I did not know what I was getting myself into with Samantha Hunt’s The Unwritten Book: An Investigation, but I am so very glad that I was lucky enough to receive a Netgalley ARC. Hunt’s writing is thoughtful, interesting, intelligent, wandering… and in my opinion, well worth the read.
Although Hunt is probably best known for her fiction work, such as Belletriste’s pick The Dark Dark, this book is mostly nonfiction. I say “mostly” because interspersed throughout the book are excerpts of Samantha’s deceased father’s unfinished book. In addition, this book reads more like a collection of loosely related essays/musings than a more traditional narrative non-fiction book where each chapter builds on what came before. Hunt’s book could literally be read in any order, except for the excerpts of her father’s book. This book, which analyzes the writing from the partial book that Papa Hunt left behind, experiences Samantha had with both her father and her own experiences parenting her children, and general musings/information, is interesting. It feels like spending time with a friend — a very educated, empathetic, slightly lost friend. This friend is trying to navigate her way through losing a parent, being a parent, and being a person.
And really… aren’t we all? I highly, highly recommend.
In August, I read Alexa Donne’s book The Ivies recently, and… didn’t much care for it. It had okay writing, and I actually really loved the murderer, but I won’t go into details in case you want to read this murder-mystery, since a large part of the enjoyment of a murder-mystery is trying to figure whodunnit. So after posting a mediocre review on Goodreads, I checked out some of the other reviews, as I am wont to do, and… this one really stuck out to me:
I think my blog post title makes my opinion of this review quite clear. As someone who reviews books quite frequently myself, I thought it was worth exploring why I think the particular book review I included screenshots of above is a terrible one, and what I think does make a good book review. I would love to hear your insight, as well – maybe there is something that I should be keeping in mind as a self-appointed book reviewer that is not currently on my radar.
I’ll start off by saying that I do not disagree with everything in Alex Nguyen’s review. I think that, as a prominent AuthorTuber, it is fair to put this review in context. I also think it is completely fair to hold someone who publishes videos on the internet proclaiming to be an expert on writing to a higher standard. Alexa Donne’s internet/author brand is that she is so good at writing, she can give you tips on how to be a better writer, as well, if you’re into that sort of thing. As someone who is branding herself this way, I expect excellent writing in the genre that she writes (this particular novel is YA thriller). I also liked that Alex Nguyen provided both pros and cons – almost no book is without merit, so pointing out what was done well and what, specifically, Alex disagrees gives the review an appearance of fairness.
Appearances, however, can be deceiving. My largest problem with this particular book review is that it gets personal. Disliking the book, making fun of the writing style, the plot devices, the characters, the publishing industry are all fair game in my book. Making assumptions about the author and personally attacking the author are completely inappropriate.
The first inkling that this review is going a bit sideways is the off-hand remark that Alexa is casually racist against white people, a remark that immediately sets off my alarm bells, because nearly everyone I have ever met who makes a remark like that is, in fact, racist. Someone makes a remark like that, and as a person-of-color, I identify that person as someone to be extremely cautious around. This remark is ended with the contemptuous, supercilious remark that Alexa is “not the brightest bulb or the most self-respecting” person. This last remark is a personal attack against Alexa Donne. It is cruel, unconstructive, and identifies the reviewer as someone who is extremely biased in a way that casts doubt on that reviewer’s ability to accurately assess the book, because it indicates that this reviewer has negative feelings about the author whose book is being reviewed that may make them inclined to view the book in a negative light regardless of its’ merit.
So at this point everyone looking at the review for meaningful analysis or an idea of whether or not they will like the book should just stop reading. Nothing that comes afterward can be taken seriously, because it is clear that the person writing the review may not be able to separate the art from the artist.
But sure, let’s keep reading, right? Why not.
The list of pros is generally pithy, until the last bullet point, which comes across as judgmental and also seems to miss the mark. I think it is generally known that teenagers trying to get into an Ivy League school can have a myopic vision that makes it difficult for them to consider alternatives and put things into perspective. In fact, even teenagers not trying to get into an Ivy League school can have difficulty with things like appropriate perspective. This novel features teenagers and is intended for a teenage audience. Anyone reading this review for purposes of analysis or determining whether or not they want to read this book should definitely stop here. Alex Nguyen has made it clear that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the target audience and characters in this novel. If Alex N. liked this novel, it would be shocking. Yet we can see the one-star review, so it’s clear that Alex N. did not like the novel.
But let’s continue reading, shall we?
The cons again include trigger words like “token poor girl,” “appropriation,” etc., that make it seem that a large part of this reviewer’s problem with the book is that it did not solely feature privileged white students, which is just… odd. The reviewer complains that these characters are included, because it “feels like” the author just included some diverse characters to pretend to be woke or something, then says that the book feels like a trashy novel. First of all, it is odd to assume you understand the author’s intentions for an issue like this one. Second, trashy novels are notorious for having flat characters who are not well fleshed out and for whom not a lot of thought was put into character development. So if it is, in fact, a trashy novel (not saying I agree with that characterization), then wouldn’t including diverse characters whom the author doesn’t include a lot of detail on be par for the course? Is this reviewer saying that trashy novels should only feature cis white people with money? Because it kind of feels like that is the subtext in these two points. Keep in mind that these two bullet points that complain about a smidge of diversity occurring in the novels and the privilege of some of the other characters being acknowledged are the two most lengthy con written points.
