Thursday, August 1, 2019

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Review: Severance

I do not think that the book blurbists and I read the same book.

Offbeat office novel?

Apocalyptic satire?

Wry? Witty?

Yeah, we definitely read different novels.

Before we begin, here is your spoiler alert: I will reveal plot points in this review that may spoil the story for you. Please proceed at your own risk.

Okay, good? Are we ready? Let's get to work.

Candace is employed by a midtown Manhattan book publishing company and oversees production of their Christian Bibles. Her parents are dead, her extended family is in China, and her boyfriend lives with few attachments to "place." She is more attached to "place," but her roots are shallow.

So when Shen Fever hits,  she views it very differently than her coworkers and her love. They have family and friends, options and networks. She has a lapsed photo blog and her mother's salad spinner. Her employer takes advantage of that and gives her an anchor: "manage" the building for a period of time, until everything settles down, and get a huge financial payout.

So she stays. She stays in New York City, in her job, and with her boyfriend (until he climbs aboard a yacht without her, much to his dismay.) She is our witness to the end of times.

Candace's story unfolds as if she is un-crumpling a piece of paper, smoothing out the particularly rough parts of the page to read the fine print. The story starts in the middle, then jumps around in what slowly appears a logical pattern. The parts she smooths out are engagingly written, and her perception as an alien in her new country and to her parents is crystal clear, perceptive, and heartbreaking

Candace tells her story with no embellishments, and the language is at times stunningly stark, direct, beautiful and perceptive. She is of two worlds: the world of her anxious, isolated mother, and that of a teenager coming of age in Salt Lake City. Her observations are rich and raw, cruel and completely unsentimental. The story is not strictly linear, which adds to Candace’s mystery.

Despite the good writing and interesting story, it took me a while to finish the book. I stopped for a few weeks at the roughly halfway mark, which to me was a natural break. Up to that point, the story and Candace felt meandering and lethargic, with no real sense of urgency to reach the end — so I was not compelled to race to the end.

I would not call the book wry or satirical, and under no circumstances would I call it humorous. I think the author took the story and the characters (particularly Candace) very seriously, and that works well for the novel.

The ending: brilliant or a letdown? I think that depends on the reader’s take on Candace’s state of mind. At a certain point, I wondered if the story was taking place solely inside Candace’s head: her solidarity life was so severe and simple, to the point of being rote. (Sounds almost fevered, no?) 

And yet, there is more (or maybe less). Because of her disconnect to her environment and her natural tendency for isolation, could she have been so far removed from reality and sensory perception that she stopped actually *seeing* her surroundings? Could New York have ended so quietly? Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice.

In the end, it is a unique tale — and one that could only be told by Candace's generation. I would recommend it. If you read it, or have read it, let us know what you thought: comment below, or send me a message and I'll share with the class.

Shout-out to Bard's Alley, the indie bookstore in Vienna, Va., where I purchased the book. It's a great shop with an amazing selection of books.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Summer Reading: Intrepid Reader Karen's TBR List is Here!

We are hitting mid-stride in summer reading just about now — and, luckily, just in time to review and appreciate Intrepid Reader Karen's summer reading list.

I think I can speak for all of us when I say, "I approve!" 

As we all can agree, TBR List Approval doesn't matter. We The Readers read what we want, and we support reading freedom for others. 

However, we often are inordinately pleased when we see books we recognize — either read or to read — on someone else's summer reading list.

So, without further ado, I present Intrepid Reader Karen's 2019 Summer Reading List:

  • The Psychology of Time Travel 
  •  The Girl With a Pearl Earring
  • Relative Fortunes
  • The Lost City of Z
  • Women of the Bible (selected readings)
  • Ruby Red
  • Sapphire Blue
  • Emerald Green
  • Dream a Little Dream trilogy
  • Finding Fraser
  • The Ghost Studies
  • Pirate
  • The Iliad
  • Stealing Time
  • Released by the Highlander
  • The Holy Bible (selected readings)

You will notice The Ghost Studies is on her reading list. We hope you will join us for this group read! Click here for more information.

Personally, I am excited about a couple of books on this list that have been in my sights for a while. Now that Karen is reading them, perhaps I'll pull them down from the shelf and read them, too. I love getting ideas on what to read from my fellow readers. I hope I can do the same for you in return.

