American Gods by Neil Gaiman

 American Gods by Neil Gaiman is a twisted fantasy tale of gods come to life in modern-day America. There is a battle soon to rage between the ancient gods and the gods of today. The historic gods of European tales were brought to North America and other countries around the world in the minds of the people who believed in them. They grew stronger in those new places every time someone talked about them or thought of them. The old gods are coming up against a struggle now. The new gods (gods of media, television, Internet, etc) feel like the old gods have reached their limit. The old gods feel like they’re being usurped by gods that will vanish from the public’s minds in a few years, an idea that infuriates them. Spiritual warfare runs rampant through this book as readers discover that gods walk among us, hidden as humans or animals. These ancient divinities may struggle against the new trends and fads, but their struggle for survival is necessary in this new supernatural climate.

Thrown into this conflict, our antihero rises. He is a convict named Shadow, a man who has feelings that the world is going change drastically. Through Shadow, readers witness the behind-the-scenes relationship between the gods and humans. Humans and their faith play a very large part in this book with Shadow and the gods constantly struggling in this massive religious upheaval. Shadow soon finds himself thrust into the middle of this skirmish between the ancients: Odin, Anansi, Those, Loki One-Eye, etc, and the contemporary deities: geek-boy god Internet, the goddess Media, etc. It’s a fascinating journey as Shadow takes a job as a kind of bodyguard for Mr. Wednesday, a human representation of the Norse god Grimnir, as they travel across the country trying to recruit more gods to actively fight on their side. The magical and the mundane are, for the most part, evenly balanced throughout this book, a fact that I greatly appreciated since it helped me better understand what was happening.

I listened to this book through OverDrive and greatly enjoyed it because the author actually read the prologue! Getting to hear authors speak is one of my favorite things because you really get to hear their viewpoint and how their cadence influences the writing of the book. His discussion of the creation of this book was also invaluable knowledge. I greatly enjoyed this book.


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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

 The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is a massive undertaking of a book. (The audiobook was over 30 hours long!) Despite its length, this book is masterfully crafted and deals with a wide variety of topics from drug use to terrorism to museums to alcoholism to loss to survival. So many different themes that some reviewers have called this book an odyssey. I would have to agree with them. I definitely felt like I was being given the complete tour of the main character’s life, as well as everyone that he came in contact with.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt tells the story of the life of Theodore Decker. This book follows Theo’s life starting as a young boy in New York City to his current situation as a man in his twenties who has wound up back in New York. As a young boy, Theo lives with his mother after his father abandoned them. Out one day with his mother, Theo miraculously survives a horrendous attack that kills his mother and many other people. Traumatized, alone, and unsure of his future, Theo finds himself ensconced in the home of a wealthy friend. When his father unexpectedly pops back into his life, Theo finds himself ripped from his only place of security into a whirlwind of confusion. He bounces around the country meeting new people, but is always drawn back to New York, the girl he met the day of the attack, and the artifact he found. This artifact, a painting, leads Theo down an unexpected road into the art underworld. Theo’s life journey, accompanied by this small, mysterious painting, is perilous: full of loss, mania, fixations, power struggles, new identities, and the looming, heady sensation of anguish and grief.

This book is such a rich expanse of wonder that, once you are finished, you will be left gaping at everything that the author was able to pack in. It’s not shocking that this book won the Pulitzer Prize. Tartt has created a masterwork that takes readers through present-day America as Theo struggles to find himself amidst unbelievable loss and tragedy. Tartt pays such close attention to Theo’s feelings that readers are acutely aware of everything that is happening around him and how the tragedy he has suffered has deeply changed him. This is a story of massive loss and overwhelming survival, of obsession and the need to become a new person. Highly recommended.


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The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty is a diving read into the secrets that we all have within ourselves and between our families and friends. Cecelia Fitzpatrick stumbles upon a letter written by her husband that is only to be opened after his death. Concerned about what the letter is about, Cecelia wrestles with whether to open it or not, coming to the decision that her husband, whom she has been married to for 15 years and has three daughters with, must have just forgotten to give it to her. His reaction to her admittance that she found the letter makes Cecelia doubt her decision and causes a great chasm to open up between her and her husband, as well as between her and the people she comes into contact with on a daily basis.

