A Heart Full Of Love

Living on an island is sort of like living in the Midwest, right? One experiences the same feelings of isolation and note the distinct lack of cosmopolitanism… at least I did, especially in middle school. Though, admittedly, I didn’t quite know what I was missing until I left for boarding school and realized how big the world really was. Might I add: my boarding school was next to The-Middle-Of-Nowhere, Virginia, and I thought THAT was the big, wide world! Had I gone to New York City, I most certainly would have come down with a case of the vapors.

better nate than ever tim federle

 

So I commend our little Nate Foster for not fainting as he stepped off that Greyhound bus, having the wherewithal to navigate the city, and the balls guts to crash an audition. Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle is the first (I think) middle-grade book I’ve reviewed for this blog, and if any others are as enjoyable as this (Five, Six, Seven, Nate!) I may find myself branching out to a new audience.

Having met Tim on his Tequila Mockingbird book tour – a book for a very different audience! – middle-grade readers had never crossed my mind, because I’m always overwrought with YA. Maybe it was the boozy (delicious) literary libations that weakened my predisposition, or perhaps Tim’s charm, but I very soon found myself with a copy of his wonderful book. Now… that was over a year ago… but that’s also why I chose it as one of my Must Read books of this year, and devoured it this weekend.

For those seeking an elevator speech for Better Nate Than Ever: it’s about a young boy from a small town in Pennsylvania who is bursting with joie de vivre, and hatches a grand plan with his best friend to somehow make it to New York City and audition for E.T. – The Musical.

For those seeking a bit more: my heart aches with love for this book. Sort of like when your cat does something remarkably sweet like (not puke on the floor) tilt their head and nuzzle your leg… and your heart grows three-sizes bigger, Grinch-style, and you break the wire-meter-x-ray-screen-thing. Not only does Tim capture the energy and essence of what it’s like to be thirteen, his humor and style capture ,and keep me in, the world of Nate Foster’s NYC, but he also ensnares the heart… An untainted, honest, hope-filled love.

“There is such a rush into Port Authority, exiting the bus and then mazing through a series of escalators, that all I have to do is lean just slightly back and the crowd literally surges me along.”  … “Exactly. Good luck kid,” and he leans back and gets swept up in the surge, his head bopping along…”

THAT is New York. I’ve felt the exact same way each time I visit the city, even now in my 20’s. Can’t you just picture it happening? Or what about…

“I’m mumbling through a mouthful of horrible rye toast, toast that tastes like it was baked three years ago and set out in the sun.”

I’m dying. This is why I hate rye bread.

“Sometimes there is no greater act of adulthood than swearing in front of your own mother.”

And how true is that??

Though I’m quite a number of years beyond this book’s intended audience, Tim has so aptly included little nuggets that appeal to older readers. It is so clear to see why Better Nate Than Ever is a book that teachers and librarians are raving about. This is a book that teaches so much. It kills me to hear that some of Tim’s appearances promoting this treasure have been cancelled, especially in his own hometown. (You deserve better!) We need diverse books. It’s 2014, people – time to update your profiles and realize the world is changing, so why don’t you lean back, just slightly, and ride along. Pick up Better Nate Than Ever, you’ll fall in love, and that’s exactly what this world needs.

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The Luminaries

“Never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is to understand a situation from another person’s point of view.”

A review by Miriam Huxley

Luminaries

I want to start out by saying that I really wanted to love this book.  But…I’ll preface that set of ellipses by saying that Catton’s novel is an achievement regardless of my overall conclusions.  Her dedication to her content and the quality of her research is immediately apparent.  There wasn’t a single moment when I felt anything was anachronistic to the time period or setting.  The integration of historical details was spot-on: never did it feel like information was being given simply for the sake of reminding the reader that this was a historical piece.

