Category Archives: Fiction

NEW HOGARTH SHAKESPEARE! (Among other things)

Let me begin with three quick reviews, and then I’ll gush about Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy, which I literally just finished.

  1. Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier — INCREDIBLE.  Read on the recommendation of a friend who loves this book, and I totally understand.  It’s piracy and English society and just delightful.  Plus, the ending isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but it’s perfection.  This is a book I know I will go back and read again, simply for the joy of joining Dona on her adventures with a French pirate.
  2. Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan — Short, interesting book about the last night a Red Lobster is open and the lengths to which the staff (especially the long-suffering manager) go to trying to keep the place open during a nightmare snowstorm.  It’s quick, pretty fun, full of quirky observations about people and how we do the jobs we have.
  3. The Gunslinger by Stephen King — Only picked this up because the trailer dropped for the movie starring Idris Elba and I figured I’d give it a shot.  It’s fine.  It’s also the first Stephen King novel I’ve read, so I think I was just expecting a little more.  Concept of an old-west-style gunslinger going around trying to save the world from the Man in Black is pretty cool, but I expected a little more craft in the writing.  And maybe it’s because I read an early paperback (apparently there were changes made as the series progressed, so I might have a different experience if I read the revised one), but I just wanted… more.  I’m still interested in the movie, but I won’t be reading the rest of the 8-book series.

But let me tell you about New Boy.

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$25.00 in hardcover

So I’m a sucker for most British fiction (I wrote a Master’s thesis on the masculine relationships in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Manchester novels, for heaven’s sake), but Jane Austen and William Shakespeare are two of my real weak spots.  The Jane Austen Project, which I have discussed previously, has apparently hit a roadblock of some kind because there’s been no update.  But the Hogarth Shakespeare series is still going.  I’m a little frustrated by the amount of time between releases (Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth was supposed to be last year, but has now been pushed to 2018 and Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet is currently at an estimated 2021 release), but there’s a new one said to be coming this October, though that might have been pushed back (Edward St. Aubyn’s King Lear retelling said to be titled Dunbar) and there’s New Boy that just fell onto shelves today.

And I think I’m going to put it in second place of my favorites of the series thus far.

Chevalier takes on the tragedy Othello, which is one of my least-favorite plays.  I have a hard time believing the drama of the play, but I can understand that, if the actors are chosen well and have real chemistry, it can be an amazing show.  So how do you retell Othello in 200 pages after setting it in 1970s Washington, D.C.?

The trick of New Boy is in its employment of Aristotelean unities: action, time, and place. The unity of action is a little muddled in this one, simply because capturing the Shakespearean scope requires subplots, details of the lives of the characters that are going to influence the main relationship (Osei and Dee).  Unity of time is perfectly used, limiting the action itself to a single school day and breaking up chapters by which recess it is.  Flashbacks allow character development and fill in the gaps of the time period — the racial tension is especially handled here as Osei thinks about his sister and her understanding of her African-ness after their repeated moves with their diplomat-father.  Unity of place is also neatly utilized, keeping to the schoolyard that so many readers will remember.  The girls jumprope, the boys play kickball, and all of the students in the 6th grade class wonder about next year when they go to a new school.

With the unities, the story’s tensions ramp up quickly and effectively.  Sure, there’s some difficulty believing that the playground antics of troublemaker Ian would move this quickly, and obviously there’s some tragic conclusion (because it’s not like you can just make Othello end happily every after), but this is a Shakespearean drama.  It’s not unexpected improbability.

For me, the strength of the novel was Osei’s insights into being not only the new boy, but the new black boy at a school made up entirely of white students and teachers.  From the beginning, Osei is surrounded by speculation — is he from Guinea, Nigeria?  “Africa, anyway,” the teachers say.  (He’s actually from Ghana.)  But Osei has also moved several times and recognizes the similarities in being the new kid on the playground.  He tries to fit in, tries to prove himself while not upsetting the already established social structure.  He recognizes that it’s hard to be African in America, let alone African American, remembers his experience in New York where he got beaten up at school and where his sister started exploring the politics of being black in America.

It’s powerful to have the insight into a young character who has so much on his mind.  He wants to make friends, wants to be accepted, wants to not be the odd-man out anymore.  (And it doesn’t help that he moves schools with only a few months left in the year.)  Knowing how the story must end, not necessarily with death, but at least with tragedy, it’s heartbreaking to watch Osei trying so hard when you know that Ian is going to destroy it all.

That’s why I have to give this second place, right after Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (Taming of the Shrew), and it’s only second because I like the play of Shrew more than Othello.  But it’s a tight race with these two.  Out of the five books in the series out so far, I think Chevalier has done the best job of capturing the play and retelling it with her own twist.  Vinegar Girl was fun and pretty cute and just enough of Shrew to make me happy.  Otherwise, Hag-Seed (Margaret Atwood’s Tempest) was kind of weird but great at the end, and Shylock Is My Name (Howard Jacobson’s Merchant of Venice) and The Gap of Time (Jeanette Winterson’s Winter’s Tale) were both a little beyond my literary enjoyment.  This isn’t to say that they aren’t good books — all of the writers so far have been very talented, and their work is crafted well.  I just think there’s more spirit captured in Vinegar Girl and New Boy.  But especially in New Boy.