The “final thoughts” paragraph makes assumptions of the author’s fears and insecurities, prefaced with a half-hearted “perhaps.” Knowing when to stop editing, when to share with the world, is a leap, because similar to new parents, most writers never really feel completely prepared. It feels like a weird jump to assume that Alexa Donne didn’t write and publish the book of your personal dreams because she has a fairly successful Youtube channel.
The review ends with another judgmental snippet that basically says the only people who will enjoy the novel are her Youtube followers.
In summary, what I think makes the particular book review analyzed in this post a terrible book review is the use of personal assumptions about the author and a fundamental misunderstanding of the audience and characters of the book. The reviewer’s own remarks indicating that diversity in books could only be an attempt to placate the publishing industry’s push for acknowledging that non-white people of varying means, sexual orientation and gender identification exist doesn’t help, either.
I like honesty in book reviews. I’m okay with hyperbole to make a point. The issue is in making the review personal about the author rather than focused on the author’s work.
Welp, I think I’ve talked enough for the day. What do you think?
While analyzing my 2021 year in reading, I was bummed to realize that I didn’t really have a great year. So on a more positive note, here are the books that I read in 2021 that I really liked in a year that was, overall, fairly mediocre. That’s right, bitches: these are, in my opinion, five-star reads. And since my opinion is the right opinion, if you haven’t read any of these, you should probably add them to your TBR, so that you can have a better reading year in 2022 than I had last year.
The Memory Thief by Jodi Lynn Anderson
2. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata and translated into English by Ginny Tapley Takemori
3. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
4. Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson
5. Not Your Average Hot Guy by Gwenda Bond
6. Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes
Thinking about the content structure of these books, I do not really see a lot in common. There are varying genres, intended audiences, etc. I think I just like good writing…
So – what did you read in 2021 or recently that had great writing?
I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of Finding Normal: Sex, Love, and Taboo in Our Hyperconnected World by Alexa Tsoulis-Reay. This non-fiction book analyzes the concept of “Normal,” and how the Internet has helped people with stigmatized desires find community and get answers to their questions without the judgment that others in society often inherently have.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. It was a thoughtful analysis of the concept of normal and bias and what it means to have a supportive community. This analysis included positive and negative results of finding support for non-“normative” concepts. Having a concept of “normal” can sometimes result in people being closed-minded about things they simply do not understand, things that are not hurting other people, such as the first concept that Reay goes into great detail about: people who have open relationships and/or swingers. Reay looks at how people who needed such relationships prior to the internet struggled to find other people who understood them, and how the internet has helped all of them to find a community and engage in the relationship they need. I try to be an open-minded person, but of course, have my own biases, and not having had those particular desires myself, it was very interesting to read about their perspectives and felt a bit fairy-tale esque to read about how they were able to find acceptance through the internet.
However, sometimes, people engage in activity that is not considered “normal” for ethical reasons. Another taboo behavior that is discussed in the book is incest, which, if you are reading my blog, I will assume you agree from a biological and psychological perspective is just not okay. Reay writes about the concept of incestuous desires from a place of curiosity, but ultimately, the fact that there are parents who will act on these desires turns the community that such like-minded individuals have formed a bit darker. How, when you are looking at a parent-child relationship, can there not be a power dynamic at play? Children often want to please their parents, regardless of age, and this desire can be taken advantage of, even if the child sincerely believes he or she is a consenting adult.
There are also some grey areas, such as large age-gap relationships. There is the indisputable statutory rape age difference, for example, which is legally not allowed, since children cannot consent to sexual relationships with adults. But what about a 10-year age difference between a person in his/her/their sixties and his/her/their fifties? What about a 20-year age difference between a person in his/her/their sixties and his/her/their forties?
This blog post is providing just a taste of the thoughtful writing that Reay provides in this book, which includes multiple examples/interviews for each type of non-“normal” activity. If you are interested in the concept, and can read the information with an open mind, I strongly recommend picking up a copy.
My only gripe with this book is that the more taboo concepts are not as fully developed, and it feels like there is more room for analysis. Still, I am not certain that I could have written, or even read, more on those subjects. It is hard to spend time with concepts that are taboo and should remain that way. So this gripe is tiny, and purely from an analytical/editorial viewpoint in which I am trying to remain unbiased. Which basically means I was reading this book correctly, I think, since a lot of the point is to recognize that you have biases, and they may not all be fair, so once you recognize a bias, re-evaluate and figure out if you need to change your stance. I have this crazy theory that, like, if people were more intellectual and empathetic, and thought through how their behavior impacted other people, and tried to be more thoughtful and cool about what they went crazy about, the world might be a better place. As an American citizen, however, it is difficult for me ever seeing that happening, either, so… maybe just read the book and pretend?
In 2021, I read 76 books and 23,564 pages, or an average of 310 pages per book. In comparison to 2020, my reading increased by 9 books and 1,078 pages, but the average number of pages per book decreased by 25 pages per book.
