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Book Review: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley (4/5)

17 Jan

I saved this book until the last minute to read for my book club, which isn’t like me. It made a good listen while my husband and I drove to Cincinnati for Christmas but I delayed finishing it until I realized how soon my club meeting was. Thankfully, I had some long runs and housework to do so I could listen to a large chunk of it in a week.

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Summary from Goodreads:

On a foggy summer night, 11 people – 10 privileged, one down-on-his-luck painter – depart Martha’s Vineyard on a private jet headed for New York. Sixteen minutes later the unthinkable happens: The plane plunges into the ocean. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs – the painter – and a four-year-old boy who is now the last remaining member of an immensely wealthy and powerful media mogul’s family.

With chapters weaving between the aftermath of the crash and the backstories of the passengers and crew members – including a Wall Street titan and his wife, a Texan-born party boy just in from London, a young woman questioning her path in life, and a career pilot – the mystery surrounding the tragedy heightens. As the passengers’ intrigues unravel, odd coincidences point to a conspiracy. Was it merely by dumb chance that so many influential people perished? Or was something far more sinister at work? Events soon threaten to spiral out of control in an escalating storm of media outrage and accusations. And while Scott struggles to cope with fame that borders on notoriety, the authorities scramble to salvage the truth from the wreckage.

Amid pulse-quickening suspense, the fragile relationship between Scott and the young boy glows at the heart of this stunning novel, raising questions of fate, human nature, and the inextricable ties that bind us together.

As I like to do, I knew nothing about this book going into it. I didn’t even know it was about a plane crash. That made the whole thing even more exciting because I wasn’t ready for the aftermath of the fall or even who would live. I enjoyed Scott’s story and Hawley’s commentary on modern media. Scott was very much the ‘every man’ and I thought a painter was a good choice for that. Artists see the world through a different lens and Scott’s was very interesting. The commentary on modern media, especially larger-than-life media figures, was almost too heavy-handed for me. Bill Cunningham seemed like a very obvious Bill O’Riley character (I mean, the name, come on!) and as much as I agree that biased news is terrible, I didn’t think it was needed in this story. Though, that’s the only thing I’d take out. The rest of this book was well done and really enjoyable.

Scott was a very believable person and I liked him in this story. He had his demons, he messed up from time to time, but he was trying. He wanted to do the right thing and he spent a lot of time finding out what that was. One of the faults of the novel was pointed out to me by my husband. The rest of the characters were very polarizing. You liked Maggie,  you hated Ben. David was a bit in between, but he was mostly likable. I thought that was a bit unbelievable, that people aren’t so easily sorted into ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ I wish there had been a few more people that were hard to put your finger on.

Scott was my favorite character and that’s probably because he was so dynamic. You liked him for one thing he did despite the flaws he had throughout his life. While one action doesn’t make a person good, it can make him a hero. I liked exploring what this meant with Scott and how his demons haunted him even when he’d done something so incredible.

My husband laughed at me because I was comically involved in the early descriptions of Scott and swimming. Maybe that’s why I liked him so much. I related to the laps and the peace he felt in the water. I understood how he could swim as far as he did. I understood why he had trained himself to do that. I loved how he dove under the wave and I knew how he’d surface again. It was a great way for a water-lover like me to be introduced to a character and be thrown into a plot.

Noah Hawley
Image via Twitter

I enjoyed Emma’s flashback the best. She’s closest in age to me out of any of the characters and I thought her story said a lot about her character. She liked to have fun and party, but she was practical and smart. She had a degree in Finance, she was just enjoying life while she was young. The way she reacted to Charlie played well with her character and I liked how she described her feelings. I could see something like that happening to a friend of mine.

I thought the Ben Kipling plotline was a bit too much. It fizzled out very fast. Now, that may have been a part of the message on the media, that the dead are old news and while Kipling likely would have had more of a reason to crash the plane or been the reason for it, the media was going to focus on Scott because he’s still alive. I felt it could have been left out. Kipling could have been a ‘bad guy’ for another reason, or maybe he could have been a fine person but with a really aggressive macho-man personality. I would have still disliked him.

The audiobook was narrated by Robert Petkoff. I liked his narration well enough. I didn’t like the voice he used for women very much, it sounded very condescending. I know he didn’t mean it that way, but it came off as flippant and a bit aloof. I would listen to another book narrated by Petkoff but I’d prefer it be a book with primarily male narrators.

The media commentary was hard to ignore. David and Bill purposefully spun the news to be in their favor time and time again. People who had the same ideas as they did were heroes and patriots. Those who didn’t were suspected terrorists or ‘in it for the money.’ The arrogance he projected was unnerving and it made me honestly uncomfortable. It’s the same discomfort I feel watching news segments so I felt that was well written. I’ve taken to reading my news because I feel I’m less enraged by the opinions involved. Again, I thought Hawley addressed this well but I wasn’t sure it had its place in this story.

Writer’s Takeaway: The back-and-forth timelines of the book was really enjoyable. I was only tripped up a bit at the end when I couldn’t figure out the series of events when Gus figured out what happened and Scott was being interviewed. The rest of the time, I felt it was well done and very clear. It helped build tension and made the ending very eventful and exciting.

