Tag Archives: book review

The Book Reviews Have Moved!

Guess what, gang!

The Buffalo Book Reviews are getting a new home.

I’m a bibliophile. There’s no way around that bit of truth. So in the interest of not having my (really kinda ridiculous number of) book reviews jammin’ up the chi of the folks who are here for the Buffalo Tracts (and vice versa), I’ve started another site over at BuffaloBookReviews.com. All the old reviews will stay active here, at least for now–call them a teaser, if you will–but any new reviews will live on BBR and BBR alone.

So if you want to come talk books with me–and really, please do come discuss with me, ’cause it’s just boring blabbing into the void, especially about books–that’s the place to do it. I’ll look forward to seeing y’all there!


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BBR: I Was Told There’d Be Cake, by Sloane Crosley

Wellp, it was bound to happen sooner or later: we have found a book that I didn’t particularly like.

I’m usually pretty lucky with books–I’m quite picky, but I’ve learned to read all the back cover/front flap/back flap/summary/copyright page/etc stuff plus a few random sample paragraphs while I’m still at the bookstore, deciding whether or not to buy a particular title. This weeds out a lot of books before we even get started. The few that slip through are usually there on recommendation, or because I found the title in an online list or roundup or some such and decided to take a risk.

That latter bit is exactly what happened with Sloane Crosley’s I Was Told There’d Be Cake.

A pity, because the cover is weirdly charming.

A pity, because the cover is weirdly charming.

I’m pretty sure I ran across this title in an “if you liked X, then you’ll like Y” list somewhere. So I hunted it down online, learned that it’s a collection of humorous memoirs, and read a few sample pages of the first story, “The Pony Problem”…and she hooked me.

“The Pony Problem” talks about how Crosley’s offhand, jokey response to everything is “ponies”…as in, “What would you like to do this weekend?” / “Go pony riding!”. Or “What do you want for your birthday?” / “A pony!”. I found this extra-hilarious because I do exactly the same thing (I totally thought I was the only one). It’s been my running schtick for ages now. So it cracked me up to hear that someone else did the same thing, and I ordered the book immediately.

And then it arrived, and I sat down and read “The Pony Problem”, and chuckled my way through it; but then as the essays kept coming and I kept reading, I found myself being less and less…well, interested.

It’s like–ok, imagine your first day at a new job. You’ve come in, you’ve met the people, and now it’s your first lunch break. So one of the gals invites you to sit with her, and you get to chatting, and discover some superficial similarities–same college major, an overlapping idiosyncrasy or two–and by the end of lunch you’re feeling pretty groovy, thinking you’ve made a nifty new work friend.

But as time progresses and you get to know your other coworkers, you realize there are actually other folks with whom you have a lot more in common than you do with First Day Lunch Pal. It never reaches the point of shunning First Day Pal altogether–I mean, you’re not a horrible person, and she really is pretty nice, and maybe you still have lunch together every now and again–but she has her Close Work Friends and you develop your Close Work Friends and you and she pretty much just stay in the Nice Enough People But They’re Not Getting Invited to My Wedding sphere.

And that’s ok. You don’t have to be BFF with everyone you meet. And someday, when that job is a blip in the rearview mirror of your life, you realize that there are a few folks with whom you are still Facebook friends and whom you still invite to your parties, while First Day Pal’s last name has mostly slipped your mind (though you’re pretty sure it started with an M, or possibly an N? Or a P?).

That’s a really roundabout way to describe it, but it’s pretty much exactly how I felt about Crosley: she’s pretty much my literary First Day Pal. Her essays are amusing, sure; but we come from radically different planets, without enough overlap for me to really be able to identify with her. We share some superficial similarities (“hey, I like books too! Wouldja lookit that.”), but not enough to sustain more than basic small talk if we showed up at the same party. And we’re moved by different things–she’s got that New York ambition thing going, and I’ve got the laid-back Kansas approach to the world.

All of which meant that reading her memoirs felt…well, anthropological, I guess. I spent a lot of time trying to wrap my brain around her, and just plain failing; and eventually I decided that since I was reading this for fun and not for a class–and since I’m a grownup with an English degree which means I’ve read quite enough books of other people’s choosing, thankyouverymuch, and now I get to pick my own–I was allowed to set it down and walk away. I made it about halfway through, and that was enough for me, in the same way that having lunch with First Day Pal every couple of weeks is plenty, and there’ll be no need to invite her over for a crafting afternoon.

