Tag: BookBlog

Review: Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

Review: Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig


“I’m not allowed to use the internet without an adult,” I say
“Right, I remember,” says Larry. “Why won’t your parents let you?”
“Because Gloria is on the internet.”
“Who’s Gloria?”
“Gloria is my Birth Mom. I used to live with her.”
Then I stop talking.
“Is she easy to find?” says Larry.
I shake my head. “No,” I say. “I tried to find her three times on the internet when I was in different Forever Homes but I kept getting interrupted.”
“What’s her name again?” says Larry….
I lean forward and look at him sideways over the top of my glasses. I push my hair out of my face but it falls back. I wish I had a scrunchie. “Gloria LeBlanc,” I say. It’s been a long time since I said the name LeBlanc with my mouth. Because that is what my name used to be. It’s like I left the original me behind when I came to live with my new Forever Parents. With Brian and Maura Moon. My name is Ginny Moon now but there are still parts of the original me left.

Ginny Moon is a 14 year-old girl with autism, adopted by her Forever Parents after being removed from Gloria, her Birth Mother who neglected her. No one seems to care that when Ginny was removed from Gloria, her Baby Doll was left behind and Ginny needs to care for her Baby Doll. When no one will help her find her Baby Doll, Ginny has no choice but to try to find her herself. Unfortunately, Ginny’s search for her Baby Doll means she has to make some choices that are Not Safe, risking her place in her Forever Family’s home.

Representation & Characters
I loved Ginny. This book is written to make you root for her, even when she is making what seem to be awful choices. In my experience, Ludwig’s sensitive portrayal of Ginny’s autism is fairly accurate. She isn’t presented as representative of all individuals with autism and she isn’t a Rain Man-esque savant. She is simply concrete and literal, though Ludwig gives you Ginny’s interior voice so you know why she is making the choices she is making. Knowing the why and how she got from point A to point B in her thinking made it so that I could identify with her, even though I’m not a person that the autism spectrum myself.

Along with the concrete thinking, she keeps the rules that make logical sense and violates the ones that don’t. She doesn’t abide by many social conventions—not because she doesn’t value the people involved but simply because the conventions don’t make sense in light of Ginny’s end game. I particularly appreciated that Ludwig portrayed a girl with autism, since the majority of the stories that seem to be out there with characters with autism feature boys.

Ginny’s Forever Mom and Forever Dad raised Big Feelings for me. Forever Dad is trying his best. While even he does not take the time or consider the source of Ginny’s anxiety over her Baby Doll, he is willing to spend more energy and time accommodating and meeting Ginny’s needs. Forever Mom on the other hand, was infuriating. Admittedly, her suggestions of institutionalizing Ginny may have made me hate her more than was directly called for—part of my job is working to get people out of institutions and set up with the services and supports they need to be successful in their communities. I’m sure Maura was frustrated and Ginny did do things that, when you didn’t understand the full context (as Forever Mom didn’t) seemed like Ginny didn’t care about her Forever Family and wouldn’t be safe around the baby who was on the way. But Forever Mom also refused to listen to the counselor and wanted to send Ginny away. So I still feel ok about disliking her as a person.

While he is a minor character, I also want to mention Ginny’s friend Larry. I loved that Ludwig included Larry—that he cares for Ginny, that he is a friend for Ginny, and that he even seems to have a crush on Ginny. People with disabilities are far too often presented as if they are asexual or unable to be the objects of real desire and so just presenting a teenager with a crush on a girl with autism made me want to stand up and cheer.

I can honestly say that never before has a book inspired such feelings of anxiety. I listened to Ginny Moon on audiobook and the feeling of growing tension about choices Ginny is making filled me with dread and anxiety the further I went into the book. As the reader, you can see the train wreck that’s building—Ginny reaches out to Gloria. Gloria begins to contact Ginny. Ginny makes choices to try to get back to Gloria and her Baby Doll. Each of the series of choices Ginny makes has worse possible consequences than the one before and you’re cringing as you read, waiting to see what will happen, hoping something will interrupt the coming course of events.

I found myself torn between not being able to stop listening, needing to know what came next and pausing the book because I couldn’t handle the tension and oh my god, Ginny this is a bad idea and why aren’t you listening to what Ginny is saying! If you would listen to Ginny, she wouldn’t be making unsafe choices. THIS IS UNSAFE.

With that said, this was the Diverse Books Club pick last year when we were looking at disabilities and I know more than one Highly-Sensitive Person who read and thought this book was amazing.   Don’t let the anxiety it produces scare you away from reading it. Just know ahead of time that it is a book that you may need to take breaks from if you’re an HSP. And if you’ll pardon the spoiler, Ginny is alive and healthy at the end of the book, in case knowing that makes it easier to read.

Minor Criticism
The only detail that really threw me off was the inclusion of Larry in the SpEd classroom. Unless I missed something, Ginny’s friend Larry has a physical disability that requires him to use crutches but does not have any kind of cognitive deficits associated with his disability. While many schools do not treat the SpEd kids well or provide all needed services; in my experience, a kid with solely physical disabilities wouldn’t be put into the self-contained classroom like this. There would be no reason Larry can’t participate in a mainstream classroom, with physical accommodations like seating closer to a door and more time to get to class. The inclusion of Larry in Ginny’s class was necessary for him to be able to aid and abet her in things like using the internet; however, it felt odd throughout for me that he was in the classroom at all.

Ginny Moon is well-written with a distinct narrator that makes the book an anxiety-producing joy to read. It’s a book that will draw Big Feelings from you and is a book that would do well with a book club since Ginny’s choices, as well as those of her family, would make good fodder for discussion. (At least some of the reviews on Goodreads are pretty negative—while I disagree with these, the best kind of book club books are the ones people disagree about.)

