Emily Rae Robles

the paradoxymoron

Book Review: Hattie Big Sky

The other day, I spent some time browsing around my favorite bookstore: Powell’s Books.  What I tend to do in bookstores is pick up the first book that looks good, start it, and finish it.  On this particular day, the book happened to be Hattie Big Sky, by Kirby Larson, a Newbery Honor novel about a teenage homesteader girl in Montana.  This was a perfect choice for a quick read because it is well-paced, enthralling, funny, and touching all at once.  I left the bookstore happily processing the emotions required in reading a full book.

Hattie, the main character, is a sixteen-year-old girl living during the first World War with relatives who are reluctant to keep her, when she unexpectedly inherits a homestead in Montana.  The remainder of the book depicts Hattie’s struggles to survive the harsh Montana winter, the challenges of maintaining a homestead, and some anti-German neighbors who make life difficult for Hattie’s closest friends (the father of whom happens to be German.)  There is also a cow involved, which all the blurbs on the book itself seemed to find especially fascinating, but I was not completely won over by its bovine wiles.

I thought the book did a great job of intertwining plot lines and character developments.  The only aspect I didn’t find convincing was the underdeveloped romance, which seemed thrown in and unnecessary.  Other than that, the book seemed well thought-out and captivating, a combination that held my interest throughout.  This is definitely a worthwhile read, especially to those children’s book aficionados.

June 27, 2011 Posted by | book review | , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

It’s a special feeling when a book captures my attention to the point where I start to identify as the main character.  I’m not referring to identifying with the main character, a feeling that occurs quite often when I become engrossed in books.  I’m talking about full-on feeling that I am this character.  Mark Haddon accomplished this for me with his fantastic novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  By the end of the book, which features Christopher, a 15-year-old with Asperger’s, I found myself wincing at things both in the book and outside the book that were done “wrong.”  I didn’t quite get to the point where I was counting cars of the same color, which is what Christopher does to determine if he is going to have a good day, but the strong voice throughout definitely got to me by the end, in the most effective way possible.

The “curious incident” referred to in the title of the book is the murder of a dog belonging to Christopher’s neighbor, a crime that triggers a series of unforeseeable events that keep both Christopher and readers on their toes.  The ensuing adventures are exciting, humorous, and poignant all at once–a feat especially remarkable by the author since the character experiences almost none of these emotions.

This is going to be a short review, but The Curious Incident is a short book.  I highly recommend that you check it out purely to experience the magic Haddon creates through a character who would never believe in magic.  He truly captures the paradoxes of humanity.  This is a book well worth the read.

June 24, 2011 Posted by | book review | | 2 Comments

Book Review: The Book Thief

As an avid lover of the story form, I hate it when books are ruined for me in any way, even including the genre.  Nevertheless, I can’t resist sharing that The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is one of the saddest books I have read for quite a while.  Its unique narrative perspective combines with a moving account of life in Nazi Germany to create a powerful story about the strength of love.  The themes regarding the  nature of stories, life, and love are made even more effective by a most unusual narrator: Death.

The main character, also known as the book thief, is a young German girl named Liesel.  Her nickname, bestowed upon her both by Death and by her best friend Rudy, originates from the several books she steals over the years–some accidentally, others intentionally.  Because of her affinity for books, Liesel is able to build relationships with her foster father (with whom she spends a great deal of time reading,) her friend Rudy (with whom she steals some of the books,) the mayors wife (from whom she both steals and borrows,) and perhaps most importantly, a Jew named Max whom her family hides in their basement.  Through all of these people, but especially through her illegal friendship with a legally declared less-than-human, Liesel learns the power of love and the power of a story, an interesting moral to hear from the mouth of Death.

Zusak crafts a compelling tale that draws the reader close to the characters, making their pain even more deeply felt by the readers.  The narrative structure additionally tugs at the heartstrings because of Death’s unique way of communicating.  The story is not always told linearly; often details are given away before they actually occur.  Death also often interjects his own point of view into the story, creating a narrator who is omniscient in a truly superhuman meaning of the word.

