S. // by J.J. Abrams & Doug Dorst

So in a way I have no idea where to start with the review for this book. It’s so complicated and my feelings for it were really mixed. It was a somewhat daunting book to read and is also a daunting book to review. But in the end I think it was worth it, even if it did fall flat for me in some ways.

S. is a book within a book, a story within a story. There are so many layers to this book that it verges on impossible to read. The book itself comes in a slipcover, which gives the actual information about the book (title, author, publisher, etc.) because the hardcover book within that slipcover is designed to look, feel, and read like a stolen library book that has been read and reread by two individuals – Eric – a disgraced grad student – and Jennifer, a senior in college. We know that the book has been read by them because they have left notes, annotations, and arguments within the margins of it, all sorts of handwritten discussions in various colors of pens. Throughout the pages are also multiple inserts – postcards, letters, copies of important information, maps, etc.

//published 2013//

The book itself is titled The Ship of Theseus and was written by a man known as V.M. Straka, and was translated by an individual who is almost as mysterious – F.X. Caldeira. Published in 1949, the book genuinely feels like a tome from that era. It’s clothbound, and the way that it was printed, the type of paper used, the font within the book – it all feels incredibly authentic. There is even a sticker on the spine with the library call number.

The book’s introduction, written by the translator, informs us of some of the controversy and mystery surrounding Straka, who was a revolutionary using his books to spread ideas and information, hated by many governments and businessmen for his wild ideas. No one knows who Straka really was, although there are several theories. Caldeira tells of some of them, although he seems to view most of them as somewhat ridiculous.

The story itself is a fictional tale about a man who wakes up on a beach with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Throughout the story, he wanders from place to place, frequently being forced (and later choosing) to travel on a boat with a disturbing crew, a boat that does not seem particularly tethered in time or space. This man is drawn into a revolution of sorts, and also is desperate to find a woman whom he saw on the first night of amnesia, a woman who he sometimes sees in the places he visits. The entire plot is very vague and dreamy with a lot of moving parts and is somewhat difficult to describe.

In the margins, different notes are written in different colors, so it becomes apparently which ones were written first. I.e., there are Eric’s original thoughts from before Jen read the book, written in pencil, then Jen’s first notes in blue pen with Eric’s responses in black. Later additions are written in yellow, green, red, etc. so you can usually tell when notes were written. Hypothetically, if you were a much stronger person than me, you could probably read the text of the book, and then go through and read just Eric’s pencil notes, then the blue/black, then the next set, and so on, and have a much more linear concept of how Eric and Jen’s story is unfolding. But, if you’re like me, you want to read all the words on every page, meaning that you are reading Straka’s story, Caldeira’s footnotes, Eric’s thoughts, watching Eric and Jen get to know each other, and learning about the mystery and even danger they find themselves in later – all at once. It’s confusing, but not impossible.

Eric is determined to discover who Straka really was, and believes that the key can be found in Ship of Theseus, Straka’s final work. Eric originally discovered Straka in high school, and became obsessed with his work. In grad school, he decided his thesis would be on Straka’s true identity, but ran into trouble when his advisor stole his work, accused Eric of stealing his work, and got Eric expelled.

As the story unfolds, Eric and Jen continue to piece together clues from the text and from Caldeira’s footnotes – and later from other sources – to determine who Straka was, racing against time, Eric’s old advisor, and other experts around the world who want to know the same thing. In the meantime, are menacing events just coincidence? Or is it possible that a secret society known as “S” during Straka’s time continues to live on?

Okay, so, if you’re still reading – there is a LOT to like about this book. The experience of reading it is honestly amazing, and I’m still boggled by the amount of work put into this thing. The postcards are real postcards. Copies are made on thin paper that feels like copy paper. Old photographs feel like old photographs. A map Eric draws of the campus is drawn on a legit napkin from the cafe where he and Jen hang out. A page from the campus newspaper is on newspaper paper. The detail here is amazing and emersive.

HOWEVER this story does become confusing, and not just because I was reading all the threads at once. There are way, way, WAY too many names. Nine specific individuals are listed in the foreword as possible Strakas, each with a different background/reasons for possibly being Straka. From there forward, these individuals are referenced frequently in the footnotes and extra material, and it’s quite difficult to keep them all straight, especially since they all knew one another (at least obliquely) so they become things like, What if Straka was actually Durand pretending to be Feuerbach when Feuerbach met with MacInnes in 1918?? Etc. It’s super confusing, and if I reread this, I would take more time to (ironically) make my own notes about each potential Straka.

My other negative for this one was that I didn’t really agree with Eric or Jen’s life philosophies. They both had “horrible” parents (i.e. parents who are worried that their children are making poor life choices…) and in the end their conclusion was basically “screw them” instead of any attempt to understand who their parents were or why their parents were doing what they were doing. Eric’s parents are also “Christians” so all of their actions are automatically labeled hypocritical, selfish, unscientific (Eric says multiple times that his break with his parents began when he began to “realize science existed” … excuse me while my eyes roll out of my head), etc. This really got on my nerves, especially the repetitive “my parents just believe in fairy tales and a sky daddy but I believe in REAL SCIENCE” over and over and OVER with honestly zero explanations (what science, exactly, do your parents not believe??) – sorry, not necessary. You are free to disagree with your parents and their religious beliefs, but mocking them repeatedly and acting so superior is not an endearing character trait. Jen’s thoughts about her parents were very similar – “They’re so selfish because they want me to have a career.” Yes, parents wanting their children to have a secure financial life is definitely a sign of how much they hate you?? In some ways, I guess Eric and Jen come across as authentic stupid college students who need a decade or so of real life to realize that maybe their parents weren’t as dumb as they always thought.

