Tag Archives: Book Review

Book Review: The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory

10 Oct

I found this book at a used book sale, I believe. When I started going through audiobooks of books I owned, it made it to that list. When I was getting worried about the When Are You Reading? Challenge this year, I chose this one to help me finish up some hard-to-fill time periods. I always enjoy Gregory so it was no hardship for me!

Cover image via Goodreads

The Other Queen (Plantagenet and Tudor Novels #16) by Philippa Gregory

Other books by Philippa Gregory reviewed on this blog:

The Boleyn Inheritance (4/5)
The Lady of the Rivers (3/5)

Summary from Goodreads:

Two women competing for a man’s heart.
Two queens fighting to the death for dominance.
The untold story of Mary, Queen of Scots.

This dazzling novel from the #1 New York Times bestselling author Philippa Gregory presents a new and unique view of one of history’s most intriguing, romantic, and maddening heroines. Biographers often neglect the captive years of Mary, Queen of Scots, who trusted Queen Elizabeth’s promise of sanctuary when she fled from rebels in Scotland and then found herself imprisoned as the “guest” of George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, and his indomitable wife, Bess of Hardwick.

The newly married couple welcome the doomed queen into their home, certain that serving as her hosts and jailers will bring them an advantage in the cutthroat world of the Elizabethan court. To their horror, they find that the task will bankrupt them, and as their home becomes the epicenter of intrigue and rebellion against Elizabeth, their loyalty to each other and to their sovereign comes into question. If Mary succeeds in seducing the earl into her own web of treachery and treason, or if the great spymaster William Cecil links them to the growing conspiracy to free Mary from her illegal imprisonment, they will all face the headsman.

As always, Philippa Gregory makes history come alive in her historical novels. She has great figures, like Mary, Queen of Scots, speaking in a way that makes her feel real and relatable. She makes sense of a history that at times seems twisted and outlandish. I love that about Philippa Gregory. What I didn’t like about this one is that it felt too strongly settled in history with no fun to it. There seemed to be written accounts of everything Mary said or Bess referenced that stand today. Not much seemed invented and fun. I wished for a little more scandal and maybe a few fewer characters. I miss Gregory’s storytelling that you see in her earlier novels. This one felt a bit too much like a history book.

I’m certain the three narrators are as historically accurate as possible. There’s an author’s note at the end that talks about how the Queen Mary we see in this book is based on new evidence about her plotting and life in prison with the Talbots. I’ve never doubted that Gregory does her research. The three have distinctly different personalities and the audiobook narration did a wonderful job of accenting that. The two women are night and day of each other and George was given a rather distinct, though not admirable, personality.

Bess was my favorite character. George was so weak that he was hard to like and Mary was such a liar I found her hard to like, too. Bess, on the other hand, was smart. She was always thinking of her future and her children’s inheritance. She knew what she wanted and would go after it. She wasn’t afraid to say what she thought, either. I take care of finances in my home and it was fun to see a woman doing that 500 years ago and the pushback she got for doing it!

I think Bess was the most relatable character in the book. She had a great rags-to-riches story and I think she appeals to a modern woman. She was very ahead of her time with how concerned she was about her share in a marriage and amassing wealth. It made her unusual in her own time but someone a modern reader could relate to very well.

Philippa Gregory
Image via Fantastic Fiction

Bess’s back story was fun to read about. She endured a lot to get to where she ended up and it made her easy to root for. I have to imagine there were few people like her in England at that time and it makes it understandable why she liked Cecil and why she would treat Queen Mary the way she did.

I found this book a bit dull in places. It seemed like Gregory was so determined to use all of the historical research she did and include every note between Queen Mary and her friends, conspirators, and lovers, that there was so little action for long stretches of the book. She would sit in the castle and plot for chapters at a time before another plot would come and fail. I felt this should have been sped up a bit and could have done with a few chapters removed. Though, when you get to the sixteenth book in a series, your publisher is probably about done editing you.

The audiobook had three narrators. Jenny Sterlin was the voice of Bess. I thought she did an amazing job. Bess was authoritative and bossy while still being submissive and demure when needed. Sterlin got the anger in Bess’s inner thoughts just right. Stina Nielsen did the voice of Queen Mary and was my favorite of the narrators. She was cunning and sweet at the same time, just marvelous. Ron Keith did the voice of George and I have to say he did well because I hated George as I was supposed to do. He was weak and whining. Ugh. The three narrators together had a tremendous effect and were very helpful for keeping straight if it was Bess or Mary narrating.

Though in school we learned about all the great things Queen Elizabeth I had done, this book shows her darker side. We also see a woman who was executed for treason and a murderous plot and how her deepest wish was to be freed. There are two sides to every story and two sides to many people. While this book shows the dark sides of each woman, it’s important that it shows a positive side to Queen Mary, who history painted in a very dark light.

Writer’s Takeaway: Historical research is paramount for a historical novel but I feel it was overdone here. When I research for my historical book, I only end up putting about 30% into the story. The rest is for me to know and build a back story for my characters. I think that’s important to remember and sometimes, authors seem too eager to throw everything into a book and I feel the plot can suffer for it.

Enjoyable but a bit dense. Three out of Five Stars.

