The Night Gwen Stacy Died by Sarah Bruni (image via amazon.com)

By Sarah Bruni
July 12
July 20

Kudos to Sarah Bruni for delving deep into comic book lore for this one. You don’t nessecarily need to be familiar with Spiderman, his girlfriend, or the infamous Spiderman story arc that gives this novel its name, but knowing a little background information definitely makes for a richer reading experience.

The Night Gwen Stacy Died is a coming of age novel meet psychological thriller, focused on a small town Iowa teenager named Sheila, a loner who works at a gas station and can’t wait to graduation high school so she can move to Paris. Sheila develops a crush on a station regular, a cab driver who goes by the name of Peter Parker.

Peter Parker is haunted by nightmares that ultimately prove to be a reality; when he has a nightmare about a man killing himself in a bathroom that involves Sheila, he holds up the gas station and “kidnaps” Sheila (I say “kidnaps” because she puts up no fight and even assists in the crime). The two hideout in Chicago, with Sheila takingon the alias (and even look of) comicbook Peter Parker’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. Both are running from something–Peter from a traumatic childhood and adult life and Gwen from the small towns and small minds she feels trapped by—and ultimately figure out what htey really want and need while in Chicao.

There’s a really weird subplot about coyotes that runs throughout the book. In Iowa, Sheila “befriends” a stuffed coyote in a museum, often talking to it as thought it were a real person. Coyotes are also said to be acting strange, encroaching on populated areas and showing no fear of people. Later in the novel, the coyotes almost act like a spirit guide, leading Gwen and Peter to the right place at the right time. It’s a little odd and I’m not sure how much it adds to the overall story, but it did add to the dark mood and feeling of impending doom of the novel.


The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum (image via amazon.com)

By Deborah Blum
July 12
Finished: July 20

And we’re back to my macabre obsession with murder and forensics. Listen, not only do I hold a certificate in Criminal Justice from my university, I was also insanely excited when I got into a class called “Serial and Mass Murder.” I have issues. I know.

The Poisoner’s Handbook is less a guide to how to poison your enemy and more a lively historical narrative about the birth of forensic science in Jazz Age New York City. Dr. Charles Norris and forensic chemist Alexander Gettler manage to turn the corrupt and cushy position of “city coroner” (the appointment was a political one, often the coroner had no previous experience or credentials and would destroy valuable evidence at the scene) into a position based on excruciating attention to detail and a formidable science (I had a full on geek-out at work when I found out PBS was adapting the work for an upcoming episode of American Experience). Before Norris and Gettler pioneered the field of forensics, guilty parties easily escaped murder convictions because there was no way to prove an individual had been deliberately poisoned.

Each new chapter is presented as a case study, Blum starts off with a murder or death with no discernible cause, and uses the murder as a frame for the scientific process of identifying how–and by what poison–a person died. A word of caution, while Blum does craft a great narrative, she is a science writer; and as such she goes into great and graphic detail about grinding up organs and bones, autopsies, and the experiments conducted on animals to prove Norris & Gettler’s theories (as a pet owner, this part was really difficult for me). I highly recommend the interactive comic American Experience developed based on cases presented in the book if you want to get an idea of the stories and poisons you’ll see profiled.



Book #18: White Teeth

White Teeth by Zadie Smith (image via amazon.com)

By Zadie Smith
June 6
Finished: June 25

White Teeth. White Teeth. Though this wasn’t as much of a struggle for me to get through as Swamplandia!, this still felt like a marathon read, which was really disappointed since buzzfeed.com named it one of their 65 Books You Need to Read In Your 20s. Maybe I read too many British books this year, or too many books about the immigrant experience, or maybe I unfairly compared it to Brooklyn, but I could not for the life of me really commit to reading White Teeth.

What bugged me the most was the number narrators telling the story. It jumped around from the perspective of 2 different fathers, 2 different mothers, their 3 children, and if I remember correctly at least one other, Briton-native family with multiple narratives. It was long and jumpy, but ambitious–covering a span from WWII to the late 1980s. And either I missed it, or Smith assumed the reader had enough knowledge to understand that a few chapters dealt with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie after publishing The Satanic Verses. Pretty sure I had to resort to using Google to confirm my suspicions were correct. While I didn’t hate this novel, I don’t know if I’d ever pull it off my shelf for a second read.

Or maybe, a re-read would help in this case?

Book #17: The Bling Ring

The Bling Ring by Nancy Jo Sales via amazon.com

By Nancy Jo Sales
June 2
June 5

Guilty pleasure and pure trash. At least that’s what I thought when my eyes landed on The Bling Ring on a featured table at Barnes & Noble near the release date of Sophia Coppola‘s The Bling Ring, the movie “inspired” by Nancy Jo Sales’ book about five over-privileged, sticky-fingered, fame-obsessed teenagers.

Listen, I graduated in the middle of the recession and was unemployed for about nine months…and to escape the never-ending resume re-tooling, and cover letter writing, I ended up getting really involved with reality TV. It started with the Kardashians (because they made me feel like my life was normal in comparison) which was a gateway drug into a short-lived E! reality series called Pretty Wild.

Pretty Wild followed the Niers girls, including the now imfamous Alexis (the character she inspired was played by Emma Watson in the film), and capture Alexis’s arrest, court dates, and epic voicemail meltdown message left for Nancy Jo Sales. The show was pure trash, rich white girls running wild around LA, and I expected the book to follow the same plot line. Thankfully, Sales is an actual journalist, not a tabloid writer, and The Bling Ring is more like the in-depth reporting you’d see in Rolling Stone rather than the fodder that fills the pages of Us Weekly, and proved to be an interesting and informative read full of interviews, direct quotes, and honest-to-god research

Book #16: Love is a Mix Tape

Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield (image via amazon.com)

By Rob Sheffield
May 28
Finished: June 1

Rob Sheffield is the man. Not only does he know music (and pop culture in general), he consistently delivers on all those VH-1 specials. In Love is a Mixtape he manages frame a love story through music without sounding sickeningly sweet or overly romantic.

