Month: September 2017

Review: Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker

We believe what we want to believe. We believe what we need to believe. Maybe there’s no difference between wanting and needing. I don’t know. What I do know is that the truth can evade us, hiding behind our blind spots, our preconceptions, our hungry hearts that long for quiet. Still, it is always there if we open our eyes and try to see it. If we really try to see.

Three years ago, sisters Emma and Cass went missing. On the day Emma in the Night opens, Cass turns back up on her mother’s lawn with a story of captivity and escape. Cass insists that Emma and her young daughter, born on the island where the sisters were held, is still there awaiting rescue. Leading the FBI’s efforts to untangle what happened is forensic psychologist Dr. Abby Winter, a woman still healing from the wounds the case left when it was fruitlessly investigated three years prior. Dr. Winter never got over the conviction that Judy Martin—Emma and Cass’s mother and a textbook narcissist—was involved. But how would Judy be tied to the couple who kept Emma and Cass hostage on the island? The more the bureau digs, the more the stories –including Cass’s—begin to unravel. Why is Cass lying? And who else is?

POV Characters
The story is told in alternating chapters by our omniscient narrator following Cass and Dr. Winter/Abby, though the chapters following Abby fell flat for me. I’m not sure if the author spent more time with Cass (I didn’t count pages and am not going to now), if she was better developed, the first-person narrator for Cass helped, or I simply identified with her more. The end result for me, however, was that Cass felt more well-rounded and I cared about what happened to her. In contrast, Abby’s trauma is obliquely referenced but doesn’t ever feel well fleshed out. For the reader to really appreciate how this case affected Abby, rather than vaguely referencing her (also narcissistic) mother and telling us Abby substitutes alcohol for sleep, Walker needed to show us. Because of the reference to her background with no real flashbacks or substance, the book almost read as if it were a continuation in a series and the reader should already know Abby’s background rather than a new stand alone book with a fleshed out character. I did, however, appreciate that Dr. Winter and her partner Leo could have a history as friends, work together through the entire book, and keep their friend boundaries. The book would have been way too messy had this become a romantic relationship.

Though I found her more compelling overall, I did find Cass’s voice inconsistent through the narrative. Particularly in the first 2/3 of the book, she comes across as very childlike though she’s 18 when the book opens. This could be explained by her being emotionally stunted by her narcissistic mother and three years in captivity, yet Cass’s decision-making and her voice age up quickly to that of an 18 year old in the last chapters of the book after the truth is revealed. This did not feel like part of Cass’s manipulation, but rather an inconsistency in the writing.

Emotionally brutal plot
While Emma in the Night is, relatively speaking, not a physically violent/graphic thriller overall, it is shockingly emotionally brutal. As the novel progresses, more and more of Judy Martin’s background and her treatment of her children is revealed. At times, these stories of Judy’s pathological choices are as disturbing as graphic scenes of violence. This is not a book I would recommend for friends who are survivors of child abuse themselves or work closely in that field—this would not be an escapist read.

Along the same vein, even for a psychological thriller, the lengths the various characters go to manipulate each other is extreme, though nothing quite like Gone Girl. The book has the feel of an unreliable narrator because of how manipulative each of the characters are, though Cass never lies directly to the reader. While Cass’s sections are written in first person, Abby’s are an omniscient third person, which lends to the odd/untrustworthy feeling of the entire narrative.

If you’ve read some of my other reviews, you know that accuracy in mental health portrayals can make or break a book for me. I’m not familiar with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, so it was harder for me to judge those aspects here. It rang true for the little I know and I didn’t see anything in the DSM that would make me question whether Judy’s portrayal in Emma in the Night was inaccurate.

I did struggle some with Cass. As I noted, her voice shifts about 2/3 of the way through the book and she makes some choices that would have seemed out of character or even impossible in the early chapters. In contrast, her explanation as to how she could have gotten used to life over the last three years ring true—people, especially children, can be remarkably resilient. We can also be our own worst enemies at times when evaluating what we deserve. Cass’s monologues for the earlier parts feel accurate to me for someone who had survived trauma. With the later parts, however, I do not see how this woman-child possibly gained perspective and made some of the choices she made without serious therapy. I hope for her sake, she got some when the book ended.

In Sum
Overall, this was another easy palate cleanser. (I may be the only person I know who treats thrillers like palate cleansers, but my usual fare is either LitFic or deals with heavier topics like racism or transphobia). But I digress—Emma in the Night isn’t perfect, it isn’t high fiction, but it isn’t trying to be. It is a much-better-than-average contribution to the thriller genre and has a unique twist with the in-depth look at narcissistic personality disorder and how it may (or may not) have contributed to what happened. The book isn’t too neat or terribly unbelievable but has a definite ending. There’s more than one twist, which makes figuring out everything going on more of a challenge or surprise, depending on how you read thrillers. I recommend Emma in the Night for fans of the genre or anyone looking to pick up a dark, fast-paced thriller that doesn’t read like a police procedural—with the caveat about the subject matter mentioned above.

Finally, if you’re like me and occasionally wonder what on earth made you go to law school, it’s always nice to see a lawyer succeed at something more interesting than being a lawyer. On days when I almost can’t take it anymore, I can comfort myself with the idea that maybe I too could become a novelist like Walker.

Published August 8, 2017 by St. Martin’s Press (@stmartinspress)
Author: Wendy Walker (@wendygwalker)
Source: Book of the Month (chosen by guest judge Krysten Ritter @therealkrystenritter)
Date read: September 18, 2017
Rating: 3 ½ Stars

Hindsight // Foresight September 25, 2017

Mark Solarski

Hindsight this week

Finally started and finished Fraulein M. this week, recommended to me by my friend Ben over at The Gothic Optimist.  He was right–for all the WWII books I read, I’d never read one set in the Weimar Republic or during the rise of Hitler in Germany.  I enjoyed it but I’m not quite sure I’m going to review it.  I may chance my mind but I’m having trouble wrapping my head around writing about it.

I also finished A Man Called Ove this week–I know!  I was behind.  It has been remedied.  The audiobook is so well done–though I listen to audiobooks in the car so listening to this one meant I was sniffling my way into work on Friday.

I managed to not acquire anything at the library this week (besides a fine for keeping Emma in the Night three days too long) and was mostly restrained on Amazon.  I picked up Behind Enemy Lines (another WWII memoir, of course), Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe, and Joan Didion’s The White Album on Kindle sale this week.

Foresight for the coming week

I’m about halfway through an ARC I received of The Best Kind of People–that blog will be up pretty quickly since it published last week on the 19th.  I started the audiobook of Hum If You Don’t Know the Words again and am having a much better time with it this time.  Not sure what was happening before but I couldn’t focus to save my life the first time.  I couldn’t abandon a Bahni Turpin audiobook, though.  Second try FTW.

Next up is probably Crossing to Safety for the MMD book club.  I NEED to be more active in it and DBC.  I read the books but then don’t wind up engaging much in the message board.  Wonky internet at home combined with the ramp up into the playoffs means I wind up watching a lot of baseball.  I won’t say I’m wasting time because commitment to Red Sox Nation is never a waste of time, but I have less bookish time than I always expect to when I look at my calendar for the week.

Are you reading anything good?  I’d love to hear in the comments.

Review: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

 The thing is, I don’t believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is an extended elegy for Lillian Alexie, mother of Sherman Alexie, award-winning Spokane-Coeur d’Alene-American author and filmmaker. Simultaneously cruel and kind, truth-teller and liar, selfish and selfless, Lillian Alexie helped form the man her son came to be, both by nurturing him and by driving him into the world away from her.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is a book I would recommend particularly in audiobook. Earlier this year I listened to Alexie’s frequently-banned and National Book Award-winning book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and loved the cadence his speech gave the book. Here too, Alexie’s cadence and rhythm, particularly when reading his poems interspersed throughout the book, add a layer not found in the written text. There are a few moments when he literally sings sections that include chants.

He’s also not a perfectly polished audiobook reader—there are times he is literally fighting back tears and others when he is chuckling—like when he talks about the cousin who was honor-bound to come pull his car out of a ditch but still angry with him so he didn’t say a word the entire time he was pulling the car out of the ditch. Because these are Alexie’s stories, the emotion adds poignancy to the book. When Alexie talks about his scars, these are his scars. I’m sure the book alone is lovely but the audiobook is masterful and shouldn’t be missed.

Because I listen to audiobooks while driving and doing chores around the house, it took me a little longer to notice than I might have if I were reading, but You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is repetitive, like stanzas in a poem, even within the sections that are prose. In any other book, this would scream of the need for a better editor. In Alexie’s hands, because he is a poet, the loops of thought drive home the points Alexie is making.

The section where this became the most obvious to me (and initially made me check to see if the Overdrive app had accidentally backed up a section) is where he talks about his mother’s and grandmother’s sexual assaults. He cycles back, analyzing what happened, what these events meant to him, meant to his mother, meant for his family, mean for the larger context of the history of rape on a reservation. He repeats refrains while drawing different conclusions each time, such that his work is almost a mind map, returning to the central theme and following a new branch with each section.

Collective Memory and Rape on the Rez
Because of how common it is on the reservation as well as within Alexie’s own family, he spends a fair amount of time talking about rape—how it impacted him, his family, and the larger social context of rape on a reservation including its use as a means to destroy and subjugate and how victims sometimes become the perpetrators. The moment that hit home the most about the use of rape against First Nations came when Alexie read:

If some evil scientist had wanted to create a place where rape would become a primary element of a culture, then he would have built something very much like an Indian reservation. That scientist would have put sociopathic and capitalistic politicians, priests, and soldiers in absolute control of a dispossessed people. Of a people stripped of their language, art, religion, history, land, and economy. And then, after decades of horrific physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual torture, that scientist would have removed those torturing politicians, priests, and soldiers and watched as an epically wounded people tried to rebuild their dignity. And finally that scientist would have taken notes as some of those wounded people turned their rage on other wounded people. My family did not escape that mad scientist’s experiment. In my most blasphemous moments, I think of that evil scientist as God.

While nothing is graphically described, this book is not recommended if sexual assault is a trigger.

In discussing larger issues than just his individual memories of his mother, Alexie’s book is remarkably timely, with chapters addressed to his life as a minority in the Trump era. Admittedly, I was surprised to hear these chapters as it was my impression that books take longer than seven months to write-polish-publish, even if these chapters were a late addition. I am glad they made it in, as the book is better for them—we need to listen to more minority voices telling us what life is like now. What it means that in 2017 White Supremacists are emboldened to throw off their bedsheets and appear in public unmasked. What it means for them to feel safer in society than people of color.

Because the reservation schools were/are so dismal, Alexie chose to leave the reservation to obtain an education and opportunities he wouldn’t have had otherwise. This meant he was essentially the only First Nation person in the sea of whiteness at the Reardan High School. Alexie was apparently quite popular—elected class president, star of the basketball team, and academically excellent. His experience in the early 80s was of being accepted there.

Yet, Lincoln County, the home of the town of Reardan, went 72% for Trump in the 2016 election. What does it say about the people Alexie grew up amongst—that they seemed to love him as a teenager, even with all of his liberalness and brownness—while they voted so solidly against his interests now? For those who would say that a vote for Trump wasn’t a vote for racism, Alexie writes:

Dear Reardan, I am afraid of you. Does that make you sad, or angry at me?

Dear Reardan, dear old friends, dear old lovers, do you realize that when you voted for Trump, you voted against me? Against the memory of the person I used to be in your lives? I was the indigenous immigrant. The first generation of my family to fully commit himself to world outside of the reservation. I was the eccentric brown boy. I was the indigenous leftist. And, for five years in the 1980s, I was a transformative figure. I made that little white town into a slightly more diverse and inclusive and accepting place. Or maybe I didn’t do any of that. Maybe I was just a cultural anomaly.

This is the message the election of Trump sent to the marginalized—whether this was the message you meant to transmit or not, this was the message. This is what it feels like for one man to not be safely in the majority. To realize he is less safe this evening than he thought he was when he woke up that morning.

