Author Archives: lindsayjohnna

Holidays: Gimme Dem Books

I remember many many moons ago when my sister (two years my senior) started asking for books for Christmas and I was so disappointed in her. You. So. Boring. And then, as with all the other trends she got into (clothes, cookware, decor, etc.), there I was, her shadow on a two-year-delay, asking for books for Christmas.

Now, I have two literary degrees and teach ELA, so books and book-related things have become a staple in my Christmas list. I always work in a few books I want, but I usually also ask for a few book-related items, especially clothes. I love seeing other people sporting symbols or phrases that reference books we have in common so, understandably, I also get a kick out of wearing my own references, especially when someone gets it and mentions it. 

So, without further ado, here are my Christmas requests:

Out Of Print Clothing has so many things I want. I got a Gatsby sweatshirt for Christmas a few years ago and it is still my favorite thing to wear in the winter. It’s survived many washes and even more wears and is so warm, so now that I know that the quality is top notch, I’m asking for more.

One of the books I want is a journal. I’m not much for journaling and I can’t imagine when or whether I’ll find time for this, but I’ve been feeling strangely negative lately and I’m trying to focus on things that will remind me of all the many reasons I have to be blissfully happy. I’ve been writing down two positive interactions I have with students each day, I’m wanting to re-start doing the “daily thankfulness notes” my husband and I did for while, and I think this journal would help, too. It gives a space for morning gratitude and hopefulness, as well as nightly ruminations and determination.

I’ve read all of Dan Brown’s books. I don’t know why, but for some reason, to admit that I enjoy Dan Brown feels a bit cheap, like when someone says their favorite books are the mass-produced, non-imaginative, “change a few details and crank out another sub-par thriller novel” books that fly off the shelves at libraries. Yes, Brown’s books have similar vibes, but that’s because they focus on the same protagonist. Yes, they have been turned into blockbuster films with my main man, Tom Hanks, which means they’re mainstream. Yes, some “facts” are fudged or completely fake. SO WHAT?? Every time I read a Brown novel , you can just color me entertained.

I want these for obvious reasons. One awesome thing we did last year was finish the school year with a research unit where students present on a hero of their choosing. I am so blessed to have some beautiful, brilliant independent young women in my classes and I think these would be a delight for me to read, but even more of a delight to pass along to the right young reader (male or female).

So, what did you ask for for this holiday season? Any other book-related requests out there? I love seeing what others ask for, especially since I’ll probably add them all to my wish list for future years!

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Review and Rumination: Shay’s “Odysseus in America”

It’s been a while. I know. The only reason I’m even here now is because my students are between big writing assignments, so I have a very brief respite from reading and grading and grading and reading. Plus, I’m monitoring Saturday School.

My last review was of Circe and I recall being optimistic that I might be able to incorporate it into my Odyssey Unit. Well, time has brought us to this moment, when we have just finished reading The Odyssey and we’re incorporating supplementary texts this coming week. All year, I’ve had grand aspirations that I would delve into the deep questions of whether Odysseus has PTSD or not. For that reason, I got a copy of Jonathan Shay’s Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming.

In this ambitious follow-up to Achilles in Vietnam, Dr. Jonathan Shay uses the Odyssey, the story of a soldier’s homecoming, to illuminate the pitfalls that trap many veterans on the road back to civilian life.

Seamlessly combining important psychological work and brilliant literary interpretation with an impassioned plea to renovate American military institutions, Shay deepens our understanding of both the combat veteran’s experience and one of the world’s greatest classics.

My hope was that this book would provide me with some excerpts, especially regarding the chapters in which Odysseus returns to Ithaca, that would shine a light on Odysseus’ behavior as a result of what he endured during his 20-year-expedition (or odyssey). Not only does it do so, but it includes a step-by-step analysis of Odysseus’ behavior for each of the 15 stops on his journey home. Shay compares Odysseus with Vietnam veterans whom he has counseled in the years after their return home. He sheds light on possible motivations and meanings behind Odysseus’ words, actions, and choices, as well as shows how similar words, actions, and choices look under a modern lens. Though this epic is estimated to be almost three thousand years old, Shay helps readers see how trauma and its effects are timeless. Odysseus in America was a tremendous read and it elevated my understanding of The Odyssey, but more importantly, it illuminated the suffering of combat veterans, as well as non-veterans who have navigated horrible circumstances and live life in the wake of those experiences. I am more motivated than ever to incorporate this text into my teaching of The Odyssey.