This book gives me hope for St. Aubyn’s addition to the series — I LOVE King Lear (I’m the youngest of three daughters and I love Shakespeare’s take on history and politics, so that might have something to do with it) — because it makes me think maybe some of these retellings will keep to the parts of the plays that I love.  Chevalier has convinced me to keep waiting for the next installment, and I definitely recommend this one.

New Boy is available now from your local indie!

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One for Now, One for Later

And boy, they couldn’t be more different.


One for Now: Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

31451186This one is… it’s more sci-fi than I’m used to, let me start with that.  I’m okay about sci-fi, but I’m picky.  Borne was another book that was getting rave reviews at the NCIBA Spring Workshop and the concept is bizarre enough that I decided to give it a shot.

Basically, dystopian society in which our narrator (woman named Rachel) describes a world that was once ruled by the Company and is now actually ruled by Mord, a gigantic bear and one-time project of the Company.  Yep, you read that right.  Bear.  As in big furry mammal.  Rachel and cave-mate Wick (who are also occasionally lovers) hang out in Balcony Cliffs together until one day, while out scavenging, Rachel finds a little pod thing and names is Borne.  She carries it home, and eventually Borne begins to grow.  Rachel takes on an almost maternal role with Borne, and debates arise as to whether or not Borne is a person, what happens after death, and the usual existential crisis sorts of topics.  There’s also a woman named the Magician who pops up occasionally, and the Mord wannabes who try to kill people.

I’ll give you a moment to unpack what I just wrote.

There you go.

Not being a gung-ho sci-fi gal myself, I found it to be almost a little too far-fetched, largely because of how matter-of-factly people dealt with a gigantic flying bear.

Oh, I didn’t mention Mord flies?  Yeah.  Giant flying bear.

VanderMeer, author of the widely acclaimed Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance), is a great writer.  The construction of the novel, told through a first-person narration with occasional disconnected thoughts or oddly broken sentence, works beautifully.  And the end did surprise me.  Not all of it, but enough that I sat there and actually said, “What?”  So that was a pleasant change.

My issues with the book are strictly personal preference — while I would love to say I enjoyed this wholeheartedly and would read it again, I can’t.  I can say that I’m very curious about VanderMeer’s trilogy and might just give that a shot.  As far as Borne goes, there’s a lot of good here, and if you had any interest in it at all, you should read it.  Even if you don’t love it, I think you can easily find something to appreciate about the work itself.

And on a completely shallow note, the cover of the book (U.S. edition) is really cool.


One for Later: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

41q0PArw2hL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_I’m firmly of the opinion that Sherman Alexie is one of the greatest American writers ever.  Like, I’d put him right up beside my boy Fitzgerald.  Easily.  He doesn’t dwell on easy topics or obviously funny things, and he doesn’t make everything out to be pitiable or dark.  Instead, he blends light and dark, tragedy and comedy so beautifully together that everything he does is a work of art.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is a tough book.  After his mother died at 78, Alexie wrote 78 essays and 78 poems about their relationship, and it’s not an easy one.  But Alexie doesn’t shy away from the difficult, scary, horrible parts of life — abuse of all kinds, broken promises, health issues — but tackles everything with his truth.

And I purposefully say “his truth” because some of my favorite moments in the work come when he remembers something one way and is informed he’s mistaken.  The imperfection of memories, especially about those with whom you share an intimate collection, is faced as the best writer should: head-on and with a sense of humor about the bits that might not be completely accurate according to the rest of the world.

I think I keep emphasizing the humor in this book, but I wonder if humor is the right word.  There are a lot of moments in this where I laugh out loud, and there are a lot of moments where I think I’m a horrible person for laughing.  But that’s what I consider Alexie’s greatest strength to be in all his writing that I’ve had the pleasure to read.  Being a writer who only writes “serious” books or a writer who only writes “funny” books usually doesn’t amount to being much of a writer that I appreciate.  A writer who can make me smile in the midst of something terrible, or who can shock me with a funny story — that’s a writer who has a real gift.

I don’t mean to make this an ode to Sherman Alexie, but he deserves it.  Hell, he deserves a whole book of odes about how great he is.  But here’s what I’ll say about his new book: read it.  If you like him at all, read it.  If you’re interested at all, read it.  If you happen to be walking by a shelf in a library/bookstore/grocery store/Target/friend’s house/place on Earth and you see it sitting there, take it.  And read it.

Although I recommend checking it out/paying for it/asking politely if you may borrow it first, just because it seems most of society finds that more appropriate than just straight up taking a book.  But still.  Take it and read it.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is out June 13th.


Other notables before I sign off:

  • Rainbow Rowell’s delightful book Carry On comes out in paperback TUESDAY and the cover is gorgeous.  The book is also a complete delight and is probably one of my favorites of all time, so it just gets better and better.
  • I’m working on my first Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek, at the suggestion of a friend and I’m loving it.  Swashbuckling and romance and Cornwall.  Can’t get much better.
  • Still staring at Washington: A Life as it takes up space on my to-read pile.  I WILL FINISH THAT BOOK.
  • I just realized that these two books both have a sort of mother-son relationship in them.  Needed a present for Mother’s Day?  You’re welcome.
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I’d Die for These Books (Figuratively)

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: TODAY IS THE DAY.

