Tag Archives: Book Review

Book Review: Beautiful Music by Michael Zadoorian (3/5)

17 Sep

I was excited to read a book set in Detroit. It seems every Detroit-based book takes place in the 60s or 70s when the city was going through a lot of change. I wonder when it will be considered a good setting again? I did appreciate all of the location references, though. It was very grounding.

Cover image via Goodreads

Beautiful Music by Michael Zadoorian

Summary from Goodreads:

Set in early 1970s Detroit, a racially divided city still reeling from its violent riot of 1967, Beautiful Music is the story of one young man’s transformation through music. Danny Yzemski is a husky, pop radio–loving loner balancing a dysfunctional home life with the sudden harsh realities of freshman year at a high school marked by racial turbulence.

But after tragedy strikes the family, Danny’s mother becomes increasingly erratic and angry about the seismic cultural shifts unfolding in her city and the world. As she tries to hold it together with the help of Librium, highballs, and breakfast cereal, Danny finds his own reason to carry on: rock ‘n’ roll. In particular, the drum and guitar–heavy songs of local legends like the MC5 and Iggy Pop.

I didn’t dislike this book, but I didn’t love it either. I think it’s mostly due to being too young to appreciate the cultural references Zadoorian made. I don’t know classic rock well so it didn’t spike my nostalgia like it might for some. I’m also not a big music fan in general so that passion Danny had for music isn’t something I shared. I was more familiar with music in high school so I tried to channel that, but it was on no level like Danny. I think I just wasn’t the right audience for this book, despite being based in Detroit. I’ve read a lot of books focused on the racial tensions of the late 60s and 70s. This one didn’t teach me anything new.

Zadoorian built great characters in Danny and his mother. We learn about his mom’s mental health issues slowly through the book. It’s very clear she needs help but exactly what she’s suffering from becomes more and more obvious. While Danny’s dad is around, he’s shielded from it. But once he’s alone with her, there’s no sugar-coating the situation. Danny’s anxiety is a little less obvious though I suspect there was a hint of depression in there as well, the feeling he described as ‘the fade.’ I felt both of their emotions were really well-drawn and relatable.

Danny was a great main character. I rooted for him because in some ways he reminded me of myself as a kid. I liked that he was a little bit of an outsider and that he was really passionate. His love of music was very well drawn and I liked how resourceful he was. You wanted him to succeed and have clothes that weren’t stained pink and you wanted him to go to the concert because he’d worked so hard and he deserved to have a night of fun! I think there was something in his high school experience that everyone could relate to.

By the time I got to high school, I liked gym but I had the same dread of it in middle school that Danny displays. His dread of certain activities was very relatable for me. I dread certain things at work or around the house but I’ll push myself to do them just to get the experience and get past the fear. I understood what he meant by ‘the fade’ because I had a similar feeling in high school, I called it fog and it would settle in some times for a few days.

Michael Zadoorian
Image via Amazon

Danny’s friendship with John was my favorite part of the plot. I thought it was really well developed and John helped push Danny in ways he needed to be pushed. Without his father there to egg him forward, John kept him moving forward when he might otherwise have stopped. They needed each other and found each other at a good time.

I did not like the ending of this book. It didn’t feel like a lot of the plot lines were given a conclusive ending. I wanted a little bit more out of Danny and his mom’s relationship, Danny’s job, his friendship with John, and his job at the radio station. It all seemed to just stop abruptly. The letter at the end seemed a poor excuse for an ending and I just felt like Zadoorian stopped writing without finishing what he needed to.

The audiobook was narrated by Alexander Thompson. I liked his narration and I was glad that he pronounced Detroit locations correctly! (Pet peeve) His narration didn’t stand out to me as wonderful, but it didn’t distract me from the story at all which was very important to me. The voices he used for women weren’t demeaning in any way and none of the inflections he chose got on my nerves.

This book dealt with a lot of heavy issues. I think mental illness is the one that stuck with me the most. Danny and his mother are dealing with different types and degrees of mental illness but they can’t talk about it because they don’t have the words to deal with it. Danny’s mom needs a lot of help. She wants to be a good mother and I honestly believe she tried as hard as she could for as long as she could. There seem to be days when she’s great and a good parent. But it’s also clear that she struggles to be happy and that her husband has had to cover for her for years. Once her support system is gone, she has no one to lean on and falls over. Danny has to learn to prop her up and she has to learn to help herself stand up.

Writer’s Takeaway: Zadoorian was clearly writing about some passions he shared with his main character. The love of music and his passion for Detroit were really plain. It’s great when a passion clearly comes across in a book. As someone from Detroit, nothing about it felt false to me. I’m not sure if a reader from another area would appreciate the detail, but it rang true for me.

An enjoyable book, but without much closure that would have made it more enjoyable. 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: Writing and Selling the YA Novel by K.L. Going (3/5)

16 Sep

I believe I got this when an old friend was cleaning off her bookshelves. It was one that I’d found on Goodreads and had shelved but thought I’d have to borrow from the library. It’s nice to own a book on craft, seeing as I don’t have many. I just wish it was one I believed in a little bit more.