Do you have any of Karen's books on your TBR list? Let us know in the comments below, or drop me a line, and maybe we can read them together!

Happy reading!

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Reading Challenge: Can You Take It?

There is no shortage of reading "challenges" that encourage readers to expand their horizons with deliciously random criteria that forcibly inject variety into their book choices. 

While some readers may take this lawlessness as a command to find new books for their shelves, I instead see this as an opportunity to more deeply peruse my TBR shelves, Kindle, and Audible selections. (If I told you I had a thousand books on my Kindle Fire, I'd be lying. I have 1,554.)

Take the Goodreads Challenge for Beginners, a reader favorite, where the challenge includes:

  1. a Goodreads community-voted favorite
  2. a Goodreads community popular read
  3. a book that has been on your Goodreads Want to Read list for a year or more
  4. a book being adapted for film or TV this year

Do I have any books on my to-read list that would fit those criteria? Why, yes I do:

  1. Children of Blood and Bone
  2. Where the Crawdads Sing or Daisy Jones and the Six
  3. Behind the Scenes at the Museum
  4. Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

Two of the books above fit selections in the Modern Mrs. Darcy 2019 Reading Challenge

  • A book I've been meaning to read: Where the Crawdads Sing
  • A book from a favorite author's backlist: Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Then there's the POPSUGAR Reading Challenge, which has dozens of options, including books with the words "pop," "sugar," or "challenge" in the title. Three books I have chosen above can meet a few POPSUGAR criteria:

  • Celebrity recommendation? Where the Crawdads Sing
  • Debut novel? Behind the Scenes at the Museum 
  • A book with a question mark in its title? Where'd You Go, Bernadette?
  • A book told from multiple POVs? Daisy Jones and the Six

Okay, that's kind of cheating, so I'll branch out wider on my summer reading list with POPSUGAR suggestions:

  • A book I meant to read in 2018: The Bear and the Nightingale
  • A book published in 2019: Gingerbread
  • A book about someone with a super power: The Power
  • A book with a two-word title: Wolf Hall

Challenges can be fun, as long as the end result is an ample, fun, and rich reading list. While it's fun to flex your reading muscle and try something new, never lose sight of the real reason for a challenge: to make reading more fun. As the summer progresses, I'll try a challenge or two, but it looks like I can always come back my own shelves for my selection. As Dorothy said, there's no place like home.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Review: Ghosted

Leave it to technology to continue providing ways to humiliate ourselves — and leave it to Rosie Walsh to write a compelling romance novel to make us re-live some of our most debasing experiences.

The novel has well-constructed suspense and chapter-ending teasers that will keep readers up long past their bedtimes.

I read it hungrily, staying up late and gobbling up the savory tidbits — until a string of hackneyed tropes appeared and a character I adored was unintentionally wounded. At that point, I solved the mystery and could read at a leisurely pace as the author breezed through overwrought tension, some unbelievable relationship complications, trite storyline resolutions, and a final, maudlin conclusion.

I liked many of the characters, especially a few who popped in for only a short time on the page, and I felt as bad for them as I did for myself as the book wound down.

This book pivots on its cliffhangers, with a few big reveals along the way. This review contains spoilers, so read at your own risk.





Let us proceed, then.

Sarah is in her small, bucolic English hometown on the anniversary of a tragedy that changed her life, wearing her self-loathing like a hair shirt. Details of the tragedy are vague, and readers are left to fill in the blanks. What we do know is that afterward, her parents allowed her to live with a friend's family in California.

Now in her late 30s and in the midst of a divorce, Sarah meets a guy with the clunky name of Eddie David who is trying to wrangle a sheep in the village square. He's funny, she needs to laugh, they go to the pub, and romance ensues. One week of bliss and she's head over heels in love. They both have reasons to part, but they promise to stay in touch. They friend each other on Facebook and trade phone numbers.

Then, inexplicably, Eddie goes silent.