Tess O’Leary lives with her husband and young son. Tess started a business out of her home with her husband and her best friend as her business partners. Everything is going along perfectly until her husband and her best friend sit her down to tell her they’ve fallen in love. Shattered, Tess packs up her son and heads to her childhood home, which just so happens to be the same town that Cecelia lives in. Tess must deal with her feelings towards her husband and best friend, her entertaining relationship with her mother, her son’s confusion, and her lingering feelings about returning to her childhood home and the people she grew up with.

Rachel Crowley works at the local school as a secretary. She comes into contact with the parents, children, and teachers on a daily basis, something that drives her crazy because she believes that one of the teachers at the school killed her daughter twenty years ago. With her daughter and now her husband dead, Rachel looks forwards to the days that her toddler grandson comes over to visit. That joy is soon snatched from her when her son and his wife announce that they are moving to New York. Her grandson will be gone too. Rachel doesn’t know what to do.

The letter that Cecelia finds has the power to destroy so many lives, but also the ability to answer so many questions. Secrets run amok in this book and the characters involved struggle with their inner demons on a daily basis. Seeing the interplay between people and how each secret connected really hooked me into the book and had me wanting more.

I have listened to and read almost all of Liane Moriarty’s books, leaving me with a little disappointed that I don’t have very many left! She is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. This is due to the fact that her stories are so relatable. The narrator(I’ve listened to all of her books through OverDrive) has a fantastic accent and has a really animated delivery as well. This book is wonderfully crafted and I greatly enjoyed it.


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Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

I don’t read as many print books as I used to. Life got in the way and I found myself gravitating more toward audiobooks since I could multitask and listen to books that way. Every now and then though, I find myself faced with a quandary: I want to read a book that the library only has in print and that isn’t available as an audiobook in OverDrive. If that happens, I have to find the time to sit still and read. My latest print book read was Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon and I’m glad I forced myself to take the time to sit and enjoy it.

Everything, Everything, I’m sure most of you know, is now a major motion picture, but that isn’t how I came to know this book. I had read Yoon’s other book, The Sun is Also a Star, and loved it. It’s an angsty teen love story that deals with deportation and a lot of other really relevant teen and adult topics. That book has also won a lot of awards. After I finished The Sun is Also a Star, I decided to give Everything, Everything a try to see if it was worth all the hype the movie was bringing to it. I’m still up in the air about it, even though this book is written beautifully with diverse characters present throughout.

Everything, Everything tells the story of a terminally ill teenage girl who falls in love with a perfectly normal teenage boy. (If you boil down all the plot elements, that’s basically it, BUT don’t do that. It’s so much more, like HUGE plot twists that even I didn’t see coming.) Family dramas abound, both inside the bubble and out, first love feels galore, and traditional teen mixed up feelings are all over this book. Add in a messed-up medical condition, a parent who is a doctor, and the deaths of family members and this book will drag you on a roller coaster of feelings from the first page to the very last.

Madeline is an Afro-Asian teenage girl who cannot remember the last time she has been outside of her house. She has a very good reason. Madeline Whittier is allergic to the outside world. She can’t go outside, breathe fresh air, feel the sun, nothing. If she did, she could die. Maddy hasn’t left her house in seventeen years and only has contact with her mom and her nurse, Carla, on a daily basis. Her compromised immune system has left her isolated. Maddy is stuck in her air-locked house and has come to terms with it. Until the day a moving truck pulls up next door.

Drawn to the window out of pure curiosity, Maddy watches a family clamor out of the moving truck and take in their new surroundings. Maddy finds herself staring at the teenage boy who is lanky and dressed in black from head to toe. He catches her staring and they lock eyes. That’s the first time Maddy sees Olly and her life is changed forever.

Maddy quickly wants to know more about Olly and his family. From watching them, she discovers some normal, as well as some troubling, things. Maddy and Olly quickly start ‘talking’. They window communicate, IM, email, and all this leaves Maddy wanting more and more. Olly does too. What is she willing to risk for friendship and love? Will Olly accept her? What will her mom think? What will her mom do?

This book is a fantastic read. Going beyond the traditional angst of only being separated from your crush by your parents, Maddy’s disease is the one separating them. It’s a fascinating read that delved into some pretty deep topics.

You could definitely finish this book in a day. The chapters are short, but very engaging. The only reason it took me over a week to read was because I started it in the midst of a multi-day road trip. If you have time and can, more importantly, get your hands on a copy, I recommend you give this book a read. Now I’m off to watch the movie and see how close they followed the book! I hope they followed it pretty closely…


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Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

I just finished listening to John Darnielle read his book, Universal Harvester, on CD. I am left asking myself, “What just happened?” I liked it. I think I would like to re-read it, this time in print.

