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Book Review: Ajax Penumbra 1969 by Robin Sloan (4/5)

16 Jul

This is really more of a short story, but it deserves a review. My husband and I loved Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and when I found out there was a prequel, no matter how short, I wanted to read it. I found an audio edition and on a day with a run and indoor bike, I finished the whole thing.

Cover image via Goodreads

Ajax Penumbra 1969

Other books by Sloan reviewed on this blog:

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (5/5)

Summary from Goodreads:

August 1969 San Francisco. Ajax Penumbra seeks a book–the single surviving copy of the Techne Tycheon, a mysterious volume that has brought and lost great fortune for anyone who has owned it. Late one night, after another day of dispiriting dead ends, he stumbles across a 24-hour bookstore, and the possibilities before him expand exponentially.

Maybe my memories of Ajax Penumbra from the full novel are a bit off because this character seemed a little stiff. But my memory of the 24-hour bookstore and the magic that it held were spot on. I loved coming back to the store and the mysteries within it. Mo was great and the friendships with Corvina and Claude were so fun to see develop.

The characters in this one weren’t really credible, but I wasn’t expecting them to be. Penumbra was a very eccentric character in the original novel, so I expected his origins to be equally eccentric and fun and I wasn’t disappointed. They were what I expected them to be.

Mo was my favorite character. It’s as if owning the bookstore makes you into an energetic and haphazard person and I loved that in Mo. He was very passionate about the store and what was inside it and his customers and I found that very endearing. He was also very smart. In many ways, he’s like the Mr. Penumbra we come to love but he’s very unique at the same time and I liked how Sloan built his character.

I thought Ajax going to Claude when he had a problem was a very realistic solution. There are a lot of times that someone very far from a topic or problem can provide a solution that helps more than the experts or team working on it can. Claude had a local’s perspective and I liked how he was able to help.

Robin Sloan
Image via BookRiot

I loved the story of the William Gray. I hope that’s true and that the city is really built on scuttled ships. Even if it’s not true, I still liked the story and I wish it were true because now I’m thinking about all the treasure that could be buried underground.

The actual discovery of the Techne Tycheon was my least favorite part. I liked the puzzle and the research so doing the physical work to find the book ended up being a bit of a disappointment to me. Maybe a puzzle on the lock would have been better. But now I’m stretching.

Ari Fliakos narrated the audiobook, the same man who did Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I’m glad Ari came back for this short story. He already had a flair for Penumbra and the fun cast of characters that surrounded him and was able to bring that back.

Penumbra is determined to solve the mystery, much like Clay was in the full novel. I liked seeing the dedication to books that Penumbra and his coworkers at Galvanic had. It was really encouraging to see how books had come to influence life and how much people cared for them. It was very similar to the love of books that was expressed in the full novel.

Writer’s Takeaway: I feel writers are often asked to continue with characters in the form of a sequel or companion novel because publishers know it will sell. I think this is one of those instances but I think Sloan handled it well and in a different way from what was expected. He gave his readers a short insight into Ajax Penumbra without muddling the main novel’s plotline and by giving us just a taste of the mysterious character we’d grown to love in the novel.

A really enjoyable short jaunt down memory lane. 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:
Ajax Penumbra 1969 by Robin Sloan | One Book Two
Ajax Penumbra 1969 | Raging Bibliohlism
Ajax Penumbra, 1969- Robin Sloan | Track of Words

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Book Review: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande (4/5)

15 Jul

It’s been a while since one of my book clubs picked a non-memoir non-fiction. I hadn’t heard of this choice before it came up on the list but, as so often happens, I’m so glad we picked it because I ended up really enjoying it.

Cover image via Goodreads

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

Summary from Goodreads:

Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming the dangers of childbirth, injury, and disease from harrowing to manageable. But when it comes to the inescapable realities of aging and death, what medicine can do often runs counter to what it should.

Through eye-opening research and gripping stories of his own patients and family, Atul Gawande, a practicing surgeon, reveals the suffering this dynamic has produced. Nursing homes, devoted above all to safety, battle with residents over the food they are allowed to eat and the choices they are allowed to make. Doctors, uncomfortable discussing patients’ anxieties about death, fall back on false hopes and treatments that are actually shortening lives instead of improving them.

In his bestselling books, Gawande has fearlessly revealed the struggles of his profession. Now he examines its ultimate limitations and failures–in his own practices as well as others’–as life draws to a close. Riveting, honest, and humane, Being Mortal shows how the ultimate goal is not a good death but a good life–all the way to the very end.

This book hit me harder than I thought it would. I recently lost my grandfather who had been living in an assisted living facility for a few years and eventually succumbed to pneumonia. Both of my grandmothers are still alive and both are in assisted living. I’m sure most people have experienced death and dying in their lives, either friends or family. This book made me start thinking already about how I’ll react when my parents start to age. As the oldest daughter, care will likely fall to me. We’re fortunate that my husband has other siblings so we won’t likely have to deal with both sets of parents. I’ve started thinking about what’s important to my parents and what a quality life might mean to them and how I could provide that. But I also know that I need to ask when the time comes. This also made me think about what I would want to do if I had a terminal disease. How far would I go to fight it and how important are comfort and quality of life in the end.

