Book Review: “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow (5/5)

“While reading the scene in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy in which the tenderhearted Uncle Toby picks up a fly and delicately places it outside a window instead of killing it, Burr is said to have remarked, ‘Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.'”

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Penguin, 2004, 818 pages [hardcover]

Here I am! Hi! Hi!!! I don’t even know if it is worth apologizing for not posting a review in so long; it’s unacceptable, but with everything that I have going on right now my reading and reviewing has suffered the most. :\

Work is good but super busy, and we’re also beginning to navigate the very, very stressful process of purchasing our first (and hopefully only) house. But a new, big house means more space for books, am I right?

In the time since I last posted I have definitely joined the Hamilton bandwagon. I have always been interested in American history, especially earlier American history, but never realized just how fascinating Hamilton’s life was in comparison to the other founding fathers until listening to the soundtrack from the show and then reading this book. Even though I have a lot of nonfiction and biographies on my TBR, I always seem to gravitate to fiction more, but this was really wonderful and maybe I will seek out nonfiction to actually read more often now.

I think with the growing popularity of the musical now, a lot of people know the basics of Hamilton’s life so I won’t really go into that in this review. What I want to talk about here is Chernow’s skill as a biographer and a writer. Unlike many other biographies, I think that Alexander Hamilton provides an extremely well-rounded and honest portrait of a quite complicated man: as much as there is to love and respect about Hamilton, he was a very vain, rather elitist guy who would do pretty much anything that he could to move up in the world and obtain more power. Chernow doesn’t shy away from this at all and continuously reinforces Hamilton’s personality traits, both positive and negative, as explanations for why he made many of the questionable decisions of his career. The writing was persuasive, emotionally effective, and often funny and sarcastic. Even though there was a very large cast of characters, between Hamilton’s wife and eight(!!!) children and his many political comrades and enemies, I felt like I knew everyone so well by the end (and we all know how it ends).

It’s also hard for me not to mention that since I was familiar with (OK, memorized all of the songs) the musical soundtrack prior to reading the book, it just reinforced for me how much of a genius Lin-Manuel Miranda is. It was really great for me to continuously find quotes and/or descriptions from Chernow that matched song lyrics. I can’t say exactly when I’m seeing the show (the tickets are a “surprise” from my husband), but I know that it is at some point in the not too distant future, and having read Alexander Hamilton is only going to enhance my experience.

Not surprisingly, I am giving Alexander Hamilton 5 stars. If you already love the musical/soundtrack, you have nothing to lose by reading this, except maybe time, since it did take me almost a month of train reading to get through it. If you have an interest in American history/founding fathers/colonial America etc., this is also a great choice. Despite the length and depth of this book I really never felt bored at all while reading it – I don’t know how much of that can be attributed to Chernow’s talents and how much to the fact that Hamilton’s life as compared to many of his contemporaries was simply very interesting, but those two factors have created a great combination and I’m so glad that I read it.

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Hope to be able to post a bit more regularly, but do not want to make a promise that I can’t fulfill. Miss you all though.

Book Review: “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline

“I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world. I didn’t know how to connect with the people there. I was afraid, for all of my life. Right up until I knew it was ending. That was when I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real. Do you understand?”

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First published by Crown in 2011 – 384 pages in first edition

In 2044, the world and especially the US isn’t looking so good. Wade Watts is one of many people living in “the stacks,” towers of trailers and mobile homes piled high. Wade isn’t great at interacting with people and his family life is less than ideal. But just like everyone else, Wade has a way to escape: The OASIS. This is an extremely immersive virtual reality experience that started out as one video game developed by James Halliday but soon exploded into an entire universe with thousands of planets to explore and even its own currency that’s more valuable and popular than regular cash. OASIS users have avatars that they can name and design in any way they choose. Wade’s avatar is named Parzival, and because Wade is poor he can’t really buy the equipment he needs to advance his avatar’s level. When James Halliday (now insanely, incredibly wealthy) dies, he’s a loner with no family, and he leaves behind a will that is anything but traditional. Somewhere in the depths of the OASIS he has hidden an “Easter Egg” and whoever’s avatar is the first to discover it will inherit his entire fortune. In order to access this prize, egg hunters (“gunters”) will need to find three keys that open three different gates. None of it can be done without completing various challenges that all relate to Halliday’s obsessions in life.