This book fulfilled the 1500-1599 time period in 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:
Discussion Questions – ‘The Other Queen’ by Philippa Gregory | Tudor Blogger
The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory: a tale of two women, if not more… | Vulpes Libris
Book Review: The Other Queen, Philippa Gregory | Love London Love Culture

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Book Review: Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins (4/5)

9 Oct

I met Watkins over a year ago when I went to the Midwest Literary Walk and heard her speak. The book sounded interesting, like a better form of California, and I bought a copy. Unfortunately, it took me so long to get to it but I’m glad I finally did.

Cover image via Goodreads

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

Summary from Goodreads:

In a parched southern California of the near future, Luz, once the poster child for the country’s conservation movement, and Ray, an army deserter turned surfer, are squatting in a starlet’s abandoned mansion. Most “Mojavs,” prevented by armed vigilantes from freely crossing borders to lusher regions, have allowed themselves to be evacuated to encampments in the east. Holdouts like Ray and Luz subsist on rationed cola and water, and whatever they can loot, scavenge, and improvise.

For the moment, the couple’s fragile love, which somehow blooms in this arid place, seems enough. But when they cross paths with a mysterious child, the thirst for a better future begins.

I was pretty spot on by thinking this would be a better version of California. It was similar at the beginning, talking about a futuristic American West that descended into chaos due to an environmental crisis. I thought this book had more to it. The introduction of a child, Ig, into Ray and Luz’s lives was a great addition. I liked the bit of background we got about these two and their path forward in life. I thought it was interesting that the plot shifted to the Amargosa but Levi and his cult of followers were really interesting and it got into Watkins’ life a bit as well. Her father was a member of Charles Manson’s Family but eventually testified against Manson and left the group. I found it interesting that Watkins would choose to talk about this topic in her book but she made it seem very natural for Luz to join the group and I wondered if this was a way for her to explore what could bring her late father into such a group.

My inscription from Watkins.

I found Ray and Luz very realistic. When there’s not much to do, you either make things to do or lay around. When you think someone is being mistreated, you either act or do nothing. When you think someone is dead, you let go or hold on. They were opposites of each other in all of these ways yet they continued to come together and be good for each other. I thought it was very real to have them still so attracted to each other.

Ray was my favorite of the two. He was more like myself in the ways he reacted to the situations he found himself in. He was resourceful and determined and I admired his loyalty more than anything else. He’s the kind of guy I would want to have with me if I was living in a water-deprived world like Luz found herself.

There wasn’t much in this book that I could relate to. The conditions they lived in were very harsh and the decisions they had to make were very removed from the reality of the modern world I live in. Though, being unrelatable didn’t make me like this book any less. It was very escapist and a fun story.

Me and Claire Vaye Watkins

The end of the book with Levi was most interesting to me. I never would have expected the book to take a turn toward cults when I started it. Having Ray convincing Luz that she was being manipulated was hard to read about but I was rooting for Ray the whole time. Knowing what I did about Watkins’ family, I found it even more engaging and wondered how much was drawn from her father’s story.

I was bothered by Ray and Luz taking Ig at first. I was mad to think they could just take a child, even if that child seemed to be mistreated and not cared for properly. I wondered if she was being cared for by a reckless older brother for the day when there was a proper, caring mother waiting for her girl to return home. I never stopped thinking that and at the end, I wondered if Ig was better off having been taken or not.

 

Survival was a key theme in this book. There were many things the characters did to survive and they had to give up parts of themselves and their identities to survive. Ray gave up his driver’s license and his ties to the military. Luz gave up her comforts and Ig. It’s up to the reader to decide if it was worth it. I’m inclined to say some of it was, but other parts were not worth losing.

Writer’s Takeaway: Watkins created a terrifying future because it’s so easy to see something like this happening. Climate change has started to affect our world in startling ways. If not checked, could we see a growing desert in the southwest that slowly moves to overtake other parts of the country? Would animals really evolve to survive so quickly? Speculative fiction is so scary because it’s so eerily similar to our world and we can see it coming to pass. I feel Watkins did a great job of moving our world to a terrifyingly realistic crisis.

A fun read though I thought the plot was just a bit wandering. Four out of Five stars.

This book fulfills the ‘Future’ time period 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:
“This isn’t any ordinary debut novel” – Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins | Bookmunch
Review: Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins | wildeonmyside
Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus | Reviews from Pages Books on Kensington
Review of “Gold Fame Citrus” by Claire Vaye Watkins | Rhapsody in Books

Book Review: Armada by Ernest Cline

3 Oct

It was over two years ago that I bought this book. I was in Chicago for a conference and my bookstore exploring found me a signed copy of Armada right after I’d read and enjoyed Ready Player One. I was ready for some more Cline in my life. But then, of course, things got in the way and it’s only now that I’m getting to this one. I actually enjoyed both the ebook and audiobook of this one since my hold returned the ebook before I could finish it.

Cover image via Goodreads

Armada by Ernest Cline

Other books by Ernest Cline reviewed on this blog:

Ready Player One (5/5)

Summary from Goodreads:

Zack Lightman has spent his life dreaming. Dreaming that the real world could be a little more like the countless science-fiction books, movies, and videogames he’s spent his life consuming. Dreaming that one day, some fantastic, world-altering event will shatter the monotony of his humdrum existence and whisk him off on some grand space-faring adventure.

But hey, there’s nothing wrong with a little escapism, right? After all, Zack tells himself, he knows the difference between fantasy and reality. He knows that here in the real world, aimless teenage gamers with anger issues don’t get chosen to save the universe.

And then he sees the flying saucer.

