Tag Archives: Book Review

Book Review: American by Day by Derek B. Miller (4/5)

21 Jan

I wanted to read a book off my list and after running through the stacks for ten minutes, I finally picked up this book. I’d read the first in the series with my book club a few years ago and while I knew there was a sequel, I hadn’t made it a priority though I’m glad I’ve finally gotten to it.

Cover image via Goodreads

American by Day (Sigrid Ødegård #2) by Derek B. Miller

Other books by Miller reviewed on this blog:

Norwegian by Night (and Book Club Reflection)

Summary from Goodreads:

SHE KNEW IT WAS A WEIRD PLACE. She’d heard the stories, seen the movies, read the books. But now police Chief Inspector Sigrid Ødegård has to leave her native Norway and actually go there; to that land across the Atlantic where her missing brother is implicated in the mysterious death of a prominent African-American academic. AMERICA.

Sigrid is plunged into a United States where race and identity, politics and promise, reverberate in every aspect of daily life. Working with—or, if necessary, against—the police, she must negotiate the local political minefields and navigate the backwoods of the Adirondacks to uncover the truth before events escalate further.

I love not reading summaries so that books have a better chance of surprising me as this one did. I figured it would take place in the States but that’s all I had to go on. Marcus was a surprise. Irv was a surprise. The racial tensions were a huge surprise. I wasn’t expecting it but it made a lot of sense. For Sigrid, Norwegian by Night had a lot of xenophobic consequences. Did she shoot someone because he was different from her where she might have made allowances or excuses for someone more like herself? This book took that theme and ran with it into a beautiful story that I really loved.

The characters and their emotions drove the story wonderfully. Sigrid’s confusion and determination amazed me throughout the book and I loved reading from her point of view. Marcus’s sadness permeated his entire character and I thought his ending was wonderful and I can’t imagine it wrapping up any other way. Irv blew me away and I went from hating him to loving him throughout the book. Miller’s ability to create characters with a full range of emotions was really enjoyable.

Sigrid was an amazing character and easy to love. She was smart and determined. It was clear she had some internal struggles with where she was in her life but she was also very proud of her career and what she’d been able to accomplish in her life. I liked that she didn’t flash her knowledge around even though she was the smartest person in the room a lot of the time.

Melinda was easy to relate to. Having grown up in the US, she’s almost immune to the racial violence in our country and she’s not involved in politics and hasn’t been on the force long enough for her to think about it. I feel a lot of Americans are in the same boat and are almost blind to the violence in our country until it hits them over the head.

Derek B. Miller
Image via Facebook

Sigrid and Melinda’s time together was my favorite part of the book. Sigrid had so much to teach Melinda and Melinda was such a willing pupil that it felt like a great mentorship was taking place. I loved Sigirid’s patience and how she was able to show Melinda that she could be successful and lead in a position she never considered before. Female mentorships like that are so powerful.

The jumps to Sigrid’s father seemed unnecessary to me. He didn’t add anything to the book unless Sigrid was with him. Seeing him around his house, looking at old mementos seemed like a filler until we were back to Sigrid and Irv.

The book talked a lot about institutionalized racism and Sigrid created a great sounding board for talking about the issue in America. She had similar misgivings about what she’d done in Norway but when she saw the way the issue was addressed in the US, she realized her issues were small in comparison. I’m not saying they’re insignificant but smaller. With an outsider’s view, she was able to express stark opinions about the state of police violence against minority communities. This book addressed the issue as it affected a small town; it would be amplified in a large city but the small setting let Miller dig into the issue more. I liked how he was able to address this.

Writer’s Takeaway: This book is funny without telling you it’s funny. Sigrid’s comments are hilarious but they’re never emphasized so if you’re looking for a crime novel, this isn’t bogged down with humor. But if you’re like me and looking for a book that’s a great mix of crime, literary character development, and humor, you can bust a gut with it and really enjoy it. Humor is great in almost any genre and I think this showed that well.

A really enjoyable read from an author I hope to read more from. Four out of Five Stars.

This book fulfills the 2000-Present 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 Post:
Derek B. Miller- American by Day | Raven Crime Reads

Book Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (5/5)

20 Jan

I wish I’d read this book before I heard Lee speak at the Midwest Literary Walk. Now that I’ve finished it, I want to ask her so many questions. And I think I would have understood her talk about the book better. I’ll have to try harder to read the books in advance for 2020.

