Here is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World

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Thank you to Bloomsbury USA for providing a copy of Nate Staniforth’s memoir, Here is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Ever since Nate Staniforth was a child, he had always been captivated by magic, specifically, how a magic trick can bring a sense of wonder to even the most jaded adults. Staniforth persued his dream of becoming a magician and soon found himself burned out on a rigorous national tour and loosing what he had loved about being a magician. Stanfiorth takes a hiatus and travels to India to meet with street magicians, in the hopes that he can regain the spark that he had once felt for his craft.

LIKE– I absolutely love a magic show and I’m one of those adults that Staniforth loves to have in his audience, someone who allows themselves to be swept away by the wonder. Staniforth writes about the need as a performer to never allow yourself to lose your own excitement. A few years ago, my family went to see David Copperfield in Las Vegas. Copperfield is one of the premiere magicians in the world and Staniforth even mentions a childhood trip to see Copperfield perform. Copperfield’s show was the worst magic show and one of the worse live performances that I have ever seen. It had nothing to do with his talent and tricks, but everything to do with his lack of enthusiasm. Staniforth may not be as famous as Copeprfield (yet), but he knew enough to realize that he needed to take a break and reevaluate where his career was heading. I thought this was a very bold move, especially as he decided to take this risk just as his career was taking off.

I enjoyed reading about his travels in India, especially when he met with a family of magicians living in the slums. This portion of the story is very transformative, filled with sensory descriptions and self-reflection on the part of Staniforth. Staniforth is a likable narrator and it’s easy to join him on his journey, including the excitement that he experiences through his travels. It truly makes you realize that “magic” isn’t limited to a glitzy stage, but can be found in the every day.

DISLIKE– Nothing. This is Real Magic is a compelling, fast-paced memoir.

RECOMMEND– Yes! This is Real Magic is part memoir and part travel journal. It’s a wonderful pick for readers who enjoy magic, but who also can appreciate the wonders of every day life, especially lives different from their own.

Year of Yes

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PLOT– Writer and creator of several award-winning television shows (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal), Shonda Rhimes, shares how she spent a year saying yes to experiences that were outside of her comfort zone and how this quest changed her life.

LIKE– I have a confession: I’ve never seen a single episode of any of Shonda Rhimes’ hit shows. I’m well aware of who is she is, because I don’t live under a rock. Rhimes is one of the most successful show-runners on television. So, if I’m not a fan of her shows, why would I pick up her book? Year of Yes kept popping up on must-read lists and catching my eye in the book store. It’s a New York Times Bestseller and when I saw a copy on the remainders table, I grabbed it. It has been on my shelf for awhile and with the new year, it seemed like the type of book that could be inspiring.

It is inspiring! Rhimes talks about her insecurities and introverted nature, all of which caused her to turn down invitations and shy away from the lime light ( which is hard to do when you’re one of the most well-regarded women in Hollywood). During Thanksgiving 2013, Rhimes’ sister, Delorse, makes the comment that Rhimes never says yes to anything. Rhimes took this comment to heart and made the active choice to say yes in 2014, particularly to things that forced her outside of her comfort zone.

Among other things, she says yes to giving a commencement speech at her alma matter, Dartmouth. She says yes to appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live. She gives herself permissions to cut out toxic friendships and to focus on her health. Through all of this, she discovers that she actually enjoys the previously terrifying experiences,and is becoming a happier person.

Rhimes is intelligent, funny, and down-to-earth. She’s really likable and relatable. On a personal level, I connected with her childhood dreams of being a writer and how she would escape to the pantry to create stories or read. I was that kid too Shonda!

I don’t remember the exact quote, but I love a comment that Rhimes makes about her shows, how she wants to see people like herself on television, but also people who are different from her. She wants diversity in all forms.

DISLIKE– Nothing. Well, one thing…I now feel compelled to start watching Rhimes’ shows. How can I possibly take on a decade worth of Grey’s Anatomy? Where to start? Argh!

RECOMMEND– Say yes to Year of Yes. If you tend to be a bit of a introvert like me, it’s the kick in the pants that will get you to embrace new opportunities.

The Only Girl in the World

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Thank you to Little, Brown and Company for providing me with a copy of Maude Julien’s memoir, The Only Girl in the World, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Maude Julien recounts her traumatic childhood, being raised in France by parents with a bizarre belief system that causes them to raise their daughter with extreme deprivation and cruelty.

