Before We Were Yours Review

Before We Were Yours Book Review

If you were to ask me what one of my favorite books was, I would immediately say Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. I read this book about a year ago, and I loved it the moment I read the first page. It is historical fiction at its best; it creates an emotionally gripping story based on an actual historical event. I re-read it (technically I listened to the audiobook) for book club, and I didn’t realize that this was possible, but I loved it even more.

Before We Were Yours has two separate stories that eventually come together. The main story involves a 12-year-old girl named Rill and her four siblings, who live on a shanty boat with their parents in 1939 Memphis. When their parents leave for the hospital one stormy night, the children are taken away to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage. Having been put in charge that night, Rill fights to keep her siblings together. The other story revolves around Avery Stafford – a federal prosecutor who comes from a privileged family in present day Aiken, South Carolina. As she helps her senator father with his health crisis, an encounter with an elderly woman in a nursing care facility leads her to a journey through her family’s hidden history.

When I said that the best historical fiction creates an emotionally gripping story based on an actual event, I really mean it. The actual event in this case was Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. For over two decades until 1950, Tann and her cohorts kidnapped poor children, and sold them to wealthy families across the country, even to Joan Crawford and June Allyson. It is sadly estimated that some 500 children died due to disease, poor care, and possibly abuse while in the society’s hands. (https://nypost.com/2017/06/17/this-woman-stole-children-from-the-poor-to-give-to-the-rich/). Many of them were molested as well.

I had no idea that this event even occurred, and to think that this happened to children of all ages AND that Tann managed to get away with it frightens me all the more. That fear translated into sympathy for Rill and her siblings in their quest to not only make it out alive, but also to tell their stories while still in the orphanage. Even when she had no choice but to obey, I understood because for Rill, that meant survival. This is why Rill’s story gripped me to the bone more than Avery’s story even though I have nothing against the latter.

It was the audiobook that made my read the second time around all the more enjoyable. Emily Rankin and Catherine Taber put on some great vocal performances. Rankin – a well-known audiobook narrator and creator of the popular web short Jane Austin’s Fight Club – plays Avery, and she voices her in a professional east coast manner with hints of a Southern accent. This is highly appropriate since Avery lives in the east coast, but grew up in South Carolina. I extremely respect this particular detail that Rankin made to Avery’s character. Taber is also a well-known audiobook narrator, and she has appeared in television shows like Jane the Virgin and Star Wars: Clone Wars as well as gaming franchises like Final Fantasy. In my opinion, Taber is the standout.She voices Rill as a southern 12-year-old girl, who is perfectly fine with living by the river, yet it never gets too juvenile, especially when Rill experiences several traumatic episodes at the orphanage. There is also a sense of maturity in Rill that Taber also provides with such honesty. In addition, Taber shines when voicing Georgia Tann, who could be sweet and manipulative to not only the children, but also to the wealthy families. It is through Taber’s vocal performance of Tann that I could imagine an evil smile draping across her face when she said many of her lines.

If you have not read Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate yet, do so as soon as possible. The story and the horrific events that it is based on are why many people have praised the novel. I can’t say enough good things about it, and I will continue to enjoy it forevermore.

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Book Reviews From the Vault: The Tea Girl From Hummingbird Lane

One of my co-workers once said that people can learn a lot of things from reading nonfiction, but it is through fiction that helps them to connect to stuff like certain cultures and circumstances. Did The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See permit me to connect to the Akha people (a Chinese ethnic minority), tea, and Chinese-American adoptees? Let’s find out!

One of my co-workers had once said that people can learn a lot of things from reading nonfiction, but it is through fiction that helps them to connect. Fiction writers, especially the historical and cultural ones, create stories that are based around certain facts, and they allow readers to take a look at how the people involved feel. Lisa See excels at this with her book The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, which includes a Chinese ethnic minority, tea, and Chinese-American adoptees.

For the Akha people, life has been based around ritual, routine, seasons, and farming tea for many generations until a stranger drives into their village looking for a particular tea. As one of the few educated people on her mountain, Li-yan starts questioning the values that the Akha hold so dear. It also does not help that she gets pregnant out of wedlock with a man whom her parents have considered a bad match. Instead of giving her baby over to be killed as tradition would transcribe, she decides to wrap her daughter in a blanket and leave her by an orphanage in a nearby city. While Li-yan comes into herself by leaving her village to obtain a higher education, run a business, and settle in the city, Haley gets adopted by loving parents and lives in California. Haley wonders about her origins, and Li-yan yearns for her lost daughter. Both search for meaning through studying Pu’er tea, which has shaped their family’s destiny for centuries.