Even stranger, the alien ship he’s staring at is straight out of the videogame he plays every night, a hugely popular online flight simulator called Armada—in which gamers just happen to be protecting the earth from alien invaders.

No, Zack hasn’t lost his mind. As impossible as it seems, what he’s seeing is all too real. And his skills—as well as those of millions of gamers across the world—are going to be needed to save the earth from what’s about to befall it.

It’s Zack’s chance, at last, to play the hero. But even through the terror and exhilaration, he can’t help thinking back to all those science-fiction stories he grew up with, and wondering: Doesn’t something about this scenario seem a little…familiar?

That’s one heck of a description, huh? The description of this book made it sound like a cross between Ender’s Game and War Games and even after finishing it, I would make that comparison. The writing was great, much like Cline’s other novel, but it didn’t seem to be as original an idea as his first book. Honestly, I may have liked this one more if it hadn’t been the second Cline I read. I had super high expectations and while this was good, it wasn’t great.

Because of the compressed time frame, I felt most of the characters were really flat. Even Zack didn’t develop too much. There was a lot made about his anger issues, but they seemed to fizzle out with little notice when the plot got going. This was definitely a plot-driven novel and the characters really took a back seat.

There wasn’t a singular character I felt any attachment to. I liked Lex, but only because she was fun and quirky. I didn’t care too much what happened to her. Zack’s mom was likable but didn’t have much of a role. Xavier was hard to figure out and seemed both insane and reliable which made him hard to trust. With how flat I felt Zack was, I didn’t attach too much to a character in this book.

Their experiences were too unique for me to feel very attached to anyone, either. I was never super into video games so I didn’t relate to that culture and I’ve obviously not been a part of an alien invasion effort, so that was hard to sympathize with, too.

Ernest Cline
Image via G4TV.com

I was most interested in the interplay between Zack and his father. I’m not sure what I thought of it, though. I figured it would either be ‘well, you’re still a total stranger’ where they’d be super skeptical of each other, or ‘long lost loving father!’ and they’d be inseparable. It was neither of those and I found it interesting to see when they started to trust one another.

This is minimal, but it really bothered me that Zack’s mom had another baby. How fertile is this woman that she gets pregnant when she’s not even trying after being with her husband for 2 hours? It was too convenient and not necessary to the plot of the book. I think it should have been left out.

I listened to the second half of this book after enjoying the beginning as an ebook. Wil Wheaton narrated the audio and I thought he did well. He put slight accents on for the other soldiers and it was enough to tell them apart without it being distracting. I’d heard he was really good at narrating Ready Player One but that was an ebook for me. I’m glad I finally got to hear it!

Xavier and Zack had to be brave to speak out. When they did, it was still hard and then had to take things into their own hands. The information that Xavier gained access to wasn’t supposed to be available to everyone but having it changed everything. I think Cline’s point was about freedom of information, but more about not being afraid to speak up when you need to. For Zack, it saved the world.

Writer’s Takeaway: Cline’s writing is great for people the age of his character but also for the generation before that. His inclusion of 80s and 90s references is always welcome for those who remember them, but not so overwhelming as to put off someone who doesn’t. That’s what readers loved about his first book and while not as strong here, they’re still fun.

This book was fun, but I had high expectations. 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:
Ernest Cline’s Armada Invades Science Fiction | Narrative Species
Armada- Ernest Cline | Lucybird’s Book Blog
Armada by Ernest Cline | Literary Escapist

Book Review: Still Life by Louise Penny (4/5)

21 Sep

I’ve been away from my book clubs a lot. It’s nice to have a book to read again. I wasn’t as excited about this one as I have been for others. I’m not much for mysteries and I’d just started one on my own. I’m curious how we’ll discuss the book still.

Cover image via Goodreads

Still Life (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #1) by Louise Penny

Summary from Goodreads:

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec and his team of investigators are called in to the scene of a suspicious death in a rural village south of Montréal and yet a world away. Jane Neal, a long-time resident of Three Pines, has been found dead in the woods. The locals are certain it’s a tragic hunting accident and nothing more but Gamache smells something foul this holiday season…and is soon certain that Jane died at the hands of someone much more sinister than a careless bowhunter.

There were parts of this book I liked and parts I really disliked. I think a lot of effort went into building Gamache, Nichol, and Beauvior for future installments. I’m still iffy on if I’d read more in this series so a lot of that was lost on me, but I can understand why an author would do it. The mystery was fun with some good twists and turns. It was interesting to read it along the other one I was going through because it made it obvious how much better this book was.

Penny built some great characters. It’s sad to think the community of Three Pines was put together just for this book. I would hope they’d keep showing up in future Gamache stories with how well-developed they were. Nichol was one of the least developed but most interesting to me. I think she’ll develop a lot in future books. I only wish we’d gotten to see more of it in this one. It was hard for me not to picture Gamache like the Poirot played on the BBC show. It was a perfect match in my head!

I usually try to avoid picking the main character as my favorite character, but in this case, Gamache is the obvious choice. He was very honorable and very smart. I understood why he was mad at Nichol and I got mad at her, too. I understood why he liked Clara and why he became involved in Three Pines and I wanted to be involved and get to know everyone, too. He was a good narrator for this book and I’m glad that, despite the head hopping, the story usually returned to him.

Nichol reminded me of myself at my first job. I was not good at it and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to do it better! My supervisor would get mad and I’d follow his instructions on how to perform my job better but it was never enough. I’d like to think I’m a bit more self-aware than Nichol because I didn’t blame my problem elsewhere or try to make bad jokes but I understood how frustrated she felt. It’s infuriating.

