Written by Lauryn Smith
My interest in John Irving’s writing began after I read his award-winning “The World According to Garp” in high school. I promise to give a review of “Garp” as soon as I replace my lost copy, which met its fate in a puddle of water. (Trust me, though, you must read it!) For now, let’s talk about “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” Irving’s all-time best-selling novel. The fictional story is deep, poignant, complexly germane and truly captivating.
The titular character, Owen, is an intelligent, small-statured, shrill-voiced, 11-year-old son of a quarryman. He grows up in Gravesend, New Hampshire, with his best buddy John Wheelwright, whose family comes from old money. John narrates the twists and turns of their relationship, from the Little League baseball game during which Owen’s foul ball kills John’s mother to Owen’s death, a divinely crafted occurrence that Owen adamantly believes he has foreseen. This novel is one of predestined heroism and a boy determined to curate his life experiences in preparation for his final act. (The vagueness concerning Owen’s fate is necessary—spoilers! I can say, however, that in his role as the Ghost of Christmas Future for a production of “A Christmas Carol,” he inexplicably sees his name and date of death on Scrooge’s gravestone, which fortifies his ideas about his purpose and his link with God.) The majority of the story takes place throughout the 1950s and 1960s, so readers get to follow Owen and John as they transition from days composed of TV viewing and rounds of armadillo hide-and-seek (read the book to see what I mean – it is a whole thing) to days composed of collegiate activities and wartime rhetoric.
Several themes are unmissable. Perhaps the most notable motif that Irving explores if that of friendship. (Example “aww” moments include 1) the trustful sharing of treasured baseball cards between Owen and John and 2) Owen’s voluntarily repeating grade nine when he learns that John was held back, all so that they might attend Gravesend Academy together.) Also prominent are the concepts of religion and faith as well as the corresponding concept of doubt. In addition, Irving cleverly integrates insights into the stateside turmoil associated with the Vietnam War. Though these topics hold the story together, they are arguably tangential to a larger theme, that is, the loss of one’s childhood and the beautiful tragedy of maturing.
Written by Lauryn Smith
Long time, no write. I could apologize for the absence. I could give you a list of excuses as to why I have been away. Or, I could just jump right back in and review something of the self-help genre. Yeah, I will do that last one.
First, a disclaimer. I have always found self-help books to be a little… lame. But I am currently coming down from a workaholic high, a period of doubt, exhaustion, impatience, grumpiness, discouragement and anxiety. Most people have experienced these negative emotions, and I often wrangle with the latter, which I reluctantly attribute to my unyielding perfectionism. So, in a proactive effort, I have determined to give a book on personal development a go. The contender is “Conscious Living: Finding Joy in the Real World” by Gay Hendricks, selected for both its great reviews and the enticing promise of its title proclaims. The book is somewhat remarkable, with a few novel insights on life and truth.
The author is considered a pioneer in the field of psychology because he advocates for living life by design and for educating via nontraditional means. He believes that therapy, for instance, should focus less on the past and more on the present and future. In “Conscious Living,” he coaches readers on how to use the powers of love, intention and creation, describing methods that have been successful for patients in his professional practice. He relies on the principles of Taoism and Stoicism to support his goal of helping others conquer fear and live with purpose, explicating five fundamental lessons, such as knowing one’s priorities and fully participating in life.