Cover image via Goodreads

Writing & Selling the YA Novel by K.L. Going

Summary from the back flap:

Writing & Selling the YA Novel offers a complete lesson plan for writing and publishing fiction for teens. Structured like a day of high school, awared-winning  young adult novel K.L. Going takes you through every stage of YA writing.

Learn how the YA genre has developed in History class. Toss around ideas during Gym. Create authentic teen characters in English class. Craft convincing plots during Lunch. Addit all up in Math as you learn about agents and contracts. Along the way you’ll find plenty of “homework” exercises to help you hone your skills- as well as input from actual teen readers.

At the end of your school day, you’ll have all the knowledge a  young adult author needs to write a book that speaks to teen readers- and get it published.

Going does have a lot of good advice in this book. I think I would have gotten a lot more out of it if I hadn’t recently read Writing Fiction for Dummies because that book took the time to break down methods and strategies a lot better than Going did. She seemed to go over a lot of the writing process at a very high level, likely not wanting to give too much structure to a process every writer explores differently. I did enjoy the history of YA section toward the beginning and her exploration of how YA marketing and content is different at the end. I would recommend those sections to anyone who wants some specific YA knowledge and already knows a lot about writing. The rest of the book is still helpful, but other sources are better for the art of writing.

I thought Going struck a good balance between talking about her strategies and talking in general. She speaks about how she had to use swearing in one of her novels but how it makes sense for other authors to leave that element out. She speaks about creating her own characters and how other authors have done similar things. She spoke so much about Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War that I added it to my TBR.

Going did give a fair picture of the struggles of editing and as I’m going through that right now, I related to the struggle. It’s a long and tedious process. I didn’t feel she gave a lot of solid advice on how to approach that, but her portrayal of the long process was relatable.

K.L. Going
Image via the author’s website

I liked the chapter where she talked about what is and isn’t included in YA fiction and why. She focused on being realistic instead of surprising and including what is really there. In my novel, it’s 1920s Chicago. There will be smoking, drinking, and swearing. I felt weird about including some of that at first, but I realize not having it would be even more at odds with my setting so I need to embrace it.

I’ve already detailed that I felt the editing section could have used some more detail. She talked about professional editors which was new to me but didn’t go into a lot of detail on how to self-edit. Granted, there are full books on this and what Going could have covered in one chapter would have been a very brief overview, but it would have been something.

Going’s overall message was that teen fiction isn’t too different from adult fiction except for the age of the characters. Teens can handle the same topics and complexity as adult novels so there’s no reason to hold back on the content and themes. Granted, some topics might lend themselves better to adult characters and then might not make good teen novels, but I’m generalizing here.

Writer’s Takeaway: Going made two good points: write for an intelligent teen audience and don’t preach. Some writers want to write for teens because they think they have something to teach teenagers. No one wants to read a sermon so while books have a message, it’s probably best not to write with one in mind.

Overall, a helpful read, but not as much detail as I was hoping for. 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: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (4/5)

9 Sep

This was a book club pick that I was excited about. The book had a lot of hype and was part of the Oprah Book Club so it was widely read. As I like it, I knew nothing about the book going on and I think that made the beginning even more intense and thrilling for me. I really enjoyed the ride this story took me on.

Cover image via Goodreads

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Other books by Jones reviewed on this blog:

Silver Sparrow (5/5)

Summary from Goodreads:

Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined.

Yay for short summaries that don’t give away the first plot point! I don’t think I can make the rest of this review as spoiler-free so I apologize. This book took me by surprise. I wasn’t expecting it to involve the desolation of a marriage so soon out of the gate. I wasn’t expecting it to have so many amazing secondary character and I think that’s what really blew me away. I cared deeply about all of the people in this book and what happened to them.

The character’s emotions felt very real to me. They were in a complicated situation and their feelings were equally complicated. You can’t expect a newlywed to feel the same about her marriage after being away from her husband for five years. You can’t expect someone to accept you back into their lives the same way you left them. And you can’t expect parents to understand and approve of every decision you make. The complicated questions this book asked didn’t get easy answers from the characters and I appreciated that.

Big Roy was my favorite character. The way he raised Roy was commendable and the love he had for Olive was beautiful. It was obvious he loved Roy and Olive from his actions but especially from his behavior after Roy went to jail and at the funeral. What he said to Andre after he came back to collect Roy was perfect and he was doing a great job of trying to protect his son and a marriage he believed in. I had so much respect for Roy and I’d love to have him as a father.

I’ve never been in a similar relationship situation to these characters, but their feelings of helplessness were relatable. Roy did as much as he could and made the best of his situation as best he could but he was still helpless. He was the victim of circumstances and those circumstances affected everyone around him. These things happened to Roy, but they affected Celestial, Andre, Big Roy, Olive, and the Davenports. They were all even more helpless to what was happening to them and the effects of Roy’s bad luck.

Tayari Jones
Image via Wikipedia

The story of how Celestial and Roy got together stuck with me. It wasn’t anything overly special, but it was sweet and one you held onto. I’m glad it wasn’t overly showy or not mentioned because it showed a lot about them both. Celestial happened to be at the right place at the right time and something bad happened to her. Roy wanted to save her and was the big, showy gentleman he usually is and Celestial fell in love with that. They were perfectly themselves and, even ten years later when they’re having problems, you can see those two young people in the ones who are fighting to fix their marriage.