Gawande portrays a lot of different people he’s met and it’s clear that they have different priorities and personalities. Some of them want to live as long as possible while some value independence and others comfort. I liked that he chose a wide variety of people at various stages of their lives to comment in this book. It started off feeling like a book on elder care but he brought it to a place where I realized it could affect me as well.

Providing the details of his father’s illness grounded the second half of the book for me. Gawande isn’t just preaching best practices. He’s had to live through the tough conversations he talks about and live with the consequences of them. I thought it gave a lot of weight to what he was saying. I liked how he showed that he applied what he learned to his patients and the difference he felt it made in their final days.

While I was reading this book, I went to a friend’s wedding. We had breakfast at her family home on the morning of the wedding. It’s a home that her great-great-grandfather built and which has passed down through the generations. When we sat down to breakfast, I noticed an elderly woman sitting in an armchair in the corner of the room. Assuming correctly that this was her grandmother, I walked over and introduced myself. The woman jumped and I was afraid she was going to spill her coffee. She apologized for her reaction, she is mostly blind and hadn’t seen me approach. The smile on her face when I squeezed her hand and when each of our friends followed me over to her and introduced themselves melted my heart. She appreciated being recognized. We were in her home, after all. I’m not sure if I would have done that if I hadn’t been reading this book. She was quiet and seemed perfectly happy with her coffee and the conversation she was having with her daughter. But she really appreciated meeting her granddaughter’s friends who she would see later that day at the wedding. This book has made me think more about what I would want when I’m grandmother-aged and I’ve started treating people differently. I hope it sticks.

Atul Gawande
Image via Wikipedia

The section on end-of-life decisions and quality of life stuck with me. We go through a lot to help add months to a person’s life. Too often, I don’t think a lot of thought has been given to how that additional month is in reality for the sick. It’s likely a month of recovery and pain. Talking about what a person wants and needs for their final time is critical. I started to think about what I would want if I had to make hard decisions and I think being to read and comprehend would be very important to me. I have a huge TBR to get through after all!

There wasn’t a part of this book I particularly disliked. It was all very informative and I think it helped change my perspective on aging and dying. We have to accept our mortality and respect our lives when it comes to the end. None of us can escape death as much as we try. We have to know when the race is over.

My audiobook was narrated by Robert Petkoff. I liked how he narrated the book, giving weight to a serious subject. He didn’t try to use voices for the women or men that Gawande profiled. He was straightforward and clear about the subject. I thought that was a good way to deliver the message.

Gawande has to face death a lot in his job. He does surgeries with the point of curing, healing, and granting longer life. I think he’s well positioned to lecture on the subject of mortality. He has seen first hand when he can help and when he’s only kicking the can down the road. Bringing in his father’s illness shed a lot of light on the book as well. It’s not just what he does with patients, but what he really believes as well.

Writer’s Takeaway: I don’t know how much I learned about writing from this book. The non-fiction subject Gawande chose deserves some different approaches than the fiction I aim to write. It did highlight for me how adding a personal touch to a topic can make it seem so much more real. I’m likening this to the ‘write what you know’ mantra and how that can make a story stronger.

I enjoyed this book, the perspective, and what it’s left me with. 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:
Being Mortal | Timestafford’s Blog
Review: Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal- Medicine and What Matters in the End | The Healthcare Marketer
“No Risky Chances” by Atul Gawande (Excerpt from Being Mortal) | Lunch Break Reader
Book Review: Being Mortal | The World of Pastoral and Spiritual Care

Book Review: Wolf’s Mouth by John Smolens (3/5)

8 Jul

I was a little nervous when my book club picked this one. I’d never heard of the author and it was published with a small press. The last time we had a book like this, we didn’t know who had picked it and none of us ended up liking the book. I found out early on that one of our readers had recommended it so I was reassured. I put myself in a rough place, though, because I didn’t start it until the week before our meeting and I needed a bit more time than that to finish. I made it, but with just one day to spare.

Cover Image via Goodreads

Wolf’s Mouth by John Smolens

Summary from Goodreads:

In 1944 Italian officer Captain Francesco Verdi is captured by Allied forces in North Africa and shipped to a POW camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the senior POW, the ruthless Kommandant Vogel, demands that all prisoners adhere to his Nazi dictates. His life threatened, Verdi escapes from the camp and meets up with an American woman, Chiara Frangiapani, who helps him elude capture as they flee to the Lower Peninsula. By 1956 they have become Frank and Claire Green, a young married couple building a new life in postwar Detroit. When INS agent James Giannopoulos tracks them down, Frank learns that Vogel is executing men like Frank for their wartime transgressions. As a series of brutal murders rivets Detroit, Frank is caught between American justice and Nazi vengeance. In Wolf ’s Mouth, the recollections of Francesco Verdi/Frank Green give voice to the hopes, fears, and hard choices of a survivor as he strives to escape the ghosts of history.