9781501144349I’d Die for You has finally been released.  And if you like F. Scott Fitzgerald as much as I do, you’ve got to read this.

I’m not going to say that it’s his best writing (in my opinion, “Babylon Revisited” will always be one of the finest pieces of American literature), but it’s delightful.  This collection of short stories consists of previously unpublished works that often have the beginnings of his other writings.  While the writing itself is lovely (and very telling of his state of mind in each piece), it’s the context that makes this wonderful.

Basically, look at I’d Die for You as a Fitzgeraldian Go Set a Watchman: worthy of reading based on its own merits, but even more delightful when taken in context of its composition and its place in the author’s story.  For Fitzgerald, it’s all down to the editor of the collection, Anne Margaret Daniel, who provides insight into the stories as well as scans of draft pages and pictures from the Fitzgerald collection.  As someone who hates reading introductions first because they can spoil the work, I appreciated Daniel’s statement early on that the reader should read the story first, then go back and read the introduction just in case she includes a spoiler.

And then there are the stories.  Honestly, I don’t have a favorite from this collection because there’s so much.  Daniel has included some of the Hollywood treatments and film ideas, as well as stories that deal with more mature topics.  Instead of having a bunch of cheery jazzy love stories, there are musings on divorce, torture (in the historical story “Thumbs Up,” which might be one of my favorites), and the darker parts of society.  I mean, this isn’t to say that Fitzgerald has never dealt with serious topics, but in these stories there were definitely some moments when I was surprised by how explicit the un-jazzy bits were.

But my goodness, I loved the whole thing.

And yes, I know the whole point of this blog is to be honest, but I also say that any review is totally biased.  This is one case where I know I’m going to be biased, and biased beyond belief.  Fitzgerald is one of my favorite writers of all time, but most definitely my favorite American writer.  As I told my sister, I wouldn’t have cared if it was the worst collection of stories in the world – I think Fitzgerald’s writing alone is worth reading any number of pages, and luckily this turned out to be delightful.

12792In addition to I’d Die for You, I’ve finished Indian Creek Chronicles by Pete Fromm, and I’ve got to say that it brought me great joy.  It’s definitely the kind of book I’d recommend to high school boys who want to go out into the world and make their own way.  My dad handed this one to me because one of my Reading Challenge 2017 books was “set in the wilderness” and the fact that this guy went as a college kid to live in the wilderness for a winter… I figured it counted.

Basic idea: Pete Fromm goes into the wild for the winter to watch a river where salmon are going to be hatching.  He does this to earn some cash and to live out his dreams of being a mountain man.  He quickly realizes that being a mountain man is difficult, and that all the stories are basically lies.  It’s funny, and also has a lot of tragic moments of his understanding of civilization and nature (namely that humans wait until spring when it’s easy to march in and hunt the animals who have been a part of his world for the winter).

As a twenty-something woman, I had to tell my dad that, much as I liked it (and I really did), I can’t believe anyone would volunteer to go live in the woods for a winter when he has no experience.  And then I pointed out it must be a man-thing.  (No offense to the male population, but I can’t imagine a woman in college happily volunteering to live in a tent for five months — I’d be happy to be proven wrong if someone has done this herself, but I’m not expecting to have an overwhelming number of comments telling me I’m wrong.)  That’s why I think it’s great for the young man in your life (or if you’re like me and just want a good outdoorsy book) — this is a real man vs. nature struggle, and it’s told with great humor and writing.

So today has been a day of gloriously different reading material: the delightfully dizzying prose of Fitzgerald and the funny but poignant wilderness story of Fromm.  Both two thumbs up, both on my list of books to read again.

Because it’s Tuesday and I was having a pretty garbage day until I got my Fitzgerald, I’m going to end on a piece of Scott’s wisdom.

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Keep testing your first-rate intelligence, and happy reading!

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1 Disappointment and 1 Delight

Two more books checked off the list, and they couldn’t have been more different.  Because I like ending on a happy note, let’s start with the one that’s a solid example of literary mediocrity.

30319963Nicholas Reynolds’ Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy chronicles “Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961,” according to the subtitle.  Basically, Reynolds (who is the Museum Historian of the Central Intelligence Agency and has a military background) found some interesting papers that may connect Hemingway to Soviet spying.  Being a fan of espionage and Lost Gen writers, I had to read it.  While Reynolds presents a basic thesis that the papers he (and some other scholars) discovered suggest Hemingway may have been a Soviet spy, I’m beyond skeptical.  Much of the paperwork, when detailed, is based on Russian information curated by Russian individuals who then passed the information on to “the West.”

I’m no espionage expert, but I don’t trust any paperwork that describes a connection of a famous American with the Soviets when that paperwork is a summary of Soviet paperwork created by Soviets.  (And I’m not actually anti-Russian, but if you look at Cold War politics, it seems ridiculous to assume that the information is completely reliable.)

One of my main issues with the book is that the Soviet espionage Hemingway allegedly committed has no real evidence.  Sure, Hemingway met with Soviets, but he was also of a generation that is coming out of WWI and living during a dangerous rise of fascism that culminates in WWII and then develops into the Cold War.  Hemingway knew lots of people, and just because you communicate with someone does not mean you share their ideology.  Being anti-fascist does not immediately make you pro-communist.  Being anti-fascist makes you anti-fascist, and it’s completely understandable when you look at the historical context.

