Book Review: 12 Rules for Life

This book was born out of Jordan Peterson’s knack for answering questions on Quora. When asked, “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” the Canadian psychologist and professor had plenty to say. The list grew longer with time, and suddenly there was enough for a book.

With mercy in mind for the reader, the list was whittled to 12 things – rules, if you will – to help people live simpler, less chaotic lives.

Peterson can be a polarizing person depending on your politics, but he is not polarizing to me. Rather, he makes me think and consider ideas I’ve not yet considered. He is exactly the sort of person I enjoy listening to because he’s calm and rational, and I feel certain he’s not spouting ideas that aren’t readily backed up by research and deep work. Whether I end up on the same side of the political fence as Peterson is irrelevant. This book – 12 Rules for Life – is not political. It’s relational and ethical. It urges readers to look inward and see if they are manifesting the chaos or working to live fruitfully in spite of it.

Essentially the rules are about becoming a productive adult, the importance of acknowledging that you don’t know everything, why you should surround yourself with good people, how to say exactly what you mean, and why living intentionally is the only way to live.  While nothing was earth-shatteringly new, I found myself nodding frequently and realizing that I’m already endeavoring to do many of these things. It was good to have psychological and biological research, as well as anecdotes, to back up Peterson’s points.

For review purposes, here are the 12 Rules. I agree with every single one of them.

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
  10. Be precise in your speech
  11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

If you know a high school or college graduate willing to read this book, buy it for him/her right away.

Book Review: The Taming of the Queen

On the morning of the Royal Wedding, I felt a strong pull back to an early literary love of mine – The Tudor Series by Philippa Gregory. Having read almost everything Gregory has written about the Tudors and Plantagenets, and a few other royal dynasties, I recalled that I never read the book she wrote on Kateryn (Katerine/Katherine/Catherine) Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife, the one who lived.

Once Harry and Meghan were hitched, I grabbed The Taming of the Queen from my bookshelf and got down to business, finishing it in only a few days. Why I love these people so much is beyond me, but I do, I do, I do. And now I want to re-watch the entire Tudors series just to enjoy them more.

For those who aren’t up to speed on the Tudors, Henry VIII married Kateryn Parr in his final years, after executing two of his wives (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard), setting two aside (Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves), and mourning one who died not long after childbirth (Jane Seymour, his “true wife,” whom he’s buried next to in St. George’s Chapel). In this final season of his life, the ongoing struggle between Catholics and Protestants persisted, and Henry, as the self-appointed King of the church, was the primary audience for disputes.

Five of his wives had strong opinions on religious matters and Kateryn Parr was one of them. She was a writer and thinker, which wasn’t appropriate for women of her time, much less appropriate for a queen, but Henry indulged her – for the most part. The primary conflict in this story occurs when Henry’s whims shift from mostly Protestant (good for Parr) to somewhat Catholic (bad for Parr), and the flurry of men around the king attempt to sway him further.

We already know how it ends. Henry VIII dies and Kateryn lives, but there was a rush of tension in the short years they were married. If you’re interested on royal dynasties, then it’s likely you’ve already read Gregory’s books. If you want to get into the series, don’t start with The Taming of the Queen. Start with The Constant Princess, or go to her website and decide where you want to begin on the historical timeline.

Book Review: The Wife Between Us

I’ve shied away from reading books with titles that have been directly marketed. Yes, all titles are designed to spark interest, but there’s been a trend lately of having words like “girl” and “wife” and “woman” in titles – do we thank Gone Girl for this? – and I’m tired of it.

Yet this book – The Wife Between Us – kept popping up in my feed as a book I’d like. I gave it a trial run on Audible, and for the first few chapters, I thought I was listening to a reworking of The Girl on the Train.

But then it shifted and I was hooked. 

Though the point of view and timeline shifts with each chapter, Vanessa is our primary narrator and she is not happy. Freshly divorced and burning with the knowledge that Richard, her ex, is marrying again, she has become obsessed with her secret plan. Chapter by chapter, line by line, the reader isn’t entirely sure why the marriage fell apart to begin with. We don’t even know who the “bad guy” is. The Wife Between Us wants to pull you in several directions. Are you hearing the story of a bitter ex-wife? Is it a tale of sick love that keeps people coming back for more? Is it a story of revenge? Or is it something else entirely?

Again, we can thank Gone Girl for making us paranoid and unable to trust our own instincts.

This is how I know a book is good: I think of it during the day and work out possible solutions. Such was the case with The Wife Between Us. Who is the wife and who is the us? Why can’t Vanessa leave well enough alone and move on?

It was a quick listen, which tells me it would’ve been a quick read. I recommend it.

Book Review: Blindsighted

After reading Pretty Girls, I knew I wanted to explore more of Karin Slaughter’s work. Happily, one of my besties – Karin, no less – provided me with five of her paperbacks, so I started with the first one – Blindsighted.