Written by Karen Olson Smith
“Queen of Hearts” by Colleen Oakes is a tangy mix of the personalities from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” with small tastes from the theater production of Wicked. Sprinkled in are shadowy semblances of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” along with noticeable flavors of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”
As the story unfolds, the evil rising in the book’s setting of Wonderland captivates the reader as strongly as the story’s protagonist, Dinah, is held captive by her early lack of confidence. Dinah is introduced as a clumsy and timid child, one who fears her father, the mighty King of Hearts who feels nothing but disdain toward his daughter. Dinah longs for his love and attention. Her world begins to further unravel when her father introduces another daughter. Dinah’s newly discovered half-sibling, Vittiore, is a golden child yet a person Dinah despises, not only because Vittiore has her father’s favor, but because her presence reveals her father’s betrayal of her mother years earlier. Dinah is next in line for her father’s throne since the seat was left vacant by her mother’s death and because her older brother, Charles, is “mad as a hatter,” lost in his own reality. Soon, mysterious happenings relating to Dinah’s father, and clues of such, grow her confidence to act as she comes to understand that her father is an evil man who is hungry for power. Dinah quickly realizes that she must flee the kingdom in order to survive her father’s murderous intent. Of course, Oakes gives Dinah has a love interest. Wardley is a handsome young man, a fearsome warrior who is training to be the next commander of the Heart Cards assigned to protect the royal family and palace. Dinah has long adored Wardley, but will he return Dinah’s affections? Readers are left to ponder.
Written by Lauryn Smith
Undeterred after reading Sara Gruen’s unassuming “At the Water’s Edge,” I took up “Ape House.” Now that I am done reading it, I wonder if Gruen might be a one-hit wonder. (Don’t get me wrong. Her writing style is lovely. “Water for Elephants” is, and probably always will be, one of my favorite books.) As much as I hate to say it, “Ape House” left me dizzy, and not in a good way.
“Ape House” is a contemporary dual-track story that begins well enough. Readers are introduced to John Thigpen, a journalist in Philadelphia who is writing a story on the six bonobos at the Great Ape Language Lab in Kansas. These particular apes are remarkable because they can use American Sign Language and computer software to reason, communicate and form deep relationships. John travels to meets the apes and lab staff, including Isabel Duncan, a scientist who regards the bonobos as family. On the night of the interview, Isabel and the apes are the victims of an explosion at the lab. The apes escape unharmed but are whisked away by an unknown force to an unknown location. Isabel, on the other hand, is tragically injured. During her long recovery, she makes it her goal to retrieve the apes to ensure their welfare. With the help of a disjointed ensemble, Isabel discovers that the apes were sold to Ken Faulks, a renowned pornographer. Yep, you read that right. This point, barely halfway into the book, is when the story becomes irritating. Gruen chooses to satirize human life by placing the bonobos in the hands of an adult film connoisseur, who in turn places the apes in a house full of cameras that broadcast live in the name of entertainment, considered such because of the bonobos’ inherent sexual inclinations.
Written by Lauryn Smith
Imagine experiencing another version of your life, one in which you made different, potentially life-altering decisions. Some aspects might be better, others worse. Perhaps you do not notice much of a change. Maybe your life is catastrophically altered. Black Crouch lays the groundwork for this thought experiment in his alternate universe book, “Dark Matter.” For me, reading science fiction has never been so much fun. This book is un-put-down-able. You know those books that you cannot wait to get back to, even while enjoying other activities? “Dark Matter” is one of those.
Crouch details the story of Jason Dessen, a physics teacher at a Chicago college. I mean, a renowned theoretical physicist. Wait. Dessen is actually both, and each persona lives in a different dimension. Crouch establishes the former as the story’s protagonist. This Dessen, AKA Jason 1, lives a quiet, blissful, content life with his wife and son. One day while walking home from a local bar, he is abducted and taken to an enigmatic warehouse, where, amidst the confusion of events, he loses consciousness. He wakes to praise from a handful of individuals he does not recognize yet who somehow know him. In fact, he comes to realize that there is a lot about this place, this life, he does not recognize, and much of what he does find familiar is distorted in some way, shape or form.
Written by Lauryn Smith
I thought I knew what I was getting into when I began reading Craig Larsen’s “The Second Winter,” a fictitious story that takes place during World War II. I was confident that the book would be interesting. (Anyone who knows me knows that historical fiction is right up my alley.) I feared, though, that the book would be only marginally original, that it would not stand out among the many others also set during wartime. It was not long before I realized how wrong my latter expectation was.