LIKEThe Only Girl in the World is intense and impossible to put down. Julien’s parents have a belief that their daughter must be raised with strict rules and odd punishments, to make her tough and a survivalist. Her parents regulate every aspect of her life, including the precise time she wakes up, how many times she chews her food, and the exact spot she is allowed to sit on a chair.  As soon as she can talk, she is given intense lessons in a variety of subjects, with the expectation that she should naturally be able to understand subjects that are taught to much older children and adults. The ability to play musical instruments is prized and she must learn several instruments, sometimes spending up to ten hours a day studying. On top of her education, she is given manual labor tasks, working along side laborers in the gated house where she lives, a house that she doesn’t leave for years at a time.

As if this wasn’t mad enough, Julien is given other challenges, such as being woken up in the middle of the night and forced to sit still in a pitch-black basement with rats. Her father forces her watch the monthly slaughtering of animals on their property and when she accidentally touches an electrified fence and flinches, he forces her to hold the fence on a regular basis to toughen up.

Julien’s mother plays an interesting role in this whole situation. When Julien’s mother was a child, her parents were poor and Julien’s father offered to buy her. He raised her and groomed her to be his wife, specifically to carry a child that she would then educate. Julien’s mother is complex. She is often just as tortured as her daughter, at the receiving end of her husband’s crazy ideas and anger. However, she is also envious of her daughter and willfully participates in the punishments. In the end, Julien shows forgiveness towards her mother, towards the acceptance that her mother was raised as part of this ideology and felt trapped.

Speaking of Ideology, Julien’s father spouts off confusing beliefs that involve the illuminati, Nazis, and various philosophers. As a reader, it’s clear that he is not in his right mind, as his ideas are not only muddled, but contradictory. Seeing it through the lens of Julien’s childhood, it’s easy to see how these ideas, coupled with her larger than life father, kept her in fear. It’s exciting to see her realize the truth and begin to rebel as a teen.

The most touching parts of her memoir involve Julien’s relationship with her pets. This was tricky to navigate, as her parents showed cruelty to the animals as well and Julien had to hide much of her affection, so that the animals wouldn’t be further punished or used as a way to hurt her. The animals and Julien’s love for books and writing (activities she also must hide) are what keeps her alive.

DISLIKE– Nothing. The Only Girl in the World is often upsetting and it’s emotionally difficult to read, but it’s also an incredible survival story.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Julien has had a difficult, but fascinating childhood. You will be in disbelief at some of the trauma that she had to endure and you’ll admire her perseverance. The Only Girl in the World is a page-turner and must-read memoir.

Record of a Night Too Brief

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Thank you to Pushkin Press for providing me with a copy of Hiromi Kawakami’s short story collection, Record of a Night Too Brief, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Japanese author Hiromi Kawakami’s short story collection, Record of a Night Too Brief, is comprised of three short stories that are surreal and magical. Translated to english by Lucy North.

LIKE/DISLIKE– Normally, I break what I like and dislike about a book, into two separate areas, but with Record of a Night Too Brief, the likes and dislikes blend together, and I thought it would be easiest to simply discuss the book as a whole.

The stories in Record of a Night Too Brief are quite bizarre. They are works of surrealism, with bits of magical realism, and I wondered how much of Japanese folklore was being worked in, that I wasn’t picking up on. Normally when I read translated fiction, I feel like I understand the cultural context, but perhaps because these stories were so unusual, I felt like I was getting lost in translation.

I have a confession: Until reading NetGalley’s description of the collection a few minutes ago, I didn’t realize that this was a collection of three stories. I thought it was a bunch of very short stories with two longer ones at the end. I’m not sure how I missed it ( perhaps because it was so bizarre and confusing) but I didn’t not catch on that the short chapters at the beginning of the story were actually one story, rather than individual shorts. Being totally honest, I didn’t understand them. I read them more as stories that elicited an emotion, rather than stories that make sense from a storytelling standpoint. It was like walking around a modern art exhibit.

The last two stories, I enjoyed far more. The first was about a woman who is haunted by her older brother, who has died. This brother had been arranged to marry a local girl, who does not know what he looked like, so the family simply marries her to his younger brother, without telling her. The dead brother haunts the household, but only his sister can see him. In one chilling scene, his ghost attempts to make-out with his would-be bride, which his sister can see and she watches as her new sister-in-law struggles to breathe, because a ghost is pressing on her chest.

The last story features a woman who comes home from work to discover a snake in her house. This snake can shift into a woman. It turns out there is a whole world of people who can turn themselves into snakes and they try to lure other people to join them. Animals and transformation are themes woven throughout this collection.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. Record of a Night Too Brief wasn’t my cup of tea, but I did find the story about the ghost to be engaging. Overwhelmingly, I felt like I wasn’t understanding these stories. If you are able to read Kawakami’s stories in Japanese or know more about the Japanese culture, I suspect you would have a very different experience. This collection did win Japan’s Akutagawa prize.