The themes and reading level of the book, while aimed at adults, are well within the grasp of older teens and so this would also be a book I recommend for young adults that enjoy some non-YA fiction. Indeed, reading well-written books with diverse characters, including characters with disabilities, can only be beneficial. I honestly believe that one of the ways I’ve developed into a more empathetic person over time (besides having a close friend who got a degree in counseling) is by fiction that presents a diversity of voices and viewpoints. Everyone is equal at the library checkout counter.

Published: May 1, 2017 by Park Row Books
Author: Benjamin Ludwig
Date read: November 17, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Hindsight 2017 // Foresight 2018

Cristian Escobar

Hindsight 2017

This year was an interesting one for me with books–I’d been a voracious reader as a child but after an abusive marriage and limiting spiritual culture I found myself a adrift the last few years.  It took me a while to come back to various aspects of myself.  A writing group called The Story Sisters/ The Story Unfolding saved me first, reminded me that I can be creative.  The year after that, I found my way back to handcrafts–sewing and quilting that I had enjoyed when I was younger.   2016 I got healthy– bootcamps, yoga, and OCRs that reminded me what it felt like to be strong.  2017 is the year I became a reader again and finally feel whole.

I started the year with ambitious goals of book challenges and, halfway through the year, was on target to complete both of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s challenges, the Book Riot challenge, and PopSugar.  But then I started reading (mostly) what I wanted to read and spent less time trying to find “a book in a genre you’ve never heard of” and “a book with a cat on the cover.”  I ultimately finished none of them.  I finished the year with 117 books–over my original Goodreads goal of 100 and three shy of the goal I modified it to in October.  And of course, this blog.  Starting and being consistent with this blog (until end-of-the-year craziness hit) reminded me what it was like to read a book not just to finish but with a critical eye.  I can more readily identify what will make me love a book, what’s just filler/fluff (“candy” books that I read when I need a brain break but can’t be the bulk of my reading diet), and what I hate in a book.  I even quit a book without finishing this year! Blogging also introduced me to the wonderful world of receiving ARC copies, which still feels fun and wonderful and like I’m finally being chosen first in gym.  I also joined and read books for two book clubs–the Modern Mrs. Darcy book club and the Diverse Books Club.

Out of the 117 books, 38 were written by people of color and 82 by women.   32 were audiobooks and 30 were nonfiction.  This is the first year I’ve kept track of these categories but I’m fairly confident in asserting that all of these are an improvement over the year before.  Staring the challenges and the book clubs made me read books I wouldn’t have otherwise.  While I’ve affirmed that graphic novels aren’t really my thing (except for March which should be everyone’s thing) nor are middle grade novels, I’ve enjoyed how the challenges and the book clubs made me branch out.  I’m not planning to do a reading challenge this year but I will continue to focus on ensuring I’m reading books from diverse authors and across genres.

I’m calling every bit of this a reading success.

Foresight 2018

The Unread Shelf (@theunreadshelf  #theunreadshelfproject on Instagram) is on a mission to finish the books she owns but hasn’t read.  I organized my library yesterday on LibraryThing and determined that (including Kindle), I have 480 unread books that I own.  I think we can agree that might be a tad overambitious a goal for me.  I do plan to be a little less driven by reading everything the critics are talking about and have my reading life mandated by my lengthy library hold list.   My loose goals are to read ten books a month — at least one by person of color, two or three picked by Modern Mrs. Darcy, two for Diverse Books Club (unless one is middle grade and then I give myself permission to skip if it isn’t for me), one book I own on Kindle, one book I own in hardcopy, a Book of the Month book (I’ve got some backlogged…shocker!), and a free choice.  I might slowly chip away at my books this way.

For January that looks like (tentatively): Seven Fallen Feathers, Deep Work, Daily Ritual, Secret Daughter, Forever or a Long Long Time, ARC of The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky (publishing 4/17/18), Station Eleven, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Priestdaddy, and Arcadia.  (Seven of these I already own!)  I may or may not try to breeze through Dear Fahrenheit 451 before it is due to the library in two days.  I’m giving myself permission to return the other three I had checked out without reading them.  I will no longer be dictated by my library hold whims…maybe.  hopefully.

I hope 2017 was good to you and that 2018 is even better.

May the road to the library rise up to meet you and fill you with joy.  May the wind be at your back to flutter the pages of your favorite book.  May the sun shine warm on your face and be the perfect light for reading.  May the rain fall soft and find you wrapped in a warm blanket with a book and cup of tea.  And until we meet again, may your god hold you in the palm of his or her hand, keeping you safe and well-read.

I hope 2018 is gentle to you, dear reader, and brings you everything for which you hope.

With love,

Hindsight // Foresight December 20, 2017

Mark Solarski

Hindsight this…month

I did not intend or anticipate going a month without posting any updates or reviews.  I started and finished My Absolute Darling but had such an awful time with it, it sent me into a bit of a slump.  I wanted to finish it so I could review it fairly (I didn’t think it right to rate something in the neighborhood of two stars without actually finishing) but forcing myself to finish a book I didn’t enjoy also sent me into a bit of a slump with not wanting to actually read.  Combined with particularly busy weeks at work and there you have a month of no reviews.

I’ll spare you the lengthy list of of books I’ve acquired over the last month (Hi…my name is Lisa…I’m a book-a-holic).  I did finish several books recently including Code Name Verity, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Dear Martin, Stranger in the Woods, and Rose Under Fire.  I’m currently taking a break and jumping back into Voyager.  This week finally felt like a good reset and I’m back in a good reading pattern.

