2. ‘A Robot in the Garden’ by Deborah Install

I decided that my next book should be something light and funny. While perusing my local library, I stumbled across this book (among several others of course). The back cover blurb sold me on it immediately. Who can resist a book about a friendly robot that teaches us what it means to be a good human being? Well, I couldn’t say no!

robot
Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

“Life takes us in peculiar directions sometimes, and on those occasions, the only thing to do is give it a high five and roll with it.”

Set in a world where robots and androids are commonplace, A Robot in the Garden is the story of a friendship between two very unlikely beings. Ben is a vet school dropout who is still coming to terms with the loss of his parents. His complete lack of motivation is destroying his marriage to his wife Amy. One morning, he discovers a battered robot named “Tang” just sitting in his front garden watching his neighbor’s horses. While his wife wants him to get rid of it, Ben feels bad for the little robot who seems to have a cracked part badly in need of repair. As the two new friends begin an around-the-world journey to find the robot’s owner, Ben begins to discover more about the person he truly wants to be.

You can’t help but fall in love with Tang the robot. He is an endless source of amusement, and there are so many great scenes in this book that had me laughing out loud. I think my favorite chapter was the one set in the cheap hotel where the two friends were being looked at suspiciously, only for Ben to discover that this hotel is where clients come to have romantic rendezvous with their android “companions”, if you know what I mean. Tang also has to have his lower flap taped over because of its tendency to just pop open at inappropriate moments. Although funny and adorable, the little robot can be a constant source of frustration for Ben. Tang is prone to running off and being disobedient, and will throw huge tantrums (affectionately called “Tang-trums” by Ben) when not getting his way. Writer Deborah Install used her young child as inspiration for the character, and it clearly shows as Ben has to learn the joys and pitfalls of fatherhood.

Image result for short circuit gifs
I want a cute little robot of my own!

In addition to so many hilarious moments (British humor rocks), there are equally so many endearing scenes that will have you hugging the book. Both Tang and Ben grow so much as individuals that you can’t help but be inspired by their journey. A Robot in the Garden is a fantastic debut novel from Deborah Install, and I hope for further adventures from Ben and Tang.

“But of all the complex human emotions he could have settled on, he seemed to understand love.”

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

32. ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ by Douglas Adams

Since I had been reading so many emotionally draining books lately, I thought it would be a good idea to read something light and comical for a change. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was just what the doctor ordered. I love British comedy and have been a huge fan of Douglas Adams for years, particularly his work on Doctor Who and also his detective novels featuring Dirk Gently. If science fiction combined with Monty Python is your cup of tea, then hitch a ride with this extremely funny book.

ADAMS
Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Arthur Dent is having a bad day. First, the girl he flirted with at a party ran off with another guy. Then, he finds out that his house is about to be bulldozed. If these problems seem bad enough, Arthur soon learns that it can get much worse. As it turns out, his best friend Ford Prefect is an alien who has been posing as an out-of-work actor for the past fifteen years. Arthur soon learns that planet Earth is about to be demolished in order to make way for a galactic highway. Ford is actually a researcher for the revised edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a survival guide for handling the dangers of the universe. The electronic book contains many useful facts (“A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have”). Together Arthur and Ford begin one of the most ridiculous journeys in space, encountering an array of odd characters. There’s Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed, three-armed President of the galaxy. Trillian, Zaphod’s girlfriend, is in fact the girl Arthur tried to pick up at a party (awkward). Marvin is their brilliant robot companion, who unfortunately suffers from chronic depression.

Arthur soon learns that space can be quite dangerous with his first encounter with an alien race. The hideous Vogons are a race of aliens who torture their victims by reciting really bad poetry. Fortunately, Arthur and Ford are rescued by Zaphod who commands the Starship Heart of Gold, which is powered by the “Infinite Improbability Drive.” Zaphod heads for the legendary planet Magrathea, where roaming Arthur discovers someone working on a replacement Earth as well as the truth behind who really was in charge of Earth in the first place. All in a day’s work for a newbie hitchhiker.

