A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Rating: 4.5 of 5

Okay, I gave it a couple weeks, to allow the emotional effects time to dissipate, before I wrote my review. No change, though. I am still head-over-heels for A Man Called Ove. I didn’t think it possible but I loved Ove just as much as Elsa and her Grandma (characters from Backman’s My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry); all three of them are simply endearing, so how could I not.

The book opens with 59-year-old Ove’s attempt to buy an “O-Pad.” If you’re not laughing out loud by the time you finish that first chapter, chances are this isn’t the book for you. Me? I couldn’t wait to spend the next four to five hours with Ove. One of those books where I loathed having to sit it aside for mundane tasks like eating or sleep.

Ove’s grumpy, he’s borderline antisocial, he’s stuck in his ways. But he has a story – don’t we all? – and his story has shaped the man he is, for better or worse. He’s not perfect, not by a long shot, but he’s beautifully flawed with the kind of character we don’t see a whole lot of in the real world anymore. The plot itself isn’t anything mind-blowing, but if you care at all about Ove, you’ll be curious as to how exactly it will all play out.

Ove didn’t dislike this cat in particular. It’s just that he didn’t much like cats in general. He’d always perceived them as untrustworthy…It was actually quite difficult to determine whether [Ernest] was just an unusually large cat or an outstandingly small lion. And you should never befriend something if there’s a possibility it may take a fancy to eating you in your sleep.

The book is filled to the brim with Ove’s “perfectly sensible observations” like the one above. From the lazy work ethic of today’s youth who are more interested in their lunch break than doing their job to people who ignore the obvious signs posted about where to park their bicycles and where not to drive their cars to a clown in a hospital ward who doesn’t do real magic. Some of his thinking will have you shaking with giggles while at the same time saying to yourself, “But he’s right!” And of course many of his beliefs are contradicted by his behavior, which makes him even more comical.

A story that shows just when you think you’re all alone, with nothing left to live for, there’s always hope for another chance to reconnect with life, with other people, with love. I laughed and cried throughout A Man Called Ove, and by its end I was a blubbering mess.

Highly recommended to anyone struggling with grief or loneliness.

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(Review cross-posted on LibraryThing and Goodreads.)

Top 5 Books Read in 2016

I’d love to hear about the best books you read last year, so please feel free to share your favorites in the comment box. They can be from any genre, published in any year; the only stipulation is that you read the book sometime during 2016.

For those interested, here’s my complete reading list for 2016. I had more 4- and 5-star reviews than I expected, and many of those books had the WOW! factor for which I’m always on the prowl. Sadly, I have to whittle that list down to only my Top 5 (except for the few honorable mentions I sneaked in at the end). 😛

The Night Circus by Erin MorgensternThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Published 9/13/2011)

The circus arrives without warning. If you’re not compelled to read on, after that first sentence, you may not fall as head-over-heels as I did. When it came time to share my thoughts about this book, I was stumped. So many feelings to sift through to find an actual, logical thought. At its heart is a love story, surrounded by a competition between masters and their apprentices, wrapped in lots and lots of magic. I could see that magic, close my eyes and touch it. All my senses were fully engaged. It’s a rare book that uses smells and sounds with such clarity and power. My favorite book read in 2016!

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Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuireEvery Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (Published 4/5/2016)

Most of us have read a portal fantasy; The Chronicles of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland being two of the most widely read. The adventure in a portal fantasy often focuses on escaping the fantasy and getting back to the “real” world. So what happens to the characters who found their portal but had to leave? Every Heart a Doorway explores that very situation. I loved this – beautiful, macabre, diverse – book, and I cannot wait to read its companion (available for pre-order). For anyone who ever searched and searched for their secret door, or for those who still do.

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All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane AndersAll the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (Published 1/26/2016)

A weird mash-up of science fiction and fantasy presented with a unique voice. And I mean “weird” in the best possible way. Highly recommended if you’re looking for something different, something simultaneously imaginary and realistic.

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Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. ButlerParable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler (Published 11/1/1993)

It’s always bittersweet to read a new-to-me author praised as a master of their craft. I’m overjoyed to have FINALLY read one of their works; I’m also sad because I wish I would’ve read them decades earlier, especially in my tweens and teens. At the age when I so desperately wanted stories with strong female characters who weren’t white Mary Sues nor obsessed with romance. Lauren Olamina is forthright, loyal, rational…all qualities I look for in my real-life friendships. She’s the kind of leader a non-follower like myself would be proud to join on any quest.

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Where Futures End by Parker PeevyhouseWhere Futures End by Parker Peevyhouse (Published 2/9/2016)

Young adult dystopia. I can almost hear the eye rolls. 😉 But don’t let the saturated genre fool ya; this is young adult literature for the thinking teen (or adult). There’s time travel, an alternate universe and some scary ideas of just how far social media and corporate sponsorship could go. The author has described it as”Donnie Darko + Cloud Atlas.” Recommended to readers who like interconnected stories, non-linear narratives, and generally hard to label books.

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Honorable Mentions:
Weird Girl and What’s His Name by Meagan Brothers
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman
When the Elephants Dance by Tess Uriza Holthe
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Top 5 Books Read in 2015
Top 5 Books Read in 2014
Top 5 Books Read in 2013
Top 5 Books Read in 2012

Sleeping in Flame by Jonathan Carroll

Rating: 4 of 5

A modern fairy tale mixed with the metaphysical set firmly in the real world of the 1980s.

Do you read mystery novels? Yes? It’s the same with them. A fool can read ten pages and then turn to the end to see if the butler did it. But why ruin the whole process? The fun is trying to figure out the mystery yourself. If you get it right at the end then you really feel good and not a cheat.

Don’t go in expecting The Land of Laughs. Lines between reality and fantasy are blurred in both stories, but Sleeping in Flame offers neither the whimsy nor the suspense found in The Land of Laughs.

Be prepared for some dated references and misogyny. Women are first introduced by their external appearance or behavior; men by their careers, accomplishments and social standing. For example, near the very end of the book, Walker is on a train in the first-class compartment by himself when “…a woman walked in. When I saw her I thought of a line my college roommate had once said when were gassing about women. ‘Sometimes you see one on the street who’s so beautiful you want to walk up to her, put your hand over her mouth, and just whisper ‘Don’t talk. Come with me.’ You take her immediately to bed, never letting her say a word. Because no matter what she says, it’s going to spoil that first beauty you saw in her. You know what I mean? Silent, she’s perfect.’ The woman across from me was that kind of perfect.”

I’m still confused as to what was so special about Maris York, the woman Walker falls in love with at first sight. Other than being a former supermodel turned artist with the ability to read tarot cards, who is first introduced needing rescued from an abusive ex-lover, she seems like a regular woman to me. Yet every man she meets falls in love with her. Is it because, for her art, she builds LEGO cities then sells them for outrageous amounts of money?

Besides the way women are portrayed, there’s an exchange between Walker and Elisabeth Benedikt about her son that seemed inaccurate to me. She asks Walker if he knows what being autistic is. He replies, “Schizophrenic?” To which Elisabeth responds, “More or less. Lillis lives in his own head.” Of course, I’m no expert on either, but I have a relative with schizophrenia and he’s very different from the autistic children and adults I’ve encountered.

Now let’s get to the good stuff: the reason I enjoyed Sleeping in Flame

The only thing we can really know is what we’re experiencing, or what we’ve already lived. Then we’ve got to study it like crazy till we understand.

It’s revealed early on that Walker is an orphan. He was raised by the wonderful Easterling family, but he could never get over the fact that he was found as an infant in a dumpster by a homeless man. Soon after meeting Maris, Walker starts having strange experiences like seeing an accident before it happens and the appearance of a legendary sea creature. He also has vivid dreams in which everything he sees and does appears to have happened before. In an attempt to make sense of all the weirdness – magic, according to Maris – Walker goes to a shaman who wants to teach him how to fly and, slowly, Walker begins to unravel the mystery of his life.