Foresight for the coming week

I’ve been thinking about my reading going forward.  Ironically, I don’t think I’ll finish any of the challenges I started this year but I’m actually fine with that.  I didn’t read much in 2016.  This year got me back into reading in my spare time and the challenges gave me something to jump start me back into it.  Rather than do challenges next year, I want to shoot for reading books I already own and reading some classics.  I’ve mostly been stuck in reading what’s new (which, has been great) but there’s so much I haven’t read and I don’t want to feel like I have to read the newest thing to stay up.  That was a mistake with My Absolute Darling and I won’t do that again.

I would like to finish Voyager this year along with a few others–maybe Manhattan Beach or Priestdaddy.


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

Review: The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon


“But now it’s more for me, to keep track of all these days, to make me remember them. Maybe I can figure things out later that I can’t understand now.” She slipped the diary back in her bag. “In the end, that’s really all there is to life, right? What you remember? And what other people remember? The forgotten moments are totally gone, no matter how good or important they might have been.”

The Confusion of Languages is the knitting together and unraveling of a friendship between two women. There’s Cassie, a military wife who has lived in Jordan for years, ready to take Margaret under her wing, and Margaret, new to marriage, to motherhood, and to the Middle East, valuing kindness over custom.

The book opens with a car accident, a mother disappearing, a friendship spiraling out of control. Fallon tells her tale in in alternating chapters between Cassie in real time and Margaret’s diary (as Cassie begins to read it), allowing the reader to see how the friendship was stitched together and how it was torn apart—two stitches forward, one stitch ripped back.

Finding the Book and Coming Up With a Rating
I picked up The Confusion of Languages because Anne Bogel recommended it on her summer reading list and it took me this long to come up on the library hold list. The summer reading list was a bit more hit-and-miss for me than I expected, with The Confusion of Languages being a bit of a let down initially. One book on the list drove me crazy (The Lost Book of the Grail) and one was okay but a bit unexpectedly fluffy (A Bridge Across the Ocean). Some were absolute home runs (The Fall of Lisa Bellow, Anything is Possible, The Almost Sisters, Beartown, The Hate U Give, Dreamland Burning). I wanted The Confusion of Languages to be a homerun for me but it just wasn’t. To be fair to Fallon, it was likely the bit of the slump I was in colored my feelings toward the book—I probably needed something that was less of a slow, simmer and more of an immediately-boiling-book last week.

On top of this, one of the characters is absolutely abhorrent and she is making it difficult for me to fairly rate the book. On the one hand, I despise her so much I want to rate the book low because of her centrality to the narrative. On the other, I’m certain that I’m supposed to have a visceral negative reaction to her and the fact that I did find her so unsettling is a credit to Fallon as a writer—I am feeling what she wants me to feel. My immediate reaction was to rate it three stars, but as I get a few days’ distance from it, I can see the power of Fallon’s writing, how she sucked me in and made me love/hate characters despite myself.   Like Lincoln in the Bardo, distance is making me recognize the power of the writing.

Fallon does an excellent job at making her characters well-rounded. Cassie is recognizable as someone we’ve all met—deeply flawed but real. Margaret through Cassie’s eyes is flighty; yet, through Margaret’s diary we see the value she placed on kindness—particularly kindness over custom. This emphasis on kindness and how it plays out with friendships and actions towards the Middle Eastern men around her ultimately brings her trouble. You know it’s coming but Fallon allows you to hope that it won’t—that Margaret’s naïve believe in kindness can, in fact, win over everyone. That it is the value that can trump all others.

And yet, this was not kindness developed in a vacuum. Through telling her story of how she met her husband Crick and became pregnant, and life before Crick, Margaret reveals her innocence, how deeply she was sheltered. You see how Margaret came to believe in kindness-over-all and the blindspots her background gave her. It was refreshing to see this value on kindness and, even with the way Margaret’s kindness causes the events in The Confusion of Languages to play out, I was still left with the sense that kindness is still mostly worth it. That the risk of being kind is still worth taking.

While the central relationship in the book is Cassie’s and Margaret’s friendship, each woman is in Jordan because she’s a trailing spouse of a military man. Margaret’s husband Crick is more fleshed out, mostly because he also interacts with Cassie, so stories of him are told by both women. He is a bit one-dimensional—walking machismo with the tiniest vein of tenderness and doubt that only Margaret got to see until the very end. He is the foil against which each woman reveals her own character, the brick wall for Margaret’s ivy tendrils and Cassie’s choking garden weeds. In contrast, Cassie’s own husband, Dan, is barely mentioned. We experience him almost solely through Cassie’s discussions of how he “unfairly” doesn’t trust her, how their infertility has become a cloud of judgment over her. This seemed to me a missed opportunity for Fallon. As portrayed, he is rather longsuffering and I do not for the life of me understand why he stayed with Cassie unless he was a bit of an emotional masochist. Having him be more fleshed out would answer so questions as to his own motivations and what the hell is going on with him and Cassie, since his staying seems so beyond anything I really understand.

Fallon’s style clearly delineated between Cassie’s current telling of the tale to the reader-audience and Margaret’s voice in her journal, intended solely for herself. Margaret’s unself-conscious writing was often briefly lovely—for example, when she told the story of her doorman giving her child chocolate intended as a welcoming gift but it was so old as to have gone grey. The baby spits it out and Margaret goes back in the dark to find the sliver of chocolate so that the doorman would not “find the spat-out gift and hav[e] to get down on hands and knees to clean up his own kindness.”

The two different focuses—Cassie to the audience and Margaret to herself—aided the story, enabling the reader to see Margaret as she was/saw herself as opposed to how only Cassie saw her—a detail that becomes important as the book progresses, since Cassie is slowly revealed to be a less than honest reporter of the people and actions around her.

There were no hiccups in the writing—nothing that made me cringe or roll my eyes. Here too the writing was tight, a credit to Fallon and her editor.