All in all, if you enjoy convoluted stories with complicated layers, and can get past Eric and Jen frequently whining about their parents, this was a fun and immersive story to read. I can definitely see myself revisiting it and taking more time to read the footnotes in the order they were “written” to see how the story unfolds from that perspective. While this book was the perfect story I wanted it to be, it was still a great deal of fun and overall I recommend it.

September Minireviews – Part 2

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

Still working on September reads – life continues to be crazy at the orchard. Apples everywhere!!!

Hunted by Megan Spooner – 3.5*

//published 2017//

This was a book that it seemed like I should have liked more than I did. A somewhat Beauty & the Beast retelling set in a Russia-ish country with lots of snow and atmosphere and a likable main character. But somehow I just didn’t find this book magic. I think part of it is because of this weird thing in the epilogue where the author is basically like, “Oh, they didn’t actually get married, they just like living together and why would they get married?” It was presented very strangely, and especially considering the time period/culture in which this story is set it came across as a very jarring and odd way to end the story.

My sister read this one as well, and when we were discussing it, she hit the nail on the head – throughout the story, the main character is looking for some sort of truth/purpose… and she never actually really finds it. As a Christian, I think that truth and purpose can be known, but Spooner’s conclusion seemed to basically be that the best we can hope for is to be somewhat happy (and apparently maybe find someone to live with that we mostly like). The entire background philosophy of this book just didn’t really jive with my personal philosophy, so I didn’t get along with this story the way I wanted to.

I’m making it sound pretty negative, but I actually did enjoy this book while I was reading it, and there’s a lot of good story here. If you enjoy fairy tale retellings, you’ll probably like this one, but for me it definitely didn’t fall into the “instant classic” category.

Secret Water by Arthur Ransome – 5*

//published 1939//

I love these books so hard, even if they are making me feel discontent with my own childhood, which I used to think was perfect. But was it really perfect?? MY parents never dropped me off on an island with my siblings and a pile of supplies and a sailboat, leaving us to explore our surroundings for a week! I mean, seriously. Did they even love me??

The Mysterious Mr. Quin by Agatha Christie – 4*

//published 1930//

I thought I had read all of Christie’s mysteries, but this one didn’t seem even remotely familiar to me. A collection of short stories, the main character is really an elderly man named Mr. Satterthwaite. In each story, Mr. Quin appears (usually mysteriously) and helps Mr. Satterthwaite think through a situation and solve a mystery, sometimes a cold case. While these weren’t my favorite Christie stories by any means, they were still enjoyable and engaging to read. The reader is left with the impression that Mr. Quin may be some type of supernatural being, but I honestly appreciated the fact that Christie never addressed it or tried to explain him. Mr. Quin just was. While I wouldn’t start with this one if you’ve never read Christie, if you already enjoy her stories you’ll probably find these engaging as well.

Thorn by Intisar Khanani – 4*

//published 2020//

This book was a retelling of The Goose Girl, and was overall well done. The main character (who becomes known as Thorn) was a bit too passive for my taste – things tended to happen to her throughout the story. Also, if you’ve read the original fairytale you know the fate of Falada, yet I felt like I really got to know Falada in this story, so I kept hoping that fate wouldn’t occur… but it did. I was SO sad.

While this wasn’t one I see myself reading again and again, I enjoyed it as a one-off read and definitely recommend it, especially if you’re into fairytale variations like I am.

Summon the Keeper by Tanya Huff – 2.5*

//published 1998//

This was one of my traveling book club books for September, and I somewhat struggled to get through it. The set-up is interesting: Claire is a being known as a Keeper – technically human (ish) but with, well, cosmic powers that enable them to keep the dark side from breaking through into our realm. (It’s been a few weeks since I finished this one, so that may not be exactly correct, but close enough.) Keepers are “summoned” simply by the draw of the need, so Claire finds herself in a small B&B in southern Ontario and ends up stuck there, guarding a literal portal to hell and trying to figure out how to close it again.

There were aspects of this book – like the talking cat – that I really enjoyed, but for a book that includes a portal to hell, it was puh-retty slow moving. Claire spends most of her time thinking about how amazing she is because she’s a Keeper, trying not to flirt with the guy who works as the B&B because he’s too young for her (he’s like 20 and she’s almost 30… again, something like that… and it really did feel uncomfortable, not because of the woman being older, but just because that’s a genuinely large age-gap at those ages, and Claire’s interest in this guy was almost purely physical, so it was all about her thinking how hot he was followed by “oh he’s too young for me” which really just emphasized how uncomfortable the entire thing was), and trying not to flirt with the other guy because he’s actually a ghost (except apparently Keepers literally can give ghosts a physical form for just a short period of time… just so they can have sex with them??? This also just came across as bizarre and uncomfortable rather than funny like it seemed like the author was trying to do). So not only was I stuck reading about a love triangle, I was stuck reading about a love triangle where all the people in it were extremely cringey and weird. Plus, I just never did end up liking Claire, who was really stuck on herself.