There are some interesting moments in the book about Hemingway’s career through three decades.  His return to Europe, for example, being influenced by the one and only spymaster-writer-inventor-Englishman extraordinaire Roald Dahl — that’s awesome.  Unfortunately, Reynolds limits the Dahl story to one page.  And I understand, the book is about Hemingway, not Dahl, but that’s the difference between this book and other military espionage books I’ve read.  Often, in other books, the author spends time incorporating more of the human story, whether it’s the spies involved themselves or just aspects of their lives that may or may not have influenced what happens now.  Spying is, at its core, a personal thing — especially during the 20th century, spies aren’t just machines with algorithms, but humans who place themselves in dangerous positions to gain information and in order to achieve that goal, they must form connections with other people.  Expand on the connections between people and I’m in.  That doesn’t happen here.

If I’m just looking at the history of Hemingway during this time, Reynolds does a pretty good job at relaying what’s happened.  The writing isn’t stellar, but it’s good enough.  Trying to make the connection with the Soviet spying, though, that’s where it collapses.  The Soviets only pop up on occasion and there’s just not enough there to convince me that he had any significant communication with Soviet spies.  After good chapters on Hemingway’s adventures, having really roughly established connections to the thesis about spying just brings the piece down.  Overall, if you’re interested in Hemingway during this period, you could still enjoy it.  I just think the repeated stretch to making Hemingway a sympathizer to Castro and company is less than convincing.

34117218Now, on the other side, The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry — it’s been a big hit in the UK and is coming to the US in June 2017.  And it is so worth it.  Basic plot: during late Victorian period, a newly widowed woman moves from London to small town in Essex where there have been mysterious incidents that make the inhabitants think the legendary Essex Serpent may be reappearing.  Of course, there are several characters whose lives are tangled together, and there may or may not be some romance…

The great joy of reading this novel is the writing.  Perry develops her characters beautifully, and evokes the feel of Victorian writers in her style.  I just don’t know what I can say about it other than, as a fan of Victorian lit, I loved it.  The reviews compare it to Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens (bleurgh) and Emily Brontë, and I have to agree.  There’s just something in the writing that you don’t find often in contemporary fiction, and when I can sit with a mug of tea and a book during a foggy day and feel like I’m on the Victorian moors, that’s a pretty great job.

[Just in case, this next paragraph might get a little spoiler-y, although I’m trying to avoid it, so SPOILER ALERT (?)!  …  Still with me?  …  Okay, here we go.]

The plot is also just gothic enough to make it enjoyable, and not so supernatural to make me feel like I’m being forced to believe the truth is out there.  There’s death and darkness and London streets, but there’s no witchcraft or truly inexplicable monster in the story.  One review put it really well, that it’s the same feeling about reading a book in which the Loch Ness monster is part of the plot — you already know it doesn’t exist, so it’s about what you do with it after that.  This book becomes more about the hysteria that comes about when something is a mystery, and there’s a bit about the darkness of what humans can be capable of.  More importantly (as a reader of the incredible Elizabeth Gaskell), there’s a lot of the book that reminds me of the “condition of England” novels of the time, focusing characters and chapters on how poverty affects families and what options are available to make life better.  Gaskell, who I consider a champion of the “social novel,” did a lot of the same things Perry does now, namely giving characters in low social positions names and voices and stories for other characters to interact with.  By giving the lower classes names and backgrounds, the reader is connected to their crises (because all characters should face crises) and sympathizes.  It’s brilliant, and Perry does it if not subtly, then skillfully.

[End of the potentially spoilery (?) bits.]

The only bit of The Essex Serpent that I’m not in love with is the ending.  The last 20 pages were the weakest bit of the book, mainly because I expected a neater ending, but it’s not that the conclusion was bad.  The writing stayed strong, the characters were still good, the bits of storyline that I wanted to end a certain way were satisfactory.  I’m more than willing to compromise with a novel’s okay ending if the rest of the book has been exemplary — and that was the case here.  I put the book down with utter satisfaction and have already passed it on to a coworker to take on during the next rainstorm (probably sometime in the next month).  If you like Victorian novels, or gothic-y stories, or social novels, or good writing, it’s worth the read.

There’s the update – now on to waiting for Scott’s story collection next Tuesday so I can binge-read!  Until then, happy reading!

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Woman Power

I realized, when I looked at my nightstand stack of books last night, that I’m moving into a male-heavy reading load.  And not that it’s a bad thing, but all the books I want to work on are either written by or about men.  The exceptions were two books I finished last night and this morning and one book that’s been slowly shuffled to the bottom of the stack (The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, which I’m excited to read at some point when I’m in the mood for learning about probable reasons why I’m kind of a wreck).  Because both books I just added to the list of successful completions deal with women, I figured they’d fit well together in a post.  And so…

LAST NIGHT: What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons61NocdqVeQL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_

So this is a book that I’m happy to give five stars to.  It’s short (only about 200 pages) and filled with more snippets than chapters of a young woman’s life.  In this case, the narrator is Thandi, who struggles to find a place between black and white, American and not.  Her mother is from South Africa, and the family ties there are strong and history-full.  Not only does Thandi try to navigate the liminal spaces of race and ethnicity, but she also faces changes in relationships with friends, lovers, and parents.

