October and November Mini-Reviews

Hello, my dear blog readers! Hopefully you are cozy and warm while reading this. You may have noticed I didn’t post any book reviews for October. I’m combining October and November’s reviews because of National Novel Writing Month. Once NaNoWriMo started, it practically took over my life. Everything else had to wait. So here are all of the reviews in one post. Thanks for your patience!

Remember, the following reviews will cover what worked well in the books I read. If you wish to discuss what didn’t work in the books or what you enjoyed about the books, then I’d encourage you to comment on this post. (Mild spoilers may follow.)


A Questionable ShapeLet’s start with the one that left me most aggrieved. When I picked up A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims, I couldn’t wait to read it. Here was another Two Dollar Radio (my favorite small press publisher) book and it had excellent reviews. Even better, it was about zombies in Louisiana, a state I rarely find represented in stories. Throw in the added bonus of an experimental form and I couldn’t wait to dig in. I quickly realized this book wasn’t something I was going to enjoy. The novel was not my cup of tea, and I could go on—in great detail—about why, but for now, let’s just focus on the positive.

Synopsis from the Two Dollar Radio website:

Mazoch discovers an unreturned movie envelope, smashed windows, and a pool of blood in his father’s house: the man has gone missing. So he creates a list of his father’s haunts and asks Vermaelen to help track him down.

However, hurricane season looms over Baton Rouge, threatening to wipe out any undead not already contained and eliminate all hope of ever finding Mazoch’s father.

Bennett Sims turns typical zombie fare on its head to deliver a wise and philosophical rumination on the nature of memory and loss.

What worked well:

  • If you’re going to use footnotes in a novel, you may as well go all out. Usually, footnotes work in academic texts and not novels because different pacing is needed; you study an academic text, taking time to ruminate on the words written on the page, while you expect to read at a steady pace through a novel. And, indeed, don’t expect A Questionable Shape to be well paced—the length and pervasiveness of the footnotes destroy any hope for that right away. But, if one insists on using footnotes in a novel, why not use them like you would in an academic textbook? After all, footnotes are often used to reference something else. Sims does that in his novel as well, making the footnotes a vehicle for Vermaelen’s endless references and internal diatribes.
  • Taking a step back from the gore and violence usually associated with zombies, to consider our humanity and what makes us human, is never a bad thing. Sims does this in his novel and, while I didn’t find it all to be successful, I did greatly appreciate his refreshing attempt.

Who should read A Questionable Shape:

  • Those who hate genre fiction, especially zombie novels
  • Fans of dead philosophers and run-of-the-mill masculine heroes
  • Readers who enjoy long-winded jeremiads
  • Those who appreciate a Nick Carraway-like narrator

DublinersA friend recommended I read Dubliners by James Joyce after I mentioned that I wanted to read Ulysses for my 2019 reading challenge, which consists of classics published before the 1950s. Taking her up on her advice, I picked up an annotated and illustrated copy of the book from the Bellevue Public Library. I think what left me the most satisfied was Joyce’s daring. His publication attempts fell through many times, but he didn’t give up. He insisted his stories, of which possess little of the modern short story structure preached about in MFA classes, be published and—in an age where self-publishing was a great deal more difficult—finally managed to make it happen. Needless to say, I find his persistence thrilling, even if I found the actual stories to be less so.

Synopsis from Amazon:

Detailed notes accompany fifteen short stories that evoke the character, atmosphere, and people of Dublin at the turn of the century

What worked well:

  • Joyce gives us a peek into Dublin: its people, its pleasures, and its pitfalls. After reading so many novels by English writers, it’s a relief to read something about Ireland, from where the majority of my ancestors emigrated.
  • Joyce’s characters are more complex than they first appear to be. It is the complexities of these characters that most intrigued me.

Who should read Dubliners:

  • Readers who appreciate stories that don’t adhere to contemporary short story structures
  • Those who may be interested in Dublin, especially during the early 20th century
  • Readers who enjoy narrators of different ages
  • Fans of free indirect discourse

Bones and AllWith my La Vista Public Library card, I checked out a book titled Bones & All by Camille DeAngelis, which happened to be shelved in the adult fiction section despite the novel’s young adult narrator. Likely the librarians understood that serial murders via cannibalism might be viewed as more of an adult topic. I was at first intrigued by Maren’s ghoulishness, especially since this was toted in some spheres as a feminist novel, and indeed the story started out strong. But it quickly fell apart, feminist undertones and all. In addition, the author’s note about veganism—equating the cannibalism of the novel to eating animals—really tainted the book for me. Still, Bones & All is memorable for a lot of reasons, and there is something to be said about Maren’s own personal journey to find herself and embrace who she is, even if the result is horrifying.

Synopsis from Macmillan’s website:

Maren Yearly is a young woman who wants the same things we all do. She wants to be someone people admire and respect. She wants to be loved. But her secret, shameful needs have forced her into exile. She hates herself for the bad thing she does, for what it’s done to her family and her sense of identity; for how it dictates her place in the world and how people see her–how they judge her. She didn’t choose to be this way.

Because Maren Yearly doesn’t just break hearts, she devours them. Ever since her mother found Penny Wilson’s eardrum in her mouth when Maren was just two years old, she knew life would never be normal for either of them. Love may come in many shapes and sizes, but for Maren, it always ends the same-with her hiding the evidence and her mother packing up the car.

But when her mother abandons her the day after her sixteenth birthday, Maren goes looking for the father she has never known, and finds much more than she bargained for along the way.

Faced with a world of fellow eaters, potential enemies, and the prospect of love, Maren realizes she isn’t only looking for her father, she’s looking for herself.

Camille DeAngelis’ Bones & All is an astonishingly original coming-of-age tale that is at once a gorgeously written horror story as well as a mesmerizing meditation on female power and sexuality.

What worked well:

  • When is the last time you’ve read anything about a ghoul? I mean zombies? Sure. Ghosts? You bet. Ghouls? I’ll wait. Even if you’ve read fifteen ghoul books lately, it’s always interesting to read a book from the perspective of a monster—not anti-heroes but villains. After all, Maren kills people by eating them. As revolting as cannibalism is—and it’s quite disgusting in the book—you have to admit that the common hero tales out there don’t always cut it. Sometimes you want to know what the villain thinks. Maren’s humanity, which wars with her ghoulish tendencies, creates excellent tension.
  • It makes my skin crawl a little to remember how well the descriptions worked in this novel. Even when the violence is implied, DeAngelis gives us just enough to continue to freak us out. And the devil is always in the details.