The resulting story is a complete love story to 1980s pop culture, the development of video games and computing, and basically all things geek (I’m not gonna pretend that I didn’t make a little excited noise when Parzival describes the teleportation booths as reminiscent of the TARDIS). Wade is a complete Halliday devotee and because he loves all of the things Halliday loves he is able to creatively attempt the quest for the egg despite his limited resources. Other important characters are Parzival’s fellow “gunters” including his best friend Aech (“H”) and long-time crush Art3mis.

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Just kidding, I just had to put some Wil Wheaton here. The only spoiler I will give is that I thought this audiobook was… AWESOME! I loved the story and feel like a more inclusive type of virtual reality like the OASIS is not so far off for us. I identified with Wade, Art3mis, even Halliday in various ways and I found myself really sharing the characters’ triumphs and sorrows.

Maybe it’s just me being a general nerdy person but SO many of my favorite movies, TV shows, bands (RUSH!!!) and other things that I like all the way down to my favorite brand of sneaker had a home in this book and it literally warmed my heart. I would be stuck in traffic and look over to the car next to me to find someone staring at me because I was either hysterically laughing or crying a little bit and it probably looked weird since when I’m listening I’m alone in the car.

Wil Wheaton is the most perfect reader for this story. I was interested in getting this book in audiobook format even though I’ve wanted to read it in general for years now (one of my law school professors actually first recommended it to me) because it constantly comes up on lists of the best audiobook performances. I cannot separate the character of Wade from Wil’s voice in my mind now and I am hoping in vain that he will be cast as Wade in the movie when it comes out even though I know it probably won’t happen. It got to a point where I would just sit in my car in the work parking lot or when I got home because I could not bring myself to stop listening. I blame all of my tardiness on Ernest Cline and Wil.

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Between this and The Martian I have been quite lucky with my sci-fi in recent weeks. I’ve heard mixed reviews about Cline’s successor novel Armada but I will probably check it out. I adored this book and everything about it and do not hesitate in giving it 5 stars 🙂

Book Review: “The Martian” by Andy Weir

“Maybe I’ll post a consumer review. ‘Brought product to surface of Mars. It stopped working. 0/10.'”

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Hardcover edition; Crown, 2014. 384 pages.

I am so glad that I finally read The Martian. I’ve somehow ended up with a lot of current reads at the same time but this is the one that I just couldn’t put down, and I am home sick from work today so I knew I would end up finishing. I think that at this point with the upcoming film and all of the book’s hype, most of you seeing this will know the basic premise: A mission to Mars fails and in the aftermath one astronaut of the six-member crew gets left behind, presumed dead, but of course he is very much alive and has to figure out how to attempt to survive (and evade starvation) on Mars with very limited supplies. Luckily, he’s incredibly inventive and resourceful, but just when you think that it cannot possibly get any worse for Mark Watney, something else will happen that he will need to deal with and adapt to. Watney (who I could not avoid picturing as Matt Damon because of the movie casting) is as upbeat as one in his situation could possibly be and is an extremely lovable character.

A few reviews that I’ve seen have taken issue with the fact that there are a lot of puns, jokes, and other remarks that are silly and nerdy and detract from the seriousness of the subject matter and Weir’s excellent writing. I happened to love the way the entire book was structured and these glimpses into Watney’s psyche during all the time he spent alone. I think that his sense of humor is what kept him from going completely insane and it made perfect sense for that to be recorded. In between all of the jokes and puns I found that the actual science behind The Martian was well-researched, logical, and likely. In the readers’ guide at the back of the paperback that I bought, Andy Weir explains that the way initial mission at the beginning of the book was structured is the most likely way that a manned mission to Mars will occur when that does end up happening.

