Archive | December, 2019

Presenting: The When Are You Reading? Challenge 2020

31 Dec

Yes, it’s a little late, but that’s always better than never. I’m so excited to announce the 2020 When Are You Reading? Challenge! My husband finished the beautiful image this morning. Isn’t it great?

I hope you’ll consider joining me for the 2020 edition of this challenge! I’m going to use the same format as last year. I think the change in time periods was effective and I’d like to give it another go.

The challenge is to read 12 books, one from each of the below time periods. The books can either take place in the time period or be written in it. The reader has the final say on if a book qualifies for the time period.

  • Pre 1300
  • 1300-1499
  • 1500-1699
  • 1700-1799
  • 1800-1899
  • 1900-1919
  • 1920-1939
  • 1940-1959
  • 1960-1979
  • 1980-1999
  • 2000-Present
  • The Future

I’ll be getting pages for the challenge set up today. Expect a few more posts about it this week and GET EXCITED! This challenge has been a great way to make sure I’m reading historical fiction from a variety of time periods. I hope you’ll consider joining me.

If you are participating, please let me know and I’ll include a link to your tracking page or blog on the page for this year’s challenge.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee (5/5)

31 Dec

I’d seen this book around so when I needed a final book to fill in the 1700s of the When Are You Reading Challenge 2019, this seemed like an easy pick. It was even better that it was on audio. I was not expecting to love this book as much as I did. I fell in love with it. The narrator was great and Monty was amazingly annoying/relatable/pitiable all at once. It was incredible and I can’t wait to read more by Lee.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (Montague Siblings #1) by Mackenzi Lee

Summary from Goodreads:

Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.

But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.

I absolutely loved this book. It was everything I love about historical fiction and everything I adore in YA all at once and it was amazing. I loved the depiction of Europe and the Grand Tour. I loved how Lee addressed the portrayal of black and gay characters. I even loved Felicity as much as she was annoying in Monty’s eyes. I wanted to hate Monty with every fiber of my being but I adored him. He was so vulnerable that I felt bad for him even when he was at his worst. Lee created an amazing cast of characters and I won’t soon forget it.

These characters were amazing. Percy and Monty alone could have made a book out of their romance. Pairing it with an adventure was exactly what I love. Felicity was a strong woman when strong women weren’t appreciated. Percy had an illness no one could cure. And Monty was struggling with homosexuality in a time when it was illegal. They all had an issue to deal with on their own and together there were amazingly flawed and fun to read about.

Despite some initial revulsion, I ended up loving Monty. (I feel like I have to say immediately it’s not because of his sexuality so please keep reading before roasting me.) When I first started the book, I thought Monty narrating was going to ruin the whole thing for me. He was just so pompous! He acted like nothing could touch him and he was so much better than everyone and it got under my skin fast. It’s a credit to Lee’s storytelling that I learned to love him. I learned that his bravado was a way of trying to attract Percy and his humor a way of deflecting the pain he carried with him. As he opened up about his past and true feelings, I saw him as the true and flawed person he was and I fell in love with the character. Now I hope he narrates future novels because I’d love to learn more about him.

I think Monty’s bravado ended up being relatable. I remember being a hormonal teenager and wanting to show off to impress a boy. I remember being impressed by a boy showing off. It was one of the most natural teenage things I think Monty could have done. The only difference was the time period he was in and the level of society he embarrassed himself at. That I wouldn’t have been capable of in high school.

Mackenzi Lee
Image via HarperCollins

I liked the time the party was in Spain. Yes, it’s partially because I speak Spanish and visited Barcelona last year. But I think it was a really good plot development time as well. Felicity became much more of a team member while they were there and Monty had to learn how to stay a bit calmer than he was used to. He had to be subtle. I liked how they snuck into prison as well. That seemed really risky but also calculated at the same time and I appreciated what they were able to do.

Ther scene at Versailles was my least favorite. While it was important and had a lasting impact on the plot, it seemed a bit over the top and didn’t give me a great first impression of the characters. I didn’t like Monty yet at this point and I found myself rolling my eyes a lot.