Way too many things were left unexplained or just didn’t make sense (sometimes Claire can just manipulate the physical world to do whatever she wants, but then things will happen and she’ll act like she can’t fix them or change them, and I just never could understand what the rules were, or even if there were rules), and the “romantic” interactions between Claire and the two guys were just ugh. While this wasn’t the worst book I’ve ever read, it most certainly did not inspire me to continue with the series.

Time Out for Happiness // by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr.

A while ago I reread Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel, Belles on Their Toes. I loved both of those books growing up and have read them several times, although not in quite a while. When I was looking up something or other about the Gilbreths in the process of writing the review for those books, I found out that Frank Jr., who coauthored the above books with his sister (Ernestine Gilbreth Carey), also wrote what was more of a “straight” biography of his parents, Time Out for Happiness. I couldn’t find a reasonably-priced copy secondhand, so I had to settle for checking it out of the library, although I’m still keeping an eye out for a copy of my own.

//published 1970//
//published 1970//

While the other two books are more of a collection of vignettes of their life growing up, Time Out for Happiness takes more time to look at the background and work of Frank Gilbreth, Sr., and his wife, Lillian. There was a lot of genuinely interesting information here about the work and studies of the Gilbreths, and I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It isn’t as funny or lighthearted as the earlier two books, but that wasn’t what I was expecting.

My reservations about this book – for one, Frank Jr. spends what felt like way too much time on his family heritage (did we really need to hear about his great-great-grandparents in order to understand how his parents ended up as the people they were?) in the earlier part of the book, which meant that there wasn’t as much time at the end of the book for the work that Lillian did after Frank Sr.’s death. While Lillian’s work is somewhat covered, it felt like the book was unbalanced.

There is also a decent chunk of book devoted to a feud between the Gilbreths and another engineer, whose name I can’t remember. It’s obvious that at the time of Frank Jr.’s writing this was a really important situation – it honestly felt like, in some ways, the point of his book was to refute some of the claims made by the other group. But since I didn’t really know the background of this situation, it wasn’t particularly interesting to me other than the general motion study information that came along with it.

However, the entire book is written with such obvious, warm affection that I was willing to forgive its small irritants. Frank Jr. has such a respect for his parents and their work. Throughout he emphasized how a huge part of what made the Gilbreths do the research that they did was from respect for the worker, and a desire to make the life of the everyday worker easier, better, and more fulfilling. (This was also a big part of the feud with the other group, which believed that the time being “saved” should belong to company, i.e. be used to make the worker work harder/longer.) After Frank Sr.’s death, Lillian continued to pioneer motion study. With many door closed to her because of her sex, she was more than willing to focus her efforts where they were appreciated – assessing the way equipment and machinery could be used within a house to improve the lives of housewives, and also researching ways to enable individuals with disabilities (especially amputees from World War I) to still earn a living.

If you liked Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes, but wished you could learn a little more about the “real life” behind the stories, this book is definitely worth a read. Lillian also wrote a few books of her own, so I am hoping to get to those eventually as well, to continue learning about this fascinating couple and their work.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat // by Samin Nosrat

//published 2017// Bonus – My Pantry!! //

Every once in a while I read a nonfiction book that is just fantastic (like the book I read about color last year).  Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat actually reminded me a lot of Living With Color, despite the fact that they really weren’t anything alike.  Both books took a topic that I live with every day and really delved into it in a way that clarified things I had already felt instinctively, and helped me to see concepts and connections of which I had been vaguely aware but hadn’t really understood.

In her book, Nosrat talks about how she sort of fell into cooking when she was actually planning to be a writer.  And so when she apprenticed herself to a very fancy restaurant, she found herself looking at things somewhat differently than her fellow workers who had grown up with and/or studied this passion for several years.  They seemed to be able to cook on instinct, without recipes, tossing together seemingly dissimilar foods and coming up with something not just delicious but mind-blowingly so.  One day she realized that this ability actually seemed to stand on four basic building blocks – salt, fat, acid, and heat – all working together in harmony.  When she mentioned it to one of the other cooks, she was met with basically amounted to “well duh” …except it wasn’t a “well duh” for someone just learning to cook.  Throughout the years of learning more and more about cooking, Nosrat continued to file her lessons into these four categories, thinking to herself that someday she would write a book… and then she did!

If, like me, you find cooking to be a tedious chore and the results to be incredibly mundane, you may enjoy this one.  While Nosrat does include some honestly ridiculous recipes, and also seems to think that everyone lives around the corner from a delightful farmers’ market where one can purchase fresh, in-season veggies and meat that was on the hoof yesterday, most of her book is still somehow applicable to my life (and I haven’t been to a farmers’ market in years!).  For me, it was the concepts more than the specific recipes, many of which are incredibly simple – I especially was fascinated by the chapter on salt, and how salting things can completely change the flavor.  I’ve been salting meat a few hours before cooking it, and it genuinely has made a huge difference in the way it tastes!  Ditto with salting pasta water.  Both of those things fall under that category of “things people tell you to do but don’t really explain why” – which means I’ve been doing it wrong.  I usually do salt meat… right before I cook it, which almost (but not quite) defeats the purpose.  I also would put a dash of salt in the pasta water, for unknown reasons (someone may have told me to do this once??) – which isn’t enough to do anything to the actual pasta.

Throughout, the book is charmingly illustrated and also includes various charts and graphs – I loved the one that looked at seasonings from around the world, for instance.  There were also smaller ones, like one that showed different ratios of water-to-rice, depending on what kind of rice you’re planning to cook.