However, despite this motivation, I will not be doing so this year, or possibly for many years. Despite the fact that there is substantial and meaningful learning to gain from this book, there is not enough time to do it justice. I have less than a week to dedicate to reading supplementary materials and writing something. We already only had a week and a day (5 class periods) to get through reading the epic, which is ridiculous! It’s full of action and monsters and love stories, so it’s just about the most captivating thing I can offer to them, and to blaze through it in just over a week is already robbing the kids of so much fun and meaning. The lack of time is a big issue, one that goes “all the way to the TOP” (sorry, MFM reference – SSDGM, Murderinos) and I obviously can’t resolve the problems with the American public school system here on this blog. I feel strongly that kids would learn from reading Odysseus in America, as well as the many other literary works that highlight the effects of trauma. I’m inspired by this text, but I honestly think that this could be an entire class, a multicultural lit elective, looking at the effects of trauma in and through literature. I’m going to work on building that class so that when I have enough teacher street cred, I can fight with more “ammo” (what an unfortunate metaphor in this instance) by having a concrete idea of the class. In the meantime, I’m convinced that to make a pit-stop on the topic of PTSD would satisfy my desire to talk about it, but would do so in a way that didn’t give the necessary time for evaluation, discussion, and argumentative writing.

The difficult thing for me is that I got into teaching because of the books (a taboo statement in this field of work). I wanted it to be my job to read and geek out about books. At times, that goal comes true; I’ve had so much fun reading The Odyssey with ~140 students stretching across all demographics and backgrounds. Not only is it satisfying to read one of my favorite classics as my JOB, but it’s thrilling to see it through their eyes every year as they make connections (they always yell “that’s just like Spongebob!” when we read about the bag of wind or talk about Neptune) and form opinions about Odysseus as a hero, as a leader, as a male. I know it would be endlessly fun to dive into the topic of PTSD with them, but after only a year and a half of teaching on my own, I’m realizing that although I got into it for the fun of the books, the learning of the kids is more important. If my PTSD pit-stop is just for fun, meaning that more time would be necessary in order to expand on their learning enough to validate doing it, then the kids deserve better. I have to prioritize the kids over the books.

Thusly, I’ll stick to the old-faithful argument of whether or not Odysseus is a hero. The epic ends before we get to see the effects of Odysseus’ return and we’re never afforded the benefit of anyone other than Odysseus’ perspective on his actions. So, luckily for me, I get to incorporate two of my favorite Greek-inspired novels: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood and Circe by Madeline Miller.

One final thing: before school started, I read The Song of Achilles, also by Madeline Miller, and really enjoyed it. She is clearly very knowledgeable about mythology but gracefully incorporates her own spin on the classics. She brings to life, especially, characters who have never had the opportunity to tell their own side of the story, which is why I was such a big fan of Circe. Hannah mentioned that she liked The Song of Achilles better than Circe, but I must admit that I’ve grown rather bored of the male perspective, even the submissive, underdog male. I also never much liked Achilles; he always seemed too self-obsessed and while Miller effortlessly depicts a sympathetic, loving side of Achilles, the overall story doesn’t change and his hubris is still the star of the show. Nonetheless, I’d recommend it to any and all.

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Review: Miller’s “Circe” and Lindsay’s Opinion vs. Mrs. C-T’s Opinion

What a beautiful respite from my reading slump! Of course, after my long trek through the desert of boring books, I was over-thirsty for quality and, thus, finished Madeline Miller’s Circe in a few days, so now I’m back to square one. What will I read now?

Hannah finished Circe before I even received it and texted me a few afterthoughts; it sounded like she was somewhat underwhelmed, but I was adamant that I would go into it as a “blank canvas” and let it paint all over me. I was not disappointed.

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.

Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.

But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Now, I am rather well-acquainted with Circe as a character from Homer’s The Odyssey, which I teach to freshmen every year. I went into this reading hopeful that it would contain something I could incorporate into this year’s unit (more on that in a bit), but due to my recent bad luck with books, my number one goal was to read and be entertained, to enjoy a book as I haven’t done in a while, regardless of academic application potential.

