Tag Archives: Book Review

Book Review: The First Phone Call from Heaven by Mitch Albom (4/5)

20 Feb

Mitch Albom is from Detroit and he does a lot of book signings in my area as a result. A good friend of mine and I went to hear him speak a few years ago and I got a copy of his latest (at the time) signed. I hate taking signed books out of my apartment, so using an audio version of this book made the most sense to me. It was a nice, quick read.

Cover Image via Goodreads

Cover Image via Goodreads

The First Phone Call from Heaven by Mitch Albom

My past post on Meeting Mitch Albom

Summary from Goodreads:

The First Phone Call from Heaven tells the story of a small town on Lake Michigan that gets worldwide attention when its citizens start receiving phone calls from the afterlife. Is it the greatest miracle ever or a massive hoax? Sully Harding, a grief-stricken single father, is determined to find out. An allegory about the power of belief–and a page-turner that will touch your soul–Albom’s masterful storytelling has never been so moving and unexpected.

I’ve read and listened to a few of Albom’s books before and this seems right in line with his style. He’s going to talk about Christianity without hitting you over the head with it and he’s also going to talk about doubting religion and that strengthening belief. This book was hard to read only because my Christian side wanted to believe and my reader side wanted to think ‘Magical Realism’ but following a character who doubted so strongly made me doubt, too. I wasn’t sure what to think until the end, which I’ll avoid talking about. I liked the ride, though. The breadth of characters covered the topic well and gave me someone to commiserate with each step of the way.

I liked that there were characters who were strong believers, skeptics, and people who went through all stages of belief and disbelief along the way. I think that’s a fair representation of how humanity would respond to such a miracle. I’ve often wondered if a great prophet came to Earth, would we believe him or her? Would we discredit this person or recognize that he/she is the one we’ve been waiting for? I think Albom must have wondered something similar when he wrote this book. Some believed it immediately, dropping everything and moving to Coldwater while the miracle was happening. Others came out of anger and a lot kept at arms distance and waited for proof that the whole thing was real. I liked how the people of Coldwater went through this as well, even those receiving the calls. It seemed real and made me wonder where I would fall if calls like that really happened.

Jack was my favorite character. I thought the way he dealt with his son’s calls was really believable. At first he wants to keep them to himself and not call attention to himself, which I could see a police officer wanting to do. I liked seeing his internal struggle to tell his ex-wife and how he told Tess to commiserate with her. I think he really struggled with believing Robby was really talking to him and thought that if he said it out loud, he would have to believe it.

I think I would have trouble believing something as wondrous as phone calls from Heaven at first. I think I would be like Elias or Jack and think it was someone trying to trick me for a while, testing the miracle to see if it stood on its own two feet before I could buy in completely. Even Pastor Warren was skeptical and Father Carole called in his boss to make a decision. This helped me feel like it was OK to doubt but to question and not discredit something that could be a miracle.

Me and Mitch

Me and Mitch Albom, 2013.

I love Sully’s story. It was so moving and complicated and I thought Albom did a great job of balancing all of the conflicting feelings inside Sully. I was scared for a second that he was going to give him a romantic relationship with Liz but I think the way that ended was for the best. Sully was looking out for his son most of all and on his journey to protect the boy, he ended up neglecting him a bit. He needed to refocus his priorities and Liz helped him do this.

I didn’t’ like Amy’s character very much. She was really self-focused and I felt like she was taking advantage of Katherine the whole book. Even when she was taken off the story, she stayed with Katherine because she had no where else she wanted to be. She didn’t even seem to care when her fiance left her and didn’t try to hard to contact him. She seemed unimportant to the plot and just fulfilled Albom’s desire to have a reporter character in the story.

Albom narrated the audiobook himself which I really liked. He gave the characters the voices he wrote them with. There were a few instances of him using audio effects like knocking and thumping to enhance the story which I really liked. He narrated well but that can be expected from a radioman. I hope he does his other audiobooks as well.

All of the characters struggled with belief. Even Catherine, who believed immediately and spread the word, struggled with others not believing her and how to handle those who doubted her. The characters were very representative of Christians that I’ve met. Some believe with all of their hearts and struggle to see how others can live without the faith they have. Others used to believe but have fallen away from God for one reason or another. Others don’t believe and many are somewhere in the middle. The book brought up something incredible that effected people’s faith in different ways and showed how no one Christian is exactly like another and how things can shake or build faith depending on how they’re perceived.

Writer’s Takeaway: I thought Albom had almost too many characters. I struggled a bit to keep Jack and Jeff straight and I couldn’t tell you the names of any of the TV people besides Amy. I’m glad he didn’t include all of the people receiving phone calls but I thought he could have focused on just a few less to help the reader keep more of them straight.

This was a solid book that helped me see how strong my faith is. 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 First Phone Call from Heaven by Mitch Albom | Words Are My Craft
The first phone call from heaven by Mitch Albom ~ Book Review | Ebaarat
The First Phone Call from Heaven by Mitch Albom | Reading_Rexy
Warner Brothers Lands Mitch Albom Novel ‘The First Phone Call from Heaven’ | Deadline

Book Review: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling (3/5)

16 Feb

I love comedian memoirs. That might be kind of niche, but there are enough books in this genre that I feel it’s safe to make that blanket statement. I’ve read many I enjoyed and about the time I read Bossypants by Tina Fey, I was also binge-watching The Office on Netflix. Logically, enjoying both, I wanted to read Mindy’s book. I found it a few months later at a massive book sale and I’ve been waiting to read it for a while.

Cover image via Goodreads

Cover image via Goodreads

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

Summary from Goodreads:

Mindy Kaling has lived many lives: the obedient child of immigrant professionals, a timid chubster afraid of her own bike, a Ben Affleck–impersonating Off-Broadway performer and playwright, and, finally, a comedy writer and actress prone to starting fights with her friends and coworkers with the sentence “Can I just say one last thing about this, and then I swear I’ll shut up about it?”