Recommended to those seeking modern fairy-tale retellings who don’t mind an ambiguous ending. [spoiler]For anyone who ever wondered what would’ve happened to the baby if the queen hadn’t correctly named Rumpelstiltskin.[/spoiler]

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(Review cross-posted on LibraryThing and Goodreads.)

The big reveal (SPOILERS):

Bone Swans by C. S. E. Cooney

Rating: 4 of 5

A collection of five novellas, Bone Swans exceeded my expectations.

I’ll admit to not being the right reader for “Life on the Sun” and “Martyr’s Gem.” And “The Big Bah-Ha” had clowns, need I say more?

But I absolutely lost my mind when I finished “How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain with the Crooked One,” a fairy-tale retelling based on Rumpelstiltskin tales. It was SO good, an instant favorite — seriously, it’s worth buying this book for that story alone.

The other retelling, “The Bone Swans of Amandale,” a mash-up of “The Pied Piper” and “The Juniper Tree,” was more sinister than, yet as equally fulfilling as “Milkmaid.” That’s saying a lot coming from me because I’m not usually too impressed with the Pied Piper. (See “Some Wait” by Stephen Graham Jones in The Starlit Wood for another exception to my usual meh response to the Piper.) Maurice cracked me up! He reminded me of Templeton from Charlotte’s Web[spoiler]; although, Maurice does end up being more good than bad. Almost an anti-hero[/spoiler].

If you’re looking for stories with a fresh voice, I highly recommend this collection.

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(Review cross-posted on LibraryThing and Goodreads.)

The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales

Rating: 4 of 5

From the Introduction: “From the woods to the stars, join us on eighteen extraordinary journeys into unexpected territories, uncharted lands, and unforeseen experiences. Welcome to an adventure that’s strangely familiar and startlingly different at the same time. You’re likely to emerge changed, but isn’t that the way it is with all the best stories?”

My thoughts: An excellent anthology with lovely, intricate illustrations. (Take a peek at a few on the illustrator’s website.) Most times with collections I’m prepared to trudge through at least a handful of the stories that don’t quite WOW me. Not the case with The Starlit Wood; only one failed to hold my attention, and I’m sure that’s more to do with my personal tastes than its quality or mass appeal. I also loved reading the Author’s Note that followed each story.

There are stories that read like a traditional fairy tale and stories that lean more heavily toward fantasy/ sci-fi / western inspired by fairy tales. Having that blend of cross-genre tales really gives this anthology the extra oomph often overlooked in collections.

There was a tie for my favorite: Kat Howard‘s “Reflected” and Stephen Graham Jones‘ “Some Wait.” Naomi Novik‘s “Spinning Silver” was a close runner-up.

Highly recommend to fairy-tale enthusiasts on the hunt for original retellings.

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(Review cross-posted on LibraryThing and Goodreads.)

Table of Contents (with original tale, hidden in case you want to be surprised):

Halfway Down the Stairs by Gary A. Braunbeck

Rating: 4 of 5

Synopsis: “Climb halfway down the stairs with Bram Stoker Award-Winning author Gary A. Braunbeck, into worlds that occupy the spaces between “here” and “there,” where office workers become little more than scrolls of code and an ordinary man discovers that he has to help reassemble the missing face of God; from battle-scarred veterans who have to protect their village from encroaching spirits to a college experiment that may bring about the end of days, all of these stories feature Braunbeck’s trademark element: an unblinking eye for emotional detail that elevates the subject matter of each piece into the realm of the genuinely literary.” (source)

My thoughts: There’s truly something for everyone in this behemoth collection, Halfway Down The Stairs, that covers Braunbeck’s 30-plus year career. Genres range from horror to mystery to science fiction; there are short pieces and stories over 35 pages long. Where I think Braunbeck excels is the people who populate his stories and the ideas that permeate every layer. I’d only read Mr. Hands prior to this collection, but I’m now a die-hard fan and I cannot wait to read more of his novels. Next on the list: In Silent Graves.