I loved this novel. The story was narrated from Circe’s 1st-person perspective and felt almost like sitting by the fire listening to story time. She was looking back on her life and telling her story to an anonymous audience (me!) and occasionally interjected her past story with musings about how naive she was or how later she would think differently. Due to these brief snaps back to the “present” story time, the vibe of the book was easy-going and familiar, which made it all the more enjoyable.

Considering the fact that most people only know Circe as a witch and temporary love stop on the Odysseus Express, imagine my surprise when the emotions and relationships weren’t 50 Shades levels of cringe. Mythology is fascinating, so we all roll our eyes and shrug at the unhealthy relationships and mistreatment of women, as though they’re just as unbelievable as gods wielding thunderbolts or six-headed sea monsters, but the truth is that misogyny seems to have weathered the test of time in a way that gods and monsters didn’t. I give 100% credit to Madeline Miller for her interpretation of Circe’s story, as well as her story-telling ability. Instead of relating every detail of each copulation session (be it willing or forced, so yes, be trigger-warned), she implies and leads the reader to understand what’s happening, but dedicates her time to the why.

The Odyssey presents Circe as a witch who transforms men into pigs because it pleases her and only Odysseus could outsmart her, changing her heart of stone to typical female emotional mush. FINALLY, Circe is portrayed as an individual, whose life was difficult and complicated long before Odysseus came along and made it more complicated. She is given a why. Why transform the men? Why be there waiting for him? Why be so enamored by a turd like Odysseus? Like all women, Circe is a complicated being and she existed outside of her connection with literature’s most well-known “hero” for centuries. Homer wrote The Odyssey around 800 B.C.E., so we’ve known one side of the story, the male’s perspective, for almost 3000 years. Let’s hear HER side of the story!

Okay, I can feel that I got on my soapbox there. The point was to say that depending on how deep down the Mythology rabbit hole you’re known to go, anywhere between a little to a lot of this novel will be yesterday’s news to you. Spoilers aren’t really that big of a threat, since we know how it will end, generally. However, the refreshing and necessary thing about this novel is that we are given insight into the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of an ancient woman.

So, from what I’ve seen, people have disliked this when they aren’t fans of historical interpretations. Again, this is a tale as old as time, but Miller’s work came from embellishing stories and creating a new perspective. Some times, her embellishments stray from the original and a lot of hard-core mythology junkies reject any creative license. For instance, in The Odyssey, Odysseus is given moly by Hermes, he eats it, drinks Circe’s potion, and is not transformed, thus beguiling her with his “power.” It doesn’t go that way in Circe and I could be mad about it and be all “look at me; I’m so smart; I know the original; this is wrong; I’m right” but what’s the point in that? It’s no fun to be such a know-it-all that you can’t enjoy anything but the original. Chill.

The other thing about that divergence from the original is that it must exist for a reason! That is one of the most well-known plot points; anyone can point it out (so calm down, know-it-all’s), so why would Miller change it? The new version must serve a purpose in telling the audience more about Circe. This is where my mind swaps from Lindsay, the “for fun” reader, to Mrs. C-T, the critical reader. The wheels were turning nonstop towards the end of the novel, to the point where I had to get out some post-its so I could refer to important excerpts later. Here are some teachery thoughts that are still mulling and taking shape in my pre-planning mind (we won’t get to our Odyssey unit until November, so I have time to hammer out details). However, I must say that these sort of critical reading thoughts and questions do not exist exclusively in a classroom; anyone can read, but it is an entirely different skill to read critically, allowing texts to tap into your mind beyond surface-level enjoyment. Even if you are not a teacher or student, even if you don’t enjoy when this reader blog crosses the line over to a teacher blog, I encourage you to take a look at the questions posed below. You don’t have to be a student to continue to challenge your thinking. Now, to the musings:

  1. Read Book 10 of The Odyssey and then read the excerpt of their meeting from Circe. Consider how the two main characters’ vices and virtues are shifted and challenged with the difference in narrative. How are the narrators biased? Which story do you believe? Why? How are you biased?
  2. Our textbook does not include Book 11 (Odysseus’ trip to the land of the dead) but I think it is interesting/important. Last year I just did story time for missing sections and I’ve asked my department chair for a class set of Gareth Hinds’ graphic novel, but if those options fail or fall short, I can use the excerpt from Circe where she gives him guidance.
  3. This one is exciting: include our article about PTSD to read after Odysseus comes home and he and Telemachus slaughter all the suitors and “unfaithful” servants. Also, include the excerpt where Telemachus talks about what Odysseus was like when he came home. Is it human nature to hope “they all lived happily ever after”? Why do so many stories lack falling action and end after the climax? What do you think life was like for Odysseus/Penelope/Telemachus after his return? Why? How does Telemachus’ account support or challenge that?
  4. Include excerpt of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, specifically including the Chorus from the servant maids Odysseus killed. Then, include excerpt from Circe that gives Penelope’s account of Odysseus’ return. Why is it so unbelievable that Penelope and Circe would meet and interact so positively? How are readers of The Odyssey led to believe these women would treat each other? How does Penelope’s account shift your perception of Odysseus? Recall how Odysseus portrays Penelope in The Odyssey: how does Penelope’s portrayal of Odysseus in Circe and/or The Penelopiad compare/contrast? How do these characters show bias?
  5. After completing the epic, discuss whether Odysseus is a hero. Further discuss whether he fulfills the steps of Joseph Campbell’s Heroic Journey. Can one fulfill the steps but fail to be a hero? Can one be a hero without being “heroic”? Include an excerpt from Circe where Telemachus talks about Odysseus’ life and legacy. Does the inclusion of personal experience and opinion alter your perception of Odysseus’ heroic status? How could it be biased? Can one determine heroic status without the inclusion of personal accounts?

As you can tell, I LOVE to include various perspectives in my classroom. I know that it is human nature to form opinions and, sadly, some people spend more time building their own opinions by ignoring or attacking the opposition and stacking up supporting arguments than by exploring and engaging those adverse opinions in constructive discussion. It is my goal that students learn to explore the opposition as much as their own side, challenging their own biases as well as those of others, and building informed, malleable opinions. Circe will undoubtedly help me work towards this goal.

Hope you enjoyed this and I’d love to hear any and all thoughts!

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Mid-Year Book Tag

I don’t think we’ve ever completed a tag for which we weren’t nominated. We’ve been fortunate in that many beautiful souls have nominated us for various tags and awards throughout the years (btw, we just passed our 6 year blogiversary!), and we complete as many as we can – what with our busy schedules, aka inconsistent postings – but I don’t think we’ve ever completed one without first be notified of the tag through our nomination. Well, that trend ends today.

This is the Mid-Year “Freak Out” (why are people freaking out about it?) Book Tag that I stumbled across in my readings of peers’ blog posts. No need to give my nominator a shout out, but I’m happy to name Lauren at Gossamer Pages, since hers was the post that inspired mine. She’s doing great things over there, so go check her out.

So anyway, the goal is to answer the questions only using books I’ve read so far this year. I’m mid-slump so I’m way behind on my Goodreads goal, so we’ll see if I can do it!

1. Best book you’ve read so far in 2018? Looking back at my conquests this year, it’s been a very bland reading year, with a few exceptions. That makes this one easy but it would be my answer, regardless. Hands down, Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman. I was already in pretty deep with Scythe, but this sequel was exceptional, and I do not use that word lightly. Recommended for: anyone who enjoys YA thrillers, Dystopian futures, artificial intelligence, multiple POVs, strong female protagonists, series works.

2. Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2018? I hate doing this, but the answer for this one has to be Thunderhead, also. I’ve only read two sequels so far this year and the other one is decidedly dedicated to another one of these questions.

3. New release you haven’t read yet, but want to? Again, easy: Circe by Madeline Miller. I adore re-tellings of classics, especially from a feminist perspective and this one promises to please. Looking forward to reading it and, if possible (based on potential relevance) including it in our Odyssey unit this year (if I do, I’ll be sure to post about it).

4. Most anticipated release for the second half of 2018? Easy, easy, easy: Tiamat’s Wrath by James S. A. Corey. It’s the 8th in a nine-part series, Expanse, which I’ve been devouring since 2015. I was recommended to read the first installment, Leviathan Wakes, after I enjoyed Andy Weir’s The Martian so much. I guess more people are aware of it now, since it’s a TV show. For those who keep up with the show, how jazzed are we that Amazon picked up what Syfy so stupidly dropped?!?! Recommended for: anyone who enjoys SciFi/Space Operas, multiple POVs, series works, very looong books, and character-driven stories.

