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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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Literary Travel – New Orleans Edition Part Two

Hi Everybody!!

As a librarian and overall literary nerd, one of the things that I had to do in New Orleans was check out some bookshops to see what they had. My husband and I went into four unique antiquarian & second-hand bookstores. All of them were conveniently located in the French Quarter, which made it easy for us to locate them on foot. The photos used were ones that I took unless noted.

First up is Arcadian Books & Prints.

Photo Credit: Ellis Anderson for the French Quarter Journal

For over 40 years, Arcadian Books & Prints had offered a variety of items like DVDs; prints; and used books from a whole lot of genres, including some in French (hence its alternate name Livres D’Arcadie) and rare copies of select titles (like a Cold-War-era book that covered Russian Marxism).

The shop has been described by the French Quarter Journal as “organized chaos,” and it’s easy to see why. All of the books are stacked on top of one another, yet they’re not always on the shelves.

There was a narrow walk space for us to use. This was fine for someone who’s small and skinny (like me). On the other hand, my husband had a tough time navigating the bookshop due to his height. He was cautious moving around because he didn’t want to bump his head on the shelves above. In fact, he mentioned that he felt like a bull in a china shop.

The bull in a china shop

Oh and I forgot, there was a fan hanging above. Knowing how hot summers can be down in the south, I’m sure customers are thankful to have that. Above the fan is, I kid you not, a shelf that acts like the Arc de Triomphe, or should I say the Arc de Livres. I’m not going to lie: I was worried that the shelf would collapse on us while we were there. Luckily, it didn’t since it was probably made from steel panels. These stood out in a store containing wooden shelves for the rest of the items.

While there, I bought Beautiful Crescent: A History of New Orleans by Joan B. Garvey and Mary Lou Widmer. From I understand, it’s a good overview of the history of the Crescent City. I can’t wait to read and review it.

Overall, Arcadian Books & Prints is a disorganized bibliophile’s dream as long as they are small and are comfortable in compact spaces (sorry, claustrophobic people.) They don’t have an official website, but if you want to find out more about them, you can call them at (504) 523-4138 for more details.

Our second bookstore is Beckham’s Bookshop!

Photo Credit: Bookstore Explorer

Beckham’s Bookshop is a second-hand bookstore that contains 50-60,000 titles on two floors. Those books cover any topic imaginable like food, movies, theater arts, and foreign languages. It has been open since 1967 and at its current location since 1979.

Various newspaper articles about the bookshop over the years grace several bookcase ends. This shows that the place is proud of it history, and as someone who has studied history and archival administration, this made me very happy.

The bookstore also contains vinyls, but one can go up to the third floor to find more of the latter at Man Ray Records – a music shop that sells vinyls of various genres ranging from jazz to opera.

The vinyls at Beckham’s Bookshop

And last, but not least, Beckham’s has its own book cat named Juniper. Juniper is 13 years old and has been at the bookshop since he was a kitten. He was asleep during the time we were there, but I managed to pet him when he eventually woke up.

Isn’t Juniper so cute???

Beckham’s had wider walkways, so it was easy for us to roam around the store. There’s even chairs around for those who need to sit.

To access the second floor, a wooden staircase is located by the entrance. While there, people can look at even more books like these for the kids and young adults.

Overall, Beckham’s Bookshop is a bookstore that’s full of wonderful surprises and a rich history. It’s definitely for readers who like to read everything (like myself), music, and cats, but anybody can come in! To learn more about them, one can access their Facebook and Instagram pages!

Now, let’s look at our third bookstore – Crescent City Books!

Photo Credit: Crescent City Books

Started in 1992, Crescent City Books is another bookstore that offers a variety of books with an emphasis on local history.

What makes this bookstore stand out is that they offer original maps and prints from the last 500 years! The maps even included the original plan for New Orleans and Manhattan! The prints contain botanical and architectural ones as well as engravings, etchings, and woodcuts. Crescent City wanted customers to know that these prints are NOT reproductions.

The store itself is in a small space, but the walkways are wide enough that people can move around. It even has a bench for those who need to sit down.

Adding to its authenticity image, the bookstore also contains leather bound books, both in a case and out of it.

Of course, I have to admit that I bought the book Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children: . . . and Other Streets of New Orleans! by John Chase, which discusses the origin of the various street names in the Crescent City. Like with the title mentioned above, I can’t wait to read and review it!

Overall, Crescent City Books offers the most unique items with its antique maps and prints! If people want to buy items that are distinct to New Orleans and the state of Louisiana, this bookstore is the best place for that! To learn more about them, one can check out their Facebook and Instagram pages!

And finally, we have Faulkner House Books!

Photo Credit: Jenidza Rivera – Date: 2017

Faulkner House Books is a bookstore that contains fine literature, rare editions, and of course, books by William Faulkner. Apparently, he lived in that specific building when he wrote his first novel Solider’s Pay.