Perhaps you want to know what Mindy thinks makes a great best friend (someone who will fill your prescription in the middle of the night), or what makes a great guy (one who is aware of all elderly people in any room at any time and acts accordingly), or what is the perfect amount of fame (so famous you can never get convicted of murder in a court of law), or how to maintain a trim figure (you will not find that information in these pages). If so, you’ve come to the right book, mostly!

In Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Mindy invites readers on a tour of her life and her unscientific observations on romance, friendship, and Hollywood, with several conveniently placed stopping points for you to run errands and make phone calls. Mindy Kaling really is just a Girl Next Door—not so much literally anywhere in the continental United States, but definitely if you live in India or Sri Lanka

Having read in this genre before, I knew this book could go one of two ways: 1) memoir of her life up until the point of writing or 2) sporadic, jumping around commentary on life. This book was oddly a mix of the two. Mindy followed her life pretty steadily until she broke into writing and then skipped around with parts that sounded like bits she had no show to write them into. I enjoyed the first part more than the second half. I would have liked to hear more about Mindy on The Office. She devoted one chapter to it and while it was the longest of her chapters, it was still short in comparison to the length of the book.

Mindy portrays herself in a very relatable light. She seems like your average everyday young woman and I think many people have a friend who is reminiscent of Mindy. It was refreshing to read that someone who is invited to awards shows also sits at home in her pajamas or cries over TV shows or calls their mom when something weird happens with her eye. She did seem to focus a lot on how she looked and fret about it, which was something I hadn’t read in a memoir before but I can most certainly understand.

There weren’t any major characters in Mindy’s story. Her parents showed up from time to time, as did her brother, and then a few roommates from college but no one who was a major part of Mindy’s story through the whole thing. I noticed this in a few other memoirs I read about celebrities and I wonder if there’s some celebrity editor who recommends this. How do I get that job?

Mindy Kaling Image via Paste Magazine

Mindy Kaling
Image via Paste Magazine

Mindy made a few predictions in the book which have wound up being true. First was a female Ghostbusters and the second was an Oceans 5 but which will actually be Oceans 8 but close enough. There were some things that dated the book as well. Most notably the Blackberry references and talking about how Amy Poehler and Will Arnett are a great couple that all couples should strive to be like. While funny and grounding, these made the book feel ‘old’ six years after publication.

I think this book would have been better as an audiobook. I know Kaling’s style only as far as Kelly is a reflection of how she really talks. If Kelly is nothing like her, I have no idea how some of her jokes were supposed to come off. I might have missed a few that fell flat without her inflection. I couldn’t tell if she was actually at odds with Rainn Wilson or if they were the kind of super-close friends who rag on each other all the time. Audiobook could have helped there.


Mindy stresses her body image a lot. As a woman in Hollywood, she’s pressured to fit into a certain body style and she just doesn’t do that. She says she’s the average American woman and I would argue she’s probably a little smaller than average. Anyway, she’s constantly forced to dress in a way that stylists think is appropriate for her body type instead of what she wants. She talks about the pushback she’s gotten from this and I think it’s her main message. She’s trying her best to be comfortable in her own skin but she’s pushed back on a lot. I think Kaling is a good role model for girls. She’s a minority, a woman, and not a size 0 but she’s still funny. That’s a great combination.

Writer’s Takeaway: The second half of the book seemed thrown together to me. Her stories would bounce back to college or The Office and there wasn’t a strong sense of a timeline like there had been in the first half. I would have liked a little more structure to it.

A fun and quick read by a funny woman. 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:
Review: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling | Book Spoils
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling | Literary and Lovely

Book Review: Away by Amy Bloom (3/5)

14 Feb

The page-a-day book themed calendar I had in 2013 has struck again! This calendar filled my Goodreads shelves when I fist started using the software and there are many on there to this day that I have yet to read. (Actually 6, I just checked.) It won me over saying only that it was set in the 1920s. It doesn’t take much prodding to get me to read if that’s the setting.

Cover image via Goodreads

Cover image via Goodreads

Away by Amy Bloom

Summary from Goodreads:

Panoramic in scope, Away is the epic and intimate story of young Lillian Leyb, a dangerous innocent, an accidental heroine. When her family is destroyed in a Russian pogrom, Lillian comes to America alone, determined to make her way in a new land. When word comes that her daughter, Sophie, might still be alive, Lillian embarks on an odyssey that takes her from the world of the Yiddish theater on New York’s Lower East Side, to Seattle’s Jazz District, and up to Alaska, along the fabled Telegraph Trail toward Siberia.

Lillian’s story was epic, to say the least. What started as a young immigrant trying to make a living in New York turned to the story of a mistress and from there to a murderer to a convict and finally to a frontierswoman. She endured the hardships of every place she went to an extent that bordered on unbelievable. Each part of her journey could have been a short story that, strung together, was Lillian’s journey from Russia to New York to Alaska.

I enjoyed the side characters in this story and I think Bloom knew she created some great ones. Lillian endures and while that’s admirable, she’s very fluid, adapting to what’s around her at the time. It’s the people she’s adapting to that make the story interesting. The Burstein men are hiding secrets left and right and Lillian becomes an accomplice. Gumdrop wants to redefine her life and sees Lillian as a kindred spirit though they are so different. John Bishop is quiet and introspective and his fierce loyalty has already caused him one heartbreak. Each of these characters (and others I haven’t mentioned) were very different from each other and from Lillian. They marked her journey to Alaska and are what made it memorable.

Gumdrop was a favorite of mine. She seemed very bland at first and desperate. But as she reveals her story to Lillian, talking about her mother and child, she becomes a much deeper character. I loved the scene with her, Lillian, and Snooky. It was dark but really showed Gumdrop’s strength and all Lillian would do for Sophie. I adored that Bloom gave us short stories about what happened to the strongest side characters after Lillian leaves their lives. Gumdrop has the best story, in my opinion, and lives out the dream she always wanted.