Louise Penny Author picture via Time

I liked the reveal of Jane’s home. I thought that was a great point and a wonderful way of solving the murder. It was very visual but Penny wrote it well and I could see the home. I wish I could walk inside it, it sounds like a wonder.

Nichol seemed like a lazy add-on to this book, looking at it as only one book in a series. I’m sure she’ll become a more major player later but her introduction seemed unimportant to the plot. I was also not a fan of the head-jumping narration style. Especially listening to it, I was confused.

My audiobook was narrated by Ralph Cosham. I think he did a great job, though the British accent on Canadian characters seemed odd to me. I’ve listened to Cosham before with Animal Farm and The Screwtape Letters and I always enjoy his reading. I had a bit of trouble distinguishing between his voices but other than that, I enjoyed it immensely.

It’s hard to point to a theme in this book. Genre doesn’t always lend itself well to that. The closest I can think of is Gamache’s lessons to Nichol. She failed to listen, to observe what was around her. It would do her well to look past her vanity and see what others were feeling and thinking. It’s a skill she’ll have to perfect if she’s going to excel in her career at all!

Writer’s Takeaway: One thing that could have been better was developing Nichol. I’m intrigued and I want to know more about her, but I wish more had come out in this book. With how things were left, I’m wondering if she’ll be a part of the next book and I’d be very disappointed if she was not. I was also a bit put off by the head-hopping. It was better than I’ve seen it done elsewhere, but still a bit off-putting.

I liked the book but I’m unsure if I’ll read more in the series. Cozy mysteries are just not my cup of tea. 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:
Still Life by Louise Penny | the redheaded reader
Still Live by Louise Penny | In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

Book Review: The Detroit Electric Scheme by D.E. Johnson (2/5)

18 Sep

A woman in my book club recommended this book to me a few years ago. I trusted her opinion in books so I put it on my Goodreads TBR and am only now getting around to it. Unfortunately, it was not a book for me. I’ll explain why.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Detroit Electric Scheme (Will Anderson #1) by D.E. Johnson

Summary from Goodreads:

Will Anderson is a drunk, heartbroken over the breakup with his fiancée, Elizabeth. He’s barely kept his job at his father’s company—Detroit Electric, 1910’s leading electric automobile manufacturer. Late one night, Elizabeth’s new fiancé and Will’s one-time friend, John Cooper, asks Will to meet him at the car factory. He finds Cooper dead, crushed in a huge hydraulic roof press. Surprised by the police, Will panics and runs, leaving behind his cap and automobile, and buries his blood-spattered clothing in a garbage can.

What follows is a fast-paced, detail-filled ride through early-1900s Detroit, involving murder, blackmail, organized crime, the development of a wonderful friendship, and the inside story on early electric automobiles. Through it all, Will learns that clearing himself of the crime he was framed for is only the beginning. To survive, and for his loved ones to survive, he must also become a man.

I think I am so critical of this book because it’s a genre I love, historical fiction. And I really love when historical fiction is done well. I did not think that was the case with this book. I felt the historical setting was too detailed; it started to detract from the story. Descriptions of ads for items that were new then and common now, repeated use of the streetcars, and emphasis on inflation were rampant in this story. It got old fast. As a historical fiction writer, there’s a lot of research you do into the time period that never makes it to the page. Johnson seemed eager to cram as much of his research as possible into this book. I also had a lot of problems with characterization. The reader is supposed to love Elizabeth and there’s no good reason. We’re also supposed to believe Wesley is as well-meaning and friendly as he appears but he has no motivation to do so. Will comes off as a bad judge of character and the ending emphasizes the point.

I didn’t believe any of the characters. I’m sure the historical characters (the Dodge brothers, Edsel Ford, Adamo, etc.) were based in recounts of their personalities, but the side characters like John, Judge Hume, Elizabeth, Wesley, and Sapphira were flat. I didn’t like any of them and that was a problem with Wesley and Elizabeth, who I should have liked. Wesley was far too eager to be friends with Will despite Will treating him poorly in the beginning. Wesley seemed to have a death wish with how often he got involved in Will’s schemes which ended with one or both of them injured each time. I honestly don’t know how there can be three more books in this series with how physically damaged Will must be. Elizabeth had no redeeming qualities and was needy beyond reason. The only positive thing about her character is that she used to write Will little love notes. That’s all we get. It wasn’t enough for me.

I can’t say I liked any of the characters. Their decisions seemed illogical and I couldn’t sympathize with any of them. The only time I felt something was when I was squeamish during gory scenes. That’s about it.

D.E. Johnson
Image via The Big Thrill

The one redeeming thing about this book is that it kept moving. There was a lot of action and it kept me coming back to it, even when I wanted to put it down. It went by quickly.

I felt a lot of parts of this book were unnecessary and it became tiresome. Sapphira, some of the times Will was in jail, and most of Elizabeth’s story were unnecessary. I would have liked to see the plot streamlined and the characters better flushed out.

 

Mysteries are not normally books with strong themes and I think this one falls into that norm. Besides rich people having problems like the rest of us, there’s not much of a moral message in Will’s story. I guess not being an alcoholic is a bit of advice.

Writer’s Takeaway: Reading this book has made me very aware of how much I stress the historical setting in my book. While it should be obvious, it shouldn’t be overwhelming. Things that are time-period-specific may need some explanation, but a lot of things haven’t changed as much as we think. I’ll need to trust my reader to figure a few things out without beating them over the head with it.