5. Biggest disappointment? No difficulty there either. While I was in absolute bliss over Red Rising, Golden Son, and Morning Star by Pierce Brown, he extended the series and the forth installment was a huge let down, in my unprofessional opinion. I never wrote a review because I’m just too devastated and I’m hoping that time will dull my disillusionment. I suppose it has; now, instead of remembering what all I hated, I just remember that I hated it. Nonetheless, I will never stop recommending this series/author. NEVER! Recommended for: anyone who enjoys SciFi/Space Operas, series works, Dystopian futures, political strategizing, series works, multiple POVs.

6. Biggest surprise? Hmmm, well I guess I was surprised by Cantero’s Meddling Kids. I honestly expected to consider it somewhat sacrilegious to my beloved Scooby-Doo, but I tried really hard to go into it seeing it as an “interpretation” and was pleased. It was sometimes silly, sometimes genuine, sometimes spooky, sometimes ridiculous. I genuinely enjoyed it. Recommended for: anyone who enjoys mystery/thrillers, SciFi/Fantasy, re-imaginings, mental illness/addiction, LGBTQIA, stand alone novels.

7. Favorite new author? Ryan Graudin is new to me. I genuinely enjoyed Wolf by Wolf but never got around to writing a review. I expect that one day I’ll come across the sequel, and I imagine I’ll enjoy that one, too. Recommended for: anyone who enjoys WWII/Nazi history, strong female protagonists, historical re-imaginings, adventure/thriller, series works.

8. Newest fictional crush? I’m thirty years old. Pass.

9. Newest favorite character? Yael from Wolf by Wolf was a delightfully positive female protagonist, and I just love those.

10. Book that made you cry? It takes a great deal to make me cry and no book has succeeded in doing so so far this year.

11. Book that made you happy? I read Tom Hanks’ book of short stories, Uncommon Type and it was delightful. It also made me realize I read too many “cruel” books that contain plot twists and I always expect that a good thing will go bad at any moment. It was a wonderful change of pace for a good thing to just be good. Recommended for: anyone who enjoys short stories, multiple POVs, happy endings!

12. Favorite book to movie adaptation you’ve seen this year? I have not been to the movies in at least a year, so any movies I’ve seen will be well out of date. I did watch Jurassic Park: The Lost World the other day and I have to say that I give 10 out of 10 to anything with Jeff Goldblum.

13. Favorite review you’ve written this year? I really enjoyed doing the pros/cons review for Shadowlands.

14. Most beautiful book you’ve bought so far this year? I’m obsessed with the copy of The Heroes of Tolkien by David Day that Hannah gave me for my birthday. It’s cerulean leather with gold embossing of the title, as well as a beautiful line drawing of Boromir embossed on the front. It’s one in a series of Tolkien-related texts, all of the same quality; I also have the “Dictionary” and intend to get the “Atlas” and “Book of Battles,” too. Recommended for: anyone who enjoys Tolkien works, fictional histories, mythology, character development.

15. What books do you need to read by the end of the year? So many! Just to highlight a few:

Normally, I nominate others at this point. I actually get really peeved when people are nominated and then are like “oh, I don’t feel like it.” Rude! Someone thought enough of you to take the time to nominate you, so take a beat and nominate others. It’s the best way to show people that you appreciate what they’re doing. The only reason I’m not doing it this time is because it’s already halfway through July and the people I’d nominate have already done some sort of mid-year review. However, if you haven’t done it and you have books worth reviewing, please link your review in the comments so I can read. I’m recovering from a slump, you see, and I need all the help I can get.

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Review: Blum’s “The Poisoner’s Handbook” and Requests for YOUR Opinions

Who’s to blame for a reading slump?? Whom can I blame? I’m rarely inclined to blame myself for anything, but sometimes, when several books in a row are a swing and a miss, you just have to assume that the issue is you, right? That’s not to say that I’m questioning my taste; certainly not. In my opinion, my opinion is solid gold. However, it is entirely possible that either these texts aren’t right for me, or that I’m just encountering them at the wrong time in my life.

