Let’s Talk Books — House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Warning: Spoilers!

Well it’s been a while since I’ve written one of these! As many of you know, I didn’t exactly have a satisfying reading year in 2016. It got to a point where I felt discouraged to pick up books, and I started enjoying my fiction in other forms. That’s not to say I’m not interested in reading literature anymore, but for the time being my pursuits in finding new books to talk about have considerably slowed down.

Today, however, I do have a book to talk about that interested me to the point of actually looking forward to read something! House of Leaves is a horror/romance novel that really, really loves to play with format. And if you remember my post on the ttyl books, I’m most interested in reading books with more creative presentations.

So House of Leaves is set up like a collection of fictional notes, academic-style essays, and interviews regarding a fictional film called The Navidson Record. One of the main characters, Will Navidson, moves into a new home with his wife Karen and two children, hoping to either take a break or retire from a life of traveling the world for his photography career. He wishes to document his family life in a quiet, suburban environment for a change, so he sets up cameras around the house to capture everyone’s day-to-day activities.

When the family returns home one day, they find an undiscovered door that leads to a hall connecting two rooms in the house. Looking at floor plans reveals that they didn’t just miss it, but this hall isn’t supposed to exist at all. Will also discovers that the dimensions of the house are off by 3/4 of an inch; the inside of the house is slightly larger than the outside. He calls his brother Tom to help investigate any possible causes, and eventually a new door appears in their home. This time, however, the other side of the door is more threatening. There is a very dark and cold hallway that leads into a seemingly endless maze. When trying to explore it, Navidson gets lost and almost doesn’t make it back. Not only is the inside a labyrinth, but the halls shift, making any progress markers pointless.

Navidson eventually makes it back home, but his curiosity needs answers. Although he promises not to go back because of a promise to Karen, he does hire a professional explorer named Holloway and his crew to investigate for them. Navidson also outfits them with filming equipment so Holloway’s crew can document what they find.

Eventually the team discovers an enormous, spiraling staircase that leads deeper underground. However, after descending for at least half a day they realize it’s not ending and decide to head back. Future expeditions cause problems with Holloway’s mind, convincing him there’s a monster lurking somewhere. Navidson, Tom, and their buddy Billy also believe something else is lurking in the darkness; they find unusual scratch marks in the halls and Holloway’s team also finds their progress markers shredded as well. Holloway eventually shoots his own teammates, who flee and try to survive until Navidson finds them with his rescue team of Tom and Billy.

They eventually make it out, but one of the crew dies in the process. Navidson also finds a recording of Holloway’s final moments before killing himself, and sees/hears the body being dragged away and consumed. The house eventually starts transforming outside of the mysterious hallways; floors in the main house collapse and threaten to swallow everyone inside. When Navidson’s daughter is still trapped inside when everyone else has escaped, Tom goes back to rescue her. He gives her to Navidson just before the house takes his life.

Karen, who has already had enough of her husband’s shit, finally convinces him it’s time to go. Karen takes the kids while Navidson says he’ll meet with them in a couple of days after he tries to salvage his footage. However, he doesn’t return, and Karen is conflicted whether she should finally just leave him or if she should go find him herself. She eventually does go after him; Navidson couldn’t help himself and needed more closure about what the house actually is. Karen rescues him from the dark and that’s it… sort of.

What makes House of Leaves unique is that this main story is basically a summary of Navidson’s documentary, which was released as a film in the book’s universe. There are intentionally missing pieces to this whole story, so if it feels unfinished I supposed you could say that’s one reason why. The “essays” on the film that summarize the plot (and give genuinely interesting insight into small details in the film that expand or theorize about different parts of Navidson’s relationship with Karen or the house itself) I believe were written by an old man named Zampano, but I’m not 100% sure on that. Mixed into that are journal entries, newspaper clippings, interviews, and other material that try to help us understand the mystery of this house, this documentary, and whether or not it all really happened.

Zampano is the person that was compiling all of this information together. He died before House of Leaves even started, and it’s here that the other main character of the book comes into play. And unfortunately, he’s the worst part of the entire novel for me: Johnny. He’s a 20 or 30-something guy that works in a tattoo parlor and mainly goes around abusing drugs, getting plastered, fucking random girls (sometimes all three at once), and ejaculating philosophy to… I guess make him seem deeper than he actually is. If you couldn’t tell, I’m not exactly a fan of this type of character, so being stuck with him for half the book when something infinitely more interesting is going on in the other half really hurts an otherwise great reading experience for me.

So for whatever reason, Johnny takes an interest in Zampano’s work and begins editing and finishing the compilation himself. During this time, he suffers from hallucinations, feelings of cold, claustrophobia, and other symptoms that parallel those suffered by the exploration team in Navidson’s house. I guess there’s supposed to be some kind of connection from reading about the situation to actually being in the house itself, but with Johnny’s self-destructive habits I can’t even take him seriously as a narrator. And while he may have been meant to be an unreliable narrator in the first place, seeing him abuse his life so often makes me think his symptoms have nothing to do with The Navidson Record, but just with his drug and alcohol abuse.

In fact, I don’t really feel like Johnny has anything to do with The Navidson Record at all. I think he was meant to be a vessel in which the reader can see that the collection of essays, interviews, etc. were meant to be a work of fiction within this fictional world, if that makes sense. I think if House of Leaves was, by itself, this random collection of documents, readers may not understand that this is a work of fiction. So Johnny is essentially a character in this book that was meant to discover The Navidson Record and present it to the reader in a more understandable way.

And if that’s all there was, then that would be fine. The thing is, among the many footnotes throughout the book, Johnny will randomly go off into tangents on his nights of debauchery that honestly didn’t feel like they held any real purpose. There would be so many times when I’d be in the middle of an exciting discovery about the halls in Navidson’s home, only to be interrupted for 10 pages about how Johnny dropped acid with some random girl and then went back to her house to fuck her. I found everything about Johnny extremely obnoxious; I ended up skimming his sections just to get back to The Navidson Record, which I honestly think this entire book should have been about. To make matters worse, the end of The Navidson Record is kind of tossed to the side in favor of a series of letters from Johnny’s mother to him. There’s a good 60-70 pages worth of letters, too, which makes the actual ending to House of Leaves pretty anticlimactic.

Johnny’s sections aside, though, House of Leaves was the most interesting book I read in a while. It had me captivated and I looked forward to each time I sat down to read it. The books plays with format a lot, not just with the different types of documents, but with page layout as well. The book is close to 700 pages long, but a lot of the pages don’t even have half a page’s worth of text on it. Sentences and words are sometimes scattered about the page or arranged in a certain way to compliment the way the halls in Navidson’s house are changing or how the mental state of certain characters is transforming.

The only thing that disappointed me (aside from Johnny) is that there are no real answers given to what the deal with the house was or if there was a monster inside. There are some clues given throughout the text that hint the house exhibits interstellar properties and that it may predate the Big Bang, but that’s about it. I don’t necessarily hold this against the book, though. Mystery and horror stories often don’t offer satisfying answers; the thrill of the buildup is usually supposed to be more satisfying than the conclusion. And since this is also supposed to be a romance story, I’m happy with the way Navidson and Karen’s relationship was explored and arguably fixed by the end of the book (which I’ll admit I haven’t done a very good job explaining in this post).

All in all, I definitely recommend checking this one out. 700 pages is a lot, but with how the pages are laid out I’d say it’s more like 400 pages. It’s a different kind of book, so if you’re looking for something to read that’s less traditional please check it out!

Thanks for reading and I hope you’re having a great week! ๐Ÿ™‚

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House of Leaves
by Mark Z. Danielewski – Published 2000 by Pantheon – Paperback, 709 pages – ISBN 9780375703768

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Let’s Talk Books! — Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut

Warning: Spoilers!

Kurt Vonnegut was someone I’d heard great things about since high school. I knew a few people that swore by him back then, and one of my friends even went so far as to wish he was her grandfather.

Despite the high praises and interest to check him out myself, I never did pick up one of his books back then. It wasn’t until my creative writing courses in the second half of college did I hear his name mentioned again with the same praises as before. A lot of my classmates were surprised I’d never read anything by him before and instantly recommended Slaughterhouse-Five.

After graduating and having more time to read for myself, I went on a reading spree, trying to catch up on a lot of books I felt I should have read but never did. Checking out Kurt Vonnegut was on my list of things to do, and I checked one of his books out of the library soon after. This book was While Mortals Sleep, a collection of unpublished short stories released after his death. I loved it — maybe it was because I was just coming out of an environment that taught me how to critically analyze and take away valuable experiences from short stories, but I felt a big connection with the book. I liked it so much, I ordered my own copy almost immediately after finishing it.

I tried Cat’s Cradle next, but it didn’t hold the same punch for me. It was okay, but… that’s about it. Just okay. It never really left much of an impact on me.

Slaughterhouse-Five came fairly shortly after that, and I’ve got to admit: I didn’t like it. I didn’t see what the big deal was. Maybe it’s because Cat’s Cradle left a disappointing taste in my mouth after loving While Mortals Sleep, but Slaughterhouse-Five didn’t captivate me at all.

It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, either. I always heard Kurt Vonnegut, particularly Slaughterhouse-Five, was terrific at dark humor, which I normally enjoy. But nothing in Vonnegut’s work really felt like humor to me. It reflected real people and their experiences well enough, certainly. But all three of his books never felt like they were supposed to be humorous. Was I missing something?

After that, I felt I kind of had my fill of Kurt Vonnegut. I wrote While Mortals Sleep off as the one book I genuinely enjoyed by him, but otherwise felt he just wasn’t for me. Didn’t hate him. Just not my cup of tea.

A couple of years later someone recommended Welcome to the Monkey House to me. At first I wasn’t interested in reading another Kurt Vonnegut book, but then I learned it was a collection of short stories. Since While Mortals Sleep was the only book I enjoyed by him, I thought maybe his short stories are just more appealing to me then his novels. I added it to my to-read list and finally got around to reading it during the past couple of weeks.

Unfortunately, it didn’t really do anything for me either.

To be fair, I enjoyed it more than Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five. I definitely feel like I can invest myself into Kurt Vonnegut’s characters more when they’re presented in 10-20 page chunks instead of an entire novel. Still, as a whole, the stories in this collection for me were okay at best, and pretty uninteresting at their worst.

Among the more interesting stories are “Harrison Bergerdon,” which is about a world that has devices on people to make everyone have relatively the same intelligence and capabilities, and shows a pair of parents watching their son tear away from the shackles and get shot as a consequence; “Who Am I This Time?,” a story that tells of a girl that moved constantly as a kid and becomes enamored with an actor (or rather, his character) in a play she’s participating it; “Long Walk to Forever,” a love story between two childhood friends, one who’s about to get married and one who went AWOL to come back home and tell her how he felt; “The Foster Portfolio,” which was about a financial advisor consulting with a meek and humble man about what to do with a recently inherited fortune; “Miss Temptation,” a story about an attractive girl a town falls in love with until a returning soldier comes home and lashes out at her for dressing like a whore; “Next Door,” which is about a kid who stays home alone and tries to fix a troubling marriage he can hear from next door; “D.P.,” a story about an young boy living in an orphanage that believes his real father is a soldier camping out nearby; “Deer In the Works,” tells us the story of a man leaving his small business behind to enlist in a much larger corporation and how he struggles with adapting until he eventually runs away from the place; and “Adam,” which is about a man whose wife just had a baby and his feelings regarding how happy he is and how little everyone else cares.

I feel like these stories do a good job identifying many different aspects of being human. The other stories, while they certainly do the same, don’t hold the same kind of punch for me. I think one of the reasons why is because so many of them involve war and history, something I don’t really have much of an interest in. Looking back, this may be one of the reasons I failed to connect with Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, as both had similar themes.

But further than that, I feel like a lot of these short stories, even the ones I listed above, had pretty weak endings that hurt the overall experience for me. For example, in “Miss Temptation,” after the man harasses the attractive girl and causes her to lock herself in her home and eventually plan to move, he comes by to give her something when she lashes out at him for judging people by appearances and criticizes him for taking his frustrations out on her just because he thought she was attractive, and therefore, a shallow person. It’s a really great scene, but unfortunately it feels diminished when immediately after, she says he can take her by the arm and walk her into town to show everyone he’s fine with how she is. I’m not sure how this was supposed to be interpreted , but it felt too much like the setup for them becoming a couple and it really crushed the themes of the consequences of built up frustration due to loneliness that the story was expressing. Many of these stories seem to abruptly switch to a “happy ending” situation that feels too separate and out of place from the rest of each story.

And then some stories just completely bored me. “All the King’s Horses” in particular was my least liked. It was about a group of POWs forced to play in a chess game by their captor, with all of his players as the POWs. While an interesting setup, it lasts way too long and feels like it goes nowhere. The ending itself feels especially weak, as the captor lets them go and basically has this conversation:

“I was never gonna kill you guys. You’re free.”

“Thanks.”

“Let’s play again sometime. But just normal chess.”

“Yeah umm maybe. Probably not, tho.”

In the end though, is it something I could recommend? Probably not. I personally feel there are better short story collections out there, and plenty of authors better than Kurt Vonnegut.

But that’s just me. So many people love him and chances are, if you’re reading this review, you probably love him too. And that’s fine. He’s just not my kind of author, I guess. It’s a shame, because I’d really like to enjoy him more. But I’m either missing something pretty important from his works, or as I mentioned earlier, he’s just not for me. Although if you’ve got a recommendation of one of his other books you think I might enjoy based on what I’ve said, let me know. It won’t be anytime soon, but I can still see myself wanting to revisit him in an attempt to like him.

Thanks for reading, everyone! I hope you’re having a great week! ๐Ÿ™‚

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Info for my edition of Welcome to the Monkey House:

Published 2006 by Dial Press Trade Paperbacks,

Paperback, 331 pages

ISBN 9-780385-333504

 

Let’s Talk Books! — Romeo and/or Juliet by Ryan North

When’s the last time you read a choose-your-own-adventure book? I haven’t read one since I was a kid, and honestly I don’t even remember reading many of them. It was probably just one. And for that matter, it was probably something I killed 20 minutes in the library reading when I was little and didn’t even check it out.

Regardless, through the rest of my life I’ve always assumed these kinds of books were mostly for kids. Maybe they are. I don’t know. I’m not an expert or even very experienced in this kind of thing. But one of my friends recently picked up a new book, and when she told me it was a choose-your-own-adventure book of Romeo and Juliet where you can get entirely new scenarios out of these two Shakespearean characters, I honestly felt excited to borrow and check it out myself. It sounded like a really interesting idea!

I’m assuming everyone knows the basics behind Romeo and Juliet, even if they haven’t read it in a long time. And if you don’t, well… I haven’t read it in a long time either so I can’t tell you much. Didn’t really care for it back then, either. Even as a romantic daydreaming teen I could see there wasn’t a whole lot of depth to Romeo and Juliet’s relationship. They fell in love on the spot based solely on appearance, decided to get married, then killed themselves because their families didn’t want them to be together. Yeah, there’s a little more to it than that, but that’s basically the story in a nutshell. It definitely feels like it romanticizes toxic behavior and I always thought it was kind of bull that this was supposed to be a relationship we were supposed to empathize with.

So — surprise! I liked this book a lot better than the original play. For one, there’s a much more lighthearted tone. It’s very humorous and isn’t meant to be taken seriously, and even pokes fun at Romeo and Juliet. For example, Romeo is played up as being obsessed with the idea of love and completely unrealistic. Instead of being helpless and unable to stand on her own two feet, Juliet is given many opportunities to take her life in her own hands, many of which involve not even dealing with Romeo.

Naturally there’s too many paths to realistically read at once. I’ve gone through four or five different readthroughs before deciding to give the book back. I cheated a little, too: I often kept a finger on a page that required me to make a choice, and if I chose a sudden ending I’d read that and then go back to choose something else rather than read through the entire beginning again.

In fact, if there was one thing I’d criticize, it’d be that rereading the book so soon after one path can get a little monotonous. While there are many creative options to choose from throughout the story, the beginning is always going to feel repetitive until you get to the more varied choices. You’ll always read the introductions to both Romeo and Juliet, you’ll always hear Romeo whine about Rosaline if you start with him (although to be fair, it always cracked me up when Romeo asks why a woman in her thirties doesn’t return the love of a 15-year old within minutes of meeting), and you’ll always go through Juliet’s mom telling her daughter about her plans to marry her off at a party being thrown if you choose to start with Juliet.

But honestly, given the nature of the book, I don’t think it’s really meant to be read repeatedly within a short time. This is a book that’s really good to pick up when you’re in the mood to read, but don’t want to start a new book or continue with one you’re in the middle of. It’s perfect for killing an hour or two when you want to read but only want your investment to last about that long.

Don’t let that discourage you from checking it out, though. Romeo and/or Juliet was a great experience and I’d like to pick up a copy for myself sometime soon. I think it’s great whether you’re a Shakespeare fan or just have casual knowledge of Romeo and Juliet. It’s also perfect for nerdier people like myself — there’s a lot of references to games scattered throughout the book. There’s even an option to go through a path where you take the role of Juliet’s nurse when she has to deliver a message to Romeo, and it plays out just like an old text-based adventure game. At the end of one path I even “unlocked” a new character to “play” as! I’m gonna keep that readthrough for whenever I buy the book, though. Gives me a little more of an incentive to pick it up sooner rather than later.

There’s also a lot of cool illustrations throughout the book, mostly accompanying each ending. If you’re a fan of comic books, you may recognize someone’s art here. There’s a big list of all the contributing artists at the back of the book in alphabetical order, so browse through it if you’re curious (especially if you’re a fan of the Adventure Time comics; a lot of that team has art in Romeo and/or Juliet, including creator Pen Ward himself!).

My friend found her copy in Barnes and Noble, so definitely go look for it and flip through some of it the next time you’re there. It’s probably not for everyone, but I think almost everyone can at least get a few good laughs just from sampling it. And if you like what you read, pick it up! I think it’s definitely worth it!

Thanks for reading and I hope you’re having a great week! ๐Ÿ™‚

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Info for my edition of Romeo and/or Juliet:

Published 2016 by Riverhead Books

Paperback, 400 pages

ISBN 978-1-101-98330-0

 

 

Let’s Talk Books — How Games Move Us: Emotion By Design by Katherine Isbister

Today’s book is different from the usual stuff I talk about in these posts. This time I’m going to be discussing a book that’s more like an analytical essay. And normally, I probably wouldn’t cover something like this since I don’t have as much to say (I normally wouldn’t read something like this, for that matter), but considering the subject matter I wanted to not only read it, but at the very least briefly talk about it.

First though, a couple of random things about me. I like to read. I also like to play video games. Despite most of my posts discussing books, if I had to choose I think video games hold more of a place in my heart. For better or worse, at the end of the day my video game related experiences stick out to me more than my reading ones. I don’t really know why, because both are important to me. Maybe one of the reasons is because I’m more of a visual and audio person, so when something particularly interesting or moving is happening in a TV show, movie, or video game, it naturally grips me more easily. That’s not to say there aren’t moments like that when I read, but I’ll admit that between a reading year that’s usually providing me with experiences that are mostly only okay at best and maybe even how quickly I go through them, I’ve been finding it more difficult to get those same memorable moments from books alone.

Maybe it’s also because of my current surroundings. When I was in high school, most of my friends were into video games so naturally that played a bigger role in my life. When I studied creative writing in college, books were naturally more of a focus because the people around me all had that in common. At the moment more people I know are into video games than reading books, so I guess as a result I’ve started leaning towards that side of the spectrum again.

But that whole time, I always thought it was weird that most of these people in my life either liked one activity or the other, but rarely both. And I can’t help but ask, why? Both are on the nerdier side of life, and I can get why hardcore readers and hardcore gamers might not like each other, but it always struck me as kind of weird there isn’t more of a shared interest.

Which brings me to today’s book, How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design. I felt like the title said it all: a book showing how video games can be as emotionally captivating as any other medium. I was pretty interested and hopeful that maybe this would be something that could show other people that video games have more potential than they may give them credit for.

How Games Move Us is separated into four main sections. The first takes a look at different parts of game design that help create a meaningful experience. Katherine Isbister talks about things like how player characters and the role they play within each game affect how the experience impacts the player.

The second section is about playing with other people and how that leaves a lasting impression on people. Whether it’s with people in the same room or one person playing online with many, the author explores how playing with others affects us.

The third section is more or less about motion controls, or using movement to play a game. Different examples of games show how physically moving contributes to a more immersive experience and how there’s more potential to connect with others through games like these.

The final section discusses examples of how video games build intimacy between people, but honestly it feels more like an extension of the second section. At the end of the day, all of these sections basically try to apply how emotional reactions can stem from game experiences. I think as a whole, it accomplishes this. But like I mentioned before, this book is more like a big analytical essay. And I think it kind of loses me there.

I enjoy a lot of analytical reviews on YouTube, so I don’t think being analytical is solely why I didn’t like it more. It’s more because this is like a scientific analysis. Despite talking about emotions and connecting with people, the entire book has that robotic feel you might expect from reading someone’s school essay on any given subject, filled with source listings in the middle of the read and everything. It feels like a formal presentation, and for a book about emotions and connecting with others I don’t think that’s the best approach. Like I said, How Games Move Us technically tells us how games connect people. But the way it told us could have been a lot more… moving.

The best parts were actual stories told by people. For example, a couple people that played the online game City of Heroes wrote about their experiences. There was a mother and daughter that played, for example, and it was a bonding experience. One of them gave the other a bunch of items in-game, and even though they weren’t great items she kept them the whole time they played because they viewed them as sentimental gestures. Another player wrote about how when the servers were going to shut down and the game would be finished forever, he reflected on all the friends he’d made and unique backstories for characters he’d seen, and how a bunch of them played until the last moments before the game shut down for good for one last hurrah. That was sad and a little moving, and I wish there were more personal stories like this in the book.

I want to say I was expecting something different, but realistically I guess this is the only thing the book could have been. After all, even though I’m sure a lot of people want to hear more personal stories about how video games affected them, a collection of them from random people probably wouldn’t sell as well as this academic essay on how game design affects people at an emotional level.

For that matter, I’m not really sure how well something like this sold. Despite coming out this year, I couldn’t find a copy in my library’s district or in any bookstores; I had to get this one online. I wouldn’t recommend buying it, but if you happen to have a copy in your library or know someone that has it, How Games Move Us might be an interesting read if you’re into this type of essay format.

The thing is, I don’t know who I could recommend this for. Gamers will probably appreciate some of it, but it’s mostly stuff they probably already know. And people that don’t play games might be interested, but I don’t think they’ll be able to fully appreciate what the author was trying to convey due to the mostly scientific tone of the book.

It’s just a shame because I was really hoping this book could have brought a common ground between gamers and readers. But in the end, I don’t think it will.

Or maybe it will. I don’t know. Who the hell am I to say?

Thanks for reading, and I hope you’re having a great week! ๐Ÿ™‚

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Info for my edition of How Games Move Us: Emotion By Design:

Published 2016 by Mit Press

Hardcover, 192 pages

ISBN 9-780262-034265

Let’s Talk Books — Other Broken Things by C. Desir

I’ve got another young adult book to talk about today! And that book is Other Broken Things by C. Desir. I’ve been getting a little sick of YA novels lately (especially the last one I read), but I more or less liked this one. It had a couple of common YA issues that prevented it from being better, but I’ll get to those in a little while. For now, let’s get right into the story.

Other Broken Things is about a recovering alcoholic named Natalie. She’s 17 and after a car accident, she needs to attend AA meetings, do community service, work through her struggle with a sponsor, and, well… recover.

She has a boyfriend, Brent, who keeps trying to talk with her about something but she doesn’t want to deal with him. Brent’s kind of a weird character, because he acts like he’s only interested in Natalie for sex and partying but then does a 180 and gets serious about the two of them when he’s done flirting or joking around. He came off as a douche at first, but I wasn’t really sure what to make of him by the end of the book.

Natalie also only has two other friends, Amy and Amanda. Apparently the three of them were intoxicated at all hours of the day, bringing vodka and orange juice in water bottles to class and partying immediately after school. They’re not really good friends, and keep pressuring Natalie to go back to her old ways.

Her parents hooked up some kind of breathalyzer to her car so it won’t start without her passing the test. Her mom is a housewife who tries to help Natalie as best she can with positivity and support, although naturally Natalie finds her overbearing and obnoxious. Her dad is a rich doctor or some other wealthy profession who’s embarrassed of his daughter and the bad reputation he’s bringing to the family.

So aside from her mother, Natalie doesn’t really have anyone to rely on to help get her through her recovery. Which naturally frustrates the crap out of her and makes everything she’s trying to accomplish even harder. The only two people that really help her are fellow AA members: Kathy, her no-nonsense sponsor who meets with Natalie for weekly “therapy” sessions, and Joe, a 38-year-old man that acts more like a friend than any of the other people her age. Natalie is attracted to Joe, despite being twice her age, and flirts with him but he keeps his wall up and tries to be her supportive friend rather than a fuck buddy.

Most of this book involves Natalie physically and mentally struggling with her recovery while dealing with her relationships with these other characters. We discover more about her as new details are sprinkled throughout the plot. For example, she got into the accident because she was driving Brent home because he was drunk, even though she was too. We learn that she was really into boxing when she was younger, and that it began as a bonding experience with her father, but he forced her to quit when she became too good and that’s why she started drinking. We also learn she has a very addictive personality and is the type of person to either give all or nothing.

Which brings us to Joe. She falls for him and eventually convinces him to sleep with her. Joe had been developing feelings for Natalie too, but had kept his cool about it until she advanced enough. He immediately regrets it because he knows a relationship with her would never work because of the age difference, but Natalie has convinced herself that they belong together. Her parents find out and naturally flip out and ban her from seeing him again. Joe disappears and falls off the wagon for a while. Natalie eventually sees him again, but he tells her he’s going to accept a job overseas. Natalie’s heartbroken, but she’s taken up boxing again and is doing better in general so the book ends on a hopeful note.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Other Broken Things. I really like how the book explored alcoholism, especially with a teenage character. I also liked some of lessons explored in Natalie’s AA sessions, like how you can’t waste energy trying to change things out of your own control. Sometimes they’re really great universal pieces of advice in general, and I like how they’re used in the context of the book. They’re for Natalie in the context of overcoming her addiction, but I think people outside her situation can get something positive from here as well.

There were, however, some noticeable issues that ultimately became a little distracting for me. And they’re all universal YA literature problems. For starters, let’s start with the parents. They’re two extremes of typical YA parents. On one side, the mother is almost blindingly supportive of her daughter on almost every single thing she does. And while I don’t think it’s unrealistic for a parent to be extra supportive of a child going through what Natalie’s going through, I think the way she’s portrayed is still too much on the optimistic side.

To her credit, she shows some character development as she learns to stop acting blind and stand up to her husband, who’s the no-nonsense, only-cares-about-money, “villainous” parent. He treats Natalie like crap and only shows frustration and embarrassment towards his daughter’s struggle. But I don’t really understand why. I mean yeah, some parents are like that but in a work of fiction I need some additional or better reasons for his actions. He honestly just feels like an antagonist plopped into the story in the event Natalie’s alcoholism wasn’t a good enough one.

The side characters also aren’t particularly interesting. Amy and Amanda are literally interchangeable; they’re both heavy drinkers and partyers that only want to enable Natalie. I like how the book tries to show how toxic enabling friends are, but they’re not very important. Natalie honestly talks about them more than we actually see them.

Brent’s a little more interesting I guess, but he seems more like a way to talk about Natalie’s other issue. For the first half of the book there were a lot of allusions to some big, stressful event between Natalie and Brent. Usually this kind of thing in YA literature ends up involving a baby or rape. Here it’s an unplanned pregnancy. The accident killed the fetus and Natalie refuses to talk about it with Brent, who really wants to talk about what happened and why she didn’t tell him about it until the night of the accident.

This doesn’t feel like unnecessary drama in a story where Natalie already had enough to work through, but it did feel kind of weak. Since I kind of saw it coming the reveal didn’t have much of an impact on me. But beyond that Natalie honestly doesn’t seem bothered by it. It’s only Brent that cares, and Brent’s such a minor character. So why include this subplot at all? If it was more developed into Natalie’s character this would be a different story, but as it is it seems… meh.

Finally, there’s Joe. Joe brought me a mixed bag of feelings. There’s definitely visible chemistry going on between him and Natalie, but since the book was more or less playing it safe I honestly didn’t think they’d hook up. But they did. I really didn’t think Other Broken Things would make such a risky move like pairing up a 17-year-old girl and 38-year-old guy, but it did and I have to give the book credit for taking it that far. I was really excited to see how everyone in the story was going to respond to this. I thought this was where the most interesting parts of the book would be.

But sadly, it wasn’t. I mean her parents rightfully flip out, but… that’s it. Not only that, Joe sort of disappears from the plot for the rest of the book. I can understand the reasoning — he just slept with a teenager and that’s definitely not good — but he also kind of turns into a jerk. The supportive, older role model part of him just sort of disappeared. Like I get how awkward and guilty he feels, and that’s going to affect how he behaves but… I dunno. Something felt off about him after they had sex.

I didn’t expect them to stay together, but I believed they really did have feelings for each other. A while ago I talked about a book called Lolito, which had an adult woman and teenage boy have sex and become involved in something of a relationship. And despite it being morally wrong, I admitted that I ended up believing their feelings were real and was unsure how wrong it ultimately was since they both wanted what they were doing. I also wondered if it was because the teenager was a boy and questioned how I would feel if the genders were reversed.

But in the case of Natalie and Joe, I can feel the same way as I did with the couple in Lolito. They’re not nearly as well developed or portrayed as the characters in Lolito, but I honestly did believe their feelings and was rooting for them. Like I said though, I didn’t think it would work. Feelings aside, I know the age difference is going to kill the relationship at some point. But since the book took things as far as sleeping with each other, I really wanted Natalie and Joe to at least try dating for a while. Have Natalie see firsthand why they wouldn’t work out, you know? But Joe just disappears, shows up again to say they can’t be together, and leaves again. And it felt really weak.

I know I’ve been bitching about problems more than singing its praises, but I did enjoy Other Broken Things enough. I think it was a good YA novel, but it was one of those books that I really wish did more so it could be greater. I’d give it a read if you come across it. It’s pretty short and reads fast, and there’s enough in it to enjoy. But if you’re not into YA, then I’m not sure if you’d get much from it.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you’re having a great week! ๐Ÿ™‚

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Info for my edition of Other Broken Things:

Published 2016 by Simon Pulse

Hardcover, 256 pages

ISBN 978-1-4814-3739-4

Let’s Talk Books — Don’t Kiss Me by Lindsay Hunter

Warning: spoilers!

A couple months ago, I read Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter and fell in love with it. It was (and still is) easily my favorite book I’ve read this year. It was her first novel, though, so unfortunately I’m going to have to wait a while before I can read another by her.

However, she’s published a couple books containing short stories she’s written. And I’m always up for more short story collections. So today I’m going to talk a little about one of those collections, Don’t Kiss Me.

Unfortunately, it’s always a little difficult to talk about short stories because they’re, well, short. It’s hard to talk about them without giving away the entire plot. They’re like songs: better off just experiencing them first and then listening to someone talk about them. But I’ll try.

Most of the short stories in Don’t Kiss Me are only a few pages. A good deal of them feel like flash fiction, so if you’re interested in reading but don’t have a lot of time, Don’t Kiss Me is good for short, digestible bursts.

Like Ugly Girls, Don’t Kiss Me shows us many broken people and snippets of their lives we can relate to. Whether or not you’ve hit the same exact experiences her characters have, I think we can all at least see parts of our past (or current) unsuccessful relationships, abandoned dreams, disappointment in others, or disgust with ourselves in these stories.

As much as I loved Ugly Girls, I can understand why some people were disappointed with it as a novel. The setup feels more appropriate for short stories, and I think more people would end up appreciating Lindsay Hunter with her short stories in Don’t Kiss Me than with Ugly Girls. Which is unfortunate, because again, I loved Ugly Girls. But whatever.

Many of the stories in Don’t Kiss Me feature women of varying ages, but most fall either in their teens or what I’m assuming is the late thirties/early forties range. But there are also stories about men (one in particular about an old man mourning the death of his wife kind of got to me), and regardless of gender I don’t feel like these stories specifically cater to men or women, just people that can relate to messes they find themselves in throughout life. Which, of course, I appreciate.

I don’t want to give too much away about the stories, but I do want to mention some of my favorites. “Brenda’s Kid” was about a mother that stops by her son’s house before work to help with some chores that he should be doing on his own. The story does a great job showing when a parent should let go and how lazy and selfish some kids can be if you cater to their every whim. “Three Things You Should Know About Peggy Paula” tells us three events regarding isolation and bad relationships about the titular character that make us empathize with loneliness. “Leta’s Mummy” draws a parallel between the behaviors of the narrator’s friend’s undead mummy that lives under her house and the narrator’s own mother.

“You and Your Cats” is a lonely cat lady story, but it still holds up for me because of small comments throughout the piece that show the narrator’s frustration with loneliness. “My Boyfriend Del” is an interesting piece about a woman of an unspecified age (at the very least old enough to drive) who has fallen in love with a little kid that treats her like shit. “Candles,” despite being written in all caps, read like a collection of entries in a notebook or even in a Twitter feed describing an almost stalker-like obsession a woman has with the manager of a candle shop. And finally, “Me and Gin” shows a possible unrequited love, possible toxic friendship between two kids.

I really enjoyed this collection of short stories and am very glad to add another one to my collection, although I think I still enjoyed Ugly Girls just a tiny bit more. Maybe it’s because I’ve already formed some sort of nostalgia for it by being genuinely surprised at how much I loved a new author, especially during a weak reading year. But there were also some writing-related issues I had with some of the stories in Don’t Kiss Me. Many of the characters would use a lot of slang or slurred talking, which itself isn’t a bad thing. But there were times it was used a bit much or too extensively, and it admittedly became distracting. And while I enjoyed most of the stories, there were a few that just didn’t strike a chord with me. One in particular took up almost thirty pages and was told by multiple POVs, but with each page separated into columns for two characters. It was visually distracting and honestly pretty confusing; I read it three times and still had difficulty taking much away from it. I appreciate the experimental layout, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

But it’s natural for a few stories to not stick out in a short story collection. As a whole, I really enjoyed Don’t Kiss Me and am excited to read more of Lindsay Hunter’s work. I definitely recommend finding yourself a copy to read, especially if you’re into short stories.

Thanks for reading and I hope you’re having a great week! ๐Ÿ™‚

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Info for my edition of Don’t Kiss Me:

Published 2013 by FSG Originals

Paperback, 175 pages

ISBN 978-0-374-53385-4

Let’s Talk Books — Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Warning: Spoilers!

I… um…

… huh.

Carry On is a book that, honestly, I was baffled over. Why does it exist? Who asked for it? Lots of people, apparently. For those that aren’t familiar with Rainbow Rowell, she writes young adult novels about nerdy, particularly flawed characters and their romances. Carry On is an expansion on an idea from one of her previous books, Fangirl. In Fangirl, the main character Cath writes fanfiction about Simon Snow, which is more or less the Harry Potter equivalent in that novel. We’d see segments of her fanfiction throughout the book, most of which focused on shipping Simon and Baz, the equivalent of Draco Malfoy. Carry On is Rainbow Rowell’s own take on writing fanfiction of the world she made up and was briefly explored in Fangirl. And if that sounds like a little much to you, then you’re not the only one.

If you read my post about Fangirl, then you might remember that it hit pretty close to home. It came so close to becoming one of my favorite books of all time and spectacularly derailed midway through. But if you haven’t read it, I basically loved how accurately Rainbow Rowell portrayed a college experience that I and many others went through. It was refreshing to read something about a college setting for a change, and the fact that Cath took a creative writing course only hit closer to home for me. But halfway through, all of that dropped for a shallow, boring romance that the book mostly focused on for its remainder. It was a couple hundred pages of basically a honeymoon phase of a relationship and, well… if you don’t like seeing other people go through it, you certainly won’t like reading about it.

So it’s not surprising that the parts with Cath’s fanfiction of Simon Snow were the absolute least of my concerns. When I found out about Carry On, my main thoughts were, “Really? Of all the things to come out of Fangirl, it was the Harry Potter knockoff fanfiction? Was this what readers took away the most out of Fangirl? Not the confusing as fuck time period that is the transition to college, not discovering what you’ve always wanted to do may not be what you’re capable of, not drowning yourself in a romance to the point where anything else interesting in your life is immediately discarded, but the fucking Harry Potter fanfiction?”

I’ve mostly enjoyed what I’ve read by Rainbow Rowell. Some books were definitely better than others, but overall it was a good time. I was going to check out Carry On eventually, despite not having an interest in it at all. Reader reviews are praising the shit out of it, which I was honestly surprised to hear. But now that I’ve finally read it, did it turn out better than I expected? Does it hold up to the praise, justifying the endless screaming fangirls in love with Simon and Baz’s relationship on Goodreads?

Eh. It was okay.

I guess.

There’s a couple of things you should know before reading Carry On. First, you don’t have to read Fangirl before this. Carry On has literally nothing to do with Fangirl. This story isn’t Cath’s fanfiction, it’s Rainbow Rowell’s own take on her own made up characters that weren’t explored too deeply to start with. Second, if you aren’t familiar with the Harry Potter series, Carry On is probably going to feel like a confusing mess. I feel like too much of Carry On relies on the reader already knowing the world of Harry Potter and being able to see which character from this book is the equivalent of another character from Harry Potter.

That being said, here’s what’s happening in Carry On.

Simon Snow (Harry Potter) and his best friend Penelope (Hermione) return to their magical school, Watford (Hogwarts) after the summer. It’s their last year and they want to enjoy it, but the magical world is on the brink of war between the Mage (Dumbledore), the Insidious Humdrum (Voldemort), and the elitist magical families that want to change the world back to what it was before the Mage took over (like the Malfoys).

To make things more awkward, Simon’s arch nemesis and roommate (sitcom, anybody?) hasn’t shown up to school. That’s Baz (Draco), and he’s also a vampire (because I guess Twilight influences will never truly die out). Simon spends too much of his time trying to prove that Baz is a vampire while Baz torments Simon because Harry and Draco hate each other, so why not these two?

And to make things even more awkward, at the end of the previous year Simon caught Baz holding hands with Simon’s girlfriend Agatha and hasn’t talked to either of them for the whole summer about it.

Baz eventually returns to Watford, acting like he’s cool as shit and up to mysterious things, but in reality he was kidnapped by numpties (which I’m just finding out is slang for a stupid person, but I think they were supposed to be some kind of creature in this story) for six weeks. Simon thinks Baz has been up to something sinister, but first he has something important to tell him.

While Baz was away, the ghost of his mother visited their dorm room looking for him. When all she found was Simon, she told him to tell Baz to look for someone named Nicodemus so she can find peace in the afterlife. Baz’s mother is a hot button issue for him, so naturally he gets pissy when Simon tells him of her visit.

Baz tells Simon that he’s going to help him avenge his mother. Simon naturally thinks this is a plot to kill him, but they make a truce to solve this mystery. Baz wants Penelope in on this too since she’s the brains behind their adventures, and the three attempt to solve the mystery.

At some point a dragon arrives at Watford and starts making a scene. Baz tries to fend it off but he doesn’t have enough magic. Simon discovers that since he’s a magical bomb that can go off at any moment, he can transfer some of his magic to another person by touching them. He does so with Baz and they save the day.

Agatha and Simon break up at some point, and since Simon usually spends Christmas break with her family, he’s got nowhere to go (Penelope’s family is pretty hesitant about Simon coming around because of his magical outbursts). Baz invites Simon to stay with his family, and although he initially refuses, he eventually goes.

Baz and Simon decide to go looking for answers at some sort of vampire club, where they hope to find Nicodemus. They do, he doesn’t give much help, and they leave.

Baz flips his shit in a random forest and seems like he’s going to kill himself, but Simon kisses Baz to stop him. Because fanfiction.

And unfortunately, yes, I feel this entire setup is because of fanfiction. To the book’s credit, Baz mentions being gay and struggling with his feelings for Simon during several parts of the book (his chapter narrations, anyway; he doesn’t actually tell other characters this). But for Simon, this comes out of nowhere. At no part in the story up until now do we get any insight towards Simon’s attraction to either other guys or Baz. And love works in different ways for everyone. I get that. But I think from a combination of this entire book seeming like it’s a fanfiction ofย Harry Potter trying to ship Harry and Draco for the sake of shipping and, unfortunately, kind of weak writing on Rainbow Rowell’s part, I don’t think this is a very good scene. It doesn’t make sense and feels incredibly phoned in.

But hey, that’s just my dumb opinion. Apparently I’m in the minority for this one.

Anyway, Simon and Baz have a few more fan service moments over the course of the book but keep it a secret. The Mage eventually reveals himself to be the bad guy. Well, a guy whose good ambitions took a turn for the worse, I guess. The Humdrum is revealed to be a part of Simon. Simon gets rid of the Humdrum by pouring all of his magic into him (it makes more sense after actually reading the book). The Mage is killed in some kind of struggle. Simon and Penelope don’t return to finish school, but Baz does. Then Simon and Penelope get a place together. Simon and Baz are still dating and… that’s it.

Despite how unnecessary Simon and Baz’s relationship is, it takes up such a small part of the story that it further adds to my confusion about what so many people are going nuts over. The majority ofย Carry On is devoted to Simon, Baz, and Penelope’s quest to avenge Baz’s mother and defeat the Humdrum. Simon and Baz don’t start their intimacy with each other until at least two-thirds into the book, and we only get a couple of small scenes of them together sprinkled here and there throughout the rest of it. It’s been a year so I don’t exactly remember, but weren’t the Simon Snow sections inย Fangirl mostly about Simon and Baz’s budding relationship? If that’s whatย Carry On is supposed to be about, then why is there so little of it?

It’s especially strange because Rainbow Rowell is really good at writing about relationships. Like, really good. In all her other books, the characters and relationships all felt real. As much as Fangirl disappointed me in how the relationship worked out, the journey there was still incredibly interesting and showed the confusing side of how people interpret things in different ways when it comes to romance.

Carry On, though — man, it’s weak. Simon and Baz aren’t particularly interesting. They’re really riding on the fact that they’re Harry and Draco equivalents. And the characters inย Harry Potter weren’t exactly strong personality-wise, either. But at least that series had a ton of charm and it was more about the adventure and mystery than it was about character development.

I can give credit to Rainbow Rowell for at least trying to do something different by writing a more fantasy-themed story instead of a realistic one primarily focused on relationships. But the plot was average at best. You can’t help but compare it to Harry Potter and the entire time it feels either like Harry Potter fanfiction or something that took an excessive amount of material from Harry Potter. The romance between Simon and Baz is very weak and, quite frankly, unnecessary.

You know what would have been better? If Rainbow Rowell wrote a story about a gay romance in the real world. Have two high schoolers (they can even hate each other!) fall in love and explore their relationship and feelings more deeply. Show the struggles that real gay teens would face. Show how some parents don’t approve. Show how far the rest of the world, especially the younger generation, has come by showing their support for the couple. Write a real story about a real relationship. In other words, Rainbow Rowell should have done what she’s been doing all along, only with a homosexual couple instead of a heterosexual one. I love how her characters are nerdy, but in my opinion she’s much more effective writing about nerdy characters than the things nerdy characters are into.

As much as I’ve complained, Carry On was still an okay book. It was entertaining enough in its own way, it held an adventurous plot fairly well (even if most of it was too influenced by another series), and while some parts really annoyed me (mostly the weak romance that seemed to exist solely as fanservice and the average writing that seemed a step below Rainbow Rowell’s usual caliber), I never really hated any of it. One of the minor characters, Agatha, even became legitimately interesting for me. While she’s boring at first, there’s an interesting development where she doesn’t want to be involved in magic or the dangerous adventures that surround Simon. In a way, it’s a kind of funny jab at Harry Potter. It left me thinking, “Yeah, I’m sure one of those nameless students is pretty tired of the shitstorm that follows Harry wherever he goes. I’ll bet there are some students that would like a more normal life.” It even ends with her running away from the world of magic and living a nice, normal life she’s totally content with. And I liked that. It was a nice break from… well, everything else.

But that’s all Carry On ended up being for me. Okay. Not good. Not bad. Just okay. I’ve got a feeling that this book really wasn’t meant for me in the first place. But seeing as how much I’ve generally enjoyed Rainbow Rowell’s work, I really can’t help but feel disappointed. And it’s not like I was expecting anything from this to start with. But even the writing wasn’t nearly as good as her other books, and it’s that that I’m the most surprised by.

If you haven’t read anything by Rainbow Rowell, I’d strongly recommend starting anywhere else. Carry On, in my dumb, obviously minority opinion, is her weakest book. The idea of parodying Harry Potter worked in Fangirl because it was in short segments throughout the book, wasn’t the main focus, and reinforced the ideas of a fandom. But as an entire book, it just feels like a joke that’s gone on for far too long. I’m desperately hoping her next book will go back to the realistic portrayal of relationships she’s successfully written about. And I’m hoping she’ll make it about a gay couple that’s more developed than Simon and Baz.

Oh well. At least there wasn’t a Ron Weasley in Carry On.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you’re all having a great week! ๐Ÿ™‚

23734628

 

Info for my edition of Carry On:

Published 2015 by Saint Martin’s Griffin

Hardcover, 522 pages

ISBN 978-1-250-04955-1