Tag Archives: netgalley

“The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” by Hannah Tinti

Pages: 480

Expected Publication Date:  March 28, 2017

 

 

 

 

This was a beautiful story of a father – daughter relationship.  It tells of a past pertaining to the father, Samuel Hawley, from which he is trying to protect his daughter at all costs.  His past is Herculean, it is a time of it’s own, yet it cannot be separated from the present.  He has scars from  twelve bullets.  Twelve bullets are the equivalent of the twelve tasks of Hercules, the twelve hours on a clock.  Hawley’s past is shady, but he is a good man and wants the best for his daughter.  His job now is taking care of his daughter.  The chapters describing the circumstances leading up to each bullet striking him alternate with chapters about his daughter coming of age.  It is a unique intersecting of two lives, one in the past and one in the present.

The setting is Gloucester, Massachusetts, a fishing town that has a renowned greasy pole competition in the summer.  However, the author has renamed Gloucester Olympus, giving it heroic proportions, suitable for the Hercules of this novel to tackle.  He tackles it with humility and for his daughter.  He does not enter the competition to win glory for himself.  The town is well developed in the novel.  The reader gets a sense of the determination and culture of the fishermen.  This is set against the environmentalists embodied by Mary Titus who are fighting to protect against overfishing.

Hawley’s past is tainted.  It is rough and difficult, full of narrow escapes.  The daughter, Loo, is youthful, more innocent.  Their relationship is full of respect and love.  She doesn’t fully understand who he is, but she is starting too.  She may be innocent, but even she carries pieces of his past within her.  She often feels that sour taste rising in the back of her throat driving her to violence.  In returning to her mother’s hometown, she is subject to bullying, but learns to fight for herself.  She falls for a boy.  She starts a waitressing job.  She is coming of age, understanding her father better and the world at large.

This is a beautiful book which I highly recommend!  I loved the intersection of an exciting shoot ’em up novel combined with a  coming-of-age story and the subtle shift in the relationship between father and daughter.  It was beautifully executed and seemingly timeless.  It was  tender and sweet plus keep-you-on-your-toes, exciting.   

 

Photo from obs-us.com

 

 

 

 

 

Photo from Boston.com

 

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  The author states in the afterward that the 3 themes she is trying to develop are time, death and love.  How are these developed throughout the novel?  Which theme do you think is most important?
  2. In exploring the theme of time, how does the past influence the present and the future in this novel?
  3. Discuss the comparison between Samuel Hawley and Hercules.  How are they similar?  How are they different?
  4. Who are the heroes in this novel?
  5. What were your feelings toward Samuel Hawley?
  6. How does the grandmother feel about Samuel?  Why do you think she does not confront him with her suspicions?
  7. Why does Principal Gunderson become Loo’s ally?
  8. How is the backdrop of the fishing town important to the story?
  9. What elements do each bullet story all have in common?

Interview with Hannah Tinti conducted by NPR

Review by Ron Charles in the Washington Post

Review by Jo’s Book Blog

“Ill Will” by Dan Chaon

Pages:  480

Published:  March 7, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Unique, dark, suspenseful psychological thriller that cycles back and forth in time focusing on 2 separate sets of murders.  In the 1970s, Dustin’s parents and aunt and uncle were brutally murdered while he and his cousins slept in a trailer in the driveway.  It was his and his cousin, Kate’s, testimony that landed Dustin’s foster brother, Randy in prison.  As a result of this traumatic event, Dustin became interested in studying the psychology of Satanic cults and violence expressed through them.  He developed his thesis around it, testified in many cases as an expert, and currently works as a therapist.  In present day, Dustin’s life starts unravelling as the delicate tendrils that were holding it together gradually give way.  His wife dies of cancer at the age of 43, his two sons have graduated from high school, and his foster brother Randy has been released from prison with the help of the Innocence Project working on his behalf.  In current day, Dustin is drawn into investing a possible homicide cluster of drunk college boys who were determined accidental drownings by the police.

The books chapters are narrated by various different characters (sometimes in the first person and sometimes in the third) and they deeply reflect the mindset of the characters.  The characters become more and more isolated from each, so the reader knows more about what is going on with them than they know what is going on with each other or in some cases themselves.

The chapters from Dustin’s mindset are particularly troubling.  His thoughts and sense of reality seem to be losing footing.  He takes up drinking and smoking.  His thoughts are repeating themselves.  He trails off not finishing thoughts or sentences.   He wonders if he’s in a fugue state.   His cousins and foster brother describe the young Dustin as trusting and gullible.  It seems without his wife as an anchor, he has become so again, particularly with regards to his patient Aqil.  Aqil is obsessed with the “murders” of drunk frat boys that have drown in waterways while intoxicated.  Dustin becomes drawn into “investigating” these incidences with Aqil, presenting himself to others as an investigator or writer.  He confides in Aqil so much that it seems there is a role reversal.  In fact, he knows very little about Aqil, but has become emotionally dependent upon him.  Dustin has trouble seeing what is right in front of him.  His son is getting deeper into drugs and pretends to go to a college he never enrolled in.  Dustin becomes an easy victim once again, trusting and gullible as always, without a strong sense of self.

