Tag Archives: Book Review

Book Review: The Color Purple by Alice Walker (4/5)

5 Feb

I forget who recommended this to me. I’ve felt for a while like I should have read an Alice Walker book already and a little shocked that I hadn’t and if I was going to read one of her books, it should be this one. I was glad to find an ebook copy that I could check out over and over while I read it slowly. It’s always a treasure for me when I’m able to do this.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Summary from Goodreads:

Set in the deep American South between the wars, it is the tale of Celie, a young black girl born into poverty and segregation. Raped repeatedly by the man she calls ‘father’, she has two children taken away from her, is separated from her beloved sister Nettie and is trapped into an ugly marriage. But then she meets the glamorous Shug Avery, singer and magic-maker – a woman who has taken charge of her own destiny. Gradually, Celie discovers the power and joy of her own spirit, freeing her from her past and reuniting her with those she loves.

Gosh, this book was sad! It cheered up in parts, but overall, I found myself feeling bad for Celie and Nettie and every other character in it. It felt like no one had any luck at all and I wished I could have helped them in some way. I enjoyed Nettie’s story when it came into play and I found her fascinating. Her life was so different from Celie’s that it was almost unimaginable. I was so absorbed in Celie’s world that hearing about living with an African tribe seemed as foreign to me as it must have to Celie.

The characters jumped off the page to me. I believed them wholeheartedly which made it even harder to accept their bad luck and bad circumstances. I did find I had some trouble keeping the grandchildren’s generation straight. I couldn’t remember who was related to who or living with who and I stopped trying by the end. It felt like a big happy family and I think that’s what Celie was able to create.

Nettie was so easy to love. She fostered such a strong love for her sister and cared for her niece and nephew a great deal. I’m not sure if my aunts would find me adopted by another couple and volunteer to serve as a missionary in rural Africa for years just to keep an eye on me! I thought it was amazing that Nettie would make so many sacrifices for her family and she won my heart in doing so.

Sofia was the rebellious voice I think exists inside all of us. She said what she thought when she wanted to and it got her in trouble. There have been many times I wanted to say something but had to bite my tongue so I didn’t suffer the consequences like Sofia did.

Alice Walker
Image via Chartwell Speakers

Shug’s plotline was the most interesting to me. I had trouble imagining a woman like her who was so loved by so many people. She seemed too good to be true. Hearing about her relationship with Celie and how it developed was very rewarding because it was the beginning of Celie’s happiness and I started to finally think that the book could have a happy ending.

This is a bit of a spoiler, but I have to share my least favorite part. Skip this if you don’t want it ruined. Thinking Nettie had died almost broke my heart! I was so sad that Walker included that, especially when it turned out not to be true. I think I cried at work when I read it. It reminded me how poor communication was before telephones and I was just shocked that Celie could get news like that, not have it substantiated, and keep hoping that Nettie was alive. It crushed me a bit, though.

Celie had to deal with a lot. The book started when she was very young and carried her through much of her life. All the terrible things that happened to her were not compacted but rather took place again and again as she grew up. She had to keep her faith. At first, it was writing her prayers. Later, it was focusing on her sister and how much she loved her. Celie’s style of writing and communicating with those she loved kept her going even when everything seemed to be against her. This book is a triumph of the human spirit.

Writer’s Takeaway: The letter or diary style was a great way to write this book. It made Celie approachable and relatable. It allowed Walker to use her dialect and contrasted it well with Nettie’s. It also let Celie talk about intimate things in her relationship with Shug that she might not have discussed in another medium. This style is great for getting to know a character intimately.

I enjoyed the story and learned a lot about life in the time period, something I always hope for in historical fiction. Four out of Five Stars.

This book fulfilled the 1900-1919 time period for the When Are You Reading? Challenge. Per SparkNotes, the early chapters took place during the 1910s so I’ll take it.

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
Alice Walker’s The Color Purple | Lambeth Library
Alice Walker: The Color Purple | C.C.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker | Project Pulitzer
Themes in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple | Culture, Literature, and Me
Alice Walker: The Color Purple (1983) | Books, Bikes, Food

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Book Review: The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (4/5)

30 Jan

This is one of those books that I feel I would have read if I majored in English. If I’d taken a writing course, I’d have read this. But, alas, it isn’t taught in Spanish literature courses or alongside Accounting. So I missed this ageless instruction manual of writing and picked up a copy at a used book sale. I ended up listening to a reading of it but I’m glad to have a paper copy that I can reference later when I need to.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

Summary from Goodreads:

This style manual offers practical advice on improving writing skills. Throughout, the emphasis is on promoting a plain English style. This little book can help you communicate more effectively by showing you how to enliven your sentences.