I related best to Lillian when she was living in New York. While she wanted to work, she was also forced to act the perfect wife which I think a lot of modern women can relate to. She felt cooped up in the apartment waiting for Meyer and she would get upset when he’d come later than expected. She wanted to be respected and valued and I’m sure every woman has wanted this from someone in their life, either a father, boss, friend, teacher or romantic partner. Unfortunately, we still live in a society where some men want women in traditional roles and more and more women are finding them unfulfilling.

Amy Bloom Image via the author's website

Amy Bloom
Image via the author’s website

I found Lillian’s walk to Dawson most intriguing and a bit unbelievable. Maybe I didn’t catch it, but how could she have survived with no shelter in the cold in that part of Canada? Were there cabins each a day’s walk from each other? They weren’t all mentioned, to be sure, but there had to have been something to keep her going. Her food was explained and with snow around, water wouldn’t have been an issue, it’s the shelter that gets me. Anyway, it was sill my favorite part of the book. Her determination is evident and so strong. Each step, she knows it’s to find Sophie that she continues and while she’s excited, she also seems scared and rightfully so. I saw how strong Lillian was in this part.

The ending was my least favorite part and I’m going to talk about it here so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want it spoiled. I thought Lillian gave up too easily. It wasn’t like her to give up. She was so determined and spent so much time trying to get to Siberia just to give up, especially when someone who wanted to help her showed up. I get that she had almost no chance of finding Sophie, but she was so sure it could happen. Maybe they were both better off with the way things turned out, but I think Lillian would have kept pushing forward.

The audiobook was narrated by Barbara Rosenblat and I thought she did an amazing job. She gave Lillian an appropriate accent and portrayed the numerous side characters in great ways. Her voice was good for a sweeping narrative of America and Canada which follows a Russian Jewish immigrant. That’s got to be a niche market.

Lillian is driven by love for her daughter. That’s a very powerful force. She comes to respect her late husband less and less which is sad, but her love for Sophie never wavers. The things she did to get to Sophie from letting men take advantage of her to murder to unimaginable physical pain are incredible. That love drove this novel.

Writer’s Takeaway: As a reader, I hate when characters are dropped and I’m left wondering what happened to them. I felt Bloom gave her side characters good closure without dwelling on them. Gumdrop or Chinky or the Bursteins are wrapped up nicely, with just enough information to keep my wandering mind at bay. I liked this technique a lot.

A good read but a bit unbelievable and a bit disappointing in the end. 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 Post:
Just my final thoughts on the ending of Amy Bloom’s ‘Away’ | The Northshore Book Club

Book Review: El misterio de la guia de ferrocarriles by Agatha Christie (4/5)

9 Feb

At my old job, I made friends with a Mexican engineer who was in the US on a work assignment. Right before he left, he gave me this book as a gift so I could read it and practice my Spanish. I gave him Of Mice and Men in return and I feel it was a fair trade. It’s been a few years that I’ve been hanging onto it but I’m glad I could make it my Spanish read for 2017.

Cover image via Amazon

Cover image via Amazon

El misterio de la guía de ferrocarriles (The A.B.C. Murders) by Agatha Christie

Summary from Goodreads:

There’s a serial killer on the loose, bent on working his way through the alphabet. And as a macabre calling card, he leaves beside each victim’s corpse the ABC Railway Guide open at the name of the town where the murder has taken place. Having begun with Andover, Bexhill and then Churston, there seems little chance of the murderer being caught – until he makes the crucial and vain mistake of challenging Hercule Poirot to frustrate his plans.

This was my first Christie novel and reading it in Spanish was a fun twist! I really enjoyed Poirot and Hastings though I kept getting feelings of Holmes and Watson. I don’t know either very well so it’s likely from watching Sherlock over my husband’s shoulder. I kept paying close attention, hoping I would pick up on the answer to the mystery, but when Poirot explained how he figured it out in the end, I realized I never could have figured it out from what I read. I was a little disappointed in that. I made an effort to read very carefully and slowly so I could absorb all the details. Oh well.

I’m sure there are people with minds like Poirot who would figure out cases like this, but it seems extraordinary to me. I’m more like Hastings, thinking I’m investigating something and in the end having no idea what I’m doing. People with that extraordinary ability should be in law enforcement and I’m guessing they are and that’s why I don’t know them. It did seem a bit over the top. But then again, a murder-solving character should, right?

Cust was a fun character. I really believed he was guilty because of how suspicious he acted but Poirot’s explanation of what happened to him made me feel bad for him. I like when an author can change how I perceive a character as quickly as Christie did with Cust. All of his emotions took on a very different light quickly.

I sympathized with Thora Grey. I felt she had a lot of assumptions thrust on her and that’s something I think a lot of women face regardless of how they look. Thora did her job well and Franklin assumed she would marry his brother, assuming Carmichael would fall in love with her. None of this was through any fault of her own and she was dedicated to continuing her job after Carmichael died. I felt she was unjustly punished and if I were her, I would have been much more upset than she was.

Agatha Christie Image via Biography.com

Agatha Christie
Image via Biography.com

I enjoyed the murder scene investigations. I thought the way Japp and Poirot looked at the scene were very telling of who knew what was going on and who didn’t. I would have been inclined to look at things like Japp did but when Poirot started asking questions, I could see his logic and the genius behind what he asked, particularly of Megan Barnard.

I was really disappointed that some of the evidence Poirot used to identify the murderer wasn’t in the text. I began to suspect that Cust was a red herring but I wanted to find the clues myself and I couldn’t do that with what Poirot used to solve the case.


I’m going to talk blatantly about the murderer now so if you want to read this book for yourself, I recommend skipping to the next paragraph. Franklin was so greedy that he developed an elaborate scheme to get his brother’s money and I think it speaks volumes to greed at the time this was written. 1936 was a global recession and I can only imagine that Franklin felt he would be more secure with his brother’s money and avoid any kind of downfall that might happen to a poor man. It was sad to me that he would resort to that level and says that he wasn’t close with his brother growing up. I know my brother and I weren’t particularly close, but I would never thinking of murdering him for his money!