The ending almost seemed rushed to me. There was a lot of emotions flying once Andre, Roy, and Celestial were reunited and I was almost lost as to what was happening and how people’s opinions had flip-flopped. I wish it had been slowed down a little for people like me who take some time to process. I think the book being on audio didn’t help because it was harder to stop and go back and reread any part that happened quickly.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Sean Crisden and Eisa Davis. I liked the dual narrators for the two genders of speaking characters. Crisden did an amazing job of giving Andre and Roy different inflections and manors of speaking so that I almost thought it was three narrators for a moment. Davis gave a good voice to Celestial but I think Crisden’s performance overshadowed hers only because of the range he was able to demonstrate with two male characters.

The book discusses what a marriage is and also what we are entitled to. The marriage Roy and Celestial have faced all imaginable challenges and trials. Is it based on love, a promise, or something else? Roy had everything taken away from him unfairly. What does he deserve upon his release? Should he be able to go back to where he was? Does Celestial owe that to him because of what happened to him? What does their marriage deserve after such a test? I thought these questions were well-posed and made me question my assumptions about relationships.

Writer’s Takeaway: Hard questions make good novels and I think Jones hit this one out of the park. There’s no easy answer to what happens between Celestial and Roy when they face such an injustice. There’s nothing easy about their situation and no precedent to follow. A marriage is a living thing and its health and individual qualities have to be taken into account. The fact that this wasn’t cut and dry is what made it so good and I liked how Jones made me question my beliefs.

A great read and a welcome change from other books I’ve been reading lately. 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:
Book Review: An American Marriage- Tayari Jones | Beverly Has Read
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones | Of Books and Reading
An American Marriage- Tayari Jones | Modern Witch’s Bookshelf
An American Marriage | What Megan Reads
“It challenged my own racial biases”- An American Marriage by Tayari Jones #WomensPrize2019 | Bookmunch

Book Review: The Map of Time by Félix J. Palma (4/5)

5 Sep

Years back, I had a page-a-day book calendar that I’ve still been trying to catch up on many years later. This was one of those selections and six years later, I’m finally making time for it.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Map of Time by Félix J. Palma

Summary from Goodreads:

Characters real and imaginary come vividly to life in this whimsical triple play of intertwined plots, in which a skeptical H. G. Wells is called upon to investigate purported incidents of time travel and to save lives and literary classics, including Dracula and The Time Machine, from being wiped from existence.

What happens if we change history?

What a blessedly short summary for such a long book! I adored this one and found it really fun to read, lugging this chunk to a wedding with me in the vain hopes of finishing it. The three plots did come together well and I liked reading about each of them and how Wells became the central character of each. I’m afraid of giving too much away about this wonderful book.

The variety of characters Palma created was wonderful. Wells is reserved yet intelligent while Murray is physically intimidating. Though Tom is also physically intimidating, he uses his prowess in a very different way. I really loved how these characters came together and filled this world. Each brought something new to a world in such flux.

Tom was my favorite character and I wish he’d been featured more in the third part. His story was mostly told in Part II and I should have suspected that, like Harrington, Tom wouldn’t be a large part of the subsequent part of the book. I was happy when he did show up again, though. Tom was just trying to get by. He wanted to do as best he could for himself and stumbled into a bad situation. Granted, he didn’t make it any better by talking to Claire, but I thought the way he finished his story with her was smart and caring, in as much as it could be. I would love to hear more about their plotline.

I could relate to every character at one time or another. I related to Wells when he didn’t know if telling Murray the truth about his book was the best course. I related to Charles when he wondered if lying to his cousin to save his life was worth it. I related to Claire when she wanted to escape her repetitive life. I didn’t relate to Andrew or Tom or Jane as well, but I think there was a little something in each one that made their stories hit close to home and move me.

Félix J. Palma
Image via Simon & Schuster

I thought the story really picked up at the end of Part I when Andrew travels back in time and I thought it stayed high through the rest of the book. Keeping the tension hight was one of the things I felt Palma did best. For such a long book, I wasn’t sure how that would go but it was really well done. It’s hard to pick a singular part I liked best.

I thought the section where Wells goes to visit the Elephant Man was unnecessary. All it does is give us his lucky bowl which played such a minor part in the story that I didn’t think it was necessary. It’s the only part I felt could have been cut, though. All other parts of the story were engrossing and had me constantly guessing how Wells would get out of the mess he was in and how Palma would wrap up his plot.

Palma asks us how we can influence the past and how much impact one action can make. Catching or not catching Jack the Ripper may seem insignificant, but who knows how many lives it saved. And when we do touch time, how can we fix it or avoid it in the future? The paradoxes and alternate universes that are created is fascinating and I like how Palma explored them. Time travel exists in a lot of stories and this one takes its own spin. I liked where it went and how much power it gave to our actions to change the future.

Writer’s Takeaway: Palma kept me guessing. The end of Part I taught me to be vigilant about being tricked and Part II had me looking over my shoulder for a trick every second. In Part III, I thought I knew where the trick was coming, but I was dead wrong. I loved how he kept me guessing even when he was repeating (to a degree) what he had done before. Palma’s pacing and surprises were great and kept the long book feeling short.