It was ironically the first bookstore that we encountered. When I say encountered, it was more like we stumbled upon it as we were trying to find a place to book some tours. As one can see from the photo above, it doesn’t have much signage outside of its name and a plaque indicating that Faulkner lived there.

Nevertheless, I’m glad that we went there because despite the space being limited to two rooms, it was the quaintest of the bookstores that we went to. I think it was the old fashioned lamps and the chandelier. It was also the most organized of all the bookshops we went to as all of the books were lined up spine to spine in neat ways.

The bookstore emphasized poetry, which makes sense as Faulkner himself wrote plenty of poetry. Al lot of them were stored in separate bookcases in a hallway that lead to a fancy gate that indicated the space it was guarding was private.

Another aspect that made Faulkner House Books was that it possessed pictures and notes of various writers who spent time in New Orleans like Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway. One of them included a photo of Williams and Marlon Brando in the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. That one is second from the top on the right.

Joanne was the lady who works at Faulkner House Books, and she was very kind and personable as we chatted up on the house itself as well as, you guessed it, books. It also turns out that she does personalized book subscriptions. These involve sending the reader 3 to 5 books a month based on their personal tastes. One can go to the Faulkner House Books website to find out more details.

Sadly, I didn’t partake in the subscription, yet I purchased two books while I was there. One was The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics by John Pollack. I love puns as well as how it parodies the title of one of Hemingway’s most famous novels. The other one was called New Orleans Sketches by William Faulkner. I had to buy that while at the one-time residence of that author. It contains stories that he wrote while living in New Orleans, while working on his debut novel. Also, it’s like ordering gumbo at a New Orleans gumbo shop. It’s mandatory. I’m looking forward to reading and reviewing both!

Overall, Faulkner House Books is a cozy bookstore tailored made for those who love the classics, poetry, and the idea of other people picking out their books to read. It’s a compact space, but my husband and I had no problem going through it. Along with their website, one can also find them on Facebook and Instagram!

And that concludes of the first installments of my new series “Literary Travel!”

Let me know what you think of this series!

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Literary Travel – New Orleans Edition Part One

Hi Everyone!

This week, I promised you all something special for Martin Luther King (MLK) Jr. Day, and I have it here. Yesterday, I celebrated this day by going to the Odgen Museum of Southern Art for its 5th Annual Free MLK Jr. Day Celebration. It was presented with support provided by Cox Communications.

The event contained a museum scavenger hunt, family friendly entertainment, an interactive “I Have a Dream” wall, and a lot more. My husband and I had fun writing our own ” I Have a Dream” messages, and I had a great time using the 360 degree photo booth!

With all of that, I’d the say the highlight of my time at the museum was attending the panel discussion that explored “the history of social justice activism in New Orleans, as well as contemporary social justice movements in the city.”

Led by Shukrani Gray, African American Resource Collection Equity and Inclusion Librarian at the New Orleans Public Library, the panel consisted of guests like Mariah Moore – an award-winning social justice advocate, National Organizer at the Transgender Law Center, and Co-Founder and Co-Director of the House of Tulip – and Leon Waters – the board chairperson of the Louisiana Museum of African American History as well as tour host and manager of Hidden History, L.C.C.. Both guests espoused their knowledge perspectives on the history of social justice movements in the city and what people could do to continue the communal effort.

Since Waters is the manager of Hidden History, he received cheers and ruffled some feathers with asserting that MLK became a hero for the oppressive party and that he was murdered by the FBI (the latter has been proved to be false.) Despite that misinformation, Waters was right was about how we shouldn’t put MLK on the pedestal. Like other famous names in the 1960s civil rights movement, he has been mythologized, and it’s important to humanize him and to see the events from that era from multiple perspectives, so we can have a more nuance view on that time.

Overall, it was a fun time, and I certainly look forward to attending more events like this and finding ways to enhance equity and inclusion as a librarian.

Stay tuned for part two next week where I show you all the bookshops that I explored in New Orleans!

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What Am I Reading – Chapter Twenty-Five

Hi Everyone,

It’s been awhile since I showed you the last chapter. I finished a number of books like The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell, and I started a new title not too long ago that I’d like to share with all of you.

American Shaolin – Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China by Matthew Polly is a coming-of-age story of one American’s quest to become a kung fu master at China’s legendary Shaolin Temple. When he was young, Matthew was scrawny and tormented by bullies at school. He dreamed of one day journeying to China to become the toughest fighter like Caine in his favorite TV series Kung Fu. While in college, he decided that the time had come to pursue his dream. Despite the objections from his parents, he dropped out of Princeton to spend two years training with the legendary sect of monks who invented kung fu and Zen Buddhism. When he landed in China, he expected an isolated citadel populated by supernatural ascetics that he’d seen in countless chop-socky films. Instead, he discovered a tacky tourist trap run by Communist party hacks. Nonetheless, the monks still trained in the rigorous age-old fighting forms. As Matthew became more knowledgeable about China and kung fu, he would come to represent Shaolin Temple in challenge matches and international competitions, and ultimately the monks would accept their new American initiate as close to one of their own as any Westerner had ever become.

I was a little worried at first since I rarely read nonfiction in bed. The last time I did that with So Anyway by John Cleese, I stayed up for hours. Luckily, I haven’t had that issue so far. This isn’t a bad thing. I read roughly a chapter a night and sleep afterwards. I can still enjoy it and get plenty of shut-eye.

As for the memoir itself, it’s pretty good so far. Polly demonstrates his knowledge of China very well prior to arriving in that nation since he studied the language while at Princeton. I liked how he discovers more about the country beyond the classroom and the kung fu media. One scene that stood out to me was when he was at the rundown hotel, and the clerk was trying to get with him. He handles the situation like any naive foreigner would. I’m looking forward to reading more of this.

We have now come to the end of the twenty-fifth chapter of “What Am I Reading?”

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Vita Nostra Book Review

Hello Everybody!

I hope you all had a great New Years! I sure did! I’ve been looking forward to 2022 for awhile because I got a wide range of books to show you like this one:

Have you ever read a book that boggled your entire mind? A book so confusing that you have to double check to make sure that you read it right? Recently, I read a novel like that called Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. It may not be for everyone, yet for those who chose to go on this journey, it’s worth it.

Translated from Russian by Julia Meitov Hersey, Vita Nostra is a dark version of Harry Potter. While vacationing with her mom, Sasha Samokhina meets the mysterious Farit Kozhennikov. He directs her to perform certain tasks, and she is powerless to refuse. Every time she completes one, she is rewarded with strange gold coins. As her schooling and summer end, her domineering mentor makes her move to a remote village and use her gold coins to enroll in the Institute of Special Technologies. Even though Sasha doesn’t want to go, she feels that this is the only place she should be at. She quickly finds out that the institute’s “special technologies” are unlike anything she has ever encountered like the books being impossible to read and the lessons being maddening. The institute uses terror and coercion to keep students in line, yet they don’t outright punish them. Instead, their families pay a price. Despite her fear, Sasha goes through changes that defy matter and time as well as experiences which were nothing she ever dreamed of and suddenly all she ever wanted.

As one can see from this summary, it’s a lot, but it’s truly like Harry Potter. Like Sasha, Harry also goes to a magical school and experiences things that he couldn’t ever dream of while living with the Dursleys. The difference is how intense Vita Nostra can get, especially with how Sasha is forced to go to the school almost against her own will. 

However, that summary doesn’t quite describe everything that goes on in the book. The YouTube channel “rincy reads” expressed the novel as this: “This book is like Harry Potter, but if it was written by Kafka.”

Although I’ve never read anything by Franz Kafka, I couldn’t have interpreted that book any better. That author wrote a novella called The Metamorphosis, and Sasha goes through one herself of a slightly different sort.

At first, I was a little worried since the book contained no chapters, just sections that functioned like a 3-act play. I was about to get flashbacks to The Polished Hoe until I noticed that every first line in every subsection was bolded. I have a feeling that either the authors or the translator were aware that readers might not have a place to stop reading for the time being, hence the bold first sentences. 

That was a clever move, for it grabbed me from the very first page, and there were times that I couldn’t put it down. I could vividly imagine a lot of the locations like the remote village, especially when Sasha and Kostya – Farit’s son – first encounter it. At times, I was addicted to the book like Sasha was to her textbooks. In fact, she got so into her homework that her professors had to stop her from going too far on multiple occasions. 

As other readers have mentioned, this is an accurate depiction of being confused by something and then immediately getting it. Sasha and her classmates at the Institute of Special Technologies are often befuddled by the text that they have read for various assignments. They, especially the protagonist, ask the professors why, and they are often told that they can’t tell them quite yet, but they will get it in due time. The more Sasha reads the paragraphs, the more she gets them to the point that she has little to no social life. That kind of sounded like me when I was in high school and in college. And this even reflects how I felt while reading this book. I had no idea what the school was trying to teach them, and I wanted Sasha to know too, so it was good that both of us were in the same boat.

Speaking of Sasha, I’m glad that the authors wrote her as flawed. She is someone who’s so consumed by her work that she drives people away from her. She even scares a lot of the younger students because of how strict, assertive, and studious she is. This can make her seem cold, but she is a loving daughter to her mother and eventually warms up to her step-father and baby half-brother. She even has feelings for Kostya, but she constantly denies them in lieu of doing the assignments. In other words, it’s good to see a truly flawed female protagonist.