This book fell really flat for me. Two out of Five stars.

Until next time, write on.

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

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Book Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (4/5)

14 Sep

This was a title that I grabbed by chance at a used book sale. I’d heard of it so chances are it would be good, right? As it turns out, yes. And the reason I’d heard of it was that it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008. Sometimes I need to trust my snap decisions more!

Cover image via Goodreads

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

Summary from Goodreads:

Things have never been easy for Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight, lovesick Dominican ghetto nerd. From his home in New Jersey, where he lives with his old-world mother and rebellious sister, Oscar dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the Fukú-the curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still waiting for his first kiss, is just its most recent victim.

I went into this book blind and it was a great way to do it. I had no idea what to expect of the book and wasn’t even aware it had won the Pulitzer until later. I picked it at the time because it was available on Overdrive without a hold. I was blown away. I really cared about Oscar, Lola, and Beli and I loved the voice Díaz wrote with. I’m really tempted to read more of his books but I’ll save that for a summer full of bad books when I need a pick-me-up.

Lola was the most realistic character to me. Everyone else seemed to have something a bit unbelievable about them, but Lola seemed like someone I might have known in high school. I loved the way she showed she cared about her brother even when she was fighting with her mother. I thought she was really fierce, independent, and brave. I wanted good things for her the entire book.

Beli was the most interesting person in the book. Her background was interesting and revealed at a good pace. She seemed so angry at first and then when you learned about her losses, she was someone I pitied. In the end, I still disliked her only because I sympathized most with Lola and I felt she was a bit overly harsh on Lola compared to Oscar.

Oscar’s nerdy obsessions were very relatable for me. I loved The Lord of the Rings in middle school and always wanted to be a writer. I didn’t have any luck with guys until high school when my friends starting dating in middle school. It felt awful and I can remember my feelings being a lot like Oscar’s in his high school years.

Junot Diaz
Image via NPR

I liked Oscar’s story during college best. Finding out Yunior was the narrator was fun and having Yunior share his life with Oscar was even better. I wanted to be mad at Yunior for how he treated Oscar but I think I would have felt similarly. I felt bad for Oscar when he fell into his depression, to be sure, but I thought his years in college said a lot about him and I enjoyed reading that part.

As much as I liked Beli’s back story, I didn’t like the section of the book focused on her. I don’t think it added as much to Oscar’s story and it seemed like the focus of the book should be on Oscar only because of the title. I would have liked to see a bit more time on him, not just building the characters around him. Sure, the ending might not have been as impactful, but I think Beli’s story could have been at least shortened.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Jonathan Davis. I thought Davis was amazing. He did great accents for the characters and he nailed the Spanish sections of the book. La Inca was sassy when she needed to be and Lola yelled when needed. I was worried about a man bringing the right emotion to these female characters but he really nailed it.

I think the wondrous thing about Oscar’s life is how he chose to end it. It’s fairly clear that he knew his actions were going to get him killed in the end. I think the fact he chose to end his life for a prostitute he didn’t know that well says a lot about him. He was very honorable, as much as it pained him at times. And he placed a lot of value on truth and the beauty of life. No one else in his life seemed to understand this.

Writer’s Takeaway: Flipping through my copy, it seems Díaz was with formatting. I could sense this a little in listening to it. It seemed there were some sudden jumps and it was a little hard to follow how the sections were broken up. Looking at it now, the lack of quotation marks probably would have driven me crazy. Some readers might have been deterred because of the style, even if the story is amazing.

I really enjoyed this book and I completely understand why it earned the accolades it did. 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 Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz | Zeitgeist Reviews

Book Review: Love in the Elephant Tent by Kathleen Cremonesi (4/5)

12 Sep

I love circus books. Goodreads recommended this one to me and I was really excited that my library had it as an ebook. It took me four months to read it only because I read it slowly, before doctors’ appointments and during some lunch breaks. It wasn’t a long time because I didn’t enjoy the story, just because I was reading it in small snatches. I would say I sped up my reading toward the end, excited to see how it ended and also excited to start something new when I finished.

Cover image via Goodreads

Love in the Elephant Tent: How Running Away with the Circus Brought Me Home by Kathleen Cremonesi

Summary from Goodreads:

Kathleen Cremonesi knew early on she wanted to be different. Determined to avoid following in her mother’s footsteps to an ill-fated marriage, Kathleen left Oregon in her early 20s to travel across Europe. On a whim, this former administrative assistant with wanderlust took a job as a dancer in an Italian circus and, working her way up, became an ostrich-riding, shark-taming showgirl.

Kathleen bonds with the exotic animals that could strike and kill at any moment, but instead bring her a peace she has never known. And when she stumbles into the arms of Stefano, the sexy elephant keeper, she finds a man who understands her wild spirit.

I’m glad I read this one. Kathleen has a unique story and it’s good that she got to share it. I don’t know many people who traveled with an Italian circus where the culture, language, and animals were all foreign. Cremonesi has a great memory and I’m sure her journals served her well in recalling her story. Her love story with Stefano is beautiful and very real. I found myself relating to her relationship struggles though mine never took place with sharks and acrobats around!

I thought Kathleen portrayed herself and Stefano in a very realistic light. They weren’t perfect and Kathleen admitted when she made mistakes. Even though Stefano wasn’t perfect, she still loved him. They weren’t always happy, but they made do. I think these are real parts of a relationship. It would have been unbelievable if she had a whirlwind romance in Italy that never turned sour in any way. I’m glad this book wasn’t that.