I really enjoyed this novel and the narrative style which kept me laughing. 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:
“Map of Time by Felix J Palma | The Book Hole
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Book Review: A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab (4/5)

26 Aug

I’m embarrassed that it took me this long to get to this book. I liked the first one in the series, but a lot of other books squeezed their way in between and it’s been more than three years since I started this series. That’s far too long. I remembered most of the first book, but there were details I’d forgotten and I think it hurt my reading of this book a little bit. I hope I can get to the third in a more timely fashion.

Cover image via Goodreads

A Gathering of Shadows (Shades of Magic #2) by V.E. Schwab

Other books by Schwab reviewed on this blog:

A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic #1)

Summary from Goodreads:

It has been four months since a mysterious obsidian stone fell into Kell’s possession. Four months since his path crossed with Delilah Bard. Four months since Prince Rhy was wounded, and since the nefarious Dane twins of White London fell, and four months since the stone was cast with Holland’s dying body through the rift–back into Black London.

Now, restless after having given up his smuggling habit, Kell is visited by dreams of ominous magical events, waking only to think of Lila, who disappeared from the docks as she always meant to do. As Red London finalizes preparations for the Element Games–an extravagant international competition of magic meant to entertain and keep healthy the ties between neighboring countries–a certain pirate ship draws closer, carrying old friends back into port.

And while Red London is caught up in the pageantry and thrills of the Games, another London is coming back to life. After all, a shadow that was gone in the night will reappear in the morning. But the balance of magic is ever perilous, and for one city to flourish, another London must fall.

The start of the book was a good mix between a review of the first and picking up right where it left off. Lila and Kell’s parting was one of the few details I’d forgotten so I struggled with that a bit before I could settle into this book. Once I did, the book picked up right away and took us on a completely different adventure and I was all in. I loved the idea of the Element Games. It seems like a logical step to take in international relations with the magic that exists in that world. I found it a little unsettling that Lila could get in so easily, but I was able to suspend my disbelief and still have fun with it. The cliffhanger ending was the only part I didn’t enjoy. I wish it had wrapped up a little cleaner before cutting to book three.

Lila and Kell are well developed and that’s part of what makes them so likable. I’m not going to claim I’m anything like either of them or that I could be friends with them, but I can understand why they are the way they are and their reactions seemed in line with their characters. The secondary characters in this one, particularly Rhy and Alucard, were great and rounded out the cast well.

Alucard was my favorite character and I hope he has a big role in the final book. His story was great and I liked how he fit into both Lila and Kell’s stories. I’d like to hear more about him and I think we will going forward.

There were elements of each character’s story that I could relate to, but the fantastical setting kept me from fully sympathizing with anyone for the whole book. Alucard wanted to be accepted by his family, Lila wanted to prove herself, and Kell wanted independence. They were all relatable in some way, but without being able to travel between parallel worlds or the ability to control water, I was a bit too distant from them.

V.E. Schwab
Image via EW

The Element Games battles were my favorite part. They reminded me of a mix between The Hunger Games, and The Triwizard Tournament but much less deadly. I liked hearing about the ways Kell and Lila came up with to use their elements and win the battles. I liked the idea of it being a spectator sport and the ways Lila twisted the games to work for her. IT was a fun structure to build the book around.

The ending was frustrating! It was a total cliffhanger and left me a bit angry. I do not like cliffhangers and to me, it’s a sign that the books should have been combined into a longer volume and a publisher nixed that to make more money. The first book wrapped up somewhat nicely with a big event but this one stopped right before it. I wonder if this was Schwab’s plan all along or if it’s due to a quick money grab. It frustrated me.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Kate Reading and Michael Kramer. I liked the dual-narrator as it played well with the dual-POV of the book. It can sometimes feel odd when a male narrator reads a female part and vice versa. I liked the decision to use both for this. Kramer was great. He has a way of using his low voice to add weight to Kell’s voice while giving Rhy an airy demeanor. Reading was good as well, but I think Kramer overshadowed her.

Kell has to sacrifice a lot for Rhy and his adoptive family. Eventually, he was asked to sacrifice too much. This book seemed to focus on what Kell was asked to give up, for who, and by who. The things Rhy asked of him never seemed too much though they might have been hard. Lila never asked him for anything but he’d give up almost everything for her. What the King and Queen asked of him always seemed too much. Maybe it has something to do with who asks, but also what they asked.

Writer’s Takeaway: Schwab has created a rich world in Red London. It’s parallels to Grey London and differences with White London are wonderfully illustrated. Her world-building is really commendable and I think it’s something a historical fiction writer can learn from. That’s an element of my book I could probably work on and Schwab has given a good example. It’s not just about the physical geography of the place, but the smells and sounds as well; the people who exist around the main cast and the ones that only come into play briefly. It’s the whole thing.

I enjoyed the book, though the ending frustrated me. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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

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Book Review: 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (4/5)

22 Aug

I can’t remember where I heard about this book. I think it may have been after I read Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn and I had a brief fascination with epistolary novels. This one is wonderful, quick and cutting to the soul. It was a great pool-side read for my recent vacation.