Sarah does what many people have done when "ghosted," even pre-Facebook: she goes into overdrive. She obsesses, contacts him, reaches out to his friends — all the while flipping between self-loathing and heady love for Eddie. Her friends are supportive and protective of this wounded soul. As if her self-loathing could go no further, she humiliates herself on the altar of Eddie in a horrifying scene. Even one of Eddie's friends kindly suggests she stop. The story is almost an epistolary at this point, with messages/texts/posts to Eddie drive the story. All the time, her personal tragedy unfolds to readers through letters to her beloved sister.

Let's be honest: Sarah is particularly pitiful. Maybe the glut of electronic communication options makes for a good story, but it gets tiring. However, readers and Sarah can agree that after a pitch-perfect, cruel scene, she has hit rock-bottom, and she has to stop. But this is romance, and there has to be one last oft-used guaranteed romance plot complication. Suddenly, Sarah starts having familiar health issues. While hanging out with her friend Jenny, who is desperately trying to become pregnant, we start getting ham-fisted clues that even Jenny can see coming: despite being "very careful," Sarah is pregnant, and Eddie is the father. Immediately after this reveal, readers are treated to an unexpected, shocking reveal about Sarah's tragedy that is worth the price of the book.

That's when the story focus flips — and the momentum, for me, screeches to a laconic crawl.

While Sarah's energy and pathos carry the first half of the book with mystery and almost unbearable misery, Eddie's half features clinical masculine stoicism. Rather than being emotionally connected, even sympathetic, Eddie is a two-dimensional guy. He asks very obvious questions over and over that he could answer himself with one quick five-minute walk across town that could be conducted in total stealth. His mother is narcissistic, cruel, and manipulative; surprisingly, this does not make Eddie any more sympathetic a character. Between them, the story limps along until the inevitable: he finds out about the baby while Sarah is in the throes of a long, dangerous labor at the local hospital. Eddie instantly breaks his lethargy, leaping into awkward emotion that (finally) doesn't involve lots of beer. He is a caricature, and one with few, if any, endearing qualities.

The trite and unrewarding resolution features a roll call of nearly every character in Eddie and Sarah's lives. I have little patience with the contrast between Sarah's accidental pregnancy and Jenny's sterility. Sarah is rewarded for her love while Jenny is child-less. This is not the venue for deeply exploring family building options, but the intentional contrast without a whiff of alternatives is clunky and insulting to readers and characters alike. If anything, Sarah's entire life was proof of family-building beyond biological connection, and the ending completely betrays that idea.

I am not a typical audience for this genre, and I may be particularly critical of plot complications that are welcomed by more seasoned romance-novel enthusiast. However, a few tweaks would strengthen the book for me, most notably a better-constructed love interest and a recognition of non-biological family-building. Beyond that, this was a suspenseful, slow-reveal, chapter-cliffhanger novel that will take readers high and low in a modern story of love and sacrifice.

What did you like most in the story? Would you have done what Sarah did? What surprised you the most in this story? Do tell! Comment below, or send me a note to share your thoughts.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Classifying the Classics, and Who to Trust

One does not just trust every critic — at least, a Discerning One does not trust every critic. But how does One determine who is worthy of that trust? For me, in the Case of The Beach-Book Critic, I used two factors: representation and Lolita.

Recently, I read The Odyssey (technically, Claire Danes read it to me) and I was amazed at the crap Odysseus managed to get away with. He slept his way home, killed lots of people, wounded a god's child, made some dumb-ass mistakes, lost more crew than I could count — and still made it home to sex his wife and kill lots more men and women. It was a fascinating read, but I found myself asking the same rhetorical question: "Why is this a classic?"

I have begun to look beyond my lit class must-reads for some great titles, like Tales of the Genji, the first novel ever written, by Murasaki Shikibu, an eleventh century Japanese noblewoman. Also left off my lit class lists was The Heptameron of Margaret, Queen of Navarre, a book inspired by The Decameron.

When I stumbled across the book Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits, I was intrigued: what would Professor Murninghan include on his list?

He included a few chestnuts: The Illiad and The Odyssey, the Christian Bible (Old and New Testaments), The Aeneid, a few from Charles Dickens, a little Charlotte Brontë, a little Jane Austen.

The modern classics, though, is where he lost me. I have a hard time justifying Tropic of Cancer as a modern classic, notorious for its graphic sexual scenes (including what is now, nearly a century later, recognized as non-consensual sex). I couldn't grasp The Man Without Qualities, a book completely absent from every college lit class I took.