Overall Rating
Having had a few days distance from my gut reaction towards this book, I think it’s a solid almost-four. A three and three quarters. Fallons writing is heads and shoulders above many and the book was engaging with three dimensional characters that pulled you in despite yourself. It is a slow burn, more suited for a long, cold night by the fire than a summer day by the beach, even if the setting is warmer climes.

Published June 27, 2017 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons (@putnambooks)
Author: Siobhan Fallon
Date read: November 11, 2017
Rating: 3 ¾ stars
Tw: suicide, gaslighting

Review: Beartown by Fredrick Backman


Late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead, and pulled the trigger.

This is the story of how we got there.

In the forest, there’s a town that loves hockey, whose identify is defined by the cuts of skates on ice, the check of bodies on the boards.  When one of their own rapes a classmate right before the game that could change the fortunes of the dying town, the question becomes –who and what does Beartown love most?

Why now?
Admittedly, this is the longest distance between the date I’ve read a book and reviewed a book. I finished Beartown shortly before I started this blog and I always meant to go back and review it. None of the other books I’ve finished recently really lent themselves to being reviewed (or, I didn’t really want to review some of them), and so this seemed like a good time to pull Beartown back out.

Beartown is one of those books that sits with you—it’s impactful as you’re reading it, as you finish, and even months later. Backman’s writing in A Man Called Ove was impeccable—he takes that vocabulary and skill and applies it to a harsher topic in Beartown. Where A Man Called Ove made you love a curmudgeon whose heart was, despite all appearances, too big for his body, Beartown makes you love and hate and rage at a small town torn apart by a date rape. It still feels like yesterday that I finished this book and I can feel the lump rising in my throat as I flip through the sections I marked and as I type this review.

Beartown’s events detail how a date rape happens and one version of the impact, though a common version. Rape can happen to anyone—there is no one who is immune from this awful possiblity.  And when it happens, the victims (usually, but not always, girls and women) are overwhelmingly not believed. They are “encouraged” and they are threatened to take it back, to consider the impact on the man, the family, the team, the town. Women are sacrificed at the altar of men’s reputations every day. Beartown is Everytown. Beartown is how we get to #metoo—because many, many girls and women do not want to survive what the survivor goes through in Beartown.

And yet, Beartown is a beautiful book. It’s fair that there are (probably a lot) of people who don’t want to read a book about rape. Who have experienced it (1 in 4 women), who know someone who has (everybody—whether you know it or not), and so do not want to read a book about rape. I absolutely get that and wish you nothing but light and hope if that is you. But don’t let this book turn you off just because a rape is the inciting incident. There is tenderness and love in Beartown.   There is a Mama Bear whose heart made me want to rage right next to her. A boy whose outward bruiser appearance belies the tenderness within him. (I wanted to wrap Benji in a warm blanket and give him a place to rest, though he’d certainly have resisted.) There is a bullied child, given the opportunity to become an insider, but at a cost that may turn him into someone else entirely. There is a victim who becomes a survivor, a woman strong enough to live and move on, despite everything she endured that night and the months and years that followed.

With everything happening in the media, this book feels so timely and true—everyone who is emotionally able should read this book.

But so…it’s a sports book?
The heart of Beartown is its hockey rink, so much of the plot revolves around this rink and it’s teams. I am not absolutely sports inept (I love baseball) but I know next to nothing about hockey. This knowledge isn’t necessary, nor does the fact that it’s about hockey take away from the overall plot. Backman sets up what you need to know—that hockey defines this town, these people, circumscribes the culture.

A common refrain I’ve heard from the many other women who’ve read this book is that they thought the hockey part would detract from the story or would otherwise affect their interest, but it didn’t. The set up within the hockey rink, however, gives the book a solid cross-gender appeal and is a book I think even stereotypically masculine cis-men find relatable and compelling.

Character Development
It would take days to discuss the various characters Backman created, nor do I want to spoil every bit of character development, so I’ll refrain from discussing most of the characters and only go into a few below (and not even discuss some of my favorites, like Benji). It worth note, however, that with his skill Backman manages to present even minor characters who don’t show up often (like Ann-Katrin) with a depth directly inverse to the amount of words spent on them.

While there is a clear villain and Backman is not morally vague about his wrongs or the wrongs of the town, he also does a surprising job at humanizing the rapist. You can see how this kid got to where he is, the pressure people put on him…and yet you never feel so sorry for him that you excuse his actions. It’s a razor-fine line that Backman balances on so effortlessly you almost miss the skill with which he presented the rapist to the reader.

There are things fifteen year-old children should never have to experience. And while the obvious thing here is rape, another example is to have a friend be a victim of such a crime. Where you were when it happened, how you responded, how you respond now are all impossible enough when your brain isn’t still developing, when Facebook and texts and high school aren’t still a thing. God forbid, should such a thing ever happen to a child I know, may they have a friend like this survivor’s friend.

Within the larger story is also a theme of what it means to be an “insider” – who is “us” and who is “them.” Like almost anywhere else, Beartown is divided socioeconomically with the poor kids—the ones who rarely become good at hockey because they can’t afford the equipment, the lessons, the time to practice—so often left on the outside. Yet in skates little Amat–not-white within the homogeneous milk-white of Beartown’s racial landscape—and poor to boot. Backman makes you love Amat, cheer for Amat, cringe and wring your hands at his choices, and the cost he’s apparently willing to pay to be inside. Amat is a high school everyman and I loved him.

Generally speaking, Backman also does a commendable job making his characters diverse. There is a gay character whose inclusion could easily feel like it was done as a token inclusion in anyone’s hands other than Backman’s. There are characters of color and from a wide swath of Beartown’s socioeconomic strata. I defy you to read this book and not find at least one character you identify with.