Cover image via Goodreads

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Summary from Goodreads:

In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant–and that her lover is married–she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home, and to reject her son’s powerful father, sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.

I didn’t expect a 600-page book to read so quickly. I adored every page of this book and the amazing story of Sunja. I loved jumping from generation to generation, person to person, and story to story as we saw how the Koreans in Japan were treated and how they were able to overcome their circumstances as best as possible to make a life. It’s incredible to think about how they made it through with the deck stacked against them. The drama was just enough to keep me going when the page count was keeping me down.

The characters were amazing. I was always impressed when the new characters were so different from the ones whose stories faded. I loved hearing about Soloman as much as I liked hearing about Kyunghee. The lives these people lived were incredibly deep and their personalities were well illustrated. I believed they were all real.

Noa was my favorite character. His life was so complex and he had a lot to think about and gave the reader a lot to ponder. He is so smart and I think that drove him to overthink everything that happened to him and around him. Like a true literature major, he had to analyze things and search for meaning in his life so he could figure out a purpose. When he tried to run away, it broke my heart. I adored him so much. It was great that we saw him grow up through the novel as well. We really see his whole life through.

I related to the women in this book. It often feels like a woman has to bear her sadness with a stoic face and I think that’s a truth universally and for much of history. Women have to make due very often and sometimes under incredible circumstances. I’ve seen that in my life and I saw it in this book.

Me and Min Jin Lee

Sunja and Kyunghee’s industrious business work was my favorite part of the book. They were forced to work so hard to care for their families and they were so resilient to anything that threatened to keep them down. They were so brave and admirable and I loved reading about how determined they were to make good lives for Noa and Muzasu.

The plotline with Yoseb was hard for me to read. He changed so much after his accident that I almost didn’t believe it. Seeing him so angry and Kyunghee kowtowed was hard. When he would come up, I kept hoping the narrating character would get away from him as fast as possible.

Familial love and devotion are huge themes in this book. Sunja goes to amazing lengths to protect Noa from the truth and raise him as a Korean son. She’s thwarted many times along the way but tries her hardest to do what is right. Mozasu’s love for Soloman is a good parallel. He gives his son everything possible in his childhood but can’t protect him for everything which comes back to bite him.

Writer’s Takeaway: Lee does a great job of keeping a story burning. Her big revelations and plot points are far enough apart to keep you on the edge of your seat without being overwhelmed and balancing a slow plot with deep emotional connection. And nothing was predictable; bad things kept happening to characters I loved. That made it feel very real.

An amazing book and I’d recommend it to anyone. Five out of Five Stars.

This book counts for the 1940-1959 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:
Review of Pachinko by Min Jin Lee | The Book Stop
Review: Pachinko | The Literary Elephant
A deeply moving story of family and love: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee | Ayunda Bhuwana
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee | The Next Book on the Shelf

Book Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys (3/5)

13 Jan

I think this was the first Sepetys book I added to my TBR. I ended up reading Out of the Easy first and I’m still trying to figure out if I would have liked this more or less if I’d read it first. They were very different and I think I’m going to say Sepetys has gotten better. This was a fine first novel, but I think she had more to develop.

Cover image via Goodreads

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Other books by Sepetys reviewed on this blog:

Out of the Easy

Summary from Goodreads:

Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they’ve known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin’s orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.

Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously–and at great risk–documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father’s prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives. Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.

I kept waiting for something more in this book. It was a horrible story of suffering and oppression, a lot like reading Survival in Auschwitz or visiting the Anne Frank museum. I had no idea that these things happened under Russian rule to the Baltic states. For that reason alone, I’m glad I read this book and learned more about human history and human cruelty that cannot be repeated. However, I read this story as a piece of fiction and on that front, it failed me. Lina and Jonas were very flat characters to me. There wasn’t much to their personalities. As such, I would have expected this to be a more plot-driven novel, but there wasn’t a lot of plot to it because the main theme was survival. The ending was a disappointment to me. After building so long, the last chapter/epilogue summed up everything very quickly. I didn’t feel it was an adequate ending for such a long build-up. It didn’t work for me as a story. Had it been a non-fiction memoir, I wouldn’t have had this problem, but I’m looking at it as fiction.

Their mother, Elena, was the most fleshed-out character to me. She did a lot of things that weren’t logical or in her best interest because she was a good person and wanted to set a good example for her children. It bothered me a little that she was always giving away food to others when I wanted her to keep herself and her children safe more than anything. But I realize she saw the humanity in everyone and saw survival as a group effort. She was a good character and went against the grain of the others which made her stand out.