I almost never say that the protagonist is my favorite character, but I might say Kathleen was my favorite in this book. She was very relatable despite being very different from me. Her life and mine are 100% different but she captured her emotions very well and made it easy to sympathize with her and feel passion for the things she loved. I rooted for her and wanted only good things for her.

I thought it was realistic that Kathleen and Stefano went through some rough times. He was jealous of her love for her family and she was jealous of his love for the elephants. I can think of things in my relationship that I’m unnaturally jealous of (football and Pokemon Go come to mind). And that can be hard sometimes and to overcome the emotions and difficulties are part of growing up, the way Kathleen and Stefano were eventually able to do.

Kathleen Cremonesi Image via Twitter

I enjoyed Kathleen’s slow acceptance of Italian culture. She focused a lot on her difficulty with the language at first but that slowly faded. Then it was her opinions on food and gender roles. Being bilingual and bicultural are completely different things and I liked how Kathleen explored her struggle with both.

A bit of a spoiler here, so skip this paragraph if you’d like. My least favorite part was when the two were separated and Kathleen had another relationship. Hearing about her emotionless intimacies made me sad and when she thought she was pregnant, my heart almost broke for her and Stefano. It was the only time I was mad at Kathleen.

 

I think a lot of people would assume a fling while touring Europe on a whim could never turn into something serious but Kathleen and Stefano disproved that. Their relationship may have started out as ‘something fun to do while we’re here’ but it turned into something very real and lasting. I think it’s a good message to always be open to love, no matter where you are. Kathleen would have missed out on a lifetime of love if she jumped around Europe looking for a new thrill.

Writer’s Takeaway: Memoirs that cover a time well in the past can sometimes paint a very rosy picture. I know Wild was accused of this. I think the journals Kathleen kept let her memories come back to her very sharply and it kept the reality and uncomfortable moments very vivid in her mind. I appreciated that reality in her book.

A fun memoir (a favorite genre) at a circus (a favorite setting). 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:
Love in The Elephant Tent by Kathleen Cremonsi – Blog Tour | Minding My Peas
Review and Author Interview: Love in the Elephant Tent by Kathleen Cremonesi | The Book Binder’s Daughter

Book Review: Chemistry by Weike Wang

28 Aug

If you didn’t read my post about my visit to Elliott Bay Book Company, you probably missed my connection to this book. To summarize, I swam with Weike in high school. We went to different schools but her school did not have a swim team and she swam at my school instead. I came across this book randomly while on vacation and have been able to reconnect with her online and I’m so excited to start talking about the book!

Cover image via Goodreads

Chemistry by Weike Wang

Summary from Goodreads:

Three years into her graduate studies at a demanding Boston university, the unnamed narrator of this nimbly wry, concise debut finds her one-time love for chemistry is more hypothesis than reality. She’s tormented by her failed research–and reminded of her delays by her peers, her advisor, and most of all by her Chinese parents, who have always expected nothing short of excellence from her throughout her life. But there’s another, nonscientific question looming: the marriage proposal from her devoted boyfriend, a fellow scientist, whose path through academia has been relatively free of obstacles, and with whom she can’t make a life before finding success on her own.

Eventually, the pressure mounts so high that she must leave everything she thought she knew about her future, and herself, behind. And for the first time, she’s confronted with a question she won’t find the answer to in a textbook: What do I really want? Over the next two years, this winningly flawed, disarmingly insightful heroine learns the formulas and equations for a different kind of chemistry–one in which the reactions can’t be quantified, measured, and analyzed; one that can be studied only in the mysterious language of the heart. Taking us deep inside her scattered, searching mind, here is a brilliant new literary voice that astutely juxtaposes the elegance of science, the anxieties of finding a place in the world, and the sacrifices made for love and family.

It was hard for me not to picture Weike as the narrator of this book. I knew her as the smart and funny girl on the team who made us all laugh and would never give up. I kept picturing the narrator as a girl with hair up in a sloppy, wet bun with goggle rings around her eyes. If asked, that’s the narrator I pictured, fresh out of the pool. But in reality, I know the narrator of this book isn’t the Weike I knew in high school. Her story, whatever it may be, is not in these pages. That was the biggest struggle I had. Having not spoken to her since 2006, this could be her for all I know. But then it would be an autobiography and real life doesn’t tie up nicely at the end.

I love the plotline that was created for the narrator. Like so many, she thinks she knows her path to happiness and is following it, only to have something change that path. What it is, we’re a bit unsure in this novel. She has a breakdown and everything that made her feel safe falls away. I like how her family background played into this. She has to hide her disappointment and her desire for a change. Really, it’s only her best friend who 100% supports her. I liked this character a lot. I liked that she was sarcastic and loving and hurt. It made the narrator’s reactions seem almost intensified. She’s going through something that started one day in the lab while the best friend had a traumatic thing happen in her life and the two women have to help each other out of ‘it,’ whatever ‘it’ is.

I liked the narrator. The way she told her story jumped around but I enjoyed hearing about the things she was reminded of as she went through life. She thought back to her mother, the things her father said to her growing up, and sayings and advice she’d heard. I think it’s really realistic of how my brain works and I was relieved that there might be someone out there who feels the same way I do.