I was surprised how much of this I already knew from school. I guess that means I did get a good writing education after all! Or maybe these elements are more commonly taught now and I’m nothing special. They were all good reminders and I think this is a solid reference book. It’s worth reading through every once in a while just to remember how to structure an argument or sentences in general.

I was glad there was a section on parallel phrasing. I try describing this to people all the time and it doesn’t make sense to them. Strunk had a good way to describe it so maybe I’ll just hand people a copy of this book when I tell them to use parallel phrasing in sentence structure. I also really liked Strunk’s advice about how to arrange a sentence to put emphasis on the element that’s most important. That one was new to me and I think I’ll use it.

I found the section on spelling and the one on commas a bit hard to absorb while listening. I think if I’d been reading it, I would have gotten more from those sections. The narrator I had didn’t help, he was monotone and didn’t stress the parts that were different in the example sentences.

William Strunk Jr.
Image via Goodreads

The edition I listened to was narrated by William Bridgewater. I thought he was really terrible. He pronounced some words strangely (semicolon as sem-EE-ko-LON for example) and it distracted me from the narrative. He was also very monotone and had odd inflections that were, again, distracting.

Writer’s Takeaway: This book is worth revisiting from time to time. The advice in it is really solid and at such a short length, it doesn’t take a long time to look through it for a refresher.

A great little reference book that’s probably better read than listened to. 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:
#10: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White | 1 Year, 100 Books
21 Tips from Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” | worddreams…
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White Review 3/5 | Blogs of a Bookaholic

Book Review: How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (3/5)

29 Jan

I found a copy of this book at a library book sale that is from 1964! I lent it to a friend and the pages started falling out of the binding because the glue is so old! He got it back to me with all the pages held between the covers but I decided I was better off listening to this book rather than praying I wasn’t reading it on a windy day that would take my pages away.

Cover image via Goodreads

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

Summary from Amazon

Dale Carnegie’s rock-solid, time-tested advice has carried countless people up the ladder of success in their business and personal lives. One of the most groundbreaking and timeless bestsellers of all time, How to Win Friends & Influence People will teach you:

-Six ways to make people like you

-Twelve ways to win people to your way of thinking

-Nine ways to change people without arousing resentment

And much more! Achieve your maximum potential—a must-read for the twenty-first century with more than 15 million copies sold!

I had to use the Amazon summary because my Goodreads summary was in Spanish. Is anyone else having this problem?

I really liked this book. It wasn’t the engaging reading I usually have while running, but the short stories did help keep me engaged. They were really good at demonstrating how someone could use the principles in real life. I did feel they were a bit dated, however. The version I listened to was the 1998 publication and I think that it would have felt dated even then. A lot of the advice seems like common sense, but implementing them when you’re in a tough situation isn’t common sense. It would take work to make sure your mind switched to these techniques in throes of anger or frustration.

I can see why this is such a popular book. When I think of my close friends and people at work I want to deal with, I think they fit many of the characteristics in this book. They can win someone over with ease. They’re friendly. They smile, take a genuine interest in something I’m interested in, and they aren’t bossy when they need me to do something.

Dale Carnegie
Image via Biography

I think winning someone to my way of thinking was my favorite section. I’m one who tends to argue when someone doesn’t agree with me. I am quick to anger and I can get to shouting very fast. Carnegie’s advice to get the other person saying “yes, yes” immediately is great and I like the idea of it. I’ll try to start doing this one when I have to get my husband to understand cleaning the bathroom is in his best interest.

I thought the first section on how to get people to like you was a little basic and set a lower standard for the rest of the book. The advice here, to smile, to listen, to make the other person feel important, feel like things you do to a boss you don’t actually like, not with a real friend. A friendship in this style would be very one-sided and might not be good for the person following Carnegie’s advice.

My audiobook was narrated by Andrew Macmillian. I felt he did a fair job. His accent reminded me of James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. By that, I mean it sounded ‘old time-y American.’ I’m not sure if Macmillian was going for this, as the original publication date of this book was the 1930s, or if he really speaks like that. As the examples in the book felt dated, the accent didn’t seem out-of-place.

I’m sure we’ve all run across someone, either personally or at work, that was a chore to deal with. This book seems to be written for that person, not for the Average Joe. I know someone people who could really use this advice, but on the whole, most people I know already take some or all of this to heart and are practicing at least some of Carnegie’s lessons unintentionally. It would be a really good backhanded Christmas present for that aunt that no one likes!

Writer’s Takeaway: Carnegie did a good job of illustrating his point with good examples. He drew from a wide variety of people to get good stories to illustrate each example. I’m glad these weren’t as one-sided as I thought they would be (toward dominant men in business). Though I’m not sure how much of that was edited in or included in the original.