My audiobook was narrated by Christian Coulson and he was fan-freaking-tastic. He gave Monty an amazing voice with layers of sarcasm, woe, and anger that were just perfect. I can’t imagine reading this without having Coulson’s voice in my head. He was perfect in every way I can describe.

All of the characters had to pretend to be someone they weren’t. Felicity had to pretend she was a lady when she wanted to be a doctor. Percy had to pretend he was well when he was ill. Monty pretending to be straight when he was bisexual was hard for him because he felt he could only recognize part of his affections. It took time for them all to come clean with each other about what they wanted and who they were. It’s hard to be yourself sometimes and it can be hard to accept someone for who they are. But when we do, it’s really beautiful and we can stop seeing people for their flaws and see them for their beauty.

Writer’s Takeaway: I feel like I need to try writing in first person after seeing how wonderfully Lee did it. Monty’s narration gave the book the voice it needed to tackle the internal demons that he was dealing with. The book would have fallen flat without Monty narrating. I haven’t been brave enough to try the first person yet but I’m starting to feel like it’s needed.

An amazing story with great characters. Five out of Five Stars.

This book fulfills the 1700-1799 time period of the When Are You Reading? Challenge. Challenge complete!

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee (Montague Siblings #1) | Steeping Stories
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue | Book Princess Reviews
Review #100 // The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue – Mackenzi Lee | The Book Deviant
Review: “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue” by Mackenzi Lee | MadReviews

Book Review: The Maximum Security Book Club by Mikita Brottman (4/5)

30 Dec

I saw this book on my 2014 trip to Powell’s in Portland. I wanted to buy it but I’d reached the spending limit my husband put on me so it went on the TBR. At least I finally got to it! And I had a great audio experience for this one.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison by Mikita Brottman

Summary from Goodreads:

On sabbatical from teaching literature to undergraduates, and wanting to educate a different kind of student, Mikita Brottman starts a book club with a group of convicts from the Jessup Correctional Institution in Maryland. She assigns them ten dark, challenging classics—including Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Poe’s “The Black Cat,” and Nabokov’s Lolita—books that don’t flinch from evoking the isolation of the human struggle, the pain of conflict, and the cost of transgression. Although Brottman is already familiar with these works, the convicts open them up in completely new ways. Their discussions may “only” be about literature, but for the prisoners, everything is at stake.

Gradually, the inmates open up about their lives and families, their disastrous choices, their guilt and loss. Brottman also discovers that life in prison, while monotonous, is never without incident. The book club members struggle with their assigned reading through solitary confinement; on lockdown; in between factory shifts; in the hospital; and in the middle of the chaos of blasting televisions, incessant chatter, and the constant banging of metal doors.

I’m realizing that prison seems to be a common theme in my book selections lately. You’ll see more in the next few to see where that comment comes from. This one, however, is the strongest example of the theme. There is very little of this book that doesn’t take place in the prisoner’s classroom. Brottman focuses her telling on the time she spends in the prison and talks a lot about how the men are treated in prison and the experience they have. The book evokes a lot of sympathy for the prisoners. The conditions that the men live under do seem unjust and if you can forget the reason those men are behind bars, it seems heinous. But when you do remember, you have to really think about it. These are men who have committed horrific crimes. But does any person deserve to be treated the way these men are treated? The literature they read often speaks about people in extreme circumstances that the men can relate to. They often find sympathies with the characters. In books that are supposed to seem extreme, these men see nothing they haven’t seen before.

Brottman does a wonderful job of describing the men. You really start to feel you know them and that you can almost trust them because of the consistent characters she draws. For me, the most telling part of the book was the afterward when she talked about the men who were released and what it was like to see them on the outside. Without the institution surrounding them, they were a lot rougher around the edges and despite what Brottman thought of their connection in the book club, they were not potential friends on the outside.

