review: Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

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Some authors just know what they are doing. Holly Goldberg Sloan is one of them. In April 2012 I read I’ll Be There, a heart-gripping story of two boys on the run from their abusive and psychotic father. Their interaction with the beautifully composed character named Emily made for a novel with staying power. Sloan did it again with Counting by 7s, this time using a quirky adopted girl and her crew of equally-quirky friends.

Willow Chance is a young lady with gumption, questions, and a penchant for the number 7 and the color red. Adopted as a baby, Willow’s parents support her inquisitiveness to the point of letting her turn their backyard into a full and lush garden. She is a character full of humor, despite not meaning to be. Luckily Sloan never lets her readers laugh at Willow, but just chuckle at her candidness.

Everyone else orders spicy pickled tongue sandwiches. I don’t eat meat. And organ meat is a whole other category of stuff I wouldn’t want to chew.

When we are finished they bring us each a bowl of vanilla ice cream and sprinkles on top. The girl next to me starts to cry when she sees the sprinkles. I’m wondering if she’s worried about the long-term side effects of consuming artificial food coloring. It’s a valid concern.

But tragedy strikes, leaving her without her parents, her garden, and everything she loved.

Are you looking for something?‘ I want to say that yes, I’m looking for anything that could make a world gone flat return to its original shape…

Luckily, a crew of unlikely characters find their way into Willow’s world, giving her a reason to get up, then a reason to garden, then a reason to ask questions again. The Nguyen family is realistic, but not so fully-formed that they take away from Willow, or even the oddest character I’ve read in a while – school counselor Dell Duke.

I don’t want to know how you did it. I want to believe that you’re magic.

Willow’s ruminations on life are  sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious. In real life, I imagine I would sometimes find her annoying – but characters are real people, and real people are annoying sometimes. It’s likely, though, that I would adore her and want to care for her like Ms. Nguyen does.

Recommended for:
Fans of Rainbow Rowell’s works might enjoy this for its realism. Also, if a teen is looking to read about death, either as a way to cope or to learn more about the grieving process, this would be a good book to pick up.

Read-alikes
I recently read Bridge to Terabithia for the first time ever (yes, ever) and found similarities in the two novels. Death, from the perspective of a young person with no experience with the topic, is dealt with in a sensitive but realistic manner.

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review: & Sons a novel by David Gilbert

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& Sons by David Gilbert is a story about the men of the Dyer and Topping families over a brief week, but also throughout their entire lives. Told in the present, yet full of flashbacks and memories so rich you would think the narrators had just endured the pain of the memories, & Sons is about the fathers, the sons, themselves…and they are all described in such descriptive detail that the reader feels a bit voyeuristic, knowing such deeply personal things about the men who make up these fictional New York families.

Beginning at the funeral of Charles Topping – the best friend of renowned yet reclusive author Andrew Dyer – Topping’s son Phillip narrates the event, and the inner thoughts of every Topping and Dyer gentleman in attendance. After moving in with the eldest Dyer, one of the many uncomfortable moments Phillip makes the reader endure, Phillip watches Andrew and his three sons in a second attempt to fuse himself into the lives of the Dyer men. Long obsessed with the author, wishing to be another of Andrew’s son, to be a Dyer son’s best friend, to be Andy Jr.’s favorite teacher, Phillip observes the family’s quick recovery after years of estrangement, followed even more quickly by a crash.

There might be no gods, but we are still their playthings.

Life, I’m convinced, is filled with far more near misses than we dare to imagine. Late in waking up, missing a train, not answering a phone, going down 79th Street instead of 80th Street – how many of those moments have spared our life?

I found myself submerged in Gilbert’s writing. I was sitting in the pews, I felt the chill of the early Spring air, I felt the creak in my arthritic bones. But I felt all of this without reading anything as mundane as “it was cold out”. And I felt the resentment, the lust, and the hollowness, usually more than one at a time.

 

In my defense, I loved her. Then again, I’m guilty of easily falling in love, of confusing the abstract with the conrete, hoping the words might cast me as a caring individual and dispel my notions of a sinister center. I believe in love at first sight so that I might be seen.

I have no brothers or sons, but the familial intimacy – or lack thereof, depending on which character was expounding on their past or their present – is one that I believe some adult readers can relate to. The novel’s themes are relevant to most adults, and would be life-changing for teens if they were mature enough to realize that they can, in fact, learn from others’ mistakes.

Fathers start as gods and end as myths and in between whatever human form they take can be calamitous for their sons.

Read-alikes:
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach is quite similar to this, as it is a deep, layered look into quite a few characters who each could be the star of their own book.

Recommended for:
Adults, men or women, who enjoy description and language.

Book 13: Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman

I picked up Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman at the recommendation of my supervisor, Vivy. She asked me for help on finding titles for a reading list on masks (figurative and literal), to which I suggested Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. Out of My Mind is an eye-opening and inspiring novel about a truly brilliant eleven-year old girl with Cerebral Palsy. She is trapped inside of her “useless” body because she barely communicate with those around her, usually just with grunts. Only when she is given access to a computer do those around her realize just how intelligent, creative, and capable she really is.

