Review: Eleanor & Park


I was expecting to really like this book, and it is a fairly decent one. But it didn’t live up to the hype that proceeded it. It was definitely ruined for me by a random comment by someone who said they cried – no sobbed – at the end. I kept waiting for something big and crazy and heartbreaking to happen. I kind of felt like this book had Chekhov’s gun in it. A gun literally did go off midway through the book, but it had no consequence. But nothing really happens. Two kids meet, somehow become obsessed with each other by the process of just being repeatedly exposed to each other, and then her home life is abusive and crazy and dangerous so she runs. And … then they sort of move on but not really.

The focus here is on the love story between Eleanor and Park (I kept wondering if Park was his full name or if it was implied that it was a shortened version of something, since his brother is only referred to as Josh the entire time). All the other stories happening around them (which were, frankly, more interesting), are never explored. There was stuff with Park’s Korean mom, what happened between Eleanor’s mom and just about everyone, how Park’s parents met, who was behind all the sabotage in Eleanor’s gym class… And in the final few chapters, we don’t even get to know what happens to all of Eleanor’s brothers and sister. Why did her mom even end up with Richie? So many unanswered questions.

The book was fairly well-written. It was pretty repetitive, but that seemed to be a deliberate narrative choice. It was sort of like journal entries, mostly in a recent present, linear fashion, but sometimes going backwards to fill in holes in the plot. I normally don’t like blatant exposition, but I just felt like a lot of the interesting parts of the story were just left out to focus on the romance.

I think the most disappointing part for me was that things were really ramping up in the last third of the book and then it all just fizzled pretty pathetically. I was so on the edge of my seat (mostly because I was expecting someone to get killed), and then it turned out to be no big deal. Expectations definitely played a role here, so I can’t blame it all on the book. I was definitely intrigued by it, and the ending is also not super disappointing compared to other books I’ve read. There’s a flicker of hope at the end, which I think would play really well on a movie screen. Apparently, one is in the works, so I would be interested to see that. I hope they address what happens to those kids.

4 stars.

This book fulfills no requirements for the challenge.

Review: To Kill A Mockingbird


I vividly remember sitting at the kitchen table in 9th or 10th grade, reading this book. I was eating cereal or something. But despite that, I remembered very little of what happened in the book. The details that I thought I did remember were completely off. For example, I swear that I thought it was a mockingbird that was putting the gifts inside the tree because those birds collected shiny things. (A quick internet search tells me that might be magpies.) I had also remembered something going down near a jail or a street, which could be two different events that I smooshed together as one in my memory.

Despite how much I was apparently not paying attention the first time I read this book, I felt like it was really beautifully written and had a lot of interesting characterization. The viewpoint of Scout is well-articulated as coming from the memory of a child. The book also brings up a lot of topics, which made book club very interesting. Besides the obvious topic of racism in America, this also brought up classism, gender stereotyping, and empathy towards people that are different from you. I think what makes this book so great is that it is a fully contained story, but you can pick off little bits of it to chew on, or use it as a springboard for a discussion on a variety of themes. No wonder it keeps being used as required reading in schools. There is a lot here!

There are two downsides to this book, and it may be coming from my viewpoint in 2015. First, I felt like while it did sort of touch on how you can be “a girl” and prefer overalls to dresses, some of the points about women (particularly the “place” of women in the private sphere) seemed to be in agreement with the division. Also, while the book takes a very liberal view of black people in America compared to the time, they are still treated as “other”. It’s not even really specific or pointed out, but it’s simply a given that white and black people don’t mix socially and that is never condemned. Maybe that is how Harper Lee thought, maybe she agreed with “separate but equal”. It’s hard to say.

Often most people point to Boo Radley as the most prominent figure in this book, but really it fairly ancillary to the plot. The curiousity of the children towards him is a running theme throughout the beginning mostly, but he is introduced mainly to be their savior toward the end when Mr. Ewell comes after the siblings. I would like to read more about him, actually. He sounds like a pretty interesting guy.

I’m torn on whether or not I will read Go Set A Watchman. There’s some controversy as to whether Harper Lee actually wanted the book to be published or if she was manipulated in her feebler state of mind. I definitely think it is okay to change your mind after many years, but it does seem a little sketchy. Either way, her first (and for 50+ years, only!) novel still holds up as a fantastic piece of literature.

5 stars.

This book fulfills the Pulitzer Prize-winning book requirement for the challenge.