Writer’s Takeaway: I liked that Poirot was Belgian. It was good that Christie considered his nationality in parts of the story where it was worth noting that he was a foreigner in the UK. It made him stand out amongst the British police and I think his round-about way of thinking and great detective work was partially due to him wanting to excel against a group he felt outside of. It was a small but very well thought-out detail that enriched the story.

I enjoyed the story but wished I’d had a better chance of guessing the ending. 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:
El Misterio De La Guía de Ferrocarriles | El Príncipe De Las Mil Historias

Book Review: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (2/5)

31 Jan

I think it was my cousin who said I would like this book. It was easily available on audio so I decided to give it a try once I finished some nice, long audiobooks and was looking for something shorter. I now know that my cousin hates me, so that’s refreshing. This book drove me crazy and I’m trying to be polite and think that listening to it rather than reading it made it worse than it would have been otherwise. I’m trying to be nice.

Cover image via Goodreads

Cover image via Goodreads

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Summary from Goodreads:

In this vivid portrait of one day in a woman’s life, Clarissa Dalloway is preoccupied with the last-minute details of party preparation while in her mind she is much more than a perfect society hostess. As she readies her house, she is flooded with far-away remembrances. And, met with the realities of the present, Clarissa reexamines the choices she has made, hesitantly looking ahead to growing old.

I couldn’t stand the scream of consciousness in this book. I got so confused as to who was narrating and if what I was hearing was narration or thought and it was beyond frustrating as an audiobook. The only thing I really got out of the book is that everyone is very selfish except for Lucrezia. It made me want to smack Clarissa and punch Peter for being so full of themselves. Maybe they should have ended up together. They might not have noticed because they would have been so caught up in themselves that they wouldn’t bother to talk to the other. I was frustrated with most of the characters and I found some of them, like Dr. Holmes, unnecessary in the plot. I read that Clarissa’s story is supposed to parallel Septimus’ but I didn’t see that very well. I thought she might end up dead like he did but, alas, this isn’t The Awakening.

I hope most of these characters are an exaggeration of real people. Clarissa was so distraught over not being invited to a luncheon and others are so upset over not being invited to her dinner party. Richard seems to forget that he’s married at all and seems blown away by the idea he should show affection toward his wife. I hope these characters are a reflection of their time; when relationships between people were less familiar than the ones we see today. The thoughts that the characters scared was slightly scary only because some of them were so extreme.

Lucrezia was my favorite character only because she was the most logical person to me. Everyone was pining after someone else but I thought it more reasonable that she was pining after a healthy version of her husband and not a lost friend, lost love, or a version of herself she’d never achieve. She really cared for her husband and was doing all she could to keep him in his right mind and help him get better.

As much as I hated Clarissa, I could relate to her pining for her past and wanting to know how things could have been different if she’d made different choices. I think everyone thinks this way sometimes. If I’d chosen a different college or dated a different person in high school, would I have ended up where I am? Maybe not.

There wasn’t a part of the book that stuck out to me and that I enjoyed. A lot of the book ran together for me. On audio, it seemed like it wasn’t broken up by chapter or had any break between characters. It was seven hours of whining.

Clarissa was my least favorite of the narrators because she seemed the most self-absorbed and the most superficial. I could find moderately redeeming things in the other characters, but anything Clarissa talked about made me roll my eyes.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Juliet Stevenson. I don’t think Stevenson’s reading added anything to this book for me, but I don’t think it detracted from the book either. She seemed very whiny but the book called for that. My frustration was with the material so I won’t pretend that Stevenson had anything to do with how little I enjoyed this book.

If we’re all so obsessed with ourselves, we’ll never realize how much other people are obsessed with themselves. I struggle a bit with anxiety so as I write this, I feel hypocritical. As much as each character thought their problems were the biggest ones in the world and as much as they dwelt on their problems, other people had bigger issues and no one was helping anyone else. We’re all so obsessed with our own ‘dinner parties’ that we don’t stop and look around us and see other people struggling on their own with much bigger problems.

Writer’s Takeaway: Stream of consciousness is not something everyone enjoys but there are some people obsessed with this book. I, obviously, am not one of them. You’re never going to please every reader, so don’t try.

This was not a book for me and I don’t recommend it at all. Two out of Five stars.

This book fulfilled the 1920-1939 time period in my When Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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

Related Posts:
Mrs Dalloway | The Novels of Virginia Woolf
The meaning of the omnibus in Mrs Dalloway | Blogging Woolf
Mrs Dalloway’s Party – Virginia Woolf (1973)  | Heavenali

Book Review: World Without End by Ken Follett (5/5)

30 Jan

My mom has always been a fan of Follett’s and I read his first book, The Pillars of the Earth, and loved it. I put this second book on my TBR but took my sweet time getting to it because I knew it would be long and it would take me a long time to get through it. It was a real struggle. I listened to it on eaudio and lost the hold, having to wait almost three months before I got it back and still did not finish it. I got through the last 8 hours with a book-on-CD edition that was equivalent to a passenger in my car for about a month. Per Goodreads, it took me over five months to read this book. And I loved every minutes of it!

Cover image via Goodreads

Cover image via Goodreads

World Without End by Ken Follett (The Pillars of the Earth #2)

Other books by Ken Follett reviewed on this blog:

Pillars of the Earth (5/5)

Summary from Goodreads:

World Without End takes place in the same town of Kingsbridge, two centuries after the townspeople finished building the exquisite Gothic cathedral that was at the heart of The Pillars of the Earth. The cathedral and the priory are again at the center of a web of love and hate, greed and pride, ambition and revenge, but this sequel stands on its own. This time the men and women of an extraordinary cast of characters find themselves at a crossroad of new ideas— about medicine, commerce, architecture, and justice. In a world where proponents of the old ways fiercely battle those with progressive minds, the intrigue and tension quickly reach a boiling point against the devastating backdrop of the greatest natural disaster ever to strike the human race—the Black Death.

