Reading Roundup: March 2017

People of WordPress: March. Was. FANTASTIC! I somehow managed to finish nine novels this month, thoroughly surpassing my goal of one book per week! As a high school English teacher whose time is rarely my own, I am going to just revel in the glory of those nine books for a hot minute.

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Because your time is precious — and my time is limited — here’s a quick look at the books I enjoyed this month, in order from least favored to most favored.

  1. The Tenth Circle by Jodi Picoult. Fiction. Picoult is one of my go-to authors when I’m craving a palate cleanse and quick but engaging read. I love her novels because each focuses on a different family complexity — betrayal, abuse, deceit, forgiveness, etc. The Tenth Circle tells the story of a 14-year-old girl who is raped at a party — and the incredible toll this experience takes on her mother and father as the family attempts to keep their unit whole. Picoult handles the challenging topic with finesse, but this novel falls short of her other works. Rating: 3 stars.
  2. The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith. Mystery, crime fiction. This second member of the Cormoran Strike series (see #3) is gruesome — but provides readers with another solid mystery to ruminate over as the book lopes along. Strike and Robin return to their sleuthing when a frumpy (and somewhat batty) woman asks them to search for her husband — a moody author who has been missing for ten days. Though the wife is certain her husband is merely hiding away to nurse his wounds, and acquaintances at the publishing house assume the author’s disappearance is a thinly-veiled publicity stint, Strike quickly discovers a much darker truth. This novel was more difficult to follow than the first, and was peppered with characters that were difficult to keep track of, as well as book plot within the book — making for a read that required much more focus on my part. I didn’t dislike The Silkworm, but didn’t love it nearly as much as The Cuckoo’s CallingRating: 3 stars.
  3. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman. Fiction. Almost-8-year-old Elsa embarks on an adventure after her grandmother’s death — one that involves several grumpy and/or reclusive neighbors, a wurse, numerous Harry Potter references, and a whole heap of fairy tales. Elsa struggles to come to terms with the truth about her grandma’s identity and learns to share her best (read: only) friend with dozens of others, all while dealing with the challenges that arise when one’s parents are divorced and a new sibling is on the way. Read this book for its endearing characters, bittersweet life lessons, and refreshingly childlike bursts of imagination. Rating: 3.5 stars.
  4. Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson. Utopian fiction. A utopian tale in a world full of dystopias, Perfect Little World operates under an intriguing premise: 10 families with newborn children move into a complex to raise their children collectively and function as a communal family of sorts. The novel becomes an engaging examination of family and normalcy, asking readers to reexamine traditional beliefs. Although the experiment starts out with a great deal of promise, all good things must come to an end. . . . The conclusion falls a bit flat, but readers will fly through this fascinating book, all while grappling with personal judgments and preconceived notions of what “good parenting” looks like. Rating: 4 stars. (A more in-depth review can be found here.)
  5. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith. Mystery, crime fiction. The first in a series of detective novels featuring British war-veteran Cormoran Strike and his trusty sidekick Robin, The Cuckoo’s Calling is a masterfully woven mystery and race against time to find the truth about the tragic suicide (or murder?) of supermodel Lula Landry. Read it for the well-constructed characters and puzzling plot; even if whodunits aren’t your thing, this read won’t disappoint. Rating: 4.5 stars. (A more in-depth review can be found here.)
  6. The Eighty-Dollar Champion by Elizabeth Letts. Nonfiction. This charming nonfiction read is about an underdog horse. Once doomed for slaughter, former plowhorse Snowman is purchased for $80 by Dutch immigrant Harry de Leyer with the intent of making the four-legged creature into a gentle lesson horse for his students at an all-girls boarding school in the Northeast. Against all odds — seriously, this horse beat death — Snowman becomes a legend and national pet. Touted as an inspirational Cinderella story, this novel doesn’t disappoint. Read it for the historical context on an era that gets skimmed over a bit (1950s) and the feel-good vibes that buzz with each turned page. Rating: 4.5 stars.