Cover image via Goodreads

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Summary from Goodreads:

This charming classic, first published in 1970, brings together twenty years of correspondence between Helene Hanff, a freelance writer living in New York City, and a used-book dealer in London. Through the years, though never meeting and separated both geographically and culturally, they share a winsome, sentimental friendship based on their common love for books. Their relationship, captured so acutely in these letters, is one that will grab your heart and not let go.

I didn’t expect such a short book to have so much of an impact on me. Hanff has an amazing way with words. You can feel her implied tone in her letters and you get a great sense of her personality. When the correspondence expands to include other employees of the shop and Frank’s family, you can feel the impact this relationship has had on their community. Hanff’s generosity was so unexpected in their post-war London and it went a long way to winning their affection.

Hanff had the most personality in her letters and I adored reading one from her. The others were a bit harder to distinguish and I had to look at who signed the letter when I started reading it so I would know who was speaking. Hanff’s sarcasm, manor, and energy screamed from the page, it was wonderful.

Nora was my favorite character. She didn’t have the personality of Hanff, but she had a deep appreciation for the relationship Hanff and Frank shared. She wasn’t jealous and was very appreciative of what Hanff could do for her family and friends. I’d like to hope that the relationship continued on after the book ended.

The love of books the characters shared was mesmerizing for a book lover. I also loved the idea of a store always on the lookout for a beautiful edition of a rare book and I kept picturing myself combing through a second-hand store or a personal library looking for a buried gem. It sounds like such a fun and exciting job. Funny enough, this book was a bit hard for me to find a copy of and I ended up locating it in a second-hand shop a year after I started looking for it.

Helene Hanff
Image via Hogglestock

The food that Hanff sent to her friends was so incredibly described. I can’t imagine living in a city with such strict food rations and how great of a gift an egg could be. The selflessness of her gifts and the frequency of them showed her nature and it made me want to be friends with someone who could so generously give of herself. I think the British members of this story were a little lost on how they could repay such generosity.

It was clear there were a good number of missing letters. Large stretches of time would pass and there would be references to letters we didn’t read or books that were never requested. I’m unsure if this is due to lost letters or selection. I hope it’s loss and Hanff isn’t holding back on us!

The friendship these virtual strangers formed is beautiful. They bonded over a love of books and stayed together over a genuine desire to care for other human beings. Hanff is a beautiful soul and is lucky to have found kindred spirits through a love of writing. Friendships formed over a deep love for something can be very strong. I think we can all think of a similarly deep relationship.

Writer’s Takeaway: The letters Hanff shares are beautiful and personal. I loved that she shared getting permission to publish them at the end of the book. The journey doesn’t end until publication. The relationship Helene and Frank shared and the way it expanded to those around them was beautiful and I loved how she showed it’s growth. I think Hanff realized she had something special. I’m glad she published it for others to enjoy.

A beautiful picture of friendship and a love of books. 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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84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff | The Compulsive Overreader
84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff | From Isi

Book Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (4/5)

19 Aug

I learned about this book when I was getting ready for my trip to Iceland. I would have loved for it to be available as audio for me to listen to during the trip but no such luck. I was able to finally get through the CD audio recently and I wish I’d been able to experience it while in Iceland but now I just want to go back.

Cover image via Goodreads

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Summary from Goodreads:

Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.

Riveting and rich with lyricism, Burial Rites evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

I wasn’t sure how I would feel about this book but the characters were really well-drawn and the plot was well-paced. I started caring for Agnes and the family almost immediately. I knew there was something sketchy about the story from how Agnes responded to her sentence and how quiet she was. The pace of finding out was great and I was drawn in by Kent’s storytelling. I really enjoyed the setting as this is the first book I’ve read set in Iceland. Having visited, it was even more vivid for me.

I didn’t realize until the end that the characters were drawn from historical figures. I liked the author’s note describing how Kent chose to interpret them and I appreciated the explanation about other ways these people have been viewed. I thought the Agnes presented was wonderfully deep and the way the story unfolded around her was very real and compelling. The other characters added to the world, but Agnes was a wonderful leading figure.

I liked Tóti a lot. He was much more like a modern priest than the priests of his time and it was interesting to see him in contrast to his father and the district commissioner. I liked his approach to Agnes and I think she responded to it so well because it was different. She didn’t need more people yelling at her about how she was a sinner and how she needed to repent. She needed someone to listen to her story. It seemed very natural for her to tell the story and I’m glad she was able to eventually finish it, even if it wasn’t with Tóti.

I’ve had my opinion of people changed by meeting them like Tóti and the family did. I appreciated that Agnes could change their minds about her by being herself and sharing her story. The rumors about here were terrible but the truth she shared was beautiful. It showed the power of the truth and how the ‘media’ can warp it. In this case, the district commissioner and a court. I wonder what she said in the courtroom because it sounds like her story wasn’t shared.

Hannah Kent
Image via the New York Times

I thought the book picked up after Agnes started talking about her life and the time she was with Natan. Natan was a complicated character and at first, you’re so sad he’s died but then you start to question if he was a good person. Of course, death is always sad but it’s sadder when a person is innocent of any wrongdoing. As the truth about Natan comes out, you start to wonder if his death is extra-sad or normal-sad and your feelings started to change. It was very well written.