So I’m not saying this is a terrible book–it’s funny in places, and some folks will really get a kick out of Crosley’s misadventures and her writing style. It just wasn’t for me. Y’know, like blue cheese, or Seinfeld.

TL;DR: Humorous and quirky, I Was Told There’d Be Cake is a series of memoir essays by Sloane Crosley–who I’m sure is a delightful gal, but I found that we didn’t really have enough in common for me to go out of my way to finish reading the book. I’m sure others will get a huge kick out of it; it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Rating: 6.5/10 Muddy Hoofprints, but again, don’t let that scare you off. You should really, really give her a try–she might end up being your new favorite author. She just didn’t move me, and so I have to give her a rating that reflects my “meh” response. It ain’t personal. Mama BW still loves all the children of the choir.

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BBR: The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion

First things first: I did not just stumble across The Rosie Project. Rather, it was reviewed by the perpetually delightful Lauren Henderson over at Great Minds Read Alike, and what I stumbled across was her review. Well, her roundup of her top 5 books of 2013. Which is a sort of review. But I digress.

Thanks to the magic of the internet and the specific magic of Great Minds Read Alike, I had heard rumors that this book was a good one, so I picked up a copy when Moon Man foolishly mentioned that he’d like to look for a guitar fake book and perhaps we should stop by the bookstore to see if they had one. They did not have any suitable guitar books, but the nice man behind the Customer Service desk found me a copy of Rosie in the storeroom in the back (apparently it had recently been in the Staff Recommendations section, and so was in transit back to its regular home on the shelves). So I added it to my pile of selections–I’ve told you I cannot be trusted in a bookstore–and brought them home and added them to the To Read shelf in the bedroom.

The careful observer will notice that I said we made this field trip on Saturday. To be precise, we made this field trip on Saturday evening. Today is Tuesday. It has been three days since this shopping excursion, two of which have been workdays.

I finished The Rosie Project yesterday over lunch.

Rosie Project

Now, before you think there’s something seriously wrong with me, or that I’m some sort of bizarre speed-reader or something, I should note that Rosie is only about 300 pages long. With moderately large type. And Moon Man practices guitar on Sunday afternoons, so I’ve got a couple of hours in there where whatever song he’s working on plays in a loop in the background and I can just relax and read in the sunshine (this week it was “Don’t Look Back in Anger”, for the curious). And I read before bed.

…And besides, this book was really, really good, y’all. Really good.

It’s the story of Don, an Australian geneticist who is undiagnosed but exhibits a not-insignificant number of symptoms of being on the Autism Spectrum. More specifically, he probably has Aspergers; if this isn’t a topic you’ve spent much time with, then another way to describe him would be “Sheldon, from The Big Bang Theory, but in genetics instead of physics”. If neither of those descriptions is meaningful to you, just read the book and we’ll all start describing things as being “like Don, from The Rosie Project“.

Don has decided to search for a suitable mate, a task which he is calling “The Wife Project” and at which he is having less than no success. This itself is entertaining enough, but then we add Rosie to the mix–a damaged, passionate, alternative, feisty barmaid who is equally at home slinging witty repartee as she is slinging drinks. Rosie is clearly unacceptable for the Wife Project, but she has a project of her own: she wants to find out who her biological father is, and Don quickly comes aboard (he is a geneticist, after all) on the Father Project.

…And hijinks ensue. There’s not much more I can tell you without wandering over into spoiler territory, but in the interest of keeping your interest piqued, I’ll note that this book includes a Jacket Incident, an encyclopedic knowledge of cocktails and mixed drinks, rehearsing sex positions with the assistance of a skeleton borrowed from the Biology department, and more suppressed chortling (at least from this reader) than I’ve experienced in a while.

In other words, this book is an absolute delight.

Now here’s the thing: some folks are flipping out about this book because they feel it’s reliant on stereotypes. Others are flipping out because if our protagonist has ASD, is it really fair to laugh when he transgresses against social norms? And I hear both arguments, and I’ll admit to having that same sort of twinge myself…

…which is why I’m waiting until the next time I see my dear friend, who is himself an adult who was never formally diagnosed with what is almost definitely Aspergers, so I can hand it to him and see what he thinks of it. If he comes back hating it or being profoundly offended, I reserve the right to issue a public apology here and retract my review.

