#CBRV Review 23: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh


Allie Brosh’s blog, Hyperbole and a Half, is very funny, and I have been reading it for years. She took an extended break from blogging after struggling with some health issues, but had previously announced she was writing a book. I have consequently had this on my Christmas list for years, but I was taking a relatively long flight last week and saw it being promoted in Hudson News in the airport. I could not resist the impulse purchase, and so now the gentleman who was sitting next to me on the plane might think I am a lunatic. So, thank you, Allie Brosh?

This book was designed with some fun details – each chapter is printed on different coloured paper, and the paper is glossy as with trade paperback graphic novels. It comes with a glowing review by another of my favourite bloggers, Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess), along with some explanations and lies by the author on the back.

As is the case with Lawson’s book, Let’s Pretend this Never Happened, reading a book based partly off a favourite blog means that you will have previously read some of the material. Hyperbole and a Half includes some of Brosh’s most popular posts, including the post about being a grown up that spawned the “Clean All the Things” meme and my favourite, The Party. I don’t mind that these chapters were included, since I tend to go back and reread them every year or so anyways. It also includes her recent chapters about dealing with depression, which are touching and accurate. The new chapters include several meditations on her inner life and personality, but the section that made me cackle on a crowded plane is the introduction. Brosh writes a series of letters to her younger self at a variety of ages, trying to convince herself to stop various strange behaviours. For some reason, the pictures of a young Brosh creepily staring at her sleeping parents and standing naked in a playground absolutely cracked me up.

The book is great, just as witty and creative and revealing as one would expect from reading Brosh’s blog. I am already thinking of whom I can lend it to next.

CBR V Review 17: Milking the Moon by Eugene Walter and Katherine Clark


I love this book, unreservedly. Years ago, I ran across a reference to Eugene Walter’s in The Pat Conroy Cookbook, and searched out this oral biography. I was thinking about it again recently, and took it out again. I enjoyed it just as much the second time – Walter is a born storyteller, having lived one of the most interesting lives I have ever read about.

Katherine Clark met Walter a few years before his death in Alabama, and was immediately drawn into his circle. She knew what a rare soul he was, and knowing he would never finish an autobiography, recorded his stories about his life and wrote them in a book later, only lightly edited. He divided the world into people who were “cats and monkeys” and those who aren’t. Cats and monkeys were kind of his spirit animals, and it was how he described the people with whom he identified and liked.

Walter lived the life of an adventurer, a born raconteur who was open to everything that life might offer. He had an interesting childhood in Alabama, and embraced his Southernness throughout all his life. He was a code breaker in WWII, moved to New York where he encountered personalities like Tallulah Bankhead, and lived the life of a poet, artist, and bookseller. He fulfilled a dream of moving to Paris, and helped George Plimpton set up The Paris Review. He later moved to Rome to edit Botteghe Oscure and to translate for Felllini films. It is hard to talk about the book without just making a list of all the famous people Walter knew – Judy Garland, T. S. Eliot, Anais Nin. That feels lame, and Walter wasn’t really bragging about all the people he met; he was just a great storyteller and entertainer who valued and welcomed experience. He never made any money, but seemed to just luck into this exotic life.

Walter was a novelist, poet, editor, translator, actor, puppeteer, cook and expert party thrower. It is beyond me why he is not more famous than he is, but he seems to have been a delight and a treasure. I love this book.

CBR V Review #14: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman


I was so pleased to have gotten Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane for my birthday this summer – I had been waiting for it to be published and it was the first item on my birthday wish list. I started reading it right away, and given that it is quite a short book, thought I would likely finish it in one sitting. However, it took me a month to finish reading it. At first I thought it was because it was so good (and it really is) and I was reluctant to have it over, but towards the end I realized it was because it was one of the saddest books I have ever read.

At it’s most basic level, the book is about a young boy who lives through the books he reads. When a lodger with his family commits suicide in the family’s Mini down the lane, the act has a resonance within the world that leads the boy into a dark adventure. The book is  written as one would expect from a Gaiman novel – elegant and economical prose, a rich sense of atmosphere, and characters that can be understood within a few paragraphs of their introduction.  The story just flows well, with a good sense of how little time actually passes during the events. Something that particularly stood out for me in the book was the detailed description of foods that the boy eats, either with distaste or relish. The description of the types of food he eats and the associations he has with them is rich, and reminded me of that scene from City of Angels where the angel admires Hemingway for his describing food so well you can taste it.