Stephen was my favorite character. When you heard his story, it made you think that he was going to be the one person who wasn’t as rough and violent as the others. His crime was an accident and he really was a good kid. He seemed this way in the club, too. He’d been trusted to train a service dog and he always seemed to do the reading and understand it. There were a few things that didn’t check out, mostly about him having a girlfriend on the outside who was married. When he was released and Brottman interacted with him outside the prison, he wasn’t the same sweet kid. He was gullible and immature. I think he was so well described that it wasn’t a surprise to the reader and you could see how Brottman thought he would be different outside.

Brottman was easy to relate to. As a fellow reader, it’s hard not to sympathize with a book club leader. I sometimes forget not everyone cares about a story as much as I might. Brottman forgot this a lot. As a book lover, I get very passionate about books. I would get frustrated in high school when others didn’t care about the discussion or assignments. She was my inner book nerd in a very unusual setting.

Mikita Brottman
Image via the Baltimore Sun

I liked how Brottman concentrated on the lives of the prisoners and how they were treated more than the books. Often, there were parallels between their lives and the books. Brottman made good selections to help facilitate discussions connecting the two. I thought it was interesting to hear how the prisoners reacted to lock-downs, new roommates, and rules violations. It was a view of prison I hadn’t had before.

The section where Brottman talked about the newspaper article about her group. I think it portrayed her in a bad light and showed a lot of self-doubts. She seemed pretty confident until that point but second-guessed everything that happened and was mad about how the article turned out. It shifted my view of her a lot.

The audiobook was narrated by Beverly Crick. I think she was a good choice. Her British accent helped me remember that Brottman is British and her accent would have made her stick out even more in the prison. She did good accepts for the men as well and I didn’t find them distracting. The book was very internally focused so there wasn’t much dialogue anyway.

The book invoked a lot of sympathy for the men. You forgot often that most of them had been convicted of murder or rape. Brottman seeks to see the humanity in these men, much in the same way books look to humanize their characters. I think it’s in her nature as a reader and teacher of literature to look for the good in people.

Writer’s Takeaway: I left this book was some pessimistic takeaways. While someone might read a book, it doesn’t mean they enjoy it or get anything from it or think about it later. It might not change their life in any meaningful way. Sometimes, they look at every page and process every word and that’s that. I have to remember that as a writer, my book might not change lives. It might not affect them at all. And that’s okay. Because someone will feel something eventually. It just has to find the right reader.

Overall enjoyable and informative. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
The Maximum Security Book Club | Snowflakes in a Blizzard
The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison by Mikita Brottman | Rachel Reads Books
Prison Book Clubs! | Librarian Behind Bars

Off Topic Thursday: Going to Greece!

26 Dec

Off Topic Thursday is a way for me to get a chance to talk about my life outside of books and reading. I appreciate the chance to give you all a little more insight into my life so please chime in with your thoughts!

I got an early Christmas/Birthday present this year. A few weeks ago, my mom called me with the startling revelation that I’ll turn 30 next year in March. To celebrate, she bought the two of us tickets to spend a week and a half in Greece at the end of February and beginning of March. I’m. So. Happy!

Here’s a little background on this. When I was 19, I studied abroad in the UK. In our program, we got three- or four-day weekends every weekend and we were encouraged to travel. I picked my destinations and I was looking to tack on a trip to Athens to one of my weekends. Uncharacteristically, my mom got angry and said, “You can’t go to Greece without me!” So I didn’t go. She promised to take me one day. My mom retired last summer and I reminded her of this promise. I think she was hoping I’d forgotten but I didn’t. When she quickly got another job teaching at a community college, I thought the trip was dashed but realizing I had a milestone birthday coming up, she booked the trip around her mid-semester break. She even asked my husband if he minded giving me up and he was glad to see me go.

We’re going in the offseason which means low numbers of tourists but also that the beaches don’t hold much appeal. Our rough plan now is to go to Crete for a few days and spend the rest of the time in Athens. We figured that Crete is large enough to support a year-round population and things to do and is also the furthest south so we can enjoy the warmest weather possible. I’m hoping for some great food and some good wine. In Athens, I’m hoping to do an ebike tour and take a day trip to Delphi. My mom likes doing the hop-on, hop-off buses to see the big landmarks.