It’s the first in the Sara Linton/Grant County Series set in a small fictional Georgia town outside of Atlanta. She’s the local pediatrician/medical examiner and the ex-wife of police chief Jeffrey Tolliver.  One unsuspecting afternoon at the corner diner, Sara finds a local professor, Sybil, in the restroom, near death from gruesome injuries. Blood everywhere, among other things. Off we go on a whodunit. 

It doesn’t stop with one body. Another girl is found splayed and near death atop Sara’s car in the hospital parking lot, followed but another woman gone missing. The sadistic serial killer is efficient and crafty, so evidence is minimal.

Of course, all it takes is a few clues and a little bit of intuition to reach a conclusion. For what it’s worth, I pegged the criminal nearly from the start, but there were plenty of twists and turns to give me pause and question my sleuthing.

Karin Slaughter does not hold back on the sort of details that make one wince. If you have any distaste for or recoil with graphic content, these books aren’t for you. There is no skipping details for allusion. She just puts it all out there.

I don’t know what it says about me, but I’m enjoying her work. I prefer Pretty Girls to Blindsighted, but I always like a good thriller. Kisscut is next in the series, which I’ll likely start this weekend. Depending on how gruesome that one is, I may need a break in exchange for something lighter.

Book Review: Pretty Girls

Occasionally I’m drawn to historical fiction, high brow literary works, and out-of-the-box fantasy, but my mainstay is a true crime psychological thriller. I want folks to die and I want to stay up all night and stress about who did it.

I’m a true glutton.

I’d never read a Karin Slaughter book before Pretty Girls, but now that my eyes have been opened I’m going to read everything she’s written. She belongs on the shelf next to Gillian Flynn, Mo Hayder, and Tana French.

Claire, the wife of an Atlanta millionaire, is in the emotional throes of burying her husband, Paul, who was murdered right in front of her. She’s a mess, so the last thing she needs is for old wounds to come undone. That’s what happens, of course. The vanishing of a local teenage girl brings back a flood of memories from when Claire’s sister went missing decades prior. Lydia, the third sister, resurfaces from her own pit of despair to help Claire cope when clues about Paul’s seemingly unsuspecting life unearths a slew of secrets. Like an onion, Claire and Lydia peel back the layers to reveal what was true all along.

Perfectly paced, there is not one dull page in Pretty Girls. A warning, though: this book crawls into the darkest corners of physical and psychological trauma. It is not for the faint of mind. Slaughter is a master at imagery. She writes so that you see the full scene. No details are left behind.

You’ve been warned.

Book Review: The Story of Reality

I began my Lenten reading with The Story of Reality, which was a throwback to the narrative of my early Christian walk.  Divided into five parts – God, Man, Jesus, Cross, Resurrection – it’s a book that’s meant to be read during Lent.

Koukl’s goal is similar to Josh McDowell’s in Evidence that Demands a Verdict, where suspicions are laid bare and arguments against the Bible and its contents are questioned through reason and logic. What makes The Story of Reality different is that Koukl trims the fat and cuts to the chase. It’s bite-size. (Throughout the book I was continually reminded of no-frills James, my favorite book of the Bible. He gets in, says good stuff, and gets out.)

Despite his quickness, Koukl takes appropriate time to dismiss some of the modern attitudes we see today and how they have no place in the Christian experience. One that stood out to me in particular is the growing trend of referring to “my truth,” which, in essence, has become how we describe our feelings. This blatant affront to actual truth is weakening our ability to recognize what is really true and separate it from our feelings about what’s true. (Thanks, Oprah.)

Koukl gets down to business, and quickly, which I appreciate. There’s no waxing philosophical or digging so deep in the text that one needs Matthew Henry’s Commentary laid open for reference. There is a time and place for that sort of study. For me, right now, I’m spread too thin.

The Story of Reality was an excellent first choice for Lent and starkly different from The Problem of Pain, which I am muddling through right now. (C.S. Lewis is so high brow, so extra.) I’m hanging on to this one and will likely make it required reading for my boys when they’re a little older.

Book Review: The French Girl

I listened to The French Girl on Audible since I’ve settled in to audiobooks during long runs. (It’s wonderful how quickly an hour or two will pass when I’m engrossed in a story.)

Set in present day, our narrator Kate Channing lives with a haunting. A decade prior Kate and a group of Oxford friends enjoyed a week’s vacation together at a French farmhouse. Some coupled, a few not, the group drank and goofed around as most university students would away from the pressures of academia.

Next door to the farmhouse lived Severine, a siren of a woman who intermingled with the Brits, causing heads to turn and jealousies to be born. The week ended with Severine missing.

Ten years later, her body is discovered in a well on the farmhouse property. With the French’s girl’s body, everything is unearthed. Unfortunately for Kate, the mystery of Severine’s death is made worse by the girl’s sudden, consistent presence in Kate’s everyday life. Is she hallucinating? Is Severine trying to communicate something? Or is Kate being punished on account of events she doesn’t remember?