But really, I have a suspicion that he’s more likely to be amused by it, and possibly slightly relieved to have a protagonist who processes the world the same clinical, rational way that he does.

And in the meantime, I’m going to continue recommending this book to anyone who will listen, because it is just. so. compulsively. enjoyable. Man was that a fun 300 pages. Makes me wish I hadn’t read it, so I’d still have it to look forward to.

Instead, I’m going to make Moon Man read it, and watch his face while he does so I can laugh again when he gets to the funny bits. That’s not creepy, right?

TL;DR: The Rosie Project is the story of an Australian geneticist named Don, who is almost definitely an undiagnosed Aspie, and his great scientific endeavor to find a suitable mate. It is also the story of Rosie, a feisty barmaid who is most decidedly not a good candidate for wife-hood, and what happens when an unstoppable force meets a seemingly immovable object. Also, it is hysterical.

Rating: 9/10 Muddy Hoofprints. Seriously, y’all, this book was a hoot and a half. The bit with the speech about Aspergers? Comedy gold. The Jacket Incident? The moment when the lights go out at the potential father’s house? Or the bit where he climbs out of the–! …It’s one of those books where you read it, and then your friend reads it, and then you sit together in side-splitting hysterics for a while, gasping out things like “Oh, god, the LOBSTER! HAHAHAHAHAHA”. So go pick up a copy–and then start deciding now who needs to read this with you, because trust me, you’ll want someone with whom to share the Rosie experience.


Filed under General Musings and Meanderings, The Bibliophilic Buffalo

BBR: Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell

Dear Ms. Rowell,

I am writing to you today about Fangirl.

Perhaps you are familiar with it, as it is your novel.

Perhaps you are familiar with it, as it is your novel.

More precisely, I am writing to you to suggest that perhaps you would like to send me a check for the cover price of $18.99, as I am not satisfied with your novel and feel that you should–as a matter of conscience–send a full refund.

No, I do not wish to send the book to you. I need to keep that, as it is mineminemine and you may have it when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

Instead, I think you need to send me $18.99 so that I can use that money to buy another book (TBD) to keep me company while you finish writing the rest of this one and overnight it to me.

Now, I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to attempt to argue that the story you meant to tell is complete–that we have followed Cath to college, met her quirky roommate, watched her fumble through her first year of classes, learned about her challenges dealing with her father, seen her stand up for herself, sympathized with her fears, pitied her abrupt and not entirely voluntary detachment from her twin sister, empathized with her embarrassment about being a writer of fanfic (because really, who doesn’t have that one ultra-nerdy thing they do and don’t exactly want to brag about despite really, really loving it?), and blessed her fuzzy heart as she floundered through relationships with all the grace of a dying…well, flounder.

You will suggest that the end of Cath’s freshman year is a logical end-point for a book like this one, and that she has had her epiphanies and learned some important lessons. You will say that she has had plenty of experiences for one year, what with the moving away and learning the rules of a new place and having her integrity called into question and being used and figuring out what to do when you’ve been used. You will argue that the various story arcs have run their course, and landed where they are meant to land.

And besides, you will say, the book has already considered–in a lighthearted, not flippant but not ponderous and weighty either, sort of way–all sorts of issues: about identity, who we are and who we think we are and who other people think we are; and about art, what is “real” art and what is “lesser” art and who it is that gets to judge what counts as “successful” art; and about relationships, how we decide what sort of relationships are worth having and worth keeping and worth exploring and how we don’t decide any of these things in a vacuum. And that, you will say, is probably plenty for one novel. Especially one that’s meant to stay more-or-less generally playful.

But you know what, Ms. Rowell? You are wrong.

You are not finished with this story, because Cath is not dead–Cath is not even close to dead–so you’ve got like 80 more years to tell. Heck, Cath hasn’t even finished college yet. What happens during her sophomore year, Ms. Rowell? Or her junior year? What does she do for her graduation celebration?

And don’t think I don’t see that it’s a little bit on the meta side, what you’ve done there: you’ve told the story of the first year of a person’s education, and drawn some tidy parallels to other stories about people’s first years in new schools–the sort of other stories that inspired movies and fan clubs and online fan fiction and midnight release parties and the like–and then you’ve stopped, because these sorts of books always end at the end of the school year. So I’m willing to forgive you for that.

