Friday, March 31, 2017

The Last One by Alexandra Oliva

It's not real. That is what the protagonist in Alexandra Oliva's The Last One keeps telling herself. She's only been participating in this extreme Survivor-style reality show for a few days (weeks?) and every obstacle she faces, she tells herself it isn't real. What she doesn't understand is that a few days into the competition, a pandemic has swept the nation. The producers told her that part of the challenge will be spending extended periods of time all alone. She is sure that hidden cameras are following her every move. She's sure that the desolate towns she finds have been meticulously set up by tireless production assistants. She doesn't know that most of them are dead.

Told in alternating chapters and points of view, we see the beginning of the reality show production, told in third-person omniscient so that the reader has a clear view of how it all began. These chapters then trade off with first-person narrative chapters of our main character, of whose name we're never really sure, struggling through what she thinks is still part of a great big game. Part of the fun is in knowing what our heroine does not. In the third-person chapters, the reader gets a "grown-up Hunger Games" feel for the story. This is especially strong when we read about the editors "creating" characters and removing any shots that may disrupt the story about each contestant that they are trying to tell.

This book was intense and so much fun to read! I got a little frustrated wondering how long it would take her to figure out what was happening, but that was part of the suspense. The only thing that I really found irritating was that there were two sets of names- one set that the producers used to refer to the competitors (Zoo, Tracker, Waitress, etc.) and another that our main character uses when she thinks of the people she met on the show. With the alternating chapters, it made things even more confusing, though that could have been the intent as well. This book was hard to put down and I really liked it. This would make a great summer vacation read- be sure to add it to your list!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

My Name's Lyman by Lily-Marie Taylor

Have you ever wondered how your life might have turned out differently? In My Name's Lyman by Lily-Marie Taylor we get to see all the different paths one man's life could have taken. Was he a war hero or a casualty of war? Is he homeless or famous? Each chapter is a different version of Lyman's life and we get to see how one decision can make all the difference in one's fate.

For most of this book, I was intrigued. I was so curious to see what would cause the next twist in his life line. None of his lives were perfect, which I thought made for good writing. No matter the different directions his life takes, he is still subject to the decisions of the people around him. Then, the last two chapters were just too sad, too disappointing. I have said before that I don't need "happily ever after", but to end on such sour notes just about ruined the book for me. It was interesting. You may like it, or even love it. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Passenger by Lisa Lutz

The woman that we meet at the beginning of The Passenger by Lisa Lutz is not Tanya. Nor is she Amelia or Debra or Emma or an of the other people she tells us she is. But she is interesting. She greets us with this introduction:

In case you were wondering, I didn't do it. I didn't have anything to do with Frank's death. I don't have an alibi, so you'll have to take my word for it.

Our protagonist is on the run, but unfortunately for her, she's not very good at it. She picks up names, identities, in a haphazard, desperate manner that often leaves her holding an empty bag. Along the way, she meets some curious characters, including Blue, another woman on the run that the reader isn't sure she, or our protagonist, should trust. It isn't until the very end that we learn why she's really been running for the last ten years, though it's referenced many times.

Lutz does an excellent job of hiding the twists and turns in this story and keeping it very exciting. Disappointingly, I think the biggest twist that Lutz intended was visible from miles away. Still, it was a fast, fun ride through a mystery that is exciting and well told. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman

I know! Never judge a book by its cover, but would you look at that cover?! It's beautiful and I love it. And do you want to know what else I love? The book this cover covers. The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman is the story of Lili, a mother of two adorable little girls; a sister; a textbook illustrator; and a woman nearly four years into widowhood. It's been a very difficult few years for Lili and while her sister and even her in-laws have encouraged her to move on, she just doesn't feel ready.

When he died in a car accident, fifty feet from our front door, I seriously considered dying, too. Not because my heart was broken, though that was true, but because my mind was completely boggled by the logistical challenges of living without him.