I was nervous because I know some people like wolves and want to write a lot about them. I do not like wolves and do not want to read about them. Because I don’t read book summaries, I didn’t know how the wolf would come into play with this book. Lucky for me, it was minimal and this book highlighted a part of my state’s history I knew very little about. I had no idea there were POW camps in northern Michigan! I went on a trip through the UP (Upper Penninsula) right after reading this and the way Smolens describes it is very accurate. I can’t imagine how much more remote it must have been in the 1940s. You’d be hard pressed to escape. I found some parts of this book hard to believe, such as Vogel’s prolonged vendetta. Frank was a very flat character, too. He had to adapt to what happened around him and as such, he didn’t have too much of a personality of his own. The people around him were well drawn and likable, but I wasn’t sure what to think of him. I also had some issues with how the book was paced. It was a slow start, and then once the action started going, there was no breath. We jumped through time to get to the high action and then had to relive a lot of the skipped time in flashbacks through the beginning of the time jump. I was looking for a little more high-and-low in this one.

Besides Frank’s blank personality, the characters around him were very believable. I adored Chiara and I thought she was very brave. She was smart, too, and creative in how she made sure Frank would be safe while they were traveling. I adored the reunification with Adino at the end. It was a very well written and emotional scene, one that brought an actual tear to my eye. You don’t find friendships like that every day.

Claire was my favorite character in the story. I thought the way Frank cared for her was really sweet and I liked how strong she was when faced with such great odds. I cheered for her a lot and I was sad she didn’t make it the whole book. I think she would have been an amazing character for Frank to be growing old with.

There wasn’t much relatable in the plot to me, but the setting was very relatable. My parents have a second house in Northern Michigan and I thought about that place a lot while reading this. I also got to think of Detroit in an earlier era when it was in its heyday and overall had really positive feelings about this book’s setting. It’s clear Smolens is a native, he’s very sweet on the state and portrays it well.

John Smolens.
Image via Amazon

I thought the end was very fitting and I’m going to talk about it now so please skip ahead if you’re not interested. Anton was left with the same things Frank had when he started his life again. He was abandoned outside of Munising and had to keep away from the wild and elements in order to move on with his life. It seemed a bit odd at first, but more and more appropriate as I thought about it and in the end, I was really pleased with it.

The time jumps were disruptive to me. A lot of things were explained that I think could have been left alone. The jump skipped a lot of boring time but then that time was covered so as to avoid leaving a gap. It wasn’t a good solution to what Smolens was trying to accomplish by skipping ahead in time.

Frank has to forgive himself and be forgiven. It was easier for him to forgive himself for putting Claire in danger, for not protecting Adino, and for escaping. He struggled with being forgiven even when he asked for it because he didn’t think he’d done anything needing forgiveness. I think his inability to sympathize with Vogel in any way was a big part of his problem in this book. Vogel was drawn as so clearly evil that you couldn’t find a way to forgive him. And so Frank struggled with it his whole life.

Writer’s Takeaway: Flashbacks are very hard and I have a rather major one in my book that I’m contemplating taking out. I think I will now that I’ve read this book and seen how disruptive it can be. The flow of the story was really thrown off and I wish less had to be explained.

An enjoyable read but a few things about it really kept me from enjoying it. 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:
Q&A with John Smolens | A Rally of Writers
“Wolf’s Mouth” by John Smolens | Book Nook Book Reviews

Book Review: Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray (4/5)

25 Jun

It’s been a few years since I read the first book in this series but I was able to pick up right where I left off. The first book was really memorable and I adored it. Unfortunately, we have a bit of middle book syndrome in this one.

Cover image via Goodreads

Lair of Dreams (Diviners #2) by Libba Bray

Other books by Bray reviewed on this blog:

The Diviners (Diviners #1)

Summary from Goodreads:

After a supernatural showdown with a serial killer, Evie O’Neill has outed herself as a Diviner. With her uncanny ability to read people’s secrets, she’s become a media darling, earning the title “America’s Sweetheart Seer.” Everyone’s in love with the city’s newest It Girl…everyone except the other Diviners.

Piano-playing Henry DuBois and Chinatown resident Ling Chan are two Diviners struggling to keep their powers a secret—for they can walk in dreams. And while Evie is living the high life, victims of a mysterious sleeping sickness are turning up across New York City.

As Henry searches for a lost love and Ling strives to succeed in a world that shuns her, a malevolent force infects their dreams. And at the edges of it all lurks a man in a stovepipe hat who has plans that extend farther than anyone can guess… As the sickness spreads, can the Diviners descend into the dreamworld to save the city?

This started out really strong for me but ended bittersweet. We start with a new villain and a new Diviner. Adding one to the crew isn’t too much so I’m OK with this. We have some development, especially between Sam and Evie and of Henry’s character. At the very end, we get a bit of Theta. So, overall, good character development. And good buildup of the series villain, the King of Crows. But the defeat of the book villain, the Veiled Woman, fell flat to me. Once they figured out who she was, getting rid of her was too quick for me. It was like Bray realized she had too many pages and tried to end it quickly. I would have liked to see a little more struggle for her ghost to be put to rest. Maybe I’m in too much of an editing stage in my book to be reading.

Bray creates wonderful characters. Each has unique quirks and ticks and I thought their speech and worlds were unique and wonderful. She does a good job of having diverse characters: Ling and the Campbell brothers bring racial diversity while Sam has religious diversity and Henry has LGBTQI+ diversity. It doesn’t hit you over the head, but it’s there. Bray also ties in a lot of subtle hints at eugenics so I’m guessing this will come into play at some point.