I could wax poetic about Fredrick Backman’s writing. He has these pithy turns of phrase (“Amat sat in the corner, doing his best interpretation of an empty corner”) and descriptions that make you laugh and feel like you were right there (“the president is sitting at his desk eating a sandwich the way a German shepherd would try to eat a balloon filled with mayonnaise.”). He also has stretches of beautiful prose, of short truisms that never feel trite and cut deeply as they land.

The feat accomplished here is all the more impressive when you consider that the book is translated and yet the writing still holds up so well. The writing isn’t overly flowery or poetic, there’s nothing that feels lofty. Backman is both genius (who describes someone as a dog eating a balloon of mayonnaise…and yet you know exactly what he’s describing) and down to earth (see, again, balloon of mayonnaise). Because the style makes the book so accessible, Beartown is a surprisingly easy read, necessary when you consider the difficulty of the topic. The writing also lends Backman’s books to being easily enjoyed on audio—I loved A Man Called Ove on audio and, while I have not listened to Beartown, would expect no different of this one.

Ending (No Spoilers…Mostly)
Because this is a Fredrik Backman book, the ending is bittersweet. There is redemption for most of the major characters. Of course, not every rape story ends this way—many people aren’t able to seek the help they need, are never believed, are never able to recover fully or even mostly. Because of this, I can see (though haven’t heard) Backman drawing some criticism for prettying up his victim’s ending. It would be foolish to assume that every victim can be as resilient as the victim—there are a myriad factors that enabled the victim to end where she does when Beartown ends, many of them out of her control. Because of this, this survivor should not be the measuring stick against which other victims are judged. I ultimately have no problem with the way Backman ended his book on a mostly redemptive note, so long as this ending isn’t seen as representative or possible for all victims.

Published April 25, 2017 by Atria Books (@AtriaBooks)
Author: Fredrick Backman (@backmansk)
Date read: July 15, 2017
Rating: 5 stars, in top five books of 2017

Hindsight // Foresight November 6, 2017

Mark Solarski

Hindsight this week

I finally finished Music of the Ghosts this week– it was well written but sloooooow.  At the 70% mark, when we finally got to what happened in the Khmer Rouge prison it picked up and I raced through the last third but before that was a bit of a slog to get through.  I did have to pause in the middle to read Fierce Kingdom since that was going to be due back to the library.  I don’t plan to review that one here but it was a nice diversion and a solid thriller.  I rated it 3 1/4 stars.  I started A Confusion of Languages last night and am hoping that one keeps my interest.

I wound up stopping A Gentleman in Moscow on audio–it was getting a bit hard to follow.  I will likely try again soon–I liked what I was hearing but this may be a book I need to read in print.  We’ll see–I do plan to read this one this year, in one format or another.  I started I Was Told There’d Be Cake since I picked it up and it looked interesting when I was at the Green Valley Book Fair.  I prefer this kind of book in audio so I borrowed it from the library.  So far I’m meh on it, but we’ll see if it picks up.  I also downloaded one of the Diverse Book Club books, Ginny Moon, on audio so if Cake doesn’t hold my interest, I’ve got that to start.

Speaking of, the theme this month in Diverse Books Club is disabilities–I have no problems with the choices generally but was disappointed to see that mental illness wasn’t represented at all.  I probably need to go on the message boards and recommend some solid books on MI like The Center Cannot Hold. 

In acquisitions this week, I picked up My Absolute Darling, Stranger in the Woods, and This is Just My Face from the library.  There were some good kindle sales so I picked up Rabbit Cake, What Remains True (Kindle First for November), 1968, and The Sun is Also a Star.

Foresight for the coming week

I feel like I’m in a bit of slump.  I should have some good time to read but we’ll see if A Confusion of Languages can hold my interest or if I wind up picking something else up.  I’ve also got Miami Century Fox to read and review for LibraryThing –I do plan to do that this week.

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

Review: Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin


“I refused to be shamed.”
“How did you do that?” you asked.
“When they came at me, I kept coming.”

In the early-to-mid 2000s, Aviva Grossman was a Congressional intern who fell for her boss, got caught up in an affair, and caught. In essence, she was Monica Lewinski with a blog. Young Jane Young is how it happened and what followed—as told by Aviva’s mother; a wedding planner named Jane Young; the Congressman’s wife, Embeth; Jane’s daughter Ruby; and Aviva herself. At its heart, Young Jane Young is the story of the choices women make—the ones they are forced to make, the ones others make for them, and the ones they are finally able to freely make themselves—and the way society treats women for these choices.

The Author of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
One of the books that people (particularly women) in my bookish community seem to love is The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry—it gets referred to and recommended frequently. So frequently, in fact, that I read it as my first book of 2017 for the “Book You Were Excited to Borrow or Buy But Haven’t Read Yet.” To be fair to Fikry, very little probably could have held up to the hype. It was…fluffier that I expected. It was quick and it was cute and I can see why people love it, but “cute” isn’t really my thing when I read, unless I’m deliberately looking for something lighthearted after a run of dark books. When Anne announced the picks for the Modern Mrs. Darcy book club for fall, I’ll admit to being a little let down—I didn’t think Fikry was poorly written, (quite the opposite) I just didn’t see Zevin’s books as book club discussion material.

Thankfully, I was wrong. Zevin’s style is still very much the same—her writing as a lighthearted quality to it and parts of it are still what I would refer to as “cute;” however, the subject matter for Young Jane Young is timely and Zevin seems to have a deliberate point of view in Young Jane Young that was missing in Fikry. Where Fikry sought to entertain, Young Jane Young sends a clear message about the names and values we place on women and their mistakes—particularly compared to men who make the same. This isn’t to say Young Jane Young isn’t entertaining—it still is. But this one had the “hook” that Fikry seemed to be missing that gave me a reason to want to keep reading.