Andrius was my favorite character. He had to go through a lot more emotionally than Lina and I was glad to know he somehow had a happy ending of some kind. Knowing that something had happened to his mother, I think he felt a sense of needing to be a man at a young age. At the same time, being a man would have meant he was separated from his mother and he had to submit to his mother’s care of him by pretending that he was mentally handicapped. When he thought he was out of the woods, his mother has to defile herself to save him. He was emasculated from a young age and I think his relationship with Lina was a saving grace for him when he needed it. There was a lot more depth to him than I felt in many other characters.

These characters were not easy to relate to. Their life situation was very extreme and the book focused on survival. I’m fortunate not to have ever lived in a survive-or-die situation. The things that tied them back to their earlier life like their father and Lina’s art were relatable, but they were such a small portion of the story that I found it harder to connect with the characters.

Ruta Sepetys
Image via the Between Shades of Gray website

The time in the Russian work camp was the most interesting to me. Getting to it was a bit repetitive and the Arctic camp was dreary and you knew it was going to go on forever. But the Russian camp was interesting. There was a power dynamic between the prisoners and the guards that had to be developed and overcome and I appreciated how it was played out. I liked Kretzsky’s development as well. He was clearly torn between pity and hate and fluctuated believably. I could see that he was trying to help and it bothered me at times that Lina couldn’t see it.

The last part, the Arctic camp, was a bit too much for me. It was so dreary and depressing that I disengaged from the story. When it didn’t have a definitive ending, leaving it up to the reader to imply years of suffering, I was even more frustrated. I felt like the book needed a different epilogue, a chance for Lina, Jonas, and Andrius to have a respite, a moment to appreciate what they finally got away from. The open ending didn’t sit well with me.

The audiobook was narrated by Emily Klein. I have mixed feelings about her narration. I thought she gave good voices to the mix of characters and expressed their concern, desperation, and compassion well. However, I think her portrayal of Lina was a bit mixed. Many times, she seemed younger than she was because of the innocence Klein put into her voice. I felt Jonas existed to show a loss of innocence but Lina was old enough that her transformation from child to a woman should have been less of an extreme but Klein made it seem very drastic.

I will always be impressed with human endurance. But when it happens at the hands of other humans, it’s a tragedy. This book shows us that the atrocities of World War II were more pervasive than we sometimes realize and it opened my eyes to a tragedy I didn’t know about. People will endure horrible things and their stories come to light to share these amazing and horrible stories but we have to be ready to listen and react to make sure they never happen again.

Writer’s Takeaway: The ending was my biggest issue with this book. I have a book that jumps twenty years in the end and I’m very careful to have an arc for the characters that’s mostly complete before the time jump. I didn’t feel that the characters in this book had an ending before the epilogue. Their story never ended and it didn’t feel like a complete book to me. I wish we’d gotten a scene of Jonas and Lina returning home or Lina and Andrius being reunited to give those characters closure because the book felt too open-ended to me.

Enjoyable but with an unsatisfying ending. 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:
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys | ReadersCornerBlog
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Between Shades of Gray – Ruta Sepetys | Lorannkay
Week 3: Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys | Once Upon a Bookshelf
Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys | A Page of Heaven

Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (3/5)

9 Jan

This book rounded out my unintentional jail series. While none of the speakers in the book went to jail, Michael being released from prison was a major focus of the book so I think it should qualify. I think this is the last in my mini-series but we’ll see. My book club has a knack for prison books lately.

Cover image via Goodreads

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Summary from Goodreads:

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. There was something in it that just didn’t click with me. I’m not sure if it was the audio or the text. I liked the characters and I thought Leonie was especially well described. I think it was the elements of magical realism that were just a bit too much for me (similar to my complaints with The Mortifications). I liked the plot and the way Kayla, Jojo, and Leonie interacted, but when Jojo and Leonie started seeing people, I was a little too skeptical to be swept away. I did like the family unit that was picked apart in this book. Leonie was not the ideal daughter but in her mind, she was still a good mother like her mother had been to her. Having Jojo’s perspective and getting to see what he thought about his mother created good contrast.

Ward created very real characters. The ways she described the characters addicted to drugs was especially powerful. You felt bad for them, they couldn’t help their addictions. The faults in child-rearing and absenteeism were explained away and weren’t their fault. It helped you see how an addict can be out of control and how they don’t view themselves as at fault. Leonie is both sympathetic and culpable which makes the reader struggle with how to feel about her.