This was one of those engaging nonfiction titles that is both intriguing to read straight through, and also excellent for reference when you need it.  While I’m still not an amazing cook, I do find myself thinking more about the balance of my meals, sometimes in small ways.  For instance, a few months ago I was making something (honestly can’t remember what) that called for buttermilk, and I just put in milk – well, part of the reason that that doesn’t work is that buttermilk is acidic, so now my recipe was missing not the dairy aspect, but the acidic aspect, causing the recipe to be off-balance.

I’m never going to be a skilled chef, but thanks to Nosrat I do feel like I’ve added a few more concepts to my bag of possibilities.  While the recipes in this book aren’t terribly practical, the ideas behind them explain why some recipes work and others don’t, and why my meals frequently come across as bland – something that I can now work on fixing.

PS – Apparently Nosrat also has a cooking show of some kind.  I’ve heard it’s amazing, but haven’t watched it myself!

Nine // by Rachelle Dekker

//published 2020//

This book was kindly gifted to me by the publisher in exchange for a review.  Unfortunately, I misread the email… I thought this review was due by the end of the month, but apparently it was due by September 25!  So apologies for that.

Nine is a fast-paced book about a girl who has escaped from a secret government facility. Helped along by Zoe, a young woman with secrets of her own, they are doing their best to unravel the mystery of Lucy’s past.

There were a lot of things that I enjoyed about this book.  I really liked Zoe a lot.  I also found myself unwillingly drawn to Tom Seeley, the FBI agent in charge of chasing down Lucy.  He’s a classic anti-hero, full of conflict, determined to do his job, but starting to wonder if the job is the wrong thing to do.  There were a lot of layers to this story, and a lot of philosophical questions, mostly centered around the concept of humanity – what makes us human?

However, I ultimately felt like the philosophical questions sometimes took up more page time than the actual story, and there were a lot of extra complications that seemed to have been added only for the sake of bringing up more thoughtful questions, meaning that things got a bit muddled in the middle.  I was also very confused by a scenario towards the end of the book – there were just moments throughout where something kind of odd would happen that would take me out of the story.

While I did enjoy this book and gave it 4*, there was just something lacking.  I was especially surprised at this book’s take on religion, considering the publisher – it really comes across as almost anti-religion, which definitely isn’t what I would expect from Revell.  There definitely wasn’t any moment in time where the characters considered the concept of God, or thought that maybe what makes us human is the fact that we’ve been created in His image.  Instead, the conclusions to the philosophical questions came through as somewhat clinical.

Despite my reservations, I enjoyed this book while I was reading it, and I would be interested to see what else Dekker has written.

Side note: Since Goodreads makes it so much easier to insert spoilers, my review there does have some more details about the things that bothered me a bit – https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3560913813

September Minireviews – Part 1

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

Chasing the Dead by Tim Weaver  – 3.5*

//published 2010//

I’m not sure how this mystery series first appeared on my radar.  The main character, David Raker, used to be an investigative reporter, but now works finding missing persons.  In this first installment, he’s hired by a mother whose adult son disappeared.  His body was found months later.  But now, a year after that, she’s convinced that she saw him walking down the street and that he’s alive.  David isn’t convinced, but agrees to at least try to find out where the son was between the time of his disappearance and the time that his body was found in a fiery car wreck.

There were a lot of things about this book that I like, especially David himself.  I also love the concept of him using his old reporter contacts to work these types of cases.  However, this one just went a little too over-the-top for me, especially the weird quasi-religious cult that just never actually seemed to be adequately explained in a way that genuinely justified everything that had happened.  While I liked this one fine, I didn’t love it, and there were a couple of torture scenes that I skimmed because that kind of thing makes me really queasy.  Still, I enjoyed it enough to pick up the second installment.

The Dead Tracks by Tim Weaver – 3.5*

//published 2011//

Oh look, here’s the second installment!!  A 17-year-old girl disappears into thin air.  With a genuinely happy home life, excellent grades, no boyfriend, and a solid future ahead of her, she seems like an unlikely candidate for a runaway.  Convinced the police aren’t giving it all, her parents hire David to find out what really happened, and soon he’s sucked into a complicated plot involving a serial killer and the Russian mafia.

Once again, I really liked David himself, and the story wasn’t bad, it was just… over-the-top.  Again.  Not every missing person disappears into the clutches of insane psychopaths, but here’s the second book in a row where that’s exactly what happened.  There were once again some a-little-too-gruesome-for-me scenes, and the killer/kidnapper was just… a little too bizarre.  All in all, while these weren’t bad books, they just aren’t for me.  They didn’t exactly feel like they could really happen, if that makes sense, and the fact that David keeps getting into these basically-should-be-dead situations and then getting out of them had me rolling my eyes a little.  It’s also possible that I just wasn’t in the mood for these.  Either way, I’ve checked the series off the TBR as I just don’t think it’s a great fit for me, despite not actually being bad reads.

Fangs by Sarah Anderson – 4*

//published 2020//

This is an absolutely adorable collection of comics about a vampire and a werewolf who are dating.  While not groundbreaking, I enjoyed every page.  The concept is done so well, and both characters come through as thoroughly likable.  I also appreciate the effort that went in to making the physical book a joy to handle – clothbound, black page edges, wonderful paper quality, and the perfect size.  Well worth a read if you enjoy the concept, and the book itself is fantastic.