Honestly, there’s not much plot, per se, but I think that’s one of the great strengths of Clemmons’ novel.  Thandi experiences lots of plot points, but it’s not as though there’s an epic journey across the planet, nor does she find herself to be some universe-saving heroine.  Instead, Thandi’s story is a discovery of herself as a woman who exists between two planes and searches for a space all her own.  The exploration of Thandi’s relationships is well-crafted, but especially poignant in the mother-daughter relationship that influences every other aspect of Thandi’s life.

The greatest strength of What We Lose is Clemmons’ writing.  Some of the blurbs for this book say that it’s “arresting and unsettling prose,” but I think it’s only unsettling because it feels real.  It’s written by a young woman writing in the style of a young woman searching for something beyond what she has.

While I’m not sure I want to go out and buy a copy of the hardcover, that’s mostly because I have an ARC from work and it’s the kind of book that I want to lend out, that I want to be passed on for others to enjoy.  It’s beautifully written and especially worth trying because it is the debut novel.  Clemmons will certainly be an author to watch.

(And I’m a little biased because she was at the conference we went to last weekend and she was completely sweet, despite the fact that the ARCs hadn’t arrived for her to give out.  Based on the rep’s picks and our brief conversation, I wanted to read it and I’m so glad I did.  You go, Zinzi!)

THIS MORNING: Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Women_who_run_w-330Lord have mercy, I finally finished this book.  This was the March/April pick for Emma Watson’s book club (Our Shared Shelf), and since I’ve only missed one book so far in the required list (The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson – sorry, Maggie) I wanted to make sure I got through this.  IT’S 500+ PAGES.  So nearly half the length of Ron Chernow’s Washington (which is on the long list of books I’m going to finish, dammit).

Here’s my issue: it’s like reading a book by Dr. Frasier Crane about the female mind, except instead of Frasier’s Freudian approach, it’s Jungian.  (Wasn’t Niles a Jungian?  I’m pretty sure he was…)  Knowing very little of Jungian psychology, I didn’t mind explanations of how the myths and tales fit into the archetypes, etc., but I mind very much when there’s a whole lot of author blah blah blah bits instead of real analysis.

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The idea of this book (which was first published in 1992) is to help women reconnect with their “wild” side, to learn how to be her Self in spite of society’s pressures put on most of the female population.  In order to explain the pressures and how women can avoid falling into the traps, Estés chooses stories she can analyze to get her points across.

I am a literature major.  In both my undergraduate BA program and in my MA program.  The trouble I had with the book is largely because of her analysis of the stories.  It’s not that I don’t agree with some of her points, but it’s more that I find the lack of analysis to be frustrating.  Often, Estés repeats a summary of the story she literally transcribed two pages ago and then argues her point without delving too deep into the meaning.  Either that or she goes on and on and on and on about something that I really can’t believe because I don’t see evidence of her argument.

To spend 500+ pages expecting to read some of the classic fairy tales or common myths as seen by a Jungian psychoanalyst and explore the critique of such tales, only to be informed that the 500+ pages are mostly the author going on and on about her experience as a psychoanalyst, it’s kind of disappointing.  And hey, call me crazy, but I’m not 100% onboard with any sort of “psychoanalysis.”  I’m not saying it’s a bunk field — I believe psychology in general is pretty extraordinary and can be incredibly helpful — but the way Estés talks about her work with women and discovering the unconscious thoughts the women have… I’m skeptical at best.  I think there can be a lot of good work those in the psychology-related careers can do because we should care for our mental health as much as our physical.  I just don’t know that delving into the “unconscious” is a really reliable way to sell your ideas, especially because it seems that the unconscious can be manipulated.

So if you’re like me and you pick up a “bestselling” book that has accolades from about a thousand people (and probably dating to its initial publication in the 1990s) hoping that you’ll get a lot out of intense psychological analysis of the fairy tales you know and love and want to see read in a seriously feminist light, you’re going to be disappointed.  There were also a lot of parts that seemed like Estés was arguing the differences between male and female psychology that we’ve now pretty much (dis)proven with modern science.  Not that it’s really wrong, but it’s hard to take some of her arguments seriously when we have all sorts of brain studies or scientific research that makes the argument seem dated or incorrect.

Would I recommend this?  Maybe.  If you’re the kind of person who likes Jungian theory, or the kind of person who wants to read about women’s psychology, or the kind of person who finds 1990s “calls to the wild” books attractive, sure.  If you’re a woman who wants to learn to connect to her wild self, you could try it.  But if you’re anything like me, you’ll seek out the wild in this book and find yourself skimming a hell of a lot of pages trying to get to the good stuff.

This one was for you, Emma Watson.  Glad I finished it.  Now, on to my giant stack of manly man* books…

*Manly man books currently include: Electric Light by Seamus Heaney, Cricket Explained by Robert Eastaway, Indian Creek Chronicles by Pete Fromm, Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy by Nicholas Reynolds, Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow — I swear I’ll finish it someday — , A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, and Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.  I think I should get double manly man points for Good Omens, since it’s written by two men, and, like, triple for Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy because it’s by a man about Ernest Hemingway and his secret spy career.  How much manlier can you get?