Jojo was my favorite character. He came off as much older than he was because of the rough environment he was brought up in and how he had to deal with having a mother who was absent so often. The way he spoke to Kayla was learned from his grandparents who taught him to be a man and a father much too young. Pop was put in a hard place when it came to Jojo and I think he did a great job raising him to be a smart and sensitive boy.

I didn’t relate well to any of the characters and I think that’s what kept me from enjoying the book more. I’m fortunate not to have any addicts in my life that I could compare with Leonie. I’ve never had someone close to me go to jail, either. I’m lucky not to have any severe racists in my family like Big Joseph. I’ve never seen ghosts. The only part that felt somewhat relatable was the long-distance feeling between Leonie and Michael. Their time apart reminded me a bit of when my husband (then boyfriend) and I were living in different states. The way you feel when you see someone you love after so long can’t be compared to many other emotions.

Jesmyn Ward
Image via The Guardian

Leonie’s story was my favorite which surprised me. I didn’t think I’d have a lot of sympathy for the drug-addicted mother but I did. I felt bad for her when she’d see her brother and felt guilty for loving Michael because of his relation to her brother’s killers. I liked how she tried to use her mother’s teachings to help Kayla when she was sick. I felt bad for her that she thought she needed to move drugs to pay for the gas to get her boyfriend from jail. She struck a sympathetic chord with me I didn’t expect and I really liked her in the end.

A lot of Leonie and Jojo’s stories involved the people they saw. The ghosts, you may say. I didn’t like it. I could deal with Leonie seeing her dead brother when she was high, but Jojo seeing his grandpa’s old friend was a bit too much for me. I didn’t like that getting his grandpa’s hard past to light was such a big moment for the book, I thought it took the focus too much away from Jojo and I wanted to focus on him more because he was such an interesting character.

The audiobook was narrated by three people: Rutina Wesley, Chris Chalk, Jr., and Kelvin Harrison. If I’m being honest, I couldn’t tell a difference between the two male narrators, so I can’t say much about their narrations. Wesley was very good. I wonder how much her reading affected my sympathy for Leonie. She gave great weight to Leonie’s voice and made her more sympathetic. She didn’t sound like the stereotypical drug addict. She was profound and philosophical, not things I would normally associate with someone in Leonie’s place. I wanted to hug her so badly!

The role of family in the character’s life was complicated. Pop was more of a father to Jojo than his biological father and his paternal grandfather wanted nothing to do with him. Michael and Leonie weren’t married but they were more important to each other than either of their blood relatives. Leonie’s inability to be a mother tore a rift in her family and Michael wasn’t sure how to fix it. By the end, I wasn’t sure he wanted to.

Writer’s Takeaway: There’s no denying that the writing in this book was incredible. I might not have liked all the elements Ward used in it, but the lyricism of her writing and the similies she wrote were amazing. I want my writing to feel as rich as this. You understood how the characters felt and the well of emotions they were struggling to keep bottled for the whole book. The anger and frustration in them were really well done.

I liked the writing, but not the story as much. 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:
Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward | Savidge Reads
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Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing – TLS | Nothing is Lost

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

31 Dec

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

Cover image via Goodreads

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

Summary from Goodreads:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mackenzi Lee
Image via HarperCollins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, write on.

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

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The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue | Book Princess Reviews
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Review: “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue” by Mackenzi Lee | MadReviews

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

30 Dec

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

Cover image via Goodreads

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

Summary from Goodreads:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mikita Brottman
Image via the Baltimore Sun

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

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

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

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

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

Overall enjoyable and informative. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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

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

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

23 Dec

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

Cover image via Goodreads

Not Without My Daughter by Betty Mahmoody

Summary from Goodreads:

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

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

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

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

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

Betty Mahmoody
Image via YouTube

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, write on.

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

Related Posts:
Not Without My Daughter | womenofattic

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

19 Dec

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

Cover image via Goodreads

The Mortifications by Derek Palacio

Summary from Goodreads:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derek Palacio
Image via the author’s website

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, write on.

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

Related Posts:
ARC: The Mortifications by Derek Palacio | Poppy Reads Alot
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Book Review: Eastbound From Flagstaff by Annette Valentine (3/5)

17 Dec

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

Cover image via Goodreads

Eastbound from Flagstaff by Annette Valentine

Summary from Goodreads:

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

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

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

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

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

Annette Valentine
Image via the author’s website

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, write on.