Who should read Bones & All:

  • Fans of books about damsels in distress and their handsome saviors
  • Those who enjoy books with speculative elements, especially horror and fantasy
  • Readers who enjoy books from the perspective of the villain
  • Those who can stomach violence and gore

Blue HorsesI wanted to read some more poetry, so I decided to take Blue Horses by Mary Oliver out of my to-be-read pile. Perusing Oliver’s biography, I figured out she was born in Ohio, like me. I ended up enjoying reading Blue Horses and was moved by several of the poems.

Synopsis from the Penguin Random House website:

In this stunning collection of new poems, Mary Oliver returns to the imagery that has defined her life’s work, describing with wonder both the everyday and the unaffected beauty of nature.

Herons, sparrows, owls, and kingfishers flit across the page in meditations on love, artistry, and impermanence. Whether considering a bird’s nest, the seeming patience of oak trees, or the artworks of Franz Marc, Oliver reminds us of the transformative power of attention and how much can be contained within the smallest moments.

At its heart, Blue Horses asks what it means to truly belong to this world, to live in it attuned to all its changes. Humorous, gentle, and always honest, Oliver is a visionary of the natural world.

What worked well:

  • I can’t honestly claim to be the best judge of poetry. However, I can tell you what I find enjoyable. I found Oliver’s poems to be plainspoken but witty and accessible. I especially enjoyed the good-natured jab at Whitman and Leaves of Grass.
  • The poems were also full of beautiful nature imagery. As someone who has a deep appreciation for natural landscapes, I love when a poet can capture the loveliness and mystery of said places with their chosen words. Oliver does this with a noticeable wisdom.

Who should read Blue Horses:

  • Readers who enjoy nature imagery
  • Fans of well-written, plainspoken poems
  • Those who appreciate witty mischief
  • Readers who want to read the work of a well-established poet

This House is HauntedAround Halloween, I wanted to read a ghost story. I finally cracked open This House is Haunted by John Boyne. It’s likely you may recognize Boyne’s more famous work, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I didn’t realize he’d written that book when I won This House is Haunted from a giveaway by Other Press. So I began the book without any expectations—aside from wanting a good ghost story. The book is written in “Dickensian prose” and even features Dickens as a character in the beginning. So it starts out bold. I was intrigued. In the end, though, the story was too formulaic and the characters were too flat for my tastes.

Synopsis from the Other Press website:

Written in Dickensian prose, This House Is Haunted is a striking homage to the classic nineteenth century ghost story. Set in Norfolk in 1867, Eliza Caine responds to an ad for a governess position at Gaudlin Hall. When she arrives at the hall, shaken by an unsettling disturbance that occurred during her travels, she is greeted by the two children now in her care, Isabella and Eustace. There is no adult present to represent her mysterious employer, and the children offer no explanation. Later that night in her room, another terrifying experience further reinforces the sense that something is very wrong.

From the moment Eliza rises the following morning, her every step seems dogged by a malign presence that lives within Gaudlin’s walls. Eliza realizes that if she and the children are to survive its violent attentions, she must first uncover the hall’s long-buried secrets and confront the demons of its past. Clever, captivating, and witty, This House Is Haunted is pure entertainment with a catch.

What worked well:

  • I did enjoy Boyne’s prose. He seemed to capture the vernacular of the time period, which was probably a difficult and tedious task to pull off as a writer.
  • The supernatural happenings were interesting enough. Who doesn’t enjoy a deadly, vengeful ghost from time to time? Though I really wish I’d known more about the ghost herself, Eliza’s encounters with the specter kept me reading.

Who should read This House is Haunted:

  • Fans of “Dickensian prose”
  • Readers who enjoy ghost stories, especially ones set in the 19th century
  • Those who enjoy stories about motherhood
  • Readers who like stories about English class politics

Fifth SeasonAfter a month of reading stories I didn’t particularly love, I was nervous to start The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. After all, the book had received a lot of hype, which made me instantly skeptical. But when I began to read Jemisin’s work, my heart soared. Here was a writer that could challenge me, that could make me think, that could offer me new ways of looking at language. Her work reminded me so much of geniuses like Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler. Jemisin gave me an entertaining story, complex characters, and sentences that would make any seasoned writer green with envy. Add that to the way she examines identity and plays with point of view and there’s nothing left to say but I love this book.

Synopsis from Hachette’s website:

This is the way the world ends…for the last time.

A season of endings has begun.

It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world’s sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun.

It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter.

It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester.

This is the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy.

What worked well:

  • It’s much more of a challenge to find what didn’t work well in this book. As I mentioned before, the way Jemisin plays with point of view and then ties that into identity is genius. Downright genius. It thrilled me. But I can’t really say more than that without massive spoilers—so go read it and find out!
  • Not many writers can pull off an interesting plot and complex characters. Usually it’s either one or the other (or in some cases, neither). Jemisin does this flawlessly. She gives us people who naturally wield the earth as a weapon and as a result are feared and subjugated. The story avoids many of the major cliches usually found in speculative genres and improves upon the tropes it does tap into. I am still a little stunned by the awesomeness that is The Fifth Season.

Who should read The Fifth Season:
(Um, anyone who reads? Like, this story is awesome. C’mon. Okay fine.)

  • Readers who enjoy science fiction, fantasy, and horror
  • Veteran speculative readers looking for something challenging and exciting
  • Those who enjoy stories that grapple with ideas of identity and power
  • Fans of Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison

3arabi songSo I’ve had some poetry collections sitting on my shelf for quite a while now and I decided to go ahead and read them. I started with 3arabi Song by Zeina Hashem Beck. While not my favorite poetry collection, I did enjoy Beck’s tribute to Arab singers.

Synopsis from the Rattle website:

3arabi Song is a song of sorrow and joy, death and dance. Yes there is unrest, war, and displacement in countries like Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and Egypt. But there is also survival, music, and love. Iconic Arab singers like Umm Kulthum, Fairuz, and Abdel Halim Hafez, inhabit these poems—they mourn and celebrate. So do children, parents, refugees, and lovers. These poems want to hum you stories that straddle the personal and the political, in an English riddled with Arabic words. The voices in them want to mourn for loved ones and broken homelands, but they also want to sing, as Asmahan does, ‘inta inta imta—you you when / will you know I love you.’

What worked well:

  • Beck does a nice job balancing the political with the personal in this collection. Balance in general, I think, is a quality of her work that should be praised. There’s a balance between Arabic and English (the translation notes at the end help a great deal), between tragedy and triumph, between influences of the West and influences of the Middle East. The result is a robust collection, filled with interesting juxtapositions.
  • Another wonderful aspect of 3arabi Song is the examination of song and language. I found Beck’s explanation of Arabizi to be particularly interesting.