Second Chance Summer by Jill Shalvis – 4*

//published 2015//

Sometimes I pick up a book and then realize it’s part of a series.  Luckily, this was book one, so I went ahead and rolled with it.  Lily has to return to her hometown in Colorado when her career in California goes bust.  Of course, in typical chick lit style this means running into her old crush, Aidan.  While this book wasn’t anything stunning, it was a really enjoyable romance, with a fairly balanced angst level.  Lily is working through some other family history that made a lot of what was happening feel reasonable.  Aidan wasn’t perfect, either, which I always like.  There were were a few too many sexy times for this to get my wholehearted approval (just not my thing) but overall total brain candy, which was exactly what I wanted.  There are two more books in the series, focused on two of Aidan’s siblings (who own a ski resort!!  I love hospitality romance haha) so I have those on reserve at the library.

Anne’s House of Dreams by L.M. Montgomery – 5*

//published 1917//

My reread of the Anne series continues.  In this book, Anne and Gilbert start their new life together on a different part of Prince Edward Island.  They meet their new neighbors and settle into life.  There are some wonderful side stories here, and one in particular really explores the importance of doing what is right even if it looks as though the results may not be what you want.  This book is always a little bittersweet to me, as we leave behind so many friends from Avonlea, but I still love it so much.  Also, I Gilbert and Anne were my first ship growing up, and I’m still here for it!

Rearview Mirror // August 2020

While June and July were two of my best reading months ever, August was a struggle.  There was a lot going on as I started back up at work, tried to get stuff wrapped up in the garden, and we began making plans for the final giant renovation in our house (bathroom/laundry room/master closet – which is probably going to take us the better part of a year to complete, and this month we really had to actually finalize what we wanted to have where – so overwhelming!).  Plus the world is just super weird and sometimes it gets me down!  I had a lot of so-so reads and a couple of ughs.  All in all, while August wasn’t a bad month, it also wasn’t awesome.

Still, September is a new month and things are settling back into a groove.  We drew our final draft of how the bathroom (etc) is going to look today, I’ve read over 1600 pages already this month, and life is humming along!

Favorite August Read

While I hate to put rereads in this slot, I just didn’t read anything I enjoyed more than Anne of the Island!

Most Disappointing August Read

Definitely Jane Austen in Scarsdale.  This book had a chance to be fun and flirty, and instead was cynical, bitter, and deadly boring.

Other August Reads

August Stats

  • Total Number of Books Read:  21 (all physical)
  • Total Pages Read:  5901 (really low for me)
  • Average Star Rating for June:  3.64
  • Longest Book:  Windfall (416 pages)
  • Shortest Book:  Mr. Popper’s Penguins (139 pages)
  • Oldest Book:  The Story of the Amulet (published 1906)
  • Newest Book:  Rogue Princess, Summer at Lake Haven, Outsider, Collateral Damage, and Acceptable Risk (all published 2020)
  • Number of New-to-Me Authors:  9

August DNFs

  • Mimi Lee Gets a Clue by Jennifer Chow – The first book in a new series, I thought I would check out this book centered on a young woman who has just opened her own pet grooming business.  Besides being incredibly boring, this book just honestly made almost no sense.  We start one what is supposedly Mimi’s first day of business, yet she is continually arriving late, closing early, and taking long lunches, which felt incredibly unrealistic.  There was really no motivation for her to be snooping around in the first place, and for some unknown reason her sister dumps a cat on her, which Mimi then feels apparently obligated to take with her everywhere – back and forth to work, with her when she goes out to lunch, with her when she goes to an appointment with an attorney, with her when she drives out into the country, etc etc.  Why is she carrying a cat around?!?!?  Eventually the cat starts talking to her so it makes a little more sense (if a talking cat makes sense) but at first she’s just lugging this cat around for no reason that I could possibly understand.  Just not the book for me.
  • Mischievous Meg by Astrid Lindgren – I’ve had this children’s book on my shelves forever.  Written by the author of Pippi Longstocking (which I’ve also never read), it’s about a little girl who is always getting into, well, mischief.  Normally I would just go ahead and finish a book that is so short (139 pages) but I honestly couldn’t take any more of Meg’s absolutely bratty behavior.  She was SO spoiled and obnoxious that instead of feeling like fun childhood pranks, reading about her adventures just made me want to give her a good spanking and send her to her room.  Another one for the giveaway box!
  • One Paris Summer by Denise Grover Swank – I’ve read another series by Swank in the past, so I thought I would give this one a try.  Because the other books of her I read were adult romance, I didn’t realize this one was YA until I started to read it.  Although I frequently enjoy YA, this one was just TOO FAR.  First off, I hate it when a book’s premise is “teen gets awesome opportunity but because teen is feeling bitter towards the parent providing it, teen is determined to hate his/her life,” which is exactly what happens here.  Sophie’s dad bailed on his family a year ago and now he’s living and getting married in Paris.  He wants Sophie and her brother to come spend the summer with him.  Sophie’s still mad about how her dad left, and is basically planning to hate every minute instead of making the best of her situation.  Literally everyone in this book, including the adults, were whiny, spoiled, entitled brats.  Sophie’s new stepsister is a horrific witch who bullies Sophie unmercifully with literally no explanation or even hint as to why.  Sophie spends all of her time pouting and being rude to her dad and new stepmother.  And yeah, her dad was definitely a jerk for bailing on his family, but is your big plan really just to be miserable forever in an attempt to punish him?  Of course, in the background we have the “Sophie’s mom is now super happy because she’s had the opportunity to someone who TRULY LOVES HER so Sophie’s dad leaving was actually the BEST THING that could have happened to her!”  HUGE EYE ROLL SORRY INFIDELITY IS NEVER THE BEST THING THAT CAN HAPPEN TO A MARRIAGE PLEASE STOP ATTEMPTING TO JUSTIFY IT.  All that to say – this one wasn’t for me, which was a disappointment simply because I’ve enjoyed other books by this author in the past.

