Book Review: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (1968)

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Review #13

 

As a child I was obsessed with fantasy and fairy tales. I was also completely horse-mad, as only a little girl growing up in farm country can be. The 1982 film adaptation of this book was one of my favorite movies back in the glory days of VHS. So how I managed to go thirty years without picking up a copy of Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn is a complete mystery to me. But I’m so very glad I finally did.

The Last Unicorn is the purest form of fairy tale. Between its slim pages contain a marvelous world of decrepit old witches, terrifying monsters, heroic princes, and miserly kings. Coexisting with all these fantastical creatures are a wonderfully diverse cast of ordinary folk.

It is also a classical fairy tale in that it is was not written as a children’s story. In the tradition of the Brothers Grimm, The Last Unicorn is like a rosebush, lovely on the outside but beware the thorns. The descriptions of the harpy and the Red Bull are sure to frighten small children. There is a sadness and a weight underlying Beagle’s narrative, and a happily ever after is no guarantee. I do think this would be the perfect book for parents to read to children who are old enough to handle more mature themes. The overall plot is simple enough to understand and they will delight in the vivid descriptions of the unicorn and her companions.

I criticized an earlier fantasy novel on this blog for its use of overly flowered, obnoxious metaphors. That author should take a page from Beagle’s book, for every single sentence in this story flows naturally and fluidly into the other. Take, for example:

“The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.”

That’s the opening paragraph from the novel. With these few short sentences, Beagle draws his reader in and paints in their minds the portrait of a lone unicorn in a magical forest. The rest of the story continues in a similar fashion, leading the reader on a delightful journey that ends too soon.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who loves fantasy, fairy tales, or just a really beautifully written story.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Last Unicorn here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too by Jomny Sun (2017)

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Review #12

 

Jomny is a aliebn who’s a little weird. None of his fellow aliebns seem to think or act like him. He is left alone on Earth in order to research the strange creatures known as humabns. While on Earth, Jomny meets many new friends, and learns a few important lessons about life, loneliness, and nothing at all.

Due to the deliberately bad spelling and grammar, my inner English teacher was in a mild state of apoplexy when I  began this book. I need not have worried. Within ten pages I was absolutely enthralled with this tale of a lonely alien who is trying to learn his place among things. This is a “novel” in the loosest sense of the word. One, it is a graphic novel which gives author Jomny Sun nearly unlimited freedom. Some pages have only one or two words on them. Others don’t have any words at all. The illustrations are simple to the point of being childlike, which makes them somehow more impressive at second glance. It takes talent and a degree of restraint that few artists have to express so much through such spare drawings.

The most important idea presented in Everyone’s a aliebn is that all the people we meet are fighting a harder battle. This is not a new idea in any sense, but it’s conveyed here without the heavy handedness that often comes with that territory. Jomny the alien encounters a variety of characters throughout the book, each one dealing with their own problems. Most notable are an insecure hedgehog who dreams of creating art but anticipates rejection, a bear who is feared by all but just wants to make friends, an egg who is anxious because he doesn’t know what he’ll be when he hatches, and a tree who is lonely because every autumn all his fruit and leaves abandon him and to fall to the ground. None of these characters are defined by their fears, and instead are just trying to work through them. Not everything is sadness and not everything is joy, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Sometimes the right book just finds you at the time right. I’ve been struggling for the past few months with pretty crushing loneliness. It’s manageable on a day-to-day basis but then I read a book like this one and come across this:

“u may be sad because u feel alone. the comforting thing abot feeling lonely is that every thing that has ever existed also knows what loneliness feels like too.”

Simple thoughts, told in the simplest words, can have the power of a thousand pithy self-help books. I didn’t even know how badly I needed this book until I was halfway through it. And what’s great is that this isn’t a “self-help” book. It didn’t offer platitudes and self-esteem boosters. It is just a series of observations of the highs and lows that accompany the human condition.

Everyone’s a aliebn deals with questions of life and death, friendship, and creation. It would be a great book for a child to read once they begin asking the important questions in life. It would be a great book for a person who is struggling through hard times. It would be a great book for a person on the precipice of change. Basically, it would be a great book for just about anyone.