What is hard to write about, with this book, is the impressions and feelings it leaves. This thought isn’t revolutionary, I’m sure, but this book’s reflection on childhood and how adults are unable to protect their children from heartbreak and loss, and indeed are sometimes the source of that suffering, really kind of broke my heart. I always kind of assumed that the passage of time and the distance it lends grief would make things better, but it really just changes and deepens our understanding even though the immediate sting is gone. The Ocean‘s little boy, precocious and brave, revisits his past repeatedly and tries to make the sacrifices worth it – it is a good reminder for me when I start to feel a bit down about things. Magic is everywhere, and maybe your heart can grow back, little by little.

CBR V Review 7: Beyond Belief by Jenna Miscavige Hill


The full title of Jenna Miscavige Hill’s book is Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape. Hill is the niece of David Miscavige, the head of Scientology who is often mentioned along with Tom Cruise in articles about Cruise’s involvement in the cult. The full title is telling, as much of Hill’s book talks about the systemic secrecy and brainwashing that goes on within the non-public side of Scientology. It is a very strange and frightening organization, and this book is very revealing.

Hill grew up in Scientology, as her parents rejoined the Sea Org, an insider’s organization within the church that seems to basically run the entire church, which is in essence an enormous business. Sea Org members, including small children, sign contracts with the church giving their life over to the organization for a billion years. The brainwashing begins even as the children are tiny; Hill and her older brother are basically left to raise themselves with the help of Scientology staff and schools while their parents are sent off to different parts of the country to work for Scientology – Hill was two years old when her family rejoined Sea Org. She and her brother basically lived alone in an apartment until moving to a run down ranch a few years later, put to work remodelling the buildings and grounds while learning how to be good Scientologists. Hill was part of this strange world, and seemed to be subject to extra scrutiny and abuse by nature of her family history. After her brother and parents leave the organization, Hill eventually struggles free herself, accompanied by her husband.

Children who are brought up in the cult are enormously isolated, although it seems public Scientologists and of course the celebrity members have much different experiences. The children are basically made over into a slave labour force, with minimal education, forced separation from family and subject to mental and emotional abuse. It is appalling to read – these children are mistreated and I have to assume that their parents know and understand what is happening to them, particularly since the adult members of the cult seem to be treated in much the same way. Hill writes clearly and in a matter of fact manner, and I suspect she demonstrates some remarkable restraint in terms of providing telling details about people within the cult and some of the abuses perpetrated there. I am baffled about why public Scientologists, who are not as sheltered as inner member are, can continue on in this organization as some references to the abuses must be available to them. Groups like Anonymous and ex-members like Hill are certainly doing their best to bring these out into the light, and the information in the book makes it even harder for me to appreciate celebrities in the cult – it is willful blindness, shameful.

I am honestly unsure about why Scientology’s programs are legal in the Western world at all, and I found this book enormously disturbing. I admire Hill’s courage in telling her story and efforts to bring light on this really appalling situation, and hope her friends and family still within Scientology are able to free themselves one day as well.

CBR V Review 3: Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin


I have loved Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus mysteries for years. I think that they are likely my favorite series to read for two reasons: they are not particularly gory or graphic, so I don’t get any nightmares after reading them, and because John Rebus is such a different character from those in the other books I normally read. He doesn’t change very much, he is seemingly isolated by choice, and he seems to solve the mysteries through hard work with hard people. He was one of my dad’s favourite characters as well, so that might also be part of my affection for this series.

One of the best parts of Rankin’s novels is always his detailed description of Scotland’s geography, where it almost serves as a character itself. His descriptions of Edinburgh and other areas of Scotland don’t always make it seem inviting, but certainly rich in history and a defining characteristic of how his characters react and are defined. Minette Walters is another author who seems to make good use of differing landscapes and socioeconomic areas in her mysteries, although her novels always seem much more pointed than Rankin’s.

Rankin retired Rebus some years ago, but this new book brings Rebus back to life, tied tangentially to a newish Rankin character called Matthew Fox. I have not read any of the Matthew Fox books, but he seems to parallel Rebus in his obsessiveness and general unlikeablity. Rebus shares more of the novel with other characters in this new novel – Fox, Siobhan Clarke, and villains new and old. As the age of retirement has changed, Rebus has a chance to reapply to the police and stop working as a civilian on cold cases. The mystery itself is nothing revolutionary, but the story seems to serve as a tool to intertwine all the new characters for the inevitable next novel. I look forward to reading it.

#CBR V Review 1: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson


I have to admit, Jenny Lawson’s blog post on Beyonce the big metal chicken is by far the funniest thing I have ever read in my whole life. I think that I had run across her blog a few times prior to that post, and then read that story while on my break at work. I shared it with everyone, although my husband didn’t really think it was funny – he spends much of his time sympathizing with Lawson’s “long suffering husband” and fearing that I am getting ideas from Lawson.  This book was the one thing that I asked for on my birthday this year – he did not buy it for me (see previous as to concerns for his sanity), but my mom did. Thanks Mom! My husband got me a bowling ball with his name on it instead (not true).


I really enjoyed this book and have since lent it out to multiple friends, but as a regular reader of the blog, I was already familiar with many of the stories in the book, particularly the latter half of the book. The stories from Lawson’s childhood and early relationship with her husband Victor were the funniest for me. In particular, the chapter about the chocolate laxatives is probably now the second funniest thing I have ever read.

Lawson has a breezy,  jokey writing style and includes a fair number of pictures in the book, as she does on her blog. She talks about a number of her personal challenges with fertility and mental illness throughout the book, although these are generally discussed in a humorous way which reminds me a bit of Carrie Fisher’s autobiographical writing style. She seems to discuss these issues honestly, but overlaid with a “funny filter.” I have been struggling a bit with depression lately myself, so she kind of gives me hope that I will be able to look back at this time in my life and find the humour too.  This is a great book, very funny and warm, and I recommend it to anyone.

#CBR IV Review 20: The Game of Thrones, Vol. 1 by George R. R. Martin, Daniel Abraham and Tommy Patterson

I have already read both the novel and watched the television series, so was unsure about the necessity of reading the graphic novel adaptation. However, it is a really interesting book, not the least of which is Martin’s and Abraham’s description of their struggle with actually adapting the story to this format. Martin’s novels are really dense, so I would imagine that Abraham found adapting the story to this format quite a challenge. I thought it was done well, streamlining the story without adding in superflous characters to bridge the gap (*cough* Roz *cough*), as seen in the HBO series.

In terms of story, the graphic novel does not really offer anything new, but it is a nice summary of the plot. I was indifferent to the art, on the whole. I thought the Tyrion character was really well drawn in the graphic novel, as ugly as he is described being in the book –  Peter Dinklage is perfection in the television series of course, but he is a handsome man playing a character who is most definitely not.  The female characters are all drawn very similarly but for hair and height, and are really just generic female comic book characters in common poses. The graphic novel also shows Westeros as very clean, bright and shiny, for the most part, which it certainly should not be.

Nothing about this graphic novel really stands out for me, probably because I am already so familiar with the storyline. I am not sure why this was published – a challenge, something the public really wanted, or just an effort to capitalize on the current popularity of the novels? Unless something remarkable happens with the next, I will not be continuing with the series.

#CBR IV Review 19: Wicked by Gregory Maguire

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West was not really the story I was expecting when I first picked up the book this summer. It tells the life story of Elphaba, best known as the Wicked Witch of the West from Frank L. Baum’s Oz series, but it deals only briefly with the events in the movie and from an entirely different perspective. For some reason, I assumed it was going to be rather funny and fantastical, but in fact it is quite dark.

The story begins as Elphaba’s mother is pregnant, a noblewoman married to an unpopular preacher in an isolated area. Her daughter is born green, with sharp teeth and an enormous aversion to water. Her father thinks she is born green as a punishment of the Unnamed God, whereas her mother and Nanny suspect she might be the result of a intoxicated tryst with a green man. Given her strange appearance and apparent vicious nature, Elphaba has difficulty bonding with the people in her life, and this sense of isolation and independence is likely Elphaba’s most distinguishing characteristic.

The remainder of the novel follows Elphaba as she grows into adulthood, the events of her life set against larger political landscape. The politics of Oz are explained in great detail, and they have been complicated for a long time. There is a political movement to exclude talking Animals from everyday life, there is government sponsored genocide and conspiracies, and there is family drama that reflects the larger issues behind this. Throughout it all, Elphaba tries to do the right thing, with gestures big and small, although the results are unpredictable and disaster often occurs. This is made evident in how Elphaba reacts to the arrival of Dorothy in Oz – the perspective of Wicked on this familiar story show that the Wicked Witch and Dorothy share much more in common that one might think.