From beginning to end to middle, The Book Thief illuminates the beauty in life even in the midst of one of history’s most horrific times.  As Liesel and her family and friends demonstrate, it is the small but powerful connections between people that make life worth living–even Death agrees.  In this case, the connections are made not only through books, but through stories in general.  Liesel’s story is one of survival, in stark contrast to the underlying presence of Death.  As Death points out, it is the exceptions to his rule that he notices–and Liesel is definitely an exception.  However, it is also those who are not the exceptions but who succumb to the power of the narrator over the course of the story that the reader notices.  While the survivors pull at Death’s heartstrings (yes, as he points out, he has a heart,) even he notices the tragedies he brings on.

Despite the overwhelming presence of Death in The Book Thief, it is the life that is most memorable–the life of Liesel.  Her stories and the stories she affects will stay with the reader long after the book is completed.  The Book Thief is definitely a story that will steal your heart.

June 22, 2011 Posted by | book review | , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, was one of those books that I picked up after hearing it recommended by countless book lists, but had no clue what to expect from the story itself.  Upon reading it, I immediately fell in love with Atwood’s writing style.  However, the problem with an enthralling writing style is that it takes much longer for me to read the book, since I have to savor every single word!  In the case of The Handmaid’s Tale, the words are well worth the trouble of the story, which for me came secondary.

The novel follows the life of Offred, a handmaid in a dystopian society whose sole purpose is to reproduce.  Over the course of the book, the reader becomes familiar with Offred’s life both under the strict regime of Gilead as well as her history before and during the descent of the new political powers.  Despite the setting, however, The Handmaid’s Tale is not just a cautionary tale.  It is an exploration into a human life, made even more powerful by the character’s removal from what we consider to be a normal setting.

One of the writing techniques I have found to be most powerful in novels is the author’s ability to create and explore not just a character but an entire life.  Margaret Atwood accomplishes this on a brilliantly high level in The Handmaid’s Tale by exploring even the parts of the mind that lie to oneself.  She delves so deep into the psyche of the narrator, Offred, that every detail about Offred’s life adds to a character so complex that the boundaries between her reality and her creations are blurred.

A creation in her own right, Offred makes it clear that her story is not clear, that it is a creation as flawed as she is and as life is.  Despite the external focus on the imperfect, from the dystopian world to Offred’s character flaws to the flaws in the story telling process, the entire novel is one that focuses primarily on beauty.  It is peppered with details about memories, the way something smells, tastes, looks, sounds, or feels, the ideas evoked by words, and the craft of story telling.  These details do more than merely flesh out the story; they provide the reader with insight into the observations that make humanity unique.

Although I generally find dystopian novels to be somewhat over the top and moralizing, The Handmaid’s Tale is for me an exception in that it is not the plot that stuck with me after completion, but the main character.  Offred comes to life for readers, telling her tale with an individualism that stands in stark contrast to the attempts at indistinguishability presented by the setting.  Overall, this was a deeply moving account of a deeply human life that was well worth the read.

June 20, 2011 Posted by | book review | , | Leave a comment

Briefcase of Books: Bridget Jones’ Diary

Title: Bridget Jones’ Diary
Author: Helen Fielding
Brief Case: The only thing clever about the plot is what it copies from Pride and Prejudice; the only thing likable about the characters is what it stereotypes, creating a story that falls flat with characters the reader doesn’t care about.

June 12, 2011 Posted by | book review, briefcase of books | | Leave a comment

Writer Wednesday: Courtney Conant (The Blood Moon of Winter)

I know I posted a link to this book review earlier this week, but I thought I’d feature it again for my first Writer Wednesday.  This was originally posted as a guest post on Emlyn Chand‘s blog.  Enjoy!


Imagine that you are an avid reader who unexpectedly meets your favorite author.  Now imagine that your favorite author unexpectedly begins to fall in love with you.  Sound like a story?  Well,now imagine that right at the moment you begin to fall in love, you realize that you are meant to exist not in this world but in a world you formerly believed to be only a dream.  Congratulations, you have just entered the life of Lilyana Makay, the heroine of Courtney Conant’s novel The Blood Moon Of Winter.