The archetypes are strong in The French Girl. Like the cast of Friends, each character fulfills a specific role in the plot. Whether this is to the book’s benefit or detriment, I cannot decide. Right away I suspected a particular person, and though that suspicion shifted only a time or two, I settled confidently on this character based on archetype alone. My suspicions rang true.

This doesn’t distract from the mystery, though. It was still worthwhile to finish the book if only to discern how Severine died and why she, in her afterlife or in Kate’s own delusion, decided to linger and make her presence known in quiet, subtle ways. This element of suspense kept my attention, particularly since it was written so delicately.

I’m always curious about debut novels. Not the first book an author has written; rather, the first book a publishing house chooses to promote. More than reading it, I study it. What’s the equation? What’s the catch? Why this book? Lexie Elliott crafted a solid whodunit, but with flare. Archetypes + a Murder + the ghost of the dead girl? It’s a workable equation.

Which makes sense, considering Elliott is a theoretical physicist.

 

Book Review: Homegoing

(This review was originally published on The Same, an online literary journal for women, by women.)

Every once in a while I read a book so intense that I have to put it down and breathe. Or cry, or do some sort of mundane task in order to calm down. The Kite Runner is one of those books. In parts, so was The Devil of Nanking and Between Shades of Gray.

Homegoing begins in 18th Century Ghana. Two half sisters, Effia and Esi, don’t know the other exists, and thus begins a 300-year journey that follows their genealogical lines into modern time.

Effia, known for her unmatched beauty among her tribe, is married off to a wealthy and influential Englishman who oversees the British slave trade headquartered on the Gold Coast. She raises their son, Quey, in the Cape Coast Castle, a lush and expensive living Effia has never known, but beneath the floorboards lies another world. It is in the dungeons of that same castle where captives lay shackled together, knowing the Door of No Return leads to a cross-Atlantic slave ship.

Esi is the daughter of a tribal warrior, strong and proud, but when she is captured, kept in the castle dungeon, and sold into slavery, her status is erased, as if her position in the tribal region never mattered at all. Esi develops nerves of steel, a sort of resolve that grows from the gut. She enters the slave trade and gives birth to a daughter, Ness. The family line continues.  

From there, two narratives unfold – one in Africa, one in America. It is one long family story, but it is also fourteen interlaced short stories. Each chapter is told from the next family member in line, offering a unique perspective that spotlights how oral history morphs and shifts depending on the audience. For the family in Africa, there is honor, recognition, veneration, but for those plucked from their land, from their touchstone and their identity, there is bitterness and a sting that lingers as a constant undercurrent.

I want to say that author Yaa Gyasi streamlines this family’s history effortlessly, but I know better. From the level of detail, the pitch-perfect characterization, and the way in which we walk through three centuries without even thinking about what year we’re in, it’s clear that her research was extensive and exhaustive. Her writing style is beautiful. There’s no way it was effortless.

Please continue reading on The Same.

Book Review: The Trespasser

In her sixth book from the Dublin Murder Squad, Tana French hits it out of the park again. I think she’s one of the best true crime writers on the market today. French’s stories move along critically, methodically, and follow the natural course of asking whodunit.

We were introduced to Detectives Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran in The Secret Place, which gave me pause because The Secret Place is my least favorite in the series. (Note: It wasn’t because of Conway and Moran. It was because the main characters are spoiled brat teenagers and they were terrifically obnoxious. The core of the plot was still good.)  The Trespasser is free from pesky brats, so right away I was good to go.

Conway and Moran must solve the mystery of a woman found dead in her immaculate home. She’s young and beautiful, which means the beating that caused her death was likely a domestic. An angry boyfriend, perhaps. In typical French fashion, readers follow the detectives step by step, as each layer of the onion is peeled. Privy to Conway’s inner dialogue only, we consider suspects and motives as she considers them. We analyze evidence alongside her. Moran offers input, but we, like Conway, rely on our instincts.

The Trespasser, like all of French’s novels, moves along at an appropriate pace. Not too fast, not too slow. In keeping with the rest of the series, it is less about what and more about how. It’s always the how, which keeps the brain spinning for possibilities.

Also, I listened to it on audiobook, a first for me since I own the rest on paperback. Narrator Hilda Fay has the most delightful Irish accent.

So yes, I recommend The Trespasser. More so, I recommend Tana French.

A note on the Strong Female Lead Character: I recently read a thread on Twitter that had me second-guessing my frustrations with lead character Jazz in Artemis, the strong female character I did not like and who ultimately became the reason I didn’t finish the book. Was I too harsh? Am I letting male characters be messy and flawed but not extending that grace to female leads? Am I casting them as unlikable? Am I exhibiting a bias? 

After reading The Trespasser, I’ve cut myself the slack because Detective Antoinette Conway is as strong and flawed as they come. She is pushy and snarky. She’s harassed and prodded on a daily basis and always comes out swinging. She’s got a foul mouth and a quick hand. She is exactly the woman I’d never want to cross.