The shortest book I read in 2021 is Hannah Lee Kidder’s short story collection Starlight. I did not much care for the collection, which I rated 3 stars and found a bit of a mixed bag. Here is my review:
The longest book I read was Tana French’s The Witch Elm, which had interesting ideas but which I did not much care for. Here is my review:
In comparison to 2020, the short story collection Starlight is 35 pages longer than Gillian Flynn’s short story The Stranger, and The Witch Elm is 95 pages shorter than Plain Bad Heroines.
The most popular novel I read is another Jane Austen (what can I say? Austen’s one of my comfort reads) – this time, Sense & Sensibility. The lease popular novel I read does not have a cover, and Goodreads would not let me upload one, but it is The Fetish Murders by Avon Curry. The Fetish Murders is a pulp fiction thriller from the 1970s that is not very good, but is very fun if you like pulp fiction and are okay with the concept of reading fiction with very outdated cultural norms. The very purpose of The Fetish Murders is to shock and titillate by bringing up the idea of cross-dressing and homosexuality, which a lot of people (myself included) have absolutely no problem with anymore… So if you’re cool with reading it as a sort of historical/anthropological study of Americana, it’s kind of interesting. If you’re looking for legitimately good literature, or something that current educated cultural norms would not consider offensive… I would recommend steering clear.
My average rating for 2021 is 3.3 stars. A bit higher than average, but… not great. Much lower than 2020’s average rating of 3.8.
The first book I reviewed on Goodreads in 2021 was for the ARC Why She Wrote. I also wrote a blog post about this one, so won’t bore you by going into further detail here other than to say that for what it is, I thought it was pretty good.
I have a fascination and enjoyment with reading pulp fiction. At the end of the day, the books are generally all middle-of-the-road, average 3-star reads. But they’re fun and so much occurs in these novels and I derive a sort of comfort from them. I will continue reading them, and giving uninformative, likely one-sentence reviews on Goodreads.
Overall, I had a pretty disappointing reading year in 2021. How about you? Any great reads? I think I desperately need a better year in 2022, so would greatly appreciate any and all recommendations!
In the mood for a spooky read, I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of Tales from the Darkside: The Repeater Book of the Occult, edited by Tariq Goddard and Eugene Thacker.
I really like the concept of this book – an anthology of lesser-known stories featuring the supernatural. Each story is selected and introduced by an author published by Repeater Books. Released in February of this year, October is a fitting month to read through it. Unfortunately, the rambling introduction was a harbinger of the let-down to come. Many of the stories in this collection are very well-known, and an avid reader of horror short stories has probably already read them. In addition, the introductions to the stories, if you have not already read the story, is really an essay for why the particular author selected it, and generally includes spoilers.
Here is my review, on a story-by-story basis:
Squire Toby’s Will by Sheridan Le Fanu
Decent read. Not amazing, but appropriately spooky. Includes a family of some of the worst men ever and demons.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I’m just going to assume you have read this. Great story, and one I am always up for re-reading.
On Ghosts by Mary Shelley
An essay by the authoress of Frankenstein, this essay doesn’t necessarily advocate for ghosts so much as lament the lack of magic in a world that insists on rational explanations. I did enjoy reading it, and would recommend.
Par Avion by Marlene Dotard
Yuck. This story was… not good. The glowing essay talking about how this weird chick was friends with other authors who are well known and how Marlene was so smart, and insisted on trying to draw relationships between science and belief in the supernatural is better than the story itself. Do yourself a favor, skip this story, which has generally not been well-known for a reason.
The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs
Also assuming you’ve read this one. It is well-written, and the essay beforehand includes multiple interpretation, which are interesting to read as well.
A Haunted House by Virgina Woolf
I guess this one was inspired by a stint Virginia and her husband spent in a haunted house, which… of course it is, because wasn’t Virginia always writing about herself? It’s fine. Didn’t love it, didn’t hate it.
Green Tea by Sheridan Le Fanu
The essay before this one mentions how popular this story is, although I myself hadn’t actually read it. It’s fine. I actually didn’t much like it, but it definitely involves the supernatural.
Punch, Brothers, Punch by Mark Twain
Short, punchy, funny, and a little spooky. Very good short story, that again – you have probably already read. If you haven’t, ignore the essay and just read the story.
Unseen – Unfeared by Francis Stevens
A weird detective story that also deals with fear of “other-ness” and indicates that perhaps the monsters are created by us because we are all awful. Not terrible, but don’t know that I would recommend, either.
The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe
Great story that you have probably already read. In my opinion, the best short story in the collection, but also, like… it’s Poe. Like, of course it’s good… in fact, it feels a bit cliche to include it in this collection.
The Willows by Algernon Blackwood
This story is one of those naturalist things where the author is like isn’t nature amazing and fearsome? I actually don’t much like naturalist things, so I didn’t finish this one.
In summation, 4 good stories you have probably already read, a short essay by Mary Shelley that is enjoyable and that you can probably also find pretty easily on-line. Unless you want these particularly short stories in a collection, I would not particularly recommend.
What about you – have any spooky reads to recommend this Halloween?