This book brings up many questions.  What are memories composed of?  How reliable are our memories?  Can a fictionalized statement in the past be remembered as a truth?  What defines us?  Is it our perception of ourselves or how others perceive us?  How does grief shape our thoughts and mental stability?

This is a long, dark twisted mystery delving deep into the psychology of its characters.  At points it’s hard to read as the writing reflects the altered and distressed mental states of its characters.  It experiments with writing in chart format, chunking bits of information together in little boxes,  letting the reader grasp that it is not making coherent sense with the character.  I enjoyed the story and the writing, although it felt more difficult to get through because of it’s style.  I felt the quotations at the beginning of each chapter were perfect for setting the chapter up for it’s intended purpose and were very thought provoking in and of themselves.   The last chapter begins with this quote: “In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation.” – Sacheverell Sitwell, For Want of the Golden City.  

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Wave tells Kate that she sacrificed them and that this is her reward.  What does she mean by that?
  2. What do you think happens to Aqil at the end of the novel?
  3. Who are the gibbeners and what do they represent in this novel?
  4. How is the self defined?  By those close to us or by ourself?  Why is Dustin so concerned that Rusty will change his son’s perception of him?
  5. How are these two sets of murders connected?
  6. How were Dustin’s parents and his Aunt and Uncle really killed and why?  Who is killing these boys and why?  What is Dustin’s role in each set of “murders”?
  7. Why do you think Dustin becomes wraps up in Aqil’s investigation?
  8. Why do you believe that Dustin’s reality is decomposing in this novel? What factors are contributing?
  9. Why does Wave stop speaking to Kate after Rusty’s trial?
  10. What is the meaning and importance of memories in this novel?
  11. Why doesn’t Dustin want to read the letter written to his wife that he finds in his son’s desk?
  12. Why is Dustin blind to his son’s heroin abuse?
  13. Discuss the meaning of the title?  Ill will toward whom?  From whom?  Why?

 

Ron Charles’ Review in The Washington Post

Review by Scott Bradfield in the Los Angeles Times

An Interview with Dan Chaon as conducted by The Millions

Dan Chaon’s website

“Trump This! The Life and Times of Donald Trump, An Unauthorized Biography” by Marc Shapiro

Pages: 204

Published: February 26, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

Thank you to Patty for writing a review on goodreads, which piqued my interest in reading this book.  I was one of many people who did not understand the Donald Trump phenomenon during the election, who could not fathom the possibility of him getting elected, but it happened.  I decided I would read this biography to better understand our president, his motivations for becoming president and what his agenda might be.  I’m not sure how much new about our President I learned, however, it was helpful to have all the information in one place.

I felt that I knew the superficial Donald Trump from media attention over many years.  I knew about him as the real estate tycoon, the Apprentice showman, the man with dazzling new beautiful wives, the alleged affairs, and most recently the run for president.  He loves the spotlight and America has seen so much of him, but I was hoping to discover something more.. to explain his run for president as something more than attention-seeking.  This book is well written and researched, covers his life from crib to ascension to president, and is easy to read.

Shapiro describes a Trump who “in his personal and professional life, has been slicker than Mercury and just as hard to handle.”  What we learn from this book is that Donald Trump denies and strikes back when questioned or attacked.  He rarely gives straightforward answers.  He waffles on his positions.  He says outrageous things and gets away with it.

He has had three marriages with beautiful women.  He seems to have been enamored of the concept of “trophy wife.”  He was having an affair with the second while still married to the first.  He tried to broker a deal for Marla (wife #2) with playboy for her to pose nude, which she ultimately declined.

What comes across in this book is that Donald is extremely vain with a mania for branding.  He is a showman and a master manipulator.  He utilizes his privilege and wealth to great advantage throughout his life.  He gets into Wharton business school by way of family ties, he is able to escape the draft by reason of being at Wharton.  He wields his money and power over the media daring them to defy him.  He cares very much about his image and does whatever he can to maintain that image, including bribing journalists.  He is extremely money hungry and very concerned with public perception of his wealth, to the extent that he has actually sued over his perceived underestimation of his wealth by the media.   He is prone to telling stories that are often untrue.  Perhaps the greatest example of this is the propagation of the “birther movement.”  Trump’s insistence on questioning Obama’s place of birth had created a rallying cry so fierce that Obama felt compelled to produce his birth certificate, finally putting the movement to rest.

Donald Trump has proven himself racist.  In his speech announcing his run for president he said “When Mexico sends it people, they’re not sending their best.  They’re sending people who have lots of problems.  They’re bringing drugs.  They’re bringing crime.  They’re rapists.  And some, I assume, are good people.”  Multiple news outlets reported that  the Trump campaign had paid extras to come and cheer for that rally and others.  Trump has stated that if it were up to him all Muslims would be banned from entering the United States.