The book talks about philosophy a good chunk of the time like ceasing to be human and to become a verb, word, etc. I thought these sections were just alright as I focused more on figuring out what was even going on and if Sasha will survive the school.

Now, let’s talk about the ending. I’ll give no spoilers. All I will say is this: at first, I thought that it was one of the most WTF conclusions I have ever read. However, once I learned that it was the first book in a trilogy, I began to see it as a beginning to something else. Although it still doesn’t change the fact that the ending was crazy, I’m willing to read the other two novels to see how things play out because of that conclusion.

Overall, Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko is not your average fantasy, magic-realism book. Weird things happen, but you get addicted to it pretty quickly. It helps that the protagonist is flawed in a good way. I would recommend this to those who like books that involve magic schools, darker fantasy novels, Harry Potter, and Kafka. Like I said earlier, it’s not for everyone because of how confusing it can get, but if you are willing to read it, you’ll probably remember it for a long time. 

What are your favorite translated books? Let me know in the comments!

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Top 3 Best and Worst Books of 2021

Hi Everybody!!!!

Today is the last Monday of the year! You know what that means??? It’s the 2nd annual year-end countdown of books I reviewed in 2021!

Like before, I’ll pick 6 books for this list – 3 for the best and 3 for the worst! Now, I have only one question for you!

I sure am! Let’s get started with the Best Books of 2021!

I read lots of wonderful titles this year, so it was a bit hard to chose. I wish I could include all of the 4- and 5-starred rated books, but I knew I had to select the best of the best for this year. At the end of the day, I found 3 of those titles that not only fit that criteria, but were also unforgettable.

3. Wild Women of Michigan: A History of Spunk and Tenacity by Norma Lewis

In my last installment of “What Am I Reading,” I mentioned Wild Women of Michigan since I’m currently reading The Women of Copper Country, which centers around the Copper Country Strike organized by Annie Clements. Ever since I started reading the latter, it has made appreciate the former all the more because of its celebration of women like Clements who defied expectations and who just happened to live in Michigan at some point in their lives. It includes those from various times and backgrounds, showing that anyone can be a game-changer. Despite its structural and glaring editing issues, it’s an essential read for those who want to learn more of Michigan history beyond a textbook.

2. Around the World in 80 Days With Michael Palin by Sir Michael Palin

I know you’re probably thinking, “Didn’t you put a book involving one of your favorite comedians on the best list last year?”

Yes, I did, and I put it on the list because it was written so well that I couldn’t get it out of my head. The same goes with Around the World in 80 Days With Michael Palin. It’s a fabulous travelogue of someone with money and proper backing who did what the title implies. Palin’s observations are hilarious and genuine, and I got the sense that he sincerely wanted to get to know the people he encountered on the trip. And most importantly, it made me want to travel. I completely understand why Palin got knighted in 2019 due to his “services to travel, culture and geography.”

1. On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

Now, I know you’re going to say, “Wait. Didn’t you put a book by Angie Thomas on last year’s best list?”

I sure did. Normally, I try to stay away from putting the same authors on my best lists, so I can give other ones the love and attention they deserve, but I couldn’t pass up On the Come Up. This YA book tackles a variety of issues like misogyny in the music industry, social justice, and poverty in non-sugarcoated ways. The best part of this novel is the main character Bri. She acts like a real teenager, flaws and all. It also helps that her rhymes and flows were incredible, and I was rooting for her all the way despite the impulsive and stupid things she did throughout. I can’t wait to see the movie when it comes out because the book is that wonderful. In addition, Bahni Turpin nailed the audiobook!

Before, we get the worst list, I want to mention that the titles listed are not all that bad. I found these to be the weakest of the ones that I read this year.

Now that we got that out of the way, it’s now time to get to the Top 3 Worst Books of 2021!

3. Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison

There were plenty of things I liked from Legends of the Fall like The Man Who Gave Up His Name short story. However, whenever I thought of the novella, I often remembered the aspects I didn’t like more than the ones I enjoyed. It illustrates the main problems I have with Harrison, namely his macho and overly self-indulgent style of writing, especially with the titular short story. Also, if he mentioned, “And she went mad” one more time, I swore I was going to go mad!

Also, from what I’m told, the movie version of Legends of the Fall is supposed to be different from the story. All in all, it has plenty of enjoyable elements; it just needs to be more concise and less self-indulgent.

2. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

We need to have books that discuss how people can improve their racial education. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism is certainly one of the more popular titles in that subject, but I would be hesitant to recommend it. Despite her revelations on the good/bad binary and her advice on how to combat it, DiAngelo tends to act like she knows everything because she is a diversity consultant, which is off-putting. It doesn’t help that she doesn’t use concrete examples for her points all the time. I wish it was written by someone who wasn’t on their high horse, preferably someone of color.

To summarize, I’ll quote the last the line of that review, “Whatever you do: don’t treat this like it’s the Bible of racial education because it’s simply not.”