I recently snagged a copy of Tippi: A Memoir at Barnes & Noble. I was curious, because of the whole Hitchcock thing and the fact that she’s Melanie Griffith’s mom. The back cover has what is presumably a publicity shot from The Birds that also plays a pivotal moment in the film, along with a titillating quote that makes you think you may be getting something along the lines of a real-life Evelyn Hugo.
But Hedren is no Taylor Jenkins-Reid.
This book is not well-written. Hedren’s memoir focuses the majority of its’ time and energy on the large cats that she devoted much of her life to, glossing over the glamorous, refusing to notice the inconsistencies, and proving without a doubt that Tippi Hedren is one of the craziest bitches you will ever (probably not actually) meet. In a way, the craziness of her book, which seems as poorly edited as Twilight, is kind of fascinating. As is the fact that her book manages to be boring while being filled with one of the most interesting lives I have ever encountered. I present this book as exhibit 1 in my argument that interesting/unique plot alone is not sufficient.
Tippi Hedren has lived a live of immense privilege. Although she writes repeatedly about how self-sufficient she is, and always has been, she was scouted to be a model at, like, 13 years old or something, a career she continued when she left her parents with the intent to support herself. In other words, people paid her enough to live off of for the privilege of looking at her at the beginning of her adult life. Modeling has its’ own unique challenges, I am sure, although the closest I have come to exposure to it is America’s Next Top Model, which is probably not very accurate. But the fact remains that most people are not given enough money to travel the world, and live off of savings in a huge rental in Beverly Hills for several months at their first job. And at 13, Tippi was scouted because her genetics made other people go: “Damn! That girl’s pretty. I want to, like, take care of her and stare at her forever.”
Then, Tippi got older, and men suck, so she entered into a relationship with her first husband Peter Griffith, which she doesn’t talk about much except to say they were way too young to be married and she cannot regret it because her daughter Melanie came out of it. Tippi describes Melanie repeatedly as the “love of her life,” which would probably mean more if the sentences that flow forth from her pen describing her husbands and ex-fiance weren’t quite so bitter. When Tippi is 13, she’s getting offered money by random people she’s never met because she’s so beautiful they want to help her start a career. When Melanie Griffith is 13, her mother’s beginning to become obsessed with lions and letting one live in their house, and asking her what she [i.e., Melanie] did wrong when the lion bites her leg in the middle of the night.
Tippi Hedren can take care of herself, thank you very much, which is why she glances over all the Hitchcock stuff that is probably why, like, 70% or more people buy the book, except to say that she was lucky he and his wife taught her how to become an actress, but yeah, being the object of Hitch’s obsession was super creepy, and also, everyone else saw it and no one did anything about it. One scene that sticks out is one where the very un-self aware Hedren talks about waiting at an elevator when Alma Hitchcock walks up and says she is so sorry Tippi has to go through the craziness that is her husband. Tippi responds that Alma could “stop it. You’re the only one who could.” First of all, Tippi is assuming that the man who is treating her horribly is not also a monster to his wife behind closed doors. Second, Tippi is assuming that Alma can stop a grown man from doing whatever the hell he wants to do when public propriety wasn’t doing shit. Third, if this instance is not Tippi expecting someone else to jump in and save her, I don’t know what is. (To be clear, I am 100% not blaming Tippi for the shit that director put her through. Hitchcock was obviously a creep who was obsessed and thought, like too many men do, that because he was obsessed and willing to do things to prove his obsession, the object of his desires was required to love him. In reality, he didn’t love her, though he probably thought he did. I can also understand why Tippi felt that she had to stay under Hitch’s thumb; she was under contract, she was living in L.A., shit is expensive, and this job was the only way she was aware of that would allow her to pay the bills. I just don’t think it’s fair to assume that Alma was in a position to stop her husband, a husband known for being a master manipulator of cinema, during a time period when women were at a decided disadvantage.)
Also, when the shoe is on the other foot, when Tippi finds out that a man she is working with on a movie is having an intimate relationship with her 15-year-old daughter, she doesn’t feel like she can put her foot down because she’s worried her 15-year-old daughter might never speak to her again. In other words, Tippi doesn’t feel empowered enough to parent her teenage daughter who is in an illegal relationship with an adult creep committing statutory rape, but Alma Hitchcock was supposed to stop a much more powerful adult creep from being a creep. Based on what I know of the Hitchcock stalking, I think Alma and Tippi are both lucky the bastard didn’t kill them and bury their bodies out in the desert.
To recap, Tippi glances past the relevant gross and unacceptable behavior of a famous male director that was widely accepted, barely acknowledges her privilege, and gives enough information about her lack of parenting to make anyone with a heart feel for poor Melanie Griffith. So what does she spend most of her 267 pages on? Lions. Bitch is crazy about the huge, deadly things.