Review: Still Alice

Still Alice cover

I knew that this book was about a woman who slowly descends into Alzheimer’s disease, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so profound about the meaning of life. Alice Howland discovers she has early on-set Alzheimer’s disease shortly after her 50th birthday, when she is in the prime of her career. Her children have recently moved on into adulthood and she and her husband John are empty-nesters, with prestigious careers at Harvard University. The diagnosis shakes her to her core, and John is firmly in denial throughout most of the book.

While I really enjoyed a lot of the story that centered around an understanding of what it may feel like to have Alzheimer’s (because we really won’t ever know), I think part of the story that really captivated me was the reaction from her family. Her relationships at the beginning of the book are so different from the end. Her two eldest children, Anna and Tom, are closer to Alice than Lydia, the “wayward” youngest, who has defied her mother’s expectations for her and moved to Los Angeles in order to begin a career as an actress. Alice has spent most of her life deep into higher education, and she places high importance on it. It seemed to be a personal slight to her that Lydia dismisses it out of hand. But, as Alice loses more and more of her memory and “self”, Lydia is the one that seems to deeply understand her, or at least is interested in meeting her where she is.

Alice’s relationship with John is probably the saddest part of the entire novel. At first, he rejects the diagnosis outright. He wants to meet with the doctor himself, and argues over and over. When Alice has a DNA test done and it reveals that she has a genetic mutation found in many Alzheimer’s patients, John is on a new mission to find some kind of cure or treatment. He begins researching it with as much fervor as he does with his Harvard laboratory experiments. But as Alice descends farther and farther into her disease, John retreats from her more and more. He clearly feels like her handicap is slowing him down. He can’t stand to be around her. He won’t watch her take her medications. And near the end, when she can’t remember the names of her family, or even that she is related to these people, he moves to New York City for a new job and leaves Alice behind.

One of the plot threads that runs throughout is Alice’s plan to take her own life once her symptoms become out of hand. She sets an alarm on her Blackberry to ask her every morning to answer 5 basic questions: What month is it, Where is my office, Where do I live, How many children do I have, and When is Anna’s birthday. The document instructs her to find a bottle of sleeping pills and take them all when she can no longer answer the questions. The Blackberry unfortunately meets an untimely demise in the freezer, but while poking around on her computer some time later, she happens upon the document, entitled Butterfly (an allusion to her mother’s prized necklace that she has taken to wearing). She tries to carry out the instructions in the document, but her forgetfulness (and possibly John’s removal of the pills) prevents her from completing the task.

This book is important, I think, for families that have a member who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, or even someone in the early stages of diagnosis. There is an empathy that comes from reading about this experience, even if it can never be verified that this is actually how it feels.

I checked off the box for something that scares me, because the idea of one day having Alzheimer’s, or caring for someone that does, is really frightening. It does run in my family, although I don’t think I’ll be having my DNA tested. (Like Lydia, I’d rather not know.) But somehow, this book has tempered the fear. It would still be not the most awesome outcome, but maybe it wouldn’t be that terrible.

5 stars

This book completes the a book that scares you and a book that made you cry.

Review: Where We Belong

There are a few books that I’ve read, where I’ve been trucking along happily, really enjoying the story and then I turn a page and suddenly it’s over. The ending couldn’t be more jarring if it had ended mid-sentence. It kind of leaves me feeling a little sour about the whole thing, even though I did enjoy reading it.

Obviously, what I’m trying to say here is that I liked this book although I did not like the ending. To be fair, it wasn’t a really terrible ending. I mean, it could have been “all a dream” or someone could have unnecessarily died right at the end. I wanted the romantic “leads” to wind up together and they didn’t, and it left me feeling wanting. On the one hand, that makes me feel slightly betrayed as a reader, because I read fiction in order to be swept up into a story and my expectations were not met. On the other, however, doesn’t that show how good the novel was at making me root for these two characters to wind up together, that I am so disappointed that they did not?

Either way, let that be a warning for anyone who reads this book. Marian is a single woman at the end of this book. I do feel that it was well written, though. The perspectives go back and forth several times between Marian, a woman in her late 30s who is a successful TV producer and kind of high-strung, and 18-year-old Kirby, who is kind of a meandering young woman who doesn’t give a shit about just about anything. As the story progresses, they sort of blend together, keeping their distinctive personalities, but sharing the good sides of each other. Marian kicks back and relaxes a little, and begins to follow her heart rather than her rules. Kirby begins to see the good in people and starts to care more about her family and her future. Each character’s “voice” is distinct and clearly separate from the other, which is kind of difficult to do.