But at the time of the writing of this blog, I do not currently have any indication that you are planning to make this into a series, and therefore this is all we get of this story.

If you are wondering whether I agree with that plan…well, then you’ve not been reading very closely, I suppose. Which is unfortunate. But to be very clear: no, no I do not agree with it.

Therefore, please send me $18.99 so that I may purchase some other book to read to keep myself occupied while you dash off another 400 pages or so on this one. I will look forward to your prompt reply.

Yours most sincerely,

Mama BW

TL;DR: Rainbow Rowell has managed to write yet another delightful, quirky, and utterly charming book, this one centering around Cath, a college freshman who also happens to be one of the most popular writers of fan fiction about Simon Snow (a character not entirely unlike Harry Potter). While I did not at any point cry during this novel, I did laugh out loud a couple of times and I spent….lordy, easily a full quarter to third of it in full swoon. Buffaloes do not swoon. So I admit: she got me good with this one. Sheesh.

Rating: 8/10 Muddy Hoofprints. This book is unlikely to revolutionize your life. If it gives you pause to think about some questions about identity, art, etc, or a chance to reminisce and feel a little nostalgic about your college days, then good on you–but really, it’s mostly just a delicious, utterly enjoyable way to pass some time. Also, I think one of the characters is ultra-hawt (no spoilers for you! You go ‘way. Besides, it’s easier to think dreamy thoughts about him if you’re not intruding).

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BBR: NOS4A2, by Joe Hill

A couple of weeks ago, Moon Man and I went to the bookstore. From a budgetary perspective, this is almost always a mistake, but we do it anyway because we’re reckless like that and we like to live dangerously. I had a few titles in mind that I wanted to pick up, but Moon Man is more of a “browse and select as you go” sort of person; so I nabbed the books I was after, then hunted him down and found him holding a copy of NOS4A2 and debating whether to get it.



He held onto it for a moment, then set it down, then picked it back up and looked at it some more, then set it back down, and finally I said “Ok, look. I have heard of that book and am interested in that book, and while that book is not on my shopping list for today, if you don’t buy it, I totally will. Because I want to read that book, whether it was next on my list or not”.

And so we got the book.

And then we got home, and I finished the book I was working on at the moment and wandered into the bedroom to survey the stack of new books and decide which one to read next, and in what I’m officially calling “generosity” (y’know, because I read more than Moon Man does so I’d finish it sooner and he could take his time with it) but which was probably more like juvenile envy (“I didn’t want pizza until my friend said they’re having pizza, and now all I want in the world is pizza”) I picked it up and decided to give it a test-drive.

…And then I blinked, and it was 700 pages later, and I wondered vaguely what day it was.

Let me get this out of the way right now: NOS4A2 is not a fun book. It is not a delightful book, or a highly enjoyable book. It is the story of Charles Manx, who kidnaps (he’d say “rescues”) children and takes them off to Christmasland where they never get old, never feel hungry, never feel lonely, can have all the hot cocoa they want, and play all day long–super-fun games like “Scissors for the Drifter” and “Bite the Smallest”, that latter being particularly “fun” because of the extra rows of fishhook teeth they tend to grow. Whee, Christmasland!

It is also the story of Victoria McQueen, who discovers as a child that if she holds certain thoughts in her mind as she rides her bicycle, she can summon the “Shorter Way” bridge, across which is…well, whatever she needs it to be. A lost bracelet. A missing cat. Or on the day she sets out to find some sort of trouble to get into, Charles Manx.

Everything I can tell you from there on out is a spoiler, so I’ll just leave it to you to go find a copy and give it a read (with the lights on, preferably nowhere near Christmastime. Pro tip.). But for the curious, here’s my two cents on the thing:

Penny #1: Man was that good. I devoured the book, emerging only for things like eating and sleeping and not completely ignoring my husband for days at a stretch (though he’s a very nice man, and would totally have understood). I carried it around with me, snuck in 5-minute reading breaks between meetings, and was generally utterly consumed by it. It’s a good, good book.