Renée is an outgoing, larger than life, southern Country girl that shy, awkward Bostonian Rob is instantly attracted to. Though they run in they same circles, it takes awhile for them to become friends, and eventually start dating. Though Rob didn’t expect to stay in Virginia, his romance with Renée makes it impossible to leave. Each chapter begins with a mixtape of songs, used to frame their friendship, romance, marriage, and Renée’s sudden and tragic death from a pulmonary embolism. If you don’t know the songs on each mixtape, I highly recommend hitting up Spotify and listening to them before reading—the song selection completely sets the mood for the entire chapter and enhances the overall narrative (actually, kinda surprised Rob Sheffield hasn’t already done that. Get on that, Sheffield!).

A note on two of my favorite details: Renée buys a dog she is insistent Rob will learn to love (he does not). Also, after Renée’s death, Rob becomes obsessed with a vinyl album called “Portrait of a Valiant Lady,” a documentary about Jackie Kennedy and how she dealt with her husband’s death. Not only did he listen to the album constantly, he moved the cover around the house with him, propping it up on the stove as he cooks or in the laundry basket as he folds clothes. It’s the strange and vulnerable detail that keeps the book grounded (what grown man would make up a detail like staring at a photo of Jackie Kennedy?) and speaks to the universal ability of music (or I suppose audio in general) as an outlet for and healer of pain, heartache, and loss.hen stove.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson (by John Green & David Levithan)

By Jonathan Green & David Levithan
May 28
Finished: May 31

“i get it now. i get it. the things you hope for the most are the things that destroy you in the end.”

Listen, this book is just quotable. It’s heartbreakingly honest and mildly humorous at the same time. I’m almost ten years removed from high school at this point, but certain parts of this young adult novel felt like John Green & David Levithan opened the diary I kinda-sorta-not really kept in high school.

Wil Grayson, Will Grayson, if you couldn’t tell from the title, is the story of two Will Graysons whose lives randomly intersect one night in Chicago. The chapters alternate between Will Grayson and will grayson (will grayson’s chapters being written in all lowercase letters, a sign to me of the prevalence of online communication but a debate can–and has—be made for the lack of capitalization as a reflect of how the character views himself). LGBT issues also play a huge role; will grayson is trying to find his identity as a gay teen, and Will Grayson’s best friend Tiny Cooper is a larger than life gay teen who falls in and out of love at least once a week. It’s a coming of age novel for a new generation, a generation more comfortable with a text message or an email than a phone call or face to face meeting, discovering how they fit into the world that surrounds them.

The novel is a collaboration between John Green and David Levithan, with Green responsible for Will Grayson and Levithan responsible for will grayson. The characters interact so frequently and so seamlessly, it easy to forget two authors are responsible for the words on the pages. If you want to read more about Green & Levithan’s writing process, here’s a great interview with John Green.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (image via amazon.com)

By Karen Russell
May 16
Finished: May 27

Book #14 means I’m officially over the half way point to my goal! I believe I deserve a celebratory cupcake (can someone invent a time travel machine so I can go back to May 27th and present myself with a cupcake? Or get me a time-turner? I’m not picky, I will take what I can get…).

Swamplandia! was another book I picked up off the tables at Strand and ultimately put back down. The cover drew my eye: sharp teeth, alligators, a title with an unconventional exclamatory title, promising adventure! The descriptive blurb on the back held promise, but the rating on Goodreads gave me pause. After reading the novel, I fully understand its mediocre reviews.

Swamplandia! was by no means a bad book: the characters are rich and fully formed and the prose is humorous and whimsical. Like Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, Swamplandia! is an adult novel narrated by a child (or in this case, children). While the narration switches between thirteen-year old Ava and her seventeen-year old brother Kiwi, Ava is clearly the star of the novel (though I did identify with Kiwi and find his storyline more enjoyable and engaging).

Kiwi and Ava, along with their sister Ossie, have never really left the swampland amusement park their family has owned for generations.The Big Trees (a surname adopted by a previous generation to enhance the amusement park’s authenticity) are plunged into chaos when their mother dies of cancer: not only was she the glue of the family, she was the main performer at the park’s biggest attraction, swimming with the alligators (or as the Big Trees call them, the Seths). With their mother gone, each of the Big Tree children embarks on a journey of discovery: loyal Ava cares for the Seths and practices her mother’s diving routine in an attempt to save the park; fed-up Kiwi journeys to the mainland with the hopes of landing a job and an education and eventually, stability for his two sisters; despondent  Ossie ventures into the Florida swamplands in search of a ghost she believes she will marry. Ava, alone in an abandoned park with the Seths to keep her company, takes off on a dangerous journey to find her sister.

While I did enjoy the premise of the book and (most) of its characters, I had two major problems with this book. The first maybe indicative of the type of books I gravitate to, but there were a few graphic scenes of sexual exploitation and abuse of a child that made me exceptionally uncomfortable. I am not sure if they added to the store and were really necessary, or if it was an overly gratuitous additional plot point. The second was the uneven tone and sluggish middle section of the novel; I rushed reading some parts because they were not particularly engaging, and even found myself nodding off at times (though some of this can be chalked up to me reading part of this book on the bus ride for NYC to Massachusetts). I did enjoy Karen Russell’s writing, I just wish it was more even and balanced.


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