There are times I’ve wanted to give up like the narrator did. I’ve had times when something, even something I excel in, seems to overwhelm me and makes me want to give it all up and crawl into a hole. I completely understood the narrator’s break and desire to get away from chemistry. I wanted to do the same during my education and seriously considered how much I could leverage 2.5 years of a business and Spanish degree. I had my mother and (now) husband talk me back into school a few times.

Weike Wang
Image via The New York Times

I liked the part about the math student. That felt very real to me. She was debating moving on and meeting someone who was also moving on seemed tempting. I liked that she experienced that and I think what she took away from it was really eye-opening. I think seeing something different can always make a person appreciate what he has.

There wasn’t anything major I disliked about this book. I was frustrated by the best friend’s situation but I didn’t dislike it. I guess not understanding what led the narrator to her breakdown in the first place was the most frustrating. I didn’t sympathize with her as much because there wasn’t a ton building to that point.

Sometimes we have to fall apart to begin again. The book ended with a lot of hope. I had hope that things would work out well for the narrator and that she had her life more together than she thought. I hoped that she would find something to make her happy again, something that would give her the drive and purpose she’d been lacking for so much of the book.

Writer’s Takeaway: I liked the format of this book. With no chapters, I kept telling myself I could read just a bit more and would end up stopping 10 pages later. It was engaging and even though the snapshots were short, they still gave me a lot in each one. I liked fast references to family advice as much as I liked the main plot. It was a fun style to read.

Overall, a short compelling read. I liked the first-generation experience in the book because it was something new to me. Five 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:
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Authors in Real Life: Lisa Ko and Weike Wang | musings

Book Review: Empire Falls by Richard Russo (4/5)

22 Aug

Way back in 2013, I had a Page-a-Day Book calendar. I got a huge number of recommendations from that thing and it kick-started by Goodreads TBR and is very responsible for how long the thing now is. This title was one of those recommendations and part of me wishes I still had it so I could read the blurb that convinced me to add it to my TBR and later buy it from a used book store. Thanks to my readers who picked it on WWW Wednesday as my next book!

Cover Image via Goodreads

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Summary from Goodreads:

Dexter County, Maine, and specifically the town of Empire Falls, has seen better days, and for decades, in fact, only a succession from bad to worse. One by one, its logging and textile enterprises have gone belly-up, and the once vast holdings of the Whiting clan (presided over by the last scion’s widow) now mostly amount to decrepit real estate. The working classes, meanwhile, continue to eke out whatever meager promise isn’t already boarded up.

Miles Roby gazes over this ruined kingdom from the Empire Grill, an opportunity of his youth that has become the albatross of his daily and future life. Called back from college and set to work by family obligations—his mother ailing, his father a loose cannon—Miles never left home again. Even so, his own obligations are manifold: a pending divorce; a troubled younger brother; and, not least, a peculiar partnership in the failing grill with none other than Mrs. Whiting. All of these, though, are offset by his daughter, Tick, whom he guides gently and proudly through the tribulations of adolescence.

A decent man encircled by history and dreams, by echoing churches and abandoned mills, by the comforts and feuds provided by lifelong friends and neighbors, Miles is also a patient, knowing guide to the rich, hardscrabble nature of Empire Falls: fathers and sons and daughters, living and dead, rich and poor alike. Shot through with the mysteries of generations and the shattering visitations of the nation at large, it is a social novel of panoramic ambition, yet at the same time achingly personal. In the end, Empire Falls reveals our worst and best instincts, both our most appalling nightmares and our simplest hopes, with all the vision, grace and humanity of truly epic storytelling.

In a rough sense, this book reminded me of The Casual Vacancy. The story is about a whole town and the people have their own stories and their own quirks. The difference here is how much each story overlapped with the others. For example, Otto overlapped with Tick and Miles. I liked that there was a true focus on the Roby family which gave me a rallying point and helped me ignore plotlines that would turn out to be unimportant. I thought it was very well done.

I liked the depiction of small-town life. Janine was particularly despicable which made her fun. I loved hating her and Walt. I adored Tick and her struggles and how she dealt with them. They were each well developed and very different which is important and refreshing in a novel of this structure. I liked that we saw a lot of different backgrounds and ages in the book and got to see the problems they had individually and as a group.

Tick was my favorite. I liked her sass and I understood where it came from. She obviously blamed her mother for the divorce and for expelling her beloved father from her life. Honestly, how could you not blame Jenine? I didn’t think she redeemed herself and I don’t think she ever will. Tick tried to avoid the problems, a very appropriate response given her age and I liked that Russo didn’t try to make her feel older than she was.

I think Tick’s story was really relatable and that was part of why I enjoyed it. I haven’t been a parent, drunkard, or grandparent so the other narrating characters were less relatable to me. I wasn’t a popular kid in high school, either. Somehow, I landed a cute boyfriend who was condescending and rude. It was oddly parallel and I’m glad Tick was strong and made new friends, even trying to reach out to someone who needed help. Her heart was in the right place.

Richard Russo
Image from Authors Guild

I know this is terrible, but reading Jenine and Walt’s marriage fall apart was oddly satisfying. I disliked her character so much that seeing her find out how he was being untruthful about his age and money was great. He was good in bed, but that was about it. Jenine was so quick to judge everyone that it backfired on her.

The ending bothered me a bit so I want to talk about it. Skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers. A lot went into building up John Voss as an outsider but the ending seemed too predictable. I would have liked to see Tick get into his head, his world, a little bit more before he fell apart. It seems like he had some kind of break but we don’t see it and it’s hard to imagine how it was triggered without knowing him better. He’s one character I would have liked to get into a bit more.