The book is about a young man named Jeremy Heldt who works at Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa in the mid-nineties. He is a down-to-earth guy, having lost his mother to a car accident six years prior. As a relatively responsible twentysomething adult, he isn’t sure what to do when he discovers that some videos have been returned with strange footage spliced into them. It is unclear to him whether the scenes are a goof, or if someone is getting hurt and sending out a cry for help. Also, his boss at the video store may or may not have become personally entangled in whatever it is.

I was first drawn to listen to this book because I read in a Booklist review that it is set in small-town Iowa. Not knowing anything about author John Darnielle, I thought, “I want to find out how he portrays an Iowan. I want to hear if he’s going to butcher the way we talk.”  I was admittedly skeptical that I wouldn’t find his portrayal of an Iowan to be silly, maybe a little bit insulting. Often it seems to me that nonnatives perceive us all to be rubes. Sometimes actors portray our manner of speaking in a way that more resembles a southern drawl than the intonation of an actual Iowan. I was pleased to find Darnielle’s main character sounding like some Iowans I know, albeit the ones who have also spent time living out west. This made more sense to me once I looked up a little more about Darnielle online and learned that he grew up in southern California and lived in Portland, Oregon briefly after high school. He did live in some of the Iowa towns where the events in Universal Harvester take place, though it is unclear when and how long.

My opinions of the writer/reader’s dialect aside, this book is a hard one to categorize. Some libraries in our system have classified it as fiction; others put it in the horror section. I am not usually a reader of horror books, and when I realized it was considered that, I thought “Uh oh. What am I getting myself into?” As I got further into the book, I kept bracing myself for something gory or horrifically disturbing. When I think horror, I think gore. However, there isn’t anything terribly gory in this book.

It turns out I was just as mistaken as the folks who think Iowans speak with a drawl. I came across this great article from The Horror Writers Association and learned that horror can take as many forms as the people who read it. After all, not everyone is horrified by the same things. I happen to find gore horrifying, some people are just as horrified by the unknown. Death is perhaps the biggest of the unknowns, but there are also a myriad of other unknowns throughout life.

There are many unknowns in Universal Harvester. If you like a plot that gets neatly tied up at the end, this book is not for you. However, if you appreciate great writing and a story well-told that makes you think and ask questions, then you should check this book out. It would be a great book club selection, because there is plenty here to explore and discuss. (In fact, if you know me, please read this book so we can talk about the details together! I’m still not sure what just happened.)

Next, I am going to check out some Mountain Goats CDs. The author of this book is in a band called the Mountain Goats, and he has been hailed as one of the best living lyricists. Judging by his novel writing ability, I’d say that’s likely a fair assessment. Happy reading and/or listening!

Question for You : Do You Still Use Traditional Travel Guides?

In this day and age, with technology so ubiquitous and most of us carrying a tiny super computer around in our pocket, is there still the need for paper editions of travel guides? Do you still check out the latest edition of Fodor’s or Rick Steve’s guide books for recommendations on hotels or tips for avoiding long lines?

There’s no doubt that technology has changed the way we gather information, including planning for a trip. GPS guides us, GoogleMaps shows us locations and nearbys, blogs and Instagram are full of inspiration and tips and pretty pictures, every tourist board and Chamber of Commerce has a website promoting their location and there are multiple apps for nearly every city, museum or activity. Why would you still need a more traditional paper guide?

Technology offers a lot of pros. It has the ability to update information quickly and frequently (although, just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s accurate – it pays to do your research!) I find Instagram a great source of reality by following people who live in the city/locations I’m interested in (Paris, London and Amsterdam are my current favorites) Unlike tourist boards who show only perfect pictures of amazing scenes, the people I follow show the less-than-perfect (although, who are we kidding, those cities are still pretty awesome!) – bad weather days, off-the-beaten-track sights, ordinary people, quiet details. They’ll often post about coffee shops or cafes that aren’t in the guidebooks, or tiny shops worth searching for, or street art and local events. I find a lot of creative photography inspiration in these posts and they help give me ideas on what to look for when visiting.

That said, I still like to carry a paper map, partly because I love just looking at them and studying them and partly because they give you an overview of the area – it helps me to get a grasp of the unique geography of where I’m at. And I still look at paper travel guides (my favorite are Rick Steves; they have never steered me wrong) – I do a lot of flipping back and forth through the book as I compare areas of the city/country and what’s available from eating to sleeping to transportation. Rick Steves (and most of the other travel guide companies) also has an active online presence; I take advantage of both. I think, for me, the question can be answered the same as it can be for ebooks vs paper – there’s room for both.