I was willing to agree to disagree with his classifications of "worthy" because it's his book — and I was glad he was much more inclusive as he neared the 20th century. I actually enjoyed his short description and a few tidbits, including: What to Skip, What's Sexy, Best Line, and What People Don't Know (But Should). I was zooming along, agreeing and disagreeing, nodding and shrugging... until I came to Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.

I have been trying to sidle up to that novel for a few years. I have it in print and in Audible (read by Jeremy Irons, as if that would help). I kept telling myself I need to read it so I understand how the sexualization of a 12-year-old girl by her stepfather is literature. However, after reading "what's sexy" in the book and feeling literally ill, I will stop forcing myself to read this "classic."

In the end, I may never understand the literary significance of James Joyce's Ulysses, and I doubt I'll ever delve into Herman Melville's huge Moby-Dick. However, I will truly never understand why books notorious for their sexual taboo-breaking get a spot in the canon for that fact alone — especially when the tome glorifies non-consensual sex or the sexualization of a child — no matter how "good" the writing.

There are great classics in the world waiting to be read, and I will seek them beyond the Twentieth Century Canon. Please share your suggestions in the comments below and help me discover more classic books that deserve to be read.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

When Book Worlds Collide: Unexpected Connections Between Fact and Fiction

Spoiler alert!

This post references pivotal information in two books: The Lost Man (Jane Harper) and No Visible Bruises: What We Don't Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us (Rachel Louise Snyder). 

If you do not want information, clues, observations, and possible plot complications revealed about either book, please stop reading now.


You have been warned.

This summer, I experienced an unanticipated book collision. Two recently released books on my nightstand could not have seemed more different on their faces.

One book is a novel written by an Australian woman that takes place in the Australian Outback. The third-person narrator is male, and most of the main characters are male. There are women in the story: family of the narrator and main characters, with only a few exceptions.

The other book is a non-fiction tome written by an American woman, a journalist. The main story, and much of the follow-up, take place in Montana, USA (so far; I am only halfway through the book). The main character, for lack of a better description, is female, as are the others — but males are almost evenly represented.

Two very different stages are set — but Harper's novel resolves itself, slowly and surely, with a storyline that profoundly crashes into Snyder's book.

Rachel Louise Snyder has written a remarkable book that examines domestic violence and asks crucial questions: What if we could end domestic violence? What if we gathered information, put all the pieces together, and could recognize it and prevent the chaos, death, and destruction it brings?

I have read about half of Snyder's book so far, and I am enjoying it (if one can say that about a book on the subject). It's gorgeously written with respectful and fair language. It is crisp and clear and very easy to read. I understand why it is on everyone's must-read list, and I am glad I put it on mine.

As I read No Visible Bruises, I also began reading Jane Harper's novel, The Lost Man — a book that was intended to be a distracting and relaxing murder-mystery. For me, murders that appear on the page are fictional, dry, and inconsequential beyond the story, so my fictional mind views mystery-fiction is a victimless crime.

In The Lost Man, Cameron breaks every rule that has kept him alive for decades in the Australian Outback. His family cannot understand how such a cautious man could have made such reckless decisions. The more they investigate, the more the clues don't point to the obvious resolution: Cameron did not commit suicide — which is the only reason a person would do what he did in mid-summer — but there was no other obvious conclusion.

The mystery behind Cam's untimely death unfolds carefully through the eyes of a reliable but wounded character, his brother Nathan. He and Cam had a troubling childhood with a cruel father and a helpless mother. Nate knew what that childhood had done to him, but he was too deep in his own pain to see what it did to the rest of his family.

Readers end with a different story than the one with which we began: a broken family that either doesn't know how or doesn't want to learn how to piece together the clues that will tell the whole tale. In the end, everyone has a piece of the puzzle, and it snaps into place with an earth-shattering, final click.

Snyder asks the same question Harper poses: if people talked to each other, snapped their puzzle piece into place earlier, could loss be averted? How many people does it take to head off tragedy?

I am reading Snyder's book slowly, but I look forward to continuing with rich language and excellent prose, clear and concise and direct. I also will continue to marvel at how two very diverse books came to the same conclusion, on opposite sides of the world, and in completely different genres.