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Romancing the Unusual

Two more books added to the list over the past couple of days, but I can’t say I’m giving them stellar reviews.  One is old.  One is new.  Both get three stars from me.


OLD: Black Butler, Vol. 1

9780316080842Someone somewhere on the internet described this manga series and it sounded like one I would like.  Victorian drama in which a young earl has a butler who seemingly makes anything happen.  Crazy servants.  Criminal underground.  Oh, and the butler is actually a demon who protects the boy in exchange for the boy’s soul.  I can honestly say it sounds right up my alley, but then I read it.  And it’s fine.  I wasn’t in love with the illustrations – not that they were bad, but I just wanted something more – and the story was okay, but I felt like it could have been expanded.  And I know, I know, it’s only the first volume.  I should give it more time.  But I’m not a huge fan of manga (apparently) and coming off of reading Saga it just made me want it to be a graphic novel.  Or a regular novel.  I still like the story, but I don’t think I’m going to keep reading.


NEW: Alex and Eliza by Melissa de la Cruz9781524739621

Coming out this Tuesday, Alex and Eliza is de la Cruz’s imagining of the courtship between Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler.  She says in the afterword that it was inspired by seeing Hamilton, and although it’s a fine story, you can definitely tell parts that were influenced by it.  I also have a really hard time reading teen novels anymore, and to make it a historical teen romance was tough for me to give it slack.  The fact is, we don’t have much historical evidence of how their courtship went – all we know is that it was quick – so there’s every chance that she’s got it at least partially right.  I just am picky with my history.  I want to see more period-appropriate language and avoid long paragraphs of summarized history (parts of the Alex chapters sound a lot like she read a Wikipedia article about the Chernow biography and, while I appreciate the effort, it doesn’t feel natural).  So it’s a quick read, and if you have any interest in a young Hamilton romance, it’s fine.  I mean, don’t expect any earth-shattering dialogue or moments that will make your heart flutter from the level of love these two achieve, but it’s fine.  (Also, spoiler alert, it ends at their marriage, so you don’t have to worry about the historical conclusion to their relationship.  You know, the whole I cheated on you with Maria Reynolds and there was huge fallout from that and then I ended up getting in a duel with Aaron Burr (sir) after our son died in a duel and you were at my bedside when I died from the wound I suffered at the hands of Burr (sir).  That’s not in this one.)  Maybe it’s even really good and it’s just that I’ve outgrown teen romances.  Who knows.  Either way, if you wanted to read it, you’ll probably enjoy it anyway.


OTHER BOOKS I’M GOING TO BE WORKING ON

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons – I got to meet her briefly at the NCIBA Spring Workshop this past weekend and she’s totally sweet.  Plus, the book looks pretty good.  I just started it (only about twenty pages in) but the writing is good and I’m really intrigued by what’s going to happen.

You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education by George Anders – Also got to meet this author at the Spring Workshop, and he is just delightful.  We chatted for a while about how this is the book I need in my life right now because I need to be reminded that I’m going to find something that works for me.  He was so kind and so encouraging that I’m very excited to read it.  (I swear, I will read it soon.  I just have to get through some other books first.  My stack has grown somehow…)

I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I’m putting this on the list because it comes out at the end of this month and I.  Am.  So.  Freaking.  Excited.  Anything Fitzgerald is good in my book, and the fact that these are stories that haven’t been published before – I can’t express how excited I am.  Oh, wait.  I can.

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(It seems like any emotion I try to express can be done through Tom Hiddleston.  There’s a reason I love this man.)

As I try to tackle the enormous stack of books on my nightstand, I’ll try to keep updating here, although I won’t guarantee it will be timely or coherent.  Only time will tell.  Until next time, read on and support your local indie!

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Speed Round

In the time since the last update with Towers Falling, I’ve finished four books.  I’ve also made progress on three more, but they’re long (Women Who Run with the Wolves, Good Omens, Washington: A Life).  So I’ve only finished four.  And here’s the quick rundown on what they were.

9781473654068#1: Walking the Americas by Levison Wood — I’m a little bit in love with this man.  And by a little bit, I mean a lot.  This is his third book based off of his third BBC series (of which I have only seen the first, Walking the Nile, thanks to iTunes making the three-episode show a whopping $3.99 to purchase), and it’s great fun.  Walking the Nile was probably still my favorite of his, mainly because it’s intense and full of descriptions of places in Africa I would like to see but am frankly too afraid to visit in person.  Walking the Himalayas was still fun, and offered more of a focus on the people Wood meets and the politics of the area than, say, the wildlife.  Walking the Americas is a nice middle ground of Nile and Himalayas because there’s obviously lots of political background (walking Central America when Donald Trump has just been elected is pretty fascinating) but there’s also some critters along the way.  Wood’s great strength with all of these books is his ability to infuse humor and history into tales of his walking adventures, and I only hope that at some point I get to see the show itself.