While on set for a movie in Africa, Tippi and the dude she married to try to escape from Hitch or something go on a safari and see a house filled with lions. The majesty and beauty overwhelms them, and since they’re both from Hollywood, they immediately decide they must make a movie about it. They begin doing their due diligence, and all of the trainers they talk to about their idea is like, “Nah. That’s a really bad idea. You should not do that.” But they decide to do it anyway. They begin interacting with lions, asking a trainer to bring an adult lion over to the house so they can get used to it, allowing the huge, deadly beast around their 3 children, because #parenting. They begin to acquire cubs, lions, then some tigers, then more lions, an elephant, kind of anything that is wild that needs a home. Because not only do they want to make a movie, they want to make a movie with at least 40 lions, guys. This ill-advised and deadly part of the dream is very important.
Tippi goes into excruciating detail about the journey they go on with these lions, guys, but long story short, the producers don’t want to fund it, the trainers who work with lions think it’s a bad idea, and the family and cast members once they start shooting the damn thing have to go to the hospital so routinely due to injuries that they pretty much have a doctor on call.
Amusing for all the wrong reasons, I would only recommend Tippi’s memoir if you really, really, really, really, really, really, really like lions.
Many writing teachers tell their students to “write what you know.” And what do writers know better than… writers? I love a good story about a writer, and so jumped at the chance to read ARCs of Joani Elliott’s The Audacity of Sara Grayson and Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot.
The Audacity of Sara Grayson
What happens when your mother’s dying wish becomes your worst nightmare?
What happens when the world’s greatest literary icon dies before she finishes the final book in her best-selling series?
And what happens when she leaves that book in the hands of her unstable, neurotic daughter, who swears she’s not a real writer?
Sara Grayson is a thirty-two-year-old greeting card writer about to land the toughest assignment of her life. Three weeks after the death of her mother—a world-famous suspense novelist—Sara learns that her mother’s dying wish is for her to write the final book in her bestselling series.
Sara has lived alone with her dog, Gatsby, ever since her husband walked out with their Pro Double Waffle Maker and her last shred of confidence. She can’t fathom writing a book for thirty million fans—not when last week’s big win was resetting the microwave clock.
But in a bold move that surprises even herself, Sara takes it on. Against an impossible deadline and a publisher intent on sabotaging her every move, Sara discovers that stepping into her mother’s shoes means stumbling on family secrets she was never meant to find—secrets that threaten her mother’s legacy and the very book she’s trying to create.
Joani Elliott knows how to write! Well crafted novel with a realistic depiction of the art of writing — the insecurity and hopelessness and futility and accomplishment, cycling in an endless, introspective loop. If you think the story synopsis above sounds interesting, the book storyline should be right up your alley. Elliott’s writing is empathetic, and feels uplifting, in a real, truthful way. As someone who dabbles in writing, I found much of this book inspiring. I definitely recommend if you are a writer. You will love Phil, because he’s the best.
The book also has a couple of adorable and believable romances.
My only issue with this book (which, unfortunately, is a big one), is that we spend the majority of our time with Sara Grayson, and Sara Grayson is… kind of awful. Whiny, full of excuses. Literally everyone she knows is like, “Your writing is so good! You need to do this! Also, you’ve been unhappy. Trying this new thing may help you realize what you want and feel fulfilled.” And she doesn’t trust herself, she doesn’t trust those she loves, and she’s fucking annoying about it. It’s probably realistic, but it’s very difficult to spend so much time with her when she’s insufferable, and, like, not in a fun way.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 typewriters
Jacob Finch Bonner was once a promising young novelist with a respectably published first book. Today, he’s teaching in a third-rate MFA program and struggling to maintain what’s left of his self-respect; he hasn’t written–let alone published–anything decent in years. When Evan Parker, his most arrogant student, announces he doesn’t need Jake’s help because the plot of his book in progress is a sure thing, Jake is prepared to dismiss the boast as typical amateur narcissism. But then . . . he hears the plot.
Jake returns to the downward trajectory of his own career and braces himself for the supernova publication of Evan Parker’s first novel: but it never comes. When he discovers that his former student has died, presumably without ever completing his book, Jake does what any self-respecting writer would do with a story like that–a story that absolutely needs to be told.
In a few short years, all of Evan Parker’s predictions have come true, but Jake is the author enjoying the wave. He is wealthy, famous, praised and read all over the world. But at the height of his glorious new life, an e-mail arrives, the first salvo in a terrifying, anonymous campaign: You are a thief, it says.
As Jake struggles to understand his antagonist and hide the truth from his readers and his publishers, he begins to learn more about his late student, and what he discovers both amazes and terrifies him. Who was Evan Parker, and how did he get the idea for his “sure thing” of a novel? What is the real story behind the plot, and who stole it from whom?
Thriller novels are difficult, in that they rely on either:
creating tension/suspense that causes the readers to avidly keep reading out of desperate need to find out what happens/get resolution;
have a twist that changes the lens by which the story has been viewed;
have writing so amazing, that even if the twist is predictable, the reader doesn’t care, because it’s so fun getting there.
I applaud Jean for the work that she put into this book. The concept is interesting, and writing a book is a lot of work.
However, I was able to see the “surprise twist” about 20% of the way through the book, the writing was fine, but nothing that particularly filled me with wonder, and given that I knew where everything was likely headed (and I was correct), lacked the tension/suspense I would generally want from a thriller.