This was a really enjoyable book and it did make me take a closer look at the media I consume and how it affects me. 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:
Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley | Taking the Short View
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley | Tonstant Weader Reviews
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley | FalmouthBookBaristas
Book Review: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley | Karissa Reads Books
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley | Book Addiction

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Book Review: Henry VIII by William Shakespeare (3/5)

15 Jan

I only picked this one because I needed a book for the time period. I’m not a huge Shakespeare fan though I’ve enjoyed his plays when performed. Reading them is never as fun. However, I’ve got my time period now and completed the 2018 When Are You Reading? Challenge so this was an overall win.

Cover image via Goodreads

Henry VIII by William Shakespeare

Other books by Shakespeare reviewed on this blog:

The Tempest

Summary from Goodreads:

Henry VIII is a history play generally believed to be a collaboration between William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, based on the life of Henry VIII of England. An alternative title, All is True, is recorded in contemporary documents, the title Henry VIII not appearing until the play’s publication in the First Folio of 1623. Stylistic evidence indicates that individual scenes were written by either Shakespeare or his collaborator and successor, John Fletcher. It is also somewhat characteristic of the late romances in its structure. It is noted for having more stage directions than any of Shakespeare’s other plays.

I didn’t know what to expect from this play. I was fairly certain that Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare were contemporaries so I wondered how he’d portray the father of the monarch. Rather favorably, it would seem. And of course, words on Anne Boylen were very favorable, as she’s the mother of the queen. The play cut off before her beheading. I tried to think what Elizabeth I would think about this play and Shakespeare’s motivation for writing it while I was reading.

Based on what I’ve read, the representation of Henry VIII was surprisingly complementary. He seems to be one who was inclined to satisfy every whim and who was quick to anger. That wasn’t his character in the story who came across as benevolent and understanding. We don’t see much of Anne Boylen so it’s hard to say if I felt she was accurate. Queen Katherine seemed in line with what I remember of her in history, pious and punished for nothing more than being old. I was surprised she was so favorably portrayed because of the drama between her and Queen Anne as they competed for Henry VIII’s affections.

I didn’t have a favorite character, really. We didn’t get very deep into anyone. This is a history play, after all. Some of the duke’s had personalities more than the historical characters I focused on because of my interest, but even then, it was minimal.

The characters in this one weren’t very relatable to me.  There wasn’t much of a personality to connect with. Again, I blame the history format.

William Shakespeare
Image via Wikipedia

I like Katherine of Aragon as a historical figure so I was intrigued by her portrayal and specifically her final scene. I felt it was well done and written in a very respectful way. I knew it was coming so it was no surprise. It made me sad for her and that was what I expected so it felt right to me.

There wasn’t a part that I particularly disliked. The scenes with all the Dukes talking was hard to follow when written but that would be easily solved with a production. Nothing struck me as annoying or poorly done, it was just that overall, it wasn’t very dramatic and it wasn’t very engaging as such.

Loyalty was very important to Henry VIII and he would punish those he felt betrayed him or committed treason in any sense. I felt this was well showcased in the book and I was glad Shakespeare touched on that. Loyalty can mean different things and be rewarded or punished in different ways. Katherine felt she was loyal but her inability to produce a male heir was punished. The Duke of Buckingham criticizes Wolsey and is punished. I saw this as a bit of a cautionary tale for anyone in contact with the royal family. Even the high can fall.

Writer’s Takeaway: As I said at the beginning, you have to keep in mind why Shakespeare wrote this play. He was educating the people about things that had happened during the reign of Henry VIII. He’s also keeping in mind that the man’s daughter was recently queen. There was an agenda in this play. That doesn’t mean it has to be devoid of characters and plot, but it can mean it’s not as strong there as other works by Shakespeare. I appreciated this for what it was and I see why Shakespeare wrote it in the light he did.

I enjoyed this play, but it would have probably been better on stage. Three out of Five Stars

This book fulfilled the final time period of 2018 When Are You Reading? Challenge, 1600-1699. I’ve now started on the 2019 challenge and I hope you’ll all join me!

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:
“Henry VIII” by William Shakespeare (1613) | Fell From Fiction
Shakespeare (and Fletcher’s) Henry VIII | ConradBurnstrom
“My Drops of Tears I’ll Turn to Sparks of Fire” | What’s in a Play?

Book Review: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (3/5)

14 Jan

This book was good. I enjoyed it. Was I let down by the last paragraph? Yes. Did that affect my rating? Likely. Maybe I’ll adjust my rating up to Four Stars at some point, but I’m going to stick with Three Stars for now. I’d still recommend it, though!

Cover image via Goodreads

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Other books by Brooks reviewed on this blog:

Year of Wonder

Summary from Goodreads:

In 1996, Hanna Heath, an Australian rare-book expert, is offered the job of a lifetime: analysis and conservation of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, which has been rescued from Serb shelling during the Bosnian war. Priceless and beautiful, the book is one of the earliest Jewish volumes ever to be illuminated with images. When Hanna, a caustic loner with a passion for her work, discovers a series of tiny artifacts in its ancient binding—an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair—she begins to unlock the book’s mysteries. The reader is ushered into an exquisitely detailed and atmospheric past, tracing the book’s journey from its salvation back to its creation.