Rereads & lifetime favorites (don’t want to skew the monthly rankings, folks):

  1. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Fiction, literature. Set in Great Depression-era Southern California, Steinbeck’s novella about friendship, loneliness, and power (or a lack thereof) is a quick and heart-wrenching read. George and Lennie form an unlikely pair, navigating the dangerous waters of a world that is often unkind — especially to those who are different. Read this 100-page masterpiece for Steinbeck’s strong prose and powerful symbolism; love it for its ability to transport readers to a hopeless nation in the midst of great strife. Rating: 4.5 stars.
  2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Historical fiction. Just read it — it’s timeless and perfect, even the sixth or seventh or eighth read through. . . . Rating: 5 stars.
  3. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (illustrated by Jim McKay). Fantasy. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this book, and I’m not sad about it. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is my greatest book love, no matter how much I age. Rereading the novel in its illustrated form was a treat! If you are a fan of the series, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the illustrated version here. Rating: 5 (billion) stars.

Read anything great in March? Let me know in the comments section below.

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Review: Perfect Little World

I had just finished reading The Giver (for the umpteenth time) with my middle school English class when Book of the Month Club revealed its February selections — which included the new release and work of utopian fiction, Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson.

I’m a major fan of dystopian fiction, primarily because the genre provides so many futuristic possibilities for the society we could crumble to in our increasingly dysfunctional world. However, I’ll also be the first to admit that the trope is becoming increasingly trite, especially within the realm of YA fiction. Utopian fiction, though? That is something rare in the world of adult novels, and such an optimistic digression from the herd. Naturally, I had to have the book.

Perfect Little World opens on a vignette of main character Isabelle (Izzy) Poole’s dramatically messy life. A recent high school graduate (like, she graduates that day), Izzy should have the world at her feet. She’s smart — valedictorian, straight-A smart — with a penchant for artwork and literature. She’s also pregnant . . . with her art teacher’s child. Without the guidance of her mother (long deceased) or her father (long drunk), Izzy grapples with her choices for the future, the picture of which grows increasingly tedious, lonely, and impossible. When Izzy is approached with an offer to participate in a scientific experiment of sorts — one that focuses on communal child-rearing and erased boundaries between families — she jumps at the opportunity to create a better life for her unborn child.

The premise appears simple, but of course, is exceptionally complex: ten couples (well, nine plus Izzy) move into a fully staffed living complex isolated from the rest of society, following the birth of their children. As a single parent, Izzy experiences some expected twangs of jealousy: in every difficult situation, she is left to deal with her emotions and doubts on her own, despite the community of parents that should theoretically serve as family members to one another, in addition to their roles as parents for each child. For ten years, the couples will live together, the first five years of which the children will be tended to in a way so as to avoid attachment to any one parent. At the five-year mark, the children will meet their biological parent(s), while hopefully retaining a communal attachment to the rest of the parents and children in the complex.

What could possibly go wrong with a plan like that?

From the beginning, Wilson draws readers in with an unconventional lead character and a problem that hits so close to home, one can’t help but root for the positive outcome of a social experiment that is so frequently difficult to reconcile with centuries of traditional family values that have been ingrained in the deepest parts of our brains.

The Good: This novel is a fast read — I devoured most of it in one afternoon, as I waited in doctors’ offices and coffee shops. However, it’s probably better consumed over the course of a week, savored bit by glorious bit. The main character — Izzy — is down-to-earth, flawed, and relatable. Her relationship with Mr. Tannehill is one element of the novel that I especially cherished, though at times it was a bit trite. The psychological aspects of the novel are intriguing, and as a parent-to-be, I found myself ruminating over the methods in which society has been taught to raise children. (That said, I have no intention of moving my family into a commune.)

The Bad: The cast in this novel is extensive, and seems more so by the lack of development in supporting characters. If you’re capable of reading through the novel without ever really being able to match a parent to child or particular personality trait, this quality of the writing can be overlooked. (I didn’t let it bother me too much, though I can see why some would complain.) The ending didn’t blow me away, but I was okay with the way the story concluded.

The Verdict: 4/5 stars. I enjoyed this novel a great deal, and would highly recommend to anyone looking for an alternative to the heaps of dystopian fiction that have crowded the market over the past few years.

Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

I first read J.K. Rowling’s adult mystery novel — published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith — in 2013 when it was released. I remember enjoying the novel, despite backlash from naysayers who wanted Rowling to ride the Hogwarts Express for her lifetime. That aside, I don’t remember much else. I later acquired the other two novels in the Cormoran Strike series, but never got around to reading either. With rumors (confirmed by the Queen herself) that Strike would be making a return to the literary world in 2017, I decided it was well past time to reread the first book and finish the other two.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is the first in a series of detective fiction novels. While I don’t typically seek out crime fiction or detective novels, I can’t resist anything penned by Rowling . . . and I was pleasantly engrossed in this contemporary whodunit book — even the second time around.