Who should read 3arabi Song:

  • Readers who enjoy poems in multiple languages
  • Those who appreciate Arabic songs and culture
  • Fans of poems using refrains
  • Those who may be interested in learning more about Arabizi

Turn Left Before MorningThe other poetry collection I’d acquired from Rattle was Turn Left Before Morning by April Salzano. This collection by a mother of a child with autism really struck a chord with me.

Synopsis from the Rattle website:

Turn Left Before Morning explores the daily struggles involved in parenting a child with autism. These poems map a mother’s quest for understanding of a world that requires a significant shift in perspective and a new definition of what it means to love a child. The key to navigating the rough terrain of autism is not something she discovers, but is instead something that has been subtly guiding her all along: autism is as wonderful as it is terrifying, as humorous as it is heartbreaking, in alternating and equal measure.

What worked well:

  • The brutal honesty offered in these poems makes this collection undeniably strong. Each felt like a strong punch to the gut.
  • There is a lot of beauty in this complex relationship between mother and son. The plainspoken poems reflect this with gripping and convicting language that has the power to move the reader.

Who should read Turn Left Before Morning:

  • Readers seeking poems about autism
  • Parents of children with autism
  • Fans of plainspoken poems
  • Those who can appreciate and grapple with complex situations and relationships

Language of Rain and WindThe final poetry collection I’d been meaning to read was The Language of Rain and Wind by John Krumberger. I picked this out of a “free books” giveaway pile at Creighton University, because I was intrigued by the title. I found the poems to be interesting enough to keep me reading.

In lieu of a synopsis, here are some quotes of praise about The Language of Rain and Wind from the Backwaters Press website:

‘In poems sometimes elegiac, sometimes celebratory, often both, John Krumberger acknowledges his self-appointed task: “as a Scorpio who feels / the ground beneath the ground, / I lay my ear down to hear / the rocky, carbon, root-ash loam / breeding with the old year’s bones.” Past and present commingle in beautiful and disturbing ways to create “rank, rain-watered, worm-riddled” layers, and The Language of Rain and Wind is replete with modest gestures that offer “brisk benediction before quicklime and dark.” Oddly affirmative, these poems born of passionate listening speak as naturally as the elements and touch us as rain and wind might, lightly, but with memorable effect.’
• Michael Waters – Author of Darling Vulgarity

‘These empathetic poems are rich with the realities of other lives. John Krumberger doesn’t miss much: there is a wide (and deep) range of concerns in these pages. Here is a writer who knows how to listen and to watch, who can make vividly surprising, daring imaginative connections without raising his voice; the complexities are all the more strongly felt for the overall naturalness of his manner and the skillful quietness of his voice. These are indelibly human poems; I loved reading them.’
• Michael Dennis Browne – Author of Things I Can’t Tell You

What worked well:

  • Beautiful images and sensory details bring the poems to life on the page.
  • The third section, which expresses intimate moments with patients, was rather striking. Many of the lines delivered there were haunting and powerful.

Who should read The Language of Rain and Wind:

  • Those interested in psychology
  • Fans of poems rich with sensory details and striking images
  • Readers who like poems focused on human relations
  • Fans of poems about nature

BONUS TITLES!

I read #43 through #45 in the Ghost City Press micro-chapbook series. You can find all of them here.

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September Mini-Reviews

Autumn has appeared suddenly here in Nebraska and the cooler weather is a perfect excuse to sit inside and read. We’re also less than a month away from NaNoWriMo, which is a good reminder of just how hard it is to write a book, let alone a good book. I always try to keep this in mind when I review things: authors are working hard, usually for years, to get their books out there and in front of readers. It’s a tough business and a bad review can be rather detrimental.

At a Vase of Wildflowers, I always try to be honest about my feelings concerning the books I read, while still focusing on its positive aspects. That’s not every reviewer’s goal and I respect and understand that. But when you visit my blog, I hope that you will always consider giving the books I review a chance, no matter how I feel about them. It would be boring if we all loved the same things. And isn’t that what literature is really all about: freedom and the right to choose and think for oneself?

So with that in mind, the following reviews will cover what worked well in the books I read. If you wish to discuss what didn’t work in the books or what you enjoyed about the books, then I’d encourage you to comment on this post. (Mild spoilers may follow.)


The Art of PerspectiveI decided to continue reading Graywolf Press’s “The Art of” series with Christopher Castellani’s The Art of Perspective. It was another smash hit for me, even if I didn’t agree with everything Castellani said. I’m happy to have read it. All the thanks to my local librarian for making me aware of this series about the craft of writing. I hope to be able to continue it. I’m seriously considering reading them all. Let’s hope they stock the rest at the Bellevue Public Library in the near future.

Synopsis from the Graywolf Press website:

A writer may have a story to tell, a sense of plot, and strong characters, but for all of these to come together some key questions must be answered. What form should the narrator take? An omniscient, invisible force, or one—or more—of the characters? But in what voice, and from what vantage point? How to decide? Avoiding prescriptive instructions or arbitrary rules, Christopher Castellani brilliantly examines the various ways writers have solved the crucial point-of-view problem. By unpacking the narrative strategies at play in the work of writers as different as E. M. Forster, Grace Paley, and Tayeb Salih, among many others, he illustrates how the author’s careful manipulation of distance between narrator and character drives the story. An insightful work by an award-winning novelist and the artistic director of GrubStreet, The Art of Perspective is a fascinating discussion on a subject of perpetual interest to any writer.

What worked well:

  • Even when I disagreed with Castellani on a particular idea, he was such an eloquent writer that anything he wrote nearly swayed me to his viewpoint. It’s always nice to know that the one instructing you about writing is a good writer. Castellani proves it in this book, penning elegantly wrought and veracious chapters, which are as much moving as they are instructive.
  • I had a professor in my graduate program that tried to argue that all points of view worked in the exact same way and that it didn’t matter which one was chosen for a story. I’ve never agreed with that idea and I think this book works to show why the point of view we choose for a story does matter. This is a very valuable tool for writers: the ability to understand the nuances of the different perspectives.