More spoilers here! This book was published in 2001, two years after the Columbine High School shootings. I feel fairly sure that Russo was thinking about that tragedy when he was writing this book. How could someone in a small town become so angry that they would do something so violent? We’re lead through a world where John Voss becomes that person. It’s scary to see it happen and it makes it obvious how small actions can lead to someone choosing that path.

Writer’s Takeaway: On the surface, this seems like a book that would have too many characters but Russo handles them well. We really focused on the Whitings, Mintys, and Robys. Of course, other characters come into play, but always in a way that links them between these major characters. This helped the book maintain focus while telling a story about a town and not a person. I think this is a hard balance to strike and Russo does an amazing job.

I enjoyed the book and the characters a lot. I’d read another Russo book to be sure. 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:
Richard Russo- Empire Falls | The Pulitzer Project
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Book Review: I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum (3/5)

21 Aug

I heard a lot about this book when it was first released but hadn’t been too tempted. But, when you see a book for $1 on the library sale shelf after it was withdrawn from circulation, you buy it. And when it’s been far too long that it’s. Even on your shelf and you need a new audiobook, you download it and listen to it while you run, craft, and cook.

Cover Image via Goodreads

I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum

Summary from Goodreads:

Where’d You Go, Bernadette meets Beautiful Ruins in this reverse love story set in Paris and London about a failed monogamist’s attempts to answer the question: Is it really possible to fall back in love?

Despite the success of his first solo show in Paris and the support of his brilliant French wife and young daughter, thirty-four-year-old British artist Richard Haddon is too busy mourning the loss of his American mistress to a famous cutlery designer to appreciate his fortune.

But after Richard discovers that a painting he originally made for his wife, Anne -when they were first married and deeply in love-has sold, it shocks him back to reality and he resolves to reinvest wholeheartedly in his family life . . . just in time for his wife to learn the extent of his affair. Rudderless and remorseful, Richard embarks on a series of misguided attempts to win Anne back while focusing his creative energy on a provocative art piece to prove that he’s still the man she once loved.

I thought this book would be more upbeat than it was, to be honest. The title made me think someone would be having fun, though I don’t know who I thought it would be. This is another case of me not reading the back of a book and being blown away by the plot. I wanted to hate Richard, but it was hard to. Yes, he was a cheater, but he tried to reform and had a hard time doing so because of other circumstances. I wanted to like Anne, but she was very cold and removed. It was hard to feel for anyone except Cam.

I’m fortunate to say I’ve never been in a relationship where there was cheating. For that reason, it’s hard for me to say if I would have acted like Richard or Anne. I can’t say if I would have wanted to separate or wanted to get back together or ever forgiven my partner. I’ve heard of relationships going any number of ways after such a tragedy so the way Anne and Richard handled their troubles seems plausible.

I did grow to like Richard despite my initial dislike for him as a cheater. He admitted to his mistake, did what he wife wanted and needed, even when it wasn’t what he wanted, and tried to keep his daughter’s well-being the focus of the decisions he made. He’s just lucky Anne did the same things. I wanted Anne to take him back the whole time. The ups and downs were hard to bear.

I related most to Richard’s parents in a way. My own parents are stupidly over-the-moon in love after 30+ years of marriage. I can’t say I related to Richard as a whole, but when it came to seeing his parent’s routines, small foibles, and love for each other, I related to that. It’s so great to see times when a marriage works. I can’t imagine how heartbreaking to see it when one is in the process of coming apart.

I could relate to the comfort Richard found at home. I had a time in my life when I was at a bad job and spending the night at my parents’ house made everything better. I was able to put things in perspective and easily slip into a routine I had abandoned when I moved out. It was comforting and, I believe a song says, you can always go home (or something like that).

Courtney Maum
Image via Twitter

I liked reading about Richard’s art. That was a unique part of the book and it was fun to read about something so different. His installment and the ways the art world worked were new to me and I learned a lot about them. I didn’t think an installment like Richard’s is something that would sell, I thought it was a performance piece and nothing more could be done once performed.

I disliked hearing about the affair and how it started. It wasn’t the focus of the book and Richard’s detail about starting up with Lisa is part of what made me dislike him when I was trying so hard to like him. I wish it had been left out or at least less detailed.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Sam Deveraux. Since the author has a female name, I made the (wrong) assumption that the narrator would be female so I was initially put off by the male voice. I quickly adjusted and ended up having no problem at all. Deveraux did a good job and I’m glad they picked a reader with a British accent who could speak French, much like Richard. It gave a strong sense of Richard reading the book. His French accent for French characters was really fun, too.

Every marriage is different and I think that point was well displayed in this book. Richard and Anne received a lot of advice about how to overcome their problems and everyone had a different story and a different way of dealing with it. None of it worked for them and they had to find their own way. I liked that they didn’t try to be another couple, they did what would work for them.

Writer’s Takeaway: I’m glad Maum wrote from a male point of view. It’s not very common to write from another gender’s point of view. I always notice when I find a book that fits this bill. I wrote a short story from a male point of view and it threw my mom for a loop! I only wish I could weigh in on if Maum did this well. Are there any men out there who have read this one who can weigh in? I thought it was good, but I don’t know what it feels like to be a man.

I enjoyed this book though the dark subject wasn’t what I really wanted while on vacation! Three out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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

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