Centavo #2: However, it really could’ve stood a little tightening up. Generally speaking it was fine–decent pace, good story arc, etc–but there were several moments when I found myself making the “c’mon, c’mon, get a move on” motion in my mind. Mostly these were in places where several characters were acting simultaneously but independently, and the narrative was tracking them all; while I officially appreciate a “when in doubt, spend more time on character-building” approach, there’s a certain finesse you have to use with it. So for instance, if there is a child in your scene being menaced by the boogieman and he is trying to call for help, and you establish all those facts through the POV of  a second character, when you switch back to focusing on the POV of the child it’s probably ok to assume the audience has sorted out that he’s feeling afraid. It’s not entirely necessary to spend three pages establishing that yes, the kid is right where the other scene said he was, and yes, the kid has the phone you already know he has, and yes, the kid is feeling just as afraid as his reactions to the other character would imply. We got it. Kid’s spooked. Forge ahead.

But really, that’s the only complaint I’ve got–that sometimes it felt like Hill could’ve spent a little less time making sure we were completely submerged in the moment. Which is absolutely not the worst sin a writer can commit, not by a long shot.

Well, ok, I also felt that the climax was a little shaky. But there again, it would just be a matter of tightening up a few nuts and bolts–no major overhaul or anything, just a little bit of…well, trimming. Or sprucing. Or tightening. Or any other Christmas, blade, or cycle-related verb you want to use. (Yeesh.)

One other note before I start the wrap-up: Joe Hill is clever, and I loved him for it. You’ll find yourself periodically wearing a wry little grin as you spot a reference to other novels, bits of poetry, etc; for instance, at one point he’s describing a burnt-out church and notes that “Nothing beside remained. A sun-faded parking lot, boundless and bare, stretched away, lone and level, as far as she could see”, and I spent a few seconds hoping beyond hope that someone–anyone–would arrive to demand that you “look on my works, ye mighty, and despair”. (Spoiler alert: no one does. Ptoo.). So while it can be a real risk to overload your work with obscure references and literary in-jokes, I think Hill actually does a great job of sprinkling in just enough to make you feel triumphant when you spot them–but not so many, or so blatantly, as to make you feel left out if you haven’t read everything he has.

TL;DR: NOS4A2 is the delightfully creepy sort of novel that makes you trust your fellow man just a little bit less. It will also leave you slightly PTSD about Christmas, so I recommend steering clear of it from, oh, say, November 1 through January 31. Otherwise, settle in with it for a satisfyingly hefty, unsettling trip through what is real, what is imagined, and what exists in the shadow lands outside our experience.

Rating: 7.75/10 Muddy Hoofprints. This book was good, don’t get me wrong, and I absolutely enjoyed it. But it wasn’t terribly revolutionary, and really wanted someone to come through with a pair of scissors and say “I love you and respect your work, but you don’t get to have all of these pages. Some of them have to go. Sorry, man”. So come for the hinks and the chance to find “Jingle Bells” unsettling, stay for the creepiness and the fun of playing spot-the-reference, but don’t pin all your hopes and dreams on this being the Greatest Piece of Horror Ever Written. (But give Hill some time–I like the way this guy thinks, and am optimistic to see what happens to his style as he ages.)

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BBR: Lexicon, by Max Barry

Are you a cat person or a dog person?

What is your favorite color?

Pick a number from 1-100.

Do you love your family?

Why did you do it?

Congratulations! Based on your responses to those five questions, your personality type has been analyzed and you have been sorted into a “segment”; each segment responds unconsciously to certain phonetic sounds/syllables, enabling you to be–well, “hijacked” is a pretty strong word, as is “hacked”, so let’s go with “influenced”–by persons who know the key sounds that correspond to your segment.

And in a private school near Arlington, Virginia, run by a group called the “poets”, students are being taught the control sounds that will allow them to…influence…your mind. When they graduate, they will be given the name of a writer (hence the name of the organization; the fame level of the writer whose name they adopt is determined by their power, so an obscure poet probably means you’re dealing with a recent graduate, while the organization itself is run by William Butler Yeats) and sent out into the world to carry out the organization’s unknown, unclear purpose.

Welcome to the world of Max Barry’s Lexicon.



There are some things you should know about Lexicon. First, you will be OMG SO CURIOUS about what segment you’d be. Fear not! There is an online Lexicon quiz (yayyy!) that will tell you your segment but not your code words (boooo).