Within the overall narrative, Alexie briefly mentions a few times his own sexual assault as a child as well as his diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I love him for acknowledging these things have happened to him, are happening to him. That you can be a successful novelist/poet/filmmaker, win awards, and be someone who is a survivor. Someone who has a mental illness. That these things do not make you unworthy, unlovable, or incapable of success. That these things are not things to be ashamed of or to hide.

Also read….
Both in the poetic prose and in theme, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me reminded me of When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams. Both take the event of their mother’s death and use it to look both back at life with them and forward at life without them, drawing parallels and connections—for Williams to migratory patterns of birds and for Alexie to the larger socio-political history of the treatment of First Nation peoples—that wouldn’t be immediately apparent to others looking at the singular event of one woman’s death. If you enjoyed one, I believe you’d enjoy the other.

While I focused on the serious themes, because those are largely what I took notes on as impactful to me, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is equal parts humorous and serious. There are numerous points at which Alexie is chuckling, as is the reader. His life and, as he comes to see, his mother’s life had moments of beauty and comedy. She was many things to many people and, indeed, many things to the son who mourns her. So long as a reader is not triggered by discussions of sexual assault, this is a book with wide range and wide appeal and one I recommend whole-heartedly.

Published June 13, 2017 by Little, Brown and Company (@littlebrown)
Author: Sherman Alexie
Date read: September 12, 2017
Rating: 5 Stars

Review: Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki

I was sick of memoirs and the swagger of survivors, the way they mounted the past above the mantel for all to ooh and aah over.

Set Up and Synopsis
Right before Woman No. 17, I’d had an odd run of books. It happens—I get in a rut and don’t love several books or I love all of them and I’m anticipating the run of goodness ending. More recently, I’ve somehow wound up on a run of books about racism—either directly or tangentially (Sing, Unburied, Sing, The Color Purple, Stella by Starlight, Trell, American Street) such that I needed something more pop than folk to reset and pull me out of the hole I had inadvertently dug myself with a series of serious books.

With Woman No. 17, it was a bit of a roller coaster right before—several good, one amazing, several “meh.” I knew I had the string of books starting with Sing, Unburied, Sing coming so I wanted something a little mindless. I thought I was picking up a thriller. That’s what Woman No. 17 sounds like, right? A serial killer is on a spree, but he’s going to mess up on woman number 17….

Not even close.

“Woman No. 17” is Lady Daniels, a would-be writer currently separated from her husband, estranged from her mother, and in need of a nanny for her youngest child. Newly reinvented “S,” walks in to fill this void, spending her days as nanny and confidante to Lady and her nights drunkenly reinventing her mother’s life as an extended piece of performance art. As S. grows closer to Lady’s older son, Seth, it’s only a matter of time until all of the plates S. is spinning to keep up her façade spin out of control. While the book is engaging and will keep you glued to your seat, there is no serial killer running amok in the Hollywood Hills.

As an aside, if you ever needed proof that I occasionally pick books without reading the synopsis and solely because they’re Book of the Month picks or ones critics are talking about, this would be it. I do, however, feel vindicated that another Amazon reviewer thought they were also getting a mystery/thriller but also wound up pleasantly surprised.

Mothers & Identity
I certainly won’t claim it is universal, but the most fraught relationship many women have is with their mothers. Women No. 17 takes the typical tension and turns up the voltage by ten.

Esther Shapiro—now S. Fowler, after her mother’s maiden name—reinvents herself as her mother—from the roots of her hair to the tips of her liver—inhabiting her mother’s personality and mannerisms down to her functioning alcoholism. Lady has spent her life trying to escape from her own mother, whose interference in Lady’s early life far exceeded simple “meddling.” Even Lady’s husband, Karl, and his twin sister Kit have their own mommy-issues as adults who grew up with a parent who had a favored and disfavored child.

In exploring Lady and S.’s relationship with their mothers, Lepucki delves into how each woman’s identity was formed—and with S. how she is actively creating an identity for herself that mimics her mother’s. Lepucki hits the reader over the head with this theme of identity and mothers’ involvement–to me, this was the only area Lepucki was heavy-handed and could have pulled back a bit.

As the book progresses and Lady takes S. (and thus, the reader) into her confidence, her façade drops bit-by-bit until it isn’t entirely clear who Lady is—even to herself. Her birth name is Pearl—a name she rejects with the nickname “Lady.” On top of these, she is also Woman No. 17—the subject of one of Kit’s famous photographs. By giving her three different names, making clear she is different things to different people, Lepucki hammers the idea that Lady is not one coherent person, nor does she know who she is.

With the focus on identity and how mothers shape the women we become, Woman No. 17 becomes a fascinating character study of both Esther/S. and Lady and, tangentially, of the mothers they are trying to become and escape from at the same time.

The writing is snappy (Lady refers to her mother at one point as a “spiritual landfill in heels”) without being flowery or show-offy. The snap hits the right mark, flowed naturally, and didn’t leave me feel like Lepucki was trying too hard for the quirk. The writing is gritty in places, reminiscent of the imperfections and streaks in classic films. The grit fits the noir style—this story would be out of place if cleaned up by squeaky-perfect writing.

Ending (No Spoilers)
Books as dark and psychologically twisty as Woman No. 17 usually seem to end with no real resolution—the authors aren’t sure how to give the characters resolution, particularly something that might be a happy resolution, without having to also give them years of therapy to be believable and so—the books usually end without the reader knowing where the characters go from there. For a book of this twisty vein, Lepucki does a remarkable job providing a believable resolution for her characters. Lady and S.’s ends aren’t disingenuously happy but also aren’t so bleak as to be unsatisfying. They’re believable with enough hope for the future of both to be satisfying.

Woman No. 17 gets remarkably varied reviews on Amazon. This may be because others also judged the book by the title (and the cover doesn’t help) and thought the book was a thriller. Others seem to have found the characters too weird—I understand this to a point. I hope there aren’t a ton of people running around with S.’s pathological need to become her mother, manipulating and lying to everyone around them. There’s only so many of those folks society can take before we all fall to chaos. Similarly, several reviewers found many/most/ok all of the characters deeply unlikeable.

It’s dark without being bleak, Hollywood Noir without any actual crime. It doesn’t suffer from an ambiguous ending and, upon completion, it’s clear Lepucki knew where she was going. The book has a clear arc (in hindsight, not as much when reading) and is tightly crafted along this arc. As long as you can handle dark books with morally ambiguous characters and don’t have triggers regarding mother-daughter relationships, I’d recommend this book. While they are very different thematically and in style, I’d recommend Woman No. 17 particularly for readers who enjoyed The Fall of Lisa Bellow—there’s a similar undercurrent between the two that I think gives them a similar appeal.

Published May 9, 2017 by Hogarth (@hogarthbooks)
Author: Edan Lepucki (@edanlepucki)
Date read: August 26, 2017
Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Hindsight // Foresight September 19, 2017

Mark Solarski

Hindsight this week

I finished You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead this week.  It was a slow reading week for me, with a lot going on at work, unfortunately, that kept me out of my book.  I’m almost done with Emma in the Night but wound up being glutened last night so my plan to finish it last night was derailed and I wound up going to bed super early.

I was also remarkably restrained with my kindle books and only bought So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, an MMD flight pick for October.  At the library I picked up The Blinds, a BOTM pick last month, and A Kind of Freedom–right before it received its National Book Award Nomination.   I got Crossing to Safety and American Fire on Kindle from the library as well, but those due dates are sort of flexible.  (Thanks Airplane Mode).

Foresight this week

I should finish Emma in the Night today and then I really need to decide what to read.  I’ve got Fraulein M. (can’t renew again), Crossing to Safety (being discussed at MMD book club in less than two weeks), The Blinds (not due for two weeks but has holds so can’t renew), and A Kind of Freedom (same).   #FirstWorldProblems.

Have opinions on what I should read next?  I’d love to hear them.

Review: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

“Lili,” Eve asked impulsively. “Are you ever afraid?” Lili turned, rain dripping off the edge of her umbrella in a silver curtain between her and Eve. “Yes, just like everybody else. But only after the danger is done—before that, fear is an indulgence.” She slid her hand through Eve’s elbow. “Welcome to the Alice Network.”

Loosely based on the true story of a female-run spy network during World War I in France, The Alice Network follows Eve, a young spy working in the network, and Charlie, a woman searching for her beloved cousin shortly after the Second World War. The book flashes back and forth between Eve as a young woman in the network and Eve as an older, broken woman helping Charlie on her quest. Adding to the drama, Charlie is not the upper-class socialite her family tries to force her to be and is running from her own demons. Raising questions of what it means to serve and to save, The Alice Network is a compelling story about the largely overlooked contribution of a daring group of women during the Great War.

The Power of Solidarity of Women
The Alice Network is, above all else, a story of the power and bravery of women. The actual Alice Network run by Louise de Bettignies (“Alice Dubois”) is credited with saving the lives of more than a thousand British soldiers during the nine months of the height of its operation. She even obtained advance information on the German attack on Verdun, but the military officials in charge refused to believe the information. Verdun was ultimately the longest lasting and one of the most costly battles during World War I.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is a quote from Louise de Bettignies taken from a primary source written by someone familiar with those in the network.

“Bah.” Lili gave a wave of her hand, a hand so thin it was nearly transparent in the sunlight. “I know I’ll be caught one day, but who cares? I shall at least have served. So let’s hurry, and do great things while there is yet time.”

While The Alice Network is a work of fiction and Quinn admits she took quite a bit of license with the story, I wish there were more books like this. I wish any of the history classes I took in high school or college had bothered to include the contributions of women like these.

In the flashbacks, Quinn makes you care for Eve and Lilli/Louise/Alice deeply. The book stays true to the end result of the network and the woman who ran it, with these pages being some of the most emotionally wrenching of any book I’ve read recently. (This is not a book to be read in public as you draw closer to the end—the notes I kept while I read say “Damn you Kate Quinn for making me cry in a Starbucks.) I tried to find more on Louise de Bettignies after I finished The Alice Network but there seems to be very little out there. This is not terribly surprising but is frustrating and makes books like The Alice Network all the more relevant.

During the alternating scenes with Charlie, Eve is older and broken. She survived the war physically but little is left of her spirit—as the journey to find what happened to Charlie’s cousin Rose unfolds, so does Eve’s story, so that the flashbacks are presented as Eve telling Charlie and Finn (Eve’s handsome Scottish handyman….you can guess where that’s going to go) what happened to her. The deeper the trio travels into France, the deeper the reader gets into Eve’s story and the closer the reader gets to the traumatic events that led her to be the woman she is today. I occasionally found Charlie annoying, though I started to see her more as the vehicle through which the reader saw and learned more about Eve. With the book structured as it was, you get both Eve’s interpretation and story of what happened to her as well as an outsider’s view of who the woman Eve is now. The back-and-forth telling helped make Eve a more well-rounded character and gave you a “hook” to want to know how Eve of WWI became this broken Eve after WWII.

There was a clear villain (besides generally the Germans) and Quinn was masterful at making him so evil he was almost serpentine. My skin would crawl when he was on the scene and my heart would cheer each time Eve outwitted him or used him in the spy ring.

The Spies
As to the three spies you meet in the book, The Alice Network simultaneously emphasized both the amazing cunning and skills of the spies like Lili/Louise/Alice and Eve as well as their ordinary-ness. Besides learning multiple languages at early ages, there is nothing particularly extraordinary about the lives these women led prior to being called up to service in the Network. Fictional Eve was a secretary, a square peg in a round hole, wanting to serve her country more directly than was typically allowed for women during the First World War. Louise was a poor aristocrat from a family with nothing left but its titles. And yet, women like these did something extraordinary, risked their lives in the service of others.

War Novels
By setting The Alice Network when she did, Quinn wrote both a World War I novel (Eve’s chapters) and a World War II novel (Charlie’s chapters). While I haven’t reviewed many on the blog, I am a big fan of a well-done World War II novel. I adore The Nightingale and All the Light We Cannot See and have read many of the other significant WWII novels published recently. (Knowing what a well-done WWII novel reads like is one of the things that made Lilac Girls so disappointing.)

So where does The Alice Network fit within the spectrum of recent WWII novels? Quinn isn’t quite Kristin Hannah or Anthony Doerr but her writing was heads and shoulders above Martha Hall Kelly in my estimation. I enjoyed Quinn’s writing, but there wasn’t anything in particular that made me pause to re-read a paragraph or turn of phrase. Her writing was, however, clear, engaging, and relatable. It has mass appeal—it won’t be accused of needing an editor but no one is going to accuse it of being too high-brow either. It did get off to a bit of a slow start but a little over a third of the way in, the pace picked up and I didn’t want to put the book down.

Minor annoyances
I appreciated that the author made Charlie interested in math—any time I see a girl into STEM in a book I want to cheer. I’m not a STEM-er myself but since this particular interest in underrepresented, I like seeing it. For Charlie, however, Quinn went a little over the top. Charlie thinks in math equations that bordered on silly, detracted from the story, and impaired my ability to take Charlie seriously.

Sample equations included “One scribbled address plus one dash of resolve multiplied to the power of ten,” “Rose plus me equaled happiness,” and “bullets plus blood plus threats of imminent death equaled a certain intimacy.” There were one or two that were funny (“boy plus girl multiplied by whiskey and proximity” made me chuckle) but on the whole they were overdone and made Charlie seem frivolous rather than serious. In the end, silly equations multiplied by eyerolls equals a negative star.

My only other hangup in the book is how frequently one of the pregnant characters drank. She was frequently drunk and I was worried her child was going to be born well-pickled. Some Googling tells me that it wasn’t until the early 70s that doctors identified Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and a connection was solidly made between drinking and pregnancy, so this character’s drinking like a fish may have been consistent with the times. I just couldn’t take it, though. We know better now and so it seemed something that would be highly distracting to modern audiences. There are times when this character needs to be less inhibited so I could have been okay with it a few times but this too reached the point of frustration and distraction.

Tiny spoiler coming up—scroll if you want to skip it.

The book does wrap up somewhat neater than is likely for someone who has suffered what Eve and Charlie have, though I don’t begrudge Quinn for the happy-ish ending. The Alice Network is a book that is going for mass appeal and isn’t the kind of book that ends with misery and woe. There are so many other things in novels that require the suspension of belief, that this relatively happy ending for Charlie and Eve doesn’t feel like a terrible stretch, even if aspects of it felt a bit too easy.

Published June 6, 2017 by William Morrow (@williammorrowbooks)
Author: Kate Quinn (@katequinn5975)
Date read: August 9, 2017
Rating: 4 Stars

Review: Trell by Dick Lehr

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a review.  Thank you to Candlewick Press, Dick Lehr, and LibraryThing for sending me an advance reader copy.  All opinions are my own.

Around the time I started to walk, I also started asking Daddy the same question at the end of our weekly visits. Every time, the same question, like if you put a word bubble next to me in every photo from when I was a toddler through elementary school, the question was the same, year after year.

“Daddy,” I would ask, “when you comin’ home?”

Based on an actual event in Boston in 1988, Trell tells the story of a man wrongfully convicted for the murder of a child from the point of view of his teenage daughter. Since shortly after her birth, Van Trell Taylor (“Trell”) has only known her father in jail. For the last fourteen years he has insisted on his innocence to no avail. After legal avenues prove to be dead ends, Trell begins to hound a local, washed up investigative reporter to revisit the rush to convict her father. As Trell and the reporter begin to uncover serious flaws in the conviction, they come to realize that someone else doesn’t want the truth to come out and will do anything to stop them.

White Savior
While technically well written and well paced, the story in Trell is, in many ways, less about Trell and her family and more about the role of the reporter in the story. This isn’t terribly surprising since the Dick Lehr, the author of Trell is a former investigative journalist on the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe.

This set up raised a bit of a conundrum with me. I’m typically leery of white authors trying to write the stories of black communities; however, in the case of Trell, the book is loosely autobiographical. Lehr himself re-investigated the 1988 shooting death of teenager Tiffany Moore in Boston as a reporter at the Boston Globe. As a result of that reporting, the wrongful conviction of Shawn Drumgold was overturned in 2003 after he had served fourteen years in jail for a murder he didn’t commit. Rather than tell this story as a straight autobiography from the position of the white reporter, Lehr reimagined the story from the point of view of a family member of the wrongfully convicted man. This choice made the story more compelling and enabled Lehr to write it as a YA book, though of course this also meant a white man was writing the voice and story of a black teenage girl. He does, as far as I could tell, manage to avoid anything seriously problematic in his writing of Trell. She is one of the only black kids at an all-white school she goes to on scholarship, but this is a trope Angie Thomas is also guilty of in The Hate U Give, so it’s a little hard to fault Lehr for using this one—and this is also a reality for a lot of kids wanting to escape neglected schools in the inner-city.

In the course of developing the relationship with the reporter, Trell becomes interested in journalism. These bits are a touch cheesy (not over the top—this is YA after all, so the bar is a bit higher for it be over the top) and contribute to the overall “journalist will save us” vibe. Lehr does do a good job making Trell be the driving force—it isn’t the journalist uncovering clues. Rather, he’s the one showing Trell certain techniques and where to look so that she is usually the one making the discoveries, not the journalist. If this weren’t the case, I think I’d have more problems with the book. Lehr clearly made an effort so that, while the book is all about the journalism, it’s also all about Trell.

The “White Savior” aspect of the book would probably bother me more if I didn’t know Lehr himself investigated the Drumgold conviction and contributed to its being overturned. This story and the role journalists played in uncovering injustice deserve to be told and Lehr is one of the better ones to do it.

Policing Black Communities
Lehr is sensitive to the climate and the realities of the view of the police in communities where Trell lives. When a significant crime happens today in a community of color, we all shake our heads with the news pundits and question why no one called the police sooner or why seemingly no one will come forward now. Lehr addresses this head on at one point, with Trell explaining how people have seen police misconduct in person in many of these communities or known someone affected by police misconduct. When you add the penalties that come from “snitching,” there is very little reason for many people to trust the police’s ability to do the right thing or, even if they are, to protect them.

This wasn’t something I ever thought about until relatively recently. In many ways, the death of Mike Brown and my friendships with an African-American woman and a biracial Latinx woman were what started to open my eyes. Issues like those in Trell, The Hate U Give, and American Street were not ones that ever would have crossed my radar when I was the intended audience of YA books. I wish I had been able to read books like these when I was in high school, rather than having to read adulthood to really see the injustices faced by communities of color, including injustices at the hands of law enforcement.

The book is clearly a YA book and is readable for ninth grade and up—possibly a little younger for advanced readers. Language-wise, I don’t recall anything offensive. So long as a juvenile reader is prepared for the thematic elements in Trell, this book would appeal to a slightly younger audience than something like The Hate U Give or American Street, though I think it also holds the attention of older YA readers. Because of where Trell lives and how the homicide happened, there are repeated references to drug use and gangs—nothing graphic (no one actually does drugs in front of Trell) but also not subtle. Drugs and gangs aren’t glorified and one of the characters who lives in a house where a lot of the drug dealing and gang activity happens clearly wants to get out. I probably would have found this book shocking when I was in school but with everything on television, kids today are substantially less sheltered than I was twenty years ago. I don’t personally think there’s anything problematic here.

It wouldn’t be a book review on this blog without a comment on the writing. Lehr writes like a journalist, even when writing narrative fiction. This isn’t a bad thing—each word is carefully chosen, the sentences are clear, and the narrative moves forward in a coherent and deliberate pace, with a clear climax and resolution. There’s nothing flowery in Lehr’s writing but there’s also nothing distracting. This isn’t a book where I felt I wanted to re-read sentences but it’s also not a book that made me wish he’d had a better editor.

Trell isn’t a perfect book but it’s still one worth reading. I probably won’t keep my copy but I hope it gets into good hands in the Little Free Library I’m going to drop it off in. I’m glad I read it and do see myself recommending it. I think it raises important issues that are still immediately timely and it’s also an easier book to recommend on these issues if I know someone will be put off by the language in something like American Street.

Shawn Drumgold Sources
Original Boston Globe article raising concerns with conviction
Drumgold awarded $5 million for wrongful conviction

Published: September 12, 2017 by Candlewick Press (@candlewickpress) (Happy Book Birthday, Trell!)
Author: Dick Lehr
Date read: September 2, 2017
Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Hindsight // Foresight September 11, 2017

Mark Solarski

Hindsight this week

Boyfriend and I finally finished Waking Gods, the second book in the Themis Files trilogy, on audiobook this week.  It wasn’t as good as Sleeping Giants but I’m holding out hope and definitely going to get the third book in May when it comes out.  There was a new character in this one and every time she spoke I wanted to plug my ears.  This seems to be the universal feeling of people who’ve reviewed the book.  I won’t be posting about it here but agree with their sentiments.

I started and finished Since We Fell and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas this week.  I’m currently in the middle of The Underground Railroad which I should have read last year.  Diverse Books Club finally gave me a reason to push it up my TBR.  Since We Fell was just okay but it was the change of pace I needed after several heavy reads.  And then I immediately jumped into The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Underground Railroad.  I can’t do “light” for long, apparently.

I managed to not pick anything up at the library this week, though two books are waiting for me that I’ll need to pick up tomorrow or Wednesday before the holds expire.  I did get So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed on Kindle–it’s one of the MMD Book Club flight picks for October and gets good reviews.  The Goodwill bookstore around the corner from my house had the George Saunders book of short stories that was a National Book Award Finalist (Tenth of December).  After reading Olive Kitteridege and Anything is Possible, I’m warming to short stories and want to read more.

Foresight this week

I need to finish Underground Railroad this week for Diverse Books Club so I can engage on the forums.  I need to then go ahead and knock out Crossing to Safety for MMD book club.  And then I’ve only got Emma in the Night for about another week and a half and won’t be able to renew.  Boyfriend just got a new job (::praise hands::) which also means I’m going to wind up with more reading time since he’ll be working 3pm to 12pm, at least for the new few weeks.  I’ve also got You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me for a few more days so I have got to finish listening to that.  Fingers crossed I can get those all knocked out this week


Have suggestions for what I should read next? I’d love to hear them in the comments!

Review: American Street by Ibi Zoboi

My cousins are hurting. My aunt is hurting. My mother is hurting. And there is no one here to help. How is this the good life, when even the air in this place threatens to wrap its fingers around my throat? In Haiti, with all its problems, there was always a friend or neighbor to share in the misery. And then, after our troubles were tallied up like those points a the basketball game, we would celebrate being alive.
But here, there isn’t even a slice of happiness big enough to fill up all these empty houses, and broken buildings, and wide roads that lead to nowhere and everywhere.

Seventeen year-old Fabiola and her mother came to America to live with her cousins and aunt, to start over with the “good life” in America. Yet, as Fabiola crosses into customs, her mother is left on the other side, detained and not able to enter. Fabiola is forced to go on without her, to begin to live the “good life” without her mother. Yet this “good life” isn’t anything like Fabiola imagined. Fabiola must learn to navigate life in Detroit as she seeks help from her spirit guides to make her family whole again.

Audience and Privilege
While I’m rating American Street as a four-star book, this is another book, much like The Hate U Give that ultimately wasn’t for me. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it—I absolutely did and plan to recommend it within my friend-group widely. That’s also not the say the author doesn’t want white readers, but simply to say that at the end of the day, if I hadn’t enjoyed this book, it’s not my place to review it poorly. The experiences of Fabiola and her cousins in American Street are representative of real lives—people who live lives I cannot imagine and who make choices I have never had to make, largely because of the color of my skin and the place of privilege I occupy. If I didn’t like the book because I didn’t relate to it or understand it, then that is reflective of me and not the book.

(FTR–I do appreciate the irony in my reviewing books written by authors of color while simultaneously questioning white authors who write about the experiences of people of color as with Trell and Killers of the Flower Moon. There are enough white authors trying to speak for people of color that I never want to take someone else’s place to speak their story. Even in reviewing books, there are inherent biases at play—even as I try to be aware of my privilege and how it can drive my reactions to books, no one is completely aware of or able to separate themselves from their privilege.)

I did not, however, want to skip reviewing this book. While I don’t have a large audience, I do want my blog to serve as a place to find books you might otherwise not read. I try to read widely and have pretty diverse taste (so long as its well-written!) so it is my hope that there is a little something from everyone here.

With that in mind, I decided to go ahead and review American Street so that perhaps, Reader, you might pick it up when you would have otherwise missed it. I wouldn’t have picked it up myself if Jennifer Latham, author of Dreamland Burning, hadn’t recommended it during her author chat for the MMD book club at the beginning of the summer.

One of the things that made American Street so powerful for me was the author’s use of a limited point of view to tell a far wider-reaching story than the reader realizes at the beginning. The entire story is told from the point of view of Fabiola, a recent immigrant from Haiti whose mom is detained when they try to return to the United States where Fabiola was born seventeen years before. Because there are some ways in which it is obvious—clothing, makeup, culture—that Fabiola is Naïve—with a capital “N”—it is easy to see only those little things and miss the forest for the trees. Because the reader’s view is limited by Fabiola’s ability to experience and grasp what is going on around her, the events of the end of the book are all the more shocking. Fabiola didn’t see them coming and so, to a large extent, I didn’t either. I’m fairly good at picking up surprising twists or at least knowing one is coming, and I did not see where this book was going to go until I was almost on top of it. And then I desperately wanted to be wrong. Zoboi’s use of point of view here was masterful and not something that is this well done very often.

Characters and Magical Realism
To make sense of the word around her, Fabiola connects the people around her to her lwas, or Haitian spirit guides. For some characters, this makes them more sympathetic and adds a layer of richness to the character development—her cousin Donna is Ezili-Danto—the lover and the beauty who is also the warrior. Two sides, one person. For others, like Bad Leg, the homeless man across the street, seeing him as the lwa Papa Legba imbues the book with a layer of magical realism that then opens the door to events that are not entirely realistic, yet still fit within the larger scheme and story of the book.

Immigrant Experience
Much of the charm of American Street comes down to Fabiola’s experiences as being out of her culture.   While the slips are frustrating to Fabiola, they are charming to the reader and serve to remind readers how young she is–both literally and in experience.  Fabiola, while naïve, has been well-loved by her mother and well-cared-for. Her cousin’s home—literally on the corner of American and Joy streets—was the Promised Land where everything would better. So when Fabiola is dropped into this intersection, without her mother, into a foreignness she did not expect, she has to remind herself to be happy, to smile because this is the “good life.”

My heart aches for her in these moments. I know what it is to have small disappointments result from my expectations not meeting reality, but the magnitude for Fabiola is staggering. For Fabiola, it is another earthquake—the foundations cracked, the earth roiling under her feet. Yet even in Haiti during the earthquake, she had friends and neighbors, her mother. Here she has no one. Fabiola has to navigate not only what it means to become an American but also how to life a life different and more disappointing than the one she imagined for herself when she and her mother planned to come to America, all without seeming ungrateful to her cousins and aunt who barely have enough to provide for another mouth.

Like The Hate U Give or, to a slightly lesser extent, When Dimple Met Rishi, this is a YA book that skews towards older/heavier themes. Some of the common elements of YA are here—Fabiola is besotted with Kasim, a teenage boy equally smitten with her. He “invades” her every thought and takes her on some dates that teenage boys would do well to take notes on. The limited sex scenes are just that—very limited—and tastefully vague. I don’t think there’s much to worry about there.

My labeling the book as being more of an older YA book, however, stems from the larger themes. Here as in Sing, Unburied, Sing, there are characters selling drugs, yet as with Ward’s characters, these characters are nuanced, with good reasons to be making these choices (even if they are, ultimately, the wrong choices). There is also violence throughout the book, as the neighborhood is rough and Fabiola’s cousin Donna is in a volatile, abusive relationship. These themes and violence would make me hesitate to recommend the book to anyone under sixteen, and even then, if a teenager were reading this, this would be a book to read and unpack together.

This is a book I highly recommend, particularly for people who are trying to read more diversely. Fabiola is lovely and it is difficult for the reader not to feel deeply empathetic for her and want the best for her. The events of the book are rough, but frankly, so is life for many teenagers living in Detroit in 2017. The book is well-written, though the dialogue is accurate for how teenagers would speak (so the vocabulary would be NSFW).

Reviews by people of color
If this review intrigued you, you should also check out the reviews from Rich in Color and Epic Reads.

Published: February 14, 2017 by Balzer + Bray (@balzerandbray), an imprint of HarperCollins (@harpercollinsus)
Author: Ibi Zoboi (@ibizoboi)
Date read: September 3, 2017
Rating: 4 ¼ Stars

The beautiful metal print in the background of the picture in this post is by artist A’Driane Nieves.  Her work can be found here.

Review: Reading People by Anne Bogel

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to Baker Books, Anne Bogel, and Netgalley for sending me an advance reader copy of this book.  All opinions are my own.

Truly knowing yourself is one of the hardest things you can do, but it’s also one of the most valuable. The sooner you begin, the sooner you’ll begin to see the payoff.

Reading People: How Seeing the World Through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything grew out of Anne’s love for personality frameworks. Reading People is a primer for several of the more common personality frameworks with easy to understand applications and examples for how to recognize the personalities in yourself and others.

The personality frameworks explored by Anne are
• Introversion / Extroversion
• High Sensitivity
• Chapman’s Five Love Languages
• Keirsey’s Temperaments
• Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)
• MBTI Cognitive Functions
• Clifton StrengthsFinder
• Enneagram

Personality Minefield
Personality is always a bit of a tricky subject for me. I’ve jokingly said that in personality quizzes, I always get the “worst” personality. Case in point: in the “Which Harry Potter Character Shares Your Myers-Briggs” quizzes, I’m invariably either Draco Malfoy or Voldemort. That kind of assessment doesn’t exactly make the heart sing or swell with pride at being an INTJ.

Even outside of Myers-Briggs, I’ve never had the personality that drew people to me. I have been called every variation of cold, unwelcoming, and intimidating (ironic given my five-foot-nothing stature). There’s obviously some gender bias here, since many of the things that make up my personality are sometimes viewed as problematic specifically because I am a woman who comes across as “cold” as opposed to a man who comes across as “analytical.” While I can’t find exact statistics, a quick search indicates that the INTJ is accepted as the least-common personality in women, with the associated personality traits direct opposites of the traits stereotypically seen as “feminine.” People who know me don’t describe me this way (…I don’t think) but this is apparently the first impression I give off, particularly in a public/crowded setting.

Over the years, I’ve come to terms with the benefits of my personality but it’s never been something I loved. This baggage and background is the minefield into which I waded with Reading People in hand.

What Reading People Is and Is Not
Reading People takes seven of the more popular/widely known personality frameworks, gives a basic overview of each, provides enough information to give you an idea of where you fall within that personality spectrum, and then provides resources to read more. The book is not an exhaustive resource on the major personality frameworks nor does it try to be.

Because of this structure, I can see the book have two main uses—the first is to give enough of an overview of each framework to make the reader pause during times of conflict and stress to consider whether the issue isn’t a misunderstanding based on personality. The book gives enough of a very quick overview of each different personality within each spectrum to give the reader a sense of the ways that each personality is different, with an emphasis that different doesn’t mean bad.

The other way this book can come in handy is to give enough of a taste of a particular personality framework to make you want to know more. This is particularly useful since several of the indicators do cost money to take “official tests”—like Enneagram, StrengthsFinder, and (to an extent) the Myers-Briggs (MBTI). If one particular framework resonates, you know it’s worth spending money to find more. Anne is also pretty meticulous about citing her sources and providing a Recommended Resources section for books to read on each type, providing an excellent starting point for further reading on particular frameworks.

If you take nothing else from Reading People, Anne is going to make darn sure that you know your personality is not a bad thing or a liability. It is perhaps the grand, overarching theme that each personality has strengths they bring to the table and that workplaces and societies don’t function without each type.

Ironically, what convinced me that Anne believed this the most was not her clear, concise writing or her insistence that this was the case, but the example Anne gave early on in when she discusses the pitfalls of having your personality defined by your aspirations rather than your reality. In particular, Anne pegged herself incorrectly for any years as an INTJ because this is what she aspired to be. Well if that doesn’t just flip the typical view of my Voldemort-personality on its head, I’m not sure what does.

Anne’s emphasis throughout the book is recognizing that personality is not a “grade”—there are not personalities that are better or worse than others, though certain personalities may find they are better suited to certain tasks than others. Moreover, personality is not the be-all-end-all. Personality doesn’t dictate character or your destiny—as people we are still in control and ultimately responsible for our kindness, how we treat people, and the choices we make in life. Personality is the “lens” of the camera but isn’t the camera or even the picture that results.

Christian Triggers
I am not in a place where I have any interest in reading “Christian books” right now. This presented a bit of a conundrum for me since I am a big fan of Anne’s blog and podcast and wanted an opportunity to see an ARC of Reading People. Anne doesn’t hide her own faith, though she also doesn’t mention it terribly often in these media. She’s highly recommended books like This Is How It Always Is about a family with a transgender child—books that would generally not fit the stereotypical mold of someone whose book is published by Baker Books, a division of the Baker Publishing Group that seeks to “publish high-quality writings that represent historic Christianity and serve the diverse interests and concerns of evangelical readers.”

Reading People manages to avoid most of the things that made me trepidatious about this book. If you are a person of (Christian) faith, the book has parts that will resonate with you, as Anne applies some of the frameworks to her prayer and faith life. There are several Bible verses quoted, along with quotes from C.S. Lewis (though most of those are not explicitly Christian)—these are easy to skip over and keep going. If you’re looking to avoid these references, there are never more than a sentence or two to skip before you can get back into the body of the book, without having missed anything. Reading People still stands entirely on its own. There is nothing that the reader misses by skipping these.

That said, if you’re in a place where you have no interest in even seeing references to Christian faith, this isn’t the book for you. Two of the personality frameworks—the Five Love Languages and the Enneagram—are explicitly rooted in the Christian faith. While they have applications outside faith and don’t require any particular faith to use or apply them, there is no getting around these roots. Several of Anne’s examples for how she learned to recognize different personalities and apply the lessons of the book also come from church examples because that’s where she was spending her time at the time she had some these personality insights.

From my interactions with Anne in Book Club as well as the launch group for this book, I feel pretty confident in asserting that Anne’s goal was to make this book welcoming for all readers, even those who don’t identify as Christian. Ultimately, I think so long as you are not in a place where Christian references are highly-triggering, this is a well-written, highly-readable book that is a great introduction to personality frameworks that will still resonate with most readers interested in the topic.

Anne’s writing style is clear and straightforward and the book is well-organized. As an introduction to personality frameworks, Reading People is a good introductory book that gives you enough of a taste to let you know where you might want to find more. Some sections are easier to read than others, though that tends to be a function of the test—the Five Love Languages are conceptually simpler than something like the MBTI Cognitive Types or the Enneagram.

Because of the way the book is structured, this book is better read in pieces—one or two chapters at a time, rather than a book you speed through. If you’re looking for an in-depth discussion of the personality frameworks or your particular personality, Reading People is going to be too shallow a dive. You would be better suited to consulting Anne’s Recommended Resources to find books with more depth into a particular framework.

Overall, I recommend Reading People for those generally interested in learning more about what makes themselves and others tick or looking for a place to start in getting to know themselves better. Reading People is a safe place to start, even for us Voldemort-types.

Pre-order Bonuses
Because this book isn’t out quite yet, there are still some fun pre-order bonuses available for the next two weeks.  If you pre-order the book in any form and provide proof of the pre-order, you’ll receive a free audiobook download of the book as well as access to a fun free class Anne did on reading personalities.  Proof of purchase can be submitted at

Other Reviews of Note
Several other readers also got copies of Reading People to review in advance of the publication date.  Here are other reviews that might pique your interest:
Glistering: B’s Blog – includes a giveaway of a copy of the book along with ideas of how to implement/use the frameworks for writers, parents, teachers, and employers.
Marisa Mohi – with a focus on how to use personality frameworks to create consistent characters in fiction
Louden Clear in Education – applying the frameworks to life as a teacher
TBR, etc, – another reviewer looking at Anne’s Christian background and how it informed reading the book (so you don’t have to take my word for it).

Published: September 19, 2017 by Baker Books Preorder available on Amazon
Author: Anne Bogel (“Modern Mrs. Darcy“) (@annebogel)
Date read: August 4, 2017
Rating: 3 3/4 Stars