I’m sharing this early to see if anyone has any additional ideas we should look at. My mom has a metal knee so she can’t walk a lot which cuts out a lot of overly-athletic things like hiking. We’re both adventurous foodies and history geeks so that kind of thing would be right up our ally. Of course, any insight on where to stay and where I can find a public lap pool to get a workout in would be greatly appreciated! I’ll be in the middle of training for my state swim meet so I’d like to swim once or twice.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

WWW Wednesday, 25-December-2019 (Merry Christmas!)

25 Dec

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at A Daily Rhythm and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!IMG_1384-0

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Note: For users of Blogspot blogs, I’m unable to comment on your posts as a WordPress blogger unless you’ve enabled Name/URL comments. This is a known WordPress/Blogspot issue. Please consider enabling this to participate more fully in the community. 


Currently reading: I’ll continue to move through Wild Ink by Victoria Hanley at my slow pace. I’m getting some good advice as I go but nothing earth-shattering so far.
I’m adoring Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and I’m getting as much as possible in between sections of The Dutch House. This is a book club pick for me and I’m getting a little nervous about finishing it in time. I’m not going to complain about the length, though, because I’m adoring it so much.
I finished the second part of The Dutch House by Ann Patchett for my buddy read. We’re doing four sections and we already met to talk about the first part. We’ll meet in early January to discuss the second part. It’s so tempting to speed ahead!
Change of plans for my audiobook. I had a long-term hold on Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys that came in unexpectedly. I started it and should finish it this week; it’s a rather short one. I’m not liking it as much as the last Sepetys book I read, but I still like it.

Recently finished: I wrapped up Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward on audio. It was good, but I didn’t connect with it as much as I’d hoped to. The language was beautiful but I kept thinking about what everything in the book could mean symbolically and it kept me from enjoying the story. I gave it Three out of Five Stars.

A few more book reviews are done! I got a review of Derek Palacio’s The Mortifications posted last week. I liked the book enough, but wasn’t blown away by it. I gave it Three out of Five Stars.
I also reviewed Not Without My Daughter by Betty Mahmoody this week. Again, I liked it, but it came off as very biased and I couldn’t connect with it. Another Three out of Five Stars.

Reading Next: I still think I’ll listen to Sarah’s Quilt by Nancy E. Turner next. This might be my first book for the 2020 When Are You Reading? Challenge (more to come on that soon!). I don’t have any more books waiting to come in so this should be a safe bet.


Leave a comment with your link and comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Club Reflection: News of the World by Paulette Jiles

24 Dec

As sometimes happens with two book clubs based out of the same library, I now have two discussions of News of the World by Paulette Jiles. I don’t think this book was the best fit for my ‘edgy’ book club, but since it’s going to be made into a movie, we allowed it.

It was pointed out again that there are no dialogue marks in the book, similar to how McCarthy writes. Some people didn’t like the switches to Johanna’s point of view and I believe I remember them as a little confusing in the audiobook since there was no narrator change and they felt a little abrupt. The book felt a bit like a movie. We all want Sam Elliot to play Captain Kidd, though Tom Hanks will do nicely!

The three men who have Johanna at the very beginning are based on some historical figures. Brit Johnson’s family was stolen by the Comanche and he was able to successfully ransom them. He spent later years trying to rescue a girl from the Kiowa but was ultimately killed in his attempt. This is mentioned in the book (and subsequent movie) The Searchers by Alan LeMay.

The internal arguments Captain Kidd had with himself felt real to us. He had a very sound sense of justice. Though, overall, he did feel a little one-dimensional. Not much changed about him over the course of the story. I don’t think his time with Johanna changed how he felt about her or children in general. I honestly felt he was going to adopt her from the beginning. Kidd understood people well and knew a lot about the world outside of Texas. He didn’t develop that during the book.

No one was surprised that Johanna was unhappy with her aunt and uncle. Compared to the freedom of living with the Kiowa, it must have seemed unsafe and dangerous. Her family was harsh on her and she wasn’t ready for it. We wondered why they’d pay so much to get her back. It must have been either pride and appearances or the free labor she could provide.