Second, the action centers around Broken Hill, Australia, where a rogue poet has set off a “bareword”, a word of unimaginable and uncontrollable power. Anyone who goes into Broken Hill does not come out alive, and it is cordoned off and the press has been fed the notion that something terrible has happened there, along the lines of a chemical weapons spill or a Chernobyl-type disaster. No one goes in, no one comes out, and somebody needs to figure out how to stop this thing. And ideally, if the poet has survived, stop the poet too…bearing in mind that the poet knows the words to control all other human beings. Good luck with that. So for a book about linguistics and word-nerd stuff, there sure is a lot of action in this…which is actually pretty great.

Third, there is some “who are you, no, who are you really?” going on with this novel. And that’s where it lost me.

Surely by now y’all have picked up that I’m a leeeeettle tiny bit of a language geek. I loves me some words. I love the power of words, I love the music of words, I love the truths that underlie words, and because I’ve got synesthesia (there’s your fun trivia for the day), I have an actually pretty visceral relationship with words (synesthesia comes in various types; the kind I have means that I “taste” words. Like, fo’ reals. Like there are some words I don’t like because they taste bad–“enrich”, for example. /shudder).

Also, I am a die-hard, bone-deep, love-it-with-the-passion-of-a-thousand-burning-suns, fan of Ursula LeGuin’s amazing Earthsea series. In those books, every noun has a “true name”, and once you know those names, you can control the nouns they call. When I imagine being a super-powerful wizard (hush, you know you’ve done it too), I imagine knowing the true names of all the things instead of imagining knowing a lot of spells. Spells can make things happen; knowing a thing’s true name can make the thing do the verb by itself. I’m totes down with that.

So if you hand me a novel where the entire plot is based around the power of words, the secrets behind words, and the use of key sounds/words as methods of control…well, I mean, let’s just say the dinner plan went from “I will have a delicious homemade meal on the table when Moon Man gets home” to “Dinner is whatever you pick up. Or find in the freezer. Or have delivered. I don’t care. I’m reading. Go away” in a heckuva hurry.

Mama gots some time for that, is what I’m sayin’.

But remember back where I said that there’s a certain sub-mystery about who these people are? Yeah, well, I figured it out. In one case, I figured it out the minute I met a character–like, the character entered the novel, and I thought “Oh, I wonder if that’s X”, and sure enough, I was right. And while sure, there’s a little internal fist-pump that goes along with that validation, mostly I found it really frustrating–because now I’ve solved a mystery, and have to spend the next 100 pages watching the characters fumble around to get to the same conclusions. I guess in theory it should be enjoyable to watch them pick it apart, but frankly, I get impatient–it’s the same reason I didn’t do well in geometry in high school (“What do you mean, prove that Figure B is a triangle? Look at it. It is a triangle. Ask any five-year-old, and they’ll tell you.”). It’s the same frustration I felt when watching Fight Club, and the same frustration I felt when reading Gone Girl–once you see the twist, waiting for everyone else to spot it gets a little challenging.

That being said, I bet if you read Lexicon and don’t happen to find the right key for the lock on the first try (I’m not saying I’m supremely clever, just that sometimes I can guess the right answer on the first go), then it’s probably tremendously enjoyable. As it stands for me, it was still a really good book, and I’ll totally loan it to friends–it just wasn’t quite as amazing as I might have hoped it would be.

Though really, with a foundation like this novel has, it’s pretty hard for me not to forgive it. YAY WORDS!

TL;DR: Lexicon is set in a world where a clandestine group of “poets” study the control words/sounds/syllables that enable them to hack people’s minds. When one of them goes rogue and sets off a “bareword” near Broken Hill, Australia, it falls to the rest to determine what happened, why it happened, and clean up the fallout–which is no small feat, since the bareword appears to be nearly universally effective and no one who enters Broken Hill has come out alive.

Rating: 8.5/10 Muddy Hoofprints. This book is clever. It’s intelligent, funny at times, full of action, and makes you just plain desperate to know what segment you belong to, what your control words are, and which poet you’d be named after. Also, the idea of a “bareword” fascinates me to no end. So while I happened to unravel the mystery a little earlier than is really ideal, this one still goes on my “totally recommend it” pile. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go say every syllable on earth to myself, to see if any of them make my brain feel hijacked.