TenDeadComedians_72dpi#2: Ten Dead Comedians by Fred Van Lente — A disappointment for me, I’m afraid.  I was sold on the ARC we got in at work because it said this was “a darkly clever take on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and other classics of the genre.”  Now, say Agatha Christie and I’m interested, but say it’s somehow a take on ATTWN and I am in.  It’s my favorite Christie mystery and I love the variations you can get out of it.  But then… I guess I was just expecting more cleverness and more… just more.  Saying it’s “an homage to the Golden Age of Mystery and a thoroughly contemporary show-business satire” gives me high hopes.  What it felt like to me was someone who took ATTWN and put some comedians in the places of the same Christie characters and occasionally tucked in a “funny” monologue.  (I found few of the monologues funny, and since many of the jokes revolved around crude sex humor, I wasn’t particularly impressed.  Call me old-fashioned, but I love dry wit.)  I also have to say that whoever ended the blurb with “It’s also an ingeniously plotted puzzler with a twist you’ll never see coming!” should reconsider the wording.  Yeah, I was mildly surprised by the twist, but it wasn’t something I couldn’t see coming.  It was something that I considered briefly, then thought, “Nah, he wouldn’t go this direction.”  Maybe that’s the trouble with redoing ATTWN – if you’ve read the original, it’s tough to be surprised by anything because that’s the whole point of the mystery.  Disappointed, but mostly by the fact that it’s going to come out as a $20-something hardcover.  Worth considering if your local library gets a copy.

#3: Saga, Volume 7 by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan — I LOVE SAGA.  This volume comes out Tuesday and it is still so good.  Story, artwork, everything is on point in this series.  The only trouble is I devour these books and then I have to wait ages for the next installment.  Doesn’t matter, though, because I’ll keep waiting.  It’s that good.

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Sophie and Lying Cat from Saga

#4: The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss — Yes, that Mark Gatiss.  This is the first book in a 51nynW8O7AL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_series he’s written about one Lucifer Box, “gentleman” (to use the term very loosely), artist, and secret agent.  It’s fun and silly and is not meant to be taken seriously.  At all
.  At moments, the voice reminds me a lot of good old Bertie Wooster (except he’s actually capable) and the character names remind me often of James Bond (Miss Bella Pok, for instance, or his friend Christopher Miracle).  Basically, if you’re in the mood for something fluffy and easy to digest (and if you like Mark Gatiss), give Lucifer a try.  I don’t know if I’ll seek out the next one, but if it happened to find its way to my hands, I’d probably enjoy it just as much as this.

And there we are.  According to Goodreads, I’m currently 62% through Women Who Run with the Wolves, 17% through Good Omens, and 13% through Washington, so we’ll see how long those take.  Women is the Emma Watson Bookclub selection for March-April, so I’ll have to finish it by the end of the month, and Washington might just be hanging in there for a while.  Good Omens, which I’m fairly certain I’ve read before but I can’t actually remember, is just a nice filler for whenever I find myself incapable of serious nonfiction thought.

As always, thanks for reading this and remember to support your local indie!

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Towers Falling

24846343There’s no good way to write about 9/11.  There just isn’t.  And that’s something that we need to understand, that, at least for now, it will be associated with something truly terrible happening on American soil.

That being said, how can you explain the event to the children born after it?

That is the question tackled by Jewell Parker Rhodes in her young adult novel Towers Falling.  Focusing on life 15 years later, the novel’s narrator, Dèja, is a ten year old who lives in New York and learns about what happened.  Dèja and her family are homeless and dealing with the complications from that – they’ve just moved to a new housing center, her mom works as much as she can, Dèja helps take care of her two younger siblings, and her father stays in, trying to overcome mysterious health conditions that Dèja does not understand.

When she starts at her new school, Dèja tries not to like it, but of course becomes friends with Ben, the new boy from Arizona whose parents are separated, and Sabeen, who is Muslim.  School lesson plans are attempting to lead the students toward 9/11, but Dèja and her classmates, being born after the event, sometimes struggle to understand how the world changed.  Along the way, Dèja learns about recent history, her father, and herself.

This might have been one of the hardest books to read this year, simply because I still remember the day it happened.  I can picture the exact moment I heard – my parents had seen the news reports, but we went to school as though nothing had happened, but I knew something was wrong.  And then my classmate Trevor walked across the playground and we heard that the towers had fallen.  He was carrying cupcakes – it was his birthday.

I was about Dèja’s age on 9/11, and I couldn’t understand a lot of what was going on.  But having grown up after that, I’ve seen a lot of changes.  And on our New York/D.C. trip several years later, we saw the holes in the skyline.  It’s haunting.

But that’s why I think this book was worth reading.  It’s hard to imagine children growing up not knowing about it, but how can any parent explain it?  How can you describe the fear and the hate, the love and the strength?  How can you describe how Americans can pull together in times of tragedy?  How can your child even begin to fathom what it was like?

The simplicity of the language makes a frightening topic easy to read, but the subject matter doesn’t change.  Dèja watches video of the day, she tries to research to understand what happened.  But Dèja also contemplates terrorism in, if a simple way, a child’s honest way, wondering why Sabeen’s family should be afraid if they are good people and also Muslims.  Ben’s father signed up for the military because of 9/11, and Dèja’s father is equally haunted by the day.

It’s how easy the vocabulary is, and how true Dèja is, that makes Towers Falling so worthwhile for young adults looking for answers, or adults trying to explain what happened.  I repeat: there’s no good way to write about 9/11.  But if there is, it’s how Jewell Parker Rhodes has done it.