Cormoran Strike is a down-and-out private investigator with a mound of debt up to his hairy ears and a failing love life to match. The detective, who is described in such a way as to evoke images of a great hulking brute, is hired by John Bristow, brother to the recently deceased supermodel Lula Landry. The police believe Lula has committed suicide, but Bristow thinks there’s more to her untimely death than that. While Strike juggles his new living arrangements (read: longterm camping in his cramped office), a new temp secretary (Robin, whose own blossoming relationship and new fiance are in stark contrast to Strike’s loneliness), and initial doubts about Bristow’s sanity, the case morphs from something laughable to something with far greater complexity and potential to disrupt more than a few lives.

Strike’s interviews with witnesses reveal excellent character development on the author’s part. True to Rowling form, the novel is packed with a number of key characters — none of whom escape the detective’s scrutiny. Where most novels featuring a large cast fall woefully short of development, leaving the reader confused about who’s who and why they’re important, The Cuckoo’s Calling unravels each individual bit by bit until readers are left with a host of sneaking suspicions based on a number of untrustworthy individuals and a masterfully constructed trail of breadcrumbs.

The Good: Um . . . everything? 🙃 When a novel can be enjoyed a second time around (or a third, or fourth, or fifth . . . ), especially those in the mystery genre, you know you’ve found a gem. This novel is jam-packed with details that serve a purpose. There is no character or encounter or detail that doesn’t serve some end — character development, plot progression, background establishment. As mentioned before, characters are beautifully constructed, each flawed in his or her own way — something writers often overlook or overdo. (Some take character flaws unnecessarily far, resulting in ridiculously unlikeable or relatable individuals; others create maddeningly perfect characters that flawed readers cannot truly connect with. This novel: the perfect blend.) And another merit to this work: its ability to place a lead male character (Strike) next to a young, attractive supporting female (Robin) without forcing some sort of adulterous love triangle. Rowling’s work is truly centered on the mystery surrounding Lula’s death, with no time for deviations into a romantic tryst that has no place in The Cuckoo’s Calling.

The Bad: Honestly, I’ve got no complaints. The epilogue establishes the perfect circumstances for a continuation of the series, which I look forward to reading in the coming weeks.

The Verdict: 4.5/5 stars. This work isn’t life changing, nor will it become a centuries-old classic read and beloved by the masses; but it is great contemporary detective fiction. And that, I can appreciate.

 

A Moment of Truth

This entire year has been a mental struggle — never more so than lately. I find myself wondering more and more frequently why I ever signed up to teach the subject I love so much. Each day feels like a battle to protect my passion for reading & writing, a battle to continue believing in the power of education when my students and the world have so little good to say about my profession and my content area.

On almost a daily basis, I hear students disparage teachers — She doesn’t do her job. Her class is a waste of our time. This isn’t what we really should be learning. I watch friends post articles and memes mocking the shortcomings of public education, the blame for most of which — let’s face it — is ascribed to teachers. I witness other teachers devaluing colleagues’ teaching methods, subject matter, and general place within the curriculum in front of students and parents.

In short, it often feels that most of my days are spent fighting others in an attempt to desperately convince them that writing has the power to save lives; that a good book can transport one from a reality of depression and heartache to worlds of wonder and adventure; that the ability to articulate a fully-formed thought will never, ever go out of style.

Truth be told, I’m tired. I am tired of being told that I am not valuable. I am tired of being told that my job and subject matter are outdated, replaceable, and generally poorly executed. I am tired of being shamed by society and colleagues and students for doing the best that I can — which is never, it would seem, enough.

But some days — I’m reminded of these little humans. Of their joy for good stories, their hunger for learning, their trust in me to do right by them. And I tell myself that one day, things will be different.

Not every year can be a good year.

Not every class will be a good class.

Not every blithering idiot on Facebook has the brains to do my job — despite what they might think.

And maybe — just maybe — not every person deserves a piece of my mind.

I’m not giving anything up for Lent.

Every Ash Wednesday, my social feeds fill with the same tired hubbub: What are you giving up for Lent? I’m giving up soda and sweets. I’m giving up beer. I’m giving up negative thinking. And every year, without fail, the jokes come two days later: Yup, just ate a donut. I’ve already fallen off the wagon!

We’ve all been there — hasty to make Lenten resolutions with sacrifice at the forefront of our minds. However, in true consumer form, we’ve made the season of sacrifice just another season of ill-fated resolutions. (I say we because I, too, am guilty of these same shortcomings.) We laugh off our inability to abstain from chocolate for more than a week, joke about our failure to get through March without a soda, and engage in public self-deprecation when we slip up two weeks in . . . then give up giving something up for the rest of the Lenten season.

For the past few years, the sacrifices my friends and I have made have seemed less and less like True Sacrifices, and increasingly like Good Conversation Starters. I find myself wondering each year — What is the point in giving up Pepsi each Lent, if only to resume drinking it with fervor Easter morning?

Isn’t the point of Lent to sacrifice something that truly causes us discomfort, and in turn, makes us better individuals? More Christlike?

How can we become better individuals if we turn to the same creature comforts, time and again, after a short 40 days of abstinence?

What is the point in sacrificing something we love if we know we won’t take the sacrifice seriously enough to see it through to the end?

Over the past few years, Lent began to lose its significance for me. Not simply because I knew I wasn’t doing a proper job of it, or because I had a few slip-ups here and there; rather, I felt an absence of import. The sacrifices I attempted felt halfhearted and superficial, or geared toward some sort of personal body goal that had little to do with my growth as a Decent Human Being.

* * *

This past week, I jokingly told Zack that I would be giving up worrying for Lent.

With some pretty major life changes coming down the pipe in the next few months — career and family — I’ve been morphed into a whirlwind of ceaseless, furious anxiety. My nights are only partially filled with sleep; most bedtime hours I spend awake, panicking about things well beyond my control: birth defects, breastfeeding, SIDS . . . my Alzheimer’s-stricken grandpa in the wake of his wife’s death . . . my sister and her career struggles . . . the enormous financial stress that is going to be my life for the next many years . . .

Needless to say, this constant state of insecurity and — truthfully — uncontrollable anxiety has not merely worn me to a frazzle; Zack, too, is exhausted with the ceaseless questions and fears I wake him up with at three and four and five in the morning. Of course, he jumped all over my Lenten sacrifice with unrivaled enthusiasm. 😉

The next day, I contemplated my half-sincere offering. How peaceful it would be to give up worrying for forty days. . . . And yet, when I looked deep within myself, I knew that such a task wouldn’t be possible. I would fail a few days into the start of Lent and, frustrated but not surprised, attempt to convince myself I’d made a good run of it.

* * *

Instead, I decided to do what should have seemed obvious in the first place: I’d take something up for Lent. Instead of attempting to stop worrying for forty days (which would be akin to the Hulk giving up fits of rage for forty days), I will do something that actually has an impact on the kind of wife and person I want to be: I will take up a simple prayer to accompany my worries.

I know, I know — some of you are probably thinking What an idiot. Isn’t that something you already do? and I’d love to pretend that yes, I say a prayer every time a worry crosses my mind; but I don’t. (This shortcoming has to be some sort of logic that stems from the idea that we should give thanks as often as we give praise; being a pessimist, I generally find far fewer things to be grateful for on a daily basis, and as such, haven’t been a big fan of bothering the Big Man Upstairs with a rather unbalanced barrage of concerns with a sprinkling of gratitude.)

Instead of spending my 40 days halfheartedly trying to resist carbs and sugary sodas (or tackle the impossible), I will work on forming a habit that contributes to the development of the kind of wife, friend, mother, person I know I am intended to be.

I guess it’s as good a place as any to start, by praying — Lord, help me find peace.

Review: Behind Her Eyes

Disclaimer: There will be spoilers at the end of this post. These spoilers will be preceded by a warning — do not read past that warning if you do not wish to discover the spoilers! The bulk of this post — including the verdict/rating at the end — is safe for those who have not yet read the novel.

Well, friends — I did it. I bought another thriller, despite the fact that I’d adamantly decided against doing so in 2017. Book of the Month Club’s February selections included a mysterious-looking thriller titled Behind Her Eyes, by author Sarah Pinborough. The novel has been touted by many as the closest rival to Gone Girl, a masterful piece of domestic noir fiction, and a thriller that will keep readers guessing until the end.

Only one of those is accurate.

Behind Her Eyes opens in modern-day England with a some very cryptic quips from “then” and “later” and “now.” The novel then switches back and forth between past and present, as well as main characters Louise and Adele. Louise, a divorced mother of a young son, lives a woefully mediocre life. Though she works only a few days per week, she is still supported financially by her ex-husband. One evening, Louise meets a handsome stranger in a bar, shares a stolen kiss, and arrives at work the next morning to discover the man is her new boss, David. To make matters more awkward, David is accompanied on his tour of his new workplace by none other than his flawlessly beautiful wife, Adele.

David and Louise struggle to resist temptation as their work environment draws them closer to one another. Meanwhile, Louise has formed an extremely unlikely (and idiotic) friendship with — you guessed it — Adele. Louise becomes trapped in a double life of sorts, unable to resist the companionship both David and Adele bring to her formerly lonely existence. Although she is guilt-ridden by both relationships, Louise’s need for intimacy overrides her conscience. Her desperation for friendship, coupled with David’s unhappiness in his own marriage and Adele’s equally intense need for companionship, creates a perfect storm of events that lead to the story’s unforeseeable climax.

The GoodBehind Her Eyes certainly delivers on the promise that readers will not foresee the story’s conclusion.

The Bad: The novel’s writing felt sub-par at best, to me. I condede that Pinborough manages to establish an unpredictable plot and three extraordinarily unlikeable characters (who still manage to spark readers’ curiosity); however, the diction itself is infuriatingly simple. Often, I felt like I was reading the diary of a teenager, or a poorly educated adult. This sounds harsh — I know — but when I read adult novels, I want to be inspired by the beauty and complexity of the author’s writing. As a high school student, I adored classical literature for the depth and vibrancy of the writing; as an adult, I am still enchanted by the world J.K. Rowling creates in her Harry Potter series, because the writing is vivid, descriptive, and beautiful. Pinborough’s book brought none of that to the table (which is mostly true to contemporary thriller form), and I had a hard time getting past my annoyance with this aspect of the novel. This was compounded by the frequent use of the F-bomb, which lost its weight with excessive utterances. Other frustrations: see spoilers.

The Verdict: 2/5. Nope, nope, nope. This BOTM pick was a miss for me. I was never truly absorbed by the story — the first half was tediously slow and I struggled to become invested in the plot. When the plot finally picks up at the end, the author makes choices that seem ridiculously over-the-top and woefully forced to achieve that #WTFThatEnding reaction.

 

* * *

Caution: Spoilers ahead! Discontinue reading if you plan to read the book and don’t want the ending spoiled.

* * *

 

The supernatural elements woven into the novel were a major miss for me. Louise suffers from night terrors, and is counseled on how to take control of her dreams by Adele, who suffered from the same affliction as a young child. With practice, the two characters are able to exit their bodies during sleep, and wander the outside world. Their abilities play a dark role in the outcome of the novel — a body swap, of sorts. This thread is strikingly similar to the concepts of Audrey Niffenegger’s novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, which also just didn’t do it for me.

Louise’s character was also far too pathetic for me to enjoy or relate to. I had a hard time connecting to an individual who is lonely, but unwilling to find a job that would introduce her to more friends/provide more stimulation throughout the week. Louise’s perpetual wine drinking is also eye-roll worthy. Nearly every scene that includes Louise also includes a bottle — or two — of wine. While this all contributes to the development of her unhappy and pathetic existence, I have developed a strong sense of distaste for our generation’s glorification of women who love nothing but drinking wine in excess and grumbling about how much they hate their lives. Louise falls a bit into that category and was simply far too annoying for me to connect to or even sympathize with.

And finally, as I mentioned previously, the ending of the novel just felt completely forced and ridiculous to me. Perhaps this is largely due to the fact that I wasn’t a fan of the dream-state body-switching element of the story; perhaps my annoyance is due to the fact that I found all of the characters over-dramatized and unenjoyable. Either way, while I was surprised to learn of Adele’s true nature, I wasn’t invested enough in the characters or plot to truly experience that “WTF” reaction that apparently so many of the novel’s readers so greatly relished. Guess I’m in the minority, on this one!