Captain Kidd’s livelihood was unusual. He picked news from abroad to expand people’s sense of the world and purposefully picked local politics. We were impressed that he got the newspapers he did in rural Texas. It seemed odd to get London newspapers. We figured that this might be the job Jiles would have wanted if she lived in that time period.

The gunfight scene was very memorable. One reader pointed out that the range would have to have been shorter for the dimes to shoot in the way they’re described but without that knowledge of physics, I was fine with it. We thought it was interesting that she didn’t see the value of dimes the same as Kidd. They weren’t money to her so they could be weapons. She is very stealthy getting to the wagon and back which we attributed to her Kiowa upbringing. It’s emphasized more when she goes to scalp the men she’s killed!

We’ll be back in January with more. I’ve already finished the book, now I just have to remember it.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Review: Not Without My Daughter by Betty Mahmoody (3/5)

23 Dec

I’ve had this book on my radar for years. I was visiting family near Alpena, MI in 2013 and was told that the ‘Not Without My Daughter’ house was down the street. I looked into it and was fascinated/horrified by Betty’s story. I added the book to my TBR and the movie to my ‘watch’ list but it’s taken me ages to get to it.

Cover image via Goodreads

Not Without My Daughter by Betty Mahmoody

Summary from Goodreads:

In August 1984, Michigan housewife Betty Mahmoody accompanied her husband to his native Iran for a two-week vacation that turned into a permanent stay. To her horror, she found herself and her four-year-old daughter, Mahtob, virtual prisoners of a man rededicated to his Shiite Moslem faith, in a land where women are near-slaves and Americans despised. Their only hope for escape lay in a dangerous underground that would not take her child.

I have very mixed feelings on this book. On the one hand, I feel horrible for Betty. She was kidnapped by a man she trusted and kept away from her family for over a year. She was hurt, physically and emotionally. She lost her freedoms and had no one to turn to she could trust. However, this book was written in retrospect and her bias against Islam is glaring and I kept getting frustrated with some of her depictions in the book. The most memorable things are usually going to be horrible so this book was filled with the most horrible memories of a year. I’m not saying there were happy times or good times she skipped, but condensing the bad parts down and putting a hateful voice behind it is going to end in a very dark book with a strong bias.

I think Betty portrayed the people she knew in Iran as she remembered them but I’m not confident they were exactly as described. Her sister-in-law had no redeeming quality at all and I have to think there was one or two good things about her. The people who helped here were the only kind people in the story, never focusing on family members who were understanding or not out-right evil. I do think Betty did a good job of explaining how the Moody changed from when they started dating to when they were in Iran. Though I doubt his actions were so suspicious that she thought they might be trapped; I think that’s hindsight.

There wasn’t really a character I liked. Betty gives such negative descriptions of her in-laws that you don’t like any of them. Those who help her are vaguely described to protect their identities so it’s hard to connect with them. Betty was so negative that she was hard to connect with. Mahtob was too young for me to relate to. Overall, it was hard to like any person in the story.

I found the story very hard to relate to. In college, I dated a Muslim man and had such a different experience that reading this was hard for me. I had people warn me against dating someone from a conservative Muslim country and how it could never turn into anything serious. I wonder now if the cultural influence of this book had anything to do with that. My experience was overwhelmingly positive, with someone who was very respectful and caring and who I never felt forced me or pressured me to do anything or wear anything different from what I wanted to do. The reader has to remember this is one woman’s story, this isn’t a reflection of the whole culture.

Betty Mahmoody
Image via YouTube

Betty’s escape was well drawn and I liked the detail she gave. It must have been terrifying to not understand what’s being said around you as you go through the crazy, illegal, and deadly steps she took to escape the country. I felt she was very brave but I also appreciated the bravery of the men and women who helped her through such a dangerous experience. They deserve their own books.

Betty’s initial time at her sister-in-law’s house was very hard to read. She was so angry, upset, and hopeless that there was little to focus on in the story. She wasn’t leaving the house or scheming or doing anything worth focusing on. It was a bit of a slug to get through at the beginning before you got into her plans and attempts to escape.

