Book Review

Book Review: A Book That Takes Its Time

Book Review: A Book That Takes Its Time | Writing Between Pauses

Do you ever impulse buy something that turns out to be done of the best decisions you ever made? 

That's about how I feel about this book: A Book That Takes Its Time, by Irene Smit and Astrid van der Hulst. I bought this on impulse at Target in late March; it was on sale, it looked pretty, and I was intrigued by the mini notebook that the book opened to automatically. (They know how to sucker me in, honestly.) It was only when I got home that I realized this was more than a fun journaling book; it was a book dedicated to helping people learn mindfulness in a way that is creative and helps ease anxiety. 

Take time to breathe. Take time to create. Take time to reflect, take time to let go. A book that’s unique in the way it mixes reading and doing, A Book That Takes Its Time is like a mindfulness retreat between two covers.

Created in partnership with Flow, the groundbreaking international magazine that celebrates creativity, beautiful illustration, a love of paper, and life’s little pleasures, A Book That Takes Its Time mixes articles, inspiring quotes, and what the editors call “goodies”—bound-in cards, mini-journals, stickers, posters, blank papers for collaging, and more—giving it a distinctly handcrafted, collectible feeling.

Read about the benefits of not multitasking, then turn to “The Joy of One Thing at a Time Notebook” tucked into the pages. After a short piece on the power of slowing down, fill in the designed notecards for a Beautiful Moments jar. Make a personal timeline. Learn the art of hand-lettering. Dig into your Beginner’s Mind. Embrace the art of quitting. Take the writing cure. And always smile. Move slowly and with intention through A Book That Takes Its Time, and discover that sweet place where life can be both thoughtful and playful.

I've been pretty open about my mental health here on my blog (although there are certain things I am hesitant to share and I still wonder if my mental health story would be more full if I shared them--but c'est la vie, right now, I'm not sure if I want them as part of my public history). I've shared about my postpartum depression. I've shared the habits I've started to help reduce my anxiety, as well as tips to reduce stress. I've written about how staying creative helps me be a better mom. I've talked on Instagram about how I struggle with boredom (I get bored very easily, but with a toddler to manage, it's hard to actually dedicate myself to projects), as well as perfectionism and imposter syndrome. I feel like I always need to be busy in order to feel productive--and when I'm not productive, I turn to destructive behaviors, like stress eating and napping throughout the day, which only compounds my feelings of boredom and disappointment in myself. 

Millennial Culture

At the center of A Book That Takes Its Time is the idea that it is ok to slow down; it is ok to not be working every waking hour, even though it has been drilled into us (especially us millennials) that being productive matters more than anything else. That being busy is a competition and if you admit to not being busy, you have somehow failed. 

Each chapter walks you through a specific part of learning to be more mindful about the world around you. About letting yourself just sit in silence for a little while, instead of scrolling through your phone while watching TV. About learning to name the plants and animals you see outside your home, so you can more fully connect to the natural world. About learning hobbies, like lettering and collaging, that give you time to disconnect from the digital world and unwind. 

Mindfulness

Learning mindfulness, especially for someone like me who finds themselves thinking of 100 things every second of the day, can be a real challenge. But also at the heart of A Book That Takes Its Time is the idea that once you allow yourself to really relax and be mindful, you actually get more done in the time that you're working. That thought is somewhat revolutionary to me: I tend to think of work as a glass to fill up, that can never overflow. But if you're constantly overflowing, you never really fill the glass. 

I really enjoyed working on all the chapters and activities in this book. It has helped me to relax and really unwind in the evening (instead of lying in the bathtub pretending to relax, but really listening to a marketing podcast and answering emails at the same time). There are some activities I have skipped--like lettering, which is very labor intensive and sparks some feelings of perfectionism for me--but I've otherwise enjoyed just about everything, from learning the names of plants and animals to working on a 30-day writing journal. It has helped me to get back into bullet journaling and feeling passionate about art journaling in the evening. And as a bonus, I have gotten more done since then. 

I don't want to make a grand statement like, this book totally helped my anxiety! That's just not true. I'm still anxious most days. I still struggle with boredom during the day with Forrest and I've yet to find a good solution for that. However, I found reading this book very relaxing and gave me some methods to deal with my feelings of guilt surrounding being busy and working, as well as dealing with my anxiety.