The End We Start From

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Thank you to Grove Atlantic for providing me with a copy of Megan Hunter’s novel, The End We Start From, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – In the not-too-distance future, a major flood has destroyed London and the unnamed narrator must try to survive with her newborn baby.

LIKE- The End We Start From is a survival story at a break-neck pace. Although due to family visiting, I had to read it in small chunks, Hunter’s novella can easily be read in a single sitting. Due to the fast pacing and intense subject of the story, I would highly recommend setting aside a few uninterrupted hours and diving in.

I liked that Hunter left a lot of mystery, she does not spell things out. Although we know that there has been extreme flood, we don’t know more details. For example, we don’t know the range and extent of the disaster. This put me in the mindset of the narrator, as she struggles to survive with a lack of direct information. The larger scope of the disaster is really irrelevant to this particular story. The focus is on her survival, the immediate situation, and deals with the rumors and misinformation that she receives as she moves to different refugee camps. She must assess her best move on the fly, including dealing with dangers.

The End We Start From reminded me of The Walking Dead or Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road. The themes and general story line are not a new idea, however, The End We Start From remains compelling because of the narrator and the exploration of how humans react in extreme circumstances.

The ending was very interesting to me. It switches from a story of physical survival to one of emotional survival. Hunter ends the story at a precarious moment. The only thing that I was left feeling certain of, is that the narrator is a survivor and will continue to survive.

DISLIKE– I’m a bit uncertain as to whether only naming the characters by their first initial was a good move. As a reader, I sometimes found it to be confusing and distracting. I had to reread sections to remind myself of a character, which took me out of the story. From a storytelling standpoint, it creates a necessary barrier that the narrator must put up for her own survival. It also quickens the pacing.

RECOMMEND– Yes. The End We Start From is a fast-paced and emotional journey. It’s filled with danger and tension. I never quite knew where it was heading and I found the ending to be quite a surprise. I’d seek out future novels by Hunter.

Millard Salter’s Last Day

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Thank you to Gallery Books for providing me with a copy of Jacob M. Appel’s novel, Millard Salter’s Last Day, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- Psychiatrist Millard Salter has decided to kill himself. The love of his life has recently died after an illness and he fears the idea of growing old with the possibility of having a disease or needing assistance. He feels that he has lived enough life and plans to hang himself, while things are still good. With this plan in mind, he spends his last couple of days tying up loose ends. He tries to wrap things up at work and visits with his ex-wife and adult children. He soon learns that leaving might not be as easy as he had anticipated.

LIKE- It took me time to get into the pacing and rhythm of Millard Salter’s Last Day, but as soon as I did (last third of the story,) I felt swept away. Appel has created a complicated protagonist in Salter and I felt the weight of his worries and sorrows. Through his characters, Appel makes a strong argument for the need to have assisted suicide and speaks to the trauma of watching a loved one battle through a terminal disease. Salter helps a loved on with assisted suicide, which is described in detail.

Although Salter is a lauded psychiatrist, his fears and depression create a situation where he justifies ending his life.  I suppose the argument could be made that people should have the freedom to live their lives ( or end their lives) as they see fit, at any stage, but I felt the overriding theme of Millard Salter’s Last Day is that Salter’s life should not end. His judgement is clouded. The worst of it, is none of the other doctor’s at the hospital where he works, even notice that something is wrong. They are too busy trying to get ahead in their careers and dealing with office politics. Salter’s family doesn’t notice either. It’s a sad and unfortunate situation all around, a commentary on how isolated people can feel and how blind we can all be to the suffering of others.

DISLIKEMillard Salter’s Last Day is pitched as a book similar to Frederik Backman’s novel, A Man Called Ove. They deal with similar themes; like Salter, Ove is hell-bent on killing himself and finds the leaving process to be more difficult than anticipated. However, that’s where the similarities end. Backman’s novel has humor and light to breakup the heavy theme. Ove undergoes a huge transformation, where as Salter stays the same. Salter’s weak story arc, my primary issue with the story.

I had compassion for Salter, but I found him to be a difficult character to stay with for an entire novel. I couldn’t read Millard Salter’s Last Day, without reading several other books at the same time. As such, it took me over a month to read, when it should have taken a day or two. As I mentioned previously, it didn’t grab me until the last third, the first two-thirds were sluggish.

RECOMMEND– Probably not. Millard Salter’s Last Day is heavy. Salter is a solid character, but he  doesn’t have a solid story.