1. Carry the One by Carol Anshaw

Even though I published the review for Carry the One last week, I knew even then it was the weakest title that I’ve read this year. Like the title I chose as my worst book of 2020, it took a potentially interesting story and executed it in the most boring way possible. It focused on three siblings and how they dealt with a tragic incident. The problem is that the novel focuses on the wrong elements. One of the siblings is not even actively involved with the event. If it emphasized the characters that were directly affected by the accident, it would’ve been a much better book.

And that was the Top 3 Best and Worst Books of 2021! I hope all of you enjoyed it. I look forward to having plenty of new reviews for 2022! See you next year!

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Carry the One Book Review

I understand that there are some books that are intended to be character studies. The emphasis is on the character and how they deal with things, and the plot is put on the back burner. If done right, they can be pretty engaging with characters so fascinating that readers will look past the thin plot. If not, the novel will become a slog with protagonists that barely anyone will root for. An example of the latter is Carry the One by Carol Anshaw.

Carry the One is about three siblings and their friends who experience a devastating moment following a wedding. It takes place over 25 years as they deal with this trauma in their own ways through friendships and love affairs, marriage and divorce, parenthood, holidays, and the modest calamities and triumphs of ordinary days.

Much as I liked the premise, I had a feeling that not much would happen. Now that I’m done with it, I can say that it’s more a character study, but with a goal of trying to move on. It’s not a bad thing. The Four Sworn: Spring Equinox by Leonore Sagaskie was an origin story for the main characters. It explained how they got their powers, how they met, and how they formed a group to defeat a powerful villain. Both have thin plots, yet the protagonists in The Four Sworn were compelling enough that it kept me engaged throughout. In Carry the One, the characters are not all that interesting. Each of the siblings – Carmen, Alice, and Nick – deal with the tragedy in different ways. One puts herself into her work, her son, and her family with her second husband; another paints and goes through women while trying to get over her true love; and the other one does drugs. 

As one can see from that, only one has a legitimately intriguing story. Even though Nick used drugs before, he continues to utilize them to get over his guilt of not telling the driver aka his girlfriend at the time Olivia about seeing the little girl that they hit. It doesn’t help that Carmen – the one who actually gets married – wasn’t even there when the accident occurred. I liked her, yet I had a hard time caring for her and her second marriage due to her absence from the tragedy in the first place. As for Alice, I feel that there was a missed opportunity with her. Part of her atonement was painting the little girl in the various stages of her life while wearing the same outfit that she was killed in. At one point, a famous painter views those works and asks, “What if these are the best paintings you will ever make?”

Sadly, Alice never shows them to others. I understand that she didn’t want to profit off the girl’s death like Tom – a family friend – did with his song about the accident and that it would’ve been a predictable move. However, displaying them would’ve helped others dealing with similar situations as well as herself in her road to healing. She could’ve established a scholarship in the girl’s name or donated them to a charity devoted to car accident prevention. Above all, it would have allowed for something to happen besides Alice going through each woman before getting back with Maude. In addition, it would’ve been a satisfying conclusion to her story.

This book is like an improvisational game, in which barely anyone says, “Yes and…”

It could be interesting, yet it holds back from exploring more in depth about how certain characters like Carmen and Alice go through grief and loss. In other words, it rarely frames the accident in the context of their stories, and how their lives are affected because of it.

In fact, I think that the novel doesn’t focus on the right characters. Nick’s story is compelling, and so is Olivia’s. Olivia is the only one that faced any clear consequences to her actions as she spends some time in jail for having marijuana in the truck. The book doesn’t spend any time with Olivia while she’s in jail as it chooses to focus on her when she leaves. Of all the characters, she’s the one who desperately wants to leave the accident behind and become a better person. She even leaves Nick as he tries to sober up when she discovers a Vicodin pill in his coat pocket. If the book emphasized the accident’s aftermath through Nick’s and Olivia’s eyes, it could’ve been a lot more interesting.

I listened to the audiobook, and it’s narrated by Renee Raudman. Raudman is best known for voicing Ms. Butterbean in The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy. At first, I was worried that I might hear that character throughout the novel and not be able to take it seriously. Luckily, that was not the case, for none of the main female characters had that voice. Raudman has a range with voicing Carmen as a woman who acts like she has it together, but in reality doesn’t, while she portrays Alice as more free-spirited, but frustrated with her love life. The men kind of sound the same, but as I have mentioned on this website, voicing audiobooks is hard. Given the material, Raudman did her best.

All in all, Carry the One by Carol Anshaw is a book that serves as a clear example of how not to do a character study. Some of the characters are interesting, but the novel’s decision to focus on the ones that weren’t directly involved and the lack of action hold it back from being compelling from beginning to end. It’s not a bad book, but I would hesitate to recommend it to others. There are much better character studies out there.