I liked this book but didn’t find it as life-changing as I thought I would. Three 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:
How to Win Friends and Influence People – Dale Carnegie | amandanerd
How to Win Friends and Influence People: old vs. new | All Things Alicia

Book Review: Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin (3/5)

22 Jan

This book falls into the broad category of ‘books I’d never heard of until my book club picked them.’ I’m not sure this is one I would have read normally just because it sounds so sad! In reality, it wasn’t very happy but the style was so interesting that it drew me in. I was interested despite how sad the book made me.

Cover image via Goodreads

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin, translated by Chi-Young Kim.

Summary from Goodreads:

You will never think of your mother the same way after you read this book.

When sixty-nine-year-old So-nyo is separated from her husband among the crowds of the Seoul subway station, and vanishes, their children are consumed with loud recriminations, and are awash in sorrow and guilt. As they argue over the “Missing” flyers they are posting throughout the city – how large of a reward to offer, the best way to phrase the text – they realize that none of them have a recent photograph of Mom. Soon a larger question emerges: do they really know the woman they called Mom?

Told by the alternating voices of Mom’s daughter, son, her husband and, in the shattering conclusion, by Mom herself, the novel pieces together, Rashomon-style, a life that appears ordinary but is anything but.

In my typical fashion, I did not read this summary before I read the book. I didn’t know the point of view was going to rotate like it did. I think I would have still been surprised by it even having read the summary because I didn’t suspect such drastic differences. The daughter’s section was written from second person point of view. As it was the first section and then came around again at the end, I have a lasting impression of much of the book being in the second person. This is so unusual in fiction that it threw me off.

Using a family with so many kids gave the author a chance to explore different reactions to grief. Chi-hon was manic in her searching and seemed about to give up her personal life and sacrifice her career to find her mother. Hyong-chol was diligently involved at first but seemed to resign himself to having lost his mother as time went on. The father and younger sister seemed to have the same reaction, which was a petrified shock that prevented them from doing almost anything to help find her, much to the frustration of the elder sister. I felt this was al realistic and I was glad we could see so many sides of grief.

Chi-hon was my favorite character. I could understand her mania in searching for her mother and it made sense to me that she would go to the extremes she went to and be affected the way she was because of the loss. Her second-person narration pushed me away at first, but it started to draw me in soon after and I really enjoyed it.

These characters were hard for me to relate to. I’ve been fortunate not to lose anyone major in my family and the loss of a parent isn’t something I could understand well. I’ve lost some more distant family members but the sentiment is not the same. This was part of why it was hard for me to connect with this book overall.

Kyung-Sook Shin
Image via Numero Cinq

I liked how we slowly learned more about mom and realized her dementia was severe. She seemed in denial herself but the vignettes that her husband and daughter share about her make it really obvious that she had been suffering from declining cognitive function for some time. I thought that was really well done by Shin because early on, you think ‘How could she get lost?’ but then later, you start thinking ‘How could they lose her?’ My perceptive of the blame took a dramatic shift.

I really hated the part mom narrated. It felt like a ghost watching over everything and it bothered me. I didn’t like jumping from character to character and I didn’t like not getting a solid answer about where mom was. I wish the younger sister had been given a part of the book instead and that section left out.

My mom and I work at the same company and we sit in the same office. I started seeing my mom very differently when I started working there. She has working relationships and friendships, she is a good boss, and she has her own stresses. It took this for me to start seeing my mom as someone who had a life outside of our house and who might experience things I knew nothing about. That can be hard to do. Clearly, the children in this book had trouble seeing their mom as anything other than a mother. Her life was focused on her children and they didn’t care for her as a person they way they could have.

Writer’s Takeaway: I’m not sure if the POV switches are more common in Korean literature than they are in English literature, but they threw me off a bit. However, it drew me into Chi-hon’s character and made me sympathize with her. The omniscient narrator during the mother’s part was even more jarring and I wish that had been left out. Shin was bold with her stylistic choices and I think some paid off more than others.

I liked the book but some stylistic choices threw me off. Three out of Five Stars.

This book satisfies the 2000-Present time period in 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 Posts:
Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin | forthenovellovers
Review: Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin | The Book Stop
Please Look After Mother (2008) – Kyung-Sook Shin | A Novel Approach
Please Look After Mom | Willow Books

Book Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (4/5)

15 Jan

I bought a copy of this book soon after finishing Middlesex when I was in love with Eugenides. I didn’t have a huge urgency to read it, however, and the book languished on my shelf for four years before I decided to try it on audio.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Other books by Jeffrey Eugenides reviewed on this blog:

Middlesex (and book club reflection)

Summary from Goodreads:

It’s the early 1980s – the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever. In the cafés on College Hill, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to the Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels.