I gave The Martian 5 stars. I cannot wait for the movie to come out in October and I really hope that it does the book justice. The Martian is the type of sci-fi book categorized as “real science”  or “hard science fiction” because it is based on accurate research and a plausible plot. Because of this, I think that readers who might not ordinarily turn to sci-fi would still appreciate Weir’s excellent crafting of Watney’s survival tale.

Book Review: “The Girl With All the Gifts” by M.R. Carey

“The horror of the unknown is more frightening than any horror you can understand.”

Hardcover edition; Orbit, 2014. 416 pages.

Hardcover edition; Orbit, 2014.
416 pages.

One thing you should know about me that I don’t think I’ve mentioned on the blog yet is that I’m fairly squeamish. For the most part, I’d rather watch any other type of movie besides a horror movie. I cannot stand the sight of someone vomiting whether on film or in person. I can’t even watch certain scenes of shows like Grey’s Anatomy if they’re particularly bloody. So why was I desperate to read this book, which was confirmed to be extremely terrifying and gory? Well… I can’t tell you without giving anything away, but I knew from reading a couple of reviews (some of them a bit spoilery) that I was going to love this. There are specific niches within the horror genre that I will always go for, but I don’t want to say what type without revealing more, and for this book it’s best to approach it with a blank slate. But you should check out the description from Goodreads, which is what initially drew me in:

Melanie is a very special girl. Dr Caldwell calls her “our little genius.”
Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they don’t laugh.
Melanie loves school. She loves learning about spelling and sums and the world outside the classroom and the children’s cells. She tells her favorite teacher all the things she’ll do when she grows up. Melanie doesn’t know why this makes Miss Justineau look sad.

By looking at a horrific situation through the lens of a brilliant, gifted (you will see very early on exactly how gifted) child, M.R. Carey makes it possible for readers to feel such a huge range of emotions despite being totally grossed out by many of the scenes herein. I CRIED at the end of this book. In addition to the obvious gore that comes with a horror novel, there are truths in The Girl With All the Gifts about love, friendship, and family. None of the violence is gratuitous; the science behind what unfolds is incredibly believable; the characters are so well-developed for this type of book that the focus is perfectly balanced between them and the plot. Carey is an amazing writer and gives away exactly enough information at the right time to maintain the intrigue and build up to each next horrifying scene. I’m deliberately being vague about everything that goes on because it will be SO much better if you go in blind. This was undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve read in “my” sub-genre of horror that I enjoy and I gave it an enthusiastic 5 stars.

Book Review: “Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances” by Neil Gaiman

“Many of these stories end badly for at least one of the people in them. Consider yourself warned.”

Hardcover edition; William Morrow 2015. 310 pages.

Hardcover edition; William Morrow 2015.
310 pages.

I was first exposed to the world of Neil Gaiman in my seventh-grade English class when I chose to do a book report on his newly released children’s book, Coraline. I waited until law school to explore his adult works and found that each of them provided a fantastic escape from the assorted stresses and pressures of school, and he quickly became my absolute favorite author. Neverwhere, Good Omens, and American Gods would all be among the books I would take with me if stranded on a desert island. This new short story collection, although the most recently published, was the first of his three sets that I decided to read. I was never that into short stories, but I’m trying to diversify my reading habits and get more into them, and figured that this book would not disappoint since it is, after all, Neil Gaiman. Although some of the stories in this collection were better than others, I didn’t think that any of them at all were “bad.” Several of the stronger ones were truly amazing to me, and this was a solid 5-star read that has motivated me to read Gaiman’s other two short story sets ASAP.

The title of the collection refers to the increasing frequency with which the term “trigger warning” itself is appearing, particularly on the internet so as to warn sensitive readers and users of potentially upsetting content. Rather than waiting for others to give the stories this label, Gaiman wants us to know from the forefront that this collection is dark. Some of them (“Click-Clack the Rattlebag”; “My Last Landlady”) are just a few pages long and perfectly creepy. Others (“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains”) are more substantial and developed, with horrors that take a bit longer to reveal themselves. The closing tale (“Black Dog”) was excellently crafted and deeply disturbing, returning us to the world of Shadow and a few other characters from American Gods. Some stories are a bit lighter and led me to ponder rather than shiver (“Orange” in particular made me laugh out loud). It’s probably no surprise at all that my two favorites were “Nothing O’clock” which was a perfect Doctor Who story, featuring the 11th Doctor and my favorite companion (Amy Pond), originally written for the 50th anniversary, that could have so easily been an episode, and “The Case of Death and Honey” which took a closer look at Sherlock Holmes’ beekeeping hobby in his old age. I could continue, but I think that at least some of the stories should come as a surprise to those who choose to read them 🙂 Suffice it to say that in my opinion Gaiman has a true gift and I will continue to read and probably adore anything that this man will ever write.