Before I go, I want to announce that I’ll be posting my Top 3 Best and Worst Books of 2021 next week, so stay tuned for that! Until then, Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it!

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What Am I Reading – Chapter Twenty-Four

Hi Everybody,

I hope the Christmas shopping is going well so far, and for my Jewish readers, I hope you all had a great Hanukkah!

I finished The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern recently, and started reading two more titles that I’d like to show you all!

So let’s begin!

Once Upon a Winter: A Folk and Fairy Tale Anthology is the first of four planned seasonal anthologies. This contains folk and fairy tales written by 17 authors across the globe, and they consist of different genres, adaptations of known stories, and original ones.

So far, this series is very intriguing. I read the first two stories in the anthology, and I like them very much. One is an original tale – The Biting Cold by Josie Jaffrey – that details the protagonist’s hermit life in the forest and their encounter with a special kind of monster. They realize that they have to depend on each other in order to survive. In a way, it’s a nice message to care for the environment since we rely on it a lot. The other is a twist on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Match Girl retold by Rebecca F. Kenney. It captures the spirit of the story of a girl trying to survive while selling matches. I won’t spoil it, but the twist is let us say enlightening.

Both depict winter as a harsh and even cruel season, so we’ll see how the other stories portray it.

And now, here’s our second and final book of this latest installment.

The Women of Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell is about Annie Clements – the American “Joan of Arc.” In 1913, having spent her entire life in the copper-mining town of Calumet, Michigan, she has seen enough of the world to know that it’s unfair. The men risk their lives while working underground each day and have barely enough food to put on the table and clothes on their backs. The women labor at home and dread the news of their husbands and sons not coming home. Annie decides to stand up for herself and the town of Calumet, but many people believe she’s bitting off more than what she can chew. In her hands lie the miners’ fortunes and their health, her husband’s wrath over her growing independence, and her own reputation as she faces the threat of prison and discovers a forbidden love. As she goes on her journey for justice, Annie slowly discovers how much she’s willing to sacrifice for her own independence and the families of Calumet.

I started reading this yesterday, and I really like it. Until now, the only other place where I’ve heard of Annie Clements (or Anna Clemenc) was in the Wild Women of Michigan book. For those who don’t know, she was a labor activist and an active participant in the Copper Country Strike of 1913-1914. I’ve never really heard of this event, but I’m really intrigued to learn more through this historical fiction novel.

Not much has happened so far, but from what I’ve read, it’s pretty good. There’s barely any dialogue, yet I don’t mind this. Russell introduces the main characters through their actions. For example, readers are introduced to Annie as she makes pastries for her boarders – three young Italian immigrants who work along side her husband. It shows how much she cares about the wellbeing of others. In addition, the thoughts and beliefs of James MacNaughton – the owner of the mining company in Calumet – are uncovered when he reads a newspaper in his mansion. They set up that he’s going to be our antagonist.

Cassandra Campbell is back as she narrates this book. Her vocal performance is good so far. She distinguishes characters of various ethnicities very well. We’ll see how she does with the main characters soon.

We have now come to the end of the twenty-fourth chapter of “What Am I Reading?”

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Eleanor & Park Book Review

Lately, I’ve been thinking about novels that have been considered problematic within the last few years. Some have been labeled that way for decades. But, does that mean readers are not allowed to read them anymore? I don’t think so. To understand why a book is deemed an issue, one must know the context – both from the opposition and how that aspect is presented in the novel. Afterwards, a reader can judge for themselves whether or not that problematic element will affect their enjoyment of certain titles. Case in point, even though Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (yes, that’s her real name) was published in 2012, people have expressed issues with it since, and I still enjoyed the book despite the problems it clearly possesses.

Eleanor & Park is about two high school outcasts who fall in love with each other throughout one school year. One is the new girl in town with unruly red hair, mismatched clothes, and a chaotic family life. The other is the boy at the back of the bus who wears black t-shirts, listens to his headphones, and reads his comics.

I brushed upon this issue a while back with my Final Jeopardy review, but that was in the context of the author’s prior actions. This time, I wanted to bring it up because the American Library Association’s Challenged Book lists contain juvenile and YA content, especially if they involve BIPOC and LBGTQIA stories. There will be people who will connect to those titles, especially if they rarely see themselves in other materials.

From what I know, Eleanor & Park was challenged so much that it made it on the Top 10 Most Challenged Books in 2016. In 2013, parents in the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota complained about it due to the amount of profanity in it. Even Rowell herself commented on the controversy with this:

“Eleanor and Park themselves almost never swear…I use profanity in the book to show how vulgar and sometimes violent the characters’ worlds are.”

She’s right. Of all the instances of swearing, the main characters rarely say them. Teens curse; some more than others. They’re not perfect. None of the characters are, and the book is very aware of this.