Wednesday Books was kind enough to send me a very nice package for the Cast authors (P.C. & Kristin) debut novel in the new “Sisters of Salem” series. This package was so pretty, and I know they say not to judge a book by its’ cover, but I mean, look at that book cover:
To say I was excited may be a slight understatement. This book has a big marketing push, is written by established authors, and it involves magic and twins, the former of which is intriguing and can be done very well in literature, the latter of which are interesting to me, particularly in terms of magic.
I really wanted to like this book — but for various reasons, I did not. However, I think that I come from a very specific viewpoint that I can see is biased in certain ways, so if the idea of twin sisters who come from a line of witches dating back to Salem sounds interesting and you are okay with a few spoilers, please read on to see if it could be a fit for you, as I will try to explain what I didn’t like and why I didn’t like it, the latter of which may very well not be applicable to you.
Let me start by telling you about myself in high school. In tenth grade, I kind of began to have a thing for witches – fictional and historical. The idea of magic is captivating; even if you don’t think it’s real, it is fun to pretend. And the ways that people get out of control and start blaming people for using magic to cause all of their problems, even if it’s just a wet dream, is fascinating (and frightening, once you start seeing parallels occurring in the current world, and have to wonder how civilized we all actually are…). So I read numerous books on the Salem Witch Trials, including one that claimed maybe the first girls to exhibit symptoms in Salem actually had a very rare illness that was not known about at the time.
In addition, I am a person who believes that it is okay to write historical fiction, but important to remain true to the historical facts that are known or make it very clear that the author(s) has(ve) chosen to explore a hypothetical or changed things in order to make a certain point in his/her/their story, etc.
The Casts are inarguably exploring a hypothetical – what if there was a real witch charged in the Salem Witch Trials who escaped, and her magic continued to present-day generations? My issue is that this hypothetical specifically says – what if Sarah Good, one of the first women accused of being a witch, was actually a witch, and escaped with her daughter Dorcas, who was 4 at the time and also accused of being a witch, and fled to Illinois and started a town where their line continued to present-day.
But Sarah Good was one of the 19 people hanged for the crime of being a witch.
If this work is a sweeping historical re-write, I would like her actual tragic death acknowledged somewhere, so that impressionable youngsters with poor research skills or lack of curiosity don’t somehow get the idea that this woman managed to escape. (In a similar vein, I think Disney was recklessly irresponsible in making Pocahontas, a movie designed for impressionable youngsters who may not have ever attended a history class the impression that an actual 12-year-old girl who bravely stood up for a stranger who her father wanted to kill (and who can blame him – I mean, look at what white people did to America and the people who were already living there when they discovered it…) was a 17-year-old head-over-heels in love.)
Sarah Good was a woman who grew up in an affluent family and fell into desperate poverty throughout her life. Forced to live off of other people’s charity, she was bitter and unsociable, which made her an easy target when the town began looking for scapegoats to help explain why their lives sucked. She had to sit in a courtroom and hear numerous people, including her then 4-year-old daughter, spin lies about her before being thrown into prison, where she accrued debt to be treated terribly for a crime of which she wasn’t guilty. She had to witness her own young daughter condemned of the same crime and thrown into prison. She gave birth and witnessed her baby die, likely due to malnutrition and poor conditions in the prison. She was then hauled off in a cart like a piece of livestock, hauled up a ladder, and pushed off. Sarah suffered, and she may have bravely called out the people who were killing her on their bullshit before she was pushed. Her last selfish thoughts probably consisted of hoping that her neck broke, which would make her death quick, since if it didn’t, the people gathered to watch the crime would gleefully watch her slowly strangle. She didn’t live to see the end of the trials, including her daughter’s release from prison (after 8.5 months), nor to witness her daughter’s severe psychological damage from the entire experience.
I can see the temptation to write a better ending for Sarah and Dorothy. But I take issue with the fact that it is never stated, that I can identify, that this fictional novel is based on re-writing the ending of the Salem experience for Sarah and Dorothy (also called “Dorcas” because the jackass who wrote her name on the arrest warrant was bad at spelling), who actually had a much different experience.
On a related and very specific note, the book opens with Sarah listening to the sounds of her shitty male neighbors building a gallows and desperately doing what she can to try to get her daughter and herself the hell out of town. Yet, as I previously stated, Salem didn’t use a gallows. They put a ladder up against a very tall tree, forced the “witch” up the ladder, put the noose around their neck, and pushed them off. I guess the sounds of a dude putting a tall ladder together or rummaging through his storage shed to find it aren’t quite as tension-building, but again, I’m a stickler, so I read “gallows” and was immediately annoyed.
I didn’t like the way the characters were written. The twins on whom the series currently seems set to focus feel hollow, possibly due to the fact that this novel is the first in a series (I’ll get to this potential in a minute), possibly because the authors really wanted to quickly establish the characters so they could get to the plot. The problem is, for a book/series that feels like it should be pretty plot-heavy, we spend a lot of time with these characters and the internal thoughts of these characters, rather than the focus being on the things that happen to the characters. And Hunter and Mercy are fucking annoying. To be fair, not a deal-breaker for a teenage girl character. Some teenage girls are annoying (I was one of them). But the girls in this book are annoying, while at the same time not feeling real. The twins can pretty much be summed up in one phrase each:
Mercy = the shallow, popular one
Hunter = the moody, ambitious one
We are introduced to Hunter first. Hunter is the “ugly” twin, because, you know, she wears her hair in a ponytail. She is also pretentious as fuck. She desperately wants to be a writer, but doesn’t, you know, actually want to write (which I actually somewhat empathize with, because my own aspiring novel is currently languishing on the alphasmart with an abysmal word count… #notimportant). She needs you to know that she’s not like other girls/teenagers, even in her own thoughts. The fact that being a witch is inherent to her is brought across in such a confusing sentence, I underlined it (I’ll abstain from publishing herein, since my copy is not final, and the words may change). And she’s super judgy of the way her twin dances, which she compares to “a stripper.” (It’s ok, though, guys, because the third person narration agrees with Hunter’s assessment, as does Hunter’s best friend Jax, who is presumably in love with her twin since Hunter’s a lesbian. Slut-shaming is supes fun – let’s all do it!)
Mercy we sort of get to know later, but basically, she’s beautiful and she knows it. She’s dating a hot football player, she likes attention, she can’t handle… anything. Basically, anything goes wrong, and Mercy goes catatonic. She also has a pathological need to be correct (as evidenced by this super weird scene where she uses magic to basically project what her boyfriend thinks is a private conversation to everyone else in their high school so she can show her sister that she’s totally wrong, but, of course, it blows up in her face), and whenever possible, likes to blame her problems on her sister (it was so, so obvious her interpretation of an olde passage was likely incorrect).
So neither of these characters is likable. And they’re presumably going to change and grow throughout the series and blah, blah, blah, but at least for this book, I was kind of just like, I don’t really care about you…? They didn’t feel like real teenagers, and they were awful, so I personally felt no reason to root for them or care about their wellbeing.
And before y’all respond, “That was totally me in high school!” or “what the fuck, IG, have you even met a teenager before?” let me give an example of why they don’t feel like real characters. For teenagers with problems and potential narcissism complexes, these chicks responses to the idea of drugs and sex and, you know, fun stuff that teenagers with problems (aka, all teenagers) often get themselves into more problems with until they develop other interests, is like an after-school special. This interpretation could be me as an adult looking at teenage characters, but personally, I don’t see any reason why kids need to feel like they are a bad person if they are curious about what recreational drugs are like, and also no kid needs to feel guilty about liking the little death. Although I was traumatized as a 10-year-old reading SVH, where Regina dies because she does a bump of cocaine, smoking a joint really isn’t the end of the world (or doing a bump of cocaine). Just, like anything, don’t overdo it, or you can, like, ruin your nose and have trouble finding a job and shit. In a similar way, sexual activity in and of itself isn’t bad. Consent in all activity is very, very important. As long as both parties were consenting, there isn’t an illegal age difference, and both parties are being smart (condoms, guys, keeps you covered in more way than one), you have no reason to feel ashamed of anything you have done. And I guess after-school special teens aren’t necessarily non-existent, but it would have been nice to see some open-minded teen protagonists who aren’t jerks about anything non-traditional that they themselves aren’t personally experiencing (i.e., they’re witches, and one is a lesbian in a small town, and as such, it would be cool if they showed empathy towards other people who don’t fit into the mythical small-town box).
Then, there’s the weird description of their mother. The twins literally hold hands and stare at their mother and think about how hot she is, in one scene. I found myself thinking about the fact that this book was written by a mother/daughter duo as I read the scene, and finding the whole thing very unrelatable. Even if your mother is good-looking, I just find it weird that as a teenager, you think about how beautiful her ample, unrestrained bosom is, and the staring twin thing doesn’t translate to “Aw…” in my mind. More “Ah!!!” horror-feels.
To me, I think the ideas and characters in this series would maybe have worked better as a single, epic book. This book kind of felt like a Halloween-sized piece of Laffy Taffy that was being stretched and forced into an unnaturally larger size and then proffered as an alternative for dinner. The idea behind the debut novel in a series is to leave you hungry for more, but in this case, the candy had been stretched too thin, so that it was wasn’t tasty enough to leave me craving more Sisters of Salem, but instead, a meatier book with more substance. The plot itself was kind of interesting – alluding to five distinct sets of mythology – but also didn’t exactly make sense. Why did a monster only escape from one of the five gates, when all of them were losing strength? Presumably, we will encounter a different monster/mythology with each book in the series. But this book would have been stronger, and there would have been a greater sense of urgency, if there had been more enemy for the girls to conquer in this debut. I would have much rather had a larger book, jam-packed with plot, than the book we have, which is trying to hook the reader but didn’t quite work for me.
In summation: does this novel cast a spell on all who read it? I mean, obviously, it didn’t on me. But if you are a series reader, if you don’t need to like the characters, and if you’re cool with historical inaccuracy and/or lack of transparency, it may cast one on you.