Book Review: “The Husband’s Secret” by Liane Moriarty

“Falling in love was easy. Anyone could fall. It was holding on that was tricky.”

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This was the first book that I ever listened to on CD. I really enjoyed the audiobook experience and I will definitely continue utilizing books on CD as a way to get more reading done during my commute. Caroline Lee’s Australian accent was perfect to capture the setting of this book. Now, to the book itself:

I previously read Moriarty’s Big Little Lies on my flight to London and really enjoyed it. That was a 4-star book for me, but The Husband’s Secret gets a full 5 stars without hesitation. I don’t know if my enjoyment was particularly enhanced by listening to the book, or if it really is this good, but I got so emotional over these characters and what happened to them. I feel like Moriarty really gets people, women in particular, and I could identify bits of myself in each of the three leading ladies:

Cecilia Fitzpatrick is seemingly the perfect wife and mother: Handsome husband, successful Tupperware business, three beautiful daughters, the PTA president, etc. etc. etc. Until she (stupidly) opens a letter, written by her husband, not meant to be opened until his death, and what she discovers inside ensures that her perfect life will never be quite so perfect again.

Tess O’Leary feels like everything is going just fine: Her marriage is happy and secure, if not the most thrilling, and she is growing her advertising business with her husband and her cousin/best friend, until they confess something that turns her world upside down and makes her run home to her mother, where she faces her past and then her future.

Rachel Crowley is a bit older: The nice, sweet, somewhat elderly secretary of the elementary school, a devoted grandma. But the truth is, she’s barely holding it together, still reeling from her daughter’s untimely death in 1984.

The stories of these three women come together in some expected and unexpected ways. Even though I figured out what “the husband’s secret” was very early on in the book, the majority of the book really deals with the aftermath of the secret and its effects on every single character. I’m not always the biggest fan of “chick lit” but in my opinion this book actually is much deeper than how it might appear on the cover: Real, concrete issues that may come up in a marriage, figuring out what it means to be a good parent, being a good child to your aging parents, dealing with serious tragedy… and so much more, are all handled within in what I found to be strong, serious writing – it wasn’t fluffy at all, though Moriarty does infuse humor in all of the right places.

The book does a great job of switching between characters (it’s all in third person, though, which helps it from getting confusing on audio) at just the right moment so that there were times I would have to just sit in my car for a few minutes before going into work or my house or the store to finish up a chapter or two. I’ve read some complaints about the epilogue and how it was too “neat,” but for me it was perfect and a perfectly satisfying way to wrap up my experience with this book (of course at that point I wasn’t even driving anywhere, just sitting in a parking lot making myself late for a bridesmaid dress fitting).

This is the kind of book that, when you put it down and come back to the real world, makes you find yourself staring at random people on the street, thinking about what sort of secrets they’re hiding, what might be going wrong in their lives that even they don’t know about. I’ve been asking Anthony a lot of very odd questions and eventually just had to explain the entire plot to him so that he understood why I was being so weird!! It’s rare that a book can take my somewhat middling expectations for it (I picked this book to listen to instead of The Queen of the Tearling from the library simply because I thought a fantasy book might be a poor choice as a first audiobook since there are often so many characters and settings with complicated names) and blow them out of the park. I think that especially as a new wife I really fell for this book, and I’m probably even younger than the target demographic. Devotees of YA will probably not like this as much, but if you are the kind of person who will try any kind of book, I think (and hope) that you will be pleasantly surprised by The Husband’s Secret.