 

The Tribulations of August Barton

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Thank you to author Jennifer LeBlanc for providing me with a copy of your novella, The Tribulations of August Barton, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– It’s difficult being a college freshman and it’s even more difficult if you’re August Barton. August is an anxious young man and his anxiety issues spike when things in his life spiral out of control. His parents are getting a divorce, he is completely uncool in the eyes of his dorm roommate, and his wild-child grandmother is causing problems in her nursing home. Can August handle all of these issues and learn to enjoy his first year at college?

LIKE– This story is nuts. It’s really outlandish and unexpected in the best possible way. August’s grandmother, Gertie is the polar opposite to August’s personality. Where he is shy and nervous, she embraces life and lives loud. She is not content to spend her remaining days in a nursing home, so she runs away, implicating August in her wild adventures. She brings along an old friend and fellow former prostitute, Tunes, and they work together to have a last hurrah, while making sure that August learns to live a little. They even join August at a college party, proving that age is no barrier to a good time or popularity.

The Tribulations of August Barton has a wonderful zest for life and a theme of seizing the day.

DISLIKE– Too short, way too short. The story felt crammed in, especially for the level of wackiness. I needed more time to understand and embrace the characters. The breakneck pace was too much for a novella and underserved the story.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. I loved the characters and the spirit of The Tribulations of August Barton, but I felt I was reading a solid draft, rather than a polished story.

Flat Broke with Two Goats

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Thank you to Sourcebooks for providing me with an advance copy of Jennifer McGaha’s memoir, Flat Broke with Two Goats, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- Jennifer McGaha was living a comfortable, upper middle-class life in the suburbs, when her world fell apart. A combination of the 2008 financial crash and living beyond their means, created a hole that Jennifer and her husband, David, couldn’t seem to climb out of. David dropped a bombshell on Jennifer, when he revealed that they owed over a hundred thousand  in back taxes, and that their house was about to be repossessed. A small solution presented itself, by way of a bargain rental cabin deep in the Appalachian countryside. The cabin was in disrepair and lacked all of the comforts that they were used to having. It also boasted some roommates: venomous snakes, spiders, and other critters. Would Jennifer and David be able to embrace their new lifestyle as they slowly fixed their debt? Would their marriage survive?

LIKE- I liked McGaha’s frank discussion regarding her financial issues. She experiences a range of emotions, including a lack of trust towards her husband and a profound sense of loss. Although she never loses sight of the fact that she has come from a privileged background and at the end of the day, she still has a roof over her head and love from her family, she still undergoes a transition, where she has to mourn her old life and reshape herself.

Certainly, Flat Broke with Two Goats, made me think about my own finances and I took this to be a cautionary tale. Your life can easily change by any number of factors. On a much more minor level than McGaha’s experience, last year I moved to a different state and sold my childhood home, when my husband got a job transfer. I was depressed over it for about six months and I wish I had read McGaha’s memoir during that time, as it’s a great boost towards putting things in perspective. Life changes and you must roll with them.

Also, on the financial cautionary tale aspect, it was scary how long it took McGaha to be able to negotiate a repayment plan with the IRS. It’s not as if they weren’t trying to come up with a  solution, but as time passed, they had their wages garnished and had zero access to credit cards. They really had their hands tied, as they spent years in the process of trying to work out a repayment.

McGaha’s transition from a suburbia dweller to living in the country, is fascinating. She embraces her family’s pioneering, Appalachian roots. by growing crops and raising animals. She learns to raise chickens for eggs and goats for cheese. McGaha has a beautiful writing style and she really imparts the unique personalities of her farm animals to the reader. As an animal lover, it was heartbreaking to read about their animals getting ill and old, but she writes about learning to tend for farm animals with love and compassion.

DISLIKE– They is not much that I disliked about Flat Broke with Two Goats, but I did wonder about the title. There are far more than two goats in the story and it’s not like a particular two goats are more meaningful than the others. The chickens seem to play a big role too. I think it sounds nice as a title, but I wondered when the meaning would present itself and it never did.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Flat Broke with Two Goats is an inspirational story and McGaha is a engaging writer. I think this is a great pick for anyone undergoing a transition in their lives and in need of a moral boost. it’s also great as reminder to be aware of your finances and lifestyle.

A Thousand Rooms

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Thank you to NetGalley and author Helen Jones for providing me with a copy of A Thousand Rooms in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- Katie has just died and she finds herself at the scene of her death without anyone to greet her or further instructions. When she thinks of something, such as the store where she purchased the snazzy new red heels that she was wearing when a car hit her, she is transported to that place. Katie begins to get the hang of transporting herself and travels to see her family and friends as they deal with her death, but she is still left wondering, if this is all there is?