If you're interested, this is a great book for those wanting to learn about being mindful, especially if you're a bit high strung (like me). You can find it on Amazon here

Book Review: "If the Creek Don't Rise" by Leah Weiss

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Also, warning, this review DOES contain spoilers. 

Start to finish, this book was beautifully written. Leah Weiss deserves credit for weaving a beautifully told tale that captivates readers, allowing them to appreciate and sympathize with the people of Appalachia. 

However, there were a few parts of the novel that just felt a little... unnecessary. At the end of the copy I received, the story is framed as being about Sadie. And while that does feel true, there is a significant portion of the novel dedicated to Kate Shaw (the teacher), Eli (the preacher), and Prudence (Eli's sister who tries to get rid of Kate). This storyline, revolving around Eli falling in love with Kate, a woman who is in a relationship with another woman named Rachel, and Prudence using a letter from Rachel to try and get Kate run out of town. This story is never returned to; instead, Kate is roped back into Sadie's story when she loses the baby. That's fine and good... but what happens to Kate? What does Prudence do? Does Eli find out about Kate?

This is an entire plot line that is introduced, followed, and then promptly abandoned in favor of Sadie's much less interesting story. No offense, Sadie. On another note, we also get some amazing parts from Sadie's grandmother, but then, we also never hear from her again. It's disappointing to meet these great characters and then have them promptly abandoned.  

The end of the novel just felt too tidy. We get a story about Roy and Billy disposing of Darlene's body. Darlene is a sex worker in town who Roy falls in love with and starts paying attention to instead of beating Sadie, which is nice. However, he discovers that when he runs out of money, Darlene immediately starts seeing other men (because he apparently struggles with the concept of what a sex worker does and thought Darlene was in love with him), so he kills her. We then jump to Sadie deciding to finally kill Roy. She makes some hemlock poison, mixes it with Roy's moonshine, and then... it turns out Billy shoots Roy while they're hunting. Ok. Cool. That's...? Simple. It's just too tidy. The rest of the novel felt messy: Kate and the preacher, Kate and Rachel back home, the medicine woman, the violence of the entire area... and then, in the end, Sadie gets the job done for her by Billy. 

She then tells Billy to take Roy's moonshine, obviously with the intent to kill him. Again, that's cool, but it's just a little too easy, isn't it? Someone does the work for her, she then offs that person to make sure no one ever finds out (and also to prevent herself from having to fall in with Billy as, I don't know, a favor in return for killing Roy?), and the novel just ends. 

We don't find out about Kate and Rachel; we don't find out about Prudence and what she does; we don't find out about Eli. We never see Marris or Gladys again, or Birdie, or anyone else. These characters just disappear at the end of the novel and we're expected to believe that the story was only about Sadie all along. No, the story was about ALL of them, so all of the storylines need to be wrapped up. 

It's frustrating to get to the end of a novel that truly had me enraptured... only to find the last page is the last page and not everything is done. Sadie got her ending, but what about everyone else? What about the family that Sadie went to see in the store, whose son had been injured in a mine? What happened to him? There are so many pieces of information we are given that are never followed up on and from a reader's standpoint, that's just sloppy storytelling. 

The book is beautifully written, truly. The story was enchanting. But I feel in the end, Weiss perhaps lost steam and decided to end with Sadie. Which is her choice, ultimately, but it doesn't feel like the right one. I also suspect that a fair amount of editing whittled down the story and perhaps created the thread, via Eli, Prudence, and Kate, needed to get back to Sadie. It just feels abrupt for the reader though. Again, all that being said, a book I thoroughly enjoyed reading and would read again. 


Book Review: All the Dead Girls, by Rita Herron

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Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book via NetGalley. You can read my disclosure policy here. As a warning, this review does contain significant spoilers. 

Uuuuuuuuugh, where do I start with this book?

As I posted on Instagram recently, I... wanted to like it. I feel like it had a lot of good things going for it. Unfortunately, it suffered from a few flaws. But a few, I mean quite a few. By quite a few, I mean, ok, a lot. I'm trying to be nice here. 

Here's a brief synopsis: Beth, formerly JJ, was abducted, alongside her best friend, Sunny, 15 years before. In the small town of Graveyard Falls, after a tornado devastates the the area, a massive graveyard full of the bodies of adolescent girls is discovered. Beth, now an FBI agent, teams up with her former high school crush-turned-sheriff (Ian, who ditched her the night she was abducted and whose stepfather was arrested for her abduction and Sunny's disappearance) to investigate the crime. 