I was a little skeptical that this book wouldn’t live up to the first one but man, was I worried about nothing. This book was incredible from the beginning and I loved every second of it. I cared about every character (maybe Ralph not so much) and I adored getting to know them and watching them grow up during the book. The length was daunting but I knew it also meant getting rich characters and a deep plot.

I loved the variety of characters Follett created. It was fun to have two clever young people as the main characters in the story. Watching them grow up and become a man and a woman in charge of their town was rewarding. But Follett has other characters who aren’t as smart and who balanced Merthin and Caris well. Gwenda and Wulfric seem like more grounded examples of people from the time and who made the book seem grounded in history despite Merthin and Caris feeling like people ahead of their time. Ralph helped root the story in a time when military prowess could change a man from an outlaw to an Earl. He was just the right amount of evil for this book.

It was easy to love Caris. She is very modern in how practical she is and how self-sufficient she can be. She loves Merthin, but there are things she finds more important than him and will put him aside to deal with. Her dedication to the hospital is commendable and her logic in a time of crisis makes her stand out. She was saying things that I, as a modern reader, wanted to say. Listening to other medical professionals made her smart, but figuring out what worked and what didn’t was where she excelled. It was like seeing how medical advancements were possible. She was really inspiring.

I related to Caris best. While Gwenda was a good character, she had a lot of terrible things happen to her that I had trouble relating to. Merthin was more of an engineering mind than I am and I’d hate to think I’m anything like Ralph. Caris was almost single-minded in her focus and I know that’s something I do from time to time. Her dedication to something reminded me of myself and how I’ll sometimes ignore my family or other obligations when I have something I’m focusing on.

Ken Follett Image via the author's website

Ken Follett
Image via the author’s website

The Black Death was a great antagonist in this book. Fighting against Philemon, Godwyn, and Ralph was bad, but the Black Death was the best fight in the book. It seemed almost convenient that our main characters were all immune to the disease and I almost wish at least one of them had died of it because it would have been a bit more believable. The fear Kingsbridge expressed at the third outbreak was very justified and I believed that they were willing to forgo so much financially for a chance of missing the plague completely.

All the parts of the book I disliked were about Ralph. He was so angry and mean that every time he narrated, I expected something terrible to happen. I started to expect it. What he did to Gwenda, Tillie, and Philippa was terrible and was made worse by how he justified his actions. He was an awful person but Follett gave him motivations that were believable which was the worst part.

John Lee narrated the audiobook and I was excited to hear his voice. He did an incredible job with Pillars and I knew he’d do a great job with this one. I only hope he does the final book as well. His voices for different characters were distinct without being annoying and they fit the characters well. Wulfric, for example, had a slower cadence to his voice which fit with him being a thoughtful person. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for another book with ‘Lee’ and ‘Follett’ on the cover!

Follett had a lot to say about love. Caris and Merthin had to wait a long time before they could be husband and wife and even then, it would be interrupted. Caris was a nun for a large part of the book and it seemed she was going to put Merthin off indefinitely so she could pursue the hospital. But in the end, like in Pillars, love finds a way. Gwenda and Wulfric were married for most of the book but Gwenda was always jealous and thought Wulfric could be tempted away. She didn’t fully trust him around other women until the end when she finally realized how dedicated Wulfric was. It was touching to see all the fears her narration had put into my head squashed when she realized his dedication.

Writer’s Takeaway: Follett doesn’t let a plotline drop. Small things that happened along the way would come back into play. The very opening scene with the children and Sir/Brother Thomas in the woods played a crucial role in the end. Comments about what was being built or who was ill would come back and be important later. It’s best not to load a reader down with information that isn’t important to the scene and isn’t necessary later in the book. With a book over 1,000 pages long, Follett had to be sure every sentence mattered and he did.

I adored this book and recommend it very highly. You don’t have to read Pillars to enjoy this book, they could be read separately and be loved. A full Five out of Five stars.

This book fulfills the Pre-1500 time period for my When Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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

Related Posts:
World Without End (Ken Follett 2007) | The Discerning Writer
How deeply can a book influence you? | Francette’s Blog

Book Review: The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge (3/5)

26 Jan

I was contacted by Open Road Media and received a copy of this book. I read two other Bainbridge novels which I enjoyed (links below). I thought I might as well take the opportunity to receive a book I was likely to enjoy. This time I was slightly less vested in the characters and maybe that took away from it for me a bit.

Cover image via Goodreads

Cover image via Goodreads

The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge

Other books by Bainbridge reviewed on this blog:

The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress (book club discussion)
Every Man for Himself (4/5)

Summary from Goodreads:

In this stunning novel, award-winning author Beryl Bainbridge offers a fictionalized account of the doomed Antarctic expedition led by Captain Scott in 1912. At once hair-raising and beautiful, here is an astonishing tale of misguided courage and human endurance. The Birthday Boys of the title are Scott and four members of his team, each of whom narrates a section of the book. As the story progresses the reader discovers that these men may not be reliable reporters. Their cocky optimism is both ghastly and dangerous. Brought up to despise professional expertise, their enterprise is lunatic, amateur and gentlemanly. Beryl Bainbridge makes it hauntingly clear: the men are fatally doomed in their bravery, the very stuff of heroes. Captain Scott’s poignant trek becomes, in this remarkable novel, a historical event which prefigures the terrible new world dawning in Europe. It was an inept rehearsal for the carnage of the first world war, the ultimate challenge for the arrogant generals who shared Scott’s skewed notion of courage that led men qualmlessly into harm’s way.

I thought this book was a great fictionalization of an important historical event, something Bainbridge does amazingly well. I knew nothing of the 1912 expedition and maybe that’s because I’m an American and our education focused on who got to the moon first because winning is most important in history, right? Moving past that political tirade, I think the biggest distraction in this novel was the changing points of view. Each person seemed to have a strong relationship with one or two other members and their account would focus on those people and seemed to ignore everyone else so when we switched to another head, I had a hard time remembering who the now-important side characters were. They seemed to have different personalities in different points of view which was interesting but confusing at the same time. It made it hard to remember the characters.

I thought it was really admirable how the men kept moving toward the pole and followed Captain Scott when things seemed so bad. It seems a dedication I’m not sure many people would show today to a cause that seemed so unreachable and defeated. I’m not sure how much of their bravery was fictionalized and how much was historically recorded but Bainbridge painted these men in a rosy light.

I liked the first section, narrated by Taff Evans, best. He was more relatable than the more senior members of the expedition and it made his account easier to read. I could also relate to leaving like Evans was leaving his wife and could relate to the sadness he felt. Though he was less senior, he had a lot more experience than some and his flashbacks and advice gave the novel a good start.

I sympathized most with Titus. At the end when he wanted to push on with everyone else but also wanted to die, I could relate to his feelings of being lost but determined. I think that determination is what keeps me competing in endurance sports. These men had a similar mentality. If someone can do it, why can’t I do it, too? They weren’t the first ones to make it to the pole but they were not going to turn back and not make it because of that.

Beryl Bainbridge Image via the British Council

Beryl Bainbridge
Image via the British Council

I enjoyed the detail of living in a camp at such cold temperatures. I think of camping in the summer and being so warm in my tent. I never would have thought of being as cold as these men were and the idea of a sleeping bag freezing seems ludicrous to me. It also blew me away how long the men were gone. This was 1910, there was no taking a plane over and jumping on a snowmobile to get to the pole. It was a very strenuous commitment that the men didn’t undertake lightly.

I was expecting an abrupt end from Bainbridge and while I think a lot of people will say they disliked that most, I’m going to say the nicknames and head-hopping together made it frustrating for me. Everyone had a different name for the same person and for a while, I thought there were 20 or so people on the expedition. I didn’t get that The Owner, Captain Scott, and Con were all the same people. That was really frustrating.


Humans can be bull-headed once we’ve set our minds to something. Like myself as an endurance athlete, these men weren’t going to give up on their goal no matter how bleak it looked. Human determination can be an amazing thing but it can also be deadly, as this book shows. I see this story as a cautionary tale not to be so focused on a goal that you ignore your humanity.

Writer’s Takeaway: Bainbridge’s style is very casual and I like that about her. It feels like Taff or Birdie is telling you the story or wrote it in his journal to be read later. Nothing sounds too explained or detailed, everything is very much how the men would describe it. I sometimes struggle with first person narration because I want to give details but I know my point of view character wouldn’t provide that detail. I think Bainbridge does this well.

Good and enjoyable but not my favorite of her work. Three out of Five Stars.

This book fulfilled the 1900-1919 time period for my When Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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

Related Posts:
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The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge ** | Seattle Book Mama

Book Review: South of Broad by Pat Conroy (5/5)

23 Jan

I don’t know why I thought this book would be boring. All I knew was that it was about Charleston, SC. I have a cousin who loves living there but for some reason, that told me it would be boring. This book was awesome. It had love and death and racial tension and homophobia and murder and stardom and a bunch more. I loved it all the way through. I can’t wait to discuss it with my book club next week.

Cover image via Goodreads

Cover image via Goodreads

South of Broad by Pat Conroy

Summary from Goodreads:

Against the sumptuous backdrop of Charleston, South Carolina, South of Broad gathers a unique cast of sinners and saints. Leopold Bloom King, our narrator, is the son of an amiable, loving father who teaches science at the local high school. His mother, an ex-nun, is the high school principal and a well-known Joyce scholar. After Leo’s older brother commits suicide at the age of thirteen, the family struggles with the shattering effects of his death, and Leo, lonely and isolated, searches for something to sustain him. Eventually, he finds his answer when he becomes part of a tightly knit group of high school seniors that includes friends Sheba and Trevor Poe, glamorous twins with an alcoholic mother and a prison-escapee father; hardscrabble mountain runaways Niles and Starla Whitehead; socialite Molly Huger and her boyfriend, Chadworth Rutledge X; and an ever-widening circle whose liaisons will ripple across two decades- from 1960s counterculture through the dawn of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

The ties among them endure for years, surviving marriages happy and troubled, unrequited loves and unspoken longings, hard-won successes and devastating breakdowns, and Charleston’s dark legacy of racism and class divisions. But the final test of friendship that brings them to San Francisco is something no one is prepared for.

I loved these characters. Sheba, Trevor, and Niles stood out the most to me and I thought they were great. Sheba and Trevor were so strong because of what they’d been through as children and I think that made them so likable. I liked that the AIDS epidemic was a big part of this book and I liked that though racial integration was a big part of this book, we were told the story through the eyes of someone who already believed in equality. Others had to be convinced, but Leo and the other Kings were already on board. The secondary characters in this book were great, too. Mrs. King was very memorable as was Wormey. I’ve never been to Charleston but Conroy had a way of making it come alive that I admired. The setting was truly a character in this book.

Trevor and Sheba were a bit over the top, but that was part of their charm. I thought everyone else was very grounded in reality, especially Ike and Chad. Chad was the deplorable person we all needed to hate with so many lovable characters in this story. Without a person to dislike, I might have disliked Fraser for no other reason that she was a bit annoying. Leo was a good narrator and I liked that he had his own story in addition to the main action. His relationship with Starla was sad but also pivotal to the story. His mother’s travels from the convent were a great background and gave a reason the King family was so rooted in Catholicism. All in all, the characters made this story.

If I have to pick a favorite, it was Trevor. He had to face a lot of criticism because of his sexuality and he always did it with a smile on his face and a sarcastic comment ready. He was unafraid of who he was and was so much like his sister that I think it hurt doubly when Sheba died because the twins were broken apart. I adored how much he loved life and every second of it that he was free. I hoped he’d find a million perfect moments.