Betty’s dedication to Mahtob is what drives this book. Many people tell her to save herself and leave Mahtob but she recognizes that Moody is not a competent father and she knows that if she leaves Mahtob, she’ll grow up in his terrible family in Iran. She’s seen unhappy Mahtob is with that life already and refuses to subject her daughter to more pain and misery. That mother-love is what makes the book so moving.

Writer’s Takeaway: There is a lot of bias in Betty’s voice. As a reader, you sympathize with her because she describes the miserable parts of her experience with such clarity and you get her feelings and reactions. I’m not saying I enjoyed it, but it’s effective. You come out of this book wanting to give Betty a year of her life back. You want good things or her and Mahtob. You come out hating Moody. However she did it, it works.

Overall, the book was compelling, but I didn’t find the writing very good and a lot of things seemed to be retrospective rather than current which was frustrating. Three out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
Not Without My Daughter | womenofattic

Book Review: The Mortifications by Derek Palacio (3/5)

19 Dec

Here we have yet another Midwest Literary Walk buy, this time from 2017. I was doubly interested in Palacio’s story because it focuses on a Cuban family and Cuba is one place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. I was happy to finally nab this one on audio.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Mortifications by Derek Palacio

Summary from Goodreads:

In 1980, a rural Cuban family is torn apart during the Mariel Boatlift. Uxbal Encarnación—father, husband, political insurgent—refuses to leave behind the revolutionary ideals and lush tomato farms of his sun-soaked homeland. His wife Soledad takes young Isabel and Ulises hostage and flees with them to America, leaving behind Uxbal for the promise of a better life. But instead of settling with fellow Cuban immigrants in Miami’s familiar heat, Soledad pushes further north into the stark, wintry landscape of Hartford, Connecticut. There, in the long shadow of their estranged patriarch, now just a distant memory, the exiled mother and her children begin a process of growth and transformation.

Each struggles and flourishes in their own way: Isabel, spiritually hungry and desperate for higher purpose, finds herself tethered to death and the dying in uncanny ways. Ulises is bookish and awkwardly tall, like his father, whose memory haunts and shapes the boy’s thoughts and desires. Presiding over them both is Soledad. Once consumed by her love for her husband, she begins a tempestuous new relationship with a Dutch tobacco farmer. But just as the Encarnacións begin to cultivate their strange new way of life, Cuba calls them back. Uxbal is alive, and waiting.

I read enough Hispanic literature that I should be ready for the magical realism that’s normally present but it catches me by surprise each time. There was a sense of detachment in the narration emphasized by the 3rd person omniscient voice. It almost felt like the narrator was making up the story about characters he’d invented instead of telling a story about people he knew. The story covered a lot of time and the detached voice let the jumps happen smoothly. There were parts that were unbelievably magical and others that were starkly realistic. They contrasted well and I kept my interest in the book, but I never felt as engaged as I wanted to be because of the underlying unbelievability of the story.

Ulises felt very real and I was glad he narrated the story. Soledad felt real as well but Isabel and Uxbal were almost larger than life. Isabel, in particular, was hard to wrap my head around because I didn’t know if she was an angel. I kept expecting her to do something impossible that would give me a final push over the edge. She kept me on my toes and I always wondered what it was she was trying to do because every decision she made seemed out of character for the person I thought was being developed.

Henri was my favorite character. I felt his love for Soledad and the pain it caused him to see her suffer and to feel he was being pushed away. I think he realized he could never replace Uxbal but he was going to try his darndest for as long as he could. He was very industrious and a good step-father for Ulises, even if he never legally had that title. I think it bothered him that Soledad wouldn’t marry him though I don’t remember it ever coming up.

Soledad was the most relatable character for me. She was very hardworking and a little bit emotionally distant, two qualities I see in myself. I am very much a ‘nose to the grindstone’ kind of person and that quality can keep me from being intimate with more than a handful of people. I related to Soledad’s laser focus on providing for her children, even at her own expense. I think she wanted to let Henri into her heart more, but her focus on Isabel and Ulises prevented this.

Derek Palacio
Image via the author’s website

Isabel’s time in Cuba was the most interesting to me. I don’t know if I particularly liked it, but it kept my attention. Her behavior seemed to be almost self-destructive and I wanted to take care of her because it felt like she wouldn’t care for herself. She changed a lot during this time, giving up all her vows and realizing a lot about her father and changing her relationship with him. I was so interested to see what would happen to Isabel that I lost interest in Ulises.

Soledad’s illness was hard to read about, mostly because I liked her character so much. I couldn’t bare for anything bad to happen to her and hearing how her body deteriorated and her mind changed was hard for me. She had been so strong and she didn’t know how to be weak. After dedicating herself to her children, she didn’t know how to lean on them. It was trying to read.

The audiobook was narrated by William DeMeritt and I thought he did a great job. From my ear, he had a good pronunciation of the Spanish words (though I’m not as well versed in a Cuban accent so I can’t speak to that). He kept a rather dark tone through the book but I think that was appropriate for a book with as much tragedy as this one.

Uxbal pulls strings throughout the book well before he appears in person. Family isn’t something you can forget about or leave behind easily. It’s inside you and a part of you. Isabel struggles with that for much of the book. A promise made to her fanatical father in childhood chased her into her adulthood and wouldn’t let go. Soledad couldn’t forget about Uxbal, especially with Ulises who looked so much like him at her side. Family sinks its teeth in and never lets go.

Writer’s Takeaway: Sometimes, you need things to work out magically for your story to work. Magical realism is one way to do that and this is a good example of minimal magical realism in a way that barely feels like a tall tale or coincidence. It was just the right amount of magic and reality to feel fantastical but also feel like it could happen to you.

I enjoyed the book but failed to connect with it in a meaningful way. Three out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
ARC: The Mortifications by Derek Palacio | Poppy Reads Alot
Cuba is Both Near and Far in Derek Palacio’s ‘The Mortifications’ | Chicago Review of Books

WWW Wednesday, 18-December-2019

18 Dec

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at A Daily Rhythm and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!IMG_1384-0

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Note: For users of Blogspot blogs, I’m unable to comment on your posts as a WordPress blogger unless you’ve enabled Name/URL comments. This is a known WordPress/Blogspot issue. Please consider enabling this to participate more fully in the community. 


Currently reading: I keep trucking through Wild Ink by Victoria Hanley. This is about the pace I thought I’d read this book so I’m not upset it’s taking this long. I like the steady drip of YA writing advice and I think it’s helping me keep my books in mind.
I’ve been bouncing back and forth between Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and The Dutch House. I’m loving Pachinko and I know it’s going to be a slow burn. The characters and the setting are wonderful so far and I’m looking forward to seeing how the rest of this epic unfolds.
Today is the first buddy-read meeting I have for The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. We read the first five chapters and are having dinner tonight to talk about it. It’s fun to read a book this way with a close friend. I hope we can do more of these in the future.
I should finish Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward this week. Audiobooks going quickly for me now with my commute. I’m still unsure how to feel about this one. The writing is really good and the plot is engaging, but I’m not connecting with it for some reason. I’ll see how it’s going next week.

Recently finished: No books finished this week, but I think that will change next week with how fast I get through audio right now. Stay tuned.

I was able to post three book reviews since last week! I first shared my thoughts on Caveat Emptor by Ruth Downie. I adore this series and the characters in it. I can’t wait to get to the next one soon. Four out of Five Stars.
I also posted my review for My Drunk Kitchen by Hannah Hart. I had some issues with this book, honestly. I think I had too high of expectations because I adore Hannah’s YouTube channel so much. Three out of Five Stars.
I also posted a review for Eastbound from Flagstaff by Annette Valentine. This was my first ARC in a while and I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. I’m hopefully going to do an interview with the author in the coming weeks so stay tuned for that. I gave the book Three out of Five Stars.

Reading Next: I plan to pick up Sarah’s Quilt by Nancy E. Turner still. I think this will be a good audiobook to wrap up the year. Reading about a quilt sounds nice when it’s so cold outside.