Lilyana is a reader’s sort of protagonist because she herself constantly immerses herself in books.  Reading The Blood Moon Of Winter is reminiscent of standing in a hallway of mirrors, watching your image reflect itself back over and over again.  The novel is a sort of a meta-story, demonstrating its understanding of its own plot and characters as plot and characters through sly little comments about the path the story is taking.

Reading the novel also gives the reader a glimpse into the invisible character of Conant herself.  An avid reader, Conant admits that many of Lilyana’s characteristics ended up being unintentional representations of her own self.  Coming from a childhood that voraciously absorbed the imaginary worlds created by literature, Conant aims to bring her readers into a world that will capture their interest in the same way hers was captured as a child.  The life of Lilyana, who is torn between newfound love in one world and newfound purpose in another, will resonate with readers who often feel torn between the real world and the world created by literature.

Unlike most fictional worlds that take ages to invent, Conant’s flowed out of her like a story that needed to be told.  A writer since the prodigious age of four, Conant’s writing came to an abrupt halt at 16 when her entire body of works was burned up in a fire.  From that time until she began work on The Blood Moon Of Winter, Conant suffered severe writer’s block.  It wasn’t until she discovered NaNoWriMo (an annual contest where writers attempt to write a full 50,000 word novel over the course of the month of November) that her creative juices began to flow freely again.

With a newfound motivation to write, Conant began with one sentence and watched, shocked, as that sentence transformed not into just any book, but a book that contained worlds within it.  As the plot progressed, she thought she was writing chick lit, but suddenly a fantasy plot appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.  This unexpected shift of genre left Conant astonished at the power of unknown creativity and leaves readers astonished at the power of integrated genres.  By crossing the gap between two genres, the story of Lilyana becomes even more compelling, speaking to an even wider audience.

As a versatile musician whose day job has very little to do with art, Conant knows from personal experience the power of crossing boundaries and integrating genres or disciplines, both in literature and in life.  She proposes that few people are merely one type of artist—whether through the way they approach life or the actual artistic activities in which they participate, artists maintain a passion that influences the way they think, act, and create.

Conant’s passion is obvious in how she handles her characters, themes, and plot.  The book as it stands has been edited very little since its NaNoWriMo inception, so the creative passion that inspired it is obvious in every progressing sentence.  The romance aspect of the novel flowers as naturally as the writing style of the author.  The characters become so real to the reader that the transition into a fantasy style becomes all the more jarring, yet somehow natural.

Throughout the novel, Lilyana’s two separate worlds serve as a reminder to the reader of the duality in all of us.  Reading The Blood Moon Of Winter not only draws readers into fantastic new worlds but also grounds them in the reality that is imagination.  Conant’s creative abilities and passion for her work bring out the artist in all her readers.  The Blood Moon Of Winter is truly an inspiration for writers, readers, and artists of all sorts

February 24, 2011 Posted by | book review, my guest posts | , , | Leave a comment

Briefcase of Books: Atonement

Book: Atonement

Author: Ian McEwan

Brief Case:  A story about a story examines the stories in our lives and how we create them through resolving (or attempting to resolve) the conflicts we inevitably are responsible for.

February 4, 2011 Posted by | briefcase of books | , , , | Leave a comment

Briefcase of Books: Angela’s Ashes

Book: Angela’s Ashes

Author:  Frank McCourt

Brief Case:  I love this sort of coming-of-age autobiography, filled with children who have every right to be tired of life but survive with a bound in their step and become famous authors in the end.

February 4, 2011 Posted by | briefcase of books | , , , | Leave a comment

Briefcase of Books: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Book:  One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Author:  Ken Kesey

Brief Case:  Insanity relieves itself through human connections and gradually coherent wordstreams, leaving me with a great sense of catharsis.

February 4, 2011 Posted by | briefcase of books | , , , | Leave a comment

Briefcase of Books: Water for Elephants

Book:  Water for Elephants

Author: Sara Gruen

Brief Case:  My favorite part was the secondary plot; I didn’t like the romance or the plot-driven aspects, but there were enough character insights to redeem it.

February 4, 2011 Posted by | briefcase of books | , , , | Leave a comment