Book Review

Book Review: The Storyteller

Every so often, I read a book that pulls me in so much that I obsess over it until I’m finished and then I still think about it for a long time and annoy all my friends by persistently recommending they read it until someone does. I have just had another experience like that with a book I read for a book club next month: The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult.

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Now, I think I’ve been pretty outspoken about how tired I am of historical fiction that deals with World War II. There’s just so much of it on the market. But this narrative was so emotional and personal that I was drawn in and blown away. Picoult introduces a pretty large cast of characters that have their own narration time, but it really works here. We have the main character Sage who is dealing with her own grief and insecurities in the modern day when she meets Josef, a gentle and kind old man who tells her that he was actually a Nazi fifty years ago. She then teams up with Leo, a Department of Justice Agent, to try to verify his story. We also get a lot of narration from Sage’s grandmother, a holocaust survivor.

I don’t want to go into much detail about the plot because I don’t want to give anything away (there’s a signature Picoult plot twist, of course, to look forward to!) but the structure of the narration was intricate and balanced so that I felt the pace never dragged. I felt a connection with the main character Sage, and I appreciated that Picoult allowed her to, at times, be very flawed. She seemed like a realistic human being that I could understand and relate to.

The information about the holocaust was devastating and emotionally powerful. A lot of books manufacture emotion by mentioning innately sad things (I’m looking at you, Nicholas Sparks), but this book really earned my emotion. It wasn’t trying to just make me sad because the holocaust was a topic – it really made me feel attached to the specific characters so that I cared what they were going through.

Overall, I think that everyone should read this book. I think it will definitely appeal to people who like World War II history or general historical fiction, but it will also appeal to people who like domestic fiction that analyzes characters’ relationships.

 

Book Review

Book Review: Where They Found Her 

It’s rare that I come across a mystery novel where I feel more engrossed by the lives of the living characters than I do the circumstances surrounding the dead characters. Usually, I’m flipping pages as quickly as I can read them to race to the end to find out if I’m right about who did it and why. Recently, I read a different kind of mystery, one that I read so slowly in order to fully absorb the complicated lives of all the many characters: Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight.

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Now, there definitely is some tough subject matter in this book. The overall premise is that the dead body of a baby is found in a small college town, and as the facts about what happened come to light, a whole lot of other secrets come to the surface. This book is told from several different perspectives, which I think has become quite the trend in fiction. It really worked in this novel, and the multiple narrators helped me to really get to know and understand where the characters who coming from.

If I had to pick a main character, I would probably pick Molly – a young mom and journalist who recently suffered a miscarriage. Throughout this book, Molly’s sections explore motherhood and the many ways that guilt can arise for mothers. I found her to be flawed in a great, believable way. She seemed like a real person suffering from grief and loss and trying to figure out how to survive and move on. She doesn’t always make the right choices, but she is very endearing and she learns a lot about the world and herself throughout the novel.

One of my other favorite perspectives was Barbara. I felt like I learned so much about her as the book progressed. She might have been one of the least likable characters, especially at first, but I felt like I really understood her by the end. That’s not to say that she transformed into a more likable character. Rather, I understood why she did the things that made her seemed unlikable, and that enabled me to have more compassion for her and real people that I know who are kind of like her. It’s easy to judge people who come across as very intense and controlling, but this behavior often stems from deep insecurities or learned patterns of behavior from parents or other figures present in childhood.

I know I say this in almost every book review, but I don’t want to give too much away about the plot. While I was surprised by the revelations at the end, and I felt like they didn’t all quite seem believable, I found the ending to provide a very satisfying conclusion. I was actually quite sad when the book was over because I was so enjoying the reading experience. I guess this means that I should definitely pick up another book by this author (and I plan too!)

Poetry Review

Poetry Review: Head Off & Split 

Sometimes, I feel like I’m on a life-long quest to convince people to give poetry another chance. For some reason, so many people I encounter have such negative views about poetry: perhaps PTSD from high school English classes or negative experiences with overly obscure poetry. A lot of people don’t find poetry accessible, especially contemporary poetry. While I’m not always a fan of the extremely ambiguous or minimalist poetry that is pretty trendy right now, I find that there are still lots of poets who employ beautiful, spellbinding imagery and emotion. One collection that really spoke to me recently because of its clear and powerful message is Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney.

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This collection won a well-deserved National Book Award, and it is a truly inspiring collection of poems that focus on civil rights, racial relationship, and even family dynamics. So many of these poems feel deeply personal, especially the title poem which was mesmerizing. Finney is an amazing poet who has been overshadowed until recently, but this collection is surely going to keep her in the limelight for a while. I would definitely recommend this collection to anyone who either loves poetry or who wants to explore how modern poetry relates to the present political climate. Poetry has always been used as a way to critique society, and Finney continues that tradition today.