This book probably sounds silly. Well, it is. It’s very silly. If British humor isn’t your bag, you may not enjoy this one as much as I did. As a huge fan of shows like Monty Python and Red Dwarf, this book was a blast for me. I was reminded from reading this book that science fiction doesn’t have to always be serious. It can be light and fun. Despite all this silliness, there are some words of wisdom to be found within these pages. For example, we humans tend to take life a bit too seriously sometimes. Arthur learns late in the book that his own lifestyle needs a makeover and sometimes it’s good to just go with the flow. Sometimes, we need to be able to laugh at ourselves. Between all the funny parts, I found this to be a creative and intelligently written classic.

Filled with humorous characters, I found The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to be an imaginative intergalactic adventure. I look forward to catching up with Arthur and his pals on more of their journeys in space.

“He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.”

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

10. ‘number9dream’ by David Mitchell

I wanted to share this wonderful dream I recently had. It’s the one where I read David Mitchell’s novel number9dream and found myself lost within its labyrinthine structure. The good news is that I managed to escape, although the work continues to leave an imprint on my mind. The truth is the experience wasn’t a dream at all, but a novel I’ve spent the last few weeks absorbing slowly and trying to decide if I actually loved it. The first time I read David Mitchell (it was Cloud Atlas), it blew my mind. Immediately, I was convinced that he was one of the greatest writers within the past century. Since then I’ve read Ghostwritten, The Bone Clocksand for the second time his horror novel Slade House. Although Mitchell has become a constant favorite, I’m still unsure regarding my feelings regarding this latest read.

MITCHELL2

The title of this novel comes from a John Lennon song, much the way Norwegian Wood, the title of Haruki Murakami’s novel, came from an old Beatles song. A novel that takes its influence from two of my heroes has the makings of a beautiful masterpiece. This book is Mitchell’s second release following the world-spanning and multiple protagonist work Ghostwritten. At first glance, number9dream appears to be more of a mainstream novel as the action follows one singular character. Eiji Miyake is a young man who has arrived in Tokyo searching for the father he never knew. While the absent father story line is a typical motif in a quest novel, the work quickly takes on multiple meanings under the skilled hands of its author. Eiji becomes involved in several different narratives, such as falling in love with a pianist who possesses “the perfect neck” as well as getting involved in a gang war while holding down a series of low-level jobs to support himself. I question if Mitchell’s mind often works at the same pace as his novels as the poor man must be breathless all the time.

If there is one characteristic that defines a David Mitchell novel, the word “genre-bending” comes to mind. Alternating the styles of detective story, action movie, cyberpunk thriller, and romance, this is a work that refuses to stay put for any length of time. I honestly believe that Mitchell could write a straight novel in any style, and perhaps it’s his strict refusal to adhere to just one style that makes his novels so endearing to the reading public. Mitchell makes this story a tribute to the works of Murakami, such as large sections of the novel which showcase Eiji’s dreams or fantasies. His interactions with an assorted cast of oddballs and misfits are variations of elements that would be right at home in a Murakami novel. Mitchell leans heavily on the bizarre, Kafkaesque developments that leave you questioning which parts are reality and which are fantasy. I suppose life can be like that as well.

Like with many heroes, Eiji is a spiritual orphan as his father abandoned his mother, and his alcoholic mother in turn abandoned Eiji and his twin sister, Anju, many years ago. Beneath the quest of finding his absent father, we learn of a tragedy that runs very deep. Just when our hero believes he has found answers, he is quickly thrust down another rabbit hole. Some of these adventures are simply fantasies as Eiji has a rather active imagination. Others, such as the horrific scenes involving two warring gangs are straight out of a work by Tarantino. Interspersed with the violent and cinematic scenes are glimpses of Eiji’s day-to-day existence in Tokyo, where he lives in a small room above a video store, and flashbacks of his childhood in the Japanese countryside, where he and his twin sister grew up.