The beginning dragged for me a bit. There was a lot of description and development of the relationship between the two daughters and I felt like that didn’t really go anywhere. I wish there’d been a little more about their relationship and the different ways they felt about Agnes but it seemed that the author wanted to focus on something else and left a lot out there that could have been great.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Morven Christie. She was amazing. I don’t speak Icelandic except for ‘tak’ (thanks) but I know it’s an incredibly hard language to learn. I tried learning a few phrases before visiting and didn’t get past ‘hello’ before I gave up. It has a certain sound to it, a cadence that I can’t replicate but do recognize. Christie clearly knows (or is great at faking) Icelandic because her pronunciation of names, places, and poems was amazing. I was really impressed and found her performance impressive and beautiful. She gave great weight to Agnes’s sorrow and pain. I’d love to hear her read again.

Guilt is an odd thing. While Agnes was involved in Natan’s death, was she to blame for it? Could she have stopped it and was her role in it worthy of the punishment she was dealt? Agnes wasn’t innocent, but was she guilty? I thought this book played with that grey area well and it took the whole book for me to make a decision about her and be swayed.

Writer’s Takeaway: The location in this book shines. Kent did an amazing job of making me aware of the geography and weather of Iceland and how a family in the 1820s could deal with that harsh environment. I adored the way she described the small valley and traveling around it. I could picture it so vividly. I was so impressed.

I really enjoyed this book and I look forward to more from Kent in the future. 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:
Burial Rites – Hannah Kent | Savidge Reads
Haunting, Devastating and Really Beautiful: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent | Inside My Library Mind
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent | Caught Between the Pages
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent | Books Are My Favorite and Best
Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent | Meanwhile the World Goes On

Book Review: Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton (3/5)

8 Aug

I bought this book when I visited Powells in 2017 because it was compared to Station Eleven. I was excited to see it was offered as an audiobook from my library so my husband and I started listening to it during a long car trip. Unfortunately, we didn’t finish it and when we went to check it out for the next car trip, the file was no longer available! We finished it reading out-loud to each other in the car and then in bed to finish it up. One way or another, we were going to finish it.

Cover image via Goodreads

Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

Summary from Goodreads:

Augustine, a brilliant, aging astronomer, is consumed by the stars. For years he has lived in remote outposts, studying the sky for evidence of how the universe began. At his latest posting, in a research center in the Arctic, news of a catastrophic event arrives. The scientists are forced to evacuate, but Augustine stubbornly refuses to abandon his work. Shortly after the others have gone, Augustine discovers a mysterious child, Iris, and realizes the airwaves have gone silent. They are alone.

At the same time, Mission Specialist Sullivan is aboard the Aether on its return flight from Jupiter. The astronauts are the first human beings to delve this deep into space, and Sully has made peace with the sacrifices required of her: a daughter left behind, a marriage ended. So far the journey has been a success, but when Mission Control falls inexplicably silent, Sully and her crew mates are forced to wonder if they will ever get home.

As Augustine and Sully each face an uncertain future against forbidding yet beautiful landscapes, their stories gradually intertwine in a profound and unexpected conclusion. In crystalline prose, Good Morning, Midnight poses the most important questions: What endures at the end of the world? How do we make sense of our lives?

The premise of this book sounds interesting but in reality, it’s really boring to be alone. It’s also boring to read about being alone. The first half of the book had this problem. As we did flashbacks and set up the story to come, it was dull. Not much happened and the small things that did happen were mostly in flashback. It was frustrating not knowing what had caused the catastrophe. I hope this isn’t a spoiler, but we never find out what it was. I wanted to know so badly because it felt like Brooks-Dalton wrote half of a story. It felt like the build-up to a great adventure but it ended before it started. There was some good plotting, don’t get me wrong. However, my husband and I saw the two big twists coming well before they were revealed. The good characters didn’t redeem the problems I had with the plotting of the book.

I liked the characterization of the people on Aether and how they dealt with the uncertainty on Earth. With the number of people on board, they were able to portray a lot of different ways that someone might deal with possible death and loss. They were all at different stages of grief and I liked being in Sully’s head and hearing how she was dealing with it.

Harper was my favorite character. He was very ‘captain-like.’ He was easily in charge and very confident which came across well in the story. He also came across as a strong, silent type and extremely attractive. But he was very professional and it wasn’t until the very end that it seemed like he and Sully might have a romantic relationship. I liked that about him. It seemed like he realized when it was OK to cross the professional boundary.

I’ve never been as alone as these characters and it’s hard to think of any situation where I would have had a similar mentality. I’ve felt that alone but it’s all in my head and never lasted as long. I’ve probably been as retrospective as them, though.

Lily Brooks-Dalton
Image via The Independent

I liked the parts of the book Sully narrated best. I think it was because she had more people to interact with and it didn’t feel as remote despite them being in space. Auggie’s story seemed really flat to me and his backstory was pretty dull. Iris barely talked so she didn’t add much to it.

The end of the book frustrated me and I’m going to spoil it so skip ahead if you don’t want to know. I felt like the end of the book was the first half of a book I wanted to read more. I would have loved the adventure of exploring a world that had been devastated by something. You’re either the only ones or there was some communication knock-out that left everyone isolated that you have to deal with. I felt frustrated with the book when the big reveal on the final page wasn’t much of a reveal and then it ended earlier than I wanted.