Katie get an idea to travel to a convalescent hospital to be near another human when they die and she discovers that the afterlife is different for everyone. Katie learns that she can travel to different afterlife realms and soon she is gathering pieces of the puzzle to understand the meaning of her own death.

LIKE– Jones fills A Thousand Rooms with so much creativity that I kept turning the page to see what was coming next. I couldn’t anticipate where Jones was taking her story, which kept it compelling. She weaves folklore and concepts from various religions into the different rooms/realms that Katie visits. I love the idea that the afterlife can be such an individualized experience. One of my favorite small twists is when Katie thinks she is witnessing a death, but it turns out to be a conception. It’s a joyful moment. Also joyful, are the scenes when Katie is reconnecting with her grandfather in their heaven. It’s a wonderful balance after the somber scenes of Katie watching her family on earth grieving.

DISLIKE– Katie felt flat. I could easily go along with her story because it was so unexpected, but I had difficulty both imagining her physically and going along with her emotional journey. When I felt emotion, it was situational, rather than because I was connected to the protagonist. For example, having experienced profound grief, I felt emotions while reading about her parents and friends in grief, but not for the loss of Katie specifically. When Katie connects with Jason, I didn’t feel the emotions. I like the concept of their relationship and how they are kept apart, but I didn’t bond with either character.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. A Thousand Rooms is a quick read and I liked the concept of Jones’ story. My lack of connection to the characters hold me back from fully recommending A Thousand Rooms. 

Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South

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Thank you to University of North Carolina Press for providing me with an advance copy of Karen L. Cox’s book, Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Historian and author, Karen L. Cox, explores the sensational true-crime case of Jennie Merrill, who was murdered in Natchez, Mississippi in 1932.

LIKE– Although I had never heard of the Jennie Merrill murder case, this was one of the top news stories during the Great Depression. One of the primary reasons that Merrill’s murder captivated America, and one of the big reasons that this book was so fascinating, is the bizarre and colorful characters that were involved.

Merrill was a rich, recluse who lived in a mansion and aside from necessary trips to town and work-staff, she only socialized with her cousin, who was in love with her and lived in a nearby house. They were both older and there was gossip that they may have even secretly wed. Merrill was murdered in a robbery gone wrong and several people were involved.

Two of the suspects were Merrill’s next door neighbors, Richard Dana and Octavia Dockery. They were essentially squatting in a crumbing mansion, where animals like goats and chickens freely roamed the rooms. The house should have been condemned, it was filled with vermin, mold and rotting animals. Dana and Dockery were eccentrics and went by the monikers; Mountain Man and Goat Woman. They had previous court dealings with Merrill over their goats destroying her property and there was zero love between neighbors.

Along with Dana and Dockery, George Pearls and Emily Burns were at the scene of the crime. Pearls was an African-American man who had recently returned to his hometown of Natchez, after having trouble finding a job up North. He quickly began a relationship with Burns, a local domestic, who became involved with the robbery/murder, after Pearls picked her up, giving her the impression that he was taking her on a date.

Burns ended up being the only person to serve time for Merrill’s murder, even though she was the least involved of the four. Pearls ran away up North and although he was convicted for his involvement, he was presumed dead and didn’t serve time. Dana and Dockery were initially jailed as suspects, but were set free, even though the evidence was against them. It’s very likely that being white is what allowed them to escape, especially since lawyers were able to pin the crime on Burns. At that time in Natchez, they law held that if you were involved with a murder, whether or not you committed the actual crime, you were equally guilty by association. Burns served eight years of hard labor of a life sentence, a sentence that was overturned by a government official who decided to show her mercy and set her free for time served. It was very clear that Burns did not plan the crime and her guilt was one by association and for standing-by while the crime took place.

The craziest part of the story involved Dana and Dockery. When they were released, they capitalized on the fame of their story and started giving tours of their home. They had zero shame and hammed up their eccentricities, giving the public what they expected. Their living conditions shocked the nation. Although they were still technically squatters, Dana and Dockery did nothing to pay rent or use the money to fix up their home. They also had several different lawsuits for various matters, always trying to squeeze money from somewhere. They both died years after Merrill, still living at Goat Castle. The actual owners of the property were never able to evict them and when they were dead, Goat Castle was demolished.

DISLIKE– The pacing was slow. I found the second half of the story to be more compelling than the first. It took me longer to read Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South, than it should have, simply because of the pacing.

RECOMMEND– Yes, if you’re a fan of American history or true crime, Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South, is a great pick.. The story is outrageous and filled with fascinating characters. Although this happened in the 1930’s, it’s unfortunate to note that justice/incarceration issues for African-Americans in this country, has not changed much. The Goat Castle case remains relevant with regard to the treatment of race in America.