“maybe the meaning of life lies in looking for it”

Despite alternating sections which move at a variety of paces, this novel is a highly philosophical piece on the theme that the meaning of life lies in the adventure itself rather than the goal. Eiji soon finds the initial journey of finding his father lost beneath the all the other quests he endures. This search for meaning is not limited to its title character. Eiji’s friend Suga wants to hack his way into the Pentagon’s computer; the young woman named Ai, who becomes the object of Eiji’s affection, wants to move to Paris to study music; and his landlord Buntaro simply wants to be a good father as his wife is pregnant for the first time. One of the themes that is the focus of this novel is that in life we often have to redefine our dreams, our goals. As we get older, we change and so what becomes meaningful also changes.

I’m a firm believer that some novels cannot be fully appreciated the first time they are read, and I highly suspect that number9dream is one of those works. Similar to taking on a new endeavor or walking down an unfamiliar path for the first time, you often become overwhelmed by the experience itself. The lingering after effects are what persuades you to pick up the work a second time. I have a strong suspicion I will be rereading all of Mitchell’s novels once I get them all finished for the first time.

“A book you finish reading is not the same book it was before you read it.”

 

Read as my fourth book for the TBR Challenge.

8. ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” With one of the most memorable opening lines of literature, so begins one of the most popular books ever written. Actually, I have the audacity to state that Pride and Prejudice could be the greatest novel ever composed. To underestimate its importance would not only be a grand disservice to Jane Austen, but to the course of English literature. While Sense and Sensibility serves as a rich appetizer into the world of Austen, Pride and Prejudice is a full course meal with all of the author’s talents on full display. It is a comedic story of misunderstandings and miscommunications, but also a morality tale on the importance of truly getting to know someone and not being swayed by faulty first impressions. While I enjoyed this book immensely several years ago, I discovered so much more this time around.

AUSTENPP

Pride and Prejudice is the story of the Bennet family who find themselves in rather dire straits. When the parents were young, they were foolish and didn’t save their money (Austen was giving some sound financial advice here). The Bennets were counting on having a son who would care for them in their old age as well as inherit the family estate of Longbourn. Unfortunately, life did not work out as planned; rather than having a son, they now have five daughters. Jane, the eldest, always tries to see the best in everyone. Elizabeth, the heroine of the story, possesses sound judgement of character (unless her own feelings are involved). The middle child Mary always tries to see life from an intellectual standpoint, while the two youngest, Kitty and Lydia, are rather shallow and materialistic. Since the estate has to go to a male heir, the next in line is a cousin by the name of Collins. The Bennets now have the arduous task of finding suitable husbands for their daughters or risk becoming poor, which back then was a fate worse than death. So begins a humorous journey into the world of courtship and romance (if only Austen was around today).

“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”

At the center of this novel is the the greatest heroine in all of fiction. Elizabeth Bennet possesses so many fantastic qualities that falling in love with her is not a matter of if but when. She is the type of woman to cut with a witty remark one moment, but also to show incredible kindness to others, such as her understanding of someone’s shyness or spending hours walking through the mud in order to attend to her ill sister. The opportunity to meet an eligible bachelor by the name of Bingley breathes new life into the Bennets with the hope of marrying off at least one daughter. While this eligible bachelor proves to be quite the charmer, his best friend and cousin Mr. Darcy appears as quite the opposite. During their first encounter, Elizabeth judges his character to be quite arrogant and snobbish. These first impressions are solidified by the information provided by a gentleman named Wickham, another potential suitor for one of the Bennet girls. Elizabeth soon learns that her pride in her abilities is not without fault.

p&p

Of all of Jane Austen’s works, Pride and Prejudice boasts the most well-drawn characters with distinct personalities.  I was impressed not only with the main cast, but also the minor characters as well. Each one benefits the overall story in one way or another, even if it only a brief scene only. With her other novels, some of the smaller characters tend to be forgettable. I assure you dear reader, these characters are quite memorable.