In Bosnia during World War II, a Muslim risks his life to protect it from the Nazis. In the hedonistic salons of fin-de-siècle Vienna, the book becomes a pawn in the struggle against the city’s rising anti-Semitism. In inquisition-era Venice, a Catholic priest saves it from burning. In Barcelona in 1492, the scribe who wrote the text sees his family destroyed by the agonies of enforced exile. And in Seville in 1480, the reason for the Haggadah’s extraordinary illuminations is finally disclosed. Hanna’s investigation unexpectedly plunges her into the intrigues of fine art forgers and ultra-nationalist fanatics. Her experiences will test her belief in herself and the man she has come to love.

I enjoyed how Brooks set up this novel. Hanna finds all of these remnants of previous times in the book, simple things, and then Brooks weaves the tale of the book and the people who have touched it and saved it. The book becomes the main character along with Hanna. It feels like the two are having a very one-sided conversation throughout. I felt Ozren was a side character and I was surprised when he came up again at the end. Honestly, his character frustrated me beyond reason and I hated him. I was mad Hanna didn’t share my sentiments. I felt like he was against the book and it’s best interests which, in my head, made him and Hanna rivals. I thought Hanna would see it the same way.

If we take out the last page, where Hanna trusts Ozren again, I thought the characters were well-built. Hanna is an independent woman, the product of her mother’s raising. She’s smart and her journey through the book struck me as sad but realistic. Ozren is a product of his time and place. He’s suffered at the hands of his homeland and he’s angry. I got it, really I did. But I didn’t see a reason for him to regret his actions and repent. Guilt doesn’t seem to be a strong enough reason for me.

Hanna was an easy favorite character (until the very end). I cheered her on during fights with her mother. I was excited by her professional accomplishments. I loved following her sleuthing as she found out the secrets of the people who had owned the book before her. This was a great mystery novel in that way. There were some owners I wanted to hear more about and I wished at times that I’d been able to connect the owners better (maybe I missed things) but I understood moving on from them as the book traveled. It was fun to think about an object being touched by so many people. It makes me angry to think about today’s throw-away culture. Few things we have would last that long.

Hanna was very different from me and her self-confidence was something I don’t see in myself that I liked in Hanna. She was so sure of her analysis on the book, so confident that it was false. Even her friend and mentor contradicting her couldn’t sway her. I admired that. I’m not sure I would have been that strong if told I’d made a mistake in my work. Granted, I’m a bit younger and I have no PhD to back up my opinion, but I still felt her confidence was admirable.

Image via the Jewish Women’s Archive

I liked the flashback stories that explained the damages to the book and how it got to where it was. There isn’t a particular one I liked most, but I thought they were all well-constructed. Brooks built characters that had distinct characteristics so it didn’t feel like re-use characters appeared story to story. I like how she gave a variety of people with different religions, life situations, and reasons for having the book. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be the rabbi with the gambling problem. I loved how she described his addiction.

I’ll finally talk about the end of the book so skip this if you don’t want it spoiled. I never felt Ozren was a very admirable character and I never felt that Hanna had strong lasting feelings toward him. Yes, he saved the book. But we’re introduced to a number of characters who do the same. He suffered a great loss and I pitied him, but I didn’t like him. I felt the things Hanna did for him were out of friendship. When he wouldn’t support her opinion on the Haggadah and she left, I felt any affection between them was severed. It seemed odd to use their relationship to bring back the real Haggadah because I felt there was nothing there. I could understand the scheme to replace the book. But what really got me was them being intimate after they were done. I didn’t think Ozren had done anything to win Hanna’s affection back and he had not been admirable since his deception had caused this problem in the first place. I felt Hanna was built up to be a strong woman who wouldn’t fall into bed with a man who smiled at her and my opinion of Hanna sank with the ending of the book. I wish that small part had been left out because it undermined her character.

My audiobook was narrated by Edwina Wren. I adored her narration. She gave the base accent for Hanna, Australian, but supplied accents and dialects to the multitude of European characters in the book in a very engaging way. I enjoyed hearing Ozren and the British forensic scientist and the American relatives and all the other speakers who made up the world of the book. Wren was able to bring them all to life wonderfully.

The life a book can take, and the people it can impact, is incredible. I was really blown away by the path the book took to end up in Sarajevo. I was touched by the care people took to make and preserve the book. Our history is told through ‘things.’ In this case, the people who preserved the book were mostly forgotten by history, but the book itself told their story. People don’t live forever, but things can last quite a long time. Their value and what we gain from them, are incredible and worth preserving. In some of these cases, they were worth dying for.

Writer’s Takeaway: It can be hard to have so many vignettes in a book and give it an arc but Brooks found an amazing way to do that. The book bound all the characters across time and location and unified many distinct stories. I loved how they came together to tell the story of a book. It’s a very unique idea and I think Brooks did it well. It was a story about a character who never changed or spoke but who you still cared for greatly. I thought that was innovative and creative.

An enjoyable book, though the very end was disappointing. 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:
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Review: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks | Tales from Crazy House
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks | City of Canterbury Library
Geraldine Brooks – People of the Book | Fyrefly’s Book Blog
Geraldine Brooks – People of the Book | Lady Fancifull

‘Bird Box’ Movie Review

10 Jan

Movie Poster via IMDb

It’s been a few years since I read Josh Malerman’s book Bird Box for my book club. Our amazing leader picked it as a spooky October read, a favorite tradition of ours. With the Netflix release of a movie version starring Sandra Bullock, I was pumped. A huge surge in views of those past posts shows a lot of people were curious about the book so I’m looking forward to this comparison and seeing what the rest of you thought as well.