Giffin tends to interweave characters from her other books in her novels, and so I was delighted to recognize Claudia from Baby Proof, which I read several years ago. This makes me hopeful that Marian, Conrad, or Kirby will show up in a future novel (or maybe they have before!).

I realize that I haven’t detailed anything about the plot (other than the fact that this is not a satisfying love story), but you can glean pretty much all of it from the book jacket. Kirby is adopted, Marian is her birth mother. They begin a relationship and it is complicated. Which sounds like a boring book, but I did really enjoy reading it. I found it difficult to put down particularly when Marian and Kirby go to meet up with Conrad, who is Kirby’s father and Marian hasn’t seen since she first discovered the pregnancy.

I enjoyed this very much, but that ending. It cost my review one star. I bet in the movie version, they would end up together.

4 stars.

This book fulfills the book by an author you love and haven’t read yet requirement for the challenge.

Review: Sycamore Row

The writing style between this and A Time To Kill are very similar, but Sycamore Row is so much more polished, if a little less interesting. Part of that is the overall plot is just not as attention-grabbing as the plot to A Time To Kill. It answers a lot fewer “big questions” (is it okay to take the law into your own hands, etc), and becomes mired in a somewhat boring dispute over an estate. It only begins to get interesting when there is a BIG SECRET. Several of Grisham’s writing “tics” are present here as they were in the first novel, but not as overused. One of the biggest differences I noticed was a huge lack of the n-word. It was liberally sprinkled over A Time To Kill, but Sycamore Row is much more reigned in. He engages in a lot of telling rather than showing, which is not only a good rule for visual entertainment, but is also good with books. Near the end, he actually writes “As seasoned lawyers, they should have known better than to plan the rest of the trial” which is such a huge dun dun DUNNNN.

Essentially, the plot is that an old man who is estranged from his family commits suicide, leaving all of his sizable estate to a black housekeeper he had only known for 3 years. His surviving family is outraged, and so they hire some big guns and take it to court. The deceased has a long-lost and presumed dead brother who is found, and tapes a shocking deposition that illuminates exactly why this man left 24 million dollars to this woman. Being able to boil it down so concisely is part of its downfall. There just wasn’t much there to fill all 447 pages.

In contrast to A Time To Kill, I felt like the racial aspects were better, although not perfect. It was still exceedingly sexist. I was somewhat bothered that Ellen Roark doesn’t exist at all in this novel, even after in the conclusion to A Time To Kill she had been brutally beaten by the KKK and left to die, and that is basically how her story ends. It would have been nice for her to even make a cameo in this novel, at least so we know that she is doing okay. (I realize that most people wouldn’t have read both stories back-to-back, but she was a major character in the first!) Jake’s secretary at the beginning of the book is just as belittled as Ethel Twitty was, except instead of being old and ugly, she’s a lazy housewife. (C’mon, John…) It’s like he wants to emphasize that he is such a moral man because he is NOT TEMPTED BY HIS SECRETARY. Because there’s no way an ugly, old, or lazy woman would ever be tempting, am I right? The stand-in for Paralegal Ellen Roark in this book is Portia Lang, the black housekeeper Lettie’s daughter, who has just returned from being abroad and in the military, and now is interested in studying the law. How cool would it have been for Portia and Ellen to work together, and learn from each other? (Ok, I’ll drop it.)

I’m sure that my declarations of the sexism in this book are being scoffed by the two people reading this. So I have a selection of excerpts to share.

“I got the impression she’s a fairly typical black woman for these parts.” […] “Is she attractive?”

Jake and Dewayne exchanged a nervous handshake while shapely Kamila watched close by.

“Tell Carla I love her and lust after her body.” “She knows it. Later.”

Portia found her to be polite, gracious, and seemingly comfortable with another black female in the house.

The last one kind of is shockingly terrible. Why on earth would a woman be uncomfortable with another woman’s presence, whether they share a skin color or not? Are they dogs, sniffing each other and growling over territory? I kind of wish I had notated some of the even more terrible lines throughout A Time To Kill. Rest assured, it can be worse.

There is some minor fallout for Jake with regards to the Hailey trial, which is referenced quite a bit. Grisham doesn’t pretend that Jake isn’t an arrogant jerk (although, supposedly a moralistic arrogant jerk), and the troubles he is having collecting the insurance money on his charboiled house is due to that. His slimey divorce lawyer pal fixes that up for him rather conveniently, but there are lingering problems with the arsonists going free and many having not been charged at all. The KKK hasn’t returned, but there are mutterings that maybe they haven’t finished with Jake and so he carries a loaded gun in his briefcase to protect himself and his family. I did appreciate that small sliver of continuity.