This took me nearly six months to complete! Highly recommended to Braunbeck’s fans.

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(Review cross-posted on LibraryThing and Goodreads.)

Received paperback from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.

The Gods of HP Lovecraft edited by Aaron J. French

Rating: 3.5 of 5

Synopsis: “The Gods of H.P. Lovecraft, a brand new anthology that collects the twelve principal deities of the Lovecraftian Mythos and sets them loose within its pages. Featuring the biggest names in horror and dark fantasy, including many NY Times bestsellers, full of original fiction and artwork, and individual commentary on each of the deities by Donald Tyson.” (source)

My thoughts: The Gods of HP Lovecraft is an anthology easily enjoyed by those new to the twelve principal deities of the Lovecraftian Mythos.

If, like me, a reader doesn’t have much experience reading Lovecraft, the commentary on each deity, written by Donald Tyson, is a simple way to familiarize oneself prior to reading the story. Though, it would have been more practical for newbies (or those needing a quick refresher) if each commentary were presented before the new stories, not after.

It took about five months to make my way through this huge collection! While there are hits and misses, par for the course in reading anthologies, the clear standouts are 1) the artwork and 2) Seanan McGuire‘s “Down, Deep Down, Below the Waves.”

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(Review cross-posted on LibraryThing and Goodreads.)

Received paperback from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.

Table of contents (with the deity):
“Call the Name” by Adam LG Nevill (Cthulhu)
“The Dark Gates” by Martha Wells (Yog-Sothoth)
“We Smoke the Northern Lights” by Laird Barron (Azathoth)
“Petohtalrayn” by Bentley Little (Nyarlathotep)
“The Doors that Never Close and the Doors that Are Always Open” by David Liss (Shub-Niggurath)
“The Apotheosis of a Rodeo Clown” by Brett J. Talley (Tsathoggua)
“Rattled” by Douglass Wynne (Yig)
“In Their Presence” by Christopher Golden & James A. Moore (The Mi-Go)
“Dream a Little Dream of Me” by Jonathan Maberry (Nightgaunts)
“In the Mad Mountains” by Joe R. Lansdale (Elder Things)
“A Dying of the Light” by Rachel Caine (Great Race of Yith)
“Down, Deep Down, Below the Waves” by Seanan McGuire (The Deep Ones)

The Weaver by Emmi Itäranta

Rating: 3.5 of 5

Synopsis: “[A]n innocent young woman becomes entangled in a web of ancient secrets and deadly lies that lie at the dark center of her prosperous island world. Eliana is a model citizen of the island, a weaver in the prestigious House of Webs. She also harbors a dangerous secret—she can dream, an ability forbidden by the island’s elusive council of elders. No one talks about the dreamers, the undesirables ostracized from society.

Joining a band of brave rebels determined to expose the island’s dark secrets, Eliana becomes a target of ruthless forces determined to destroy her. To save herself and those she loves, she must call on the power within her she thought was her greatest weakness: her dreams.” (source)

My thoughts: I would prepare those readers expecting the stark, post-apocalyptic reality from Memory of Water; The Weaver is much more fantastical, mythical, dream-like. Its story a little denser, a little unfocused.

I loved the use of water in The Weaver — in this case it is something to be feared, the potential ender of life instead of the giver as in Memory. I loved that Eliana has brown skin[spoiler]; her girlfriend is pale-skinned, which, I assume, is who the publisher chose to feature on the book’s US cover. Booooo to them for whitewashing[/spoiler].

Emmi Itäranta writes such evocative prose! The entire waterwold felt alive – wet, cold, salt buildup – as if lying in wait to devour the island’s inhabitants. This island’s dystopia hinges on misinformation and control of information. Something I’m sure some of us can relate to.