Things I Thought Were Awesome

Sandra Bullock. She was amazing. The stress she exuded was palpable and she made me uneasy and on the edge of my seat the whole time. I loved how she played Malorie.

Boy and Girl growing up. In the book, we skip from their birth to the river trip. The movie gave us a few glances of them growing up with Malorie and Tom, learning about being outside and life before the invasion. I liked these little touches.

Changes That Didn’t Really Bother Me

The quick invasion. The book had a slower invasion and Malorie and her sister losing contact with their parents and others before experiencing it themselves. The quick invasion was much more exciting and made for a great movie moment. It was a bit too similar to War of the Worlds for me, but that’s also a great sequence.

Book Cover via Goodreads

Things That Were Taken Out and I’m Still Wondering Why

The creatures getting in. In the book, the characters are always worried about the creatures getting into their houses through doors. When they come inside, they created an ‘airlock’ of sorts to make sure the creatures weren’t there with them. They got rid of this completely in the movie. My husband, who hadn’t read the book, asked me about it and I told him the book solution. He thought that seemed more logical.

Things That Changed Too Much

Tom’s death. Maybe my memory is off, but I thought Tom died in the ‘Gary Incident.’  Him living longer gave us a great battle with the mentally deranged people but didn’t add much to the story. It also made it weird, to me at least, when Malorie gives Boy the name Tom.

Having to look. That was what was so scary about the river journey in the book! You had to look at a fork in the river and Malorie had to believe that she could do this. I wish that had been kept in. Again, the rapids made for a great visual sequence but having to look was downright terrifying!

I’m so glad this awesome book was turned into a movie. Maybe it would have been a better Halloween release, but Netflix has seen amazing success with it. Reader, have you seen the Bird Box movie? What did you think?

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 Gilded Hour by Sara Donati (3/5)

8 Jan

I was intimidated when I was handed this as my book club selection for January. Granted, we had two months to read it, taking December off for the holidays. I was relieved to find a copy available on Hoopla but dismayed yet again to see it was 31 hours long! Thankfully, I had some long runs as I built up to my half marathon in November and then all the recovery that came after that. Still, this took me over a month to listen to and as such, I have a lot of opinions on it.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati

Summary from Goodreads:

The year is 1883, and in New York City, it’s a time of dizzying splendor, crushing poverty, and tremendous change. With the gravity-defying Brooklyn Bridge nearly complete and New York in the grips of anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock, Anna Savard and her cousin Sophie—both graduates of the Woman’s Medical School—treat the city’s most vulnerable, even if doing so may put everything they’ve strived for in jeopardy.

Anna’s work has placed her in the path of four children who have lost everything, just as she herself once had. Faced with their helplessness, Anna must make an unexpected choice between holding on to the pain of her past and letting love into her life.

For Sophie, an obstetrician and the orphaned daughter of free people of color, helping a desperate young mother forces her to grapple with the oath she took as a doctor—and thrusts her and Anna into the orbit of Anthony Comstock, a dangerous man who considers himself the enemy of everything indecent and of anyone who dares to defy him.

When this book started out, I was amazed. Donati built complicated characters and gave them rich backstories. I was vested in what happened to all of them. But as the book progressed, I was disenchanted. Some characters (literally) left and were ignored for the rest of the story, others were so perfect it became annoying, and some had arcs that were never finished. The book set up so much and did it well. But very little felt closed in my opinion and there was too much filler in the middle.

At first, the characters seemed real and very three-dimensional. My issue became when none of them were dynamic and stayed the same throughout the long novel. No drastic changes in thought or action took place. People who started in a good standing finished there as well. It was overall a dull journey, all things considered, and there was too much plot thrown in and not enough character development.

Jack and Anna were both very likable characters. Between them, I think I preferred Jack because he made Anna happy. Anna was admirable, but Jack was a great support character. He didn’t really have flaws, though, which is the only reason I hesitate to call him my favorite. He was good at his job, a good husband, son, and brother. He was almost too perfect, but he supported Anna and I have to support him for that.

Of the characters, Anna was the most relatable. She was a strong woman and I feel I match that role rather well. She got an education and was working in a field where she was outnumbered, much like I feel working at an engineering firm. She seemed ahead of her time, though, and I don’t feel I’m ahead of my time, just with it. All the other women seemed a bit meek, though, so I’d have to say Anna is most like me.

Sara Donati (aka Rosina Lippi)
Image via Wikipedia

I liked the first third of the book. It set up so many potential plot lines that I got really excited about. There were Comstock and the promotion of birth control, Cap and consumption, Anna and the plight of female doctors, the murders, Sophie and racism, and the Russo children. All of these were unique, involved unique characters, and had the potential to develop into a great story. I loved it. However, a lot of this fell flat and stopped. The arc decided to focus on the Russo children and a lot of things fell aside to meet that.