Book Review

Cozy Corner: White House Chef Mysteries 

While I review all genres of books on this blog, one type that is near and dear to my heart is the cozy mystery genre. These mysteries are characterized by amateur sleuths (often librarians, bakers, retired women, etc) and they have little to no violence, sexual content, or profanity. The murders always take place off scene, and the setting is often idyllic (despite the fact that a murder has occurred). I think that one of the reasons I’m so drawn to these books is because I know they’ll have a happy ending. Life is hard and sometimes I just need a guaranteed happy ending in my life. I’ve mentioned some cozies here among my other reviews, but I thought I’d start having a regular, expected “Cozy Corner” segment. The first series I want to review is the White House Chef Series by Julie Hyzy.

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The first book in this series is State of the Onion. I love the pun-ny titles! (I think my favorite title is either Buffalo West Wing or Eggsecutive Orders). The series follows Olivia Paras, a chef in the White House who has an uncanny knack for stumbling upon murders. One highlight of the series is that it’s a bit more action-packed than other cozies. I liked the fast-pace and the fact that there were some moments where I genuinely worried about the character even though I was certain that everything would work out in the end – it is a cozy after all.

Olivia is a great protagonist. She is career- minded and has to have some introspection as to whether or not she has time for romance in her life. She is a hard worker and is very competitive in the cooking arena, but she still has a soft side and cares deeply for her friends. This is not only a protagonist that you can root for, but she is also someone with a lot of potential for growth over the course of the series. While some characters in cozies (ahem – Stephanie Plum) never seem to grow as people, Olivia is one who seems to learn something about herself in every book.

I think that cozy lovers will naturally love this series, but this one could also appeal to people who like action/adventure with their mysteries. The White House is also a really cool setting, and I feel like I learned some interesting details about how it is structured and some details about the traditional role of the First Lady. Overall, I’m happy to recommend this to anyone looking for a quick escape from reality!

Personal

When Do I Count?

In this internet age, anyone can be anything. Are you a writer if you have a blog? Are you a photographer if you have an Instagram? Are you a visual artist if you have on online gallery of your paintings? When do you count as an artist and when are you just a hobbyist?

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These are some questions that I’ve been pondering a lot. I think they’ve arisen for two reasons: 1. I’ve been thinking a lot about my identity as a writer because of being in a writing MFA program. 2. I’ve found myself comparing myself to others recently. I keep wondering if I’m more of a writer than someone else because my workshop story is getting better reviews or because I’ve had a few things published or because a certain number of people read my blog posts.

Ultimately, I’ve come to a few conclusions, but it really boils down to: Why do I care? I think that the fact that these are the questions that have been bothering me are just shedding light on the fact that I’m still really insecure in a lot of ways. I don’t have a novel published, but even when I do, I know there are tons of other authors who have had multiple novels published or have had wider critical acclaim. There will always be someone who is considered better or more successful.

I think the key to succeeding for me is to find a place within myself where I can just focus on creating what I want to create. I don’t want to be jealous of other authors – I want to celebrate them and their work (because I love books and I love reading!) So, I don’t need to be so worried about labels. Do I count as a writer? Sure, probably, maybe. Really, the label doesn’t matter and I’m sure everyone has a different definition of success for writers. So, I’m just going to try to rid myself of these questions by focusing on my writing instead of worrying about the general perception of me as a writer.

Book Review, Update

Book Review: The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend

One of my latest book club reads turned out to be really enchanting: The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald.

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This was just a really cute, light read. It starts out with a young Swedish woman Sara who arrives in Broken Wheel, Iowa to meet her elderly pen pal only to discover that she’s just died. The people in the small town take her in and, in return, she touches and challenges each of them. There are a ton of literary references that I also enjoyed in this book – I can see a lot of myself in the bookish, reclusive Sara. This was a fast read, and I hope my book club ladies enjoy it (we won’t be discussing it until April).

There was quite a bit of romance in this novel, and it did seem incredibly contrived, but sometimes I’m in the mood for that. Still, I felt like it was worth mentioning. If you want realistic, organic character development and you want to feel like love stories are earned through genuine depictions of life and psychology, then this might not be for you. However, if you just want a happily-ever-after and aren’t terribly worried about the details getting you to that point, the romance might not bother you much.

Overall, I was really charmed by this book, and I’m glad I had occasion to read it. I’d definitely try another by this author.

 

Book Review

Book Review: In a Dark, Dark Wood

I haven’t been blogging as much because I went through a period of illness mixed with a busy school schedule, but I’m excited to be back online. While I was recovering, I read a really fantastic book: In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware.

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This was a really exciting read, and I felt like I just didn’t want to put this one down. I needed to know what was going to happen next. This book is largely divided into two parts: for the first half, you’re trying to figure out who was murdered and for the second half, you’re trying to figure out who committed the murder. This one is filled with twists and turns and unreliable characters.

I had a few problems with the main character of Nora, but unfortunately I don’t think I can write about most of them without giving too much away. Overall, she did feel a little too contrived. She seems as if she was written to be too deliberately unreliable, and I think that this did take away from the story just a bit too much. Still, while I wasn’t thrilled by the lack of character depth, I was entranced by the plot and I would recommend this to anyone looking for a plot-driven mystery.