The audiobook I listened to had two narrators, John H. Mayer and Hillary Huber. I liked having two people narrate the two leads in this book. It would have felt odd to have a man reading for Sully or a woman for Auggie. Both had good voices for this and gave the story the gravity it was due.

Both characters were searching for what gave them meaning when there wasn’t much left. That was a good thing for me to think about. When Auggie had nothing left, he wanted to reconnect with his daughter. When Sully had nothing left, she regretted the time she didn’t spend with her ex-husband and daughter. It’s spending time with family that we’ll regret, not working.

Writer’s Takeaway: Brooks-Dalton had two big twists planned but I honestly saw them coming. The one Auggie figured out was a little more obvious to me, but I liked how she threaded the other one in. (Trying not to give anything away.) It was interesting to see how slowly the connection was revealed and how it took until the very end for it to come full circle. I liked that element of the plotting even if the rest of it wasn’t for me.

Overall, I had some issues but still enjoyed the book. 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:
‘Good Morning, Midnight’ Imagines a World Gone Dark | Chicago Review of Books
Book Review: Good Morning, Midnight, by Lily Brooks-Dalton | The Reviewer
Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton | The Desert Bookworm
Review: Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton | Mad Book Love
Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton | For Winter Nights

Book Review: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

30 Jul

It took me three months to listen to this audiobook. For context, it’s 39 disks long. A normal book is around 10, long books are 15. This was 39. I believe it was over 50 hours of audio. I had to get a librarian to change my due date twice because I’d run out of holds. It felt so good to finally finish this book!

Cover image via Goodreads

A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire #3) by George R.R. Martin

Other books by Martin reviewed on this blog:

A Game of Thrones (#1)
A Clash of Kings (#2)

Summary from Goodreads:

Of the five contenders for power, one is dead, another in disfavor, and still the wars rage as alliances are made and broken. Joffrey sits on the Iron Throne, the uneasy ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. His most bitter rival, Lord Stannis, stands defeated and disgraced, victim of the sorceress who holds him in her thrall. Young Robb still rules the North from the fortress of Riverrun. Meanwhile, making her way across a blood-drenched continent is the exiled queen, Daenerys, mistress of the only three dragons still left in the world. And as opposing forces manoeuver for the final showdown, an army of barbaric wildlings arrives from the outermost limits of civilization, accompanied by a horde of mythical Others—a supernatural army of the living dead whose animated corpses are unstoppable. As the future of the land hangs in the balance, no one will rest until the Seven Kingdoms have exploded in a veritable storm of swords.

This book really took off. I looked at my ratings of the first two books (4 and 3 stars) and I’m surprised because this one was such a winner and I don’t remember disliking the first two. Maybe I’m going nuts. I was swept away with the story in book three. A lot of my favorite moments from several seasons of the show ended up in this book and the clash of them all together was very enjoyable. Each character is killing it and I’m liking the pacing a lot. Overall, I can’t wait to read book four. I’ve just got to carve out the time.

Martin builds amazing characters. As before, Tyrion is a favorite and I adore how he’s evolved in this book. Sansa is starting to become more likable and Arya is starting to feel less whiney. Most importantly, I’m starting to like Jaime. This book shows Martin’s amazing ability to build characters and I’m loving where it’s going.

Tyrion is again my favorite. I love how he appears to be evil and mean but it’s clearly a result of how his sister and father have treated him his entire life. I think his relationship with Jaime really shows a lot about him and in this book in particular. Jaime’s loyalty is very divided between the woman he loves and his brother when the two of them are at each other’s throats for most of the book. I think the brothers’ bond will be explored more as this goes forward, more so than the show did. I also loved the development of Tyrion’s first wife that we don’t get in the show. I won’t spoil it here, but I felt it showed a lot about Jaime that he told Tyrion the truth.

I can’t say I’ve been in situations like many of the characters in the story and that’s part of what makes it such a wonderful escapist pastime. The way they react in situations makes me think ‘I’d never do that’ or ‘I can see where they’re coming from,’ but their situations are not at all familiar to me.

George RR Martin
Image via GeorgeRRMartin.com

Arya and the Hound’s time together was my favorite of the book. I enjoyed the relationship they developed and being inside Arya’s head and hearing how she felt about Sandor and how that changed was really fun for me. She hated him but relied on him. She wanted to kill him but also wanted him to stay alive. I liked how she dealt with those mixed emotions and I think she grew a lot because of it.

There wasn’t a part of this book I disliked. I think it was all amazingly done and I really look forward to the next one now that Martin has kicked it into high gear.

Roy Dotrice was an amazing narrator yet again. I’m going to miss his voice when we finally get to books he couldn’t narrate. He does an incredible job with the mix of characters and the delivery of certain lines with deep emotion. He’s so talented and deserves the recognition he’s gotten for his performances.

There was a lot of loss and revenge in this book. Loss mostly from death but also other ways. Jaime’s loss comes to mind. Sansa is dealing with a loss of freedom. Revenge from Theon and Tyrion are prominent and the way the Northmen and outlaws are rebelling plays a large role in the balance of power in the realm. Revenge is often dark but we see how it can be so sweet in some of these cases.