Who should read The Art of Perspective:

  • Writers, especially fiction writers
  • Professors and teachers who want to educate their students about perspective
  • Those who enjoy books about the craft of writing
  • Readers who like to study particular literary movements and their impact on literature

Building FictionAnother craft book I finished this past month was Building Fiction by Jesse Lee Kercheval. I read parts of this book in graduate school for a class. After I graduated, I decided I wanted to read the entire thing. I read the book from start to finish, including the chapters I’d already studied. It was worth revisiting, and I’ll probably reference it again at different points in my career, but it did take a while to get through it because of the textbook-like feel of the prose.

Synopsis from the University of Wisconsin Press website:

No one looks at structure like Jesse Lee Kercheval. She builds a work of fiction just as an architect would design a house—with an eye for details and how all parts of a story or novel interconnect. Even with the most dynamic language, images, and characters, no piece of fiction will work without a strong infrastructure. Kercheval shows how to build that structure using such tools as point of view, characterization, pacing, and flashbacks. Building Fiction will help you envision the landscape of your fiction and build great stories there.

What worked well:

  • This is an excellent guide for beginning fiction writers, with many things that are valuable for the intermediate writer. Honestly, even for the most experienced, it’s nice to reexamine these basic elements. Kercheval is thorough and gives ample examples, including ones from her own books. She even has a very valuable chapter on experimental writing—a topic often ignored by other craft books I’ve read.
  • What I appreciate about Kercheval’s writing is the candidness of it. She doesn’t pretend her advice is the only advice out there, nor does she suggest that it’s the only correct way of doing things. This is important because she encourages writers to find their own voices and to write what works for them.

Who should read Building Fiction:

  • Fiction writers
  • Professors and teachers who want to teach their students how to write fiction (especially novels and short stories)
  • Those who enjoy books about the craft of writing
  • Writers who enjoy extensive, time-consuming exercises

Milkyway HitchhikingI realized, with horror, that I hadn’t read any comics or graphic novels lately. I decided to obtain a library card from La Vista’s public library (I can as an employee of the college I work for) and check out what they had to offer. The first book I choose to read was a manga titled Milkyway Hitchhiking, Vol. 1 by Sirial. While its slice-of-life storytelling left much to be desired, there were still some lovely things happening in this volume.

Synopsis from the Yen Press website:

There are as many people on Earth as there are stars in the sky. Milkyway–a peculiar cat with a pattern of the Milky Way splashed across her back–travels across time and space; sometimes to observe, other times to interact with an unfolding story. From Sirial, the creator of One Fine Day, comes the full-color tale of Milkyway hitchhiking across the bright stars of people’s lives, loves, tears, and laughter.

What worked well:

  • The art in this is gorgeous. What’s even cooler than that is that the art style changes somewhat with the different stories. I’m no expert, but it felt like only a truly skilled artist could pull off so many styles so flawlessly.
  • The fantasy and sci-fi aspects presented in this book are fascinating. They include everything from shape-shifting to robots. And everything is super cat focused, which I can’t help but love.

Who should read Milkyway Hitchhiking, Vol. 1:

  • Fans of manga with beautiful artwork
  • Readers who like quick stories connected by a single character
  • Those who enjoy fantasy and science-fiction
  • Readers who enjoy intermixed light and dark stories

The BunkerThe other comic book I picked up was The Bunker Vol. 1 by Joshua Hale Fialkov (writer) and Joe Infurnari (artist). I love apocalyptic stories but I felt more confused by this one, due to both the storytelling and art style, than satisfied.

Synopsis from Oni Press website:

On their way to bury a time capsule, five friends – Grady, Heidi, Natasha, Daniel, and Billy – uncover a metal bunker buried deep in the woods. Inside, they find letters addressed to each of them… from their future selves. Told they will destroy the world in the very near future, the friends find, over the next few days, growing further and further apart. Though they’ve been warned against making the wrong choices, how do they know what the right ones are? Can the future really be changed, or will an even darker fate engulf the world? Collects the first four issues of the ongoing series.

What worked well:

  • There’s definitely a lot here to keep readers interested: letters from the future, time travel, and crops that kill, to name a few.
  • The art style compliments the horror aspects, especially that of the impending apocalypse.

Who should read The Bunker Vol. 1:

  • Fans of apocalyptic stories
  • Comic book readers who can appreciate the art style
  • Readers who like science-fiction
  • Those who are patient enough to figure out where the story will lead

BONUS TITLES!

I read #41 and #42 in the Ghost City Press micro-chapbook series. You can find all of them here.

Blood & WhiskeyAnd remember that book I was a beta reader for? Guess what, you can pre-order it now! It’s called Blood & Whiskey and it was written by my friend Meredith Allison.

Blood & Whiskey thrilled me. Meredith Allison uses famous criminals like Al Capone, Dean O’Banion, and Tom Dennison and expertly plays them against dynamic fictional characters of her own creation. It’s a daring and exciting book, filled with all of the adventure and peril of the Roaring Twenties.

 

August Mini-Reviews

Sorry for the delay, blog readers. August turned out to be a busy month. I continued as a beta reader for a novel and I also read for an exciting new anthology coming out (more details soon). Along with some more personal things going on in my life, I only managed to read three books and four micro-chapbooks. I’m hoping I’ll get more reading done before September ends (*cue Green Day song—just kidding).

Back to it then. The following reviews will cover what worked well in the books. If you wish to discuss what didn’t work in the books or what you enjoyed about the books, then I’d encourage you to comment on this post.

Without further ado, here are the mini-reviews for this month. (Mild spoilers may follow.)


TroublersTroublers by Rob Walsh is another book I borrowed from my librarian friend and another Caketrain title. I wish I could say that I liked this one much better than Nevers. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it all that much. But, like with Nevers, there were things in the collection that sparked my interest and made me appreciate reading the book despite my grievances.

In lieu of a synopsis, here are some quotes of praise about Troublers from Caketrain’s website:

‘Walsh’s stories are so odd and wonderful that they seem to have been treasured from some heretofore nonexistent Eastern European country that should now, finally, be properly celebrated.’ —Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances

‘In Troublers, Rob Walsh entertains marvelous, profound little dances which never fail to twirl you somewhere you’ve never been. In his world, ‘heartless betrayal is both the engine of modern television and a kind of stainless upholstery to which no ethical principal can stick.’ But inside Troublers’ beautifully rendered exterior lies a heart so pure. ‘Let’s poke the thing!?’ as Walsh directs.’ —Terese Svoboda, author of Bohemian Girl

What worked well:

  • There’s a lot of absurdism that’s enjoyable. Many stories will also hint at the political without bashing you over the head with it, which is refreshing.
  • The oddness of the stories also works well. And make no mistake, these stories are often exceedingly odd. If nothing else, I enjoyed the whacky ideas the writer could come up with.