Firstly, we are introduced to FAR too many characters throughout the book. The point of view switches too many times. First we have JJ, then Beth, who is JJ, then Ian, then Prissy, then the murderer, then the Reverend, then Vanessa. It's. Just. Too. Many. It's back and forth, back and forth. I'm a firm believer in keeping point of view as simple as possible to avoid tense confusion. (I'm terrible with tense in the first place in my own writer. Don't confuse me while I'm reading too!) 

I think my biggest issue with all this is the way that plot moves forward. Too much happens, but none of it makes sense or is logical. We as readers as asked to suspend disbelief too many times. Within any novel, you are suspending disbelief because novels don't necessarily represent reality, but rather an artistic representation of the world. But sometimes, it's just too much.  

Firstly, Beth would not be allowed to work on a case where a girl she was kidnapped with was found. This is her case. She is investigating a serial killer that targeted her specifically. I mean, that's really the biggest suspension of disbelief: the FBI would never allow a victim to work on the case as in the capacity of an agent. There is just no way for her to remain partial regarding the case. The same goes for the main male character, Ian, whose father was arrested for Beth's abduction when they were teenagers. Guess what? He's working the case too! Two people who would never be allowed to work on a case in reality are solving it as partners. That makes absolutely no sense. The FBI would never compromise themselves or a case this way. These storylines don't stand up on shows like Bones or Criminal Minds, let alone in novels. 

So, that's a shaky, rough start. One funny part at the beginning was when the "boneyard" (groan) is found. At least a dozen girls buried in a remote patch of woods. Ian, when gazing out over this field, notes that one skeleton is less deteriorated than the others. Throughout the novels, these are referred to as bones, suggesting that all of bodies have decomposed; however, they also talk about a girl who was murdered like a few weeks before. There is no way she would have been completely skeletonized at that point. Then I realized it: Rita Herron is uncomfortable writing about the actual appearance of these bodies, so she just refers to them as skeletons and the skeletons decomposing. It's so bizarre. 

I also took serious issue with the introduction of Prissy: we sympathize with her, we see the unsub return to her again and again and again throughout the novel, we hope for her survival... and then she's just dead. And then, it switches and it's Vanessa! Listen, Herron, a word of advice, one writer to another: if you introduce a character like this, in jeopardy, the reader is attached. It is a bad idea to 1) kill that character, but also 2) kill that character and then have the unsub abduct ANOTHER character right after. Like, c'mon. I feel like it was only done to add time, but I feel like so much could have been cut (the constant spoon-feeding of how "broken" and "victimized" Beth was... please, gag me, the mushy romance that was just super gross at times, Ian's worries about his mom which only bother him when the book needs a little filler) to actually save Prissy and keep that tension. We spend too much time at Prissy's house, learning about her, following her, and then she's just gone... and so is the tension of the book. It falls flat on its face before the story is even resolved. 

Ok, so, everyone take a seat. It's time to talk about Cocoa. The minute Cocoa was introduced (alongside her restaurant Cocoa's Cafe), I thought, "she better not be black." Guess what, guys? This book is not only operating on the assumption that the FBI would ever let a kidnapping victim investigate her own case, but it's also racist. Fun! 

Hey, Rita Herron, FYI: This is racist as all hell. DO NOT compare a person of color's skin to food in your novel. And then, do not name your only POC character after that color! GOOD GOD. And then the constant, "Cocoa is the heart of this community! She takes care of everybody! She gives away food!" And yet all the kids in town are racist as hell towards her granddaughter? 

Don't play that game, Rita Herron. The town you created is racist as hell and Cocoa would not be running a successful restaurant. If the kids are being racist to the granddaughter, it's because the parents are racist and while they might go to Cocoa's Cafe, they sure as hell wouldn't treat Cocoa much better. (God, I hate typing the name Cocoa.) I have trouble putting into words how inappropriate the character of Cocoa (and by extension, Cocoa's husband Deon and the granddaughter Vanessa) are, but if I'm offended and weirded out by these characters, I cannot imagine how a POC actually reading this book would react. This is the most problematic part of this book and it's because it feels so gross and so racist. 

Ok, we've covered the blatant racism. Now, let's talk about how everything is spoon-fed to us. 

Over and over again, Beth mulls (and mulls and mulls) over how victimized she is. How she experienced amnesia. How she needs to just remember. She just tells us these things. We aren't ever shown these things. Occasionally, Beth blanks out and freaks out over something, like the Deathscape game or a picture. This is not only super unprofessional, but it makes me think: How would Beth EVER pass the FBI psych test? (Hint: she probably wouldn't. Sorry, Beth/JJ/whatever.) It's all so blatantly spoon-fed to us and as a reader, it feels like pandering. I don't want Beth to tell me over and over that she's been victimized, but she's ok, but she's scared, but she's fine, really, but she's freaking out at a blood donation van. Like, ok, maybe just show me these things and let me draw the conclusion on my own? As a reader? Which is the job of the reader? 

The same goes for everything with Ian. We are spoon-fed everything about Ian, but my only takeaway regarding Ian is that he is super inappropriate with his female coworkers and he needs to calm down. Dude, don't be nasty. We're supposed to feel bad for him because his (step)father was arrested for Beth's abduction, but all the evidence pointed to his stepfather and I can't actually find any point where Ian shows genuine emotion for his stepfather. We're just told he does, but that's not the same as actually seeing. As every creative writing teacher has ever said ever: show, don't tell, stupid.  

Let's talk about how terrible at his job Ian is. In the first 25% of the book, right after Ian knows to look for someone obsessed with religious symbols and lives in the remote mountains around town, Cocoa herself tells him that a guy who lives in the mountains (ding) is painting religious paintings (ding) for an auction for the town. IAN, GET THAT GUY'S NAME. Cocoa just did at least 50% of your job. Why are you so bad at your job?? Multiple people mention this guy to Ian and he just ignores it. But when I first read it, I was like, "it was that guy." Guess what? It's not. But they DO arrest that guy near the end of the book. We could have literally skipped half of this terrible novel if Ian would just listen to the poor woman. 

Also, I refuse to believe that there are THIS MANY DUDES in a tiny town with only one restaurant obsessed with punishing 14-year-old girls, bloodletting, and religious symbology. It's another suspension of disbelief because, prior to this novel, two separate serial killers were found in this small town. So in this novel alone they arrest the actual serial killer plus a guy who was punishing girls and performing exorcisms with bloodletting plus a guy who paints religious symbology in blood. That's just too much in one small town. The serial killer aspect is fine, but the larger narrative of this religious cult that is obsessed with punishing 14-year-old girls for being "sinners" requires me to believe that men are just absolute scum and feminism teaches me otherwise. No thank you.  

Another big glaring FBI issue: when the director tells Beth she's off the case and she disobeys him. He says she's too close to the case (which he would have never allowed her onto in the first place, but whatever) and tells her she's on a break. She doesn't and Ian doesn't care. She would be fired immediately. ASAP. The FBI don't give a hoot. Also, when she shoots the coach? Yeah, her gun would IMMEDIATELY be confiscated as evidence, no exceptions. The director wouldn't "let her keep it because she needs to protect herself." No. It's evidence. She shot someone! This isn't how investigations work! She had also been kicked off the case at that point, so technically she's a rogue agent who just shot a civilian. She would be in handcuffs. I can't. It's so unrealistic. 

When I originally wrote my review on Goodreads, I forgot to include the dumbest part: at the end of the novel, Ian tracks Beth down in Knoxville (so... ugh, romantic?) and proposes. They've been friends for about 2 weeks at this point. Beth shot his dad. And he proposes? Ok, sure, that's how romantic relationships work. It's so gross. It feels like Beth is just like, "ok, I'm healed now! I went through some stuff and wasn't ok, but now I'm ok because I have a man!" And I just... I would like Beth to go to therapy and really think about if she likes Ian or not. Because Ian's gross. 

There's so much more I could talk about. I wanted to like this novel because the serial killer aspect is so good and the crime is actually really convincing. I like Beth as a character when we aren't being spoonifed every single aspect of her personality. There are just so many issues that detract from what sounds like a good prompt. I wish it was better. But it's not. 

To read my original view on Goodreads (and follow my reviews!), click here. If you like the content here on Writing Between Pauses, I'd love if you'd take a second to subscribe to my newsletter

Is it Bad to Write Bad Reviews?

I'm a very active Goodreads reviewer. (You can add me on Goodreads here.) Since I read a good number of NetGalley books, and some of those books are categorically Not So Great, I end up writing a fair number of bad or so-so reviews. Sometimes, I get replies that my review is too harsh (as if holding authors and editors to standards of grammar and cohesive plots is "too harsh", but ok) or a "doozy." 