Many world leaders have evoked a fascist comparison of Trump and his ideals, including People and NSNBC.  Trump kept a copy of “My New Order,” a book of Adolf Hilter’s collected speeches by his bed according to ex-wife Ivana.  Trump, defending his proposed ban on Muslims, in an interview with Good Morning America, cited President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s use of the Alien and Sedition Acts following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.  In February 2016, Trump retweeted a quote from fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini that said, “It’s better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.”   In July 2016, Trump retweeted a picture of Clinton next to a star-shaped badge, similar to the Jewish Star of David that read “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever”  against a background of $100 bills.  It was immediately condemned as anti-Semitic, so Trump had the star replaced with a circle and #AmericaFirst.  He would soon be criticized that America First is the name of a fascist organization that encouraged appeasement with Aldolph Hitler and Nazi Germany during World War II.

Donald Trump has proven himself sexist and misogynistic.  Megyn Kelly confronted Trump during one of the first debates with this question, “You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.  You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees.  Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as President and how will you answer the charge of Hillary Clinton that you are part of the war on women?”  Trump responded with anger and further woman-hatred, accusing her of having blood coming out of “her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”    The Access Hollywood tape, released to the world during his campaign, revealed that among other things, Trump felt he could sexually assault any woman he wanted because he was famous.

Trump had found an effective route to the White House in courting white lower and middle class men and women in the heartland of America.  “Trump’s supporters were pro-gun, pro-flag, anti-foreigner and convinced that their shortcomings were the fault of everybody but themselves.  They came from a world that was miles removed from Trump’s.  But when it came to the countless rallies in front of thousands of confirmed believers, Trump was quite capable of speaking their language, especially on the road to the Republican National Convention.”  Trump seemed forever the showman, but had no interest in putting together an actual campaign.  Several high level members  of his campaign resigned after power struggles and subsequently, his long time campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski was fired and replaced briefly by Paul Manafort, before the press discovered he had business dealings with Russia.  Fortunately for Trump, some far-right leaning Republicans, including Jeff Sessions, Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, and others pledged to back him and began offering some much needed advice, like the need to pick a running mate.

Trump’s main platform for his presidential run was creating jobs, building a wall between the US and Mexico, and banning Muslims from entering the US.  He has allied himself with white supremacists, most notably Steve Bannon.  As Donald Trump’s platform has remained thin, it will likely be Trump’s cabinet members steering the ship.

This book’s publication date per netgalley, amazon and goodreads is February 26, 2016.  However, the copy that I read through netgalley took me through a history of Trump leading all the way up to the day he took office on January 20, 2017.  So, I’m guessing another edition will be released that gives this fuller biography.   Or you can request a copy directly from netgalley, here.  I’m glad I read this.  I did not feel there were a lot of surprises within this book, but it was helpful to read about Trump’s life from start to presidency to get a bigger picture.    Please note, my review is more biased than the actual book.  However, I do find it hard to believe that anyone who would read this book and take it to heart could come away singing Trump’s praises in terms of being an effective or suitable president of the United States.

 

 

Donald and first wife, Ivana

Children:  Don Jr, Ivanka and Eric

 

 

Donald and second wife, Marla Maples

Children:  Tiffany Trump

 

 

 

Donald and current wife, Melania

Children:  Barron

 

 

 

Mark Bowden’s 1997 Playboy Article on Trump – This article is mentioned in the book.  Trump tries to bribe Mark Bowden into writing a more favorable article once he realizes the weekend Mark Bowden is spending at his mansion is going awry.

Non-Fiction Children’s Animal Books!

My two younger children adore reading and learning about animals so much so that that has been the bulk of our reading for the past 8 months.  There are two favorites that I will discuss first and then two more that we read after requesting them from netgalley which I will review subsequently.

 

National Geographic Animal Encyclopedia: 2,500 Animals with Photos, Maps, and More! by National Geographic Kids

Pages:  304

Published: October 23, 2012

 

 

 

 

 

This book is fabulous!  I cannot believe this book that is so densely packed with information entertained my 4 and 6 year old nightly for a period of 6 months.  I might have thought the content would have been too dry, describing the diet, habitat, size and lifespan of animal after animal, however, my children were riveted.  The book is divided into sections by taxonomy:  mammals, birds, fish, invertebrates, amphibians reptiles.  Within each section, each page is devoted to a particular animal group and then goes more in depth on 8-10 particular species of that group.  I personally loved learning so much about all these animals.  We would make each page a game with me quizzing my children at the end of each page to see how much they retained.  Our  “Guess the Animal” game in the car has become quite sophisticated as a result of this book.  I loved how at the end of each taxonomy there is a page that goes into records: biggest, fastest, most poisonous, etc.  There are also pages describing researchers studying animal species in the wild which has served as a source of professional inspiration for my son.  If you have an animal lover in your family, I cannot recommend this book enough!  The photos are stunning, the maps detailing where the animals live are highly educational and there is so much depth to this book for great discussion to occur.  