I look forward to Itäranta’s next book.

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(Review cross-posted on LibraryThing and Goodreads.)

The Doorway and the Deep by K.E. Ormsbee

Rating: 4.5 of 5

Synopsis: “Travel back to the enchanting and treacherous land of Limn, where Lottie Fiske has escaped the murderous Southerly king for a while—but other perils are hard on her heels. War is coming to the beautiful world of magic that Lottie has come to love. Events are pushing her to the North, where many answers—about her parents, about her abilities, about this world and others—await. But the road to the north is full of dangers, and so are the answers.” (source)

My thoughts: Noooo! Not a cliffhanger?!!

The torture. The agony of waiting for the next book.

Yeah, I love it.

A red apple tree grows in the heart of Wandlebury Wood. It is a burst of color in a land of silver grass and white-barked yew trees, and out from its trunk step two travelers. The girl takes a small bird from her pocket. The boy takes a deep breath.

The Doorway and the Deep picks up pretty much right where The Water and the Wild left off. [spoiler]Lottie heals Eliot; they go off to Limn together. Which is awesome because when Lottie told Eliot’s dad all about her adventure, he believed her! That’s so rare in middle grade/YA — usually the adults never believe the kids.[/spoiler] There is minimal recap of book one aka no info dump. So if it’s been a year or more since you read The Water and the Wild, or if you aren’t that quick at recalling its events, you may want to refresh your memory before diving into book two.

The Doorway and the Deep is all about the quest for answers that will hopefully end the reign of the Southerly king and save Limn from total destruction. Along the way Lottie continues to hone her keen, wrestle her genga Trouble into obedience (or at least his inconsistent cooperation), navigate relationships with friends, allies, and a potential boyfriend (come on, we knew it was bound to happen), and struggle with the uncertainty of who she is and what she’s capable of.

This book is a page-turner; there’s a lot going on and, as my opening remarks all so subtly alluded to, the ending will leave readers wanting the next book immediately.

Highly recommended to young readers ages 8-12 especially if they’re seeking a strong female lead who isn’t perfect but still worthy of respect, if they love the idea of carrying around an adorable magical little bird in their pocket, if they’ve always dreamed of having a special ability. Or, if they’re dealing with a close friend or relative living with a terminal illness. This series has a lot to offer readers of all ages. So why aren’t more people reading these books?!!

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(Review cross-posted on LibraryThing and Goodreads.)

Received hardcover from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.

Celtic Tales: Fairy Tales and Stories of Enchantment by Kate Forrester

Rating: 4.5 of 5

Synopsis: “The traditional stories of Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, and Wales transport us to the fantastical world of Celtic folklore. Translated and transcribed by folklorists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the 16 stories in this compilation conjure forgotten realms and rare magical creatures in vivid prose. These timeless tales brim with wit and magic, and each one is brought to life with elegant silhouette art by Kate Forrester in this special illustrated edition.” (source)

My thoughts: The perfect gift for anyone who loves folklore and fairy tales!

Celtic Tales collects and “lightly” adapts 16 stories from four works* published in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The tales are organized into Tricksters, The Sea, Quests, and Romance.

Selkies, wyverns, witches, and giants.
Perilous quests, true love, and animals that talk.

Bold, vibrant illustrations introduce each story. (Have a look at a small sample on the illustrator’s website.) Nearly all of the stories were unfamiliar to me, but I’m relatively new to reading Celtic folklore. My favorite was “The Black Bull of Norroway,” which reminded me of an episode of The Storyteller.

Beautiful hardcover edition! I kept running my hand over the cover, feeling the raised knots, then the title — gorgeous.

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(Review cross-posted on LibraryThing and Goodreads.)

Received hardcover from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.

*The Scottish Fairy Book, Wonder Tales of Ancient Wales, Folk Tales of Brittany, and Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry.