Friday, July 31, 2015

Book Review: Yellow Crocus

The neighborhood we live in has a book group and while I have never actually been to a meeting, I do read the Facebook posts to see what book has been chosen each month and depending on how I feel about the book summary, I occasionally will read the selected book. Needless to say, when I read the summary for this past month's book, I was delighted.

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I have been on a historical fiction kick recently and have found myself reading more and more novels that deal with slavery and the Civil War. Yellow Crocus by Laila Ibrahim follows the relationship of Lisbeth, the privileged oldest child of plantation owners, and Mattie, one of the family's slaves who becomes Lisbeth's wet nurse. As Lisbeth grows older, she finds that Mattie is more like family than either of her parents--the overwhelmed mother and cold, distant father--and her frequent visits to the slave quarters to see Mattie's own family brings them even closer together.

Yellow Crocus was a novel that I honestly could not put down. There is just so much that happens in the novel and so much that makes you think about the ways of the South during the 1800s. I was drawn into the setting and absolutely fell in love with the gentle, yet strong and brave character of Mattie. I literally finished this novel in one day; it just drew me in and kept me enthralled from start to finish. I could not put it down. The story just flowed seamlessly and you were left with a sense of satisfaction. 

I was amazed that the novel was written by a first-time author. Ibrahim's writing skills are truly fantastic. Every detail in the novel, from what Lisbeth wore for her dances to how Mattie speaks, just seems to real. I felt like I was there, watching the story unfold in person. The details, writing, and beautiful storytelling make it difficult to give Yellow Crocus anything other than a 10 out of 10. I just hope that Ibrahim decides to publish another novel (and soon!) because her writing is lovely. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Why I Re-read Harry Potter

As I sat in the family room reading the last 130 pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Monday night, my husband sat on the couch across from me laughing. Why? He was laughing at the fact that I was legitimately crying over the events in the novel, a novel that I have read at least nine times. His thought process was simple: You know what is going to happen, so why do you continue to cry about it? For that, I have no response, because his logic does make sense, but regardless of how many times I have read the novels in the Harry Potter series, I get so caught up in the wizarding world that I find myself experiencing all those emotions as if I were reading them for the first time.

My students ask the same question every year when they realize that not only do I have Dumbledore's Army posters in my classroom, wear Hogwarts t-shirts with my pencil skirts, and use Ron Weasley's wand as a pointer, but I also re-read the entire series every summer (and have done so since middle school). They think I am crazy, but what I do not think they quite realize is that I essentially grew up with Harry Potter and even now as a 27 year old woman, it is a link to my childhood. 

The Harry Potter bookshelf in the office/library

My sixth grade teacher bought a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for everyone in our class as Christmas gifts. Right after Christmas, I moved to Richmond and was so utterly upset over moving that I lost myself in books, with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone being the first that I read. Needless to say, after reading the first, I was hooked and begged my mom to buy Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for me since those were the only books of the series that had already been released.

Fun Fact: The copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone that Mrs. Wilson gave me for Christmas in 1999 still sits on the bookcase in my classroom (and will do so until I quit teaching) and has been the most checked out book in my "library" for the past four years.

I still remember going to Barnes and Noble with my neighbor Ben to get the sixth book at midnight and rushing home to begin reading it. When my mom woke up the next morning to go to work, I was still in bed reading and when she got home from work, I was still there, except this time there were tissues all over my bed (RIP Dumbledore). Even now, after having read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince at least ten times, I still cry during Dumbledore's funeral. 

I am sure that in five to ten years when I have children of my own, I will tear up in the same parts as I always have when I read the series aloud to them. A part of me is so emotionally invested in the series that the emotions are unavoidable. Plus, the storyline is AWESOME and who in their right mind would not want to be a witch/wizard?! There is an Alan Rickman quote that I think sums up my love of Harry Potter perfectly:

All the feels!!!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Book Review: Those Girls

For the past year, there have been so many books that have been called "the next Gone Girl;" however, very rarely do they live up to that title. Chevy Stevens, though, is the closest author to Gillian Flynn in her writing that I have been able to find. Similar to Flynn's novels, when reading Stevens' novels, you get so pulled into the storyline that you begin to feel as if you are a part of the book, and Those Girls is no exception. 

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Those Girls is a crime-based psychological thriller which is full of suspense. The three protagonists, sisters Jess, Courtney, and Dani, are at the mercy of their drunken and abusive father following the death of their mother. The girls are left to fend for themselves for days on end while their father goes off on drinking benders. Their pitiful situation worsens when their father returns home and they are forced to live in perpetual fear as they endure his drunken, violet, and abusive actions.

Unable to endure another night of agony, the sisters flee from their home and are on the run when their truck breaks down in a small town. Two seemingly nice guys, Brian and Gaven, offer to help the girls repair their truck, but then find themselves abducted and abused like before. 

When the girls first meet Brian and Gaven, I found myself wanting to scream out loud and tell them not to trust strangers and do some of the things they were going. I legitimately had almost forgotten that it was a book and not real life, and the girls would not hear me yelling. That is how real Stevens' writing is.

While I very much enjoyed the novel, especially since it has such an enthralling and realistic storyline, I felt that the climax of the story was not very developed. The entire novel is extremely detailed, but the climax felt rushed and not as fleshed out as the rest of the novel. Regardless, I give Those Girls an 8 out of 10 and cannot wait until Stevens' next novel is published.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Book Review: Tiny Little Thing

I am a big fan of the Kennedy family. There is just something about them that I find so incredibly fascinating. The scandals, the political intrigue, Jackie's effortless wonder they were essentially American royalty. Beatriz Williams' latest novel Tiny Little Thing has a touch of Kennedy to it, so it was no wonder is I binge-read it over the Fourth of July weekend.

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Tiny Little Thing is a historical novel set in 1960s New England's elite world of political families. It follows the main character, Christina "Tiny" Hardcastle, as she navigates her pristine world through a maze of blackmail, secrets, and betrayal. 

The narration alternates between Tiny and her husband's cousin Caspian, a Vietnam war hero who is the only man privy to Tiny's suppressed life...the life before she became Mrs. Hardcastle. Tiny is beautiful, elegant, and the perfect wife for a man who plans to run for president. However, regardless of how she appears on the outside, Tiny is unhappy in her life with the Hardcastles, especially in what is expected of her. After suffering from a miscarriage and feeling entirely alone at the Hardcastle family compound, Tiny attempts to maintain her high society Hardcastle facade, struggling internally as someone is attempting to blackmail her with incriminating photographs from her past and she suspects her husband of infidelity.

I enjoyed this character-driven novel, especially Tiny, who develops so much inner strength and growth over the course of the novel. Williams created a group of interesting characters in addition to Tiny, including her younger sister Pepper, who offered perfectly-timed humor and off-color jokes to the stuck up Hardcastle family. I also loved how Williams perfectly set up Pepper's storyline for her next novel, Along the Infinite Sea, which will round out the novels on the Schyler sisters. (See my review on the first Schuyler sister, Vivian, here.)

Tiny Little Things is an excellent novel that will open your eyes to the political world of the rich and powerful. I love Williams' writing and with each novel I read, I find myself chomping at the bit for her next. Overall, I give Tiny Little Thing a 9 out of 10. Now I just need it to be November 3rd so I can find out what happens to Pepper and just who the mysterious Mercedes belonged to....

Friday, July 17, 2015

Book Review: Go Set a Watchman

If Go Set a Watchman had been published before To Kill a Mockingbird as Harper Lee originally intended, then the novel would have been insignificant...meaningless even. Tom Robinson's trial would have just been a vague incident in Jean Louise's memory instead of the culturally iconic scene that it became. Atticus would be his daughter's fallen hero, but not ours. If Go Set a Watchman had been first, we would only know Atticus as a racist and we would not care; he would not have been an ethical role model, moral center of an entire novel, and a hero. While there would be references to Atticus' past in an effort to explain why Jean Louise's world is so shaken when she discovers her father's beliefs, we as the reader would not share them. The fact is, though, Go Set a Watchman was not published first, so Jean Louise's feelings of hurt and betrayal are our own.