So what’s the difference? The difference is in the construction. Detective Conway is a well-written, fleshed out sharp but flawed character. Jazz is a simulacrum, pieced together by a male writer who thinks Jazz is what a strong female character looks and sounds like. Those two things are not the same.

Does that mean a man cannot write a strong female lead character well? Absolutely not. Ken Follett, Wally Lamb, and Khaled Hosseini all do this effectively. Perhaps, then, this issue is best handled on a case by case, or book by book, basis rather than in sweeping statements made on Twitter.

But then, isn’t everything?

Book Review: Parable of the Sower

Before The Hunger Games, the Divergent Series, and The Maze Runner, there was the Parable of the Sower. Unlike today’s dystopian novels, where there is a contest to be won or a large looming government that manipulates its people for sport, Parable of the Sower is a story of survival. Written in 1993 and set in 2024, the novel lacks the technological devices (literary and otherwise) that we see in dystopian stories today, which is a feature I appreciate and prefer. There are no gadgets to get one out of a tight spot.

Lauren Olamina is the daughter of a preacher, but what she comes to believe about God, creation, and human nature is unique to her. The world she lives in isn’t compatible with her father’s faith, a world broken down by erratic climate and global economic upheaval. The dwindling family survives by banding together with others to stay alive outside the city of Los Angeles.

When a fire ravages their compound, Lauren is forced to pack up and head north. She has a feeling about it – which is important since she is a sharer, or one who lives with hyper-empathy, and follows her gut instinct at every move. Believing she has the answer that will rebuild society, a vision for Earthseed, she and a group of travelers walk to northern California to take a chance on a new life. The journey is not without loss.

Normally I’m not interested in dystopian stories. There is enough pain and frustration in our current time. Why borrow troubles from tomorrow? 

Yet, among the noise of stories like The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner is a dystopian story that makes you pause. Even Station Eleven, which I loved, has an air of indulgence to it. It’s fiction, all the way, like the Handmaid’s Tale, which was written not long after Octavia Butler started the Earthseed series. So far-fetched it will never be.

Parable of the Sower is deeper than all of these stories. It’s raw and feels so real that I think, yes, we could do terrible things to each other in a state of panic. 

How scary.

You should read it.

Book Review: Armada

I’ve been adamant about my love for Ready Player One, not only listing it as one of my favorite books I read in 2017, but also pushing it on anyone who might like it – including Chuck.

Undoubtedly the stakes were high for Armada, Ernest Cline’s second book. Would it be as good? Would it even be close?

It was darn close. Inches away, even.

Armada takes place in present time. Zack Lightman is a high school senior living in Beaverton, Oregon, where his life is punctuated by video games, a part-time job at a used video game store, and hanging out with his friends. At home, it’s only he and his mom, because when he was barely a year old, his father, Xavier Lightman, died in an unfortunate accident at work. Zack carries around a perpetual sadness on account of that void.

Zack’s biggest flaw is that he’s a daydreamer, but when he spots a space craft – one that looks suspiciously like a ship from his favorite video game, Armada – floating above his school, he starts to wonder if he’s losing his mind.

When men in suits descend from the space craft and call his name for all of the high school to hear, he realizes he’s wide awake and completely sane. 

The story takes on speed when the truth about our national defense and space-based video games unfolds. It is fast and quick to the end.

Armada is a fun ride. Just as Ready Player One was an 80s kid’s dream, Armada has plenty of pop culture references to appease the reader. I don’t consider myself a science fiction fan when it comes to books, but I’m a Ernest Cline fan for sure. If you enjoyed Ready Player One, go for Armada. You won’t be disappointed.

Additionally, if you enjoy audiobooks, both of Cline’s novels are narrated by Wil Wheaton. Double points!

Book Review: Artemis

It’s been a long time since I didn’t finish a book, but look at me now, not finishing this book.

Heck, y’all. I tried.

Deciding to read Artemis in the first place was an easy choice. I loved The Martian, and the movie was just as exciting. Brilliant! Loved every minute! Oh, a second book by Andy Weir? Sign me up!

I started listening to it on audiobook, and Rosario Dawson does a wonderful job reading it aloud. Not as good as Wil Wheaton with Ready Player One, but entertaining nonetheless.

Artemis is the first city on the moon, a five-dome bubble with its own economy, culture, and law enforcement. The make-up and design of Artemis is every bit as interesting as the make-up and design of Mark’s temporary home on Mars in The Martian. Those elements, Andy Weir got right. The blow-your-mind Science stuff is woven into Artemis, just as you’d expect. All fascinating.

And that’s where my interest ends. Our protagonist is Jazz, a gritty, foul-mouthed young woman known for her sketchy behavior, and she’s been hired to perform a heist for some serious moon cash. She’s a low-income resident of Artemis, so her back-door dealings help fund her modest life on the moon, where she’s lived since she was six years old. Essentially, Artemis is a space caper. Plot-wise, this is fine.