One cannot discuss Austen without exploring her incredible comedic voice. I think a lot of readers are quick to discount her books as pre-Victorian romance novels. To view them as such is an injustice; they are satires, and Pride and Prejudice displays Austen’s witty dialogue in all its grandeur. All of the scenes between the sensible Mr. Bennet and his materialistic wife were hilarious. They were truly a phenomenal double act.  The scene where Elizabeth rejects the marriage proposal by Mr. Collins had me laughing out loud (he struggles with rejection). Brilliant characters can only exist if they are provided with the right dialogue, which Austen manages quite elegantly. She is a writer who knows how to tell a story with just the right amounts of humor, drama, and suspense depending on what the scene needs at the time. Understand that every chapter moves the story along without a wasted word.

The original title of this novel was First Impressions and written in the epistolary form that was quite popular in 18th century fiction. Austen expanded the work as a third-person novel, but readers only see events unfold through Elizabeth’s eyes. Therefore, letters would continue to serve an important element in plot development as a means of conveying information to our heroine. The other method of communication would be the use of gossip, a tradition that sadly still possesses relevance today. Throughout the novel, we see the dangers and mistakes that can occur through the use of gossip as well as an important lesson that Austen teaches Elizabeth. First impressions can often be misleading, while information delivered second-hand should be taken with the smallest grain of salt. There really is no substitution for getting to know someone first-hand, leading Elizabeth to see Darcy for the man he truly is rather than her distorted initial impressions.

“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”

I have mentioned before that a certain amount of self-confidence is important. Put yourself on a pedestal, but be humble enough to own your imperfections. Life is often defined by the mistakes we make. If we stay open to growth and learn from them, we have a much better chance of coming out unscathed. While this novel features a narrator who prides herself on her judgement of character, her own poor discernment blinds her from the truth about Darcy. The stoic and prideful nature of Darcy gives him the appearance of someone unlikable, and Elizabeth is unable to see his true nature preventing her from happiness. In the end, our own pride and prejudices must be tempered with an open heart. We shouldn’t let our mistakes hold us down. We have to make peace with ourselves or that happiness will always allude us. The ones who truly care about you will accept you for the person you are if you truly make good choices in life.

Once again, my deeper explorations into Austen’s novels resulted in fruitful results. While I saw the entire forest on display during the first reading, this time I made a closer inspection of the trees themselves. The separate pieces of plot, character, and voice come together into a beautiful whole. Had Pride and Prejudice been Jane Austen’s final novel, she would still be remembered off of the strength of her first two published works. Fortunately for the world, there was more to come.

“Till this moment, I never knew myself.”

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

 

4. ‘Sense and Sensibility’ by Jane Austen

One of my goals for this year is to reread all six of Jane Austen’s novels. Sense and Sensibility seems like an appropriate starting point, as it shares the distinction of being Austen’s first published novel and my first ever reading experience of any of her works. I remember becoming immediately enchanted by this story of the Dashwood sisters and their sudden upheaval from their family home. I enjoyed it so much that it wouldn’t be long before I picked up Northanger Abbey which remains one of my favorite novels of all time. They say you never forget your first, but sadly many of the details of that original reading of Sense and Sensibility seem to have faded from my memory. I don’t believe this issue to be the fault of the book, as it is wonderful, nor problems with my own memory, although I am making peace with the fact that I’m getting older (slightly). I think the reason lies in the richness of the novel itself. Jane Austen is the type of writer whose works are not only reread countless times, but in fact should be religiously reread as there are so many subtle moments that it is impossible to catch them all on the first experience. Let me tell you that reading Sense and Sensibility was even sweeter the second time around.