Larsen expertly differentiates “The Second Winter” by narrowing his scope, homing in on often overlooked subtleties inherent to this anecdote-ridden part of history. With a downtrodden family at the heart of the novel, Larsen emphasizes strained familial relationships and details the twists and turns of fate that are generated by various interpersonal interactions. The war merely acts as a backdrop, a driving force. This unexpected approach makes for a deep, fulfilling read as the plot is enhanced by the setting rather than carried by it. (A special thanks to the author for providing me a copy of the book!)
Dark and dismal, “The Second Winter” takes place in 1941 in German-occupied Denmark. Fredrik Gregersen, a large, callous, imposing man who oversees a small farm in Jutland, partakes in a prohibited side business, namely helping Jewish fugitives cross the border into Sweden. One night, he is presented with an opportunity to steal a satchel of valuable jewelry from a family of escapees, which he does without a second thought. Contained in that satchel is an expensive necklace, which ends up being a key element of the story. The plot thickens with each transfer of ownership of the necklace.
Written by Lauryn Smith
As promised, I read “A Court of Mist and Fury” by Sarah J. Maas. You may remember my slightly scathing review of its predecessor, “A Court of Thorns and Roses.” Though I still have some qualms, the second in the “A Court of Thorns and Roses” series exceeded my expectations.
The story picks up right where the first left off. In the aftermath of bad girl Amarantha’s demise, Feyre returns to life in the Spring Court with soon-to-be hubby Tamlin. But things are not all roses and daisies anymore. First of all, she has that tattoo linking her mind to Rhysand’s, as well as Rhysand’s pesky bargain regarding Feyre’s living arrangements, to worry about. Add to that Tamlin’s newly developed overprotective personality, and the fact that all in the Spring Court abide by his command to keep Feyre safe by restraining her to the grounds and limiting her access to information. Feyre used to feel thankful for Tamlin’s protection, but now she feels stifled, bored and unchallenged. She also cannot get over the guilt regarding the crimes she committed in order to save everyone from Amarantha’s wrath. In addition, the more she gleans about how the courts work, the more repelled by the system she becomes. Oh yeah, and she now has all the powers of a High Fae, powers that reflect those of each of the courts’ High Lords.
On the day of Feyre and Tamlin’s wedding, Feyre falls apart. As he did multiple times in “A Court of Thorns and Roses,” Rhysand pops in and saves the day, whisking Feyre away to the dreaded Night Court. That is when everything changes and Feyre’s perspective shifts. Instead of willingly remaining a veiled treasure, Feyre gets her life back on track. She grows familiar with the people, places and politics of the Night Court, trains to control her potent powers and flirts mercilessly with Rhysand. All the while, a new and fiercer evil looms. And once more, Feyre is key in ending it.
Maas again focuses on the good versus evil trope, this time on a dual level, both between the courts and an outside force as well as between individual courts. This is a classic and widely appealing theme, so no complaints there, granted the lack of emphasis on the plot leaves something to be desired. Also again, Maas attempts to make the story grab adult readers by including explicit sex scenes. Maas needs more than said sex scenes to make the novel appropriate for adults. Take them away, and this book is young adult through and through. I will contend, though, that the integration of action and romance is accomplished much better in “A Court of Mist and Fury” than in its predecessor.
Written by Lauryn Smith
I did not think it would be possible, but “Dead Wake” has replaced “The Devil in the White City” as my favorite Erik Larson book. (Can I take a second to brag that my copy of the former is signed by the author?!) If you have not read any of this guy’s books, you need to. Like now.
In “Dead Wake,” Larson explores the events during the weeks leading up to the sinking of the luxury ocean liner the Lusitania on May 7, 1915. Many people have heard of this World War I disaster, but few know the minute details, the ill-fated set of conditions that culminated in the deaths of hundreds of passengers. In his characteristic compelling biographical style, Larson educates readers on this maritime catastrophe.