That being said, the novel was a tough read.  Granted, an 832-page novel is going to fluctuate in pace, but like the book itself, the prose started to feel both heavy and cumbersome.  By about page 700, the main mysteries had been solved and yet 132 pages remained.  I remember getting to that point and thinking “What next?”  Unfortunately, those 132 pages did a disservice to the (sometimes brilliant) prose in the first 700 pages.  I found myself reading right to the end simply because I wanted to say that I’d finished the book.  Within these pages, Catton goes into greater detail about the past experiences of the central characters, and though the content is interesting, it just didn’t contribute to the plot.  It was as if Catton felt the need to over-explain to a reader who couldn’t quite figure things out.  I’m not sure if the inclusion of these “summaries” was a decision made in an effort to follow the style Catton was attempting to replicate, or if Catton lacked confidence in her reader.  Either way, the over-explaining didn’t add anything critical.  The novel could have ended 700 pages in and I would have been satisfied.

Another major issue with The Luminaries is something I’d also like to briefly applaud.  Catton creates an absolutely massive cast of characters.  She includes a “Character Chart” at the very beginning of the novel which was helpful because it was often difficult to keep track of each character and what role they played.  Similarly, some of the male characters were indistinguishable in passages of dialogue.  That being said, Anna Wetherall, Emery Staines, Lydia Wells, Francis Carver, and Crosbie Wells were compelling characters.  Their stories formed the crux of the plot.  However, much of the novel was told from perspectives other than these aforementioned characters.  The novel begins with a long-winded section from Walter Moody—a compelling character himself who unfortunately doesn’t play much of a role later on in the book.  Other characters including Te Rau Tauwhare, Alistair Lauderback, Quee Long, and George Shephard have plotlines intertwined with the central characters, but their purpose gets slightly muddled as the novel progresses.  I think this novel would have been successful with a cast of characters half as long.

Other elements at work in The Luminaries are the zodiac signs and star charts throughout the novel.  Each character is assigned a sign and that sign is used to ascribe character traits.  The zodiac signs are also used to link characters and their plot lines.  But…it didn’t work for me.  I don’t have any particular knowledge of how zodiac signs or star charts work (and I don’t know that the average reader does either), but it didn’t add to the plot.  The star charts themselves were visually appealing, but I began to skip them as I progressed through the novel.

While The Luminaries begins as a murder mystery, it ultimately becomes a love story.  The last portion of the novel explains the love between Anna Wetherall and Emery Staines, both of whom are new in Hokitika and new to their respective trades (whoring and mining).  But I didn’t find their love story particularly compelling.  As the story unfolds, we learn that Anna has some kind of psychic connection to Staines (Lydia Wells says, “You may have an astral soul-mate, whose path through life perfectly mirrors your own” (716)), and is able to convincingly forge his signature despite the fact that she doesn’t know how to read or write.  I remain unconvinced.  The love story almost felt like an after thought, and, more importantly, it downplayed the importance of the murder mystery element (which was much more interesting).

Overall, I thought The Luminaries was commendable merely due to the amount of research that went into the development of the characters, the plot, and the setting.  I was completely immersed in 1865-6 New Zealand, fascinated as the frontier town grew throughout the course of the novel.  That being said, the prose became difficult to read, too much time was spent explaining things that didn’t need to be explained, and characters I connected to vanished before the conclusion of the novel.


 

Miriam Huxley

Miriam Huxley was born and raised in the wilds of British Columbia, but currently resides in Edinburgh, where she is completing a Master’s in Creative Writing.  She also has an expensive piece of paper that says she has a BA in English, History, and Honours in Creative Writing.  When she’s not writing witty prose, Miriam enjoys reading and critiquing books, experimental cooking, walking and running slowly, yoga, talking through movies, and listening to music of most genres (the good ones).

You can find Miriam at miriamhuxley.blogspot.co.uk and Instagram @miriamhuxley.

 

 

The Lovely Dog Bones

Sometimes my attitude towards the books I review end up sounding sarcastic, but I want to shed that for this entry. (Except for one little joke, but that’s for later.) Calling a novel poetic isn’t something I say often, but for The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst — I cannot think of a single better word.

dogs of babel carolyn parkhurst

I first picked up this title from Better World Books in a bargain bin sale. Quick side note: Better World Books acquires mostly from libraries, but also from bookstore partners and individuals. With every purchase from their site, they donate to help literacy funds around the world. It’s an awesome site, filled with awesome people, and awesome books, doing awesome things for the world. It’s awesome. Did I say that enough? Okay, let’s continue.