I liked Henry the most, I think his character was the most dynamic in this book. He opened up about his sexuality and was vulnerable to Ling. He also made some headway in his career. And he made mistakes and got emotional. It was very real and I appreciated that. I think he’s set up to be a very strong character in the third book.

I think all the characters were relatable in some way. Henry had an emotional spell, which we all do. Evie is depressed but won’t talk about it and is drowning herself in fame and alcohol. Maybe I haven’t been there, but I can understand wanting to escape. Memphis and Theta had a serious rough patch and I think every relationship has been there. With a wide variety of characters, this book had a lot of relatable moments.

Libba Bray
Image via Barnes & Noble

Ling’s story was my favorite. She had a very rough life even though her family loved her and she was smart. She was dealing with her disability and the loss of her friend at the same time, not easy to do. She’s also in a weird place being half Irish and half Chinese. She doesn’t feel like she fits into either world but everyone sees her as Chinese. I can see how she’d be very lost and angry so thus defensive. I thought she was really well fleshed out.

The ending was too rushed. I would have liked to see our heroes hurt a little more as a result of defeating the ghost, but they seem ready and able to take on the next book and challenge. It just seemed like the ghost in this book was almost an afterthought.

The audiobook was narrated by January LaVoy and she was wonderful. She gave a unique voice to each character and nothing felt dumbed down or rude. She was also great at building tension through scary parts. I didn’t want to listen to this while I was running in the dark because it freaked me out!

These characters were often dealt bad hands. They’ve found each other to work through them. This is a non-traditional family of characters, especially Theta and Henry. Both had to leave home in a hurry and both are afraid to lose each other. I thought the reliance on each other and family was really sweet.

Writer’s Takeaway: It stuck out to me that Bray did a lot of head hopping. In a single scene, we’d know what Henry was thinking and what Ling was thinking. Both Sam and Evie would share their intentions and ambitions. Normally, it’s distracting. But, honestly, Bray killed it. I bought every world and loved it all. This is a great example of what an experienced writer can do that amateurs shouldn’t try.

A great build-up but a disappointing end. Four out of Five Stars.

This book fulfilled the 1920-1939 time period of 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:
Book Talk- Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray | Musings of a Book Nerd
Review: Lair of Dreams | Gun in Act One
Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray Review 5/5 | Blogs of a Bookaholic
Book Review: Lair of Dreams (The Diviners #2) by Libba Bray | The Owl and the Reader

Book Review: Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy (4/5)

20 Jun

I went through a period of adding a lot of writing craft books to my TBR. I think it’s fate that I’m just now getting to them as I’m ready to send my first manuscript out to agents. Reading this one actually made me pause and reconsider a re-write of my plot to make it stronger. This was the right find at the right time.

Cover image via Goodreads

Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy

Summary from Goodreads:

So you want to write a novel? Great! That’s a worthy goal, no matter what your reason. But don’t settle for just writing a novel. Aim high. Write a novel that you intend to sell to a publisher.

Writing Fiction for Dummies is a complete guide designed to coach you every step along the path from beginning writer to royalty-earning author. Here are some things you’ll learn in “Writing Fiction for Dummies”

* Strategic Planning: Pinpoint where you are on the roadmap to publication; discover what every reader desperately wants from a story; home in on a marketable category; choose from among the four most common creative styles; and learn the self-management methods of professional writers.

* Writing Powerful Fiction: Construct a story world that rings true; create believable, unpredictable characters; build a strong plot with all six layers of complexity of a modern novel; and infuse it all with a strong theme.

* Self-Editing Your Novel: Psychoanalyze your characters to bring them fully to life; edit your story structure from the top down; fix broken scenes; and polish your action and dialogue.

* Finding An Agent and Getting Published: Write a query letter, a synopsis, and a proposal; pitch your work to agents and editors without fear.

Writing Fiction For Dummies takes you from being a “writer” to being an “author.” It can happen–if you have the talent and persistence to do what you need to do.

There was a lot of good advice packed into this book. I picked up a lot about self-editing and thinking about my character arcs. I knew one of my characters was weak, but I didn’t have a solid idea of how to make her stronger. This book helped. I hadn’t done too much editing when it came to my plot structure and scene order, but this book gave me some direction on how to go about doing that and I’m now in the process of cutting and combining scenes to make for a stronger plot.

I thought the chapters on plot structure were the most helpful for me. Seeing how you could take a story and apply the three-act structure to it hit a lot harder with this book than it had when I got lectures about it before. They used some classic novels to show how the structure applied and give examples of a ‘disaster’ and a ‘first act’ that made it pretty clear that while there is a formula for fiction, it’s applied so many different ways that it’s not formulaic.

I felt that the writers pushed writing conferences harder than was necessary. I gathered that Ingermanson met his agent at one so he’s a strong believer, but it seems like a huge expense for people who write as a hobby. I’m interested in going to one (it looks like they’re one in Detroit and one in Windsor I can look at) but I’m still going to try getting an agent by a query.

Ingermanson is very convinced that people can be taught the art of writing. I’m still concerned about my word-by-word voice and style. I’d hate to write a whole book, edit it, and then realize that I haven’t developed my voice strongly enough for the writing to be good. That’s part of why I write this blog. It helps just to get words on a screen, no matter if they’re book reviews, off-topic posts, or the book I so desperately want to write. I have to just keep writing and eventually, I can learn how to structure a book and by then, I should have the voice all worked out.

Writer’s Takeaway: I think most writers could find something useful in this book. Ingermanson and Economy are often pointing out the ‘rules’ and they are quick to remind you that all rules can be broken. One of their biggest warnings is against head-hopping but I just realized the audiobook I’m listening to head hops and it works great! They would probably shrug and admit that it happens. As much as there are rules, they are made to be broken by those who know how to break them. Ingermanson and Economy set rules for amateur writers and then let you know that you’ll grow. It was a really encouraging book.

Overall, solid help for the wannabe writer. 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!

Book Review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

10 Jun

I’m a huge fan of Noah. I like him on The Daily Show and I watched a documentary about him that covered some of the same things in this book. I loved how resilient he is and how he shares the struggles he had as a child in a way that is informative and comedic. I was so excited to read this book for my book club.

Cover image via Goodreads

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Summary from Goodreads:

Trevor Noah’s unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents’ indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, steal him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa’s tyrannical white rule, Trevor and his mother set forth on a grand adventure, living openly and freely and embracing the opportunities won by a centuries-long struggle.

Born a Crime is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man’s relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother—his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.

The eighteen personal essays collected here are by turns hilarious, dramatic, and deeply affecting. Whether subsisting on caterpillars for dinner during hard times, being thrown from a moving car during an attempted kidnapping, or just trying to survive the life-and-death pitfalls of dating in high school, Trevor illuminates his curious world with an incisive wit and unflinching honesty. His stories weave together to form a moving and searingly funny portrait of a boy making his way through a damaged world in a dangerous time, armed only with a keen sense of humor and a mother’s unconventional, unconditional love.

More than anything, I want to meet Trevor’s mother after reading this book. She’s almost as major a character as he is in his own memoir. Noah faced a lot growing up in South Africa, but his mother faced it for herself and for Trevor. Any problems he had, she dealt with as well. Any changes to try and help Trevor were hardships for Patricia. Their relationship was beautifully depicted and was a great way for Noah to say ‘thank you’ to his amazing mother.

I could so easily picture Trevor as the mischevious young boy he describes. He’s always trying to get just a little something more than he’s given, be it a book or a few extra rand. He was open about things in life that would have been difficult or embarrassing and I appreciated that honesty. When he talked about his mom and brother, it was clear it was hard for him at times. I appreciated how he told us about the hard times he endured. Apartheid is something American education doesn’t dwell on very much and I feel like I know a little bit more about it now.

I loved hearing about Trevor growing from a shy small boy to an out-going and ambitious teenager and 20-something. Nothing in between felt rushed and I could see how his childhood influenced him as a young adult and shaped him into who he is today. He tells stories similar to these on clips from his show and it’s very eye-opening to hear about political oppression from someone who now reports on it.

One of the most eye-opening things for me was how much I related to Trevor’s stories of high school romance but how different they were as well. Prom was a disaster for me my Junior year but nothing like Trevor’s and my date at least spoke the same language as me. I had a middle school heartbreak and Trevor’s story brought back memories. It was a very relatable childhood but the lense of apartheid and race made his stories give me pause and make me think about them more.

Trevor Noah
Image via the Comedy Central Press

I laughed the hardest when Noah talked about his friend, Hitler. What an unusual name. But, Noah explains why Hitler isn’t uncommon in South Africa and it seems a bit far-fetched, but I’ll believe it. Hitler performing at a Jewish school, though, is hilarious. I’m surprised it didn’t end more violently, to be honest. You’d think someone named Hitler would know about the man his name came from and understand why it might upset children.

Hearing about Trevor’s step-father was hard for me. His mother had been such a strong woman and great presence in his life and it made it hard for me to understand why such a bad man could be part of their lives. Trevor explains how it happened slowly and over time, but 20-20 makes it very clear that he was never going to help Trevor or Patricia.

Having Noah narrate the audiobook was an amazing idea. He talks about the power of languages in South Africa and how he was able to use mastery of languages to fit in with many different groups and communicate with people. Having him use those language skills to quote people in their own language and read passages in Xhosa, Zulu, and Afrikaans was wonderful. I don’t think anyone else reading it would have worked.

Since Noah is such a big name in America, I think it’s wonderful that he’s shared his childhood and how different it was from an American childhood. He talks a lot about American politics so understanding his background helps us understand why he feels the way he does. I loved the humor he used, but his message about assimilation and racism were very strong and impactful to me.

Writer’s Takeaway: Any writer wants to use some form of comedy to lighten the mood in certain parts of a book. Not many can make racism and apartheid funny. Noah has a great gift in this and really shines in this book. We all know he’s a funny guy but it’s different to see him laugh through the hard times.

I enjoyed the book a lot, especially the audiobook version. 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: Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi (4/5)

30 May

I read Night and The Diary of a Young Girl very close to each other a few years back and it got me to add this book to my list as well. I received it as a Christmas gift a few years ago but it lingered on my shelf for a while. A trip to Las Vegas seemed like as good a time as any to dive into it.