I had fifteen minutes left in the audiobook and realized there was no way that the book was going to wrap up the plot lines I wanted to know about. I wanted to see a man arrested for murder, Sophie returned from Europe and some advancement in racist ideas or sexism. I got none of it. So the end of the book was a huge disappointment. I thought about this book for a day after I finished it and lowered my rating from Four to Three Stars. I was so disappointed in the huge set up to get such a flat ending.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Cassandra Campbell. I felt she did an amazing job with such a long book. She gave each of the characters just enough of an accent to distinguish them while playing true to their background and character. Maybe she was part of why I was so invested at the beginning.

There were a lot of themes brought up in this book that were wonderful and I would have loved for Donati to follow through on them. Family and what was best for a child became the central theme. I kept thinking that Vittorio would somehow be reunited with the girls after he was found, but I understand how what happened was ultimately the best for him. I felt it didn’t end on the best of notes for the family, though. It would always feel like something was missing.

Writer’s Takeaway: I think Donati was too ambitious. She wanted to address so many social issues of the time, but couldn’t fit it all in one novel, even a long novel such as this one. There’s too much to tackle if you take a historical setting as a whole. You have to pick an element of the time, maybe two, and address that. Donati had too many and it ultimately made for a meandering novel whose point wasn’t clear for a long time.

This book was enjoyable but ultimately left me feeling disappointed. 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:
The Gilded Hour
THE GILDED HOUR by Sara Donati (2015) | Mama just wants to read
Book Review: The Gilded Hour | Novels and Noses

Book Review: Brainiac by Ken Jennings (4/5)

13 Dec

I got this book for my mom years ago and I kept thinking that I’d like to read it at some point. I guess now is that point. I got a copy from the library (that just happened to be large print but whatever) and took it on vacation with me. It worked out perfectly that I finished it when I was waiting at the airport for my ride to pick me up and take me home.

Cover image via Goodreads

Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs by Ken Jennings

Summary from Goodreads:

One day back in 2003, Ken Jennings and his college buddy Earl did what hundreds of thousands of people had done before: they auditioned for Jeopardy! Two years, 75 games, 2,642 correct answers, and over $2.5 million in winnings later, Ken Jennings emerged as trivia’s undisputed king. Brainiac traces his rise from anonymous computer programmer to nerd folk icon. But along the way, it also explores his newly conquered kingdom: the world of trivia itself.

Jennings had always been minutiae-mad, poring over almanacs and TV Guide listings at an age when most kids are still watching Elmo and putting beans up their nose. But trivia, he has found, is centuries older than his childhood obsession with it. Whisking us from the coffeehouses of seventeenth-century London to the Internet age, Jennings chronicles the ups and downs of the trivia fad: the quiz book explosion of the Jazz Age; the rise, fall, and rise again of TV quiz shows; the nostalgic campus trivia of the 1960s; and the 1980s, when Trivial Pursuit® again made it fashionable to be a know-it-all.
Jennings also investigates the shadowy demimonde of today’s trivia subculture, guiding us on a tour of trivia hotspots across America. He goes head-to-head with the blowhards and diehards of the college quiz-bowl circuit, the slightly soused faithful of the Boston pub trivia scene, and the raucous participants in the annual Q&A marathon in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, “The World’s Largest Trivia Contest.” And, of course, he takes us behind the scenes of his improbable 75-game run on Jeopardy!

But above all, Brainiac is a love letter to the useless fact. What marsupial has fingerprints that are indistinguishable from human ones?* What planet has a crater on it named after Laura Ingalls Wilder?** What comedian had the misfortune to be born with the name “Albert Einstein”?*** Jennings also ponders questions that are a little more philosophical: What separates trivia from meaningless facts? Is being good at trivia a mark of intelligence? And is trivia just a waste of time, or does it serve some not-so-trivial purpose after all?

* The koala
** Venus
*** Albert Brooks

This book was fun to read. Jennings bounced back and forth between his journey on Jeopardy! and trivia about trivia. He gave you ten trivia questions in each chapter with the answers on the last page, much like the book summary. It was fun guessing the answers as I went through so that I looked forward to reading more.

I thought Jennings portrayed himself in a very realistic way. He admits that he’s good at memorizing facts but that he’s not great at his job. He is passionate about trivia, not computer programming. He’s realistic about his parenting and his son. It’s hard to know a lot about a person from watching them on a trivia show and reading their tweets, but I felt like the Ken in this book was the Ken I knew from Jeopardy!

I love collecting fun facts, though I’m no trivia wiz and only lasted one Quiz Bowl meeting. I related to his excitement at hearing something new for the first time. I got emailed 116 new fun facts today and it was the highlight of my morning. I understood the distinct difference between his passion and his job. I liked how he wasn’t afraid to let his ‘nerd flag fly,’ something I’ve been working on lately.

Ken Jennings
Image via the AV Club

I liked the narration of Ken’s time on Jeopardy! I think it’s interesting he focused most on his first and last games. I think those would stick in your mind best so it made sense to me. I liked how he wrote about Nancy, who beat him. It was very complimentary and not hostile. He wasn’t angry that he lost and recognized that he was simply bested.

I thought some parts about the history of trivia and the books that had been published about it were a bit dull. I enjoyed the anecdotes about Stevens’ Point Wisconsin and A.J. Jacobs better. One chapter on history would have been fine, but I think there were three and that was a bit much.