 

Did You Know? Animals by DK Publishing

Pages: 144

Published: May 17, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

Having already tackled the National Geographic Encyclopedia of Animals, there was great enthusiam when this book entered our house, especially from my 4 year daughter.  This book was exactly what she wanted.  She would carry it around the house, begging for someone to read it to her and once it was finished, we would start again at the beginning.  Each page focuses on one animal species and starts with a question to get you thinking.  It discusses the answer to the question and gives descriptive information about the animal with arrows from the text to the relative anatomy.  It usually talks briefly about a couple of other animals who may have a similar behavior or adaption.  Then there is a “quick quiz” which covers topics that usually have not been covered in the text.  This did not cause concern for us.  We usually discussed the question, made a guess and then checked our answers in the back.  The re-reading was satisfying for my daughter because she was able to remember many of the answers to these “quick quizzes,” most of which we had been guessing at the first time around.  The photos are beautiful, the text engaging, and as demonstrated in our family… a great book for reading over and over.  

 

“Different?  Same!”  by Heather Tekavec and  Pippa Curnick (Illustrator)

Pages:  32

Expected Publication Date: May 2, 2017

 

 

 

This is a beautiful and playful animal book that seeks to engage young readers by pointing out differences between groupings of widely different animals and then asking what similarity exists.   The similarity might be stripes, horns, whiskers or shells.  It  is wonderfully written and beautifully illustrated.  It was engaging and fun to read with my four year old.  I would highly recommend this to readers 2-5 years old.  It makes you consider animals in different ways and think about why these vastly different animals might all have horns, whiskers, shells, etc.  We had fun with the last page of the book, pointing at various animals that all had a particular characteristic or habitat.  This is a great book for re-reading and generating discussion! 

 

“Animals Do Too!:  How They Behave Just Like You”  by Etta Kaner and Marilyn Faucher (Illustrator)

Pages:  32

Expected Publication Date:  May 2, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

This book asks the child a question followed by a discussion of how a particular animal likes to do the same thing.  It is playful in that it makes animal behavior seem childlike and fun.  A couple of examples are:  honeybees dance and gazelles play tag.  There are eight such children activity – animal behavior comparisons explored in this book.   This is a great read for any young animal lover, aged 2-5.  

 

“Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories” by Mariana Enriquez

Pages: 208

Expected Publication Date: February 21, 2017 (first published December 4, 2014 in Spanish)

 

 

 

 

Wow!  What a macabre, twisted way to get swept up in the life and culture of Argentina.  I love when I read books outside my usual genres and get blown away by them. These short stories invoke living nightmares and nightmarish creatures that dwell just below the surface of normal life and enter into these stories in unexpected ways.  There are ghosts of the past, horrific creatures, and a sense of the clairvoyance  in these pages.  Some of the descriptions within these stories brought to mind Stephen King’s writing, particularly “Adela’s House.”  Certain descriptions of graffiti in repetitive patterns of letters that don’t seem to spell anything and the creature with teeth filed into triangles that eats Paula’s live cat in “The Neighbor’s Courtyard” are two other particular examples that felt Stephen King-esque to me.

The setting for these stories is in various cities in Argentina, including Buenos Aires, Lanus, and Corrientes.  There is a sense of healing in the land, but there are horrors of the past lurking just beneath the surface.  Natalia in “Spiderweb” saw a burning building which 10 minutes later was charred down to the earth.  Someone else in that story saw a ghost rising from the cement of a bridge, within which dead bodies must have been hidden.  In “Under the Black Water” a buried monster dwells in a polluted river, which people had been trying to cover up.  Argentina’s Dirty War took place 1974 to 1983 and though it is not directly referenced in these stories, the horrors lurking just beneath the surface and these ghosts of the past are most certainly from that time.

There are many common themes that wind their way through these stories creating interest and intrigue.  Many of the characters in these stories are depressed, sometimes overwhelmingly so to the point of not being able to work anymore, hurting themselves,  and perhaps hallucinating.  In one story “Green Red Orange,”  Marco becomes locked in, not seeing people anymore.  He only opens his door when no one is there to get the food his mother has left him.  He only communicates with an old girlfriend via chat from his computer where he becomes obsessed with the deep web, where he can find the most horrific things.

Another theme running through many of these stories is dissatisfaction with boyfriends or husbands.  The boyfriends and husbands in these stories are not loved or desired by the protagonist.  They are depicted as being over-confident, arrogant, pig-headed and most importantly useless.  The boyfriends or husbands end up disappearing or leaving by the end of each story.  The final and titular story “Things We Lost in the Fire” begins with women being the subject of fires set by angry significant others.  The women then begin to burn themselves in protest creating a world of disfigured women.  This is a very disturbing brutal ending to this collection of stories.