Cover image via Goodreads

Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi

Summary from Goodreads:

In 1943, Primo Levi, a twenty-five-year-old chemist and “Italian citizen of Jewish race,” was arrested by Italian fascists and deported from his native Turin to Auschwitz. Survival in Auschwitz is Levi’s classic account of his ten months in the German death camp, a harrowing story of systematic cruelty and miraculous endurance. Remarkable for its simplicity, restraint, compassion, and even wit, Survival in Auschwitz remains a lasting testament to the indestructibility of the human spirit.

This is a survival story, no question about it. Levi focuses on how he lived in the camp and how he survived when so many around him didn’t make it. He talks about the right amount of work to do, the good jobs to get, the ways to pass examinations. He details how the trading system worked and what tools were essential and how to get them, how to make them. It felt like a survival story more than a Holocaust story to me. The Nazi officers were not consistent characters but Levi’s bunk-mates and trading partners were.

Levi painted vivid pictures of other prisoners. He gave us details about ones who were like him, ones that were unlucky, and ones that couldn’t survive. I felt he pained a vivid picture of himself, too. For me, the most impactful part was when he detailed the other men in the quarantined room with him before liberation. The teamwork they demonstrated was incredible. Finally, it was about the survivability of the group and not the individual and that really shone through.

Levi was the only major character in the story and I liked how he portrayed himself. He was smart and was able to use that intelligence to get him a good position. But a good position didn’t mean comfort, it meant more opportunities. He stole and traded and schemed to get more food. He used that job to survive and to help his friend survive. There was no enduring, you had to find a way to make things better for yourself.

It was hard to relate to Levi and the characters in the story because his story is so extreme. I think that’s why it’s important. It’s important to remember that humans did this to other humans because they thought some were less than others. It highlights what happens to us when we do this to each other and why we can never let this happen again. It’s the un-relatability of his story that’s so important.

Primo Levi
Author photo courtesy of the Paris Review

The final scenes in the infirmary spoke to me most. In history, I’d heard that those who were ill were left behind and liberated soon after. The days-long delay and the horror it brought was never mentioned before. The number of men who died waiting for freedom astounded me and I was so sad to hear about them.

The book was non-chronological and that confused me at times. I would question what job Levi was doing or how long he had been in the camp when something happened and I’d be confused for a few pages before I found a landmark. I understand that this book was not written in chronological order on purpose; it’s written to detail the different steps taken to survive. It’s a small gripe, but it’s really the biggest one I have.

We should not have to survive the treatment of other humans. Abused women and children, prisoners, and Holocaust victims have survived things that no person should have to. We have the ability to take away the freedom of others. But we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t have to be ‘survived’ by others in the way Levi had to survive.

Writer’s Takeaway: Levi told a story with impact. He didn’t sugar-coat anything or leave out any detail that might be embarrassing. His candid telling is why this is so powerful and wonderful and scary and tragic. I think memoir should always be like this. Otherwise, we might not learn something essential.

The book was impactful, though I did find myself confused and tuning out at times because of the time jumps. 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: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (4/5)

23 May

I guess I thought this book would be longer, but I was through it in a week. Maybe the physical book had wide margins or large print because the audiobook was just over four and a half hours. I’m not complaining, don’t get me wrong, but I thought this would be a longer haul than it ended up being.

Cover image via Goodreads

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Summary from Goodreads:

In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through.

Exit West follows these characters as they emerge into an alien and uncertain future, struggling to hold on to each other, to their past, to the very sense of who they are. Profoundly intimate and powerfully inventive, it tells an unforgettable story of love, loyalty, and courage that is both completely of our time and for all time.

This book is very timely. Most of the world is struggling with the ‘problem’ of refugees. I think Hamid put everything in perspective well. Why do the receiving countries think they are struggling when it’s the refugees themselves who are the ones struggling. These are not people who are rejected by society in their home countries. Many of them are well educated and ambitious people whose worlds have crashed around them. Saeed and Nadia were doing fine in their hometown until everything around them changed and suddenly they weren’t. Given the chance, they’d love to be back to being ambitious and continue their education. They just need that chance and continue to travel further and further west trying to find it.

Saeed and Nadia were good characters to tell this story. I felt the story was a bit more of a general story of refugees and refugee flight. The relationship between them wasn’t really important to what Hamid wanted to say. I felt their journey was rather typical from what I’d heard and I liked how it was portrayed, especially their time in London and how contentious their presence became.

Nadia was my favorite character. Maybe it was just because she was a woman, but I was able to relate to her well. She was strong and I liked how independent she was before the fighting started in her hometown. She didn’t need Zaid, but she wanted him so was happy to have him around. I’d like to think I’m that independent.

However, their story, the migrant experience, was one that was completely new to me. It’s being shared more and more with the current state of the world, and I thought this was a great way to share it. It seemed familiar because I’ve heard it in the news and with the refugees I’ve met, but it was very far from my own story. I think that, along with the small bit of magical realism, is what made it feel so escapist.

Mohsin Hamid
Image via PRH Speaker’s Bureau

Their story while in London was my favorite part. I felt they hit a lot of the issues the Western world has with immigrants and refugees. The degradation of the home they lived in felt very real to me and probably upset the people who lived there before. The riots that came as a result of the police intervention were very impactful to me. It seemed believable that the ‘riots’ we see are often only a result of ‘peaceful requests’ for people to abandon the one thing that’s constant in their lives. Giving the refugees a way to work for a home was a must more productive way of having them move and still respect them.