I read a lot of romance novels. And I'd say about 75% of published romance novels are categorically "bad." They might be "so bad they're good" or that kind of guilty pleasure bad. But they're still bad, in terms of plot and characterization. That's what I review for: is the plot cohesive? Are the characters well-rounded? Are their actions believable within their universe and personality? No? Then, you have work to do. 

There are a pretty high number of Goodreads users who start reviews with something like, "If I don't like a book, I don't finish it or review it." So basically, they only review the books they like. That's fine, but how does that help other readers decide if a book is worth their time? How does it help bring attention to something a newer author needs to work on? How does it help people find diverse books? Here's the thing: it doesn't. 

It's not possible to like everything. And that's ok. 

I love reading! I even love reading terrible books (really). But if I start a book with all 5-star reviews and realize halfway through it feels like it was written all in one sitting with absolutely no editing work or attempt at cohesiveness, well, I'm gonna be a little disappointed. And I'll start to question my sanity. What are those 5-star reviewers seeing that I'm not? It leads to me feeling a little, well, confused. Then I remember: so many people just don't write bad reviews. They don't want to do it. 

I totally understand. When you're reviewing a book, you're reviewing someone's work. Even if it is bad, it's something they worked hard on. But that being said, no one can improve if they aren't told how to. They can't change things if they don't know they need to, if they don't know that it isn't working. As a writer who really struggles to share my work publicly, it can be stressful to ask for feedback on something that feels so personal--but you need feedback to grow. Even professional author's need readers feedback to see what works and what doesn't. 

Readers also need that feedback to make better decisions about what books they want to read. 

So, is it bad to write bad reviews? Is it mean? Should I stop doing it? No, absolutely not. Writing critical reviews of books isn't a personal attack on an author; it's a necessary part of interacting in the literary world. We have to be critical some times to effect change and improve literature. 

Book Review: The Lauras

I took a break from book reviews for a while, but I decided it was time. I've been reading a ton (thanks to Kindle Unlimited!) and I've been diving into Goodreads. This review originally appeared on Goodreads; you can follow my reviews & reads on Goodreads here. This review does contain spoilers, so if you have not read the Lauras yet, drop everything and go read it. Then read this review. 

Disclaimer: I was provided a copy of this book from NetGalley. 

To sum up my feelings about this book in one word: wow. 

I started this book with no preconceptions about it. I had heard of it, vaguely, but hadn't done any research on it whatsoever. When I requested it from NetGalley, I barely read the description. 

Thus, I didn't really know what to expect. That's usually the best way to start a book: fresh. 

The Lauras is a sweeping story, romantic in that way that it is invested in relationships, both small and big, and the ways in which our lives spread out from us, reverberating over and over again. It's about America, about choosing to live your life your own way. It's touching and frustrating, all at once. 

I have to give Sara Taylor credit for portraying characters outside the binary: Alex, the main character, is genderless, preferring to exist as an either-or-neither. (For the sake of this review, I will refer to Alex by the singular "they" pronoun. Alex's mother, called Ma throughout the novel, will be referred to by the pronoun "she/her.") This is the first book I have read with such a character--one that is still vibrant and loving, sexual and full. Just not defined by a singular gender. I also appreciate that Alex's mother is attracted to both men and women, referenced multiple times throughout the book in the form of the Lauras, and that many periphery characters are portrayed as bisexual as well. 

Alex's mother decides, one night, to leave her husband, Alex's father, and take Alex on a cross-country road trip to pay her debts, visit her old haunts, and generally tell Alex a little more about her life. In many ways, it is sweeping; in other ways, it is purposefully vague, featuring older Alex butting in as the narrator, pointing out times where they are not sure if they remember things correctly or purposefully hide things to avoid shame. It's a charming way to write a story, sure, but I found myself unfulfilled at the end for a few reasons (and perhaps that was the point after all--rarely in life are stories like this, stories where your mother wakes up in the middle of the night and drags you away from the life you've known, tied up neatly at the end).

Mostly, I just wanted to know that Alex was okay, that after such an uprooting they were able to make sense of their life. Did Alex become a reporter, a musician, a professional roadtripper? 