There is obvious social commentary within the pages of these stories.  The author is definitely a feminist.  She has an interesting way of depicting wealth versus poverty and sane versus mentally unstable.  She definitely delves into a world of darkness and demons, most of us do not think about.  She recognizes horrors within her stories, that don’t even pertain to the main story, but are issues with the society at large.  In “Spiderweb” the soldiers at the Paraguayan restaurant with their large guns are harassing the waitress and are likely going to rape her, however, any intervention would get the narrator and Natalia raped.  However, I feel the greatest social commentary contained within these stories is directed at the horrors and brutality of the Dirty War and how the ghosts of that time continue to haunt the Argentinian people.

Each story, thrilling and terrifying, ends on a cliffhanger.   You, the reader, are left not knowing, still wondering, what was truth and fiction, and where things will go from there.   I highly recommend this collection of short stories from a gifted and talented Argentinian writer!  It will make the hair on your arms stand up.  

 

 

The original, untranslated stories

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What social commentary is the author making?
  2. What political commentary is the author making?
  3. What literary influences did you find in the author’s writing?
  4. Why do you think depression figures so heavily in these stories?
  5. Discuss the role of female friendship within these stories.
  6. What role do drugs and alcohol play within these stories?
  7. How do these stories reference Argentina’s Dirty War?
  8. Discuss Gauchito Gil, his dark violent mythology and his role in the death of the boy in “The Dirty Kid.”  Why does Gauchito Gil appeal to the people in the neighborhood of Constitucion?
  9. How does Enriquez characterize the police in these stories?
  10. What is the meaning of people disappearing within these stories?
  11. In “Under the Water” the people of the slum are repeating “In his house, the dead man waits dreaming.”  What is the meaning of this?
  12. What do you think the meaning of the title is?  Why do you think the author chose this story’s title to be the title of the book?
  13. In “Spiderweb,” what does spiderweb symbolize?

Interview with Mariana Enriquez by McSweeney’s

Review by Allerdale Reviews

“The Refugees” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Pages: 224

Publication Date: February 7, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

“I wrote this book for the ghosts, who, because they are outside of time, are the only one with time.” – prologue

What a timely book!  With the public debate about immigration in the forefront of everyone’s mind, with the executive and judicial branches of government battling out the legality of banning people from certain countries, the timing is perfect!   America’s history has been built upon accepting refugees from various countries. Between 1975 and 1995 over 480,000 people had immigrated to the United States.  Of the “boat people,” it is estimated that at least a third died.  This is exquisitely written, profoundly moving compilation of short stories, each one touching on the theme of immigration from Vietnam.

Viet Thanh Nguyen says he is writing these stories for the ghosts.  The first story in this book is most directly to that point.  The narrator is a ghost writer, telling other people’s stories not coming to terms with her own story until the ghost of her brother comes to visit her.   At that moment she confronts the trauma of her past.  Her brother risked his life to try to hide her as a boy when pirates raided their boat.  He was killed for it.  She was gang rapider front of her parents.  Her parents lamented her brother’s death, but never mentioned what had happened to her.  She carried the burden of her own trauma as well as of her brother’s death.  She was made to feel it was her fault.  She finally realizes she died too.  She is a ghost of the past and can write her own story.

The writing is incredible.  The stories themselves are beautiful, emotion-laden, with excellent character development and complexity.  The true nature behind the characters are revealed in unexpected ways.  The tension created by the juxtaposition of vietnamese culture in affluent America (as well as the converse) are explored.  These stories are not simply an exploration of Vietnamese culture and the refugee experience, but transcend that with the stories evoking so much truth about humanity that simply involve refugees as characters.

Rather than detail each short story, I highly recommend reading this brilliantly written grouping of 8 stories.  It is brief book, but packs a powerful punch.  These are stories that will move you and stay with you.  They are simply amazing!  

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Who are the ghosts in each story?  Why is it important to remember them?
  2. What does the term refugee mean?  How does it compare to expat or immigrant?
  3. Why does the father name his first and second set of children the same names in “The Fatherland”?  Discuss this.
  4. Nguyen also quotes James Fenton from the German Requiem in the prologue:  “It is not your memories which haunt you.  It is not what you have written down.  It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.  What you must go on forgetting all your life.”  How does this quote resonate with the stories contained in the book?  How do forgotten memories haunt characters within these stories?
  5. Liem, in  “The Other Man,” sees his mirror image and does not recognize himself.  Why?
  6. What does this statement mean in “The Americans”:  “Smiling at your relatives never got you far, but smiling at strangers and acquaintances sometimes did.”  Why does Claire feel more at home in Vietnam than she did in America?