Bonus: it’s also an incredibly quick read. I sat down one afternoon and read the book cover-to-cover in thirty minutes. I got up to do some other things around the house but couldn’t shake Everyone’s a aliebn. So I sat back down and read it again.

My rating: 5/5

You can find this book here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Communion by Whitley Strieber (1988)

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Review #11

 

“Mister Mulder, why are those like yourself, who believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life on this Earth, not dissuaded by all the evidence to the contrary?”

“Because, all the evidence to the contrary is not entirely dissuasive.”

“Precisely”

The X-Files (1993-2002)

Reading Whitley’s Strieber’s Communion, this quote from The X-Files kept flashing into my mind. According to the preface, this book was considered highly controversial when it was released in 1988. However, thirty years of science fiction in the form of the aforementioned TV show, as well as other television programs such as Falling Skies and V, films such as The Fourth Kind and Dark Skies, and even children’s books such as the Animorphs series have all prepped my imagination to accept the idea of alien abduction and invasion with a far more open mind than would have been normal at this time of this book’s publication. I did not find anything particularly “shocking” between the pages of Communion.

Instead, I was left wondering how many of the alien abduction tropes that pop up in so much of pop culture originated, or were at least fueled by Strieber’s memoir. The running theme of anal probing makes an appearance, as does the idea of owls as a screen memory for the alien visitors. The unnaturally thin aliens with huge black eyes that are depicted here are the same ones that people have been describing for decades.

Communion is split into roughly three parts. The first segment details the events that forced Strieber to wonder if he was being taken by “visitors”. (Note: he rarely uses the word “aliens” and instead offers up several theories that these beings aren’t from outer space at all). Strieber is able to give an immense about of detail about the physical appearance of these visitors and everything that was done to him one night in December of 1986. These early chapters are probably the most interesting, but also read the most like fiction.

The second segment deals with Strieber trying to figure out if he is losing his mind. He visits hypnotherapists and discovers repressed memories of these visitors from his early childhood. There are full transcripts offered from these hypnosis session, which are stream-of-consciousness in style and incredibly difficult to follow. (Note: We also know now that hypnotherapy is an incredibly imprecise branch of psychiatry, and can often result in the placing of false memories inside the mind of the patient). Strieber then wonders if he has epilepsy, and explores that route through a variety of medical professionals. Strieber adamantly wants his readers to believe that he explored every viable medical and scientific option to explain away his memories before he was forced to admit that he truly was being taken against his will by visitors. (Note: The now popular explanation of sleep paralysis is never explored, possibly because it was not fully understood in the late 1980’s).

The third section of Communion is the gathering of witnesses. Strieber convinces his wife to undergo hypnosis, and her transcripts seem to corroborate his account. We are then presented with transcripts from group sessions, wherein Strieber and other self-proclaimed abductees compare and contrast their various stories. This part was actually very interesting, and the strange similarities between the stories are worth a second look.

The last twenty pages go completely off the rails. This was the only part of the book where I thought that Strieber may have been under the influence of a great deal of marijuana. He uses obscure Aztec, Hindu, and Sumerian poetry to discuss the importance of the duality and trinity of life. He uses the mystery of the Sphinx to talk about the idea of ascending to a higher state of consciousness. He throws in everything but the kitchen sink, and then tosses the kitchen sink in for good measure. While reading the final section of Communion, I found myself wishing that I too were under the influence of a great deal of marijuana.

It is completely impossible when reading Communion to leave your preconceptions at the door. If you are a hardcore skeptic, than the memoir will read as the ramblings of an attention-seeking man spouting nonsense. The fact that Whitley Strieber was a moderately successful horror writer before the publication of this book is a pretty damning black mark in favor of the skeptics. If you are an affirmed believer in UFOs and abduction theories, than this book will only confirm and intensify your previously held beliefs. Personally, I’ve always tried to maintain an open mind when it comes to the unexplained things experienced on the Earth. It is impossible to prove a negative, therefore I cannot state with any certainty that Earth hasn’t been visited by creatures from another world. Therefore, I left Communion with very much the same opinions that I entered with. Alien abduction is a possibility, but not a likely one.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Communion here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt (2017)

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Review #10

 

Lizzie Borden took an axe.

And gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one.

In a small New England town in 1892, Elizabeth Borden screams for her maid that her father has been murdered. Police arrive and find the body of Andrew Borden hacked to pieces with what appears to have been an ax. The body of his second wife, Abby Borden, is later found upstairs, also killed by an ax blade.

The story of Lizzie Borden is one of those immortal stories that everyone seems to hear about growing up. She was arrested for the double murder of her father and stepmother, but was acquitted in spite of all the evidence. The jury simply did not feel that a women was capable of such a violent crime. It was an early case of media hype around a murder trial possibly swaying the verdict.

In her debut novel, Sarah Schmidt attempts to recreate the historical circumstances around the days leading up to the murders, as well as the morning that the bodies are found. We begin with Lizzie’s point of view as she “discovers” the her father dead in the house, and then switch perspectives to her older sister Emma, their maid Bridget, and a local man named Benjamin.

Schmidt’s novel, at under three hundred pages, is too short to be split between four perspectives. Instead of one well-developed narrative, the reader is given four half-developed narratives. Lizzie’s is by far the most intriguing since she’s so unreliable, but we spend far less time with her than I would have liked. Her sister Emma obviously detests her younger sister and yet feels a protective instinct to shield her from the realities of the world. I would have liked to have explored that sibling dynamic further. I have no idea why Schmidt felt the need to include their maid, perhaps it was so we could see the way that the family interacted from a dispassionate perspective? Either way, her chapters are infrequent and add little to the overall story arc. The final character, Benjamin, could have been given a lot more to do, and is treated more as an odd red herring than anything else.

The thing is, you have to have someone to root for. If all the characters in a novel are unsympathetic, than logically it is difficult for a reader to feel sympathy towards them. I had hoped to find in this novel a different take on the Lizzie Borden legend. Instead, Schmidt touches briefly on the themes of sisterly love and feminine captivity, but then sacrifices that with repetitive narration that becomes increasingly difficult to follow.

See What I Have Done presents Lizzie Borden as mentally disturbed, possibly even mentally deranged. And let’s be honest, she probably was.

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If anything, she had a very convincing case of crazy eyes.

 

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Caraval by Stephanie Garber (2017)

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Review #9

 

Having spent her entire life on the island of Trisda and under the thumb of her bullying father, Scarlett Dragna has dreamed for years of Caraval. A yearly game run by an enigmatic man known only as Legend, Caraval entices participants with the prize of a single magical wish. With the help of a renegade sailor, Scarlett and her sister Tella escape their island and arrive at Legend’s magical island. But Scarlett quickly learns that nothing in Caraval is what is seems, and the consequences could be deadly.

The last two books I read for this blog were both about horribly dysfunctional families and the lasting scars they leave on their children. Having been through the emotional wringer, I wanted my next book to be something a little lighter. I chose Caraval because its cover is gorgeous and I knew it was YA fantasy. Turns out I might have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction.

Caraval is a fantasy that exists in a vacuum. The novel opens on the “Conquered Isles” in “Year 50 of the Elantine Dynasty”. Yet we are never told why these Isles were conquered, or by whom. What is the Elantine Dynasty, and what happened fifty years ago to set it in place? A lot of the place names are derived from Spanish such as the hotel La Serpentiene and the Castillo Maldito. Even the name of Scarlett’s home island, Trisda, comes from triste, the Spanish word for sadness. So we’re on Earth? In the past or the future? None of these questions are addressed which made it increasingly difficult to envision this world as a place that has weight and meaning.

Caraval is also a fantasy that exists without any meaningful character description. The only thing we know to be true of Scarlett is that she loves her sister. This is repeated twice a page, lest we should forget. When the generic love interest is introduced, we are subjected to the familiar “I hate him but he’s so intriguing”. Which of course changes without warning to “I cannot live without him”.