I just finished Deborah Blum’s nonfictional account of the rise of forensic toxicology in the wake of widespread poisonings that took place in New York’s in the 1920s. It was a very niche topic. It was recommended at my local bookstore for people who are interested in true crime, so I picked it up.

Deborah Blum, writing with the high style and skill for suspense that is characteristic of the very best mystery fiction, shares the untold story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City. In The Poisoner’s Handbook Blum draws from highly original research to track the fascinating, perilous days when a pair of forensic scientists began their trailblazing chemical detective work, fighting to end an era when untraceable poisons offered an easy path to the perfect crime.

Drama unfolds case by case as the heroes of The Poisoner’s Handbook—chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler—investigate a family mysteriously stricken bald, Barnum and Bailey’s Famous Blue Man, factory workers with crumbling bones, a diner serving poisoned pies, and many others. Each case presents a deadly new puzzle and Norris and Gettler work with a creativity that rivals that of the most imaginative murderer, creating revolutionary experiments to tease out even the wiliest compounds from human tissue. Yet in the tricky game of toxins, even science can’t always be trusted, as proven when one of Gettler’s experiments erroneously sets free a suburban housewife later nicknamed “America’s Lucretia Borgia” to continue her nefarious work.

From the vantage of Norris and Gettler’s laboratory in the infamous Bellevue Hospital it becomes clear that killers aren’t the only toxic threat to New Yorkers. Modern life has created a kind of poison playground, and danger lurks around every corner. Automobiles choke the city streets with carbon monoxide; potent compounds, such as morphine, can be found on store shelves in products ranging from pesticides to cosmetics. Prohibition incites a chemist’s war between bootleggers and government chemists while in Gotham’s crowded speakeasies each round of cocktails becomes a game of Russian roulette. Norris and Gettler triumph over seemingly unbeatable odds to become the pioneers of forensic chemistry and the gatekeepers of justice during a remarkably deadly time. A beguiling concoction that is equal parts true crime, twentieth-century history, and science thriller, The Poisoner’s Handbook is a page-turning account of a forgotten New York.

So, who’s to blame for its contribution to my slump? The “slumpishness” in this case is entirely my fault… I think. I was immensely interested at the beginning, but I have to admit that while I was interested in the forensic details and the rise of toxicology, the political minutiae and all the chemistry bogged me down. I repeatedly caught myself rereading the same sections since I had long since quit paying attention to what I was reading. I am not cut out for science-heavy readings, as I am not scientifically-minded, and I’m afraid that at times, I just was not smart enough for this book. But then again, should I have to be?

I rather enjoyed the majority of this reading, but the fact that it took me over a month to finish it is evidence of the slump. Although it was dry, I expected as much since it is nonfiction. It followed the careers of Norris and Gettler and gave a great deal of credit to their efforts in making forensic science a more credible resource in crime investigation. While nonfiction is notorious for being slow to excite, the upside is that it’s also packed with facts and I learned a great deal from this text.

However, one book does not a slump make, so in addition to myself, whom else can I blame? Well, we all know that my most recent YA read, Kate Brian’s Shadowlands, had the opposite problem of The Poisoner’s Handbook: it took me no time at all to finish but was of rather poor substance.

Similarly, although I found it to be interesting, McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark was somewhat of a let-down in terms of what I was “led” to expect.

Before these, I was underwhelmed by Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, so much so that I had nothing to say about it and didn’t write a post, as well as Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. The last book I recall enjoying was Cantero’s Meddling Kids, which I read back in April. So that means I’ve been bored by my books for three months.

THIS IS WHERE YOU COME IN! I trust the readers in this social “circle” to recommend something that will redeem my esteem for reading. Any and all recommendations are welcome. Shout out titles, name a series or author, or even just pop in links to your own *spoiler-free* reviews of texts you think I might like! I’m in reading quicksand; HELP!! SAVE ME!

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Review Via Pros and Cons: Brian’s “Shadowlands”

You know my policy: when in doubt, hash it out (via pros vs. cons). Today’s subject of uncertainty is Kate Brian’s Shadowlands, which is the first in a trilogy. As always, we start with the obligatory summary.

Rory Miller had one chance to fight back and she took it. Rory survived and the serial killer who attacked her escaped. Now that the infamous Steven Nell is on the loose, Rory must enter the witness protection program. Entering the program alongside her, is her father and sister Darcy. The trio starts a new life and a new beginning leaving their friends and family behind without a goodbye.