austen

As with all of Austen’s novels, the plot in itself is rather simple. The Dashwood sisters, along with their widowed mother, are forced to abandon their home, Norland Park, as it has been passed down to John, Mr. Dashwood’s son from his first marriage. Due to the kindness of a distant relative, the ladies relocate to Barton Cottage, where love, romance, and heartbreak occur in generous quantities. However, I believe we don’t read Austen just for her romantic plots. What elevates this novel into one of the greatest books ever written is the amount of complexity that Austen fuses into each and every line. There is a confidence in the writing itself that is rather impressive for an opening number. The ability to craft memorable characters in such a way without being overwhelming is pure genius. They can be quite over-the-top without necessarily seeming that way. Her prose is simply breathtaking, beautifully written yet still tight and with a purpose. Also, there are so many moments in this novel that are really funny. I’m thinking of the scene when the cruel Fanny Dashwood convinces her husband to not give any money to his sisters. While in another writer’s hands, this scene would appear quite sad, here it becomes quite comedic. This book is also full of slight jabs at several aspects of society. Without a doubt, Austen has to be one of the wittiest human beings ever born.

“Sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning.”

Sense and Sensibility is unique among Austen’s novels in that the story focuses on two heroines rather than just one. Older sister Elinor is ruled by reason and social restraint, while younger sister Marianne is ruled by her fierce emotions and impulsive actions. Both sisters struggle with heartbreak towards the men they both love, but each handles her disappointments differently. Elinor remains calm and seemingly detached from her feelings for Edward Ferrars, while Marianne shows no regard for society’s opinions as she struggles with losing the dashing yet diabolical John Willoughby. This dichotomy between the ideas of “sense” and “sensibility” reflect the changing times for which this novel was developed. Originally written in the late eighteenth-century as an epistolary work titled Elinor and Marianne, Austen later revised it in the form of a novel several years later. Elinor clearly represents the ideas associated with neo-classicism such as rationality, judgment, and balance. On the other side, we have Marianne symbolizing the spirit of sensibility with exaggerated displays of passion, such as weeping at the loss of the family home or offering a lock of hair to her lover. There was a shift in the literary landscape to which this novel represents. Of course, miscommunication is the motif that keeps the plot going until the final pages.

During my second reading, I reflected on these polar opposites and how much they reflected my own developing personality. Although male, I definitely was more Marianne as I would let passionate feelings rule my actions. Unlike the first time, I felt more attachment to the character of Elinor, who, while still possessing strong feelings, demonstrated rationality and sound judgment as dictated by her place in society. I’m at a place now where I see the value of both sides–fire that needs some control. I also noted just how much love there was between the sisters, always making the needs of the other a priority. Elinor put her own heartbreak to the side as she nursed Marianne back to health, and Marianne would defend her older sister with no regards to society’s expectations of decorum.

“If I could but know his heart, everything would become easy.”

The supporting characters are all richly drawn and represent particular archetypes without seeming as such. Personally, I loved the well-meaning if slightly clueless Sir John Middleton as well as the kindly Mrs. Jennings. Of course, there are the characters you love to hate, like the manipulative Lucy Steele and the greedy Fanny Dashwood. In regards to the love interests, I really wanted to punch John Willoughby (more than once) while I found Colonel Brandon to be well-meaning but rather dull. I still haven’t decided how I feel about Edward Ferrars.

One way that Austen’s novels are relaxing is that we know that everything will work out in the end. Austen always gives her stories a happy ending, and rest assured the Dashwood sisters find love in the end. On first reading this novel, I was surprised by one of the sister’s resolutions while the other one made sense to me. Of course, the fun is in trying to figure out how Austen is going to tidy everything up. Like a magician, she succeeds in doing this with what appears to be a seamless effort. When I have some free time, I’m going to watch the Ang Lee film version of this story to see if it captures those subtle nuances that makes this novel so perfect. For a first novel, Austen proves why she deserves the honor of being one of the greatest novelists who ever lived.

“I wish, as well as everybody else, to be perfectly happy; but, like everybody else, it must be in my own way.”

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.