Leave a comment with your link and comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Review: Eastbound From Flagstaff by Annette Valentine (3/5)

17 Dec

It had been a long time since I accepted an ARC though I get requests often. This time, it felt right. I’m getting ready to send my own story out and I want to put good juju into the universe to maybe get some back. This book sounded right up my ally, too. 1920s Detroit setting, what’s not to love?

Cover image via Goodreads

Eastbound from Flagstaff by Annette Valentine

Summary from Goodreads:

Simon Hagan is running from a lie, intent on believing his own efforts and perseverance can overcome anything. He abandons roots that are his foundational strength and hides behind his charm, living every moment as if life’s daring him to fail―again. He’s reckoning with his father’s God who could have delivered better outcomes but didn’t.

When I think about this book, I mentally divide it into two parts: Detroit and After Detroit. I will freely admit a likely bias here but I liked the part in Detroit much more than what came after. It wasn’t just the setting; it was the pacing. The story in Detroit was a slow pace and a slow burn. Simon was slowly moving up in the world and making his own way. The secondary characters had lives of their own and equally compelling stories. Even with a time jump leaving me confused about the importance of Simon’s police work, I was still engaged. When he moved out West, I was a lot less enthralled. I felt the plot moved too fast. as if the author realized how long the book was already and needed to rush to an ending so the second book of the series could start. To give you an idea, the section I enjoyed was the first 243 pages. The part I felt was rushed went to the final page, 323. So overall, I enjoyed much more than I was bothered by.

I felt Valentine’s side characters were more engaging than Simon. Mrs. Butcher and Mr. Begbie were my favorites. The Mallory family was very believable. I felt like Simon didn’t have much emotion and when he did, it was predictable. He stayed very level headed as things happened to him. He took hard news well and did exactly what was asked of him most of the time. I wanted more out of him, but he also felt like a pair of eyes through which I could watch the story happening which was a unique way of seeing the time period and other characters.

Mr. Begbie was my favorite character. I loved that he had a unique voice. You always knew it was him talking. It was so pronounced that there were very few dialogue tags with his name present because it wasn’t necessary. I liked how stand-offish he was at first with Simon. It made the relationship they developed mean even more meaningful.

Some parts of Simon’s personality were relatable to me. He was a really hard worker and I see that in myself a lot. When he got pushback from his supervisors to work harder, he did. I had the same reaction to bosses and teachers who pushed me. When he was faced with a problem, he put his head down, focused on his goal, and got the work done. It might not make for an exciting character, but it made for a relatable person for me.

Annette Valentine
Image via the author’s website

Simon’s time in the Ford plant was my favorite. I worked at Ford for two years and it was fun to hear about how things had been in the 20s when cars were new and a job in the factory was a welcome change to working conditions. It helps put the recent UAW negotiations in perspective and see how things could have gotten to where we are now.

The last third of the book fell flat to me. Simon had lost his way and things were falling apart around him and I didn’t see the revitalization in him that he said he had. He felt the pull to return to God, but he didn’t seem to act on it. He still seemed defeated to me and I was waiting for an uplifting moment when I’d feel it in him but I didn’t get that. I wonder if it will be in book 2.

I was surprised at the strong Christian themes in this book. I didn’t anticipate that from what I heard about it through reading the summary now, I should have anticipated it. If Simon would return to God or not was a big theme in this book. We see his brother Alan also turn away and never turn back. Simon’s father is of the belief that all of his tragedy is dealt to him because he turned away. I’m not sure I like this idea. There are a lot of people who don’t follow God who don’t have terrible things happen to them. I do believe that Simon could deal with his tragedy only by seeking God’s help. I also felt the Christian undercurrent in this book was either too much or not enough. If it had been more present throughout the book, it would have been stronger. And if it hadn’t existed at all, I don’t think the book would have suffered from it. It almost felt like it was added on.

Writer’s Takeaway: I took away lessons on pacing from this book. The book moved slowly at first and I enjoyed getting to know Simon and his daily routine in Detroit, but then the book rocketed ahead faster than I thought it should. I think the first section should have been edited down or the later section slowed down to keep the pacing consistent.

Overall enjoyable but not a new favorite. Three out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!