And then there’s the more problematic element in the novel that can’t be defended through context. That is the depictions of Asian stereotypes in a historical context as the novel takes place in 1986. As a white person, I barely noticed these while reading, yet I felt disappointed once I realized this issue. I strive to read stuff that accurately represents as many forms of life as possible. Lately, I’ve been researching how the book portrays the Asian experience in America with Park. Here are some of the best sources to understand why people, especially those who are Asian and/or black, would have an issue with the book. In short, the book contains stereotypical depictions of black and East-Asian people, exoticizes various characters of the latter ethnicity, and shows a toxic power dynamic between the two protagonists. Most important, Park – a common Korean surname – is used as a first name.

Since that time, it seems like Rowell’s trying to correct these errors, but so far, they’re misguided. Case in point, when the film adaptation was announced, it was revealed that Hikari – a Japanese filmmaker – would be the director. People on social media sounded off on this right away, especially with the fact that Park is mixed Korean with a mother who was a Korean War refugee. All I can say is that we’ll see if the movie gets fully developed.

Given all of the controversy surrounding Eleanor & Park, it’s amazing that I was still able to enjoy it while I did. This got me hooked from the very beginning. Both Eleanor and Park are realistic characters who are trying to fit in at school with varying levels of success. They initially don’t like each other for some reason (teenagers, am I right?). Afterwards, their relationship slowly blossoms through comic books and music. However, the opening bit of dialogue is reminiscent of the prologue in Romeo and Juliet in terms of the doomed foreshadowing. Even though it wasn’t a full happy ending, it wasn’t really a tragic one either.

Also, there was urgency to their romance. Both really want to be together except Eleanor doesn’t want her abusive step-father finding out because she fears that he’ll take that away, much like with almost everything else, from her. Along with the bullying at school, his abusiveness is revealed in piecemeal and mostly indirectly. However, it can be a hard read for some who have gone through all of this before or are now. I’d suggest ending reading sections on a high note, or else, it’ll mess up one’s mood for the rest of the day or one’s sleep.

I couldn’t put the book down even when I was getting tired. I really wanted them to be together even when it became clear that they weren’t going to do that physically. 
Overall, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell is a wonderful love story between two high school outcasts. Both characters are fairly realistic in their desires and flaws, and Eleanor’s circumstances give the relationship more urgency. I would recommend it to those who love high school love stories between outcasts and who enjoy reading books by Rowell. One can enjoy problematic media like Eleanor & Park while acknowledging its problematic elements. However, this is not to excuse the Asian and black stereotypes that are present in the novel. If one doesn’t want to read it because of that issue, then they shouldn’t be forced to. Censorship is the last thing that I would do on this website.

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What Am I Reading – Chapter Twenty-Three

Hi Everyone,

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving! I sure did! I ate great food, played fun games, and complained about the Lions losing…again. I also finished For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway and replaced it with something that could be described as its complete opposite.

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd involves Felicity Pickle – a 12-year-old “word collector” – and a town that used to have magic. In the past, Midnight Gulch was a magical place, but a curse drove it away. When Felicity arrives in Midnight Gulch, she thinks her luck will change. As “a word collector,” Felicity sees words everywhere, yet that town is the first place that she’s ever seen the word “home” because her nomadic mom has a wandering heart. She also meets Jonah – a mysterious do-gooder who shimmers with words that she has never seen before, and he makes her heart beat a little faster. Felicity wants to stay in Midnight Gulch, yet she has to figure out a way to bring back the magic, so she can break the spell that’s been cast over the town and over her mom’s broken heart.

This is another book that my library is doing for Battle of the Books, and I can see why. I started reading this recently, and all I can think of is how cinematic this can be. This is especially true with how the words appear everywhere that Felicity looks like in someone’s hair and in the gate to the home of the pumpernickel. I personally think it could work better in animation since that form doesn’t limit much to the imagination like live action can at times.

In addition, Felicity Pickle is a relatable character as all she wants is a place to stay and belong. I know a lot of kids, especially her age can identify with that. She has her quirks with the words and her insecurities. She’s great at collecting words, but verbalizing them is a challenge. I think she can pull through. All she needs is the right words. We’ll see how it goes.

We have now come to the end of the twenty-third chapter of “What Am I Reading?”

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On the Come Up Book Review

Since The Hate U Give was published in 2017, it has received so much praise that I’m convinced that it’s already a modern classic and that it will wind up being required reading for some high schools in the future. As such, I would imagine its author Angie Thomas thinking long and hard about her follow up. Luckily, that novel On the Come Up is just as good as The Hate U Give despite being two different books.