A fatal flaw that I have seen in these kinds of books is that author would dive into the facts so much that it starts to sound like a Master’s thesis. For example, The Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers involves a young French girl living in the 17th century who is sent to Canada (New France) as a Fille du roi or a King’s Daughter. There is a pivotal moment in the book, where she is giving birth, and the author decides to talk about the tools used for the labor. This ultimately detracts from the story because unless the facts move the plot forward, NOBODY WANTS TO HEAR ABOUT THEM WHILE A MAJOR EVENT IS OCCURING!

Thankfully, by having the readers learn alongside Li-yan, Lisa See avoids this hole, whether it is about Akha traditions or tea. For instance, Li-yan attends the birthing of her best friend’s sister-in-law because her mother is the Village Midwife and holds a lot of authority despite the Akha’s patriarchal nature. Her mother teaches her about what she uses to ease the labor, what to do when the baby is born, and what to do if the infant is a human reject (twins or looks deficient in any way). It is with the killing of the human reject that Li-yan starts to question the Akha ways. I will admit that there were times that I felt that See held my hand for a bit too long, especially when talking about the intricate tastes of tea during the second half. It slightly got in the way of the plot, but I did not mind it all that much because us readers are learning alongside Li-yan about tea.

Two of the novel’s other strengths are the character Li-yan and the ending. See’s protagonist is so developed that readers can relate to her dreams, choices, and regrets, which makes it all the more urgent for them to root for her happiness. When she decides to build a wall around her heart after she leaves her baby and then her first husband (the one who got her pregnant out of wedlock), readers understand her choice even though it is not a good thing to do. Meanwhile, the finale is one of the best endings that I have read. I will not give out any spoilers, but it ends on a well-deserved ambiguous note. Normally, I am not crazy about abrupt endings because of how unsatisfying they can be, yet this conclusion is so rewarding that having anything else occur after it would have ruined the moment. The best way that I can describe it is like the ending of Shawshank Redemption, where the camera pulls out when Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman reunite outside of prison.

And it just so happened that I listened to the audiobook, which contained a handful of excellent narrators like Ruthie Ann Miles and Kimiko Glenn. Miles, a singer and actress who has won a Tony for her role of Lady Thiang in the most recent Broadway revival of The King and I, voices Li-yan with such honesty that makes learning about the Akha culture and Pu’er tea all the more interesting. This is especially true about her vocal realization of Li-yan’s mother or Ama. Ama is voiced with a stern and conservatist tone, but also with a sense of caring for Li-yan in order to ensure her happiness. Glenn, who is known for playing Brook Soso on Orange is the New Black and Dawn Williams in the Broadway version of Waitress, voices Haley as a little girl to an adult. Glenn has a mousy kind of voice, which allows her to pull off voicing an 8-year-old. But, once Haley is 12 and up, I felt that Glenn’s vocal performance was too juvenile. I had a similar problem with the person narrating Bee in the audiobook for Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Nonetheless, Miles, Glenn, and the rest of the narrators did a wonderful job with bringing the characters to life.

Overall, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is one that I immensely enjoyed. It is clear that See immersed herself into the Akha culture, tea, and the plight of Chinese-American adoptees so much that it would definitely rub off onto readers in a good way. Sure, there are times where she can hold our hands for a bit too long, but like any mother, she knows when to let go. I would definitely recommend this to readers and even encourage them to read her other novels. Because of how good this book is, I am currently reading her latest The Island of Sea Women.

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The Survivors Club Book Review

Warning: The book that I am about to review deals with sexual assault.

Critics alike have called Lisa Gardner the “Queen of Suspense.” I have heard a lot about this author, but I have never read any of her books, until now. After reading Gardner’s 2002 novel The Survivors Club, I can see why that particular title has been bestowed upon her. The book contains a lot of twists and turns with a lot of depth.

The Survivors Club revolves around three women – Jillian Hayes, Carol Rosen, and Meg Pesaturo. They call themselves the Survivors Club after Eddie Como allegedly rapes them. They help the investigation by finding and catching him. However, on the first day of the trial, he is murdered, and the women are now prime suspects. Detective Sergeant Roan Griffin comes on the case, knowing that even the best people can cross the line. He must find out if one of these women was pushed over the edge, or if someone else wanted to make sure that no one survives the Survivors Club.

Rape is never an easy subject, but much like John Green with mental illness, Gardner gives the upmost appropriate weight to this topic. Those scenes are depicted in flashbacks, and they are pretty graphic. The assaults are dealt with at the beginning of the novel to focus more on their effects. Each of the women suffers a form of loss after their attacks. One loses her sister, another loses her memory, and the third loses her mind. All of them spend a year talking about their assailant, yet when he is killed, they all feel, in one form or another, not satisfied.

The characters themselves are highly three dimensional. On the surface, Jillian is a strong, independent woman, who always knows what to say and do, hence she is the leader of the Survivors Club. However, she is haunted by the image of her dead sister and regrets not being there earlier to defend her from the attacker. Meg, who lost her memory, spends a good chunk of the novel trying to regain it and figure out why she lost it in the first place. Even Detective Griffin is a fully formed character. After an 18-month leave (his wife died of cancer), he comes back to take on the case surrounding the Survivors Club, but he has to keep his emotions in check, especially when he has to obtain some leads from a criminal who once lived next door to him. Even though these elements are appetizers to the main course, they make the novel all the more interesting.

Every suspense novel contains twists and turns, and their effectiveness depends on whether or not readers see them coming. Luckily, I did not see the ones that occur in The Survivors Club coming. I am not going to spoil them, but they were some of the most out-of-left-field twists that I have encountered. It helps that none of them were loudly hinted at or easily put together (take note Fiona Barton!). In fact, a lot of them were misleading, and that tone was perfectly established at the very beginning.

Some reviewers noted that it starts off kind of slow in the beginning. I agree with that, yet it didn’t bother me since it establishes a lot of the characters and the main plot. In addition, the last 100 pages pick up the slack. It’s one of the most gripping finales that I have ever read as it hooked me for three consecutive nights. However, if there is one thing to complain about, it’s the confusion of who is telling the story. I mean, I know that it is in third person, yet every chapter’s title is a character’s name. What makes this unclear is that the focus is not always on the person whose name is mentioned at the beginning of each chapter. From what I have read, fans have mentioned that Gardner has mainly used 1-2 narrators in her subsequent novels, so I like to think that she knew about that puzzlement.

Overall, The Survivors Club by Lisa Gardner is a great suspense novel. It contains twists and turns that I guarantee that no one will see coming and other elements that make it more dimensional than the average suspense novel. I would definitely recommend it to Lisa Gardner fans who have not read it yet and to general suspense fans as long as they are fine with the subject. The book proved to me to why Gardner is considered the “Queen of Suspense!”

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Book Reviews From the Vault: The Cold War, Threat, Paranoia, and Oppression From the Iron Curtain to the Collapse of Communism

Reviewing the book The Cold War: Threat, Paranoia, and Oppression From the Iron Curtain to the Collapse of Communism by Norman Friedman made me truly value proofreading and citing sources, but did it affect my enjoyment? Let’s find out!

Whenever people write, they often proofread their materials before publishing or turning it in, especially when their writings deal with past events. I can imagine the pressure nonfiction authors have to go through to make sure that everything they claim happened actually occurred. With the recent controversy involving Naomi Wolf’s book Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, it has made proofreading all the more necessary, especially if authors want readers to enjoy and come back to their books. In spite of all of this, it has got me thinking: can the lack of proofreading affect one’s enjoyment of a book? I will analyze this with The Cold War: Threat, Paranoia, and Oppression From the Iron Curtain to the Collapse of Communism by Norman Friedman because it includes some obvious errors, yet it contains a lot of well-presented information.

The Cold War: Threat, Paranoia, and Oppression From the Iron Curtain to the Collapse of Communism is exactly what one would think of a title like that. It is a general history of the Cold War, and what occurred on both sides. From a presentational standpoint, Friedman does this well. The book itself is divided up into short chapters, which make it easier to digest not only the text, but also the photos, the mini-biographies, and the translations. Speaking of the photos, they contain pictures of documents, leaflets, etc. from both sides. There is even a photo of a Stasi (East German internal security service) smelling jar. I thought that it was very cool. Friedman presents the information effectively in such a way that even people, who are not familiar with the “war,” would be very interested to read about it.

From a historical standpoint, it does not hold up as well as I wanted it to. Even though a lot of the information that Friedman discusses contains facts that I have previously heard in other books and tidbits that surprised me (the whole notion that the Soviet government relied on their intelligence to copy their enemies’ technology because they believed Western technology was better is something that I never have thought of before), every history book should contain a reference list. This list documents what print and/or online sources were used in the author’s research. This allows readers to look up said sources in order to see how credible they are, which in turn makes the information itself reliable. I completely understand that Friedman himself is knowledgeable about the Cold War since he is an American defense analyst who had advised the US government on the strategic competition between them and the Soviet government and has written over 40 books, including The Fifty-Year War: Conflict and Strategy in the Cold War, BUT unless the sources he used were top secret, without that reference list, he is denying himself a chance to prove to his readers that his work is truly trustworthy and accurate although it was nice of him to list the photo credits in the book.

When I had said that there are some obvious errors in this book, I really meant it. For example, in the mini-biography of founder and long-time chief of the East German foreign intelligence agency Markus Wolf, Friedman lists his birth and death years as 1923-1923. I could not believe it! I had to ask myself, “How could they have overlooked this?”