As Madeleine tries to understand why “it became laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about deflowering virgins in eighteenth century France,” real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead – charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Portland boy – suddenly turns up in a semiotics seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old “friend” Mitchell Grammaticus – who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange – resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.

Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this amazing, spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they learned in school. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology laboratory on Cape Cod, but can’t escape the secret responsible for Leonard’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.

This book started off a little slow for me and I was really skeptical, thinking I wasn’t going to like it. Structurally, I didn’t like it too much. The bulk of the story was told in flashbacks and that annoyed me at every turn. It was too much like this, “Here’s a time jump! Want to know how we got here? Good, because I’m going to go back and fill in the time gap I jumped to build tension.” It got on my nerves really fast. I think that’s why I can’t give the full five stars. The characters and plot were really intriguing and well researched, but the jumps killed it for me.

I loved the characters. I can tell Eugenides spent a lot of time researching manic depression to depict Leonard and Madeline’s stories. I was fascinated with Mitchell’s travels, especially in light of my plan to travel Europe this summer. I felt the Hanna’s were a bit over accommodating, but I couldn’t tell if that was a regional thing or not. Some of the aspects of Madeline’s life growing up in New Jersey were very different from my Midwestern childhood. Maybe that’s why I connected with Mitchell so much better.

It’s a tough call, but I think Mitchell was my favorite character. I thought I was going to type Madeline up until I wrote this sentence, honestly. However, Mitchell was easier to feel sorry for. Madeline seemed to have trouble standing up for herself when it mattered. She seems to be angry with Leonard over and over but be won over by small and sudden gestures. She wants to take care of him so badly that she doesn’t take care of herself and gets into a very bad situation. Mitchell, on the other hand, is searching to find himself and what he really wants. I can appreciate that in a character, even if he gets to the end of the book and hasn’t really found the answer.

It was easier to relate to Mitchell than Madeline, and not just because Mitchell is from Detroit. I found Madeline cornered, stuck into decisions that were bad for her with no way out. She had family members telling her that she was going in a bad direction and didn’t listen, going that way regardless. She needed help but Leonard was in a greater need so she got no attention. She was easy to pity.

Jeffrey Eugenides
Image via Harvard

I liked hearing about Mitchell’s time in Europe. I’ve been before and I could relate to his travels there more than India. Again, because I plan to go myself this summer, I found some escape in this part of the story. Though it’s a bit crazy how much technology has changed travel since the 1980s!

Madeline’s time on Cape Cod was really tough for me to read. She was so trapped and her dependence and her stubbornness kept here there when she really should have gotten out. It was her last chance to make a break and she couldn’t take it and felt like a nurse. I felt really bad for her.

My audiobook was narrated by David Pittu. I didn’t like the voice he used for women. It was very nasal and I thought it made them all sound whiney. Madeline’s mom was the worst, but none of them came off favorably. Other than that, I felt he did well but I wish he’d used a less affected voice for female dialogue.

The book pokes fun at its own namesake, the marriage plot. Eugenides gave an interview at the end of my audiobook where he talked about wanting to write a marriage plot after the rise of feminism and show how that movement changed the marriage plot. In the book, Madeline has a lot more power than the heroines of Brontë or Austen heroines. However, she’s still stuck in a situation she doesn’t want to be in and realizes how the dissolution of her marriage could ruin her life. I found this really fascinating when I heard the interview and I wish I’d heard it halfway through the book instead of at the end. It would have been too many spoilers at the beginning, though.

Writer’s Takeaway: The flashback structure really ruined this book for me. Starting on the last day of college and flashing back through the four previous years was a bad way to start. Having Madeline wake up at home and flashing back to her engagement and honeymoon was even worse. This is something I’ll have to work at avoiding in my writing.

A bit slow, but a great set of characters and good pacing (besides the flashbacks). Four out of Five Stars.

This is my first book of the year and, consequently, my first book for the When Are You Reading? Challenge 2018, fulfilling the 1980-1999 time period.

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 Review No. 31- The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides | Vishy’s Blog
Book Review – The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides | Realizing Grace
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides | Friends of Atticus

Book Review: The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester (3/5)

2 Jan

I’d seen this title around a few times but I don’t think I’d even read the subtitle before my book club selected it for the January book. It has been a while since I read some nonfiction so I was happy to pick this up at the end of December and enjoy a true story. I read through it faster than I thought I would and really enjoyed it.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

Summary from Goodreads:

It is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters. The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions. But hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious story–a story of two remarkable men whose strange twenty-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking.

Professor James Murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, was one of the thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. But Minor was no ordinary contributor. He was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat, handwritten quotations from his home in the small village of Crowthorne, fifty miles from Oxford. On numerous occasions, Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but Murray’s offer was regularly–and mysteriously–refused.