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BBR: The Impossible Knife of Memory, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Ways to know you’ve made it:

1. For musicians, Weird Al Yankovic parodies your song.

2. For performers of various sorts, you’re invited to be on Sesame Street.

3. For writers, your book gets banned/challenged/removed from shelves.

Laurie Halse Anderson, then, has made it. Her novel, Speak, which deals with date rape and PTSD, was met with extensive acclaim, was added almost immediately to classroom reading lists, and joined the ranks of the Banned and Challenged books just as quickly. Her books, Twisted (the sexuality! the law-breaking! the alcohol use!) and Wintergirls (apparently talking about how eating disorders can screw up your life is the same as “providing tips” on how to become anorexic) have also been challenged. And now, because someone has to write the books that will give people a way to talk about big complicated scary topics and she’s established herself as just the person for the job, Anderson has brought us The Impossible Knife of Memory.



Impossible Knife is the story of Hayley Kincain, a high-schooler whose family life is anything but average. Her mother died when she was very small, and her father, a decorated veteran who served in Iraq, has severe PTSD. They lived for a while as over-the-road long-haul truckers with Andy, the father, homeschooling Hayley during their trips; but he’s lost that job, and they’ve returned to his childhood hometown to settle down and let Hayley finish her education at a traditional public school.

The problem, of course, is the PTSD. Andy struggles with flashbacks and an inability to hold down a job, plus he self-medicates with alcohol and the occasional illegal drugs. He periodically blacks out, or withdraws into himself for hours or days at a time. And so Hayley is left to be the parent in the household…and to deal with her trust issues, the transition to formal schooling, keeping them both fed, her father’s flare-ups or shut-downs, and (heaven help her) a boy who’s interested in her, all on her own.

I’m not gonna lie: this is not a fun book. Anderson’s books don’t tend to be. They are not a delightful romp, they are not heartwarming and uplifting, they are not the feel-good books of the decade.

But they are important books. They’re books that open a dialogue, books that give vocabulary to complicated issues. They force us to sit with the ugly and uncomfortable parts of the human experience, and force us to acknowledge that not everybody has the “gets a car at your sweet 16, goes to prom with the cute crush, jaunts off to college where wacky misadventures ensue” story.

They force us to understand that some people have a really, really hard row to hoe, and provide a context in which we can talk about some of those big scary topics and issues that you can’t just, y’know, casually introduce. “So…who here has a parent who’s not the Disney ideal? Anybody? Show of hands, guys.”

Not everyone will relate to these books, for which I am profoundly grateful. (I saw one Norwegian reviewer give Impossible Knife a low rating because surely no student–even a profoundly private one like Hayley–would have such a difficult home situation without anyone doing anything about it, and my first thought was “oh, honeychild, god bless you for your absolute lack of understanding of how life in America works”.) But I think it’s critical that folks like Anderson have the courage to keep writing books like Impossible Knife because there will always be someone out there who does relate to it. It is my hope that a student will run across Anderson’s various titles in the library or their classroom, read them, and go see someone–a counselor, a trusted teacher, anyone at all–and say “I know exactly where this character is coming from, and I don’t know what to do about that”.

And it is my hope that adults will continue to read Anderson’s books, and continue to teach them in English classes, and continue to open conversations about the hard topics they introduce. Not because they’re enjoyable, by any stretch of the imagination, but because they’re important. They’re necessary. They’re relevant.

And because they keep getting banned and/or challenged, and to my mind, that’s one of the surest signs that an author is worth note.

TL;DR: Dealing with PTSD in the same way that Speak dealt with rape and Wintergirls dealt with eating disorders, The Impossible Knife of Memory is another important, necessary, thought-provoking, and conversation-opening book from Laurie Halse Anderson. When I’m President of the World, copies of all Anderson’s books will be issued to all citizens and we’ll have a LHA Day once a year when we can all sit and engage in dialogue about them; but until that time, people keep banning and challenging her work, and I’m sure it’s just a matter of time until this one joins that list. Go read it now, while it’s still available on most library shelves.

Rating: 9/10 Muddy Hoofprints. It will almost always be the case that Anderson’s books will get 9/10 Muddy Hoofprints from me, because I really, really, really want y’all to read them. All of them. Even the ones that don’t get banned. Her novels are exhaustively researched, deeply insightful, and profoundly important. Fun? Not so much. But absolutely worth reading nonetheless.

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