TBR Update

This I keep updated as I go, so it’s current as of today, rather than as of the end of July.  I’m sure it’s off-kilter, though, because I get most of my TBR additions from reading book reviews on all of your lovely blogs, and despite my efforts to try and get caught up on reading them, I still have over 900 unread emails that are all blog entries!!!!

For those of you who don’t know, I’m weirdly obsessive with organizing the TBR, and have it on a spreadsheet divided into five different tabs:

  • Standalones:  466 (down two)
  • Nonfiction:  116 (down one)
  • Personal (which includes all books I own (fiction and nonfiction), but lists any series I own as only one entry…):  646 (down one)
  • Series (each series counted separately, not each book within a series):  245 (up one)
  • Mystery Series (each series counted separately, not each book within a series): 112 (down one)

Reading Challenge Updates

  • #ReadingEurope2020 – visited no where!! – this challenge is NOT going to get completed this year but I’m still tracking it for fun (total 7/46 complete)
  • #ReadtheUSA2020 – visited three states: Idaho, Illinois, and Minnesota (total 31/50 complete – I’m hoping to get this one completed by the end of the year)
  • #SeparatedbyaPondTour – visited the states above, plus Nova Scotia. (Total 52/159 complete – this is still on the 3-year track)
  • #LitsyAtoZ – 0 books (22/26 complete – only weird letters left)
  • #BackwardsAtoZ – 11 books (No B through no L on my fourth list – I’m trying to do this one in order and to see how many times I can get through the alphabet!)

Current Reads

When I reread Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes earlier this year I found out that Frank Gilbreth, Jr. had written a third book about his parents, Time Out for Happiness, more of a straight biography of their work.  I’m in the middle of that one right now and really enjoying getting some more details about their work, as this book focuses more on the research his parents completed than it does on their family life (although the two intermingle quite a bit!).

A while back, someone on Litsy bought a book called S.  It’s hard to explain, but basically the book comes in a slipcover, and the slipcover has all the publication/author information.  Within the slipcover is a hardback book that is printed exactly as thought it was a library discard book from 1949 called Ship of Theseus.  When you open the book, the title page has some “handwritten” notes between two different people, whom you later find out are Eric and Jen.  The book belongs to Eric, who is an ex-grad student (long story) somewhat obsessed with the author of SOT, V.M. Straka.  Straka was a mysterious figure whose actual identity was never known – but Eric is determined to discover it, believing that the clues lie within this, Straka’s final book.  Jen also reads the books, making notes of her own in the margins, and the entire book is filled with their marginal conversation.  It also comes with multiple inserts of different kinds, additional pieces of paper and information that Eric and Jen are sharing – newspaper articles, copies of letters, postcards, etc.  The entire book is incredibly elaborate and absolutely amazing.  I’m not very far into it, so I don’t know if the story itself will be worthwhile, but just reading it is a rather wild journey, with multiple stories within stories within stories creating a swirling and fascinating tale of many layers.

Up Next

The probably next five (ish) reads

  • Thorn by Intisar Kharnani – a retelling of The Goose Girls, one of my favorites.
  • The Crimson Thread by Suzanne Weyn – a retelling of Rumplestiltskin, because apparently I’m on a fairy tale kick haha
  • Summon the Keeper by Tanya Huff – my next traveling book club book
  • Virtual Unicorn Experience by Dana Simpson – the newest Phoebe & Her Unicorn book!!
  • The Two Princesses of Bamarre and The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine – I’ve had mixed results with Levine’s work, but it’s been sooo long since I read Two Princesses that I thought I would give it a try, especially since there’s now a prequel (?) that I’ve never read.

Well, that’s the August update – hopefully everyone’s September is going well!!

Jane Austen in Scarsdale // by Paula Marantz Cohen

//published 2006//

If this book hadn’t been one I was reading for the traveling book club, I would never have finished it.  It combined so many things that I loathe.  It was pretentious and unbelievable with characters I despised.  There wasn’t really much of a story, and all the characters were bitter and cynical.  And to top it off – I was completely bored through every page.  This was definitely a book where it felt like the author was constantly condescending to you to remind you of how clever she was.

So this is a loose (VERY LOOSE) retelling of Persuasion.  Anne is a guidance counselor at a high school in New York, still single because she let the One True Love of her life get away years ago – Ben was poor and from a poor family, and Anne’s grandma (the one person in life she truly trusts, which honestly never made sense to me because her grandma was a snobby, selfish jerk) convinced Anne that she should break up with him.  Since then, Ben has gone on to become a famous author of travel books and has seen the world, while Anne has stayed in her hometown watching her father and sister rack up debts while she herself works a job full of petty difficulties.