On the Come Up is about 16-year-old Brianna Jackson or simply Bri, who wants to become one of the greatest rappers of all time, or at least get out of her neighborhood. As the daughter of a famous underground rapper, Bri has big shoes to fill. However, when her mom unexpectedly loses her job, food banks and shutoff notices became normal in her life. Bri decides to pour out her frustrations into her first song, which goes viral…for all the wrong reasons. She finds herself in the middle of a controversy with the media portraying her as a menace rather than a MC. But with her family facing the possibility of homelessness, Bri knows that she has to make it. Basically, this is the song “Lose Yourself” and the movie 8 Mile in book form.

Much like the main character, On the Come Up has a lot to live up to, and it was a wonderful read. The novel makes readers like me pumped for Bri’s rapping as well as root for her success. I wanted her to speak when she choked or refused to stand up for herself, cheered when she spat out some awesome flows and rhymes, and yelled at her when she did something incredibly stupid. In other words, I was engaged during the time that I read it.

It also helps that Starr from The Hate U Give and Bri are two different characters. Starr is a passive character who’s a good person and clearly the victim in her situation. She eventually learns the importance of speaking up. Bri, on the other hand, had no trouble doing that, but she has a problem of when to utilize it. There were plenty of times that she could be pretty impulsive and stubborn, especially when she vented out her feelings on how the media was treating her on a live broadcast on Instagram. At one point, I literally yelled “AUNT POOH WARNED YOU!”

And, there are times, in which I thought that she should have used her voice like when the Black-Latinx Coalition wanted her permission to use the video where she gets manhandled by some white security guards at her school. I understood why because the memory was too fresh for her, but it could have helped to show what truly happened, and why the other students got very angry at them to the point that they started singing Bri’s song. At the same time, there’s the possibility of the media and white audiences misconstruing the story no matter how clear the evidence is. Bri comes off as a difficult person to like at times overall. Both Starr and Bri are very interesting characters, yet the latter is a more compelling one because of how flawed she is.

On the Come Up handles issues like social justice, misogyny and homophobia in the music industry, and poverty in very nuanced ways. The book takes place right after the events of The Hate U Give. As a result, some of the characters like Bri’s friend Malik are very adamant with speaking up when injustice occurs. However, the black and Latinx students’ frustrations with the school and how they do very little to change are very real and given plenty of weight. Bri wants to help, but she doesn’t want to relive the trauma of what happened to her. As for misogyny in the music industry, Bri experiences that a lot once Supreme – her dad’s former manager – becomes her own. For example, when she gets interviewed by DJ Hype, he asks her questions like if she wrote her own lyrics. Bri calls him out on it and even asks if he ever questioned a male rapper over his words. In a subplot, Bri’s gay friend Sonny talks to a mysterious person online, who turns out to be another rapper from their neighborhood (I called it for a good chunk of the novel). He insists on keeping their relationship on the down low, so it wouldn’t ruin his image. Then we come to the poverty aspect of the book. Bri and her family struggle to keep the lights on and food in the fridge. It even comes to a point that Bri’s mom Jay gives up school in order to get food stamps. Bri is understandably embarrassed when she and Jay come to a food giveaway because she doesn’t want people to know about their predicaments. However, Jay insists they go since they need the food to avoid starvation while trying to figure out a way to pay the bills. 

Being a music person, I couldn’t help but notice how Bri was able to compose her lyrics. I love how she’s able to hear something and then go through all of the words that could possibly rhyme with it as well as come up (no pun intended) with other lines that flow well. That stream of consciousness mentality helps her to get her creative juices flowing. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s how Angie Thomas herself came up with lyrics when she was a teenage rapper. Yes, that’s really true!

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Bahni Turpin. I’ve mentioned her on this website before. Some of her credits include The Help, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Underground Railroad, and The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix. She has even recorded the audiobook for The Hate U Give , and I can see why Thomas wanted her to record for this one. Turpin is very engaging as a narrator. She makes Bri sound like a real teenager who’s determined to achieve success as a rapper despite all of the issues at home and school. With the supporting characters, Turpin distinguishes with great clarity. My personal favorite is Aunt Pooh – Bri’s aunt – who sounds like a female version of Lil Wayne. Also, she nails the rapping from the flow and to the tone. I could’ve read the physical book, but I’m glad one of the ladies from my book club recommended the audiobook because it brings the novel to a whole new level.

Overall, On the Come Up by Angie Thomas is a wonderful book. Bri has a lot of talent for rapping, and she behaves like a real teenager, even when doing incredibly stupid stuff. Despite her flaws, I was rooting for her all the way. It’s also a good successor to The Hate U Give. Both novels have memorable leads, but they are completely different characters. It also helps that it tackles issues like social justice, misogyny and homophobia in the music industry, and poverty in non-sugarcoated manners. I would recommend On the Come Up to those who loved The Hate U Give as well as to those who want to read about musicians (particularly rappers), teenage girls of color, and social justice. It’s such a great book, and I’m looking forward to the movie version whenever and wherever it comes out.

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