Jennings dove into a subject many people don’t think about. For many, Jeopardy! is something to watch after dinner while you have dessert or while you iron (my mother). For some, it’s a life goal and an obsession. I feel that I have a niche obsession sometimes (Harry Potter, Titanic, books) but when I go somewhere that attracts those same people (Universal, museums, libraries), I don’t feel as alone. I think this book would help those who might feel their trivia obsession isn’t as accepted as some others and I liked celebrating that with Ken.

Writer’s Takeaway: I loved the trivia questions in the back! It was so appropriate to bring trivia into a book about trivia. I know it’s not feasible to do this for every non-fiction topic, but it can be done. Swim workouts in a swimmer memoir, book recommendations when talking about publishing. It works sometimes!

I really enjoyed this fun read. 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!

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Book Review: The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl (2/5)

11 Dec

I read Pearl’s book The Dante Club in high school and re-read it for a book club a while back. His name was in my head when I stumbled across this title at a used book sale. I decided to pick it up for my 1800s book in the When Are You Reading? Challenge, thinking it would be a quick read. Boy, was I wrong. I had plenty of book club interruptions, but they weren’t exactly unwelcome.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl

Summary from Goodreads:

Baltimore, 1849. The body of Edgar Allan Poe has been buried in an unmarked grave. The public, the press, and even Poe’s own family and friends accept the conclusion that Poe was a second-rate writer who met a disgraceful end as a drunkard. Everyone, in fact, seems to believe this except a young Baltimore lawyer named Quentin Clark, an ardent admirer who puts his own career and reputation at risk in a passionate crusade to salvage Poe’s.

As Quentin explores the puzzling circumstances of Poe’s demise, he discovers that the writer’s last days are riddled with unanswered questions the police are possibly willfully ignoring. Just when Poe’s death seems destined to remain a mystery, and forever sealing his ignominy, inspiration strikes Quentin–in the form of Poe’s own stories. The young attorney realizes that he must find the one person who can solve the strange case of Poe’s death: the real-life model for Poe’s brilliant fictional detective character, C. Auguste Dupin, the hero of ingenious tales of crime and detection.

In short order, Quentin finds himself enmeshed in sinister machinations involving political agents, a female assassin, the corrupt Baltimore slave trade, and the lost secrets of Poe’s final hours. With his own future hanging in the balance, Quentin Clark must turn master investigator himself to unchain his now imperiled fate from that of Poe’s.

The book started off interesting enough. But it took a turn for me very quickly. The premise is interesting, but the construct that thrusts Clark into the middle of the mystery was too much for me. Why Quentin would risk his job, fiancée, and home to find out the mystery of Poe’s death was beyond me. It seemed too much of a stretch and it made me dislike Quentin. When you don’t like your main character, the rest of the book is hard to like.

Hattie was the only character who seemed reasonable to me. She was in love with Quentin but couldn’t deal with his behavior and changes. I felt the same way. The fact that she was kept from him and distanced herself made sense to me and were what I would have done in a similar situation. It would be like someone who once received a letter from Tupac deciding he was going to quit his job and travel abroad to find out if he was really dead or not. It didn’t seem feasible. I would probably break up with that person, too.

I didn’t like any of the characters. Dupin and Dupont were supposed to be amusing, I saw that, but they annoyed me. Quentin came off as an aimless idiot. I pitied Bonjour because she seemed trapped in a bad marriage. There wasn’t a single one I liked.

The actions of the characters were illogical to me and things I never would have done. The idea that the answer to a man’s death was so important and that it could be made important to an entire city would never have occurred to me. Quentin’s behavior seems completely absurd.

Matthew Pearl
Image via the author’s website

There wasn’t a part of this book I particularly enjoyed. The plot seemed very slow and the style bothered me a lot. I think it could have easily been 100 pages shorter and the ending could have been more satisfying. I’m almost talking myself into a lower rating, honestly.

Quentin seems redeemed at the end. Seeking the truth and using logic helped him recover his life and find closure for Poe, a man he’d never met. I didn’t see any of this as necessary as it could have been avoided, but that’s beside the point. Following logic and truth instead of making up fantastical stories worked for Quentin where it failed Dupin. In the end, the best story wasn’t right.

Writer’s Takeaway: Pacing was a big problem for me in this novel. It was too slow and the length isn’t justified for the content. I did appreciate that there was some original research in the book, but this doesn’t seem the be the appropriate medium for that. I think an article would have been better. I think Pearl was hoping to strike gold with another literary titan but feel flat this time.

This book was disappointing to me and one I won’t be recommending or re-reading. Two out of Five Stars.

This book fulfilled the 1800s time period for my When Are You Reading? Challenge.

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 Post:
Review: The Poe Shadow, Matthew Pearl | Books, Brains and Beer

Book Review: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (4/5)

10 Dec

I picked this one because I was in need of a 1700s read. I’m getting close to the end of the year and I’m close to finishing the When Are You Reading? Challenge. This book puts me one step closer. It helped that it’s a beloved children’s classic. I was excited to read it!