First, let’s talk basics. The Lusitania was a Cunard transatlantic liner that navigated between New York City and Liverpool. In response to competition, it was designed in 1907 to be one of the biggest, fastest, most luxurious and most modern ships around. It was the first of Cunard’s “grand trio” of four-funneled ships. This “Greyhound” was cruising from NYC to Liverpool in seas recently declared by Germany to be a war zone when it was attacked by a German U-boat, or submarine. On its final excursion, the Lusitania was captained by William Thomas Turner and contained passengers both regal and humble, as well as numerous children. Remarkably, as Larson demonstrates, the passengers were relatively calm sailing into submarine-infested waters during the tenth month of the war, likely an effect of the widespread expectation that civilian ships were to be kept safe from attack. But as luck would have it (and by luck I mean an array of circumstances that melded juuust so), Unterseeboot-20, the German submarine captained by Walther Schweiger, torpedoed the Lusitania, effectively ending its nautical reign, as well as forcing America’s participation in the war.
That summary of the Lusitania is truly just the beginning. It is tempting to detail all the interesting components Larson compiles in his newest nonfiction tale, but not only would that spoil the story, it would take ages. Larson unearths the myriad facets, both large and small, that led to this calamity, and he describes how the interrelation between them resulted in such an outcome. Weather, politics, ship design, cryptanalysis and more—all are important pieces of the story, and Larson presents them eloquently and effortlessly. He paints a vivid picture. Readers will walk away feeling quite familiar with the Lusitania, its history and its peripheral contexts.
Written by Lauryn Smith
I love Russia. Its architecture is beautiful, its culture fascinating, its people vogueish, its history unique. I recently returned from a trip to Moscow, and wow. The country is just incredible. To supplement my research prior to travel, I borrowed my dad’s first edition copy of “The Last Tsar,” also known as “The Last Tsar & Tsarina,” by Virginia Cowles. (His copy happens to be stuffed with a handful of newspaper clippings, all of which relate in one way or another to the notorious Romanovs. Borrowing old books is so much fun).
As the book’s title implies, “The Last Tsar” is the nonfiction account of Tsar Nicholas II, the final Russian Emperor. Until 1917, tsars were the supreme rulers of Russia. (The term “tsar” derives from the Latin word for “Caesar,” or emperor.) Nicholas began his reign in 1894, and he was forced to abdicate in 1917. The following year, he and his immediate family were unceremoniously killed en masse by the Bolsheviks. Cowles outlines the events that led to the end of imperial rule and the unfortunate fate of Nicholas, and she does so in a way that is both thorough and comprehensible.
Cowles elucidates Nicholas’s character, as well as that of his wife, the German-born Alexandra Feodorovna. The couple, we learn, unfalteringly believed that their rule was a God-given right. Alexandra had great influence on Nicholas and his policies, and the infamous Grigori Rasputin had great influence on Alexandra. Nicholas possessed a warm, timid personality, especially toward Alexandra and their five children. However, he was christened “Bloody Nicholas” by the Russian people, who derided his dependence on Alexandra’s input, his inept leadership and his role in thrusting Russia into a state of war and violence.
Written by Lauryn Smith
You probably know by now that Donna Tartt is one of my favorite authors. “The Secret History” and “The Goldfinch” are both easily on my list of top 10 favorite books. Now I am here to discuss “The Little Friend.” I will not be adding “The Little Friend” to my top 10 list, but it is still worth reading… and then reading again.
In this work of fiction, Tartt takes us to the American South. In Alexandria, Mississippi, a young, headstrong girl named Harriet is determined to find justice for the unsolved murder of her older brother Robin, who on Mother’s Day 12 years earlier was found dead, hanging from a tree in his own front yard. Ever since that fateful day, Harriet’s family, particularly her mother Charlotte, has been despondent, and memories of Robin cast woeful shadows whenever they arise. Trouble ensues as Harriet and her faithful companion Hely home in on Danny, a member of the ne'er-do-well Ratliff family, whom they suspect of the crime.
Tartt uses these circumstances to illustrate the dichotomies of good and evil, innocence and guilt. Doing so through the lens of a child is a genius decision, as it also makes possible the detailing a person’s coming of age, which adds depth to Tartt’s efforts. The latter theme is tried and true, but Tartt imagines a wholly unique version of the tale, giving readers a flawed though entirely lovable and unexpected protagonist.
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