The problem is this: Jazz is unlikable. She doesn’t even feel real. Jazz is a strong female character who is clearly written by a man who doesn’t know how to write strong female characters.

Granted, it’s hard to do, and I know the pendulum swings both ways. I am currently writing my third novel and two of the main characters are men. This is immensely more challenging than writing from a woman’s point of view, so I’m not trying to throw shade here.

But, dang. Jazz seems like the sort of woman men daydream about, the kind of women who do not exist. She’s gorgeous, flirty, and unbreakable. She participates in the kind of grab-assery that happens among groups of Alpha men. Her level of profanity is deafening, and it’s one of the reasons that I had to stop the audiobook (which is saying something since profanity in general doesn’t bother me).

Over and over, I kept thinking – Jazz sounds like a guy, but Andy Weir made her a girl, and I don’t like her.

Ultimately this led to me not caring whether or not she was successful in her heist. With three hours left on a nine-hour audiobook, I bailed. I moved on to Armada, Ernest Cline’s follow-up to Ready Player One, also narrated by Wil Wheaton. I’m loving every minute of it so far.

I made this post on the off-chance I revisit Artemis and give Jazz another try. For now though, Artemis is my first DNF of 2018.

Book Review: The Dinner

Every time you pick up a new book, you’re taking a tiny risk. Have you wasted your $3 at the used book store? Are you about to waste your time reading a book that you don’t enjoy? (I’ve already done that this year.)

I paused and considered these things before choosing The Dinner. I don’t want to waste time (ever), and I particularly don’t want to choose poorly and repeat my 2017 reading experience.  Goodreads reviews were good enough, so my interest was sparked. Plus, the review quote on the cover was from Gillian Flynn: “Chilling, nasty, smart, shocking, and unputdownable.”

The Dinner takes place over five courses – Apertif, Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert, Digestif – at a swanky restaurant in Amsterdam. Two couples are meeting for dinner, though our narrator, Paul, is the only voice we hear. We are in Paul’s head throughout book, and though the setting is the dinner table, the plot unfolds as one peels an onion. Layer by layer.

Better yet, take this analogy. You know the dance scene over the pool in It’s a Wonderful Life? We see George and Mary do the Charleston while the floor is literally splitting in half. They are going to fall in the pool, we know this. They, however, are oblivious.

James Stewart Christmas Movies GIF

This image played in my mind while reading The Dinner. As the couples make their way through each course, and as Paul sifts back the layers of story through memories and recollection, we get closer to falling into that pool. We get closer to learning why the dinner needed to happen in the first place. We get close, then Paul pulls us back.

A crime has been committed by the couples’ two teenage sons. They’ve come to dinner to discuss the crime and what to do in its aftermath.

The Dinner isn’t for everyone on account of its slow build. (I think you have to already enjoy this back-and-forth method of storytelling.) I agree with Gillian Flynn that The Dinner is chilling and nasty, and the writing is certainly smart. Unputdownable? I dunno. It’s a touch putdownable, but that’s because the characters aren’t as lovely as George and Mary, and sometimes you don’t want to be the company of bad people.

It is a curious thing, though, to consider what you might do when it’s your child who’s the bad guy.

Book Review: Killman Creek

Killman Creek picks up where Stillhouse Lake ends. Resolved, but not. However, this time Gwen Proctor isn’t on the run as much as she is on the hunt.

In an effort to review this book without giving away spoilers from Stillhouse Lake, I’ll say this: The pacing is just as satisfying and the stakes are just as high, but the plausibility loses a little steam.

In Stillhouse Lake, we learn that Gwen Proctor and her children, Lanny and Connor, are in hiding after it was discovered that Gwen’s husband was a serial killer. Authorities suspected that Gwen served as his accomplice, which is what prompted stalking and internet harassment from the general public. Once acquitted, Gwen changed their identities and ran, settling for a time in the fictional town of Stillhouse Lake, right outside Knoxville, Tennessee. However, her ex-husband was still at work, doing what he could to ruin her life from inside a jail cell.

So what’s new in Killman Creek? There’s been a jail break. Instead of waiting for the attack, Gwen goes on the offense to ruin her ex-husband for good – to kill him – but that means leaving her kids somewhere safe and trusting those who’ve vow to help her.

Again, the pacing and stakes in Killman Creek are just as good as they were in Stillhouse Lake, but about halfway through the book I struggled to believe the story would even go this far. I mean, how nuts does one have to be to go to these lengths? 

I still recommend them, especially if you enjoy a good thriller.

Book Review: Stillhouse Lake

How good it feels to have a book in your hands that you can’t put down!

Stillhouse Lake is a small town near Knoxville, Tennessee (ahem) where Gwen Proctor has come to hide. Her real name is Gina Royal, but after it was discovered that her husband, Mel, was a serial killer and it was presumed that she was his accomplice, living a life on the run was the only way to protect her children. Acquitted of all charges and free to go, Gwen has crawled through the last few years of her life on a string, changing names and identities, moving from one town to the next, training her kids (at 11 and 14) to be constantly vigilant. It is exhausting but necessary. The public, needless to say, has not been kind. Internet trolls are persistent and the threats are real.