The structure of Young Jane Young is interesting—each character’s section is told in its entirety before moving on to another’s so there is some moving back and forth through time. Zevin clearly distinguished between her characters, using a different form for each section, in addition to including speech patterns unique to certain characters like Rachel’s use of Yiddish phrases and Ruby’s more modern slang.

We start with Rachel, written in stream-of-consciousness and move onto Jane, written in a more typical literary style. Ruby follows written purely as emails to her pen-pal Fatima. Embeth, the Congressman’s wife uses free and direct discourse in the third person—this use of third person distances her from the other characters and emphasizes her outsider status compared to the other four voices. Finally we hear from Aviva, written as a choose-your-own adventure novel, with the choices removed. This form highlights Aviva’s relative youth at the time of the scandal and allows the reader to see her choices dwindling as the action progresses. The last section borders on gimmicky and might throw off a reader unfamiliar with Zevin’s style. From reading Fikry, I expected the “cute” so this didn’t bother me as much as it might have otherwise and it services Zevin’s purposes well. By the time this structural choice came up (the last section of the book), I was invested in the narrative and message, so I didn’t find this off-putting, though I freely admit it is the kind of thing that usually drives me to sprain my eye-muscles from rolling them too hard when it isn’t done really well.

Feminist Choices
I was a child when the Monica Lewinsky scandal happened so I honestly haven’t thought terribly hard about it—it wasn’t on my radar then and it doesn’t really come up often anymore. Young Jane Young forces the reader to reconsider the narrative—at least in the mainstream media that I vaguely recall from the time, there was not an emphasis on the power imbalance, on the age imbalance. Words like “slut” were thrown around to describe her while President Clinton’s punishment came not for the sex, but for lying about it to people who wasn’t supposed to lie to. She was punished for the act, he was punished only for trying to cover it up the wrong way. People questioned her parents’ choices, her morals. She was the temptress, the woman who should have kept her legs and mouth closed. She was, quite simply, at fault, despite the fact that she was 22, only five years’ removed from being legally a child. Indeed, it seems everyone wants to blame everyone except President Clinton—Hillary Clinton found herself in the spotlight from whispers about why she wasn’t able to keep her man happy so that he wouldn’t stray to why she chose to stay.

As Zevin noted in the discussion with the MMD book club, the scandal at the heart of Young Jane Young is not really a sex scandal—it’s a sexist scandal. Aviva’s mother Rachel sets the stage, providing the foundation and background facts of the scandal and the current state of affairs ten years later. Next is Jane, living a quiet life in Maine with her daughter Ruby, as far removed from the scandal as possible, yet still not far enough away not to have the Grossman scandal come back up. Ruby follows, with wide-eyed precociousness giving a black-and-white, right-and-wrong perspective common only to children and newscasters. Embeth follows—the woman scorned yet also the woman who stayed. Finally, Aviva and her choices filling in the gaps. At each step, we see the effect of judgment on the character speaking, on Aviva generally, on women as a whole since we so often live and die on each other’s mistakes being held against us. One of Aviva’s vignettes that stood out so starkly was a discussion with a political science professor where she remarks that the feminists didn’t stand by her—didn’t point out the age gap, the Congressman’s role. The professor remarks that it was true but the Congressman was good on women’s issues. The one woman was sacrificed for the man, in hopes a greater good might result from the man remaining in power.  And so nothing seems to be changing.

While I likely wouldn’t have picked up this book if not for the MMD Book Club, I’m glad I did and I’m keeping an eye out for my own copy. Zevin kept the quirk and cute that made Fikry so popular while having meat and a message behind Young Jane Young. It is rare that a book comes across as so light and readable while still packing this much of a punch. Zevin does a remarkable job packing the book with the myriad examples of the way women are held to an entirely different standard than men in politics (and generally) without the book ever becoming preachy (save for the vignette with the professor). The book made an excellent book club selection—any time there are lots of choices made by multiple characters there is plenty of fodder for discussion. Young Jane Young goes one further in that characters make choices but the message of the book turns the reader’s reactions back on them—i.e. Aviva made a choice and this is your reaction to it—what does that reaction say about you? About society? About how we judge and value women? About the standards we measure them against?

Published: August 22, 2017 (my birthday!) by Algonquin Books (@algonquinbooks)
Author: Gabrielle Zevin (@gabriellezevin)
Date read: October 10, 2017
Rating: 4 stars

Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman


It scarcely matters what is actually happening. She could kill them. That is the profound truth of it. She lets the power tickle at her fingers, scorching the varnish on the underside of the table. She can smell its sweet chemical aroma. Nothing that either of these men says is really of any significance, because she could kill them in three moves before they stirred in their comfortably padded chairs.  It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.

The Power tells the time period during which the power balance shifted—women (starting with teenage girls and waking in older women) have gained the power to electrify those they touch and, as a result, have become the default stronger, more powerful sex. Suddenly men find themselves in an unfamiliar landscape where every interaction with a woman can suddenly turn dangerous.

The Handmaid’s Tale
The Power has drawn numerous comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale—I understand this comparison but it is somewhat misleading. In plot, The Power is the exact opposite of The Handmaid’s Tale.  Rather than men running the world and a shortage of women, the world of The Power flips the power dynamic entirely and places women at the apex of power with men being the ones subjugated. Where the comparison rings true is the message and POV of the book. Alderman was literally mentored by Atwood and both books highlight the evils that arise when men are the sole sex in charge—Atwood by describing the extremes of men in charge and Alderman by narrating what happens when women take over and the gender-roles of power are flipped.