Thus the two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence. Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor–that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane–and locked up in Broadmoor, England’s harshest asylum for criminal lunatics.

This was a story I never knew I wanted to know. The process of putting together a dictionary in Murray’s time is astounding. Doing it all by hand and looking up source quotes the way they did is impressive and so time-consuming that it’s no wonder the project took so many years. Minor’s condition is equally fascinating. That a man can appear so educated and calm and suffer from such extreme delusions wasn’t something I’d heard of before. Minor was obviously a very smart man suffering from a very extreme mental illness. Hearing how it was treated was an interesting read as well.

Winchester never tried to tie a personality to the men that he couldn’t derive from letters and medical records. In that way, he attacked this project much like Minor and Murray attached the dictionary project. From that material, he found their personalities and brought it forward. Murray was very studious and Minor, in his own way, was as well.

Minor was fascinating to read about. Having lived in the asylum for so long, there was a lot of background on him and his condition that Winchester was able to draw from. I loved the descriptions of his accommodations. It almost sounded like my ideal study! That tied with the details of his night terrors kept me fascinated.

Murray faced a huge, almost insurmountable challenge in the OED. While I’ve never faced a similarly large task, his determination was something I could relate to. When I’m assigned a work task or school task, I tend to attack it like I’m attacking Mt. Everest. I come up with a plan, pass out assignments, and put my nose to the grindstone until it’s done. Murray’s determination to see the dictionary finished was a strategy I could see myself taking on.

Simon Winchester
Image via Anderson’s Bookshop

If it’s not clear, I enjoyed the account of Minor living in the asylum best. It must have given Winchester a lot of source material because it was so detailed. In contrast, I felt his account of Minor in America and Murray were a bit vague. Especially with the fascinating source material, I thought this section was very well written.

I felt there was a lot less about the writing of the dictionary than I would have liked. Winchester talks briefly about the system or sorting and storing the slips of paper with definitions and quotations and talks about the history of dictionaries quite a bit. With the title of the book, I was hoping for a bit more on how the typesetting and decisions of what words to include were done.

Sometimes, we have to separate a thing from those who created it. There are beautiful buildings that were built or designed by terrible people. Take Disney World for instance. Or Ford Motor Company. These people led lives that would be deplorable to many people who work for or patronize those companies. But we separate them. We have to separate Minor and his illness from the amazing feats he accomplished and the work he did for the OED.

Writer’s Takeaway: There were very well researched parts and parts where Winchester said he was extrapolating based on what he could find. I appreciated this. Sometimes, the extrapolation is where all the fun is and I appreciated seeing what Winchester believed might have happened and knowing that it was a guess. I sometimes wish there was more of this in narrative non-fiction.

The book was enjoyable and fun though still a little dry in spots. 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 Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester | Pages Unbound Reviews
Book Review: Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman | The Editor and the Beast
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester | Booked All Week
The Professor and the Madman | I Know What You Should Read

Book Review: Persona Non Grata by Ruth Downie (4/5)

19 Dec

I knew after I read the second book in this series that I would continue with it. These books are too fun to pass up. I’d gotten a copy of this one from a library book sale and it looks like not many people borrowed it before it was withdrawn. I’m lucky there are copies of all books in this series on Goodreads so I can enjoy them so readily!

Cover image via Goodreads

Persona Non Grata (Medicus Investigation #3) by Ruth Downie

Other books by Ruth Downie reviewed on this blog:

Terra Incognita (Medicus Investigation #2)

Summary from Goodreads:

At long last, Gaius Petreius Ruso and his companion, Tilla, are headed home—to Gaul. Having received a note consisting only of the words “COME HOME!” Ruso has (reluctantly, of course) pulled up stakes and brought Tilla to meet his family.

But the reception there is not what Ruso has hoped for: no one will admit to sending for him, and his brother Lucius is hoping he’ll leave. With Tilla getting icy greetings from his relatives, Lucius’s brother-in-law mysteriously drowned at sea, and the whole Ruso family teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, it’s hard to imagine an unhappier reunion. That is, until Severus, the family’s chief creditor, winds up dead, and the real trouble begins…

The comedy in these books is what keeps bringing me back. I love the sarcasm and backhanded way Downie insults her characters. Ruso builds himself up and tears himself down all the time and it’s so amusing to watch. I’ve also enjoyed the evolution of Tilla and I look forward to seeing what comes next from the pair. I liked the change in setting for this one. Seeing Ruso in Gaul and how uncomfortable he is in his own home made me long for Britania like Tilla. The mystery was well done and I liked all the subplots that kept this story going.