I also had look Wolf up to see when he actually died. In addition, Harry Truman’s mini-biography claims that he replaced Walter Ulbricht because “he accepted the West German opening to the East (Ostpolitik)” (p. 16). I thought that Truman did no such thing until I encountered Erich Honecker’s mini-biography, IN WHICH IT SAID THE EXACT SAME THING (p. 142)! Now, I KNOW that Truman did no such thing! Why didn’t Friedman have someone else look at his work and detect those errors? This in fact DID bother me while I read and thought about the book afterwards.

In conclusion, to answer the question I have proposed, the lack of proofreading did affect my ability to adore The Cold War: Threat, Paranoia, and Oppression From the Iron Curtain to the Collapse of Communism. I still admire the facts themselves and how they were presented, yet the mistakes were so obvious that it raked my brain for a while. Nonetheless, I would still recommend the book to those who are interested in the Cold War both in the military and political aspects, but with a warning: have other books about the Cold War available as references for certain chapters.

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Tangerine Book Review

Popular books get adapted into film all the time. But what if a novel was opted for a movie before its publication? Readers will probably be scratching their heads and asking the questions, “Why?” and “Would it be worth it?”

That was the situation Tangerine by Christine Mangan fell into months prior to its release. In 2018, George Clooney acquired the film rights for his production company Smoke House Pictures, and Scarlett Johansson was set to play a main character in it (sadly, no other information has surfaced since then). This review will use Tangerine as an example of whether or not optioning for the book before it hits the shelves is worth it.

Tangerine takes readers to 1956 Tangier, Morocco, where English newlywed Alice Shipley resides with her husband John. She is fragile and rarely goes outside of the apartment. This changes when Lucy Mason – Alice’s American friend and roommate at Bennington – shows up unannounced, and neither have spoken to each other for over a year. Being the more independent and adventurous of the two, Lucy slowly takes Alice out of her comfort zone. However, memories resurfaced on what happened that severed their friendship in the first place, and Alice starts to feel unease in Lucy’s company. Suddenly, John disappears, and Alice begins to question everything around her like Lucy, Tangier, and even her own mind.

When I was reading Tangerine, I noticed that it had a very Hitchcockian vibe. What I mean by this is that it contains an innocent person accused of a crime, characters that can’t be trusted, a book cover that utilizes darkness as a form of impending doom, and references to a crime in passing as opposed to presenting it explicitly. However, there was one aspect that could have been handled more effectively, and that was what occurred on the night Alice and Lucy last spoke to each other at Bennington. It was not about the act itself (though I was initially confused), but in the logistics of how that could have happened without a certain participant knowing about it. Even though that aspect could have been handled better, the Hitchcockian tone made the novel a little more interesting.

The book also evokes 1940s and 1950s films by having suspenseful action take place in an exotic location. In fact, some Hitchcock movies had unique backdrops like Notorious (Brazil), To Catch a Thief (French Rivera), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (Morocco). In those films, the one-of-a-kind locations were mostly used as nothing more than one-of-a-kind locations. In other words, there was not much of a reason why the story took place there. Also, some of the villains or shady characters in these pictures tended to be natives of that land. Tangerine has a shady character in Youssef, and a lot of the Moroccan men are referred to as “mosquitoes”.Even though this is racist, that kind of racism was usually present in the flicks mentioned above that the novel obviously took inspiration from. I am not saying that I approve of this. Also, in Tangerine, the main characters talk about the brewing movement for independence; the book itself takes place in 1956, the same year Morocco gained its freedom from France. This aspect would have made a great allegory to how Alice feels in her marriage as well as how Lucy wants to be free from the constraints around her (even if it means literally taking on someone else’s name). However, this doesn’t really go anywhere. If the movie version is actually made, I would love to see how this is fleshed out.

In addition, the novel contains some sexual politics. The book switches back and forth on both women’s perspectives, and it seems to imply (and believe me, a lot is IMPLIED) that Lucy is a lesbian and that she and Alice may have had a relationship that was beyond friendship. Again, this is another aspect that could have made the novel a lot more interesting, yet the book doesn’t really take it anywhere. This is especially true when Lucy becomes more obsessed with Alice and manipulative. With this alone, readers might infer that lesbians are bad, while straight women are good. Like with the tension for Moroccan independence, I would love to see this developed more in the movie.

The only real thing that I have to complain about is that the ending is predictable. Most of the book is actually a slow burn, so it relies on the finale and ending to be the make or break points. In fact, in the dust jacket summary of the novel, it makes a big deal out of John’s disappearance, yet that only occurs in the third act. It builds to that, yet it’s not very satisfying. I will not spoil it for you, but what is foreshadowed in the beginning is exactly what happens at the end. I am not going to lie, but I got really angry over this ending because of how expected it was. However, I calmed myself down when I figured out who the real protagonist was.

Overall, I can see why George Clooney opted for Tangerine by Christine Mangan for a movie. It does have a cinematic feel as it pays homage to a lot of 1940s and 1950s movies, especially those directed by Hitchcock. There are elements that I would like to see developed more in the movie like the independence and the lesbian scenarios. I would recommend this novel to people who enjoy old film noirs like the ones directed by Hitchcock, those who adore Patricia Highsmith, and those who love the books Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. While I like the book, I hope the flick will be better.

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Book Reviews From the Vault: How to Punch Kids in Bathrooms

I always look forward to reading and reviewing informal essays by John Marszalkowski, and How to Punch Kids in Bathrooms (no child was harmed in the making of that book) is no different.

Full disclosure: I was given a free PDF copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

In his latest book How to Punch Kids in Bathrooms, John Marszalkowski recounts various stories in the informal essay format, while keeping it at 32 pages and having no regrets about it. According to him, 32 is the minimum number of pages for a book for some printers. Personally, I thought that would be a little bit more. Nevertheless, in honor of how short this collection of informal essays is, I will try to be as brief as possible with this review.

How to Punch Kids in Bathrooms is essentially filler for his official second book Uncredible Thoughts: Essays, Spiels, and Poppycock, but I don’t mean it in a bad way. For example, while the book didn’t make me laugh out loud, it made me smile, and that is just as important. Like his previous collection of essays Buy My Book: Not Because You Should, But I’d Like Some Money, Marszalkowski still talks about whatever is on his mind even though he is not credible on every topic. The main difference between the two is that this book feels more cohesive and self-assured. He mainly talks about his childhood (and yes, as a kid, he did get punched in the bathroom) as well as his family, especially how he will do anything for his wife. That latter part made me go, “Awwwwwwww”.

He is also as silly as ever, especially with the random quotes inserted between the chapters (my favorite is the one from Harold Ramis).

In other words, How to Punch Kids in Bathrooms by John Marszalkowski is a good organized chaos of a filler, and I would recommend it to readers who are interested in something completely different as well as to fans looking for someone else while waiting for Uncredible Thoughts: Essays, Spiels, and Poppycock.

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Final Jeopardy Book Review

When the name Linda Fairstein is mentioned, what things come to mind? For some, she was the renowned prosecutor and head of the Manhattan Sex Crimes Unit who is “credited with helping shift the conversation around sexual violence in the United States” as well as a best-selling author (https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/6/27/18715785/linda-fairstein-central-park-five-when-they-see-us-netflix). To others however, she is a villain, who oversaw the prosecution of Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise in the Central Park Jogger case. Ever since the series When They See Us aired, people “cancelled” Linda Fairstein due to her involvement in the case and how she was portrayed in the show. In fact, her publishing company even dropped her soon after the series came on. From what I have read about Fairstein from various accounts, it seems like she was devoted to catching assaulters, but the main goal for her was to achieve fame as opposed to giving justice to the victims. This is my two cents. I am here to review books, and it just so happened that I recently read the first book in Fairstein’s Alexandra Cooper series called Final Jeopardy without knowing anything about the author prior. Is it possible to separate the art from the artist? Let’s find out.

In Final Jeopardy, Alexandra Cooper – Manhattan’s top sex-crimes prosecutor – wakes up one morning to discover a headline annoucing her own murder. However, the real victim was actress Isabella Lascar, who sought refuge at Alex’s haven in Martha’s Vineyard. She has to find out if Isabella was being stalked, or if she was mistaken for her. She is in danger, and she has to get to the killer before they get to her.

There were some aspects that I liked about the novel. First, I liked how balanced Alexandra Cooper is. She can be tough, but she expresses empathy towards various victims and a willingness to put the perpetrator behind bars. Also, she loves ballet and shopping. This proves that a woman does not have to be an ice queen in order to be a prosecutor. Second, her friendship with fellow colleague Mike Chapman was fun to read, especially how both troll each other and race to answer the Final Jeopardy question (yes, this is what the title is partially referring to). Third, I enjoyed reading how Alex handled the cases, especially the trial, in which the judge blames a mentally handicapped woman for being sexually assaulted because she had been before. It added a lot of realism to the profession.

Meanwhile, the plot seemed promising when Alex read the headline announcing her own death, but my attention waned once she found out who was actually killed. It did not help that the book dragged on because of how dry it was. In fact, even though I praised the sections, in which Alex handles other cases, those were simply filler. Ironically, I enjoyed that filler more than the main plot itself. There were parts that were somewhat interesting like finding out who Isabella’s main companion was and the climax, but it took a long time to get to those. I am surprised that I was able to get through the entire book.