Structure and Writing
Alderman’s writing is well-constructed and snappy—there aren’t long poetic runs of prose, except in the religious “excerpts” where the prose fits the Biblical-style. Despite presenting four major viewpoints, Alderman is able to distinguish the voice and present distinct points-of-view for each character. Adding to the narrative are selected “primary” documents – letters, pictures of artifacts, excerpts from The Book of Eve. This could easily become gimmicky but because Alderman uses them sparingly, they add to the story. It is worth noting that with the use of the female-based religion (venerating the Mother over Jesus specifically), this book could easily become distasteful (or downright blasphemous) to devout Christians. The book is presented as a countdown to some unknown event so the timeline remains in flux—while the book doesn’t need a mystery element like this to be page-turning, it does add an additional element of the unknown—the book had a very clear climax that it worked towards.

Depth and Breadth
Arguably The Power’s greatest strength is also it’s biggest flaw. I was hard pressed to think of any gender role, stereotype, or gender crime that didn’t get flipped and addressed. I’m sure I missed some but the list includes religious-based sexism/gender-roles; how women can “control” sexual impulses (for both genders) by just keeping their (in this case) arms crossed; the plagiarism of women’s writing and the need to use nom de plumes in order to have women’s writing reach a wider audience; the rates of domestic violence and murder of women; gender-based gang violence; women who are opposed to feminism/women having power; women wanting to be men because of their power; women needing to take self-defense classes; parents worried about how girls are being victimized in school; gender roles in newscasting with a patronizing man covering business topics and the giggly woman covering serious topics like bobbing for apples; having a war correspondent be known/popular for how hot she looks when reporting; gender roles within families; having to have permission to travel/having to be with a guardian in public; genital mutilation; internal classes within gender where those who have less of the traditional (or new traditional) features of “masculinity” or “femininity” are judged/less than; and historians interpreting historical artifacts based on the current understanding of power (and discounting that which doesn’t fit).

There was a point at which it almost felt like too much—like Alderman was trying too hard to fit absolutely positively every gender issue into The Power. On the flip side, I know there are many who think this is an impressive feat that Alderman accomplishes and that each of these issues deserves to be mentioned, if for nothing else, than to show the impact misogyny has on absolutely every area of life. At the end of the day, for me it felt like hammering just a little too hard but wasn’t so distracting that it took away from the reading experience for me.

End game
It is easy to rue men’s current leadership and latch on to the idea that if women ran things the world would be better—everyone would be more gentle, there would be no war, and we’d all skip through fields of daisies, holding hands. Had this been where Alderman took The Power, it would have been a weak utopia. In contrast, Alderman’s message (one of the many) may be the idea that “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Where Atwood left open the possibility that a female-run world would be better, it’s not clear that Alderman’s world is actually better. Certainly, it’s better for women and you can make a convincing argument that men have had the run of things for a couple millennia so it’s our turn. But Alderman doesn’t buy the idea that women in charge automatically means a more harmonious world. It wasn’t entirely where I expected the book to go but it was the right choice—both logically and for purely for the story’s sake as well.

As noted, this book is a bit gritty and raw in plot—it is unapologetically and in-your-face feminist. I loved it and am glad it was my Book of the Month pick this month—it is still available a la carte to add for future months if you’re a current member. It is also well-crafted and well-written, hitting those notes in my grammar-and-structure-loving heart.

Published October 10, 2017 (in the US) by Little, Brown and Company (@littlebrown)
Author: Naomi Alderman (@naomi_alderman)
Date read: October 19, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Hindsight // Foresight October 30, 2017

Mark Solarski

Hindsight this week

As predicted, I didn’t get in much extra reading this week.  I did go ahead and knock out a Ms. Marvel collection (volumes 1-11) for the Book Riot #ReadHarder challenge (superhero comic with a female lead).  Comics definitely still aren’t my thing but I love that Marvel has a sixteen year old, first generation Pakistani-American Muslim girl as a superhero lead.  Representation matters and Marvel knocked that one out of the park.

I’m still working my way through Music of the Ghosts.  I’m borderline on abandoning it but thinking I’m going to push through.  I’m trying to be more okay with putting down books I don’t love but I feel bad giving up on this one.  It’s beautifully written and deliberately slow–I think it just isn’t the right season for me to read something this slow, but I’m 70% through so I don’t want to jump ship now.  Hopefully I will finally finish this one this week.

And, speaking of “finally” doing things, I finally started A Gentleman in Moscow on audiobook and it is as lovely as everyone said.  I may look for this one in paper or hardback as well so I can have the physical copy.  I am literally running out of bookshelves so I need to figure something out here before the two boxes I bought from my mother arrive.  (Yikes!)  I am relatively minimalist when it comes to clothes.  Not so much for books.

Foresight for the coming week

I am going to knock out Music of the Ghosts this week and then I’ve got to start and get through Fierce Kingdom in four days (eep!).  I’ve finished Young Jane Young but need to type up my review before its also due in four days.  Hopefully work will be slightly less nuts this week and I’ll have time to do this, but admittedly, I’m not holding my breath.

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

Review: The Floating World by C. Morgan Babst


Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of The Floating World in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to NetGalley, Algonquin Books, and C. Morgan Babst for the advance copy.

We don’t have time for the future, doctor. We hardly have time for the past. The only thing to do in the desert is to keep walking. Otherwise you will die of thirst before you make it to higher ground.

Set in the days and months following Hurricane Katrina, The Floating World tells the story of the disintegration of the Boisdoré family—mother, psychiatrist Dr. Tess Eschleman; father, artist Joe Boisdoré; sisters Del and Cora; and grandfather, former master woodworker Vincent Boisdoré. Before the storm, Tess and Joe try to get their daughter Cora to go with them—she refuses and her parents evacuate without her. Del rides out the storm in New York, where she fled many years before. After the storm, Tess and Joe return, first to find Cora physically, then to bring her back from where she’s been locked up mentally. Del returns as well, attempting both to draw Cora back to herself to quell pull of New Orleans in her own bones.