Sadly, that is not the case with Shawn in Stuck in Neutral. He, too, is incredibly smart (he can recall every conversation he has ever heard), and has Cerebral Palsy. But he cannot communicate in any way whatsoever. He has no control of his limbs, eyes, noises, nothing. Because of this, his family and doctors are convinced that he is “a vegetable” with no awareness of his surroundings. And Shawn believes that his father, who has struggled for 14 years with Shawn’s disability, is plotting to kill him.

Shawn’s dad wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning poem on the hardships of living with his son’s disability, and has become a famous writer and speaker. Recently his favorite topic has been supporting a man who smothered his toddler who was suffering from debilitating seizures, with no hope of a cure. For this reason, Shawn believes his life is in danger. I will spare you details of the ending, but suffice it to say that it will leave you thinking, not just about Shawn but about what you would do, if you were in his father’s situation.

I am glad I read the book, but wish I would have read it, instead of listened to it on Audiobook. The narrator had an oddly joyful tone of voice, which made Shawn seem a bit flighty. I wish it had been read using a more morose tone to really invoke the seriousness of Shawn’s situation…his (he thinks) imminent death. I will recommend this book to young adult readers in need of a more serious novel, but will steer them away from the audio. I truly feel that the narration cheapened Shawn’s situation.

Book 8: The Probability of Miracles by Wendy Wunder


The Probability of Miracles by Wendy Wunder is the story of Cam. She is funny, sarcastic, pessimistic, and dying of cancer. Her mother and half-sister sweep her away to Paradise, Maine for the summer in hopes that the rumor of the town being miraculous might actually be true. Cam knows it is a fruitless cause, and allows her negativity to influence every word she breathes.

That is…until things start looking up. She gets a tan that eluded her throughout her life in Florida. She gains a little weight. She starts crossing things off her Flamingo List (akin to a bucket list, but flamingo was the word that she and her bff decided to call their list). She begins to see that perhaps Paradise, Maine does, in fact, have miracle-making capabilities.

Teens who aren’t put-off by sarcasm and pessimism will enjoy this book. Even those who like a more “happy” book will enjoy this, due to it’s happy-ish/sad ending. I didn’t love it, but I did like it. It is rather forgettable, but the message is a good one.

Book 7: An Available Man by Hilma Wolitzer

I cannot imagine losing a spouse, yet Edward had to endure just that when Bea succumbed to cancer at a relatively young age, leaving behind her elderly mother and her two adult children from a previous marriage. Edward’s fight against loneliness (most times) was valiant, other times he gave in to the need to be alone and spent the night at home with the dog and a carry-out pizza. But slowly he moves on with life, never forgetting Bea, but equally important, never forgetting himself.

I enjoyed this story and will share it with adults who could use a dose of un-sensationalized reality to bring them back to life as it actually is, and how they must live in the face of sadness, heart ache, and well…life.

I received this book from the publisher as part of LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer group. I very much appreciate the novel, and will be recommending the title to parties I believe will like Edward’s honest reality.

Book 5: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Is it too early in the year to say that this might be my favorite book of 2012? Because…I think John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is my favorite book of 2012.

“Electric…filled with staccato bursts of humor and tragedy,” said Jodi Picoult, author of adult fiction, and a woman who knows a thing or two about plot twists and tearjerkers. (Oh, and damn good writing…) And she is so correct in her description of this novel. Let me explain:

I began reading this book on the morning of Wednesday, January 26th. I was sitting in Starbucks wasting time before my late-morning shift at the library was set to begin. I doctored up my iced coffee to perfection (one Splenda, quite a bit of half-and-half), and proceeded to finish 103 pages in that first sitting. Typical of John Green, he wasted no time in getting the story underway; the real story. So immediately I pity the protagonist, 16 year old Hazel who is slowly dying of lung cancer (and who surely does not want my pity). Then I get a crush on Augustus and his crooked smile and mature yet borderline-pretentious conversational tone and topics. And don’t get me started on the number of embarrassing moments I LOLed in the middle of an oddly silent Starbucks. (The first came on page 24: “I didn’t tell him that the diagnosis came three months after I got my first period. Like: Congratulations! You’re a woman. Now die.”)

I spent the entirety of my 8-hour work day pining after the book, simultaneously wanting to read more about the beautiful love affair between the blunt and simple, yet hilarious Hazel, and her in-remission love interest Augustus, yet scared to finish the book because I just kind of knew that someone was going to die. (It’s a book about teens with cancer who fall in love with each other. I think we all know how that’s going to end…) So when I finally sat down to read the book (after working, weight lifting at the gym, tweeting about the inappropriateness of J.Lo’s belly shirt on Am-Idol, and baking banana bread) at 11pm, I knew I was in for a long night. No way I could go to bed without learning of their fate.

Then I found out and spent a little while crying. Then I went back through the book to pages I had noted on my bookmark and copied down passages I found especially poignant. I will include a couple here:

…and then he broke down, just for one moment, his sob roaring impotent like a clap of thunder unaccompanied by lightning, the terrible ferocity that amateurs in the field of suffering might mistake for weakness. –p.215

Sometimes you read a book and it fills yo with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will neverbe put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And there are books…which you can’t tell people about, books so special and so rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal –p.33

Per the aforementioned quote…I want everyone to read this, I want everyone to discuss this book. It is too big, too discussion-worthy, too inspiring to just have all to myself. (Luckily because it was written by John Green…the man with nearly 2 million Twitter followers…I know I am not reading it alone.)

Please tell me your favorite passage from this novel.