Mainly, the concept of the Lauras is a little confusing, again, perhaps purposefully. Throughout her life, Ma met a variety of "Lauras" (whether they are all named Laura or she just renamed them "Laura" is up for debate, even to Ma and Alex), women that impacted her life in some way.In the end, they travel to Canada to meet one of the Lauras, the Laura that Ma wants to spend her life with. It's never made clear which Laura, described by Ma/Alex previously, it is, but I suspect it is the College-Laura. They all, ultimately, blur into one face, one name. Some are never revisited. Some, Ma dwells on. 

The title suggests that the journey is about the Lauras, but really it's just about one Laura (the Laura in Canada, hinted at earlier in the novel through a map that Alex inspects). However, the most compelling parts of the journey are not related to the Lauras at all, or even tangentially. After they leave Florida (their first pitstop for a year to earn money), they travel to Mississippi, where Ma had worked one summer on a crab boat with her two friends, Anthony and Marisol. Marisol is one of the most vibrant characters in the books--one I wish that more time had been spent on. That summer is romantic and vibrant, sweaty and southern; I want to read more about it. But it's glossed over in favor of a water funeral, performed by Ma, at sunset. 

Next, they travel through Texas, where their car loses a wheel, leaving them stranded, conveniently, in a town where another of Ma's college friends lives. This college friend, Mary-Margaret, was once a bisexual college girl who, after losing both her parents, got caught up in a strict, Christian cult (for lack of a better term) that reminds me of the Duggars. She has a horde of children, including a 17-year-old girl named Anne-Marie. 

Ma and Alex help Anne-Marie escape before she can be married off to someone of her father's choice. This is one of the best parts of the novel--the anticlimactic moment where Ma helps Annie escape, leaves her with her older brother (who also, as children of cults tend to do, escaped), and then worries about her incessantly for the rest of the trip. I wanted to read more about Annie, about her life post-cult, but that's another book.

My point is, these compelling, interesting moments have nothing to do with Lauras. But maybe (maybe) Marisol is a Laura too. And maybe Annie is a Laura for Alex. 

Like most good novels, this made me think. It made me sad. It made me not miss being 13, 14, 15 at all. It made me want to road trip around America, work in dingy bars and stay in cheap apartments--be a little dangerous. Excellent, compelling, and worth a read. Highly, highly recommended to anyone who loves a good road trip, reading gripping motherhood-based stories, and just loves good writing in general.

The Lauras is not available through Amazon at the moment, but the last time I checked, it's still available for a digital copy via NetGalley! 

The Best Book I Read in January: "Life After Life," by Kate Atkinson

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When I first wrote my list of 100 books I wanted to read in 2015, I included a few books I'd been wanting to read for months. One of those books was Kate Atkinson's Life After Life

I'd repeatedly carried Life After Life around book stores, put it in my Amazon shopping cart, and read reviews. I'd thought about reading it a lot, but something always stopped me. To be completely honest, I think I was put off by the cover: there is something overly sappy about it, as if it will be a bad romance novel. I'm not a huge fan of novels that are epic, sweeping romance dramas. I just find them a bit boring. I want more from my novels. 

This past weekend, I found myself looking at a few blissful hours of alone time. Danny was sick and had homework to do; I'd cleaned the house, done the laundry, washed the bedding. With so many hours, I didn't want to just sit and watch TV. I spent a way-too-stressful hour looking at my book list and reading reviews on Amazon. 

Twice, I settled on Life After Life and changed my mind. Finally, I bit the bullet and bought the book, sending it to my Kindle. 

I had read reviews, sure, but I wasn't 100% aware of the big plot point until I started reading the book.  I'll get to that in a second though. 

I read Life After Life in two days. That in itself is not an endorsement: I can read most books in two days, one day if I really dedicate myself to it. However, I found myself talking about Life After Life constantly. The first thing I said to Danny about the book was: "I wish I'd thought of it." What did I say after I read Tony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See? "I wish I'd thought of that title, it is killer. Also I wish I could steal his ability to use similes." 

My ringing endorsement is usually the sentiment of "I wish I'd written this; I'm mad that I didn't." 

Life After Life is built around the premise that Ursula Todd is stuck in a time loop: every time she dies, she starts over again. Sometimes, things are different from the very start; in most versions, her mother gives birth alone, her father searching France for her runaway aunt, Izzie. In one version, her father makes it back in time and they raise Izzie's son, Roland, as their own. In a few versions, Ursula dies at birth, or is born dead, or is suffocated by a cat named Queenie (an old wives' tale come to life). Either way, Ursula gets a lot of chances, but the reader is unsure if Ursula is ever 100% aware of her past experiences. 