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Go Set a Watchman is about fallen heroes and disillusionment. Jean Louise tries to reconcile how Atticus Finch, the archetype of morality and good, could be a racist, and that is what many readers of the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird are trying to reconcile as well. Even with all the hype surrounding the novel, I tried to reserve judgement, especially when it came to Atticus, thinking that there was no way a character could change that drastically in twenty years, and went into reading the novel somewhat in denial. When Jean Louise, who will forever be "Scout" in my mind, finds out Atticus is attending segregationist citizens council meetings, she thinks, "[He was] pulling something, [he was] there merely to keep an eye on things," a thought I, like probably many other readers, hopefully had as well.

The most painful thing about Go Set a Watchman is that this Atticus is still recognizably, unquestionably Atticus Finch. He is still a loving father, a good neighbor, endlessly reasonable, thoughtful, and giving. Regardless, his portrayal in Go Set a Watchman is still disheartening. I tried to explain it to my husband when he noticed I was becoming visibly upset after the first 100 or so pages... Reading this novel would be like if JK Rowling wrote an eighth Harry Potter novel set X amount of years in the future where Harry, an Auror, willingly casts the Cruciatus Curse against magical wrong-doers or, God forbid, Muggles, on a semi-regular basis. Fans of the series would not want to read that, regardless of whether Rowling was able to explain how Harry became that way as he grew older while making it consistent with his character from the first seven novels. It would be heartbreaking.

On a bright side, Jean Louise Finch serves as a moral compass in Go Set a Watchman. Atticus taught her well as she challenges beliefs that she knows are wrong. While not perfect, she has the potential to be better than her father and her hometown. She is also recognizably Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, the outspoken, precocious tomboy, but she is now twenty-six and still out of place in Maycomb. After living the past few years in New York City, she is unable to relate to the women in Maycomb, their interests, and their views on race.

I wanted to hate Go Set a Watchman, and I wanted to be angry at it for ruining the character that I have held in such high regard since reading To Kill a Mockingbird in Mrs. Tucker's ninth grade English class. The controversy surrounding its release would be enough: the story behind its publication is sketchy, almost certainly achieved through unethical means. Unfortunately, the book is good and its message, however painfully it hits, is important. Heroes can fall and, more importantly, that is normal. To Kill a Mockingbird is told from Scout's perspective. At six years old, Scout, like the majority of readers, have a bit of hero-worship when it comes to Atticus. Twenty years later, Jean Louise is seeing her father in a new light and stops the childlike hero worship that we practice as children when we become adults. It hurts, but it is part of life.

Overall, I give Go Set a Watchman a 7 out of 10. While it somewhat ruins Atticus for me, and I am sure Gregory Peck would agree with that, it is still a courageous novel for a young woman to write in the middle of the 1950s. Tackling the issue of white privilege without pulling any punches might not have been received very favorably had the novel been published closer to the time it was written. Perhaps it is perfect timing for the novel to be published, as our culture wrestles with the same issues Atticus did in the 1950s, settling our own watchmen to be on the lookout for our worst fears.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Book Review: Luckiest Girl Alive

Stopping a book a quarter of the way through to google what the premise is is not a good start to any novel; however, that is exactly what happened while I was reading Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. I could not quite figure out why I purchased the novel nor what it was exactly about. Not a good thing.

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Throughout the first half of the novel, I kept thinking to myself, why am I reading this? Ani, the main character of the novel, is a self-indulged, miserable woman who is engaged to a perfect, wealthy man whom she does not love, and when she looks back on her past, there is nothing good there either. Ani, formerly TifAni, is all about appearances and details. She spends the majority of her time working to ensure that no one sees what a phony she is who actually had to fight her way to fit in to the role of New York Woman's Magazine writer and overcome some terrible things from her teenaged years.

While I did not hate the novel, I did not truly like it either. I disliked Ani's character. She was snobby, conceited, and shallow...things she grew into after enduring a horrible tragedy in her teenaged years. What I did not quite understand was how she could become such a nasty person after witnessing what the nastiness of others caused in high school. One would think that she would try to better herself and not become like the kids who bullied her and many others during those formidable years which led to so much tragedy. 

Overall, I give Luckiest Girl Alive a 6 out of 10, with its only redeeming factor being that it does pick up towards the end. This is the second novel I have purchased that was touted as the next Gone Girl and both have fallen incredibly short of that label. At this point, I think that the only novel that can honestly be the next Gone Girl is one written by Gillian Flynn.