Ruso’s step-mother, Arria, and his sisters seemed unrealistic to me. Well, to be more precise, I could see how Marcia turned out the way she is if she was raised by Arria. I don’t understand how Arria became the way she is. With the fighting described between Ruso and her when he was younger, I don’t see how that led her down a path to turn into such a self-absorbed woman reliant on her step-sons. She made for some funny scenes, but she had me scratching my head, too.

Tilla is an easy favorite character in this series. She’s very modern though she’s set in ancient Rome. Her ideas of independence and a woman’s ability to speak up and do things for herself make her relatable. She’s funny and smart and it’s easy to see why Ruso likes her. I wish she’d had a bigger role in this book, it wasn’t as much as she was involved in the last mystery.

Ruso’s narration is so relatable. He expresses exasperation and disgust at the same things I do as a reader so I’m always laughing or groaning or smirking along with him. I really want to meet Downie and see if she’s this funny in real life or if it comes out when she edits. I hope it’s genuine.

Ruth Downie
Image via the author’s website

I thought the gladiator section was really interesting. It shared a lot of different opinions on the sport and the role Ruso played in it was rather neutral so we could see all of those sides. The descriptions were, of course, gruesome but also showed the reasons some of those men volunteered to go into the arena.

There wasn’t a part I enjoyed less than the rest of the book, but I wish Tilla had a bigger role. This book had a major focus on Ruso because his family was so involved in the plot. I hope when they return to Britania that Tilla can take on a bigger role.

The audiobook was narrated by Simon Vance and I thought he was perfect. He did a good variety of voices for the characters and I never felt his female voice was at all offensive, grating, or annoying. He had a wide variety of voices, too, and his inflection for Ruso’s internal thoughts was great.

These books don’t have much in terms of themes or morals to take away. If anything, it would be that you can always go home, but you might not want to. Poor Ruso. I bet he can’t wait to get back to the army.

Writer’s Takeaway: Downie has a strong understanding of her time period and she weaves it into the story so well that it barely sticks out. It’s a pleasure to read. Her humor is what always brings me back. She keeps me laughing along with Ruso and Tilla and rolling my eyes at Arria and moaning when Marcia rushes in. I just love it!

This is a great book and I really recommend this series. 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: Singing My Him Song by Malachy McCourt (3/5)

18 Dec

Oh my gosh, I’ve been using the wrong title for this book since I started reading it! It’s Singing MY HIM Song, not Singing HIM MY Song! I feel so silly. Well, it’s all straightened out now so please enjoy and I’ve corrected everything before posing. Phew!

I wanted to read this book when I found out Malachy was the brother of Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes. I wonder how many other readers picked it up for the same reason. While Frank is a character in Malachy’s book, it’s not at all about growing up with Frank or any kind of companion to Angela’s Ashes, which I was kind of hoping for. It’s a memoir of Malachy’s adult life and, to be honest, he’s not very likable.

Cover image via Goodreads

Singing My Him Song by Malachy McCourt

Summary from Goodreads:

Malachy McCourt, bestselling author of A Monk Swimming, shares the extraordinary story of how he went from living the headlong and heedless life of a world-class drunk to becoming a sober, loving father and grandfather, still happily married after thirty-five years.

Bawdy and funny, naked and moving, told in the same inimitable voice that left readers all over the world wondering what happened next in A Monk Swimming, Singing My Him Song is “told with the frankness and honesty for which McCourt has become renowned.”

Maybe it was McCourt’s previous novel I really wanted to read, but I ended up with this one instead. It started with him in New York as a young man and moved through his relationships, career, family, and ended in his older years. I never would have guessed that he had been through so much and achieved what he did, but I also had trouble reading about it. The book jumped around a lot and plot threads were dropped and then picked up again 50 pages later which made it a hard one to read. McCourt tried to stick to one thread at a time, like his acting career, but that made his journey to sobriety seem jumpy. When he focused on that, his familiar relationships confused me. I wish it had been a bit more organized.

I felt McCourt was very fair to the people he portrayed in the book. I’m not sure how true he was to himself, but I didn’t like him and he seemed like a pretty unlikable guy for most of his life. If that’s true, then he covered it pretty well. I felt bad for Diana and his children and I thought Diana was really strong to put up with Malachy’s spotty career and absences. She was easily my favorite character and I’m glad he included her and didn’t skimp on how poor a husband he was for many years. Seeing that she was hard on him made me like her even more.

Malachy is so different from me that it was hard to relate to him. I would have a hard time coping with the spotty work he had and all the moving he did. Traveling for work would be fine, but I’d need it to be consistent. I’ve also never struggled with addiction which I think shaped a lot of McCourt’s personality so that was hard to relate to as well.