Then there are descriptions such as this:

“He tasted like midnight and wind, and shades of rich brown and light blue. Colors that made her feel safe and guarded.”

What does that even mean? What the hell does midnight taste like? But that’s not the only example:

“The world tasted like lies and ashes when Scarlett woke.”

“Every touch created colors she had never seen. Colors as soft as velvet and as sharp as sparks that turned into stars.”

“She remembered thinking falling for him would be like falling in love with darkness, but now she imagined he was more like a starry night: the constellations were always there, constant, magnificent guides against the ever-present black.” 

None of that makes a bit of sense, and it kept pulling me out of the novel because I had to roll my eyes. I can get on board with a bit of purple prose, but when you use it at the expense of actual character development it becomes tedious.

The biggest problem was that, at the end of the day, this book was not written for me. It was written for thirteen year old me. Thirteen year old me would have bathed in all of those overly romantic descriptions. She would have reveled in the countless descriptions of gorgeous ball gowns. She would have relished the oh-so passionate and yet determinedly chaste romance between Scarlett and Julian. This book was written for thirteen year old me. Thirty year old me is just too savvy (cynical?) to fall for it.

In the immortal words of Agent Murtaugh, I’m getting too old for this shit.

My rating: 2/5

You can find Caraval here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Kimberling Lake Chapter Two by Ashley Schlueter

If you haven’t read the first installment, you can find it here. Again, I welcome any constructive criticism and comments! Happy reading everyone!

Kimberling Lake

by Ashley Schlueter

Chapter Two

How long she lay prone on the deck, Nellie didn’t know. It could have been two minutes or two hours. She finally opened her eyes to an angry black sky above Kimberling Lake, and she shivered violently as rain lashed around her. She coughed hoarsely and tried to sit up, but her head spun and she sank back onto the wooden boards. Turning her head to the right, she could see the metal ladder where Jeanie had last stood. She managed to lift her head slightly to look for the bloodstain that had marked where her cousin fell, but the rain had washed it away. It was as if Jeanie had never been there.

Nellie was alone.

Bile rose in her throat. She rolled onto her side and vomited weakly onto the dock, shaking as her stomach heaved the contents of her breakfast onto the wooden slats. Her head pounded fiercely, and she was unbearably thirsty. Opening her mouth, she allowed rain to drip into her mouth and coat her swollen tongue. This helped clear her head, and Nellie slowly managed to rise, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the dock as far away from the lake as possible. She looked out across the choppy water to the beach. The picnic basket still sat on the rocks, next to Jeanie’s discarded clothes and shoes.

At the sight of her cousin’s shorts and T-shirt, Nellie was seized by a sudden rage. “Give her back!” Rising unsteadily to her feet, she screamed her frustration and helplessness over the water. Tears streamed alongside rain on her cheeks as she cursed the thing in the water. “Give her back! Give her back!” she howled over the lake. The lake, however; merely continued lapping at the buoys of the floating dock, deaf to the pain of one small girl child.

Nellie shouted wildly, “I’m going to kill you! You killed Jeanie and now I’m going to kill you!” Her voice hitched and her chest was tight with grief and pain. “I’m going to kill you!” she cried again. Looking around for something to throw and finding nothing, she resorted to stamping her small foot ineffectually.

Without warning the dock rose into the air, tilting violently to one side. Nellie was thrown off her feet. Scrambling for purchase, she grabbed for a gap between two of the wooden boards and dug her fingers in. Jagged splinters pierced her hands but Nellie gripped harder as the dock rose at a sharper angle out of the water. She screamed again, this time from terror.

Then, just as suddenly as it has begun, the tilting stopped and the dock settled back onto the surface of the lake. Water washed over the sides in waves. Nellie’s heart was hammering in her chest. She drew her knees up to her chest and rested her head against them, breathing raggedly.

It heard me. It’s under the dock right now, waiting and listening to the frightened girl alone on the lake. Nellie pictured the two malevolent red eyes watching her from the water, its slimy black claws curled for the chance to drag her into the drowning deep.