I recently hosted a virtual book club, which went pretty well considering it was for a work event, we weren’t drinking or imbibing other tongue-loosening victuals, and it was the first such event we had done. Being part of a book club is a concept that has always intrigued me, but being a shy person who desperately doesn’t want to accidentally offend anyone, not an activity in which I had previously partaken. Now that I’ve done it, I would recommend, especially if it’s something you can do with friends in a casual setting. And since I’ve already done the research on how to host one, starting from scratch and being slightly type A, today I’m going to share how you can (& possibly should?) host a book club.
To foster discussion, it helps to have a book with material for discussion (you could also pick a book that really sucks to pick apart, if that suits you and other club member’s fancy). My starting point was genre (adult contemporary) translated books. A Google and Goodreads search later, I had 5 potential books that I personally thought sounded interested, and then those interested in joining the Book Club voted. We ended up reading Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (a very good novel that I highly recommend, whether for a Book Club or personal reading pleasure).
I feel like this one’s pretty obvious.
In general, I recommend over-preparing rather than vice versa. Also, people get busy, and so the chances that someone won’t actually be able to finish or someone might have forgotten some details doesn’t preclude them from attending and participating. I would not put a lot of time into this summary, and would present it with the disclaimer that everyone brings his/her/their own perspective to every reading, so it is biased. Here is the summary I put together for Convenience Store Woman:
Narrator/protagonist: Keiko Furukura
Keiko has always been different from those around her.
Dead bird (food vs. funeral)
Break-up fight… with a spade
When Keiko started working at the convenience store, as a college student, it was a relief to her family and to herself.
There was a very specific guide on what actions to perform in pretty much all instances, from the greeting to give a customer when they walk in the door to the farewell message to customers when they leave.
The novella is set when Keiko is still working at the convenience store as a middle-aged woman, and the relief initially felt by those she knew when she began working part-time at the store has metamorphosed into concern that she is still working at a convenience store.
As Keiko comes to realize that, in spite of her careful observations of and attempts to mimic the people around her, she still does not fit in, she begins to wonder how she should “fix” her life.
She agrees to let former co-worker Shiraha, a man who took a job at the convenience store with the sole intent to find a wife, stay with her, when he is drunk and has nowhere to go. He convinces her that society will accept her if he is living with her in her apartment.
It seems to work.
As Keiko’s family, friends, and workplace acquaintances accept her now that they think she is “normal,” Keiko begins to question her life, and her own judgment.
Shiraha insists that the next step, to continue being normal, is that Keiko quit her job at the convenience store and get a job that pays more money.
Keiko and Shiraha have arrived too early to the building where Keiko has an interview, and Shiraha needs to pop into the convenience store to use the restroom. Keiko follows him, and through encountering the familiar environment once more, has a self-realization.
Having some discussion points ready is generally a good idea. You can often find some potential questions via Google search. You can also ask participants to come prepared with a question or favorite quote for discussion, but again – people get busy, so it might be easier to take a more low-key approach and have questions in your back pocket. Here is the discussion guide I came up with for my meeting:
Opening line – “A convenience store is a world of sound.”
A movie w/o a soundtrack is nothing. What do you think the sounds of the convenience store represent to Keiko?
What is the soundtrack of your life?
Convenience store – similarities & differences
Greeting – same concept, different words, seems universal
The specific, everyday food for sale is different from American popcorn/nachos/pizza/hot dogs.
Co-workers – mothers looking for part-time work, very young people, people with social disorders
Co-worker who wants to be a singer
Seem polite in a way Americans might not be
What does Keiko’s status as an outsider, and her observations about the people she interacts with, tell us about Japanese culture?
In Japan, it is not uncommon for someone to work the same job at the same company for his entire life
However. Keiko, who has worked the job of convenience store worker at the same store for 18 years, is considered “weird/odd”
Is it really that different to work on one part of the car, for example, for your entire life vs. running a convenience store for your entire life?
Keiko doesn’t think that she is like other people – she makes references to people that indicate she almost feels like a different species (although she doesn’t like when others make it clear they think the same way
However, although she wants to be accepted and to have friends, she doesn’t otherwise seem unhappy
Why are her friends and family so uneasy about her ability to be comfortable leading a life that is different?
She doesn’t mind the simple food – she is very rational, and cares about food only as fuel
She doesn’t mind that she has an old apartment, there is no indication, overtly or implicitly via word choice, that she desires more
She seems absolutely fine with the fact that there are cockroaches in her apartment
What do you think of Shiraha’s role in Keiko’s life?
In a rom-com, he would be the love interest they get into a wacky agreement and then end up falling in love
In an indie, they might end up becoming friends
In a thriller, he would end up being dangerous and Keiko would have to run for her life
The phrasing that Keiko uses about the convenience store makes it clear that she thinks of it as more than a mere workplace
She seems to almost revere it
What do you think of the significance of this seeming thinking that the convenience store is Keiko’s religion?
In an American book, I feel like the ending would have been that someone observed Keiko identifying what changes needed to be made at the downtown convenience store, and implementing those changes efficiently, and offering her a job as a manager at the convenience store.
However, this novella ends when Keiko has her self-realization, and allows the sounds of the convenience store to once again become the soundtrack of her life.
How do you interpret the ending? Is it happy? Sad? Ambivalent?
Do you have any book club tips/tricks you would like to share?