Malachy McCourt
Image via NJ.com

I thought the parts about Nina were really sweet. He cared a lot for her and I thought the extent he went to make sure she was happy was admirable. Even if they went without, Nina was cared for. He always includes her on his list of children (final paragraphs and about the author section). I thought the political campaigning they did for the care of the mentally handicapped could have been highlighted even more. During a time I didn’t like Malachy in the book, this was the one thing I held onto, thinking he really wasn’t that bad.

I almost put the book down at the beginning when Malachy was talking about opening and running bars. I thought it was really dull and it made the book hard to get into. Thankfully I was on a plane and had little choice. I’m glad I got through that but I would have preferred he started with his addiction. It’s clear he was addicted to alcohol during that time of his life and I think it would have drawn me in more as a reader rather than a list of bars he worked at.

 

Even someone who screwed up as much as Malachy was forgiven in the end. Diana had to think about it for a long time and I don’t think anyone would have blamed her if she didn’t want to be with him anymore. But he repented, gave up his bad habits, and was finally accepted back and became a part of his children’s’ lives. I think seeing his father toward the end of his life helped put this in perspective for Malachy. I would hope it doesn’t take that much for everyone in his position.

Writer’s Takeaway: I read this whole book with an Irish accent and right now, I’m thinking in one as I try to write about it. The sentence structure led me to this, but there were a few words Malachy used that were informal and made this easy as well. Instead of ‘said’ he used ‘sez’ and refers to his mother as ‘the Angela.’ These were small colloquialisms but they really set the mood of the book and I really enjoyed them.

The book was good but the organization made it hard to like. 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!

Book Review: This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman (4/5)

14 Dec

It was right after I read We Need to Talk About Kevin and Defending Jacob that I decided I wanted to read this book. I think the relationship between parent and child when something goes terribly wrong is a unique look at familial relationships.

Cover image via Goodreads

This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman

Summary from Goodreads:

The events of a single night shatter one family’s sense of security and identity in this provocative and deeply affecting domestic drama from Helen Schulman, the acclaimed author of A Day at the Beach and Out of Time. In the tradition of Lionel Shriver, Sue Miller, and Laura Moriarty, Schulman crafts a brilliantly observed portrait of parenting and modern life, cunningly exploring our most deeply-held convictions and revealing the enduring strengths that emerge in the face of crisis.

It sounds weird to say I really enjoyed this book, but I did. I didn’t enjoy what happened to them because it was terrible, but the way it was writing about was really engaging for me. I liked how Schulman explored each character, letting Jake, Liz, and Richard all share how they were dealing with their tragedy. I liked all the bad, dirty details about how Liz felt drawn to a stranger more than her family, how Richard took solace in running, and how Jake was betrayed by friends and family.

I thought the reactions were very credible. I’ve never been in a similar situation or known someone who was (thankfully) but I have to imagine it would be a different experience for each person. I thought the ways they each dealt with the pain and loneliness of the situation was realistic and I thought the situation itself was very believable. I could see it happening in my hometown.

Jake was my favorite character. Probably because I’ve been a teenager in a petty school, I could understand what was happening to him. High school always blows the smallest things out of proportion so that people do dumb things. Being perceived as older was always important, feeling that being sexually active was important, all of these things were part of high school and, in retrospect, are so stupid. I understood why it happened, I understood why he did what he did, and I could feel his pain.

Helen Schulman
Image via the New York Times

I thought the final chapter was very telling. I don’t think this ruins the book much, so if you plan to read it, this paragraph should still be safe. Daisy’s reaction was missing from most of this book so ending with her seemed appropriate. I thought it was so perfect how little she seemed to care about the privilege she was currently living and how much she wrote off genuine care from another person. She was so self-centered. The reader got a peek at that when she was signing autographs, but the fact that it stuck with her until she was in college, the fact that she didn’t see anything wrong with her behavior, that was so telling.

Liz’s downward spiral was the hardest for me to read and understand. She felt like she’d failed as a parent and at her goals, I get that. Why she fixated on an ex-boyfriend and why she neglected Coco, that I don’t understand. She tried to turn things around at the end of the book, but it was a bit too late then and something was going to give.

Everyone responds differently when faced with challenges. This book talked about the different ways we deal with grief and how much a small decision can affect so many lives. Daisy wasn’t really affected but Jake and his family were devastated. Maybe Coco would escape, but Jake, Richard, and Liz’s lives were changed forever.

Writer’s Takeaway: I’m not normally a fan of jumping between characters but I loved it in this book. I thought it was a lot more impactful that we got to see inside so many people’s heads. I’m glad Schulman waited until the end to have Daisy speak, though. That would have been a bit much. I’m glad she kept it to the core family, the consistency helped and didn’t make this tactic overwhelming.