Just when Gwen thinks they’ve moved for the last time, that all of the work she’s done to protect herself and her kids has worked, a body shows up in the lake. All signs points to her, because after a little digging, her true identity has come to the surface. The police are on high alert and Gwen realizes that she has missed the window to leave Stillhouse Lake and start again elsewhere. As feared, her horrific past has come back to the present.

This book is delicious. It’s quick and sharp. There is no space to settle. THE PACING IS GLORIOUS. I read it in the span of 36 hours because it’s the sort of book you read in whatever time you find – while you’re waiting for eggs to scramble, while the kids eat lunch, when you’re waiting on a phone call and everything else can hold…

The good news is that Stillhouse Lake is the first in a series of three books, which makes sense because while the story ends in a satisfying way, it’s obvious that Gwen’s journey is not over. It’s not a cliffhanger. Rather, it’s a dramatic pause. It’s a moment to catch your breath.

If you enjoyed Gone Girl, read this one.

 

Five Favorite Books I Read in 2017

I chose poorly in 2017, which is perhaps why I was unable to reach my 40-book goal this year. (I’m still reading No. 32 The Man Who Smiled and listening to No. 33 Artemis). I selected no less than a dozen books that ended up being ho-hum or outright bad, which made my resolve for reading a weak one. Some books I didn’t even review on the blog, if that tells you how uninspired I was (Believing the Lie, The Graveyard Book, and more). Plus, four of the books I read this year were for my literature and creative writing class, so while they counted toward the total, I didn’t review them here.

Yet, since I read so many unremarkable books this year, choosing my favorite five was easy! (Original reviews are linked.)

  1. Ready Player One
    Hands-down, this is one of my favorite books I’ve ever read, and credit goes to Susan (of “Susan and Lesli”) for recommending it to me. Granted, I listened to it on Audible instead of reading it on paper, but if there was ever a book to listen to instead of read, it’s this one. Narrated by Wil Wheaton, Ready Player One is a love letter to the 80s kid who longs for the good old days of Family Ties reruns,  and Atari.
  2. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
    There are two time periods that capture my heart in equal measure. One is the back-to-back Tudor and Elizabethan Eras in England, and the other is the Roaring 20s, specifically the Lost Generation writers who lived an expat life abroad. Zelda Fitzgerald surely would’ve had a different life with access to proper mental health care. Alas, her tragedies flowed straight from her mixed-up mind into real life. If you are equally interested in the Fitzgeralds (and Hemingways), you’ll love Z. 
  3. The Great Divorce
    I’m not sure why it’s taken me until my late 30s to enjoy C.S. Lewis, but better late than never. In a time that feels spiritually void, The Great Divorce reminds me that God is always present and always listening, offering perfect love for our imperfect selves, and the white noise of our collective bickering is small potatoes when it comes to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. From a literary standpoint, I am all over the imagery and symbolism of The Great Divorce. The writing and message are a perfect pair.
  4. Wonderstruck
    I selected Wonderstruck as one of four novels I taught this semester in my literature and creative writing class, so there isn’t a stand-alone review to link (yet). Written and illustrated by Brian Selznick, Wonderstruck begins with two stories – Rose in Hoboken, 1927 and Ben in Minnesota, 1977. Rose’s story is told via illustration, while Ben’s is a traditional narrative. The pair of children seem to have nothing in common, but as each side unfolds we see that Rose and Ben have much in common, from their hearing impairments to their search for family. Told in three parts, Wonderstruck is a fast-paced, emotional tale of endurance and an exploration of what one might do to find a home. (Wonderstruck has been made into a film!)
  5. A Column of Fire
    Aside from Hogwarts, Kingsbridge is my favorite fictional setting and I was thrilled to go back there one last time. Just in time for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, A Column of Fire brings together several families – some Protestant, some Catholic, and a few who long for religious tolerance. Not only did it quench my thirst for the Elizabethan era, it was the perfect book to read after a series of duds. Per usual, I didn’t want it to end.

An honorable mention goes to Faceless Killers by Henning Menkell, the author of the Wallander series. If you’re into crime/thriller novels, and especially if you’ve watched the BBC TV show Wallander, check it out! I’m currently reading a second Menkell book (The Man Who Smiled) and have a third waiting in the wings. He’s joined the company of Tana French and Mo Hayder on my crime/thriller bookshelf.

My goal for 2018 is to MAKE BETTER CHOICES. I’m not sure where my brain went this year, but I wasted a lot of time on books I didn’t enjoy. Not again! Cheers!

Book Review: Faceless Killers

A few years ago I caught a show on Netflix called Wallander starring Kenneth Branagh as the Swedish detective. It fell in line with other mystery/thriller shows made overseas that I love (Broadchurch, Hinterland, Whitechapel, The Fall, etc.).