Now, what about you – do you still use paper travel guides? Or have you gone completely online?

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

 At the Water’s Edge is a glorious novel written by Sara Gruen, the author of Water for Elephants. Written in the same rich, historical style, At the Water’s Edge follows the life of Maddie and Ellis Hyde, as well as their friend Hank. Maddie, Ellis, and Hank have always been friends. They’re wealthy, beautiful, and carefree. Well, until all three go and muck their lives up royally of course. At a major high society event in Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Maddie, Ellis, and Hank get together and have a rolling good time. Maddie thinks nothing happened out of sorts until the following morning when countless people call her mother-in-law’s house where she and Ellis are staying to tell her about the major embarrassment that Maddie, Ellis, and Hank caused. Devastating repercussions follow and Maddie and Ellis soon find themselves cut-off financially with no clue what to do. Enter in Hank with a master plan!

Hank proposes they head to Scotland in the middle of the war to look for the Loch Ness monster. This trip had always been thrown around as a somewhat joke given Ellis’ father’s infamous dealings with the monster, but given the fact that Maddie and Ellis have no money, it is their only option. Finding that monster will get all three back to the lifestyle that they are so accustomed to, as well as clear Ellis’ father’s name. Plus Hank is massively wealthy, so he’s going to bankroll it! Even better. Once decided, all three head off to Scotland in the middle of the war. Seemingly oblivious to the war and how it is affecting the city and the people they deal with every day, Hank and Ellis hunt the monster, leaving Maddie behind most everyday at their hotel to deal with everything. Left alone, Maddie is forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about herself, her companions, and her way of life. Add in the fact that both Ellis and Hank both seem to be able-bodied men who are avoiding the war to hunt for a fictitious monster and this book is rife with conflict.

What I most enjoyed about this book was that readers can clearly see Maddie’s character develop into something more well-rounded as the book progresses. As soon as she leaves Philadelphia, she seems to awaken out of her privileged state where everything is glossy and perfect to see all the harsh realities that surround her. Maddie also starts connecting to more meaningful things, be they people, nature, or life in general, than she had previously in Philadelphia. Maddie’s metamorphosis hooked me into the book and kept me reading.

I listened to this book through OverDrive and greatly enjoyed it. The narrator did a fantastic job of giving each character their own separate voice. Given that the majority of this book takes place in a foreign country and also during war time, she was also able to give the necessary characters a very believable foreign accent.


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22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

I have been reading a lot of World War II fiction recently, purely by chance. 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson fit so neatly into the timeline of a previous WWII book that I had read that I noticed myself mixing storylines. Once I realized, I paid more attention and started taking notes (Taking notes is more than okay to do! Even when you’re not in school.) This novel was enjoyable and I found myself connecting to most of the characters.

22 Britannia Road tells the story of a family’s rediscovery of each other after World War II. Silvana and Janusz were married right around the beginning of the war. Their marriage began sweet and full of promise with each other’s past left fully in the past. Silvana’s family was less than caring about her, while Janusz is very close to his. Silvana and Janusz settle in Warsaw where they work at keeping their marriage together. Janusz leaves Silvana and their young son to join the military. Years pass, both during the war and after the war, with Silvana and Janusz doing whatever they have to in order to survive.

Once reunited the family moves to England where they struggle to put the past behind them. Both Sylvana and Janusz have secrets though, plus the area where they are living brings its own issues to the surface. Janusz has very much adapted to the English way of life, while Sylvana and their son still mostly speak Polish and have troubles adapting to their new normal life. Settling into their new house, Sylvana and Janusz begin a tentative new life, rediscovering each other and their new home after the ravages of war. Each of them carry secrets that even before they are voiced begin to eat away at Silvana and Janusz inside. What did Janusz do those six years that he was gone? Where did Sylvana and their child end up? How did they survive?

This novel juxtaposes both the present day and the past to show what happened to Silvana, Janusz, and their son during the time when they all were separated from each other. I greatly enjoyed the flashbacks because it helped me to justify and see some of the reasons that each family member behaves the way that they do. This psychological fiction really had me thinking about the secrets we keep from the people we love and the secrets that we’ve become so accustomed to that they eventually feel like our normal life.


