Essays, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Short Stories

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris

Last Christmas, I asked my coworkers for a book recommendation for my sister and I for the holidays. Jennifer suggested David Sedaris, and while I didn’t get around to reading it last year, I did this year, and, well, you’ll see…

Synopsis

David Sedaris’s beloved holiday collection is new again with six more pieces, including a never before published story. Along with such favorites as the diaries of a Macy’s elf and the annals of two very competitive families, are Sedaris’s tales of tardy trick-or-treaters; the difficulties of explaining the Easter Bunny to the French; what to do when you’ve been locked out in a snowstorm; the puzzling Christmas traditions of other nations; what Halloween at the medical examiner’s looks like; and a barnyard secret Santa scheme gone awry.

Review

Thirty pages into the first story of Holidays on Ice and I had started a post-it note list of all the things I didn’t like. And then, for better or worse, I had to remind myself that this book was originally published just over 20 years ago in a less politically correct time. Swearing and such I can tolerate. Calling people with special needs retards? Not so much. Praising little girls’ looks and little boys’ brains? Further proof of what a systemic problem sexism is in our society.

And then I reminded myself that while reading this with a 2010s state of mind, in the 1990s, people would have thought twice about comments such as this. Which, while problematic, meant that I could put down my angry post-its and enjoy the humor of David Sedaris because, hopefully, we’ve reached the point this year, where everyone knows how problematic such language is. If you’re still unsure, I’ll give you a full lesson, but this is not the place for it.

I laughed my way through most of Sedaris’ stories, not all of which are specifically Christmas themed, but holiday themed which was a pleasant mix. At times it was difficult to decipher which entries were stories and which were essays, but all were entertaining in their own right. At less than 200 pages, Holidays on Ice is a quick and (mostly) enjoyable read, and I would pick up one of Sedaris’s other works to further explore his writing, though I would definitely pick a more recent publication.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $12.99 • 9780316078917 • 176 pages • first published October 1997, this edition published October 2010 by Back Bay Books • average Goodreads rating 3.95 out of 5 • read in December 2017

David Sedaris’s Website

Holidays on Ice on Goodreads

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Holidays on Ice

Fantasy, Fiction, New Adult, Novella

Hear Me by Viv Daniels

This book is known to my family as “the reason Sarah owns a dreaded Kindle.” New Adult author Viv Daniels (aka my second favorite author in the whole wide world Diana Peterfreund), originally released this book eBook only. Two years later, I found that I could order a paperback (pictured above), but of course I had to read it as soon as it was released and therefore begged my dad to get me the device I swore I never wanted for Christmas that year. And while I’m not a big “holiday” reader, this is one of the few winter/Christmas books I read in December and it really did help get me in the holiday spirit.

Synopsis

Once upon a time, Ivy belonged to Archer, body, heart, and soul. They spent long summer days exploring the forest, and long summer nights exploring each other. But that was before dark magic grew in the depths of the wilderness, and the people of Ivy’s town raised an enchanted barrier of bells to protect themselves from the threat, even though it meant cutting off the forest people—and the forest boy Ivy loved—forever.

And there’s a naked man lying in the snow. Three years later, Ivy keeps her head down, working alone in her tea shop on the edge of town and trying to imagine a new future for herself, away from the forest and the wretched bells, and the memory of her single, perfect love. But in the icy heart of winter, a terrifying magic blooms—one that can reunite Ivy and Archer, or consume their very souls.

Review

For an eBook of not even 200 pages, Hear Me sticks with me, a good 3 years after I finished reading it. In one sitting. Viv Daniels (Diana Peterfreund) has cemented herself as an extraordinary writer and story crafter. Typically, when I go about “topic-tagging” a book, as I call, it there are usually about 10 to 15 that I assign, 5 to 10 for the books that are not at all complex or intriguing. This one? Over 30. That’s on par with a good series and, it weighs in at only 170 pages.

I had previously written off New Adult as being just “young adult with a steamy sex scene thrown in.” Does Hear Me fulfill that? Yes. If there was an R rating for books, this would have it. But Hear Me does so much more than tell the tale of loner Ivy and her aching, Archer loving heart – it explores the themes of oppression and racism, self-loathing and self-acceptance, desperation, and sacrifice, all in the name of love, and in a world, that is far from kind and frequently cruel and unjust. So, as is often the question with New Adult these days it seems, does it need the sex? No. Does the steaminess make it more enjoyable? Maybe. Does Viv Daniels do an expert job in telling an interesting, intriguing, and thought-provoking story? Absolutely.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.00 • 9781937135140 • 204 pages • published November 2014 by Word for Word • average Goodreads rating 3.26 out of 5 • read in December 2014

Viv Daniels’ Website

Hear Me on Goodreads

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Hear Me

Fantasy, Fiction

The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman

Happy Halloween! Since I don’t read a lot of horror, I figured a fantasy series was the next best pick for Halloween.

The Magicians Synopsis

Intellectually precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater escapes the boredom of his daily life by reading and rereading a series of beloved fantasy novels set in an enchanted land called Fillory. Like everybody else, he assumes that magic isn’t real – until he finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York.

After stumbling through a Brooklyn alley in winter, Quentin finds himself on the grounds of the idyllic Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy in late summer. There, after passing a gruesomely difficult entrance examination, he begins a thorough and rigorous education in the craft of modern sorcery, while also discovering the joys of college: friendship, love, sex, and alcohol. But something is missing. Even though Quentin learns to cast spells and transform into animals, and gains power he never dreamed of, magic doesn’t bring him the happiness and adventure he thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends embark on an aimless, hedonistic life in Manhattan, struggling with the existential crises that plague pampered and idle young sorcerers. Until they make a stunning discovery that propels them on a remarkable journey, one that promises to finally fulfill Quentin’s yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than Quentin could have imagined. His childhood dream is a nightmare with a shocking truth at its heart.

Series Review

Oh Quentin. My bloody brilliant Quentin. I both adore and despise you. This might be less of a review and more of a Quentin Coldwater character analysis…

Never have I had such a love-hate relationship with a primary character in a book. I abandoned The Magicians halfway through the first time I started reading it back when I was a 20-year-old junior in college because I hated Quentin. I couldn’t stand him. He embodied everything that I hated about the stereotypical college boys but at the same time, like my dear, beloved, favorite character Alice (she rivals my Hermione love like no other), I was inexplicably drawn to him. I just didn’t want to read about him.

Fast forward five years and I found myself one day just staring at the cover of The Magician’s Land and, surprising longing for Quentin’s world of Brakebills College of Magic. So, continuing on my quest of “reading” the books already on my shelves by listening to the audiobook, I rented The Magicians from the library as I find it best to return to the beginning and not to trust my loathsome memory to remember all the details (and especially why I found Alice so awesome) required to start in the middle of The Magicians half a decade after my initial foray into reading about Quentin and his motley crew.

Is Q still terribly annoying more than 75% of the time? Yes. Does it matter anymore? No. Because I realized that Quentin is simply the mouthpiece for the larger story and by the time The Magician King rolls around, he is not the only point of view character (yay!). Quentin isn’t even the hero of his own story half the time (which leads to his melancholy and delight for me!) and he really messes up – like royally screws things up and skewers his own happiness by trying to be happy. Crazy, I know, but true. But this happens to nearly every twenty-something – invariably we wind up making something we care about worse by trying to make it better, but trying to fix something that isn’t broken to begin with.

The trilogy covers roughly 13 years of Quentin’s life and over that time he grows from a scrawny, gangly asshole at 17 to a semi-distinguished (albeit fired) professor at 30. But what I really love about The Magicians trilogy is that isn’t not just the Quentin show 24/7, but all the other supporting characters, particularly classmate and eventual love interest Alice, are whole. They are complete, and they are independent, and they are certainly not defined by their relationship to Quentin, hero though he insists on being. And if Quentin pisses them off, so be it. They move on with their lives and things aren’t magically righted or fixed just because he eventually finds it in himself to say sorry (even when it’s 7 years later).

Point being, Quentin can suck, a lot. But, and it’s a big but, you don’t have to care about Quentin to enjoy the story, you just must tolerate him and his role that he plays in the big scheme of things. And eventually, he grows on you. You might have to give him 600 pages and hours and hours of your life, but eventually, you’ll be routing for him (and Alice) too.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

The Magicians Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780452296299 • 402 pages • originally published August 2009, this edition published May 2010 by Plume Books • average Goodreads rating 3.47 • read in June 2015

Lev Grossman’s Website

The Magicians on Goodreads

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Magicians

Contemporary, Fiction

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The bookstore that I work at has a number of book clubs, the largest being the original, with 25 to 30 members and last night, they celebrated their 14th year in existence. Typically, they read former bestsellers, which they vote upon every three months or so. Last November, they voted overwhelmingly to read The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. I don’t normally pick up the book for the book club, I have my own, The Modern Readers, but after everyone at the store, staff and customer alike, started raving about it, I figured it was one to pick up!

Synopsis

A. J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. He lives alone, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. But when a mysterious package appears at the bookstore, its unexpected arrival gives Fikry the chance to make his life over – and see everything anew.

Review

I have recommended this book at the store and given it as a gift more times than I can count since reading it in November last year. Gabrielle Zevin’s storytelling is top notch, the pacing is very measured and the page turning comes quite quickly. I laughed, I cried, a shared in A.J.’s joy and despair. The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry runs the full gamut of emotions.

The story centers not just on life in the bookstore, but the publishing world and life on a small island as well. Zevin expertly weaves together the stories of not just A. J. and his family, but all of the richly developed and intriguing supporting characters as well. From A. J.’s unexpected best friend, his former sister-in-law, the dynamic and lovely publishing rep, and the seasonal and regular bookstore customers, each is given utmost love and care from their creator, their author. It is clear to any reader that Zevin cares about her characters and she does not take their fates lightly.

It is a perfect summer vacation, beach or airplane read and is a quick one at that. I strongly recommend it for people who enjoy an intriguing and fulfilling story.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.95 • 9781616204518 • 288 pages • originally published April 2014, this edition published December 2014 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill • average Goodreads rating 3.97 out of 5 • read in December 2016

Gabrielle Zevin’s Website

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry on Goodreads

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Storied Life of A J Fikry

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Photography/Art

It’s What I Do by Lynsey Addario

Every year between Christmas and New Year’s, my now husband and I travel to Greenville, South Carolina to stay with his aunt, uncle and cousins for the holiday season. Given that my husband, Ben, and I met while working in a library, it is well known to his family that I love books and his aunt keeps me apprised of all the bookstore goings on in Greenville. This past year, they moved to a condo with in walking distance to my new favorite bookstore, M. Judson Booksellers. I walked there every day of our visit. On the first day, I noticed a beautiful, heavy hardcover sitting on their future page-to-screen display. As someone who gets a discount at my own indie bookstore, I spent the week debating whether or not I had to have It’s What I Do, or if I could wait until I got home. Turns out, I couldn’t wait.

Synopsis

(Get ready, it’s a long one!)

Lynsey Addario was just finding her way as a young photographer when September 11 changed the world. One of the few photojournalists with experience in Afghanistan, she gets the call to return and cover the American invasion. She makes a decision she would often find herself making – not to stay home, not to lead a quiet or predictable life, but to set out across the world, face the chaos of crisis, and make a name for herself.

Addario finds a way to travel with purpose. She photographs the Afghan people before and after the Taliban reign, the civilian casualties and misunderstood insurgents of the Iraq War, as well as the burned villages and countless dead in Darfur. She exposes a culture of violence against women in the Congo and tells the riveting story of her headline-making kidnapping by pro-Qaddafi forces in the Libyan civil war.

Addario takes bravery for granted but she is not fearless. She uses her fear and it creates empathy, that is essential to her work. We see this clearly on display as she interviews rape victims in the Congo, or photographs a fallen soldier with whom she had been embedded in Iraq, or documents the tragic lives of starving Somali children. Lynsey takes us there and we begin to understand how getting to the hard truth trumps fear.

As a woman photojournalist determined to be taken as seriously as her male peers, Addario fights her way into a boys’ club of a profession. Rather than choose between her personal life and career, Addario learns to strike a necessary balance. In the man who will become her husband, she finds at last a real love to complement her work, not take away from it, and as a new mother, she gains an all the more intensely personal understanding of the fragility of life.

Review

Whoa. Literally, just whoa. For someone who has lived a fairly sheltered life in Pennsylvania for my entire existence, it blows my mind how people can just pick up at a moment’s notice and not just go on an adventure, but go to a war-ravaged country that is most certainly on the state department’s travel advisory list. But time and time again, that’s what Lynsey does.

When I picked up It’s What I Do, I was on a biography/autobiography kick, having just finished Notorious RBG, and I was looking for some inspiration as I tried/am still trying to figure out what it is I want out of my life. And while I certainly want adventure, I don’t think I’m quite cut out for Lynsey’s level of adventure, but let me step back a bit.

In 2014, my sister moved to Washington D.C. right after her college graduation. When Ben and I went to visit her, we planned a little mini trip, which included a visit to an old favorite, the Library of Congress, and a new spot, the Newseum. While I never considered journalism as a career, I’ve followed Christiane Amanpour since she first was referenced on Gilmore Girls, I am a perpetual student of political science, and I am an obsessive news junkie. So needless to say, the decision to go to the Newseum was a no-brainer. While there, I learned about the numerous and life-threatening risks journalists take to bring the information they have gathered back to us. And when they travel to dangerous places, they are traveling as members of the press, but more importantly, not as soldiers or military personnel, but as civilians.

Lynsey Addario rarely hesitated when making the decision to go overseas to follow a breaking story/event. All I can say is that her story is simply amazing and I have been recommending It’s What I Do left, right and center at the bookstore. I’ve found every excuse and opportunity to display it, to share it, to talk about it – I even forced my mom into a copy and she doesn’t read anything but Baldacci and spy thrillers (though I sold it to her as a real-life spy thriller).  If you are in a reading slump, or just need some motivation to get up in the morning, It’s What I Do is the book for you.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $18.00 • 9780143128410 • 368 pages • originally published February 2015, this edition published November 2016 by Penguin Press • average Goodreads rating 4.31 out of 5 • read in January 2017

Lynsey Addario’s Website

It’s What I Do on Goodreads

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It's What I Do