I found some parts of this book really kind of boring and drawn out,  but generally enjoyed how much intelligent interaction there is amongst the female characters. Although they all have their own agendas, their relationships are complicated and interesting and taken seriously by Maguire. It is an interesting book, but it isn’t actually very much fun to read. I know that Maguire has written a series of books stemming from this one, but I am uncertain if I am going to pick them up as well.

CBR IV Review 18: The Magician King by Lev Grossman

As much as I did not love Grossman’s The Magicians, the ending of that novel left me feeling pretty hopeful for the sequel. The last scene, indicating that the characters would be moving into a more clearly defined quest in an magical world, was pretty promising. I think that The Magician King is quite a bit more fun than the first book, and Quentin seems to be less annoying than in the first book, which is a good start.

The second novel in the series starts in Fillory, where Quentin and his three friends are ruling in an obvious parallel to the Narnia books. There are differences between the two – family relationships, magical abilities, age, etc, but it is still two females and two males from Earth ruling this magical realm. In the Narnia series, the Penvensie children rule Narnia seriously, and undertake quests for practical purposes or for fun. In The Magician King, Quentin searches out an adventure or quest because he is bored, which is an irritating holdover from the first novel. Quentin still wants to live his life like something from a fairytale despite actually living in the setting of a fantasy novel; his friends and companions seem to tolerate this, but it is still hard to like him as a person for the most part.

However, the action moves pretty quickly, and varies between the quest and Julia’s backstory from the previous years. Julia is fundamentally changed from the person that was first introduced in the opening scenes of the first novel. Her story is much darker and related in more detail than that of the other characters, and her obsession and awkwardness reminded me slightly of Lisbeth Salander. She accompanies Quentin on the quest, which Grossman carefully imbues with a flashes of danger interspersed with hard work and boredom, much like he had already depicted magical education.

Although I actually finished this novel months ago, when I think about the plot now it seems to me that the series is about about choices and unexpected consequences and change. The most beautiful scene in the first novel was the students transformation into geese, and Alice’s sacrifice, Julia’s desperation, Penny’s mysterious reappearance, and Quentin’s choice at the end of The Magician King are all variations on that theme. This, along with Grossman’s ability to end the stories on interesting cliffhangers, make this book a flow well from the first as well as setting up a third novel.

#CBR IV Review 17: Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin

Having  just finished A Dance with Dragons, I was pleased and a bit surprised to see a George R.R. Martin paperback in the book stand at the grocery checkout this spring. I bought it, in a fit of heady impulse purchasing pique, and… found it was not very much like the A Song of Ice and Fire series at all.

Fevre Dream was written in 1982, and is a vampire novel set in the pre-Civil War Southern United States. It is largely set on the Mississippi River, and centers on the steamboat trade along the river. Captain Abner Marsh is an excellent captain, but has largely lost his fleet of steamboats through bad luck, and so is at a loss both financially and in terms of his reputation. He meets Joshua York, a rich gentleman who only comes out at night, who promises to make Marsh’s dreams come true, as long as he doesn’t ask any questions of York. Of course, Marsh is no fool and knows it is too good to be true, but is willing to make the deal to get what he really wants. Here, Martin seems to introduce the ideas around trust and power that are later fleshed out in A Song of Ice and Fire.

I haven’t even read that cursed Twilight series, and yet it continues to push itself into my cultural consciousness, ruining affecting  how I read other, better books. When I was reading Fevre Dream, I could not help but think about how Stephanie Meyer’s vampires with a conscience had predecessors. Vampire York feels guilty about how vampires treat humans as though they were farm animals;  through scientific experimentation, he found a way to live without feeding on humans. Better living through chemistry! Other parallels include battles between vampire groups with differing moralities, vampire reproduction, and hiding in plain sight. I can only vaguely compare the two, but think that Martin’s characterizations are not as cliche as are Meyer’s and he seems to give a bit of an explanation for a non-traditional way reproducing vampires, although it still did make me roll my eyes a little as I read it. Truthfully, his version of vampires are a little different from the traditional altogether, some parts of which worked better than others for me.

While the dialogue didn’t feel quite as polished as it does in later Martin, the book has the same attention to setting and mood as does Game of Thrones. The description of the river boats and the travels along the Mississippi are nicely detailed, and he describes the politics and culture of the time in an almost off-hand manner, keeping the focus on the story itself. Martin’s willingness to kill off his characters seems to have been an early trait of his as well, which is kind of reassuring in a horror/fantasy novel. Although it was nominated for a few awards when it was first published in 1982, I did not really love it as I do other Martin works.