It’s there, and it wants to make sure I know it’s there. Wants to keep me scared. Maybe scared kids taste better. Or it’s just playing with me until it gets bored.

As if the monster could read her very thoughts a series of bubbles broke the surface of the lake, as if something under the water had released air very quickly. It’s laughing at me. Nellie’s head sank back onto her knees, and she struggled to calm her hammering heart, to ease her breathing.

Think. She commanded herself. Stop panicking and think.

How long had she been stuck out here on this rusty old dock? It felt like years ago that she and Jeanie had arrived at the lake. The girl in the yellow sundress who had flown to the edge of the lake with such joy felt like another person entirely. A completely different Nellie had dived down to the lakebed to grab some mud. That other Nellie’s biggest problem had been trying to earn the respect of her older cousin. Somewhere over the course of the morning, that girl had been replaced by a new Nellie. One who had seen her cousin dragged off the edge of a dock by a dripping black claw. A Nellie who was now trapped like a rabbit in a snare. Her chest began hitching and she squeezed her eyes tightly to stop the tears.

Breathe. Think.

She and Jeanie had left the house early that morning, around 9:30. The events of the ill-fated lakebed dive had occurred perhaps thirty minutes later. It was difficult to judge the position of the sun due to the dark clouds blanketing the sky, but Nellie would guessed it was somewhere around noon. Lunchtime. On cue her stomach gave a faint grumble. She and Jeanie were usually expected back at Aunt Cynthia’s for lunch. Perhaps when they didn’t show up, Aunt Cynthia would come looking for them.

The picnic basket.

Nellie groaned into the space between her knees. Of course. She and Jeanie had packed a lunch to take down to the beach. Her parents had left this morning with Uncle Frank and Aunt Cynthia for a boat show in Branson. They were going to eat dinner in the city before driving back, and probably wouldn’t be home until past eleven. Why would they hurry? Jeanie was there to babysit. Even if they tried calling and Jeanie didn’t answer her phone, they would just blame the notoriously bad service of the Ozark hills. 

What about the neighbors?

In the middle of a lightning storm, it seemed highly unlikely that she would encounter any fellow beachgoers. Besides, if her screams hadn’t attracted anyone’s attention by now it was doubtful that they were. Kimberling Lake was an isolated place, away from the raucous crowds of university students and families with speedboats that swarmed like sand flies over the larger lakes in the area. That was precisely the reason that her uncle had chosen to buy his particular property.

Shit! Nellie swore loudly in her head, and then rose her head, “Shit-damn-ass-sonofabitch!” she screamed at the top of her voice. For some reason, the taboo act of swearing lifted her spirits a little, and a fleeting grin crossed her face. “Damn-bastard-shithead-asshole-FUCK”. A tiny giggle escaped her lips. She had never dared to say the forbidden f-word before. But if any situation truly deserved the f-word, it was being trapped on a rusty dock by a lake monster. This new thought sobered her and she dropped her head back onto her knees, but her heart now pounded with defiance as well as fear.

Options. What are my options?

It was unlikely that she would last until her parents got home. The thing in the water would be picking her out of its teeth by then. It was equally unlikely that a neighbor would chance to come upon her. Nellie was on her own.

Breathe.

She needed to make a plan. She took a deep breath, held it as long as she could, and slowly exhaled. She had seen people do that on T.V. when they needed to come up with a good idea. No flashes of brilliance came into her mind. She breathed again.

Options. What are my options?

She couldn’t stay on the dock. Eventually the creature would tire of scaring her and come to finish her off. So that meant she had to get back to shore. Safety was beckoning from the rocky beach a mere fifty feet away. From where she sat it might as well have been fifty miles. The second she put a toe into the water, the thing would be there with its slashing claws and sharp teeth. It would drag her under the water down to where the sun couldn’t penetrate and it would sink its teeth—

Stop it, Nellie. Breathe. Think. What do you have? 

What did she have? Nellie took inventory of the objects at her disposal.

One pink-and-white swimsuit. One blue elastic hair-tie. One woven friendship bracelet that she’d been wearing since Christmas. Two silver earrings in the shape of crescent moons. One skinny blonde girl who was woefully unprepared for monster-slaying. None of this inspired her with great confidence.