There are a few events that suggest Ursula is able to tell change what happened. In one version of her life, Ursula drowns as a child while on vacation; the next go around, she becomes terrified to go near the water and her sister pulls her along anyway. She is saved by a man sitting on the beach painting. 

In another version, Ursula's horrible brother, Maurice, throughs her doll out the window; she dies falling off the roof trying to retrieve it. The next time around, her sister, Pamela, uses a stick to pull the doll inside. 

In these small instances, Ursula was filled with dread when approaching the situation: the doll on the ledge, the water's edge. She doesn't really remember, but she knows something is about to happen. As she gets older, if she does get older in that life, she identifies feelings of extreme deja vu, as if she's lived everything before (which, if you buy that she really is living life after life, she has). 

There are other instances where you wonder how aware Ursula is of her past lives. In one life, she is assaulted by one of her brother's friends, Howie; she gets pregnant, has an illegal abortion, and almost dies. The black sheep of the family, she ends up marrying an abusive man and is ultimately beaten to death. In her next life, she doesn't seem aware of Howie's future behavior, but at their first meeting, she promptly punches him in the face. 

In some versions of history, her next door neighbor, Nancy, is murdered while out looking for leaves for a scrapbook; Ursula usually takes another route home, or a detour, in order to intercept Nancy and save her. We don't know how much she knows she's doing this. She just... does it. However, in one version, Ursula is distracted by her crush and Nancy is murdered. Chance didn't work out in that version, I guess. 

The most interesting part of the story is this: Ursula never marries in any of her lives, except two. In one, she marries the man who ultimately beats her to death. In the other, she goes to Germany on a world tour and ends up staying in Germany, marrying a man, and having her daughter, Frieda. In other versions of her life, she never has children. But when she has Frieda, she ends up having to kill her daughter and herself and start over again; she never stays in Germany again, never meets her husband again. It is almost as if Ursula purposefully chooses to never have a child, because she knows in that version of history, her child always dies. 

It might sound boring to read the same life over and over again -- and there are definitely parts where it becomes a little too hint-hint, nudge-nudge -- but it is also incredibly engrossing. Ursula's panic and confusion over her moments of deja vu, her sense of knowing what will happen before it actually does, her grappling with reality is intense. Beyond that, the book paints the idea that sometimes the most important connections in life aren't romantic: Ursula's love stories are few and far between. Instead, the relationship between siblings is examined and poked: the things we do to save our siblings, to make them happy, to keep them from pain. 

In several versions of history, the Todd family maid, Bridget, attend Armistice Day celebrations in London and brings the Spanish Flu back to the Todd home, killing Ursula; in another version, Ursula manages to stay away from Bridget, only for her little brother, Edward, to get sick and die. Over and over again, Ursula struggles to find a way to not just save herself, but to save her siblings; and, it is interesting to note, she is never once concerned with saving Bridget's life. Her ultimate solution is to push Bridget down the stairs, breaking her arm, and, in later versions, to tell Bridget that she'd seen her boyfriend cheating on her. Both work to save the family. 

It makes me wonder what moments would stand out in my life if I were to live it over and over again. What things would I change? What would I do differently? The best kind of novel is one that makes you think deeply about your life and your choices -- and Life After Life does just that.

I Love Gillian Flynn's "Sharp Objects" & You Should Too

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"There is something deeply unhealthy about this book; it's in the characters, in the story, in the relationships, in the sex, and just in the general mood of the novel." - Goodreads Reviewer

"From the first page, I felt the author had just finished a Chuck Palahniuk novel and decided she wanted to be like him when she grew up. Sentence fragments can be fun if you're in the mood for things like 'A belly. A smell. He was suddenly standing next to me.' (Not exact quotes, but pretty close.)" - A Goodreads Review

Harsh words, right? Don't worry, I saved the harshest review for last: 

"The razor blade on the front cover of the book is what one yearns for right after embarking on this read, sharp blade with which to cut every single page, one by one, until they are so neatly shredded that even the memory of what was written on them becomes non existent. And then, one can use the same razor to end one's own life.  I'm still unsure what the author was thinking when she began this book, unless she had some very deep and very disturbing mental issues to work through. This book is dangerous and not because it excites one with a thrilling and suspenseful story. It is dangerous because once one reads it, one loses any desire to look for another book that may restore one's faith in the existence of good books with an uplifting charge. Not only is this book dangerous, but it is sick. Its underlying sickness is that it's emotionally draining and unless readers are looking to load up on more mental baggage (I can't think of anyone who doesn't have enough), I'd stay away from its pain." 