Who should read Troublers:

  • Fans of absurdist fiction
  • Readers who enjoy odd stories and ideas
  • Readers of short stories
  • Those who enjoy other Caketrain titles like Nevers

Little Fires EverywhereI was excited to read Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng after I so greatly enjoyed her previous novel, Everything I Never Told You. To say I liked Little Fires Everywhere less than her previous book doesn’t do Ng’s newest novel justice. This book is gorgeous and full of important things to discuss. Ng never disappoints.

Synopsis from the Penguin Random House website:

From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture-perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives.

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenaged daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town–and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.

Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood – and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.

What worked well:

  • Ng wields summary as if it were scene, which is a truly difficult thing to do, and this keeps the novel extremely interesting.
  • The way she describes the thoughts and actions of her characters: it is so precise it makes me want to study her novel like I would a textbook. She even takes things that seem a little on the nose—like Trip and Moody’s names—and expertly complicates them.

Who should read Little Fires Everywhere:

  • Fans of Ng’s writing, especially her novel, Everything I Never Told You
  • Readers who enjoy novels about the complexity of human relationships
  • Those who enjoy books about artists and art
  • Readers who enjoy stories about motherhood

the art of descriptionThanks to my awesome librarian friend, new writing craft books have been stocked on the shelves of Bellevue Public Library. With those new books came Mark Doty‘s The Art of Description, a book published by Graywolf Press. I didn’t know what to expect going into this book but I came out of it with a deep sense of admiration for Doty and his beautiful writing.

Synopsis from the Graywolf Press website:

‘It sounds like a simple thing, to say what you see,’ Mark Doty begins. ‘But try to find words for the shades of a mottled sassafras leaf, or the reflectivity of a bay on an August morning, or the very beginnings of desire stirring in the gaze of someone looking right into your eyes. . . . ‘ How the writer moves perception to image and finally to written word is at the heart of any literary work. In this vivid meditation on this essential aspect of the writer’s craft, Doty finds refuge in the sensory experience found in poems by Blake, Whitman, Bishop, and others. In clear chapter-essays and a vibrant abecedarian sequence, The Art of Description is an invaluable book by one of America’s most revered writers and teachers.

What worked well:

  • Mark Doty is a wise and patient teacher. The example poems were fantastic and the advice thought-provoking and challenging.
  • Even though this book addressed poets, I felt a deep conviction as a prose writer to pay better attention to language.

Who should read The Art of Description:

  • Poets (and prose writers too)
  • Readers who appreciate studying the nuance of language
  • Writers who are seeking how to better describe their characters, settings, and more
  • Teachers and professors who are seeking a great book to use as a teaching tool in their creative writing classes

BONUS TITLES!

I read micro-chapbooks #37 through #40 in the Ghost City Press Summer Micro-Chapbook Series. You can find all of the available ones here.

July Mini-Reviews

Despite how busy July was, I managed to read twenty-one books and micro-chapbooks. Reading helps me mellow out when I’m stressed, and I was pretty stressed this month, so it doesn’t surprise me how voraciously I read. I’m also beta reading a novel for a writer that I deeply admire and I can’t wait for that book to be released into the world. What have you read lately that’s gotten you excited?

Now for the feedback. The following reviews will cover what worked well in the books. If you wish to discuss what didn’t work in the books or what you enjoyed about the books, then I’d encourage you to comment on this post.

Without further ado, here are the mini-reviews for this month. (Mild spoilers may follow.)


Train DreamsI first read Train Dreams during a class I took at Creighton University. I was surprised by how much I disliked the book and wanted to give it another chance by reading it again. While my boredom was not completely alleviated with the second read, I did manage to find some things I enjoyed about the novella.

Synopsis from the Macmillan website:

Denis Johnson‘s Train Dreams is an epic in miniature, one of his most evocative and poignant fictions. It is the story of Robert Grainier, a day laborer in the American West at the start of the twentieth century—an ordinary man in extraordinary times. Buffeted by the loss of his family, Grainer struggles to make sense of this strange new world. As his story unfolds, we witness both his shocking personal defeats and the radical changes that transform America in his lifetime. Suffused with the history and landscapes of the American West, this novella by the National Book Award-winning author of Tree of Smoke captures the disappearance of a distinctly American way of life.

What worked well:

  • What I came to enjoy with the second read was Johnson’s use of imagery. His descriptive language at certain points is spot on and beautiful, especially of landscapes and manmade structures.
  • Another nice thing about Train Dreams is that it examines a time period of significant change in the northwestern United States. The logging scenes alone are brutal, terrifying, and fascinating to read.

Who should read Train Dreams:

  • Historical fiction fans
  • Readers who enjoy man versus nature stories
  • Those who like books about hard work
  • Readers who like to read about feats of engineering

Abridged ClassicsI received a copy of Abridged Classics by John Atkinson from my best friend for my upcoming birthday. Honestly, it’s just a short and fun little joke book that I read in its entirety immediately after my friend gave it to me. I loved it.

Synopsis from the HarperCollins website:

A collection of irreverent summations of more than 100 well-known works of literature, from Anna Karenina to Wuthering Heights, cleverly described in the fewest words possible and accompanied with funny color illustrations.

Abridged Classics: Brief Summaries of Books You Were Supposed to Read but Probably Didn’t is packed with dozens of humorous super-condensed summations of some of the most famous works of literature from many of the world’s most revered authors, including William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Emily Brontë, Leo Tolstoy, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, J.R.R. Tolkien, Margaret Atwood, James Joyce, Plato, Ernest Hemingway, Dan Brown, Ayn Rand, and Herman Melville.

From “Old ladies convince a guy to ruin Scotland” (Macbeth) to “Everyone is sad. It snows.” (War and Peace), these clever, humorous synopses are sure to make book lovers smile.

What worked well:

  • The brief summaries are hilarious. Truly, they’re really funny. I think I laughed at every single one of them.
  • The illustraitions add to this humor. If you’ve ever read any classic books, go check this one out.

Who should read Abridged Classics:

  • Fans of classic books
  • Those who enjoy jokes about classic books
  • Those who like books that you can read really quickly
  • Readers who enjoy funny illustrations

The Half Drowned KingI listened to The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker on audiobook through OverDrive. The novel started out strong and then kind of disentegrated for me. Still, the interesting parts of the book are definitely worth talking about.

Synopsis from the HarperCollins website:

An exhilarating saga of the Vikings that conjures a brutal, superstitious, and thrilling ninth-century world and the birth of a kingdom—the debut installment in a historical literary trilogy that combines the bold imagination and sweeping narrative power of Game of Thrones, Vikings, and Outlander.