Subject Matter
With the focus on this family, the book felt less about New Orleans and the aftermath of Katrina and more about this family and their dynamics. When the books opens, it’s several weeks after the storm. While Joe and Tess evacuated and returned together, upon reentry they separate. Turns out, the winds were simply the thing that revealed the previously hidden distance between them.

An interesting (arguably frustrating) thing here is that “complicated family drama” isn’t the main way this book is marketed. Even within the publisher’s Amazon summary, the three paragraphs end by emphasizing that Katrina’s damage was “not, in fact, some random act of God, but an avoidable tragedy visited upon New Orleans’ most helpless and forgotten citizens.” With this summary, I went into the book with very different expectations. Katrina set the stage but neither the storm nor, frankly, the unequal impact of the devastation were really the subject here.

Complicated Family
This normally wouldn’t be an issue since complicated families are a favorite subject of mine for reading; however, something in The Floating World just fell flat. Much of my problem stemmed from my inability to really connect with any of the characters. Normally, there is something in at least one character that I can connect to—even if only tangentially. That connection makes me care about what happens to that character and, in turn, the characters that person cares for. While Babst attempts to make Cora’s sister, Del; her father, Joe; and her grandfather, Vincent into sympathetic characters, there just wasn’t enough there for me to connect to. Her mother, Tess, was so utterly selfish that I didn’t care to try to find a connection there. In hindsight, she’s probably supposed to be at least a little sympathetic—the psychiatrist on the edge of the nervous breakdown herself—but I found her so unlikeable as to almost a villain—nothing she did was right and her meddling was irritating.

Another White Author Problem?
I don’t want to over simplify and say it was entirely this; however, I do think at least some of the issue here came from a white writer trying to write black characters. Babst mentions things like the failures of the Army Corps of Engineers and the racial divide that placed the people of color in the areas that wound up with the most devastation, but she does it in a way that feels almost like an afterthought—she doesn’t show. She simply tells. A character gets up on their tiny soapbox for a moment, says their pithy background comment about how racism created the situation that Katrina revealed, climbs back down, and the narrative continues, totally disconnected from the point she was making. It was as if Babst herself didn’t realize there was such a racial impact to the storm until she learned about it afterwards, reading the newspapers, and felt compelled to share these nuggets to make her book more accurate. Which—these things are absolutely true—there was a huge racial impact. But Babst’s presentation of them was blunt and served more to make it clear she knew there was an impact so she could then carry on with the story she was otherwise telling.

Babst also attempts to get at some of the racial divide by having Joe be black and Tess be white—so, of course, Cora and Del are mixed race. This also didn’t seem to be done particularly well, especially when compared to a character like Rowan in Dreamland Burning. It felt almost like Babst wrote the story she wanted to tell, decided to make Joe black, and went back and changed some details to correspond to Joe being black. There is so much more here that could have been explored, but it felt half-hearted. I honestly wondered whether Babst had gotten POC beta readers.

Redeeming points
The only really redeeming points for me in this book were Cora and Vincent. When the book starts, you don’t hear much from Cora herself—there are a few small vignettes from her but the majority of the impression you get about Cora is from others—her mother and her sister in particular, as Joe is largely consumed with caring for his ailing father. You quickly gather that Cora has survived some unknown trauma that has caused her to curl into herself, sucking her into a depression she has apparently experienced before. She doesn’t eat, doesn’t sleep, doesn’t bathe. She wanders in the flooded city full of toxic mud at night. Tess and Del attempt to help her, though it quickly feels obvious that these attempts are as much about Tess and Del as they are about Cora. Cora’s point of view isn’t tangibly presented until almost halfway through the book—which is a shame. She is perhaps a character I could have connected to and identified with; however, by waiting until over a third of the way in to really flesh her out from her own point of view, Babst waited too long. It was too late for me to feel invested in her or the book.

I did feel for Vincent as well—in the throes of Lewy Body Dementia, he bounces around in time, sometimes in the present, oftentimes not. He wasn’t a character I could identify with; however, I did feel sympathetic for him and his inclusion did make the story richer. Babst also probably missed some opportunities here by not having more scenes with Vincent’s past experiences of New Orleans. One of the most poignant scenes with Vincent is when he wanders off through the abandoned cars seeking a pie, seeing instead a New Orleans fifty years prior.

Mental Illness
I do think Babst did a respectable job with the treatment of depression in The Floating World—both with Cora and another character. As much as I hated Tess, her overbearing know-better-ness was also spot on for at least a handful of psychiatrists with whom I’ve interacted. Babst treated this particular topic respectfully, if not perfectly. Shoddy treatment of mental illness is a pet peeve of mine but nothing Babst did in this particular area set my nerves jangling.

Overall, The Floating World was technically well written but because I didn’t connect to the characters in any way, it just sort of…fell flat. There were several well-written paragraphs and turns of phrase that made me pause to appreciate the writing. (Tess’s paramour is described as “an aging Debutante’s Delight of middling intelligence”—I might have guffawed out loud at that one.) It was a solid effort and, if she can make me care about her characters, I’d give her sophomore attempt a go. Overall, the book is well above average in writing and there are definitely some reviewers out there that will disagree with my assessment about the characters being too unlikable or half-heartedly presented for connection. It was the writing that pushed me to a three and a half rating, rather than just a three.

One final note—Babst did make a style choice that didn’t bother me but may be disconcerting to some readers. Her sections are long and she switches back and forth between each family member without warning—there are no headers to tell you that you’ve switched characters. I didn’t have too much trouble figuring out that she’d switched points of view within a few second just by topic—the voice of her characters doesn’t vary terribly much between characters—this was perhaps a missed opportunity, though in Babst’s hands this could easily have become gimmicky (or worse).

Published: October 17, 2017 by Algonquin Books (@algonquinbooks)
Author: C. Morgan Babst (@cmorganbabst)
Date read: October 16, 2017
Rating: 3 ½ stars