Joyce Carol Oates’ Review published in the New Yorker

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s website

Review posted by fellow blogger, The Shrinkette

 

 

“The Animators” by Kayla Rae Whitaker

Pages:  384

Expected Publication Date:  January 31, 2017

 

 

 

 

Breathtaking, stunning debut novel!  It is amazing!  It is tragic, heartfelt, tender and brazen all at the same time.  I absolutely loved this!  I loved the journey it took me on.  I loved that I had no idea where this book was headed, but went along for a wild ride that had me laughing and crying.  There were so many areas of gray and missing pieces of information that I was itching to learn more about along the journey. These holes were so often filled in just when you thought you might not get the answers.  However, the missing pieces weren’t ever what was expected, never cliched.  This book is filled with tragedy, horrors, sadness, but also with redemption, hope and love.

The novel begins in art class with Mel and Sharon, two young women not quite fitting the usual mold at the upstate college they attend.  They are poorer, have experienced more hurt and pain, and seem to have no one.  That is, until they find each other.  They bond over old cartoons including Dirty DuckRen and StimpyClutch CargoFritz the Cat, and Heavy Traffic.  They begin working together at school and after graduation spending long days and nights working on their first movie together based on Mel’s mother, who was a drug-addicted prostitute.  They are both artists who have triangulated their futures together through their art.  Ten years later they are experiencing the success of their first film.  Mel is bold, confident, the life of the party.  Sharon is reserved, holding back, the more practical of the two.  Together they have become a great team.  They are best friends and work partners.  However, their friendship is tested by addiction, jealousy, and medical illness.

It is through their friendship with each other that they begin to rebuild themselves.  “She was the first person to see me as I had always wanted to be seen.  It was enough to indebt me to her forever.”  Their relationship is close, nurturing, subject to role reversals and also anger.

It is through their art that they come to terms with their pasts, redeeming themselves through a process of catharsis. Kayla Rae Whitaker beautifully describes how much they pour themselves into their work, how it is transformative, healing, and full of love.  It changes the way they feel about themselves, their childhoods, and it Sharon’s case it changes her relationship with her mother.

I loved the writing, the build-up of tensions, the breaking down of tensions.  I loved the power of the encounters between Sharon and her family.  It is amazing how much was conveyed with so little said, how tone and inaction spoke so loudly between them.  The characters are so vividly and fully developed, the relationships incredibly dynamic, and the storyline itself is unique, bold and exhilarating.

This book is incredible.  It has so much depth, energy, grit.  I highly recommend this to everyone!  This will make an excellent book club choice.  

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What is art to Mel and Sharon?  What does it symbolize?
  2. Discuss Mel’s reaction to her mother’s death.  Do you think she feels guilty at all for creating a movie about her mother?
  3. Discuss the role of drugs and alcohol in this novel.  Who are the addicts and why?
  4. Why did Sharon keep her list a secret from Mel?
  5. Why do you think Teddy features so prominantly in Sharon’s list?  Is it because he was her first friend or because he showed her his father’s pictures?
  6. What do you think it is between Sharon and Teddy that brings them together romantically when she finds him in Louisville?
  7. Why is Teddy so upset that he is portrayed in Sharon’s movie?  Is this rational?
  8. Mel begins losing weight and drinking heavily leading up to her accidental death by overdose.  Why was she so depressed?
  9. Discuss the tension between Sharon and her mother.  How does it finally begin to ease and why?
  10. How do you think this last project that Mel had started and Sharon finally starts to put together will come together?  How do you predict the progression of the story?
  11. Was Mel in love with Sharon?

Kayla Rae Whitaker’s website

An Interview with Kayla Rae Whitaker

Fellow Blogger, Simon McDonald’s Review

“The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” by Lindsey Lee Johnson

Pages: 288

Published:  January 10, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

This is a horrific story of a group of seemingly heartless children following them from 8th grade through senior year.  They live in Mill Valley, a wealthy city within Marin County.  They are entitled, spoiled, and largely ignored by their parents.  Through the use of social media they are also extremely dangerous.  Each chapter is told from the perspective of a student or teacher.  Even the teachers in this book are awful.  They are trying to relive their high school years by relating and engaging with the children inappropriately.  This is a book that disgusted and enraged me, but also scared me to death (as a mother).  This books warns of the horrors of social media, how it betrays friendships, how people can be heartless and ruthless on social media with no regard to feelings and outcomes.  It warns how children and adults can make very big mistakes online, how a small mistake in real life can be amplified by social media to social and emotional ruin.

This group of children in particular is savage.  Social standing is everything.  Relationships lack depth.  Anyone can stab you in the back if it might earn you higher social standing.    With all that these kids were going through and experiencing, they each seemed to be islands, lacking close friendships or supportive families.  They did not share personal details of their lives with their friends, they did not confide in their friends.  Their friends were there solely for the purpose of social standing.  The children appear lost, unhappy, and in some cases were trying to become someone else rather than discover who they really were.

