Video Book Review: The Happiness Project

I’m following up last week’s review of When Bad Things Happen to Good People with another favorite nonfiction book, and one that also feels relevant to right now, though in a very different way – The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.  Now may be a good time to think about little ways to boost your happiness.

Video Book Review: When Bad Things Happen to Good People

I don’t expect every review I do in the future will be by video, but right now I’m home a lot and it’s a good time to film.  I’m home a lot because, probably like many of you, my region is under a “stay at home” directive for the coronavirus pandemic.  I decided a very small thing I could do in response was to make a video reviewing a book I have found helpful (and recommended in the past) for dealing with scary, tragic, unfathomable things.

I wrote a review of When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner before, and yesterday I made the video below.  The book explores the role of faith and God in the face of inexplicable tragedy, and offers enormous insight.

Video Book Review: Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera

I recently reviewed Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera, the original book that began the story.  I had a lot of thoughts…so I decided this was a good book to start something new I’ve been thinking about trying.  See below for my video review of the book – how it differs from later versions, and why I don’t think we can be sure that it all happened quite as it seems!

Book Review: In Other Lands

A Book Club friend recommended In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan some time ago, and I finally got to reading it in the last couple weeks.  I’m glad I finally did, because it was funny, insightful and very original, while commenting on so many familiar story tropes.  Excellent read!

The story centers on Elliot, a boy from what we’d recognize as the real world, who has the chance at age thirteen to cross a magical wall into a country wholly separate and secret from the world he knows, where magical creatures abound.  He’s invited to join the Border Camp, launching us into something that somewhat resembles many other stories of children going away to magic school.  Except – Elliot is obnoxious, sarcastic, and cuts right through any pleasant fantasies.  He’s wildly indignant that they have no pens or central heating, and when he realizes they’re being trained for war promptly observes that they’re being turned into child soldiers.  Which is…actually quite true, but something I’ve never seen put so bluntly in any magical book!

Elliot only agrees to stay because he meets Serene, an elf maiden.  Her full name is Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle.  Elliot thinks this is the most badass thing he’s ever heard, falls promptly in love, and agrees to remain.  Also, maybe he’ll get to meet mermaids.

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Book Review: The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

As part of the Phantom Reading & Viewing Challenge I’m hosting this year (you can still join us!) in February I reread the story that began it all, Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera.  I’ve read it at least twice (probably three times?) before, but it’s been a few years since my last read.  The first time I was entirely new to the story, and hadn’t seen or read any other version.  The second and possible third times, I was comparing to numerous other versions and also looking for ideas for my own version of the story.  This time, I found myself fascinated by how uncertain an account it really is – more than most books, Leroux’s Phantom has the potential to be completely altered depending on how much we trust the narrators, and I wonder how this influenced all those later versions.

On the surface, the story is essentially as it is in later versions, although Leroux’s focus is a little different than most, putting much more of the spotlight on Raoul.  From this angle, it becomes a story of the young nobleman trying to unravel the mystery of what’s going on with Christine Daaé, opera singer and love interest.  Raoul eventually finds himself contending with Erik, a skeletal, masked man who lives below the Opera Garnier, posing as a ghost.  Raoul’s story is intercut with the almost unrelated account of the Opera’s managers as they try to cope with the pranks and extortion of the Opera Ghost.

Most later versions shift the focus to be less on Raoul and much more on Christine and the Phantom.  And personally, I find the Phantom a far more interesting character than Raoul, so that seems like a good choice!  But in Leroux, the different focus changes how we learn some key portions of the story and, with some other narrative choices, opens up room for doubt.

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Book Review: One True Loves

Last year, when I was trying to read more love stories, One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid, made it onto my list.  It didn’t actually get read until this year, which is in a way too bad–because it was very good!  But even if it didn’t serve my “read more love stories” goal of last year, it’s meeting this year’s “read that To Be Read list” goal instead.

The book has a great opening line: “I am finishing up dinner with my family and my fiance when my husband calls.”  We swiftly learn that Emma, our protagonist, lost her husband Jesse in a helicopter crash a few years previous–but now Jesse has been found in the Pacific, and is coming home.  The book then flashes back to the beginning of Emma’s romance with Jesse in high school, follows them through college, marriage and Jesse’s “death,” Emma’s grief and how she eventually finds new love with Sam, the fiance of the opening line.  And then we return to Jesse’s return, and what Emma is going to do now, with two men she deeply loves.

I am not usually one for triangles, but this was the rare case where it really worked for me.  The concept of how this all came about was intriguing, and I liked that it’s a really difficult situation that was no one’s fault.  In some ways it’s an implausible situation, but it was written with such emotional truth that whether Jesse could survive in the Pacific felt largely irrelevant.  And as Reid says in an interview at the back of my copy, this isn’t a story about a man’s adventure to get home–this is about the woman left behind.

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Book Review: The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

I love to read, but I also really love getting enough sleep, and I’m generally pretty good at not staying up too late because of reading (for other reasons, sometimes!)  The last time I can distinctly remember staying up later than I intended because I wanted to continue a book was Jane Eyre, 5+ years ago.  Until last week, when I couldn’t bring myself to stop reading The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton.  I can’t say that it will join my list of absolute top favorites, as Jane Eyre did, but it’s a probable winner for this year’s “hardest book to put down”!

Trying to explain the plot is…challenging.  It’s sort of Groundhog Day meets Every Day meets The Mouse-trap, with some scenes directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho-era.  And despite that, it’s all stunningly original!  Our protagonist, who we learn some way in is named Adrian, is living the same day over and over, but inhabiting a different body each time.  He’s trapped at Blackheath, a crumbling manor house filled up by the devious guests of a grim house party, repeating the same day until he can solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle, who dies at 11 pm.  He will live through the day eight times, in eight different bodies; if he doesn’t have an answer by the end of the eighth day, his memory is wiped and it all begins again.

On one level, Adrian lives eight days – but on another level, it’s all one day, and he frequently encounters himself in another body, that other self living a different day.  Not sure that made any sense, but…it’s fascinating!  And surprisingly easier to follow than you might think.  This is an incredibly complex book, with so many, many threads, and yet I felt like I followed it all very clearly.  It must have been extremely carefully crafted, because somehow it all worked.  Mysteries on Day Three are explained on Day Five, and the actions taken on Day Six impact Day Two, and we get a different perspective on an event on Day Seven that completely overturns how we thought something happened on Day One, without changing it, just explaining it differently.  And so on, and so on.  I never caught Turton in a contradiction or inconsistency, which is pretty amazing, considering.

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