My takeaway from this book is that is it okay. It’s fine. Nothing special. It’s much better as a piece of writing than A Time To Kill in many ways, but part of its problems began in that book and carry over to this one. The sensibility of the town is actually pretty good, and it may be both novel’s most fully developed character.

3 stars.

This book fulfills no requirements for the challenge.

Review: A Time To Kill


I’m as surprised as anyone by how much I absolutely hated this book. It really doesn’t have that much to redeem it. I’ve read some other Grisham books before, and I don’t recall them being this terrible. Almost every page had something new to make me irritated.

First, the plot was decent. So it has that going for it. But getting to the bones of the plot was this strange meandering journey, filled with random asides that were flushed out way more than needed and then completely discarded. I wondered why we had to know so much about Dell, the waitress at The Coffee Shop, when it wasn’t necessary at all to the plot or main characters. Certain aspects that were brought up would have aided in world building if they had come up earlier, and then referenced again later, but I felt like a bunch of things (like this really long aside about the secretaries getting lunch at 11:50 sharp in the square) completely stupid and unnecessary, and pushed back actually interesting things. Details are invented and then discarded, some things seem to contradict, and some are just downright confusing.

The book was also pretty offensive. Things like rape and racism need a gentle touch, and maybe the same story in another writer’s hands would have been amazing, but in Grisham’s hands it surely wasn’t. This is a story where a young black girl is raped and her father shoots the rapists and is on trial, but the protagonist is a white male lawyer. We are supposed to sympathize with him, as the womens and the blacks are all brushed off as intellectually subpar. But Jake Brigance is an arrogant jerk who is pretty unlikable. Really, he seems to be the definition of a douchebag. He treats his wife like a child, his clients like pests, and the law clerk that offers her services for free as a seductress, not to mention a bleeding heart liberal that doesn’t wear bras (it’s apparently very important to know that she DOESN’T WEAR A BRA – as it is repeated at least 4 times). The n-word is used so many times I felt like it was just randomly inserted as much as possible. I just feel kind of icky that these topics are being handled by a white man and without much grace.

I was amazed at the amount of typos there were in a book that is more than 25 years old, which has likely undergone several revisions. Some of it could be attributed to the transfer from page to ebook, as that is how I read it, but others where definitely spelling errors (venear isn’t a word). I was also jarred by the use of the term “Kluxer” instead of Klansman, which is what I’m used to seeing. A quick Google search shows that is has been in use before, but not much. So I’ll let that slide, but it’s a strange way to see it written. More than half of the chapters begins with the name of a random character, introducing that character, and going on to the main plot again. This device wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t keep happening over and over. It got to be really noticeable.

And the resolution. Generally, in a courtroom novel, the case builds and comes to a rising conclusion, typically with a major breakthrough or amazing closing argument. The main action of this lands “off screen”, and seems to be a non-sensical random chance. The reason the jury decides as they do almost makes no sense. It only ends that way because it is the best possible outcome. A lot of the loose ends just don’t get tied up or even mentioned, particularly in reference to the KKK. They just … leave? Well, okay then, I guess they weren’t serious about being a threat.

I plan to follow this up with a review of the film version (which is on its way) and a review of the follow-up novel by Grisham, entitled Sycamore Row. It was published in the past few years, so I want to see if it still is as terrible as this one, or if this one is just bad because it is the first book he ever wrote. For now, I’m left with a not very pleasant picture of Mr. Grisham.

2 stars.

This book fulfills the first book by a popular author requirement for the challenge.


Follow up reading:


Review: The Birth House

I began this book feeling excited. It was about midwifery, set in the province I grew up in. It had to be great! And the first 3/4ths were. But then, it was like a speeding train that half heartedly slipped off the tracks with a giant shrug.

The story begins with Dora Rare, with Mik’maq blood deep in the family’s past, the only daughter in a family tradition of sons. A little strange and “witchy”, she’s tormented by class mates and admonished by adults. Her father is uncomfortable with her burgeoning womanhood at 17, and ships her off to live with another witchy woman, Louisiana transplant Miss Marie Babineau, the local midwife.