When Lili's boss requires her to take a gardening class to prepare her for her new illustrating assignment, Lili takes along her sister Rachel, as well as her two daughters. The eclectic group they meet in class quickly becomes a tight-knit bunch of friends. One of my favorite things about this book is that Lili's sister Rachel, while divorced and somewhat carefree, doesn't conform to the typical crazy- unreliable-sister-of-the-stable-main-character pigeon hole. Rachel is extremely supportive and helpful, proving it is possible for a character to be single and also an asset to a family unit. I also really liked the development of each of the members of the gardening class. Waxman seems to enjoy throwing off stereotypes and I loved that about this book.

This was a book about learning to grow vegetables, but also about learning to grow. It was so sad in some parts:

...every morning I woke up alone was a vicious punch in the throat.

It was also funny and touching. Sure, this book likely would qualify as chick-lit, but it is on the better end of that genre. If you're looking for a fun spring or summer read, this would fit that bill. 

P.S.: I knew I was going to like Abbi Waxman as soon as I read this in her acknowledgements section:

If there's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women, then I hope there's a corollary spot in heaven for women who do. Or free parking. Something.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

I love Jenny Lawson. Her first book, Let's Pretend This Never Happened, made me laugh so hard I was sore. Her second book, Furiously Happy, did not have any trouble living up to its predecessor. Jenny makes no secret of the fact that she struggles with mental illness.

I am a high-functioning depressive with severe anxiety disorder, moderate clinical depression, and mild self-harm issues that stem from an impulse-control disorder.

Jenny is far from normal, by her own admission. She is also far from boring. She is hilarious and smart and not afraid to be who she is.

If you don't like the book then maybe you're just not crazy enough to enjoy it. Either way, you win.

In her first book, Jenny mostly tells funny stories. In her second book, she still shares plenty of funny anecdotes, but she also shares a lot more of her experience with mental illness. Is some of that bit still funny? Of course it is, because Jenny intends to see the humor in it as much as she can. She also takes it very seriously in an effort to hopefully help her readers understand their own struggles. 

The title of the book comes from Jenny's decision to fight her mental illness as best she can, to be furiously happy as much as she can be.

I am furiously happy. It is not a cure for mental's a weapon, designed to counter it. It's a way to take back some of the joy that's robbed from you when you're happy.

Jenny explains her struggles with mental illness in a way that I've never heard before and that really helps the reader understand her. I think a lot of what she says can be helpful to many of her readers that see themselves in her. 

Imagine having a disease so overwhelming that your mind causes you to want to murder yourself.

I remind myself that depression lies and that I can't trust my own critical judgement when I'm sick.

Sure, there were bits that I wish had been edited more. Sometimes it seems like Jenny goes a little overboard trying to be funny and it doesn't always work, but overall, I really love her. I highly recommend her books and also the audio versions of her books. She reads them herself and I think that really enhances the experience. Be aware that Jenny does not hold back on foul language. She's rather generous with it. 

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

You know those books that you pick up and immediately fall in love with the characters? They're funny and wonderful and sometimes a little crazy and you just want to move to their lovely little town and become best friends with all of them. I love books like that. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson IS NOT THAT BOOK! (Whoa! All caps and bold- can you tell I feel strongly?) I am sure that Johnson will not disagree with me that the characters in her book are flawed, except for me, they are just too flawed- they're awful.

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth refers to high school. If you survived high school, you know that it can be difficult with the social expectations and the labels that can follow students for years. Teenagers can be terrible to one another and trying to remember that high school isn't the whole world can feel impossible. Sure high school can be hard, but in Johnson's book it really is dangerous. One student is bullied, literally, to death. Another steals in order to cheat on the SAT. One student is so afraid of what people think of her that she allows a party to destroy her house. Another student is sleeping with a teacher. The reader is given brief glances into the  minds of each student where we are allowed to see what motivates them. Sure, they aren't purely evil, but it isn't enough to make me sympathize with them.

My sister says that my problem is that I don't like dark books or anything that doesn't end, "...and they all lived happily ever after." I do like happy books, but I don't have to have the fairy tale ending, I just don't care for books that make me lose all hope in humanity. Seriously, if these kids are any indication of reality we truly are doomed. I have listed this as YA Fiction, but be warned that there are copious amounts of swearing, drug and alcohol use, and sexual references.
Maybe this book is for you, but is certainly was not for me.