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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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That’s Me, Groucho!: The Solo Career of Groucho Marx Book Review

I’m a huge Marx Brothers fan; I have read a ton of books about the legendary comedy team. Usually, they tend to focus on their movies and their personal lives. When these books get around to talking about Groucho’s solo career, which entailed stage, radio, movies, and television, they do this in about a chapter or less (with the exception of You Bet Your Life). Luckily, lifelong Marx Brothers fan, co-host of the Marx Brothers Council Podcast, and author of The Annotated Marx Brothers: A Filmgoer’s Guide to In-Jokes, Obscure References and Sly Details Matthew Coniam has filled this gap with his 2016 book That’s Me, Groucho!: The Solo Career of Groucho Marx. It’s a great for any Marx Brothers aficionado, and I really mean any Marx Brothers aficionado.

In great detail, the book dives into Groucho’s solo career from being the first brother to be in Vaudeville in the 1900s to the 1976 reissuing of his book Beds the year before he passed away. Coniam clearly admires Groucho for his wit and swagger, but he can also be critical about his work at times. For example, while he likes his solo film Double Dynamite, he is more mixed on the movie A Girl in Every Port. Like other fans, he too is baffled by why Groucho participated in Skidoo. This allows him to be objective about his subject at much as possible. And of course, I have to talk about how Coniam cites his sources with a detailed bibliography and thorough chapters/appendix notes as well as provides captions with the photographs used. One might be surprised when a nonfiction book does not contain those aspects, but believe me, I have learned to be entirely grateful when one puts in the effort to show their credibility (see The Cold War review).

The book contains not one, not two, but FIVE appendixes written by Coniam and Marx Brothers Council colleagues Noah Diamond, Gary Westin, and Jay Hopkins. They touch upon a variety of aspects of Groucho’s career that were not mentioned in the actual book like whether or not he actually said the infamous cigar line and his theory of creativity. These should intrigue Marx Brothers lovers. My personal favorite was “Anatomy of a Mustache” by Diamond, which analyzes the evolution of the iconic thick, black greasepaint (and eventually real) mustache.

Throughout the book, I learned about certain aspects of Groucho’s solo career that I never would have thought about before. For instance, when Groucho reached new heights of fame with You Bet Your Life, his name and image were used in napkins that contained jokes and cartoons that he approved beforehand. He promoted them in magazine and newspaper ads, and according to Coniam, “what the napkins show us is the final and complete severing of Groucho the man and Groucho the icon” (p. 81). In other words, Groucho became immortalized not through film and television, but through napkins and other ephemeral merchandise.

One problem that I noticed while reading this is that Coniam has a tendency to phrase things that might not be immediately understandable to the readers. For example, when he talks about Groucho leaving for England to film Groucho aka the British version of You Bet Your Life, he describes it this way, “He was telling the truth, but what may have sounded an exciting new departure was undertaken, once again, à la rescherche du temps perdu” (p. 108). Luckily, Google is always there to help.

Another, and more immediate, issue that I saw with this book is that it’s not for all readers. What I mean is that it’s not for those who are just starting to get into the comedy team. For example, Coniam writes that Groucho had a gig as the host the radio program Pabst Blue Ribbon Town, but “within a year he had been replaced by Kenny Baker, the singing circus owner” (p. 40). Now, that might fly over the heads of anybody who hasn’t watched the Marx Brothers film At the Circus, in which Baker does play a singing circus owner. Even the chapter names are quotes that mainly diehard Marx Brothers fans, especially those who know a lot about Groucho’s solo films, would know like “I wish Harpo and Chico were here.”

I experienced a similar issue with Caterham Sevens: The Official Story of a Unique British Sportscar From Conception to CSR, where it contained a lot of car jargon that I couldn’t wrap my head around without looking up certain terms on the Internet (or asking my car crazy fiance.) