Category Archives: Reviews

Book reviews, including recaps, analysis, and MVP, my pick for favorite character.

Review: Strangers

strangersRecap: In the epistolary novel that takes place in the late 1980’s, a man named Adrian and woman named Harri write to each other about a brief night of lovemaking they once had and how that affects them and doesn’t affect now 15 years later. For Adrian, it was a memorable night in the ocean with a beautiful woman. For Harri, it was a one-night-stand that served as nothing but a way to get back at her boyfriend with whom she was fighting. More than a decade has passed, but when they run into each other in the airport, it’s all Adrian needs to feel empowered to reach out to Harri and start a real relationship.

But what is this relationship? Are they friends? Lovers? The title may be Strangers, and once it begins, it may feel that way, but as time goes on, “strangers” doesn’t feel quite like the right word.

Their letters to each other are often aggressive — aggressively honest. They talk about their kids and stepkids, their spouses, what makes them happy and what doesn’t. They talk about their past and their future, their regrets and dreams, their childhood and death. Will they meet again? The story seems to build to that in several moments until major twists throw the story off course and take it in a new, dark direction.

Analysis: When I first started reading this story and realized that these pen pal letters stemmed from a chance run-in in the airport from a former one-night-stand, all I could think was who’s crazy enough to do this? And Adrian is a little nuts, but the way his relationship with Harri develops over the course of these months of writing letters is beautiful. They begin to form so much love between, even while there’s still so much angst. They are both wounded. Because misery loves company, those wounds bring them closer. After a while, is it fair to call them strangers? Maybe not. But in the end, everyone is a stranger who’s not him or herself.

I think this may have been the only epistolary novel I’ve ever read, and I wasn’t sure how it would work. But it was extremely compelling with so much depth in their stream of consciousness writing.

MVP: Harri. Though her letters were to Adrian were often mean, it was clear that she really did have feelings for him. More importantly, she was very self-assured and knew what she liked and didn’t like. She had been through a lot, and despite some serious anxiety and depression, she was strong.

Get Strangers on your Kindle for $7.99. 

Or get it in paperback for $22.99.

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Review: How to Love the Empty Air

two books.jpgRecap: Like many women, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz has a special relationship with her mother. Her mother is a her best friend, her support system, and her biggest fan. So when her mom passes away, it throws her into an unexpected spiral. She is overwhelmed with grief, and when you are a writer, there’s nowhere to channel that grief but the page.

So tells the story of Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s collection of poetry, weaving us through the close bond she has with her mother, the death of her mother and the grieving process, all as she herself gets married. It’s a time in her life that includes the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, resulting in some altogether beautiful poetry and imagery — though much of it is sad.

Analysis: I’m not one to typically read poetry, nor do I consider myself necessarily good at analyzing, interpreting or understanding it. But because the poetry was about a woman who lost her mother around the time she got married, I knew I’d be able to relate. I lost my dad shortly after getting married. So much of her poetry so deeply resonated with me. It moved me to tears. It brought me chills. I was able to relate in every aspect of her mother’s illness, her mother’s passing, the months she spent mourning the loss, the comfort of her husband. But it wasn’t just that.

I was also able to connect with her professional ambition and desire to do good work and succeed. One of her poems brought me to tears when I read part of it to my husband:

“New York City, I want to return to you a better woman,/a better writer. Return to you so clean, you won’t even/recognize me, so glorious, you’ll dim your lights, so damn/grown that maybe, just maybe, I can look you in the eye.”

It’s a feeling most any woman can relate to — the need to succeed, to prove yourself, to better yourself, to shine.

It also helped that the poetry  Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz writes is free-form. Much of it feels less like poetry and more like storytelling. The book overall tells a complete story even though it’s several dozen poems. I was so impressed, and the book so changed my thoughts on poetry that I now want to reach much more of it, particularly O’Keefe Aptowicz’s works.

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Review: The Last Dropout

last dropoutRecap: Whatever you think the national dropout rate for high school is, it’s probably worse. Whatever you’ve read the national dropout rate for high school is, it’s likely worse. The truth is we don’t have very accurate data on it since most high schools try to highlight the more positive statistics and shuffle the bad stats underneath. Some schools don’t even include ninth grade dropouts in their numbers, even though ninth grade is clearly part of high school.

This undeniable crisis is highlighted in The Last Dropout. The book focuses on the national nonprofit organization Communities in Schools (CIS), which was developed to help school-aged children and ensure they don’t drop out of school. CIS primarily works in urban areas where dropout rates are typically worse and resources typically less available. Rather than acting as a resource in and of itself, CIS acts as an intermediary party that connects school districts with outside resources that could benefit students. For instance, it connects school with local doctors and dentists to ensure students are getting proper healthcare and dental care; that would allow them to better focus on schoolwork because they wouldn’t have to stress about their health. It also connects students with organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters to ensure students have mentors who can guide them if they don’t receive that attention at home.

The Last Dropout documents the history of CIS, how it works and its successes.

Analysis: I received this book from a viewer (I’m a local TV anchor) a while ago and never read it. I was never sure why they felt compelled to send it to me, and there was no note included in the package. I let it sit on my shelf for a long time, thinking I’ll get to it eventually because it seems interesting. But by the time I finally picked it up, I thought I’d just have to power through this.