What else?

Nellie looked around. One floating dock with weathered wooden boards. The boards were warped by time and exposure, leaving large gaps in some places. Could she perhaps pull up one of the boards and use it to bash the monster over the head? Crouching down, she inspected the wooden slats that ran across the dock. After forty years the wood had swollen to almost completely cover the rusty old nails holding it together. She wiggled her fingers between two boards and tried peeling it up. The board creaked slightly but didn’t budge. Leverage, she needed some kind of leverage. Face wrinkled with concentration, Nellie looked once more around the dock. Her eyes settled on the rusty metal ladder descending into the water.

What do you have?

Nellie tilted her head to one side. The rain was beginning to ease and a faint ray of sunshine peaked out from behind a cloud. For the first time since she had seen the scarlett eyes on the bottom of Kimberling Lake, a smile crept over Nellie’s face. A plan was beginning to form carefully in her mind.

To be continued….

Book Review: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2005)

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Review #8

 

Jeannette Walls is born to parents Rex and Rose Mary Walls somewhere in the desert in 1960. At the age of three, she is hospitalized for severe burns acquired from boiling water for hot dogs after her mother refused to make her lunch. Before she has had time to heal properly, her father snatches her out of the hospital, claiming that doctors cannot be trusted. Her family flees in the night. It is not the first nor the last time they will do a “skedaddle”.

So begins The Glass Castle, a powerful memoir of a nomadic childhood spent in the type of crushing poverty most of us cannot even begin to imagine. Jeannette is raised as the ultimate “free range” child, whose sporadic education and lack of stability are touted as a wonderful adventure by her parents. Rex Walls is a manipulative alcoholic who steals from his family while at the same time drawing them dreams of a “glass castle” that they will all live in once he’s struck gold. Literally. His plan is to strike gold in the deserts of Arizona. Rose Mary Walls is a monster of selfishness who feels smothered by the needs of motherhood and would rather watch her four children go for days without food than lift a finger from her “artistic ambitions” to help them.

The only thing I can say in support of Jeannette’s parents is that they ensured she was educated. Not in the conventional sense, but all of the Walls children are well read and are taught to think and understand science, history, and mathematics at an advanced level. Rex Walls, for all of his faults, seems to have been an extraordinarily intelligent man. Which begs the question, what’s more dangerous, a dumb drunk or a smart one?

“When the electricity was on, we ate a lot of beans. A big bag of pinto beans cost under a dollar and would feed us for days. They tasted especially good if you added a spoonful of mayonnaise. We also ate a lot of rice mixed with jack mackerel, which Mom said was excellent brain food. Jack mackerel was not as good as tuna, but was better than cat food, which we ate from time to time when things got really tight.”

This book left me drained. By the time I finished the last page and closed its covers, I felt like I had run an emotional marathon from anger to despair to wild hope and back to fury again. You could group this memoir into chapters labeled by the five stages of grief. We begin with a young Jeannette who loves her Daddy more than anything in the world and is his stalwart supporter even after he throws the family cat out of a moving car. We move with her through anger as she lashes out as her parents for their lack of support, to bargaining as she desperately tries to get her father to stop drinking. We then sink into depression when she realizes that her parents love themselves more than they could ever love any of their children. We finally reach acceptance, where Jeannette realizes that she needs to cut ties with her family if she is ever going to have any semblance of a normal life.

I don’t have children, but most of my peers do and I’ve heard countless stories about the amount of sacrifice required to become a parent. It is taken as a matter of course that a parent will have to put their own needs and ambitions on hold to ensure that the tiny humans they have created are well provided for. The Glass Castle is an example of two people who refuse to do that, and instead seem to view their children as small humans who just happen to live with them. It’s also the story of how Jeannette and her siblings refused to succumb to the cycle of poverty. The Glass Castle was equal parts depressing and uplifting. I highly recommend it.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can The Glass Castle here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. In 2017, it was also attempted into a film starring Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, and Naomi Watts.

Happy reading everyone!