There were parts of each character that were relatable. I related to Fraser feeling she had to explain her childhood, Niles feeling he was never good enough, Molly feeling she’d made a mistake, and Leo feeling he had to take care of all of his friends all of the time. I think having so many characters helped Conroy give someone for every reader to latch onto.

Pat Conroy Image via USA Today

Pat Conroy
Image via USA Today

I liked the part of the book in San Francisco. Seeing the friends taken out of Charleston solidified for me how united and strong they were. It wasn’t proximity that joined them but a true and deep love for one another. What they did for Trevor was commendable. The financial commitment and the way they threw themselves in harm’s way for a friend was truly heartbreaking and were a joy to read.

Hugo was my least favorite part. I understand that it was the destruction and rebirth of Charleston who, as I said, was almost a character in this book. I also understand it was the ending of one of the most menacing subplots. And I understand that it was probably historically accurate. But to be honest, it didn’t develop any of the characters in a way I found meaningful. It seemed to me that Hugo was something Conroy lived through and he wanted to put his experiences into the book and there wasn’t an editor brave enough to tell him to cut it.

I was jealous of the friendships between the characters and I felt that was the purpose of this book, but explore friendships. This isn’t the first book I’ve read about how wonderful friends can be even when a family can betray. These characters were so lucky to have each other. Without Ike and Niles, Leo would have a missing wife and a reclusive mother. Without Leo, Sheba would have an alcoholic mother, murderous father, and missing brother. These characters found what was missing from their relationships with each other and it was really beautiful.

Writer’s Takeaway: Conroy’s personification of Charleston was most impressive to me. As someone writing a historical novel, I want my setting to come alive and for people to feel like they are in 1929 Chicago. The way Conroy did this with South Carolina was something to envy and emulate if possible. I felt like I could get around the city without a map after reading this.

This was a great book and it really took me by surprise in a good way. A full Five out of Five Stars.

This book fulfills the 1980-1999 time period for my When Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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

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Book Review: States of Confusion by Paul Jury (3/5)

16 Jan

I saw a YouTube video right around the time I started this blog that made me laugh (see link below). It made me decide I wanted to read the creator’s book about his journey around the US. Over three years and one interlibrary loan later, I got my hands on a copy and read through it pretty fast.

Cover image via Goodreads

Cover image via Goodreads

States of Confusion: My 19,000 Mile Detour to Find Direction by Paul Jury

Summary from Goodreads:

Rather than deal with the problems he was facing as a recent college grad, Paul Jury decided to leave them in his rearview mirror. He might not have known the direction his life was headed, but he knew the route he was taking to hit all forty-eight contiguous states on one epic road trip. Filled with plenty of adventure and the unforeseen obstacle (or twelve), this book puts you in shotgun to see where the road takes Paul. All he knows–after crashing on the beer-soaked couch of his younger brother’s frat–is that there’s no going back. Paul Jury graduated from Northwestern University and headed on a road trip before finally getting a gig as a writer in LA.

When I put this book on my TBR, it would have been beyond perfect for me. I had just changed jobs and was entertaining the idea of going back to grad school. I was newly married to my amazing husband and slumming it on a bad apartment while we waited for him to finish his student teaching and for me to recover from a bad job. That’s the frame of mind to be in when reading this book. I tried to reflect on that lost feeling I had at that time when I wasn’t sure where I was going but was content to be on the road there. That’s how Paul must have felt. The jobs he had were OK but not right and he wasn’t sure he was in the right place, to begin with. This is a good book for someone just past a major change in their life, be in ending college, a relationship, or a job. It’s not a travel book. Right now, in 2017, that was what I was looking for and it came up short. I wanted to hear more about the things Paul saw in this 19,000-mile drive and a bit less about his debate to be a writer or not. I appreciated the bits about training for a marathon and living off PB&J but I wanted to hear more about the 4 Corners and surfing in LA. It just wasn’t exactly what I wanted today.

I wasn’t sure what to think of Paul. He was a fraternity guy and seemed to hit a lot of those stereotypes but he also seemed like a bit of a free spirit, which is a very different visual in my mind. I couldn’t tell how much of his personality was what he wanted me to think of him (putting on a face) and how much was credible and real to life. The same goes for Sarah. Because Paul was alone so often, it was hard to judge him based on his interactions with people. A lot of what we get from him is internal dialogue. It makes it hard to figure him out.

I think I’m Sarah. I was someone looking to settle down after school and I thought I had a plan. I got a ‘practical’ degree and had a job lined up when I graduated (in which I lasted six months). I couldn’t understand how Paul was OK with having so little direction and so much uncertainty in his life. Even at the end, when he ‘knows’ where he wants to go, there’s a lot he doesn’t know ahead of him. I related to Sarah who wanted to follow her plan and was frustrated when Paul wanted to deviate. As Paul says there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s who I am and not who he is.

I felt bad for his mom the whole book. She was obviously worried about him but trying to be supportive which was a tough combination. Paul was doing something crazy but admirable at the same time. It would scare me not to know where my (theoretical) son was and know he was in such an unreliable vehicle (or two).

Paul Jury Image via Tutor Profiles

Paul Jury
Image via Tutor Profiles

I liked Paul’s journey around the northwest. I’m trying to find a time this summer to explore that area and it was great to hear him speaking so reverently about the scenery in that part of the country. I will, however, try to make it all the way to Seattle. I’m dying to go and check it out.

I felt a lot of the people Paul visited didn’t add much to the book. I would have liked to either see them play a larger part in his story and be flushed out more or ignored completely to let the story come through better. It felt like name dropping but the names didn’t matter to me.