Now, I would like to address whether or not the book actually exhibits racist aspects and to what extent as some people have pointed out. I had to raise an eyebrow during the part, in which one victim – a black girl named Shaniqua Simmons refuses to press charges against her boyfriend Nelson since she was the only victim of color and the only one to not to do so. Also, her voicemail plays “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye. However, that was a relatively minor scene. Meanwhile, a reporter named Ellen Goldman interviews Alex earlier on in the novel, and then, she maintains a constant presence in the latter’s life. Initially, Ellen reveals that she is a sabra (a Jewish person born in Israel) with an Israeli mother and an American father. It is later revealed that Ellen used to fight for the Israeli Army. SPOILERS: she was the one who killed Isabella. However, when Alex learns about erotomania, she quickly identifies it with Ellen, whom she notes that other than that condition, Ellen is otherwise a normal functioning person. 

All in all, Final Jeopardy by Linda Fairstein was pretty boring and dry. Yes, it contained realistic characters and situations, yet it was so drawn out that I wonder why I didn’t stop reading it right then and there. If readers like legal thrillers and are willing to look past the controversy surrounding the author, go ahead and read it. Outside of those aspects, I am not sure if I would recommend it to anybody else or read any more in the series not because of the cancel culture surrounding Fairstein, but because the novel was so tedious that I am afraid that other books will be just like it.

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Book Reviews From the Vault: Knitting for the First Time

Last year, I started knitting, and Knitting for the First Time by the Vanessa-Ann Collection was one of the first resources that I looked to for understanding the concept. How effective was it? Find out here!

Lately, I have been taking up knitting as part of a club that I facilitate at a public library. As a result, I have been immersing myself in that world with videos, help from my co-workers, and especially, books. One of those books that I read in order to understand more about knitting is the 2003 book Knitting for the First Time by the Vanessa-Ann Collection. It details not only the knitting basics, but it also provides some projects for beginners to do. While this book does a great job at telling readers about knitting, it falls short on showing them how it is done.

I’ll start off by listing the aspects that the book successfully accomplishes. The Vanessa-Ann Collection establishes the tone of the book by comparing the notion of learning how to knit with learning how to speak a new language. In other words, the book is essentially a language dictionary/travel guide. This makes a lot of sense because when people do anything outside of their comfort zone, it feels like they are dealing with a new language, and having a guide helps them to navigate around the “shock”. Another aspect that works is its first section, which talks about knitting basics. The Vanessa-Ann Collection pens this section with a sense that it clearly knows what it is talking about without condescending the audience. This effectively aids novices like me to understand the fundamentals. The book also contains plenty of photographs of various knitting related-items. Within these photos, it clearly labels what is what and the differences among them. For instance, when it talks about yarn textures, there are clear labels underneath each texture and descriptions left of the picture. This makes it easier for beginners to refer to the visual while reading the text. Having a language-metaphor to the book and a great first section is basically the equivalent to learning how to read a foreign language.

However, it does not live up to the expectations when showing readers how to knit, or for the metaphor’s sake, speaking that language. For example, no matter how many times I read how to actually knit, the pictures that show each step in the knitting process did not help me at all. I am a visual and a hands-on learner, so it should have aided me, yet it did not. Nonetheless, I am not blaming the Vanessa-Ann Collection for this. It is hard to show activities that require lots of movement only in photos. That is why I think it is better to learn how to knit through YouTube or from another person. In addition, I looked at the projects that are found in this book, and not only was I confused on how they were done, but I was also confused on what was needed. For instance, when it comes to knitting a dishcloth, it states that the yarn should be “100% mercerized cotton, 2 oz: red, 1 ball; red/black variegated, 1 ball” (p. 40). I kept asking myself, “Do they mean use two balls of yarn? If so, why not make them with the same color?”

It almost feels like the reader needs some experience knitting before really tackling the projects mentioned in the book. Overall, it talks the talk, but I had a hard time understanding its walk.

To summarize, Knitting for the First Time  is great for studying the tools and terminology needed for knitting, but when it comes to showing how to knit, it fails. The pictures were efficiently used for the tools, but not for the knitting techniques. Not only would I recommend this book for advanced beginners, but I would also recommend the newcomers to start learning through either YouTube, or another experienced knitter in order to save them from massive headaches. With any new language, one needs to learn how to communicate it, both in written form and orally. This book can help novices to read the knitting language, not on how to speak it.

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Richville: A Chance for Redemption in a Town Without Pity Book Review

Full disclosure: The author of the book that I am about to review is a patron at a library that I work at. All of the opinions stated in this review are solely mine.

When I had reviewed Richville: Another Tale of Travail and Treachery by Robert C. Jones, I encountered a unique problem: I found that no other person had reviewed it online. Guess what? Jones’s follow-up Richville: A Chance for Redemption in a Town Without Pity has the same issue. In other words, get ready for the very first review of this once-again-Hallmark-movie-for-older-people book. It was not as effective as the previous one.