When I learned that the show was based on the work of Swedish crime novelist Henning Mankell, I decided to give the first one a go.

Faceless Killers was published in 1997, an interesting point I’ll circle back to, and centers around the vicious, barbaric murder of an old farmer and his wife in a sleepy Swedish town called Lunnarp. The crime makes no sense to Ystad police inspector Kurt Wallander, but he is an experienced, determined investigator, and the only clue he has to go on is one word the wife said the moment before she died: “Foreign.”

Mankell takes the reader on a series of swerving paths as any crime novelist does. His style reminds of Ken Follett’s crime novels (Eye of the Needle, The Key to Rebecca, A Dangerous Fortune), which was a delightful surprise. The process of discovery unfolds to readers as it does for Wallander, a man whose own demons involve an aging, senile father, a wife who wants a divorce, an estranged daughter, and a drinking problem. Readers meet other detectives and pertinent characters, but it is Wallander’s steps we trace.

Faceless Killers is a detailed police thriller with plenty of hopeful leads and dead ends to make a reader anxious – but in the best way possible. Mankell creates the sort of frustration that compels you to keep reading. We must solve the mystery! We must know who did it! It’s this kind of pull that creates a bestselling series. When you wake up thinking about a fictional murder case and wondering if there are more clues to discover, you want to get up and read.

A note about the publishing date – If you are at all paying attention to the current immigration/refugee issues in Sweden (or Europe as a whole), it might interest you that these matters were relevant 20 years ago. Forgive my historical ignorance, but that wasn’t something I understood in the late 1990s. The internal conflict among Swedes regarding immigration is not new, so to read about it in an older work of fiction was eye-opening. It put into perspective our own national debates about preserving culture, helping those in need, and immigration reform.

I have two more Wallander books on hand, so hopefully those are as good, if not better, than the first. I’ll keep you posted.

Book Review: Island of Lost Girls

After reading Winter People and The Night Sister last year, I resolved to read all of Jennifer McMahon’s work. Both of those books were pitch perfect – suspenseful, spooky, everything I want in a thriller.

That’s why it pains me to say Island of Lost Girls will not make my Top Ten Favorite Books this year. Not even close.

The story begins with a kidnapping. Rhonda is sitting in her parked car as she watches someone dressed as a rabbit steal a child. She does nothing to prevent the kidnapping, which she regrets, particularly since her best friend, Lizzy, from childhood went missing many moons ago and here she is watching another child vanish. It is her guilt over her inaction that prompts her to help solve the mystery of who was underneath the rabbit suit.

About that rabbit suit. It was this detail that drove me nuts. Allusions of Peter Rabbit flood this story, which is equally annoying because the brother of Rhonda’s childhood friend is named Peter. There are references to Alice and the White Rabbit and collecting eggs on Easter, and so on.

I can’t recall a page where rabbits were not mentioned. It was so frequent that at one point I audibly said to an empty room, “Okay. We get it.”

The suspense was there, and in between the rabbit references was a real mystery to be solved. Who was underneath that rabbit suit? What did he do with the child he took? And what happened to Lizzy more than a decade prior? Are the two vanishings connected?

Honestly, when the mystery was solved, I felt underwhelmed. One of the people I already suspected was connected to the crime, and when the story fully fleshed out and everything had come to light, I was just glad to be done with the book so I didn’t have to read any more metaphors about rabbits.

Skip this one and read Winter People or The Night Sister.

Book Review: A Column of Fire

In 2007, I was the young mother of a one and four-year-old. I wrote a column for our city paper, and I had just started running long distances to eventually run a half marathon. I was 29 years old, and I relied on Oprah’s Book Club recommendations in between the release of Harry Potter books and films.

It was in 2007 that I saw her enthusiasm for Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth and wondered, “Do I really want to read a 900-page book about the building of a cathedral in the Middle Ages? Seriously, Oprah. That’s a lot to ask.”

Oprah’s Book Club selections had never failed me. It was how I came to love Wally Lamb and Barbara Kingsolver. It was how I found The Rapture of Canaan and Middlesex and Midwives. It was pre-social media, pre-Google, pre-GoodReads. If Oprah hadn’t failed me yet, why would she fail me now? I bought the book and started reading.

Pillars of the Earth was life-changing, and I’m not being dramatic. Only in the Harry Potter series had I experienced the weaving of plots with such fluidity, but even then, the writing was basic and everything had been created from the ground up. I loved the series, but I was inspired and entertained by the content, not the writing.

Pillars of the Earth upped the game tenfold. It was this sweeping, engulfing, epic story that opened my eyes to what storytelling was all about. I was hooked. World Without End came out shortly after, and I was hooked all over again. It took place two hundred years after the Kingsbridge Cathedral was built and focused, this time, on the building of a bridge and a hospital during an outbreak of plague.