This was a great book and I’m so glad I read 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: The Book of Fate by Brad Meltzer (3/5)

7 Dec

When I met Brad Meltzer last year, I bought several of his books to have them signed. Since then, I’ve slowly started going through the large stack which is being made faster by audiobooks. This one was a doozy! It’s just over 500 pages in the hardcover I have and sixteen hours of audio. On the upside, this was my 50th book of the year and helped me wrap up my reading goal for the year!

Cover image via Goodreads

The Book of Fate by Brad Meltzer

Other books by Brad Meltzer reviewed on this blog:

The Inner Circle (Book Club Reflection)
The Book of Lies

Summary from Goodreads:

“Six minutes from now, one of us would be dead. None of us knew it was coming.”

So says Wes Holloway, a young presidential aide, about the day he put Ron Boyle, the chief executive’s oldest friend, into the president’s limousine. By the trip’s end, a crazed assassin would permanently disfigure Wes and kill Boyle. Now, eight years later, Boyle has been spotted alive. Trying to figure out what really happened takes Wes back into disturbing secrets buried in Freemason history, a decade-old presidential crossword puzzle, and a two-hundred-year-old code invented by Thomas Jefferson that conceals secrets worth dying for.

This book was what I expected it to be. There were presidential secrets, a lot of traveling around, fights, deaths, and enough twists to keep me guessing. If you’re a political thriller fan, this is a good book for you. Unfortunately, this isn’t my favorite genre and some of the things I look for in a book were missing. There wasn’t much of an arc for Wes. (He slightly overcame his fears but it was so forced it didn’t feel like growth.) There weren’t any relationships that developed between the characters in a meaningful way. (I felt the relationship with Lisbeth was a bit sudden.) I enjoyed the book, to be sure, in the same way I’d enjoy watching an action movie. It can be well done but not what I’d really want to be watching.

It’s hard to say the characters were credible because they were put into situations where it’s hard to know how any person would react. These people led very public lives as well. Dreidel is a sleazebag, to be sure, and I don’t know if that makes him more believable. It does seem true to modern politics, though.

Rogo was my favorite character. I thought the loyalty he had to Wes was admirable and he had a distinct personality which helped him stand out from so many of the government-employed characters. (A lot of them were really flat.) I wish his intelligence and law knowledge had come into play more, though. Even if he’s fighting traffic tickets, he still had to pass the bar exam! He was comedic, which was nice, but his job didn’t have to be a lawyer if it wasn’t going to be utilized.

With such high profiles and such extreme circumstances, it’s hard for me to relate to any of these characters. In particular, I didn’t relate to Lisbeth. I felt her involvement in the case was a huge risk to herself and there was a very little reward in it for her. If I had to pick someone, I’d say I related to Wes. He was almost married to his job and I’ve felt that way sometimes with work. Though I can’t say I’d go to the life-threatening extremes Wes did to understand what was happening around the office!

Brad Meltzer and me

I thought the ending in the graveyard was great. It was fast-paced, had a great twist (that I want to say but won’t) and gave a satisfactory ending. I also appreciate (‘like’ seems to be the wrong word) when characters are actually hurt in a fight. I think too often heroes walk away from a fight without a scratch when they really would not have been able to do so. Lisbeth got hurt and I think that if she hadn’t, the scene would have been very unrealistic.

Boyle’s son bothered me a lot. What happened to him?! I might have missed it, but I don’t think we ever find out. If we do, let me know, I’m dying here trying to find it in the book. I thought the wrap-up with his character was really weak and I wish the last few chapters had focused on him just a little bit more.

The audiobok was narrated by Scott Brick. I think he did an amazing job. Flipping through the book now, I see how many ‘sound’ words Meltzer included and looking through the pages, it’s almost distracting. I never noticed that with Brick’s narration. He also did well differentiating voices with such a heavily-male cast. It must have been a stretch to find different ways to represent so many voices!

Appearances were never what they seemed in this book. President Manning looked cowardly in the picture taken of him at the racetrack when he was in fact trying to help. I think there were many instances of that in the book. Dreidel looked like an upstanding person but had some personal baggage. Boyle appeared to be dead but wasn’t. And the person who ended up being key in the whole thing (again, holding my tongue), was someone you never would have expected. Wes could trust Rogo, but there were few others who deserved that trust.

Writer’s Takeaway: I always admire in trhrillers that the author has the ability to surprise me up to the end. Meltzer is great at that and I’ve seen it in several of his books. I hope that I can surprise my readers even on the last page in books I write.

This was a good book, and well written, though not a genre I’m particularly fond of. 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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The Book of Fate by Brad Meltzer | The Book Pedler