Writer’s Takeaway: You rarely get a book as long as this one and it doesn’t drag at all. There wasn’t a down moment in this book, it kept rocketing ahead and I loved it. Martin does a good job of building to high points before switching to another character. This is something I’m trying to work into my re-write on my book which also uses multiple points of view. It’s great to see how it can be done well.

A great job and a middle book with no lag! A full Five out of Five stars.

This book counts toward the 1300-1499 period (assuming it parallels the War of the Roses) for the When Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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

Related Posts:
Review: A Storm of Swords | literaryelephant
A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin | Lighthearted Librarian’s Website
A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire #3) by George RR Martin | loudbookishtype

Book Review: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (2/5)

23 Jul

I’ve read a fair number of Eggers works and each one seems to be distinctly different from all the others. As such, they’re a bit hit and miss with me. There are some I really enjoy and others that are just ‘bleh’ but very few that I don’t enjoy. I guess there’s a first time for everything because this one just wasn’t a winner with me. It’s sad that it’s the author’s memoir.

Cover image via Goodreads

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

Other books by Eggers reviewed on this blog:

A Hologram for the King (and Movie Review)
The Circle (and Movie Review)
Zeitoun (and Book Club Reflection)

Summary from Book Rags:

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a memoir by magazine editor Dave Eggers. The book tells the story of how Dave’s parents died of cancer within five weeks of each other and left Dave and his siblings custody of their seven year old brother, Toph. Dave tells his story with his trademark satire dripping from every word, allowing the reader to follow him on the ride from total irresponsibility to maturity and acceptance. This memoir is memorable and indeed heartbreaking, leaving the reader touched and yet strangely amused.

I loved parts of this book and there were other parts I struggled to get through. I thought the stories of being a father/brother and trying to be a 20-something while being in charge of his brother were great. I thought that was going to be the focus of the book, really. But there were parts where the way Eggers told the story drove me crazy. The extended (and fake) interview with The Real World for example. I’ll go into detail more but the back-and-forth nature of the storytelling made it hard for me to enjoy as a whole and led me to rate it lower than I felt parts of it deserved.

The life Eggers portrayed seemed very realistic to me. People do their best and sometimes that best doesn’t seem great from the outside or looks like failure to some people. Eggers dealt with his criticism in a weird way sometimes, lying about Toph to make himself laugh at the expense of his friends. But it was how he needed to cope. It was how he could keep doing his best. It was right for him. People need to be selfish sometimes and do what’s best for them to keep moving forward and I saw that in Eggers portrayal of himself and his family from time to time.

I liked Toph best and I wish we’d gotten a little more about him in the story. He was in a very difficult position for the majority of the story. He was likely raised like an only child, with his next oldest sibling being 13 years his elder. When Toph was forming a lot of his memories, Beth and Bill would have been out of the house and Dave would have been in high school. I’m going to guess their mother doted on him based on her personality and the one scene we have where they interact. I think the death of his parents would have been much harder on Toph than we’re led to see in this story. I wish we’d been able to see that and his coping more.

I think the way Dave felt when parenthood was thrust on him was very relatable. He didn’t know what to do but he was going to do his best to do it. It reminds me of when you start a new job and have to jump in with both feet and find your footing before you slip. Dave tried really hard and was clearly worried about Toph very often. Granted, my brother is two years younger than me, but I never worried about him that much though I didn’t have to take as much responsibility for him. I felt it was really admirable.

Dave Eggers
Image via Amazon.com

Dave doesn’t tell us how he felt about his father at first. It comes throughout the book in chunks and I liked how he did it that way. I thought it revealed a lot about his family and how they projected themselves that he wouldn’t talk about this earlier in the book. You learned about the siblings and how they got along well before you know how their parents’ relationship was tested. I felt this added a layer to the book because it was something you might not know about the Eggers even if you were a friend, something you’d have to come to learn the way I did as a reader.

There were parts of the book that got ‘too meta’ for me. The biggest being the Real World interview which we find out while reading it is not anything like the real interview but a way for Dave to tell us more about his family. That felt cheap and unlike a lot of the times that Dave’s humor made me laugh, this made me angry. I wanted to get through that section fast but it took me longer and longer the more frustrated I got.

Memoirs tend to focus on a pivotal part of someone’s life and I think Dave picked a very change-fraught part of his life and the lives of his siblings to cover. Toph had to learn to take his brother serious as a parent figure while Dave had to learn to be a father and still be a 20-something single guy. He was a friend and a brother and a parent. They had to figure out their roles and how they could work together to still be a family and support each other.

Writer’s Takeaway: Dave is clearly a guy who likes to have fun, as he shows us in his interactions with Toph and his friends. I didn’t always agree with his sense of humor and the things he found funny. That was fine with me when it was him telling jokes about Might, but it was something different when it was him pulling a fast one on me as his reader. I didn’t like the dream/reality jumbles that weren’t explained, the meta-discussion with John, or (again) the Real World interview. I felt like I was the butt of his jokes and it annoyed me.

I’m sad to make this my lowest Eggers rating. Two out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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

Related Posts:
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius | Ester’s Book Blog
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A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and the Modern Memoir | No Pun Intended
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers | Sea of Shelves