After this is where things started going off for me, but I was willing to accept it, because it was still interesting. Dora is suddenly incredibly knowledgable and wise concerning midwifery in the span of about a year. Dr. Thomas comes into the picture, opening a “maternity home” for the “latest obstetrical advances” that directly competes with Miss B and Dora’s midwifery. Apparently all the expectant fathers are 100% into this new medical childbirth while the women are all nervous about it.

Then a confusing courtship begins between Dora and the eldest son of a rich widow, which seems completely out of left field as Dora is even more marginalized as a witchy midwife, despite her chastity. Apparently, Archer Bigelow would rather get it on with the local “loose” woman, but won’t get his inheritance if he marries her because she’s a tramp, or something. So Dora is the next best thing? She’s attracted to him, so she goes for it. But then her attraction is suddenly over once they marry, and she tries to avoid him at all costs. In return, he leaves for long periods.

The day of the wedding, Miss B mysteriously disappears, and is never heard from again. We are to assume she died, and found a way to make her body disappear. Or maybe she ascended to heaven, who knows.

Archer becomes a controlling jackass, and Dora has to hide her midwifery dabbling as neither he nor Dr Thomas approve (for someone who lives and works out of the area, the Dr seems to know everything), and paint her as a dangerous monster, intent on using backwards remedies and hocus pocus on the local women. She is at a birth at the maternity home and witnesses twilight sleep, and later the postpartum depression of the same mother. Archer conveniently drowns and is out of the picture.

Eventually, she is run out of town after she helps a woman have an late term abortion and the woman dies within 24 hours of visiting her. (But don’t worry, she was super conflicted about helping abort the baby.) She goes to stay with her brother in Boston, where he lives with a bunch of transient women who are suffragists, lesbians, artists, and more, across the alley from a brothel. Eventually, her name is cleared, as Abortion Woman’s husband is accused of pushing his wife down a flight of stairs (which killed her in her weakened state), and so Dora returns home.

In the last few short chapters, Dora and her newfound sass opens her home as a birth house, unceremoniously runs Dr Thomas out of town, and takes a lover in her deceased husband’s younger brother. And that’s it.

Sprinkled throughout are some random historical events, such as World War I and the Halifax Explosion.

My biggest problem with the book was how it didn’t connect the dots between all the plots. It was too ambitious, and it didn’t give enough time to develop any of the plot threads. It was like a fleshed out outline, not a novel. McKay could probably have skipped all of the Boston stuff, and elaborated more on the ousting of Dr Thomas. I didn’t feel like his departure was earned. Some criticisms of the book stem on the white hat/black hat nature of the conflict between Dora and Dr Thomas, and I can see that. He does seem a little overtly villainous. The historical elements are just thrown in, like checklist items that needed to be marked complete.

The ideas and promise were here in the book, but it just didn’t come together in a way that made the book anything above mediocre. I also would have liked a lengthy postscript about the historical things referenced in the book, like whether the Canning maternity home existed, if the Birth House was a real thing, and maybe some other tidbits about the Halifax explosion and other contextualizing details, rather than the first several chapters of her next novel.

3 stars.

This book fulfills the book set in a different country, book a friend recommended, and book that takes place in your hometown requirements.

Review: During the Reign of the Queen of Persia

I don’t really know how to review this book because I don’t know how to evaluate it. For example, I can’t even really pinpoint the climax. Was it one of the several character deaths? When Gram sold the property? The attempted suicide? The fire? I really don’t know.

The story isn’t even linear. It begins after a major event, that is later retold about 3/4ths into the novel, then ends after the beginning. So the timeline is all over the place.

Was it interesting? Fairly. Some of the characters really came alive; the setting was vivid. Lots of interesting events happened. The writing was beautiful.

But what was the point of the novel?

The preamble before the book in my edition talks about the titular Queen of Persia (the matriarch grandmother) and also about the fever dream of childhood summers. I guess you could pinpoint those, but I didn’t really get much of a sense of either of those. The book is collectively narrated by 4 cousins, two sets of sisters, as the “we”. But not only do they describe things it was unlikely for them to know (for example, Gram’s early marriage to Grandad and their sex life), but they step back and describe some cousins as apart from and yet together with the “we”. If narrating as a collective, that collection should be fixed. Instead, the people in the “we” keep changing to suit the story.

Finally, the ending is pretty abrupt and unsatisfactory. Although since I can’t pinpoint a protagonist or a climax, I’m not sure what kind of ending could possibly work. The best way I can describe this novel is as a beautiful road to nowhere.

3 stars.

This book fulfills the female author, came out in the year you were born, and an author you’ve never read before requirements for the challenge.