Because Anne is a guidance counselor, an inordinate amount of time in this book is spent talking about the lengths various parents are willing to go to try and get their kids into good colleges.  It was… genuinely unbelievable.  I just couldn’t accept that people were willing to lie, cheat, bribe, etc. just so their kid could get into a school.  Every single parent in this book came across as mentally unstable, constantly frothing at the mouth in rage, screaming at random people, storming into Anne’s office, just literally and completely irrational in every way.  And Anne is all like, “Oh, you know, so stressful getting kids into college!” – as though this behavior is normal and expected…!!!!!!

Everything about this book was depressing.  Anne herself was a depressing, passive character.  Her father and sister were horrific – in Persuasion they are self-centered characters, yes, but in this version they bordered on psychopaths with their completely willingness to destroy anyone and anything that got in the way of them enjoying life.  Their entire involvement in the story also made no sense.  In Persuasion, Anne’s financial stability is inextricably tied up with her father’s because of the way things worked at that time.  But here, Anne has her own job, her own apartment, and is financially independent – yet for some reason is still very stressed about her father’s debt, and is the one taking on selling the house, despite the fact that it’s mentioned multiple times that he’s the one who is going to get the money from it.  So why does Anne care?????  It makes literally no sense, and honestly drove me a little crazy, especially because it’s not like there is any kind of family bond between them – we’re told repeatedly that Anne’s father has never liked her, and neither does her sister, so while I could have understood Anne not wanting them to end up homeless on the streets, her obsession with making sure that their debts were paid just never rang true.

This book had virtually no plot.  Oh, Ben is back in town and his nephew is going to be a student at Anne’s high school… okay?  The only interaction we get between Anne and Ben is found through flashbacks.  They have maybe 3-5 conversations in real time during this book.  The rest is about how happy they were ten years ago, which didn’t really convince me that their life would be great now.  Instead, the vast majority of the pages in this book are taken up with absolutely idiotic stories about the students in Anne’s school.  A crazy guy comes to talk; he runs a business that basically makes your kid “look good” on college resumes.  An entire chapter of this guy nattering on as though I could possibly find what he has to say even remotely interesting.  It was stuff like that over and over and over again.  Constant barrages of random parents coming and and ranting at Anne and Anne calming them down and convincing them that they should do such-and-such yadda yadda yadda  I thought it was never going to end.

Throughout the entire thing, everyone is SO cynical.  I’ve already mailed this book to the next unlucky person on the list and didn’t think to write down any of the quotes, but basically my impression was that Cohen had some kind of horrible college admission experience in her past and this entire book was her purging it from her system.  Or something.

And to top all of that off, there was a constant snide, belittling attitude towards anyone who doesn’t want to go to college, like that’s literally the worst possible thing that could happen to you.  Even students who were interested in going to “regular” colleges were treated like secondhand garbage.  Ugh.  Guys, it was SO HORRIBLE.  Honestly, the worst part was this horrible bitterness over the entire book.  I think I could have handled it better if it had actually been funny, but instead all the “funny” bits just sounded bitter.

All in all, this was the worst book I’ve read in a long time.  I will say that reading it for traveling book club at least meant that I could succumb to my desire to write scathing comments in the margins, so that helped.  1* and please don’t read this if you can possibly avoid it.

August Minireviews – Part 3

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

Uhoh, we’re into September now!!  Still trying to knock out August reviews.

A Dance Through Time by Lynn Kurland – 3*

//published 1996//

While I do enjoy romance, time travel romance is a subgenre that I’m not usually into.  This read was for the traveling book club, though, so I waded through it.  While it wasn’t a bad story, and I did overall like the characters, it just went on FOREVER.  Some of the jumping-through-time bits got a little muddled as well (they brought their horses with them from the past??).  While I didn’t mind this as a one-time read, it definitely didn’t inspire me to check out the rest of the series, and solidified the idea that time-travel romance just isn’t my thing.

Sweet Revenge by Nora Roberts – 4*

//published 1988//

I rarely worry about issuing trigger warnings for books (mainly because I don’t really read books that need them), but this book was hard to read at times as it dealt with a situation where a woman was repeatedly raped and abused.  The whole point of the story is that the main character is getting revenge on her father for the way he treated her mother, but I felt like Roberts felt way too long with the bits explaining why the daughter would want revenge.  There’s a lot here about the mother’s suffering and horrible life. Even after she escaped from her horrific husband, she struggled with depression and drug/alcohol abuse and eventually commits suicide, and it’s all quite depressing, to the point that I almost DNF’d this book more than once.  (Just to clarify, none of this was super explicit, but it’s all THERE.)  But when we FINALLY got through that section, the story really picked up.  Basically, the daughter becomes a jewel thief to pay all of her mother’s medical bills (she’s technically royalty, as her father is a ruler of a middle eastern country, so she runs in rich circles) and her ultimate goal is to steal an incredibly valuable necklace from her father – one that technically belonged to her mother, as it was his bridal gift to her.  Along the way, she runs into another jewel thief/romantic interest (my favorite character) and that whole bit of the story is really quite delightful.  I could have used a LOT more heist shenanigans and way less spousal abuse chapters.

In the end, while I actually really enjoyed the way this whole story played out, and quite liked the main characters, the first part of the story was just SO depressing and dragged on for so long that I don’t ever see myself reading this one again.