I was wrong! The book hooked me from the beginning with anecdotes about the children who have been helped by the CIS mission. The book is written by one of the co-founders of CIS, who is so passionate about the mission, it reels you in. The story of how he developed the nonprofit is fascinating. Latter sections of the book were a little meatier. Parts of it lost me with lots of education jargon, and the author’s sometimes repetitive explanation of CIS’s mission. But of course, he’s proud of his work and the organization, and based on what I’ve learned from the book, I can’t blame him.

The book is now 10 years old, and I’d love to know how CIS has grown over the years and how many more children have succeeded because of it. The Last Dropout opened my eyes to a systemic problem I was never really aware of before, and I’ve already recommended it to some of my teacher friends.

Get The Last Dropout in paperback now for $8.35. 

Or get it on your Kindle for $1.99.

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Review: Ann M. Martin: The Story of the Author of the Baby-Sitters Club

IMG_3463Recap: Ann M. Martin is the brilliant creator and writer of The Baby-Sitters Club series that I binged ferociously throughout elementary school. I wanted friends like the girls in the club, and I wanted a side job like they had so I could make money to shop at Claire’s. Ann M. Martin was J.K. Rowling before J.K. Rowling. She was a badass woman who created an entire world of people and problems to which every kid could relate. Finally learning a little more about her as a person was exciting and interesting.

The book is a true biography of her life and climb to the top as a children’s author. It includes details of her family, her childhood, the fall that caused her to deal with lifelong pain and illness and how she started writing professionally. When you read her biography, it becomes clear why she wrote about what she wrote about. She always loved children, writing and babysitting. For most of her young life, she thought she would be a teacher, but things ultimately changed direction as they so often do.

It was also interesting, maybe not so surprising, and a little disappointing to learn that once the series became so popular, she wasn’t necessarily the author writing all The Baby-Sitters Club books.

Analysis: A little backstory on this: I received this book in the mail as a response to a fan letter I wrote to Ann M. Martin probably when I was about eight years old. Clearly, author meant for me to read it then, but I didn’t and it fell into the abyss of my childhood bedroom. I rediscovered the book several years ago when my family moved out of that house, so I finally decided to read it.

It was extremely thoroughly and painted a beautiful, wholesome picture of the woman who will always remain wholesome in my pain.

That said, I wish I’d read it when I was eight. Though her story was interesting, it was clearly written for kids. The writing is extremely basic, especially when compared to some of the other adult memoirs and biographies out there. (I mean hell, I read Ron Chernow’s Hamilton a few years ago.) But it is the perfect biography for children who probably love Ann M. Martin as much as they love her books.

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Movie vs. Book: Ready Player One

readyplayerone

 

 

Contributed by Harrison Cole

The year is 2045. Due to climate change, misuse of resources, and an ineffective government, the Earth has become an energy-deficient wasteland. The only respite from this decaying world is the OASIS, an online virtual universe. It originally started as a game, but it’s grown to be much more—the OASIS is where you read the news, watch TV, conduct business, attend school, and hang out with friends. After the creator of the OASIS died, he left his entire fortune and controlling stake in the simulation up for grabs with a contest: the first avatar to find his “Easter Egg” hidden in the OASIS wins it all.

The novel is a gripping story that follows high school senior Wade Watts on his quest to find the Egg. I was obsessed from page one and have been preaching the gospel on this one ever since. It’s an easy read that’s got something for almost everyone: it’s fast-paced, full of 80s pop culture references—many of which I wasn’t familiar with before (how great is DEVO?!)—it has a cringe-worthy teen romance, and best of all, it transports you into the vast, exciting digital world of the OASIS with its endless possibilities. Check out Lara’s book review for more. Read the book. READ IT.

The movie is terrible. Spielberg and co. changed quite a bit from the book, but I actually didn’t mind that. I did mind the internal inconsistencies, the references to the book without any context, and the lack of meaningful interaction or development between characters. If you’ll forgive me a minor spoiler, I’ll give you an example of the movie’s sloppiness: at one point there was a reference to “clearing the first gate.” This is a concept unique to the book, and it felt like that line was an artifact from an earlier draft of the script. Also, the movie never explained the reason for the title: when a user logs in, before gaining access to the simulation, the text “READY PLAYER ONE” flashes in front of her. I thought that was an odd omission from the movie since there’s a point-of-view shot when Wade first dons his goggles. I’ve got plenty more but the rest would ruin it for sure, and just because I hated it, that doesn’t mean you will too. But you probably will.

The movie did have some redeeming qualities: the effects were well done, TJ Miller was hilarious, and there were tons of enjoyable pop culture references. Despite only including one song that was referenced in the book, the soundtrack definitely captured the feel of the story. I also dug the scenes depicting what people look like in real life while engaged in the simulation. Funny stuff.

But it wasn’t enough to redeem the movie. Bottom line: wait for streaming. Or better yet, wait until someone develops an OASIS-like simulation and watch it there.

Get Ready Player One in paperback for $8.79.

Or on your Kindle for $9.99.