Centuries ago, in a blood-soaked land ruled by legendary gods and warring men, a prophecy foretold of a high king who would come to reign over all of the north. . . .

Ragnvald Eysteinsson, the son and grandson of kings, grew up believing that he would one day take his dead father’s place as chief of his family’s lands. But, sailing home from a raiding trip to Ireland, the young warrior is betrayed and left for dead by men in the pay of his greedy stepfather, Olaf. Rescued by a fisherman, Ragnvald is determined to have revenge for his stepfather’s betrayal, claim his birthright and the woman he loves, and rescue his beloved sister Svanhild. Opportunity may lie with Harald of Vestfold, the strong young Norse warrior rumored to be the prophesied king. Ragnvald pledges his sword to King Harald, a choice that will hold enormous consequence in the years to come.

While Ragnvald’s duty is to fight—and even die—for his honor, Svanhild must make an advantageous marriage, though her adventurous spirit yearns to see the world. Her stepfather, Olaf, has arranged a husband for her—a hard old man she neither loves nor desires. When the chance to escape Olaf’s cruelty comes at the hands of her brother’s arch rival, the shrewd young woman is forced to make a heartbreaking choice: family or freedom.

Set in a mystical and violent world defined by honor, loyalty, deceit, passion, and courage, The Half-Drowned King is an electrifying adventure that breathtakingly illuminates the Viking world and the birth of Scandinavia.

What worked well:

  • The Half-Drowned King starts off with one of the most exciting openings I’ve read in a while. Oar walking alone is enough to spark my interest but then you throw in an attempted murder and an encounter with the Norse gods and the hook becomes irresistible. The historical details and mythology that Hartsuyker adds in brings a lot of life to the book.
  • Also, the exploration and adventures within the novel create some exciting scenes and plot points. The sailing scenes were of particular interest.

Who should read The Half-Drowned King

  • Readers who like Norse mythology
  • Fans of historical fiction
  • Readers who like adventure and exploration
  • Those who enjoy books about betrayal

Land of Love and DrowningI bought Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique a while ago. It sat for far too long in my to-be-read pile before I finally picked it up. I’m so incredibly happy to have read a novel about the U. S. Virgin Islands, a place that almost never appears in the fiction I read.

Synopsis from the Penguin Random House website:

A critically acclaimed debut from an award-winning writer—an epic family saga set against the magic and the rhythms of the Virgin Islands.

In the early 1900s, the Virgin Islands are transferred from Danish to American rule, and an important ship sinks into the Caribbean Sea. Orphaned by the shipwreck are two sisters and their half brother, now faced with an uncertain identity and future. Each of them is unusually beautiful, and each is in possession of a particular magic that will either sink or save them.

Chronicling three generations of an island family from 1916 to the 1970s, Land of Love and Drowning is a novel of love and magic, set against the emergence of Saint Thomas into the modern world. Uniquely imagined, with echoes of Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, and the author’s own Caribbean family history, the story is told in a language and rhythm that evoke an entire world and way of life and love. Following the Bradshaw family through sixty years of fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, love affairs, curses, magical gifts, loyalties, births, deaths, and triumphs, Land of Love and Drowning is a gorgeous, vibrant debut by an exciting, prizewinning young writer.

What worked well:

  • The way Yanique incorporates moments of important U. S. Virgin Islands history is really wonderful. For example, the “free beach” movement is something I knew nothing about, and it appears—fictionalized—in the pages of Yanique’s book. The protests she includes leading up to the Open Shoreline Act are some of the most elegantly written scenes I’ve ever read about protestors.
  • Also, the relationships between the siblings is really fascinating—at times cringeworthy—and ultimately well-done.

Who should read Land of Love and Drowning:

  • Readers who want to learn more about the U. S. Virgin Islands
  • Fans of historical fiction
  • Those who are prepared to read about taboo topics
  • Readers who like novels about families

The Blurry YearsOf course I had to read another Two Dollar Radio book this month. This time I chose The Blurry Years by Eleanor Kriseman. All I can say is wow; this book left me conflicted in all the right ways.

Synopsis from the Two Dollar Radio Website:

The Blurry Years is a powerful and unorthodox coming-of-age story from an assured new literary voice, featuring a stirringly twisted mother-daughter relationship, set against the sleazy, vividly-drawn backdrop of late-seventies and early-eighties Florida.

Callie—who ages from six to eighteen over the course of the book—leads a scattered childhood, moving from cars to strangers’ houses to the sand-dusted apartments of the tourist towns that litter the Florida coastline.

Callie’s is a story about what it’s like to grow up too fast and absorb too much, to watch adults behaving badly; what it’s like to be simultaneously in thrall to and terrified of the mother who is the only family you’ve ever known, who moves you from town to town to leave her own mistakes behind.

With precision and poetry, Kriseman’s moving tale of a young girl struggling to find her way in the world is potent, and, ultimately, triumphant.

What worked well:

  • Kriseman covers topics such as the neglect of a child, alcohol abuse, and sexual trauma without flinching. To depict and deconstruct these things within fiction is so important and should be discussed.
  • The main conflicts center around other characters using Calliope and Calliope figuring out who she is and what she wants. It’s a great example of a novel about self-discovery and how we form our own identities.

Who should read The Blurry Years:

  • Readers who enjoy coming-of-age books
  • Those who appreciate difficult topics being faced head-on in fiction
  • Readers who enjoy books about Florida
  • Fans of books about mother/daughter relationships

The GunnersI chose to listen to the audiobook of The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman after I saw it appear on my OverDrive app. Frankly, I think the book’s structure, conflicts, and characters are messy, but there were a lot of good things about the novel too.

Synopsis from the Counterpoint Press website:

Following on her wonderfully received first novel, Another Place You’ve Never Been, called “mesmerizing,” “powerful,” and “gorgeous,” by critics all over the country, Rebecca Kauffman returns with Mikey Callahan, a thirty-year-old who is suffering from the clouded vision of macular degeneration. He struggles to establish human connections—even his emotional life is a blur.

As the novel begins, he is reconnecting with “The Gunners,” his group of childhood friends, after one of their members has committed suicide. Sally had distanced herself from all of them before ending her life, and she died harboring secrets about the group and its individuals. Mikey especially needs to confront dark secrets about his own past and his father. How much of this darkness accounts for the emotional stupor Mikey is suffering from as he reaches his maturity? And can The Gunners, prompted by Sally’s death, find their way to a new day? The core of this adventure, made by Mikey, Alice, Lynn, Jimmy, and Sam, becomes a search for the core of truth, friendship, and forgiveness.