Summer at Lake Haven by RaeAnne Thayne – 4*

//published 2020//

Last December I read the entire Lake Haven series and thoroughly enjoyed them.  They weren’t groundbreaking, but they were relaxing and happy romances with likable characters and a small-town setting.  Summer at Lake Haven is the latest installment and was just as enjoyable as the rest.  My favorite part about this book was the way that the main characters actually had conversations with each other like adults instead of making assumptions and then staying mad for no reason, as so often happens in this type of book. So refreshing!  I also loved how Ian’s parents were actually super nice.  Lots of times the parents are these evil background characters, but here they were kind, welcoming, and supportive, and I thought it was fantastic.

Like the rest of the books, this wasn’t anything that will blow your mind, but if you’re just looking for a way to veg out, I definitely recommend this series.  While this one can be read as a stand alone (as they all can), all the background characters will make way more sense if you read the series in order.

Outsider by Linda Castillo – 4*

//published 2020//

Another series that I read last year, with another latest installment.  This mystery series is set in Ohio’s Amish country and focuses on the sheriff of a small town.  Kate was raised Amish but left the faith, eventually becoming a police officer and then moving back to her own hometown.  This series overall is really just excellently written.  Kate is likable, and the Amish community background is handled so well.  This particular book took a slightly different direction, as it was much more “thriller” rather than a murder mystery like the rest.  In this book, the Amish were also more background than foreground.  Still, I really enjoyed this read a lot, and hope there are many more books about Kate Burkholder to come.

While this one can be read as a standalone, it will also make a lot more sense in the context of the series, which is so enjoyable that I recommend reading them all anyway.

Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie – 4*

//published 1929//

I really love Tommy and Tuppence so much.  Tommy now works for “the government” in a sort of vague way/implied that he works in intelligence.  He and Tuppence go somewhat undercover by taking over a private detective agency that is suspected of being used to move “information” by a mysterious foreigner known as 16.  However, the majority of the book is actually connected short stories as Tommy and Tuppence solve legitimate mysteries to keep up their detective cover.  For each one, they take on the persona of a famous detective, which is both the fun part and the weakness of this story, as many of the detectives that were well-known in 1929 have fallen out of favor 90 years later.  Still, if you enjoy Christie’s writing, you’ll find a lot to like here as the mysteries themselves are clever.  Not my favorite Christie, but still an enjoyable read.

Windfall // by Jennifer Smith

//published 2017//

This was one of those books that just wasn’t for me, even though objectively it was a perfectly fine book.  Alice is an orphan who has lived with her aunt, uncle, and cousin since the death of her parents when she was nine.  Now a senior in high school, she spends most of her free time volunteering for a plethora of charities and secretly pining after her best friend, Teddy.  Since Alice and her cousin, Leo, are the same age, the three of them have all been really close since Alice came to live with Leo’s family.  For Teddy’s 18th birthday, Alice and Leo get him some “adult” things – Leo buys him a pack of cigarettes, and Alice buys him a lottery card.  But when it turns out that the lottery card is actually a huge winner, everything changes.

Like I said, this wasn’t really a bad book.  However, it definitely had some pacing issues.  Parts of this book were SO slow and boring, with literally nothing happening except Alice thinking her thoughts.  Other parts felt rushed, with lots of important stuff happening all at once.  It was really weird to have a book about a big event (winning the lottery) focus on someone on the peripheral instead of the actual person who won.  Throughout the story, Teddy tries to get Alice to take some of the money  since she’s the one who actually picked the numbers, but she refuses for reasons that are pretty vague and felt completely unbelievable coming from an 18-year-old.  Actually, a big part of my problem with this book was that Alice herself felt completely unbelievable.  She spends all of her time volunteering all sorts of different places because she wants to live up to some vague ideal of her parents, but it seemed almost impossible that she could have time to do all the stuff she was doing AND get perfect grades AND hang out with her friends AND be a part of her family.  She serves meals at a soup kitchen and helps kids read at the library and picks up trash etc etc etc.  All perfectly worthy goals, but it just came through as way too much.

Teddy lets all the money go to his head and basically Alice keeps lecturing him about how he should be spending it, despite the fact that she won’t take any of the money herself.  At one point, Teddy more or less says “if you think you have all these great ideas for this money, why don’t you take your half and do what you want with it” and honestly I felt the same.  Alice was such a nag, and it felt so hypocritical for her to keep telling Teddy what he should be doing while also saying that she couldn’t take the money herself because it was “too much responsibility.”  :: eye roll ::

In the end (spoiler) Teddy decides to set up this amazing charity with his money and wants Alice and Leo to help him run it.  And what does Alice say?  “Oh, thanks, but I’ve realized I really need to take more time for myself.”  What.  Even.  Like basically in the end Teddy realizes that he needs to use his resources to help people, but Alice realizes her parents were actually perfect so it’s okay for her to be more selfish.  The whole “point” of the story seemed incredibly muddled and left me feeling confused.

Despite my complaining, it wasn’t a bad story to read.  There are a lot of fun points, and there are some good lessons about dealing with grief, and about how grief doesn’t just magically disappear after a certain amount of time.  I rarely write down quotes from books, but there was a line in this one that really hit me – There’s a space between forgetting and moving on, and it’s not easy to find.  It’s so hard when you lose someone close to you, because you both want to cling to every memory you have, and at the same time to not do that because now all those memories are somewhat painful and hard.  As with most of life, it can be very difficult to find balance.

In the end, I liked this book, but felt like Smith herself wasn’t completely sure what she wanted to say.  Not a bad read, but not one I’m going to pick up again.