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Review: Cujo

cujo.jpgRecap: It’s been five years since a serial killer was on the loose in a small town in Maine, but that doesn’t mean the serial killings are over.  When a massive St. Bernard chases a small animal and becomes rabid, no one is safe. The problem is no one knows the pain he’s feeling. No one know he’s sick. So his owner, Joe, lets him roam around the property. Joe’s son and wife, Brett and Charity, leave town to visit her sister. By the time Donna and her four-year-old son, Tad, go to Joe’s house to have her car repaired, Cujo has already killed several people including Joe.

Donna notices he’s rabid right away; by this point, he’s become more sick and his red eyes and foaming mouth prove as much to her.  She has no choice but to stay in her car with her son but the car is in such disrepair, it won’t start. The July heat doesn’t allow them the fresh air they need, and they have no access to food or water other than what they’ve packed. Because it’s 1980, Donna has no cell phone and no way to get help.

As she waits for a postman to come, for the police to come, anything, her husband Vic is away on business, trying to save his company and contemplating how to save his marriage after he learns Donna had cheated on him. Ultimately, no matter how much he wants to, Vic can’t quit Donna and when his calls go unanswered, he calls for help only to find the devastation Cujo has left behind.

Analysis: For my first Stephen King novel (I know, I know, it’s crazy), this was phenomenal. I was more than pleasantly surprised by the character depth and development he offered throughout the novel. It’s much more than just a “horror novel,” which is what I was expecting. Cujo is a monster, but he’s a completely plausible monster and King interestingly takes us inside the rabid dog’s mind as well as Donna’s heat delirious mind, and Vic’s marriage obsessed head as well as many others.

This level of character depth and plot thickening allows for a slow build until Donna and Cujo are left no choice but to face off. For days as I read the last pages of the book, I found myself repeatedly muttering “Please don’t let Donna die.” King made me care. It’s the stuff real horror novels are made of.

MVP: Vic. While Donna’s a badass, it takes her a while to get there. Vic instinctively and instantly knows something is wrong and uses his intelligence and logic to break open what’s going on and attempt to make a rescue.

Get Cujo in paper for $14.56.

Or get it on your Kindle for $10.99.

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Review: Emma

IMG_3381Recap: In this classic British romance novel, Emma is one of the most popular and well-liked bachelorettes in her community, but no matter how hard she tries, she is completely oblivious to the true wants and needs of the people around her. If you’ve seen the movie Clueless, it may or may not surprise you to know it’s loosely based on this Jane Austen novel from 1815. Emma is the “Cher” character — or rather, “Cher” is the Emma character — focused so much on matchmaking her friends that she misreads signals for her own opportunities at love — or misses them altogether. In the first half of the novel, she is intent on fixing up her new and lower class friend Harriet (“Tai” in Clueless if you’re still following along with the comparison) with her friend Mr. Elton. But every signal that she believes proves Mr. Elton likes Harriet is a sign he actually loves Emma. The result? Both Mr. Elton and Harriet are crushed.

This ripple effect continues throughout the novel as she encourages Harriet to refuse a proposal from a lower-class man, finds herself with feelings for a man who’s secretly already engaged to another woman in town and then tries to set Harriet up with a man who she ultimately realizes she, herself, actually has feelings for.

The gist: Emma is a hot mess. Movie producer Amy Heckerling had it right; she really is clueless. But it’s hard not to root for her anyhow. She is not the greatest friend, but she does try, and as a 21-year-old, can we really blame her for misreading signals from men? Weren’t we all doing that at that age?

Analysis: The truth is I bought this book at a used book sale years ago and never read it because it’s roughly 450 pages and 200-year-old British literature. Very intimidating. But once I started it, I found that it was incredibly easy to follow — much easier than some other classic literature I’ve read. Essentially, it’s a teenage rom com set in 1800’s Britain! It’s quite funny. I particularly enjoyed the Miss Bates character who can’t seem to stop talking. We all have someone like that in our lives.

Aside from the obvious romantic themes and tropes (falling for the one who’s been there all along, etc. etc.), Emma also speaks to much larger themes that still resonate today, including social and economic status as well as gender roles. I never realized how much of Clueless thereby also deals with these themes; it clearly does, but obviously not to the level and depth of Austen’s literature. Emma herself is a strong feminist, refusing to marry for most of the novel. It is more important for her to care for her ill father than to find a man to support her. She also makes her matchmaking decisions based on status, swaying Harriet away from the “poor man” and toward the more upstanding “rich man.” (This can be interpreted negatively in that she is focusing on who can better provide for her friend or positively, in that she doesn’t care for the class system at all and sees no problem in her friend dating outside her class.)

It’s an interesting look at much how much and how little has changed in the 200+ years since Emma was first published.

MVP: Mr. Knightley. As yet another love interest in this complex romance novel and brother of Emma’s brother-in-law, he is the only one who — though bitter and defiant at times — is frank and says what he means. When it comes to Mr. Knightley, there are rarely ulterior motives. He knows what he wants from the beginning and bides his time until he gets it, but never fakes feelings like many of the other characters in this novel.

Get Emma now on your Kindle for $8.00

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