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Worth the Hype

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Most of the time, it seems that I am on a completely different page as the people who rave about award-winning books.  I feel like I usually find them interesting, or decent, but far from what I would consider AMAZING.  And I hate to say it, but usually Oprah’s Book Club picks land among those I find fine, but un-extraordinary.

I am happy to be proven wrong by Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.  So many people have claimed it’s amazing, have said it’s a must-read, have said it should win every award and be read by every single person, blah blah blah.  I finally picked it up.

It really is beautiful.

The plot is deceptively simple: Cora, a slave in Georgia, escapes the plantation and goes North on the literal Underground Railroad, but finds herself pursued by the slave-catcher Ridgeway.  But the way Whitehead develops every character, and especially Cora, brings a depth to the story that I don’t think anyone else could have done.  And the pacing is gorgeous – the calmness of action when Cora finds a new place to stay is always shadowed by the knowledge that Ridgeway is coming for her, and the franticness of passages where the action kicks off makes you devour the pages.

Most of all, the writing is unbelievable.  I usually can read fairly quickly, and appreciate good writing where it exists, but this book made me slow down repeatedly to take in the sentence structure and the language and the way ideas are melded together.  It’s a glorious piece of literature, from the writing technicalities to the last page of the story.

I love being proven wrong.  Okay, maybe not all the time, but I do with books.  I like being told a book is one way and finding it another, or anticipating how I will feel about a book and then discovering my feelings were wrong.  This might have been the best book to be proven wrong about.

P.S. It’s still early stages, but Barry Jenkins is going to be working on an adaptation
of this at some point.  Which means it will be amazing.  So read it first.

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In order of reading, but also the first one is the least whelming.


1292826TULIP FEVER — Deborah Moggach

Ugh, period piece drama that needs to have a little more oomph to convince me it’s good literature.  Okay, sorry, it is a fun premise (Amsterdam during the tulip craze of the 1600s, unhappily married woman starts affair with the artist painting her portrait), but the way the novel is structured is underwhelming.  Each chapter changes POV, which is fine, but some of the characters didn’t need to get voiced as often as they were.  I was much more intrigued by the sections that weren’t focused on a character, but on the painting itself.  That was fun.

I read this one because it’s going to be a movie with Alicia Vikander and Christoph Waltz and let me tell you, I think the movie is going to be 200% better than the book.  It’s the kind of story that needs to be told visually because so much of the drama is based on painting.  Overall, it’s a quick read, and relatively harmless, but nothing that makes me scream “YES READ THIS PLEASE.”  It’s more like, “Oh, that’s nice.  The trailer looks good.”

(No, seriously.  The trailer looks GOOD.  Check it out.)


30688435EXIT WEST — Mohsin Hamid

Really quickly on this one, a rep brought an ARC and suggested it to a coworker, who then said I had to read it.  If this book doesn’t get nominated for some award this year, I’ll eat a bowl full of Brussel sprouts.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is a gorgeous (and brief) novel about a man and a woman who fall in love in a dangerous country, then try to escape the dangers of their home by venturing through doors.  It’s politically poignant, and simultaneously magical in the fairy-tale-like structure.  This is the kind of book you read in an afternoon but think about long after.  And seriously, it’s going to be up for an award, I’m sure, and deservedly so.


616nyvwmpl-sx316THE APPRENTICE WITCH — James Nicol

So after A Conjuring of Light and the astonishingly magical world of Kell and Lila, it’s hard for me to start up another fantasy, but we received an ARC for a new young adult novel that was getting great reviews, so I tried it.  The Apprentice Witch by James Nicol was originally published in the UK in July 2016 and is coming to the US this July.

Arianwyn is a young witch who has failed her final examination.  While her school nemesis is assigned to a special position, Arianwyn is sent to Lull, a town with doubting villagers and magical creatures.  Arianwyn makes some friends and discovers that the magic inside of her might be more than anyone believed possible, but there might also be a darker magic lurking in Lull…

Overall, this was a sweet book.  Arianwyn is a fun young witch and the friends she makes in Lull are charming.  I think my main problem with this was just that there is so much to develop but, as a young adult novel, the length is limited.  If this does become a series, I can see how it could develop and I’d be interested enough to give book two a shot.

To be fair, I also have to say that another thing that influenced by reading of it was a conversation with my manager.  I had looked up reviews online and told her that it was doing very well and that we should order at least one copy for the store; when she spoke with our rep, she ended up ordering a display of the book because it was getting great reviews and the man who got this one also signed J.K. Rowling at Bloomsbury.

Talk about high expectations.

It’s not even that anyone compared the book to Harry Potter, but the simple fact that I was told that the person who saw the awesomeness of HP picked this one taints my way of reading.  The plain truth is that it’s a delightful book and has a lot of potential, and I would give it 4.5/5 stars.

Recommended for 8-12 reading levels (but I’d lean toward 9-10ish because it’s that same kind of interest as HP — young magicians with something to prove to the world and all that), and worth a read.  I think it’s especially good that it’s due out in July because it’s a great summer-y kind of book.


And that concludes the brief wondrous blog entry of the Honest Reader.  I’m currently working on Ron Chernow’s Washington, so updates might be infrequent due to me being crushed by 900+ pages of delightfully researched and written history.  Wish me luck.

Happy reading!

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