Richville: A Chance for Redemption in a Town Without Pity brings readers back to the town of you guessed it: Richville and all of its colorful characters. However, the town has hit a low point. Trust among the citizens has evaporated after a number of them were involved at a gathering in a historic home to find a valuable teapot and coin. It also does not help that the Reign brothers – Huey, Dewey, and Louie – have constructed a slaughterhouse through corrupt methods. These cartoon villains plan on taking control of the whole town and eschewing tradition (*gasp). Will there be redemption?

Much like the last book, this one also tends to mainly focus on the characters and how they deal with the situations at hand. Unlike the last one however, I didn’t connect to the characters as much as I should have. The ones that I grabbed onto in the previous novel are not in it for very long with the exception of the Thank Goodness I’m Alive and Kicking Club. It has new characters like the crew at Cooky’s, including Big Tina, as well as Mandy Menage – a hardcore feminist fashionista and president of the Effervescent Rose Society. I didn’t care much for Big Tina since her whole spiel is being floozy with truckers. Mandy was someone that I thought I was going to not like at first since she acts all domineering and thinking she is better than everyone else as she tries to spruce up the town. However, she has a change of heart after someone broke into her home and physically assaulted her. Even though it was a bit contrived, she realizes that she is still that small-town girl and is willing to appreciate the do-gooder spirit of Richville.

That point that I made in the review for the 2nd Richville book still stands. It still contains melodrama, favors idealism, and has a rose-tinted narrative. In addition, most of the do-gooders aka heroes are over the age of 50, while the villains are younger. However, I did not connect as strongly as I did with the previous novel since not much happens. To be fair, not much occurred in the last book, but at least it had a substantial plot. Here, the plot is mainly how the citizens deal with mistrust and greed. Moreover, most of the main characters don’t really do anything besides mope and whine. That is why for a while I struggled to figure out what the plot really was. I wanted to see how the events of the preceding book affected everyone, yet it was far more passive than I expected.

Overall, Richville: A Chance for Redemption in a Town Without Pity by Robert C. Jones was okay. It was kind of a letdown compared to the earlier book simply because not much happened. However, I would recommend it to older people, especially if they have read the last two books. I would still not discourage young readers from taking a look at it. In the past, I mentioned that the Richville series would be a trilogy, but I just got word from the author himself that there will be a fourth book. I look forward to it.

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Book Reviews From the Vault: The Rosie Project

Last year, Oprah revealed the list of the top 20 greatest ever romance novels according to Goodreads Reviews, and The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion was on it. At first, I was a little shocked, but after reading it, I had to agree.

Lately, I have been reading a lot of books about curmudgeons and how they slowly let other people into their lives. I can’t help but read about them. They are so unique and quirky. Don Tillman from The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion is no different. He is a socially awkward genetics professor who tries to find a wife through a survey called The Wife Project – a 16-page survey to filter out the drinkers, smokers, and late arrivers. Awhile back, Oprah Magazine listed it as one of the top 20 greatest ever romance novels (according to Goodreads Reviews): https://www.oprahmag.com/entertainment/books/g26090153/best-romance-novels-of-all-time/

After reading it, I have to agree as well.

Like A Man Called Ove and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, The Rosie Project is about a person whose sheltered life gets interrupted by the unlikeliest of people. In this case, Don Tillman’s life gets turned upside down by a psychology student named Rosie. Even though he immediately declares that Rosie is totally unsuitable for the Wife Project, he finds himself infatuated by her and is even willing to help her find her biological father. Instinct and reason are at constant odds until he eventually realizes that Rosie has won his heart.

I found myself laughing at Don throughout the book. Although he is very intelligent and organized, it was his total ineptness in social situations that made me chuckle. I also liked how Don didn’t care about what others thought of him (until Rosie came into his life) since he basically made himself to be the class clown, and this is coming from a person who exhibited some signs of autism.

Right now I am sure that someone is saying, “Emily, since you say that you yourself exhibited some signs of autism, what do you think of how the author portrays Don and his Asperger’s?” Well reader, I go back and forth on that depiction. On one hand, I enjoyed how Don talks about the difficult notion of fitting in and him realizing that he may have Asperger’s, yet he doesn’t get a formal diagnosis because he is doing well in life as is. I also loved his limited self-awareness, especially how he brings up the idea that humans can’t see “what is close to them and obvious to others”, and but, it is towards the end that he realizes that Rosie always had feelings for him.

On the other hand, there was an instance, in which Don proclaims that he does not feel love, which sort of bothered me. As some autistic people will tell you, our feelings might be intense, but there might not be a way to express them, which leads to avoiding those kinds of emotions. At the same time, I am not going to chastise Simsion for inserting a stereotypical autistic trait. In fact, in an interview with Cathy Lamb in 2014, he mentioned that he based Don on people that he met while working in IT and in academia: https://cathylamb.org/2014/01/author-interview-graeme-simsion-the-rosie-project/. Although the author is not autistic himself, he realistically depicts Don as a human, and that is the most important thing that any author can do with their protagonists.