A quietly startling, beautiful book, The Gunners engages us with vividly unforgettable characters, and advances Rebecca Kauffman’s place as one of the most important young writers of her generation.

What worked well:

  • The Gunners incorporated some moments of philosophical debate that I truly appreciated. For example: Can a person be objectively bad or good and how do our perceptions and opinions influence such labels? These questions are most often brought up in the dialogue, which was also a strong point of this novel.
  • Kauffman is also an adept humorist and I found myself laughing out loud at many of the characters’ hilarious actions and one-liners.

Who should read The Gunners:

  • Readers who enjoy books about childhood friends
  • Fans of books with wonderful humor
  • Those who enjoy books that explore what love is
  • Those who are prepared to read about taboo topics

BONUS TITLES!

I read micro-chapbooks #22 through #36 in the Ghost City Press Summer Micro-Chapbook Series. You can find all of the available ones here.

Also, Space, Collisions released this month! I hope you’ll check it out.

June Mini-Reviews

June turned out to be a busy month for me. July is shaping up to be busy too. I’m having trouble reading books and writing my novel while taking care of so many other things, but I managed to read two books this month anyhow.

The following reviews will cover what worked well in the books. If you wish to discuss what didn’t work in the books or what you enjoyed about the books, then I’d encourage you to comment on this post.

Without further ado, here are the mini-reviews for this month. (Mild spoilers may follow.) 


Best Christian Short StoriesMy professors in my undergraduate and graduate courses taught solely secular fiction. What was lacking for me—in a major way—was fiction that aligned with my faith tradition. I couldn’t find any character that accurately represented my faith in secular fiction. In the present, I’m seeking out Christian fiction like water in a desert. As a reader, I’m looking for characters like me—for accurate representation. As a writer, I’m seeking the elements that mix to create a good Christian short story.

Bret Lott takes some liberties with The Best Christian Short Stories collection. He added in some secular fiction that seemed to exemplify Christian values and ideas. Still, the anthology intrigued me. Here was something I was missing. Here was something I desperately needed to read for the sake of my own identity. “Best” stories or not, it was important to me. While I enjoyed the anthology, I’m still struggling to find that accurate representation, even within the pages of this book. Still, it was worth reading.

Synopsis from the Thomas Nelson website:

The first volume in a collection of contemporary fiction that combines the artistry of critically accaimed writers with a clear Christian worldview.

From Homer Hickam, the best-selling author of Rocket Boys–which later became the movie October Sky to editor and contributing best-selling author Bret Lott, this collection spans a talented community writing an eclectic blend of fiction. Each piece stands alone as stellar fiction. And each piece confronts us with who we are and forces us to look deeply at the human condition. From the dirt lanes of North Africa to the suburbs of California, exuding lightheartedness and profundity, hilarity and tragedy, these stories will take you on a fresh and entertaining journey.

What worked well:

  • With all stories labeled “Christian fiction,” I’m skeptical about what elements of the story align with my faith. Even though some of these stories were meant to be secular, I would agree with Lott that many of them do align with Christian values and ideas. I think there are exceptions within this anthology. For example, there is a story where a character is being racist. Now, why the author chose to make this character a racist is unclear to me. It adds nothing to the story. Sure, the character is deeply flawed, but there are no repercussions for the character due to his racist actions and thoughts. So that particular character does not align with the Biblical, Christ-like attitude toward humanity, of which Christians are supposed to adhere to. It soured the story for me. However, what is good and what did work were many of the other stories and their characters. There were many Christian and non-Christian characters that did exhibit Christ-like attitudes, values, thoughts, and actions and their flaws made sense within the context of the story. This is what really made this anthology work for me.
  • Another thing that worked well was the multifariousness within this anthology. The stories were told from various perspectives of Christianity (Catholic and Protestant) and also from a few secular perspectives. It was a nice mix of different points of view, of different styles, and of different ways to understand Christianity and what it can mean to the people who practice it.

Who should read The Best Christian Short Stories:

  • Fans of Christian fiction
  • Fans of literary fiction
  • Those who love reading short stories
  • Readers who’ve enjoyed Bret Lott’s work as a writer and editor 

NeversI’m always seeking out flash fiction collections to read. My local librarian, also a flash fiction writer, suggested Nevers by Megan Martin. She was even kind enough to let me borrow her copy of the book. My librarian friend has a fetish for whimsy and snark and Nevers definitely exemplifies such things. I find a great deal of snarky writing to be trite and this book was no exception. Still, I’m glad I tried it and there were things about Martin’s work that I definitely enjoyed.

In lieu of a synopsis, here are some quotes of praise about Nevers from Caketrain’s website:

‘Megan Martin’s Nevers is my favorite kind of book. Its stories are familiar and distant, one never existing without the other. It’s that feeling you get when you are suddenly inside yourself, looking around, going, Hey, that’s my coffee mug. That’s my pen. I am me. It’s like standing in your childhood home as the walls are replaced with snapshots of the same walls. This is a book, only it has a mouth.’ —Lindsay Hunter, author of Don’t Kiss Me

‘In Megan Martin’s fantastic Nevers, we encounter the situation of a book that is conscious of itself. This seems right, because the life in its pages is conscious of itself, too—all at once, from a dozen slip-sliding angles, the whole a shimmering phantasm held aloft by an act of voice so clean and real it can squash your heart. Here’s me as I was reading: big stupid openmouthed grin and the thought, You’re reading this awesomeness right now, before others get to.’ —Scott Garson, author of Is That You, John Wayne?

What worked well:

  • Martin’s fictional narrator tends to have beef with poets. There are quite a few funny sections in these fictions where the narrator pokes fun of the poet characters in her life. Sometimes the poke is a fairly gentle jab: “An old professor and his new mistress sit in a circle of even older white guy poets talking about how amazing it is that because of the internet there are no ideas anymore, and what a relief it is that they’ll never have to come up with an idea again” (69). Other times the poke is more like a stab: “But what would make anyone want to see a poet’s body? Or the sort of swimsuit a poet would wear?” (89). The humor is off-color and no-holds-barred but usually works in the way a comedian delivers self-deprecating punchlines.
  • If you’re teaching a class on outrageous hyperbole, this is your book. The flash story “Cinders” takes the cake (pun intended) for me,  but “Forever Bloodcloud” and “Warning Label” are also good examples. Most of the hyperbole is so outrageous that you can’t help but laugh.

Who should read Nevers:

  • Fans of snarky and off-color humor
  • Readers who enjoy irreverent narrators
  • Those who appreciate an abundance of hyperbole
  • Readers of flash fiction 

BONUS TITLES!

I read micro-chapbooks #5 through #21 in the Ghost City Press Summer Micro-Chapbook Series. You can find all of the available ones here. There will be more as the summer continues, including my own micro-chapbook, Space, Collisions (available July 19)!

February Mini-Reviews

With eight books now read, I am closer to my goal of reading 52 books this year. For the short month of February, I decided to check out the collected novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin and revisit some of the books I read in college.

The following reviews will cover what worked well in the books. If you wish to discuss what didn’t work in the books—or better yet, your own reading goals for the year—I’d encourage you to comment on this post.

Without further ado, here are the mini-reviews for this month. (Mild spoilers may follow.)


the found and the lost

The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin

With Ursula K. Le Guin‘s passing, I felt the need to read her collected novellas as an act of mourning. She was such a talented writer and the breadth of her work could not be contained by any one genre.

Summary from the Simon & Schuster website:

Ursula K. Le Guin has won multiple prizes and accolades from the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to the Newbery Honor, the Nebula, Hugo, World Fantasy, and PEN/Malamud Awards. She has had her work collected over the years, but never as a complete retrospective of her longer works as represented in the wonderful The Found and the Lost.

Includes:
-Vaster Than Empires and More Slow
-Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight
-Hernes
-The Matter of Seggri
-Another Story or a Fisherman of the Inland Sea
-Forgiveness Day
-A Man of the People
-A Woman’s Liberation
-Old Music and the Slave Women
-The Finder
-On the High Marsh
-Dragonfly
-Paradises Lost

This collection is a literary treasure chest that belongs in every home library. 

Of Lovely Minds and Bodies: Jennifer Niven’s Holding Up the Universe

Let me explain a bit about Jennifer Niven before I begin this book review—for the sake of those unfamiliar with the author.

Jennifer is the daughter of Penelope Niven, who was also an accomplished writer. In the early stages of Jennifer’s career, she wrote nonfiction, which was her mother’s genre. When she published Velva Jean Learns to Drive, she was venturing into the world of fiction, and I became one of her biggest fans. Velva Jean was a heroine that I rooted for, that I loved, that I wanted to be like. Jennifer had me hooked.

In 2015, Jennifer decided to switch age groups—from adults to teens—and, as a result, became a New York Times bestselling author with her book, All the Bright Places. The novel sold in many different countries. Jennifer gained international acclaim. More importantly, she became more than “just an author” to so many young people—she became an advocate for those with mental illness.

Holding Up the Universe is Jennifer’s newest young adult novel, scheduled to release on October 4, 2016.

Here is the synopsis:

Everyone thinks they know Libby Strout, the girl once dubbed “America’s Fattest Teen.” But no one’s taken the time to look past her weight to get to know who she really is. Following her mom’s death, she’s been picking up the pieces in the privacy of her home, dealing with her heartbroken father and her own grief. Now, Libby’s ready: for high school, for new friends, for love, and for EVERY POSSIBILITY LIFE HAS TO OFFER. In that moment, I know the part I want to play here at MVB High. I want to be the girl who can do anything.

Everyone thinks they know Jack Masselin, too. Yes, he’s got swagger, but he’s also mastered the impossible art of giving people what they want, of fitting in. What no one knows is that Jack has a newly acquired secret: he can’t recognize faces. Even his own brothers are strangers to him. He’s the guy who can re-engineer and rebuild anything in new and bad-ass ways, but he can’t understand what’s going on with the inner workings of his brain. So he tells himself to play it cool: Be charming. Be hilarious. Don’t get too close to anyone.

Until he meets Libby. When the two get tangled up in a cruel high school game — which lands them in group counseling and community service — Libby and Jack are both pissed, and then surprised. Because the more time they spend together, the less alone they feel. . . . Because sometimes when you meet someone, it changes the world, theirs and yours.

Jennifer Niven delivers another poignant, exhilarating love story about finding that person who sees you for who you are — and seeing them right back.

As a contributor to Germ Magazine (for the sake of transparency: it is an online publication created by Jennifer), I had the privilege of receiving an ARC of Holding Up the Universe in exchange for a review.

REVIEW (SPOILERS MAY FOLLOW):

Holding Up the UniverseRomance, for any age group, is not my genre of choice—but I have to admire Jennifer’s ability to make love stories feel true to real life. The romance between Libby and Jack starts slow and with lots of initial loathing. From there, it’s not an easy transition to love and acceptance.

Loosely based on Jennifer’s own experiences, she doesn’t sugar coat the hard issues, and I think that is what makes her writing so strong. The characters in this story are struggling to find the confidence to move forward with their lives. Libby is bullied for her weight. Jack is terrified he will lose everyone he loves if he tells them about his cognitive disorder. Jack’s brother carries a purse despite his schoolmates’ opinions of him. The list goes on.

A cowardly act inspires the bravery hidden in both Libby and Jack. They start to change the people around them, including each other, as they learn how to accept themselves and pursue their dreams. And interwoven with these trials is an underlying truth—that Libby and Jack are wanted simply as they are.

At times it is a heartbreaking journey, but I’m glad I tagged along to see all of the triumphs for our main characters. It’s like Niven’s writing invites you in and makes you want to stay for dinner. There is cordiality in her paragraphs, friendship in her sentences. Then she shakes it up with a dash of humor. There is a deliberate connection, like she’s reaching for the reader’s hand. Her writing does not suffer due to her intentions. On the contrary, her kindness magnifies the power of the story.

There were only a few things that bothered me, overall, about the book.

There were many minor characters and I eventually started to mix some of them up because of the sheer number of them. Oftentimes it was because a group of minor characters played a minute role in a single part of the novel, with only a brief mention of them later. The ones that were more concrete, like Caroline and Mr. Levine, I didn’t have too much trouble with. It was people like Kendra Wu, Jesselle Villegas, Jayvee De Castro, and Rachel that made me scratch my scalp. There were several times I had to stop reading to go back in the novel and figure out who these minor characters were.

And since we are on the topic of characters, I have to admit that many of them bordered on stereotypes. Jennifer’s writing was much stronger when she focused on holistic qualities of the characters, because it made them feel more like real human beings.

That being said, I think Holding Up the Universe deserves to be read. In these tumultuous times, we all need a little more empathy. Jennifer’s novel examines just how lovely and wanted all of us are—a message the world desperately needs.