At it’s core this book is about bullying and I felt it was a cry that we as a society should be doing more to prevent it, to address it once it happens, and acknowledge that it will likely happen again.  There are so many students that participated in the bullying and the bulk of it was done online where people can hide behind screens and become more heartless.  How do we as a society, as communities, as school address the online lives of our children?  How much freedom and independence do we give them versus close monitoring?  What kind of limits should be imposed?

Towards the end of the novel, Molly is made to shut down her Facebook account by the school administration because of her over-involvement online with her students.  “At least for a while, she’d reside in the land of the actual, where she might discover who her real friends were.  Where she might discover herself.”

As hard as this was to read, I think there is an excellent message to this book.  It asks a lot of questions and hopefully will get people thinking.  The character development was excellent and I enjoyed reading and getting inside the heads of various different students and teachers.  I thought it was an interesting twist that Ryan gets taken advantage of through social media at the end, however, it did seem a little far-fetched and out of character for him.  My first inclination was to give this 3 stars,  however I’m bumping it up to 4 because it brings up a lot of great discussion points.  This would make for an excellent book club read. 

Royal Blue Awareness Ribbon

 

 

 

Mill Valley, CA

located in Marin County

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Name all the victims of bullying within this book.  In what ways were they bullied?
  2. Molly Nicoll had been a victim of bullying in high school.  She thinks back that it was better not to be noticed than to be a target, which she became after a terrible haircut.  How does this relate to other victims of bullying within this book?
  3. Discuss Doug Ellison and Abigail Cress’s relationship.  Who has more to lose if people found out?  Do you think Doug Ellison has had previous relationships with his students?
  4. Why does Calista relate to the line in “Great Gatsby” where Jordan Baker says to Nick, “I hate careless people.”  Why is it that Calista hates careless people?  Who does she consider careless?
  5. Calista tells Molly “Nothing ever goes back.”  Does it seem like the rest of the school pretends that it does?
  6. Compare and contrast the social hierarchy among the students versus the teachers.
  7. Beth tells Molly “It’s only geography dear.”  What is the meaning behind this statement?
  8. Why do you think Molly yearns to understand and become close to her students?  Do you feel it is appropriate?  Where is the line?
  9. Calista contemplates suicide.  Why?  Why is she so unhappy?
  10. How is Ryan ultimately taken advantage of towards the end of the book?  Is this bullying?
  11. There is a recurring theme of people wanting to be different, of trying to reinvent themselves.  Why do you think this is?
  12. Why do you think so much of the bullying happens online rather than face to face?
  13. What do you think could be done differently to prevent bullying?
  14. The students involved online were given a brief suspension for the bullying that led to Tristan’s suicide.  Do you feel this sentence was adequate?  What should the consequences be?
  15. What kind of monitoring should parents have over online correspondence of their children?

Lindsey Lee Johnson’s website

Review by Sarah Nyall in the New York Times

Review by Fellow Blogger Becky Renner

Review by fellow blogger “Mad Book Love”

The Book Reporter’s Review

“Hag-Seed” by Margaret Atwood

 

28588073

 

Pages:  256

 

Expected Publication Date:  October 11, 2016

 

 

 

“the island is a theatre.  Prospero is a director.  He’s putting on a play, within which there’s another play.  If his magic holds and his play is successful, he’ll get his heart’s desire.  But if he fails…”

This is a marvelous re-telling of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”  It is a tale of prisons within prisons, of prisoners who do not realize they’re imprisoned, of vengeance and revenge.  The most beautiful part of this book is that it is prisoners who are putting on the play and their thoughts on the characters, plot and imagined future outcomes are all explored.  Margaret Atwood’s retelling, in effect, goes deeper than the original.  I, as the reader, was left amazed at how well all the intricacies of plot worked out to mirror the original work in such a way that it actually took the plot further, creating a doubling effect:  a play within a play (maybe within another play).  It feels genius as you read it, and further intensifies the prisons within prisons theme.

This is fourth installment of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, in which excellent writers are tackling retellings of Shakespeare’s literature.  “The Tempest” is the last written work of William Shakespeare, written in 1610-1611.  I plan to re-read “The Tempest” and rewrite this review (or at least rethink it).  I am that inspired by this novel.

There were a couple fairly major departures from the novel.  The largest being that, Miranda, Felix’s daughter in Atwood’s version has died at the age of 3, however Felix imagines he still sees her and she is there with him until the end of the novel when he is able to release her.  I actually think this brings an additional element of fantasy to the novel, a hint of madness to the sorcerer.  She actually becomes entwined into the role of the fairy as enacted in the prison.  It also allows for another level of imprisonment.

This version does not take place on an island, but Felix (Prospero) banishes himself to a remote area living in a shack with landlords that maybe never were.  It is all very mysterious.  He lives in seclusion for twelve years prior to taking the job at the prison where through a literacy program he and the inmates re-enact Shakespeare plays.  It is here at the correctional facility that “The Tempest” is re-enacted in more ways than one with the outcome that Felix desires, the overthrowing of Antonio who had taken away his theater directorship.