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

Book Review: My Drunk Kitchen by Hannah Hart (3/5)

16 Dec

I’ve laughed along with Hannah on her YouTube channel on and off over the years and enjoy her comedy. So I was interested to see how it would translate into a book, especially a cookbook. I think the results were mixed overall and I’m not sure if I’d call this a win, but it was still very Hannah.

Cover Image via Goodreads

My Drunk Kitchen: A Guide to Eating, Drinking and Going With Your Gut by Hannah Hart

Summary from Goodreads:

One day, lonely cubicle dweller and otherwise bored New York City transplant Hannah Hart decided to make a fake cooking show for a friend back home in California. She opened her laptop, pulled out some bread and cheese, and then, as one does, started drinking. The video was called “Butter Yo Sh*t” and online sensation My Drunk Kitchen was born.

My Drunk Kitchen (the book!) includes recipes, stories, color photographs, and tips and tricks to inspire your own adventures in tipsy cooking. Hannah offers cocktail recommendations, culinary advice (like, remember to turn off the oven when you go to bed), and shares never-before-seen recipes such as:

The Hartwich (Knowledge is ingenuity! Learn from the past!) Can Bake (Inventing things is hard! You don’t have to start from scratch!) Latke Shotkes (Plan ahead to avoid a night of dread!) Tiny Sandwiches (Size doesn’t matter! Aim to satisfy.) Saltine Nachos (It’s not about resources! It’s about being resourceful.)
In the end, My Drunk Kitchen may not be your go-to guide for your next dinner party . . . but it will make you laugh and drink . . . I mean think . . . about life.

I can’t say for certain that Hannah’s humor translated well to print. I think a lot of her delivery is lost in the medium. Having watched her videos, I could picture how she delivered it and that helped but if I tried to read quickly, I lost her voice and the text fell flat. I also think the book had a little bit of an identity crisis between being a memoir and a cookbook and a humor novel. For example, Hart had a section on things to eat when you have a broken heart. The recipes are not very serious, most being a combination of prepared-frozen foods and ready-to-eat foods (and alcohol). The recipes are written in a funny way, much like “Butter Yo Sh*t.” And Hannah would share a bit of a life story about a time she felt brokenhearted. So all of that together wasn’t enough of anything for me. Yes, it was humorous and yes, it gave me insight into Hannah and yes, it gave me ideas of things to make when I’m too drunk to cook and too drunk to go to bed without eating. But I feel like it was just short of giving me enough of any of these things. I still enjoyed it, don’t get me wrong. I think I was just wanting more.

Hart didn’t talk much about people in her life besides her close friend Mamrie Hart and herself. I think Hannah was honest about her past and how it felt to be gay with conservative parents. Though she only talked about the raw emotions of that so much because she was being comedic the whole time as well. I wasn’t expecting much character development if I looked at this as a cookbook but with the slight memoir feel, I was hoping for a little more feeling from Hannah.

Hannah Hart
Image via Twitter

The recipes made me laugh. I don’t think I’d ever make the recipes in this book (though if I wasn’t lactose intolerant, pizza cake looked delicious) but they still served a purpose. It was the strongest parallel to Hart’s videos and I appreciated the connection.

As much as I love memoirs, the memoir part of Hart’s book was the biggest disappointment for me. I wanted so much more out of it than we got and I felt disappointed every time she’d make mention of something in her life that was important to her and then it would be left hanging, unfinished. I wanted just a little bit more, some more anecdotes that made me feel for her or giggle. A bit more history and for sure some opinions. It just felt dry.

Being able to laugh is important to Hannah. She doesn’t seem to take herself very seriously. While that may be a coping mechanism, I still appreciated the lighthearted nature of this book and the smile it was able to put on my face. Hart wants to share her joy with others and that was very clear from her writing.

Writer’s Takeaway: I’m not sure I’d ever write non-fiction but I think this book is a good example of when more is needed to be a cross-over book. This book didn’t fully hit me as comedy, cookbook, or memoir and I think doing two of these instead of three would have been an easier pill to swallow. I try to do an action-packed historical fiction romance and I think I get too far off the mark sometimes. It was good for me to recognize in another work that there was too much going on.

Enjoyable but not a book I fell in love with. 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 Best of Hannah Hart’s “My Drunk Kitchen” | Nerd Atlas