I’ve been itching for A Column of Fire ever since I heard it was being released. A true fangirl, I checked websites and blogs regularly looking for any information I could find on plot summaries. Though this is the third in the Kingsbridge series, it, like the others, can stand alone. The books have a shared history, but on account of the time span, they don’t have shared characters. You can read A Column of Fire without knowing how Prior Philip and Tom Builder struggled to get the church built in Pillars of the Earth.

In A Column of Fire, there is no great structure to build, and the story stretches beyond fictional Kingsbridge. Instead, it focuses on a large-scale problem in the 16th century – the Reformation. Europe is divided, so readers leave Elizabethan England to experience the Spanish Inquisition, the power struggle in France, and a hotbed of budding religious ideas in the Netherlands. Though we don’t officially meet Martin Luther or John Calvin, they are mentioned, and we get a keen view into the three groups – the Catholics who wanted to kill Protestants, the Protestants who wanted to kill Catholics, and the peacekeepers in the middle who fought for religious tolerance. 

In between the fictional bits is actual history – the rise of Elizabeth I and her creation of the first secret service, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, the mass murder of French Protestants in Paris, the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and the thwarted Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (Guy Fawkes, anyone?).

Though you could read A Column of Fire independently, I recommend you start from the beginning and read all three, and when you’re done with Kingsbridge, jump into the 1900s and read Follett’s Century Trilogy – Fall of Giants, Winter of the World, and Edge of Eternity.

When you’re done, let’s discuss!

Book review: The Child Finder

Private investigator Naomi is in a specialized field: she finds lost children. Sometimes they are still alive, and occasionally they are not. What makes her an ideal woman for the job is not loads of professional training she received or sparks of good luck. Rather, she was abducted as a child, and though her memory of that time is minimal, she relies on her subconscious instincts to find children who are missing.

Her newest case takes her back to rural Oregon, where she lived as a foster child with beloved Mrs. Cottle and foster brother, Jerome. The search for Madison Culver began three years prior when the little girl went missing in the dead of winter. She was five then, and her parents believe she is still alive… somewhere. Naomi warns them that if Madison returns, she will be different. 

The pacing of this book is slow and steady, as if we, too, are taking each step forward with Naomi. We see the clues, we talk to the people. We wonder about who is trustworthy, and who is not. Sometimes we flash back to a snippet of a memory that catches Naomi off guard, and sometimes we are with Madison, as she tries to figure out how to manage her new life as a snow child.

Only a few times are we with the man who took her.

The Child Finder is daunting, not because the writing is thick or exhaustive, but because the subject matter is heartbreaking. There’s no other way to say it. I’ve read a Rene Denfeld book before (The Enchanted), and I loved it. Totally and completely. This one is no different.

 

Book review: Ready Player One

The year isn’t close to being over, but I already know Ready Player One will be on my Top Five Favorite Books I read in 2017.

Correction: I listened to it. But still.

It’s 2045 and an energy crisis led to the depletion of fossil fuels, which means the Earth is a big fat mess. Because real life is so miserable, humans heavily prefer living in a virtual reality world called The Oasis. Created by a Steve Jobsesque billionaire/computer builder/80s fanatic named James Halliday, The Oasis is made up of thousands of levels and worlds, some for fun, others as part of a new society. (Public school happens in The Oasis.)

Upon his death, it was announced that Halliday – unmarried, no kids – would leave his money and the keys to The Oasis to the one person who found the hidden Easter Egg inside the virtual world.

Not a literal Easter Egg, of course, but a hidden message usually planted in films and games. Whoever finds the egg inherits Halliday’s fortune.

Wade Watts (known as Parzival in The Oasis) desperately wants to find the egg. He lives in “the stacks,” literal squalor of stacked trailer homes in Oklahoma City. With no family or real-life friends, he devotes his entire high school life to searching for the egg. The obsession requires each “gunter” (egg hunter) become as knowledgeable as possible about 80s pop culture because everything about the hunt is connected to Halliday’s childhood favorites.

I am here to tell you that the 80s references had my heart a-flutter throughout the entire book. If ever there was a love letter written to the 80s, it is Ready Player One.

Along for the journey are Wade’s virtual reality friend Aech (pronounced “H”) and his virtual reality crush Artemis. Though they aren’t working as a team, they work in tandem with two other gunters to 1) find the egg, and 2) prevent a horrible multinational corporation from finding the egg and monetizing The Oasis.

This is the first – and maybe the last – time I’ve read a Science Fiction book and reviewed it on this site. I’m not sure what it will take for me to read another one. Ready Player One – narrated by Wil Wheaton on audio book – is everything an 80s child like me loves: a sweeping adventure with nail-biting action and regular references to favorites such as Pac-Man, The Muppet Show, Ghostbusters, Star Wars, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Atari, and – our first computer – the Commodore 64. (In fact, here’s a list of all the allusions and references Cline makes in the book.)

IT IS SO GOOD. While I normally recommend people read the real book, today I’m recommending the audio book. Wil Wheaton makes it all worth it.

For funsies, here’s a link to the movie trailer for Ready Player One, set to come out in 2018.