A bit of a spoiler ahead, so skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid it. The ending was sad to me, but it was very real. Just because they had escaped danger together and survived hardship together didn’t mean that the two were meant to be together. It was clear early on that Nadia didn’t like being dependent on Saeed and that Saeed wanted to be with someone who shared his religious convictions more than Nadia did. I didn’t see them falling apart as much as they did, but it wasn’t a surprise.

Hamid narrated the audiobook. I seem to be on a streak of this, or it’s a new trend. I thought he did a fine job. There was very little dialogue so I didn’t have any concerns about how he did female voices and he gave the story the weight it deserved. I’m not sure I’d want to hear him read other books, but he was great for this one.

There are a lot of people in Saeed and Nadia’s positions. It’s sadly common for people to be internally displaced or refugees, escaping violence somewhere they used to call home. I think books like this are important, putting faces and stories behind the large groups of people who many feel are an invasion. Why is asking for help taking anything away from us? Why can’t we help or share or make laws to help? People like Saeed and Nadia can add to a country and an economy but our governments are people don’t always see that. These stories can help.

Writer’s Takeaway: I think the minimal dialogue in this book increased its impact. It helped the story focus on Saeed and Nadia as refugees instead of their interpersonal relationships. We heard about their struggles to find a way out of Greece and didn’t focus so much on the girl who helped them. The focus was on the tenement and less on how Nadia felt about her neighbors. There was enough character development and plot to move the story along, but it was also a general story that Saeed and Nadia share with thousands, if not millions, of other refugees.

A great and timely read. I think it will do well for book club. 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 Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob (4/5)

21 May

I can’t remember how exactly I heard about this one. I think it was in a ‘new releases’ pamphlet a few years ago. Anyway, I wanted to add it to my TBR and it took me almost five years, but I finally got around to it.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob

Summary from Goodreads:

When brain surgeon Thomas Eapen decides to cut short a visit to his mother’s home in India in 1979, he sets into motion a series of events that will forever haunt him and his wife, Kamala; their intellectually precocious son, Akhil; and their watchful daughter, Amina. Now, twenty years later, in the heat of a New Mexican summer, Thomas has begun having bizarre conversations with his dead relatives and it’s up to Amina-a photographer in the midst of her own career crisis-to figure out what is really going on. But getting to the truth is far harder than it seems. From Thomas’s unwillingness to talk, to Kamala’s Born Again convictions, to run-ins with a hospital staff that seems to know much more than they let on, Amina finds herself at the center of a mystery so thick with disasters that to make any headway at all, she has to unravel the family’s painful past.

I liked the back-and-forth style Jacob used to move through time. We see Amina as a girl growing up with Akhil and then we see her as an adult visiting her parents. Both stories lead us to find out how Akhil died (this isn’t really a spoiler, it’s pretty clear from early in the book). The theme of sleepwalking, or sleeping in general, is pretty prominent. Her uncle (whose name completely escapes me) is a sleepwalker and his sleepwalking ends up causing a major and deadly accident. Akhil suffers from a sleeping disorder, and her father ends up developing one. But ultimately, the sleepwalking motif is also a theme about enjoying the time you have. For a lot of Amina’s life, she’s gone through the motions without enjoying or really taking in what is happening around her. She’s sleepwalking through life when she could be dancing through it and enjoying it to the fullest.

I adored Amina’s parents. Thomas and Kamala reminded me a bit of my parents and of my friends’ parents as well. Their speech patterns were great, like how Thomas repeated someone’s name three times when greeting them. The way they cared about their kids was very real to me. Kamala was fierce when it came to Amina and Akhil and I adored her love for them. I also liked how they’d changed when they became empty-nesters. They were more relaxed with their kids and able to enjoy being a couple again. I see that in my parents and my in-laws and I’m glad Jacob was able to capture it.

Kamala was my favorite character. She was well drawn and she had a great attitude about life. Her religious convictions were fun to read about and the way she spoke to and cared about her kids was very loving. She called them dummies all the time, but you knew she was the most kind-hearted character in the story. The way she treated Thomas through his illness was heartbreakingly beautiful. She was a woman who was kind and loving on the outside but could yell and push to get what she needed for her family. I loved the way she was drawn.

Because I’m a similar age to Amina, she was easy to relate to. I liked that we got a character around 30 who isn’t settled and happy in her career. I feel that, all too often, characters in books are wildly successful by age 30 and that seems so unrealistic. She felt more real to me because of this and I was glad to have a character I could relate to.

Mira Jacob
Image via India Today

The flashbacks to Akhil in high school were my favorite parts of the book. Seeing a boy becoming a man so quickly and seeing it through his sister’s eyes was a great way to develop his character. I enjoyed hearing about his political dealings because it felt reminiscent of high school for me; when we were 17 and out to change the world. He was full of optimism and hope. Amina watching him change was paralleled with herself at 30, who has not yet come into herself in the same way and needs a kick in the pants to be comfortable with herself.