There are many ‘finding myself’ stories out there and this is an admirable one. Paul set a stiff goal for himself when he said he’d see 48 states in 48 days and sometimes he was reckless to make that goal. I see that in a lot of searching novels. Driving 19,000 miles would give one plenty of time to explore anything that got stuck in your head. The same as seeing Italy and Bali or hiking the Pacific Coast Trail. Everyone will go about it in a different way. I think the idea of a journey helps people along the road and being a writer helps even more. I don’t think it always makes for a good read and unfortunately, that’s where this fell short for me. A journey has stops along the way and for me, Paul didn’t take much from his stops and that made it hard to see the journey as part of him finding himself. He seemed to use the quiet time between places to find himself. He could have meditated or gone for walks to do the same thing. It lacked some meaning to me.

Writer’s Takeaway:  This book is a good study for someone thinking of writing a memoir. Sometimes you need to wait. I think Paul could have taken a lot from his trip but he needed hindsight to see the growth it brought him and see how his journey helped him end up where he needed to be. It seems like this book was primarily written from the blog posts Paul composed along the way and I think they needed a bit more reflecting to give the book the ‘growth’ quality it was going for. Paul’s decisions at the end seemed a bit out of left field. I think he saw them coming, but the reader did not.

Enjoyable to be sure, but not life changing. The images of Indiana and Illinois were switched in my copy. Three out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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

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Roadside Kitsch | Erin Writes

Book Review: Trap by Robert K. Tanenbaum (3/5)

12 Jan

This is a book I never intended to read and probably would have never picked up. My brother’s girlfriend got us all books for Christmas and this was what she picked for me. I’d never heard of the author before and it was outside my usual genre. However, when you finish your book sooner than expected, you grab the next thing you can get your hands on and for me, it was this book.

Cover image via Goodreads

Cover image via Goodreads

Trap (Butch Karp #27) by Robert K. Tanenbaum

Summary from Goodreads:

When a tremendous blast rocks an old school building in East Harlem during a meeting of the New York Charter Schools, killing six and wounding a dozen others, it’s initially blamed on a natural gas explosion. However, as Butch Karp digs a little deeper, he discovers the explosion was the work of a mysterious serial arsonist in the employ of the teacher’s union president, who is angry at the unqualified successes of the charter school movement in New York City and worried for the corrupt public school system. Also involved in the planning and cover-up is a major law enforcement player and a political hack who panders to the union for financial support and gets caught up in the homicidal scheme.

At least that’s the conclusion Butch Karp is operating under when he indicts the pair for murder. But is it a trap? Is there another motive behind the attack that could derail the case? How will Karp discover it and can he do so in time to bring justice to the murdered and maimed? It all ends in the kind of dramatic courtroom showdown that New York Times bestselling author Robert K. Tanenbaum is best at, and that Booklist called “positively balletic.”

That’s not the summary I would have written for this book, but whatever. The book starts out in the middle, flashes forward to the beginning, and then continues chronologically. I wasn’t a huge fan of this only because I knew what was coming along the way. There were two characters the reader was supposed to think was one and it was pretty obvious to me that there were two bad guys. Well, more than two, but whatever. There were two crimes that were being confused but the reader knew they were different pretty quickly. I thought the big reveals were a bit slow and predictable. The book was fast-paced, though. I was, unfortunately, sick over the New Year and this kept me entertained while I recuperated on the couch.

Butch Karp was a good character and I’m glad to hear he has 27 other stories (26 before and one after). I wasn’t aware this was part of a series and it read fine on its own. Butch’s wife was not as well detailed and I’m guessing she has a bigger role in other books but she was a bit bland here. The villains were flushed out but it felt a lot like info dumping to get their back story. Micah and Tommy could have had a conversation to let their story out instead of reading about it in a multi-page catch-up.

Butch’s sons, Giancarlo and Zak, were my favorite characters. They are both on the verge of celebrating their Bar Mitzvahs and Zak has doubts about going through with the process that he comes to terms with though the book. He’s the only real character with growth which is what makes him easy to like. His twin brother seems to be naturally gifted but isn’t arrogant about it so they make a good pair.

The most relatable part of the story was how everyone reacted to the Neo-Nazis and what they had to say. It was hard to read and I hope it was hard for Tanenbaum to write the ignorant and vile things the Neo-Nazi characters would spew about minorities. I thought the author must be really cold to write the things he did, but in one scene he has an entire courtroom fuming mad over what one of the Neo-Nazis says and I felt better that he felt their opinions were as vile as I did.

Robert K. Tanenbaum Image via Publishers Weekly

Robert K. Tanenbaum
Image via Publishers Weekly

I liked that this book addressed how corrupted school systems can be. My husband is a teacher and it has ruined my opinion of the public schools in the US. The low pay rate and high union dues are beyond frustrating, especially as an individual who despises unions. It was a topic I hadn’t read about before and I liked the uniqueness of that.

I was quickly frustrated that the last third of this book was a courtroom hearing. A lot of the facts presented in the trial were rehashing the first part of the book. Very little new information was revealed besides who died in a bombing. It put a sour taste in my mouth because I’d enjoyed a lot of the first part of the book and then couldn’t wait for it to be over.


I was glad that this book had a pretty solid message about Judaism and tolerance. Many times thrillers don’t seem to have much of a message to me. Zak’s internal struggle with his faith and what it means to be Jewish was really uplifting, even as a Christian. Many religions have a celebration for reaching manhood (or womanhood) and it was good to see someone take that celebration so seriously and really mean what he’s doing.

Writer’s Takeaway: Like I’ve said, the internal conflict in this book was its saving grace to me. I think, too many times, authors forget to include and internal and external conflict in their books. While Butch is battling the school system, he’s also dealing with the death of a family friend. Zak is dealing with being kidnapped but also deciding if he’ll go through with his Bar Mitzvah. Having both is very important and helps skeptical readers (like me) connect with a story.

This book was fast paced but was a little lacking in a structure for me. 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 Post:
Book Reviews: Innocence by Heda Margolius Kovaly and Trap by Robert K. Tanenbaum | Buried Under Books