Cover image via Goodreads

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Summary from Goodreads:

From the moment young Jim Hawkins first encounters the sinister Blind Pew at the Admiral Benbow Inn until the climactic battle for treasure on a tropic isle, the novel creates scenes and characters that have fired the imaginations of generations of readers. Written by a superb prose stylist, a master of both action and atmosphere, the story centers upon the conflict between good and evil – but in this case a particularly engaging form of evil. It is the villainy of that most ambiguous rogue Long John Silver that sets the tempo of this tale of treachery, greed, and daring.

I didn’t realize how much fun this book would be. I knew it was the source of Long John Silver the pirate but I didn’t realize how many other classic pirate stereotypes would come from it. The parrot, buried treasure, and marooning on a desert island were all present and taking center stage. I feel the need to watch the muppet version now and see if it was as fun as this one.

Jim was very brave for a boy his age. He did many things I would have been terrified to do at his age, but maybe I’m looking at it with the lens of adulthood and caution. Maybe only a child could have done those things. The adults seemed practical and conniving like I would be. It seems a far-fetched situation, but the people in it behaved as I would have expected.

Silver was a great character. You bounced back and forth between loving him and hating him at every turn and it was fun to have a character you could only count on to save himself. He did what was best for him, but he was honest about it, even when it was against the heroes or only helping the heroes to save himself. I could almost respect him, but not quite.

The whole story was too much of a fantasy for me to relate to it. That’s why it was fun and an adventure. I could see myself being swept away, but not that I would be Jim or in Jim’s shoes. I enjoyed the imagination of it and the nods I now see Peter Pan and other pirate adventures have gathered from this classic.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Image via Biography.com

The initial landing on the island was the most exciting part for me. When Jim snuck off the boat and met Ben Gunn, I was enthralled. I couldn’t understand why Jim would do such a thing, though, and that mildly upset me. He seemed to be chasing an adventure without thinking of who he was chasing it with. I wondered how much he regretted that decision and how quickly.

I thought the beginning dragged a bit. Billy Bones was an interesting character but there was much more to come once he was out of the picture. I wish it had been shortened a bit and the ending of the book a bit longer. I wonder now how Jim’s mother is doing because I’m very invested in her character.

The men are all swayed by greed. The idea of a treasure drives them to stab each other in the back and kill. I was surprised at how much death was in this children’s book. The things the men did before they even knew where the treasure was were a bit surprising. The island was pretty big, I’m not sure how they expected to find it without a map.

Writer’s Takeaway: Trying something new in writing is always a risk, but Stevenson started a genre. There are elements of this book in many future adventure tales and knowing this story was the first and how wonderful a story it is makes me very happy. I only hope that this story was as popular in Stevenson’s time as it has become over the years since it was published. I know I can’t be afraid to write an adventure story and I hope the novel I have can entertain people as much as Stevenson has.

This was such a fun book and I’m so glad I’ve read it. Four out of Five Stars.

This book fulfills the 1700s for the When Are You Reading? Challenge.

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:
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Book Review: The Nick Adams Stories by Ernest Hemingway (3/5)

19 Nov

I find it hard to review short story collections but I’ll do my best here. In this case, we have a consistent character, Nick Adams, who is more or less Hemingway himself. I’ve always been interested in Adams because his stories are set in Northern Michigan where my parents have a summer home. I love the area though I know it’s very different from Hemingway’s time.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Nick Adams Stories by Ernest Hemingway

Other books by Hemingway reviewed on this blog:

The Sun Also Rises (3/5)

Summary from Goodreads:

The famous Nick Adams stories show a memorable character growing from child to adolescent to soldier, veteran, writer, and parent – a sequence closely paralleling the events of Hemingway’s life.”But,” as Philip Young writes in the preface, “Hemingway naturally intended his stories to be understood and enjoyed without regard for such considerations – as they have been for a long time.”

From what I know of Hemingway, these stories paralleled his life more than just a bit. At least, in the locations, hobbies, and stages of life if not in the details. I’m not sure if he ever escaped from the game board with his sister or saw an Indian woman give birth. But he lived in those places and knew about those things. It’s no coincidence Nick went to Europe, fought in the war, and had a son.

Nick is believable because he is so much like Hemingway. He’s very close to nature and seems to understand the land in a way few people do anymore. He often comes off as closed off, someone who enjoys being alone more than he enjoys being with people. When he is with people, he judges them a lot and speculates about their lives and motivations while showing little interest in them. He’s an observer and I think it’s safe to say Hemingway would have been the same way. To write about people the way he does, he had to watch them closely.

There were very few repeat characters in the stories. A few showed up, like his friend George. My favorite was his sister, Littless, from The Last Good Country. She was a sweet girl, and very dedicated to her older brother. I struggled to guess their ages, but I assume he was about 16-18 and she was around 14. I loved the dynamic between the two of them and it made me wish I had an older brother. Though who knows if relationships like those are common.

Ernest Hemingway
Image via the Nobel Prize website

I didn’t relate to the characters, cut I could relate to the setting in this story. I love the woods of Northern Michigan. Even though a lot of it is now populated, one of my favorite things is riding my bike up there through the national forest. It gives me peace in much the same way Nick felt when he was fishing the rivers. Being alone in nature is soothing and I could relate to Nick’s peace.

My favorite story was The Last Good Country. It was the longest, and I think that spoke to my preference for the novel. However, I think the other point of view could have been reduced if not cut. Being with Nick and Littless in the forest, having another person there that emphasized how comfortable Nick was alone in nature, was really fun and I enjoyed hearing it.