Admittedly, the cover caught my eye first, followed by the description, and for a few bucks, I figured I’d take a chance. That was years ago, and I can’t believe I waited this long to read it. It’s on the verge of being one of those books I would read again – shocking! – it’s the kind of book that stays with you. Haunting, but not in a bad way. Other people call this book The Lovely Dog Bones, since it came out around the same time as The Lovely Bones. I liked this one better than Alice Sebold’s book though… Sorry!

The narrative follows Paul, a linguistics professor, as he copes with the grief of losing his wife Lexy. After she is found at the base of an apple tree, it’s unclear to everyone whether she died by accident, or if she killed herself. The only witness to Lexy’s demise was their Rhodesian ridgeback Lorelei. After copious amounts of research about dogs and speech, Paul embarks (ha! I didn’t mean to do that) on a new project to teach Lorelei to talk, hoping to gain the closure he desperately wants from his wife’s untimely death.

Now, my hesitation to read this book was because I read a little blip somewhere that it contained a bit of animal cruelty. As someone who has had many dogs, I didn’t think I could stomach that; however, I was able to get through it. I thought for sure, it would be Paul beating his dog Lorelei out of frustration since, hello, dogs can’t talk — but I was wrong. Paul has nothing but love for Lorelei, the last remaining piece of his late wife’s existence. For those concerned, the abuse comes in the form of a whack-job scientist Paul discovers through his research. This guy performed experiments on his animals to alter their throats to try to give them what nature hadn’t: the power of speech. The news articles and testimonies from this case fuels Paul’s study into canine linguistics. There is a messed up, creepy culmination of all of this, but I don’t want to spoil it. All I’ll say, is that it makes sense in the narrative. It’s a little gruesome, but not unbearable. (Then again, I read a lot of Stephen King.)

In chapters alternating from the present are vignettes of Paul and Lexy’s life together, which illustrate not only their relationship, but also Lexy’s complex personality. That’s something I don’t want to spoil either. Honestly, I usually don’t mind spilling the beans, but since this is a book I plan on recommending to several people, I’m restraining myself. Lexy is one of those characters that I find so incredibly interesting, and from Parkhurst’s story-telling, I yearn to know more – like Paul in many ways.  The reason I call this book poetic is based largely on Lexy. She is creative, enigmatic, talented, but also sad and damaged. There’s a lot of feelings that spawn while reading about her. Some may think she’s a pretentious artist, and though that’s part of it, Lexy’s pairing with her polar opposite, Paul, makes them such a wonderful couple, making it that much harder to accept their fates. Though I’ve put a lot of focus on Lexy, I wouldn’t call this a character study. I wouldn’t say her character is more important than the plot, I’ve just put a larger emphasis on her here.

Something I greatly appreciated about this novel is the acceptance that life and relationships are not perfect, and that’s what love is. Love is so often portrayed as sunny and flawless and romantic, but there are the darker parts of the lives you share with your significant others that make up what love is, too. One of the final passages from the book reads: “I remember, always  I remember, that she brought solace to my life as well as grief. That for every dark moment we shared between us, there was a moment of such brightness I almost count not bear to look at it head-on.” — And that’s okay. How many of us reflect on our loves from the past, and in our sentimental-soaked memories, glorify everything? The darkness of love is ignored and Parkhurst forces us to recognize our denial. That’s reality. That makes an impact.

Oh, the joke I was going to make: I couldn’t help but think of Bush’s Baked Beans, and the dog that always wants to give away the family recipe but his owner keeps silencing him. Especially since the dog on the cover looks just like the dog from the commercial. “Roll that beautiful bean footage!” Okay, so it’s not really a joke… just a funny reversal of roles. But you know what I’m talking about.

Now go read that book.