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Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff has a gorgeous cover. I have been wanting to read this book since it came out because I wanted to figure out if the blue on the cover was supposed to be waves or feathers. (It’s waves, guys!) I listened to this book through OverDrive and was very glad that I did. Fates and Furies is told from the point of view of two separate people and the audiobook has two separate people doing the narration! That allowed me to fully invest in each character’s life and imagine them more vividly. On to the explanation!

Fates and Furies is all about relationships and stories. Lauren Groff has woven a masterful novel about relationship dynamics and the representation of both sides of a story. Each story always has two sides, while each relationship always has two perspectives. The outside world only sees the relationship as one flat surface, while each person in the relationship is really only fully aware of their side of the relationship. It’s rare for people outside a relationship or even for people within the relationship to fully know the complete truth of what is happening in the relationship. Unless a letter is left after one person dies or one person in the relationship writes a memoir, little will be known. (And yes, I know there are those who swear that they don’t keep anything from their partners. Really? You tell them everything? Hmm.. This book examines the truth behind that principle perfectly.)

Fate and Furies tells the story of a marriage over twenty-four years. Lotto and Mathilde fell madly in love at the tender age of 22. At the very end of their senior year of college, Lotto spots Mathilde at a party, pushes through the crowd, falls to his knees and proposes marriage. She says yes on the spot. Two short weeks later, they’re married. Lotto and Mathilde are both glamorous and gorgeous people and separately are the envy of their friends. Put them together and their relationship is unstoppable. Lotto and Mathilde are destined for greatness. Years later, their friends are still in awe of their marriage, but through this book and the side conversations presented, we realize that their relationship has developed some intricate complexities that has twisted them. Lotto and Mathilde have grown over the years and their relationship has matured to encompass a number of layers that have mixed, mashed, and changed the foundation of their marriage and who they are as separate people.

This novel is told from the point of view of multiple people and flashes back to the past. These different viewpoints and histories allow readers to form a better understanding of Lotto and Mathilde as separate people and also as a whole. I enjoyed seeing Lotto and Mathilde’s dynamic change over the years. The examination of how both inside and outside factors can change a relationship was really insightful. The little and big truths and lies a person has can either make or break a relationship. Our past selves also influence how we present our current selves and then our future selves as well. Highly recommended.


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Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain had been sitting in my wish list in RiverShare OverDrive for a few months before I decided to give it a listen. The plot grabbed my interest, but every time I scrolled through my list to find a new book, I never picked it because the cover wasn’t appealing. Well, I finally decided to read it when I discovered that our Info Café Blog’s Online Reading Challenge had Kenya listed as the country for May. Circling the Sun takes place in Kenya! It was a win-win. Now that I’ve finished it though, I wish I had started reading this book a lot sooner.

Circling the Sun tells the story of Beryl Markham, a real-life record-setting aviator who lived a life of adventure full of strife and unconventional desires. She was born in England and then brought to Kenya by her parents because her father wanted to farm, despite the fact that he had no experience doing so. Her mother left her and her father in Kenya when Beryl was very young to move back to England. As a result, Beryl was raised in a very unconventional way by her father and the native Kipsigis tribe who worked on her father’s estate and lived close by. Growing up without what the English considered to be a ‘traditional’ female role model, Beryl because a bold young woman who was not afraid to share her opinions, to try new things, and who understood the balance of nature, something that her father passed down to her.

Once Beryl reached a certain age, her father decided that she needed to have a more traditional life and thus threw the cozy life Beryl is familiar with into utter chaos. Her relationships began to dissolve and she was left floundering and confused about what exactly she was supposed to do with her life. Taking the skills she learned from her father as a horse trainer, she decided to become the first woman horse trainer in Kenya, which of course proved to be a very tricky process. Her decision to become a horse trainer led her more deeply into the European Expat community in Africa where she met and became entangled in a messy love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixon, who was the author of the classic memoir Out of Africa. Their tangled relationship and Beryl’s continuous desire to try more, to do more, and to be able to fend for herself leads her to journey all over the world and to meet many remarkable people.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this book, but I did find myself confused sometimes about who different characters were referring to. I know this was probably because I listened to the book and missed seeing the names in print, but I still was able to figure it out at the end. I also highly encourage you to listen to/read the epilogue where the author gives readers a glimpse into the real life of Beryl Markham and what happened to her, her friends, and family after the book ended.

The author also mentioned the book West with the Night that Beryl Markham actually wrote! She praised it highly and Ernest Hemingway even reviewed it with his quote directly on the cover. This book is on my to-be-read list and I can’t wait to read more about Beryl’s life from her own point of view.


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