The work that Felix does at the correctional facility feels magical.  The relationship he develops with the inmates and the enthusiasm and interest they show for working on the plays seems incredible.  As quoted from Felix within the novel, “Maybe the island really is magic.  Maybe it’s a kind of mirror:  each one sees in it a reflection of his inner self.  Maybe it brings out who you really are.   Maybe it’s a place where you’re supposed to learn something.  But what is each one of these people supposed to learn?  And do they learn it?”  This seems to be exactly what is happening within Felix’s theater in the prison.

This is a novel full of modern day wit, whimsy, vigor.  Margaret Atwood infuses rap, dance, old world swearing, and much self discovery into the prisoner’s re-enactment.  It is super fun to read, yet has its dark melancholic side in true Atwood form, and can be dissected in so many ways.  The prisoners each have their own interpretations of the characters and their expected outcomes, which is true of all great literature.    I highly recommend this to Shakespeare fans or just fans of great literature!  This is Atwood at her best!  images

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Discuss the theme of prisons and how it relates to the theme of the play/novel.
  2. How do you feel about the doubling effect this retelling has on the original?
  3. Discuss the modernization of the play within the prison setting with rewriting and song/rap and dance.  How is this true to the original and how does it differ?
  4. Discuss the role of magic and fantasy in the original “The Tempest” and in Atwood’s retelling.  How do drugs help in the retelling?
  5. Why do you think she titled the novel “Hag-Seed?”
  6. Discuss the role of Caliban?  In what way is Caliban, “this thing of darkness” in some sense Prospero’s?
  7. Felix tells his class that there were 9 prisons within Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”  How many prisons can you count within this novel?  Can you make a list of prisoner/prison/jailer?
  8. What is music used for within this novel?
  9. What is magic used for?
  10. Who are the monsters?
  11. Who wants revenge and why?

 

Review of Hag-Seed from “The Scotsman”

Margaret Atwood’s website

“Nicotine” by Nell Zink

 

28512751

 

 

 

Pages: 304

Expected Publication Date:  October 4, 2016

 

 

“She wills her body to be equally wraithlike.  Not sodden, not heavy, not dead, but filled with crackling, electric life, like a stale Marlboro on fire.”

Nell Zink’s “Nicotine” is a social satire on a grand scale.  It invokes and satirizes the philosophies of shamanism, pragmatism, and anarchy.  It begins with Amalia at age 13 being “adopted” by Norm from a garbage heap in Cartagena, Columbia.  From there, the novel flash forwards to Amalia’s daughter, Penny, at age 12 at her father’s psychadelic healing center.  Her mother is now “married” to Norm and Penny has two older half brothers, who happen to be older than her mother.

When Penny’s father falls ill and is on hospice, Penny is the primary caregiver.  It is said by many of the Shamanist followers at the funeral services that Penny always had that spiritual connection like Norm.

Upon her father’s death, Penny, now in her 20s (a recent business school grad) thinks she will take over his childhood home which has been taken over by squatters, anarchists that are united by their love of nicotine.  Hence, the the name “Nicotine” for the house they have squatted.  There are many houses in this area of New Jersey being squatted by millennials.  Penny falls in love with one of the squatters, who happens to be asexual, and decides to live with them.  Her brother, Matt, decides he will kick out the squatters and he, too, falls in love with one of the squatters.

Penny’s mother initially declares her love for Matt (Penny’s half-brother) which is not returned.  However, this brings up questions of what happened when they were younger.  Could Matt be Penny’s father?  Amalia, too, goes to try to kick out the squatters, and falls in love with one of them.

Matt is a huge sociopath and gets what he deserves when he lands in a huge amount of shit.  Everyone and everything gets confused and turned on its head.  “Nicotine” becomes the “Norman Baker Center” bringing together the Norman Baker followers and millennials alike.

This one was tough for me to connect to.   I appreciated the social satire and the brilliance of the author, but honestly did not feel too much for the characters.  It felt like all of the ideas were thrown together in a slurry and the result was interesting and at times amusing, but just did not seem as polished as it could have been.  2star

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Discuss how and why this is a social satire?  How are the millennials portrayed?
  2. Why do you think Rob was portrayed as asexual in the beginning? What do you think made him sexual in the end?
  3. What do you speculate was the nature of Amalia and Matt’s relationship when they were younger?
  4. Why do you think Jazz continues to communicate with Matt, even after it’s clear that he is a sociopath?  Do you think she still has feelings for him?
  5. What is the role of Sorry in this novel?  Discuss the meaning of her name.
  6. What is your view of Norm by the end of the novel?
  7. What secrets do you think he wanted to write down before he was rendered incapable of doing so?
  8. How are the police depicted in this novel?
  9. How does the book depict pragmatism, anarchy and shamanism?  How does it satirize these philosophies?

Review of “Nicotine” published in “The Guardian”

An interview with Nell Zink published by “The Millions”