Dimple was my least favorite character and the parts of the book with her in it disappointed me. She felt very flat to me and I didn’t think she added much to the book. She seemed like a terrible friend if I’m being honest. She pushed Amina into doing a lot of things she didn’t want to do and wasn’t very supportive when big things were happening in Amina’s life. She also kept secrets and seemed to demand a lot of attention when they were together.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Jacob. At first, I was nervous because some authors are not meant to be narrators. But Jacob really impressed me. She did great accents for her Indian characters and gave each a distinct voice and inflection so they were easy to tell apart. I hope she continues to narrate her books going forward as she has a great gift for it.

Writer’s Takeaway: It was clear to me that Jacob had some personal knowledge of being Indian in America. The story was reminiscent to me of a Jhumpa Lahiri novel and I thought the immigrant story was well done. This is a great example of ‘write what you know’ and it really shone for me.

This was a great read and I’m glad I finally got around to it. 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: Hawkes Harbor by S.E. Hinton (2/5)

20 May

S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders is probably my favorite novel of all time. I adore it each time I read it and I love the movie adaptation. I have a ring with a quote from the book. Everything about it is amazing. So when I found out Hinton had published a novel more recently, I added it to my TBR. It took years, but I finally got to it. And I’m quickly trying to forget about it.

Cover image via Goodreads

Hawkes Harbor by S.E. Hinton

Summary from Goodreads:

An orphan and a bastard, Jamie Sommers grew up knowing he had no hope of heaven. Conceived in adultery and born in sin, Jamie was destined to repeat the sins of his parents–or so the nuns told him. And he proved them right. Taking to sea, Jamie sought out danger and adventure in exotic ports all over the world as a smuggler, gunrunner–and murderer. Tough enough to handle anything, he’s survived foreign prisons, pirates, and a shark attack. But in a quiet seaside town in Delaware, Jamie discovered something that was enough to drive him insane-and change his life forever. For it was in Hawkes Harbor that Jamie came face to face with the ultimate evil…

The book started strong for me. Jamie had a rough childhood and grew up to be a bit of an outlaw but a happy guy until he sees a coworker killed for a cause he doesn’t support. The timeline jumps between his time in a mental ward and spiraling downward in New Orleans. I thought there was some connection between the drugs and alcohol abuse and his space in the ward. Then he moved to Deleware and things seemed to be OK for a while. And here’s where the book lost me. I’m going to spoil it completely so skip this review if you want to read this. There he’s attacked by a vampire and made to be his slave. Yep, no joke. A story that I thought was going to be about the perils of drug abuse and making the wrong friends is about not waking up vampires from their long slumbers. The rest of the book is Jamie trying to escape from the vampire’s grip and their almost friendship by the end. I was hoping for a while that the vampire was some kind of metaphor for Jamie’s state of mind but when I lost that hope, I stopped caring about this book. It was so far from what I loved about Hinton’s other novels, the gritty reality of growing up on the wrong side of town, that I couldn’t like it.

Before the vampire attack, Kell and Jamie seemed like very likable characters and I could picture them easily. I liked easy-going Jamie and too-smark Kell. The first half of the book was great. But when it turned Twilight-y, I was done. Jamie dissolved into a shell and Kell was killed for a quick drink.

I didn’t like any of the characters but the least likable was Louisa, the doctor treating Grenville. She was very cruel to Jamie and I didn’t understand her motivation. She was not his master and even Grenville didn’t treat him as cruelly as Louisa did. She appeared out of nowhere to be a lurking presence in the novel and I wish she’d been taken out, I don’t think she added anything to the book.

At the beginning of the book, Jamie was relatable. He had some rough times, he was a bit impulsive, but he had a good heart. Once he was bitten, I hated him. I think that change made this book kind of hard for me to read. It essentially killed off my favorite character.

S.E. Hinton Image via FixQuotes

Jamie’s stories about sailing with Kell were great. I would have read a book of just that. I liked the adventure and risk he faced. I love the water and I won’t lie, some of that life was really appealing to me. I’d love to be on the water all the time but I’m a little too settled to start now.

The ending of the book was rough for me as well. If Grenville’s curse was lifted, I would have thought he’d age. But I guess every author gets to re-write their vampire lore just a bit. I don’t like that Jamie ended up being a victim of Stockholm Syndrome. I would have thought he’d get out of there completely or never recover from it. I guess his character weakness was too much for me by then. I wanted him back to his former glory and it was never going to happen.

I can’t begin to think of what the theme for this book is. Don’t go sticking your nose somewhere a kid tells you is haunted? Tough luck if you’re attacked by a vampire? It doesn’t matter if your doctor has the best intentions? The book was so disjointed and felt like three different books so I’m not sure what to think of it or even how to critique it. It was just too much.

Writer’s Takeaway: At the beginning, Hinton was using flashbacks to build tension. We saw Jamie growing up and exploring the seas and would return to him in psychiatric care. Unsure what had landed him there, we followed him and heard him share his story with the doctors. Then he’s released and the story fell apart for me there. All the tension seemed unimportant. His adventuring had nothing to do with why he was there, he’d be bitten and had tried to save someone else but was accused of assault. The tension disintegrated and I stopped caring. If using a flashback structure, it’s important that the flashbacks are important.

This book was a huge let down for me, sad to say. Two 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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