Gillian Flynn, for the past few years, has gotten a fair amount of attention for Gone Girl, a stunning novel about a husband and wife -- and how easy it can be for some people to hide their true selves. A lot of people don't realize she has other novels, too. 

I like crime novels. I have always liked crime novels, suspense stories, horror stories. I read a lot of Stephen King (even though I find his books maddening). Good crime novels are hard to find these days, too often falling into the trap of a singular portrayal (white male cop, period) and specific crimes (drugs, gangs, the mob). I was excited to find Gillian Flynn: she is a woman writing mainstream crime novels with female main characters. 

I liked Gone Girl. I didn't love it, but I liked it. I was mostly stunned by it; I wanted to absorb Flynn's writing style and talent (a common feeling when I read a book I really like). The twist wasn't much of a twist; I had guessed it mostly from the beginning.

This is true of all of Flynn's novels: you're going to know about the twist early on because, well, it's obvious. That seems to be the crux of most amateur reviews: I saw it coming or I wasn't surprised

I liked Gone Girl, but I loved Dark Places, another of Flynn's novels about a girl whose family was famously murdered in a Satanic ritual (or so she thinks, announces the voice over in the theatrical trailer). I loved that the main character, Libby, was as deeply unlikable as Amy from Gone Girl, but for entirely different reasons. She is a lazy, manipulative, kleptomaniac obsessed with being the saddest story, constantly mourning not really her family anymore, but herself. It's a brilliant book.

Then I read Sharp Objects.

I spent a lot of time thinking about Sharp Objects. It revolves around a journalist named Camille, who returns to her hometown to cover the murder of one preteen girl and the disappearance of another (potentially related). She is still dealing with a lot of personal pain and the return home isn't really what she needed to recover.

As the quoted reviews point out, this is a book -- a town, a main character, a family -- that is diseased. It's sick. This is a sour spot for a large number of readers, it seems. If you're someone who doesn't enjoy reading about the twisted psyche of a small town, then this isn't a book for you. Part of me believes that you need to come from a small town to understand the claustrophobia and sickness of a small town like the one in the book. 


In my senior year of college, I wrote a poem that included this line: 

Cottage Grove is a town that mopes like a man. 

I come from a small town. Cottage Grove, Oregon, to be exact, a town known for having the largest number of covered bridges in a 5 mile radius of town. The Covered Bridge tour is a draw and now, so are the vineyards, all lying about 10-15 miles west of town -- but people have to pass through from I-5 to get to them. The town is not prosperous; with the recession, sawmills and logging operations closed down and left a lot of people poverty-stricken. My mother grew up knowing everyone in town, but now we don't know anybody. I see a lot of dirty kids. A lot of trash in the river. There is a man who walks the streets of our 3-block downtown screaming to himself. 

Cottage Grove is like so many small towns: dirty, old, obsessed with itself and its false pride, poor. Cottage Grove is like Wind Gap, MO in Sharp Objects: a town with a cruelty that is kept very, very secret. Like most small towns. 

I think to understand Sharp Objects, you have to understand the claustrophobia and fear of small towns, the way it's so easy for small towns to fall into mass hysteria and panic. If you don't, the novel only seems sick, purposefully painful, writhing in its own sadness. 


I love Sharp Objects

I love the sticky, moist writing, so reminiscent of warm, Midwestern towns in the summer. I love the unconventional main character and I love her personal issues. I love how deeply I identify with them and yet, how deeply I want to understand them because they are so foreign. I love the mother, Adora, because she reminds me of older women I know. I love that it is a book that made me feel uncomfortable, but drew me in. 

I loved that it was a crime novel that wasn't about a cop. I loved that I know who the killer was (or who I thought the killer was) from the very beginning. I love that the big twist takes place in about 1 page of text. I love that the prose feels dirty, the way it is supposed to, the way it should with such a sick story. 

Sharp Objects isn't a book for everybody, but it is a book that should not be dismissed. The writing is beautiful; the story is magnetic. It's a better book than Gone Girl. Don't believe me? Read it for yourself.