Starting over in a new town with only each other is unimaginable for Rory and Darcy. They were inseparable as children but now they can barely stand each other. As the sisters settle in to Juniper Landing, a picturesque vacation island, it seems like their new home may be just the fresh start they need. They fall in with a group of beautiful, carefree teens and spend their days surfing, partying on the beach, and hiking into endless sunsets. Just as they’re starting to feel safe again, one of their new friends goes missing. Is it a coincidence? Or is the nightmare beginning all over again?
 

I’m very unsure about how I feel about this one, so the only thing to do is to weigh the pros and cons. Here we go!

PRO: I read it in two sittings. That has to say something favorable about the book. Undoubtedly, there were issues with the story, but I found it compelling enough that I plowed through it. I saw several reviews that said they “couldn’t put it down” and, to be honest, I agreed.

CON: I’m afraid that the “must keep reading-ness” of it wasn’t due to it being good, but rather was due to confusion. I was constantly confused by this text. It contains dream sequences that reveal themselves after much ado, and I grew to distrust the heroine’s POV. Additionally, some of her experiences are so wildly unbelievable that I needed an explanation because I was becoming, in a word, peeved with the whole thing.

PRO: I’m still thinking about it. Again, this ins’t a specific complement, like “the characters were compelling” or something, but I looked online for the next installment immediately after finishing this because I feel strongly that I must continue the series.

CON: A LOT of questions were raised during this reading, which is in no way a problem. The problem is that the majority of those questions, which are essential to understanding the plot, are not answered in this novel. Goodreads gave a sneak preview of the next book in the series and I got answers to 90% of the questions raised in book one in the first chapters of book two. Where is the sense in that?!?! I would’ve gotten the next book regardless, so at least give me some resolution in this one.

PRO: I hope to bond with a student over this novel. I had one delightful student who found time to talk to me about how much she loved this book. In fact, I walked by her as she finished reading it on the last day of school and she closed it, let out a sigh of exasperation and relief (which I now understand), physically hugged the book for a moment, and handed it to me so I could read it and add it to my classroom library. If she comes to see me next year, I’ll be ready to geek out with her.

CON: It’s very stereotypically YA. The protagonist is a standard “nerdy” girl with a standard “popular” sister and a standard “disconnected” parent. Although I would think that being hunted by a serial killer would be all-consuming, apparently cute boys still manage to be a huge distraction. As per usual, I’m not thrilled with the depiction of teen relationships, but I rarely am.

CON: I might be too critical of an audience, but the depiction of law enforcement in reaction to a serial killer is insulting. Without including spoilers, I’ll just say that I find it hard to believe that the FBI would be as aloof about the threat to this family as they’re depicted in this novel. After a very invasive and intense threat, the family is sent off without escort, without access to phones, and without a way to contact the FBI should the threat continue. To say the least, law enforcement is not portrayed in a positive light.

CON: Who is this person on the cover?? You’d think it would be the protagonist, Rory, but it is very clearly stated, on multiple occasions, that she has blonde hair, so who is this brunette? Also, what’s with the crows?? And the clouds? None of this is relevant!

CON: On a similar note, what is the title referencing? This term is not used even once in the novel. I got that sneak peek and it is explained (poorly) in the first few chapters of book two in the series, but if it won’t even be mentioned in the first book, why name it that?!?!? WHY???

CON: The POV very occasionally swapped from 3rd person limited omniscient (Rory’s perspective, thoughts, and feelings) to those of the serial killer. Those chapters should have been more thought out or left out entirely. As a character, the killer wasn’t developed enough for us to care about or understand his POV. In fact, it was very specific at times (he wants to eat her hair) which implies a really juicy backstory, but it was painfully clear that his perspective was only present so that we would know his progress in hunting her. He wasn’t developed outside of his obsession over her. It was forced and inorganic.

I’m afraid it’s painfully clear how I felt about this novel, and yet, I’ll be darned if I’m not going out to find the next volume tomorrow. Whether you love a novel or hate it, as long as you want to talk about it, isn’t that the goal?

Did anyone else read it? What does everyone else think? Interested in other Pros Vs. Cons reviews? Check them out here and here.