With the story itself, readers have complained on how predictable it is, especially if one watched the romantic comedies that the characters mention during the course of the novel. Personally, I had no problem with that because Don always has struggled to fit it with classmates, colleagues, etc. By having the book go through the various romantic comedy clichés – making over-the-top romantic gestures to someone that they don’t know, the realization that the right person was in front of them the whole time, forcing someone to go to great lengths to prove their love, etc. (https://bestlifeonline.com/romantic-comedy-cliches/), it proves that he can find love like any other romantic comedy protagonist, thus fitting in with those movies.

The only real complaint that I had was with the audiobook narrator Dan O’Grady – Australian actor who has appeared in numerous BBC shows. While O’Grady does a good job with giving Don an intelligent and socially awkward appeal in an approachable way as well as a more brash vocal performance with Gene, Don’s best friend, I found myself confused on which character he was voicing because there was very little distinction among them. I was also annoyed whenever he spoke as Rosie, for he would give her a quieter performance. Even when Rosie was angry at Don for something, O’Grady would still voice her like a mouse. This forced me to adjust my volume several times to understand what she was saying. Overall, the audiobook was solid despite the barely noticeable differences among the various characters and problems associated with voicing the title character.

In whole, The Rosie Project is a lighthearted book that I am sure that everyone will enjoy, and it deserves to be recognized by Oprah as a great romance novel. While there are times that Don can be a Sheldon Copper-like caricature, Simsion makes this up by allowing readers to travel deep inside his mind. I would also recommend readers the book instead the audiobook since one can imagine the various characters’ distinct voices better than Dan O’Grady did. For anyone who has not read the book, here is something you should now: if you meet one autistic person, YOU MET ONE AUTISTIC PERSON. There is no one size fits all. Don is only one person on the spectrum. 

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What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City Book Review

As a Michigander, I read books about and involving my state whatever chance I get. Recently, I came across What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha – a pediatrician at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, and it opened my eyes up to a load of things. 2015 was the year of the Flint Water Crisis, and it was Hanna-Attisha, who broke the news of the dangerous lead levels in the water and how children were getting exposed to it. The book itself specifically details how she heard about the dangerous lead levels, her research, and despite the backlash from government officials, how she did not back down in order to help the children affected. I remember hearing about it at the time, yet this book allowed me to understand not only the roots of the disaster, but also why the author did it in the first place.

Even though the beginning was filled with statistics that some might find confusing, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha uses everyday language to explain the entire situation. This allows for readers like me to get riled up (in a good way) as well as to learn more about it. It certainly angered me to know that General Motors (GM) noticed a high amount of chloride in the water in 2014 and switched to using Lake Huron as a source to prevent corrosion of the metal engine parts (p. 98-99). You would think that some GM officials would let other businesses and facilities know about this, but no, this did not happen. In addition, I learned of the various causes of the crisis itself, and spoilers: it’s more than the lead. Other factors were the structural racism, officials looking the other way, and the fact that Flint was under an emergency manager law. That means the mayor was stripped of real power. In 2011, Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager (EM) since the city was near bankruptcy; however, they only answered to him. Hanna-Attisha declares that by 2013, “half of all African-American citizens in Michigan were living under an EM, compared with 2 percent of white residents” (p. 28). If lead was found in the waters in a city like Seattle or Des Moines, I can guarantee you that the officials would have fixed the problem pretty quickly. 

In addition, Dr. Hanna-Attisha weaves in her own story to explain why she was determined to get the news of the lead levels in the Flint water out there. I thought that these parts were well done as they show readers the real person behind the stand holding a baby bottle full of lead-contaminated water and how her beliefs in helping others developed. Her family escaped Saddam Hussein-dominated Iraq. They wanted to return, but something always prevented them like the increasing atrocities of the regime. Moreover, she was always passionate about helping others like being in the environmental club in high school. And while the author retained the need to help others, the knowledge of government officials not looking out for the greater good made her see the reality, even at a young age. These stories are usually found in chapters separate from the ones, where she is talking about gathering the research. If I had a complaint, it would be that the times in which she talks about her family bog down the pacing a little, but I would like to think that the sum is greater than its parts.

Overall, What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is a highly inspirational and realistic account of the Flint Water Crisis. Using layman language permitted Dr. Hanna-Attisha to relay information about the catastrophe to readers effectively. Interweaving her own story is a mostly effective choice since it permits the readers to see the real person and why she was devoted to aiding others. I would definitely recommend this book to anybody interested in learning about the Flint Water Crisis. And not only that, I would make it a requirement for any Michigan-based reader to take a look at it because it will always be a part of Michigan history.

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