My least favorite story was The Way You’ll Never Be. I guess I didn’t get the point of this story. Maybe I was in heavy traffic and missed an important point. Either way, I don’t enjoy the military stories as much as I like the ones set back home or in Europe after the war. This one seemed to be too much of a satire for my tastes. I know Hemingway had a lot to say about war, the point of it, and the humanlessness of it. I just didn’t get much of it out of this story.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Stacy Keach. I had mixed feelings about his narration. I thought he had a good voice to give to Nick and his portrayal of other characters was good. They were different enough and the accents were present without being distracting. However, his speed and volume changed too much for me. Listening in my car, I have to frequently turn up the volume when I’m on the highway and when I get off. However, with Keach I had to turn it up for certain paragraphs or even the end of emotional sentences.

A lot of Nick’s stories were about man and nature. As much as Nick was a peace in nature, he didn’t belong there. He manipulated nature to meet his needs but he always had to return to civilization. It was a place to hide or escape, but he couldn’t live there. He brought things that couldn’t be replenished and he always went home in the end. They were quick adventures when he needed a rush, but they were never going to be a permanent move.

Writer’s Takeaway: Making a character like yourself is a good way to make him believable. Hemingway could pour his feelings and reactions into Nick and that must have made him easy to write. But it doesn’t make him interesting to read. Nick was the least interesting part of his stories to me (with the exception of Fathers and Sons). It did make for a good way to explore secondary characters, though.

Overall, enjoyable in parts, but not an overall winner. 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!

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Book Review: Old School by Tobias Wolff (4/5)

15 Nov

Here’s yet another example of a book club book I never would have picked up but because someone else picked it, I read it and enjoyed it. If you don’t have a group that pushes your reading, I really recommend it.

Cover image via Goodreads

Old School by Tobias Wolff

Summary from Goodreads:

The protagonist of Tobias Wolff’s shrewdly—and at times devastatingly—observed first novel is a boy at an elite prep school in 1960. He is an outsider who has learned to mimic the negligent manner of his more privileged classmates. Like many of them, he wants more than anything on earth to become a writer. But to do that he must first learn to tell the truth about himself.

The agency of revelation is the school literary contest, whose winner will be awarded an audience with the most legendary writer of his time. As the fever of competition infects the boy and his classmates, fraying alliances, exposing weaknesses, Old School explores the ensuing deceptions and betrayals with an unblinking eye and a bottomless store of empathy. The result is further evidence that Wolff is an authentic American master.

I was instantly reminded of a favorite of mine, A Separate Peace so I started off inclined to like this book. I liked the setting and the premise. I enjoyed how being a good writer made a boy popular the same way being a star athlete can. The idea that intellect was celebrated made me happy. I’m contemplating sending potential future children to a New England boarding school. I’ll bet this doesn’t last long.

I felt the protagonist was credible. I could understand how he wanted to prove himself and show that he could do well and didn’t need to be pitied as a scholarship recipient. I almost understood his decision to be untruthful. Almost. I wouldn’t have gone to such extremes, but I understood it. His procrastination bothered me, but I know people who would have done the same thing.

I liked the narrator. Most of the other boys seemed to run together but the narrator, because we were in his head, I understood and liked. He was smart and he had his priorities in the right places. Well, most of the time. With one major exception, he was a good student and stayed out of trouble. He admired the great writing and aspired to get through learning and school. That’s pretty admirable. He also learned some hard lessons along the way about people he idolized and I think that must have been very humbling.

I had flashbacks to the high school literary magazine when I was reading the scenes where the boys talked about their own. I remember certain people appearing more than others, letting someone’s piece in because they were a Senior and the sense of entitlement that came with being an editor. I felt these were hit spot on.

Tobias Wolff
Image via the Paris Review

I thought the scenes with Ayn Rand were pretty great. The way she was characterized and the take-aways the narrator had from the encounter were very realistic of meeting one’s heroes. I loved how Wolff characterized her (and really shared an opinion!). I’ve never read her books but I’m familiar with the movement she was a part of and how polarizing they could be.

Spoilers here so skip this if you don’t want the ending ruined. I didn’t like that the narrator plagiarized, but I disliked it more when he ran away to New York. It seemed like he was so afraid of returning home to a father we know little about. I didn’t understand why he didn’t feel he could face his father except that he didn’t want to disappoint him. It didn’t feel like strong enough motivation to run away. This character had been so level-headed leading up to this point and the change seemed too much and too sudden.

The narrator is always searching for greatness. At first, in others. He wants to see Ayn Rand as great and Hemingway. Then he wants to be great himself. He’s desperate for achievement and recognition. And it bites him hard. In the end, he humbles himself but is able to achieve something great (or so it’s implied). Greatness is never easy. It was good that the narrator had to struggle to see that.

Writer’s Takeaway: I struggled in my historical fiction book with bringing in real-life figures. I ultimately decided not to but I respect how Wolff did it in this book. Giving life to Frost, Rand, and Hemingway must have been a challenge. You want to be true to who they were but also treat them as a character. That balance is what led me away for it but I found this to be a good example of how to do it well.

A fun, quick read and a work showing a love of literature. 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!

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