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Review via Pros and Cons: McNamara’s “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark”

All the hype surrounding Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark made it clear that a lot of readers found it to be extremely upsetting to read this at night before bed, or really at any point at home alone. In fact, I listened to a press release where Patton Oswalt told (sensitive) people to read it during on a sunny day in a public, well-populated area. To me, this level of hype is irresistible. I’ve never succeeded in being scared by a book, but I very much yearn for it. So, I ran off and bought it, along with another, shorter toxicological history of poisonings, which has been my night reading and which I’ll review when I finish soon.

Now, my husband and I bought a house last year and are adjusting to life without immediately available neighbors. We have a security system and a fierce beast of a dog and we truly enjoy our neighbors, but we have odd schedules and, like anyone, I do spend a bit of time at home alone. Since I have a natural proclivity for paranoia, I elected not to torture myself with nocturnal readings. I’ve been reading it during lunch breaks or weekend mornings, patiently awaiting the promised disturbing information, so this means that I have spent weeks trying to pencil in short sprints of time in order to make progress on this book instead of devouring it as is customary. The issue is that not only does this mean it’s taking forever to read this, but also I’m frustrated every time my bright, populated readings aren’t disturbing at all!

Let me be clear: I am not as bothered by this as I thought I would be, but it is undoubtedly bothersome and I can easily see how it disturbs and disrupts lives. I have been ingesting true crime for years and have a natural interest in psychologically challenging subjects, so I’ve nonchalantly been entertained by stories that others cannot tolerate. Different strokes, yadda yadda yadda. However, foundationally, the history of the Golden State Killer is that which keeps me up at night. His story fuels and validates my paranoia. I assume you’re all out to get me. Having said that, reading the details has bothered me but little. I don’t know how to feel about this book, so I’m including my famed “Pros/Cons” analysis below.

PRO: It’s true crime! As much as I love true crime, I equally hate fake crime. Fabricated mystery almost feels insulting to the victims of REAL crimes, so I avoid it like the plague, for the most part. McNamara spent decades researching the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker/Golden State Killer and her dedication is palpable and deserves the credit it’s due.

CON: It was published shortly before the GSK was finally caught. I see this as a con because it means that I have so many more questions now that the horrific perpetrator has been caught. Now, we know more about him and who he was while he committed these heinous crimes, so it almost feels like there are unfinished chapters containing resolution that I wish could have been included.

PRO: It was published shortly before the GSK was finally caught. Yes, I see this as a pro and a con. While I do feel unresolved now that we know the GSK’s identity and I have more questions than the book had answers, it also gives such a unique perspective to the unsolved, decades-old-mid-investigation. It conveys the desperation and grasping at straws that was felt by investigators, victims, and anyone else who followed the case. It’s a true reflection of a feeling and a time that (thankfully) has changed.

CON: There was a lot of down time. Because McNamara was an obsessed civilian, the information conveyed is not pure investigative journalism, a.k.a. facts on facts on facts; it is mixed in with her own personal struggle with her obsession and the roads it took her down, which were interesting, but often made the story feel a little too disconnected and stream-of-consciousness. At one point, she finished a paragraph saying a man asked asked a witness a question and when the next paragraph went off on a sidebar story, I didn’t find out that question until over twenty pages later and I’d long since forgotten the thread.

PRO: I like the personal narrative aspects of the book. I know some people (HVA, looking at you) are worried that the book will be more about McNamara than the GSK and the corresponding investigations. However, I think it gave unique perspectives, especially since McNamara gives an everyday-woman POV while having really important connections, meaning you get to see the emotions of society AND the investigative, secret details.

PRO: It has pictures of many of the victims. It also has a map of the locations of some of his crimes.

CON: The map is not all inclusive. I was hoping for a map of all 50 rapes and 12 murders. However, I realize the book isn’t big enough to include a map of that size and detail. Nonetheless, I want it.

PRO: Paul Holes. (#HotForHoles #AnyMurderinosOutThere?)

More pros than cons tells me how I feel about this book. I must admit that I never doubted that I was enjoying the experience of reading it, and I’m not usually into non-fiction, so to enjoy this speaks volumes. Like all stories, it has strengths and weaknesses that a reader must navigate, but the overall it’s a massively informative and insightful book.

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