school age or older) who seeks to understand how our individual identities are affected by our cultural and familial baggage.


Thanks to the publicist at The Next Best Book Blog for providing an ARC in
exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Book Review

Check Me Out by Becca Wilhite

Publisher: Shadow Mountain, 2018
Genre: Proper Romance
Pages: 358
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

Greta’s best friend Will promises that he always delivers on her birthday presents, and this year he out-does himself, fulfilling her wish for a perfect boyfriend. While Greta is shelving books at her job as an assistant librarian, Will arranges for her to meet his cousin, Mac, who is single, incredibly attractive, and even seems obviously interested in Greta, based on his adorably poetic texts.

Greta falls for Mac quickly, enjoying the free hot chocolate at the cafe where he works and his clear interest in her, but she can’t help but wonder why he is always so much better at expressing himself in texts. Busy with research and planning various events to save her beloved library from impending foreclosure, Greta has to recognize what she really wants and whether she is willing to go far enough to get it.

Thoughts

Honestly, I was afraid this book was going to be too cliché, but it surprised me in a great way. I ended up reading it all in one sitting, not even just to see how Greta’s relationship would end up, but also because her character arc was so compelling.

In Check Me Out, Becca Wilhite crafts a charming world where Greta takes the reader between the library and the cafe with increasingly more dramatic stakes and powerful recognitions. The romance is not as uncomplicated as it seems from Greta and Mac’s immediate mutual attractions in the first chapter, and Greta’s purposeful choices provide a sense of more weighty thematic elements than just “and they lived happily ever after.”

Greta has poignant interactions with her mother and the library neighbor Mr. Greenwood, and her friend Marigold is simply delightful in her memorable appearances on the page. In the end, the only aspect that felt too cliché was Mac’s relatively flat character, though I fully acknowledge that that was part of the point of his presentation in the novel. Even with that minor wish for more depth, I still really enjoyed this book! You should all go check it out!


I would recommend this book to anyone who likes a good, clean romance, especially all those who can see themselves as readers who are dedicated enough to do anything to save their town’s library.


Book Review

The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl

Translated by Tiina Nunnally

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 296
Format: Paperback
Series: Minnesota Trilogy
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

The first of Sundstøl’s Minnesota Trilogy, The Land of Dreams takes place along Minnesota’s northern shore of Lake Superior. When local policeman and genealogist Lance Hansen encounters a brutal murder of a Norwegian tourist, Georg Loftus, the surrounding towns are equally horrified and in awe—as they believe it to be the first murder ever recorded on the North Shore.

However, as Hansen begins to unearth more about the North Shore’s past, he begins to wonder if it is in fact the first murder. Regardless, he soon discovers an unbreakable tie that links him to Georg Loftus’s murder, leaving Lance to question everything he once knew to be moral—and more importantly, how the ties of loyalty shape his morality.

Thoughts

As luck would have it, I came upon this book while wandering through an old used-bookstore along the North Shore of Minnesota. Having lived in Duluth for almost two years, and in that time explored much of the North Shore, I had the privilege of knowing exactly where Sundstøl set his story—right down to the beloved pizza shop in Grand Marais called “Sven and Ole’s.”

For me, it was so fun and very special to be able to read a book and be able to follow along with the characters so acutely, bringing my own personal experiences with the Shore into the reading.

I thought Sundstøl did an exceptional job of capturing the spirit of small North Shore towns like Grand Marais, Grand Portage, and Tofte. But that is just the beginning of his wonderful work. I thoroughly enjoyed the story Sundstøl wove. Complicated as it was, I never once found myself confused or muddled in the stories or characters. It made to be a riveting read, and I cannot wait to pick up the second book in the trilogy.

Sundstøl lived on the North Shore, so he is very knowledgeable of the area, and, at times, his book can feel a bit academic. His ability to explain the history is incredible and interesting. That being said, there were a few paragraphs I simply scanned because I wanted to move on with the story. Send me off to literary jail!

Nevertheless, the history Sundstøl provides is not only interesting, but very important to the story, and I am so grateful he included it in the work. I only suggest that readers have a bit of patience when it comes to a dense part in the novel, as the outcome is extremely worth it.

Due to some graphic descriptions and delicate subject matter, I would suggest this book be read at a high school level or above.

If you’re looking for a great mystery that will also teach you more about one of America’s most beautiful regions, I cannot recommend Vidar Sundstøl’s The Land of Dreams highly enough.

Book Review

Destroy All Monsters by Sam J. Miller

Publisher: Harper Tee
Genre: Young Adult
Pages: 394
Format: Hardcover
My Rating: 5/5

Summary

Destroy All Monsters, by Sam J. Miller, is a book with its feet in two worlds. In one world, Ash is as normal as any other teenager fighting to protect her homeless best friend, Solomon, who is on the verge of being swallowed up by the system. In the other world, Solomon rides on an allosaurus and believes Ash to be a princess in hiding with dormant magical powers that can save the world. While their perception of reality is vastly different, there is something that their worlds have in common—they are plagued by a secretive group spreading hate and divisive attitudes through vandalism, targeting those who are already marginalized. All the while, the story is driven by a mystery—what happened between Solomon and Ash when they were twelve that put them on their present course?

Thoughts

This book is incredibly imaginative and ambitious in its form. It is told from both Ash and Solomon’s perspective, though each of them view the world very differently. Subsequently, scenes are revisited and replayed, however, the result is anything but repetitive. Reading this book is like listening to a concept album that continuously finds ways to integrate a thematic melody in fresh and exciting ways! It has a memory of its own, and it comes alive to create a nearly interactive experience for the reader. 

While I would not describe reading this book as anything less than fun, it also finds a way to deal with some pretty heavy issues. Chief among them is the way that it addresses the relationship between trauma and mental health, and the way that it explores the spectrum of homelessness in a way that goes beyond static perceptions of the community. Most importantly, at least in my opinion, it also lays out a blueprint for unifying communities against the divisive rhetoric  that has become so prevalent as of late.  

Destroy All Monsters is a book of immense power and imagination. In its pages there is an adventure to be seized, mysteries to be solved, and worlds to immerse yourself in; but, there is also an examination of community and our responsibility to take care of one another. For these reasons, I cannot recommend this book enough.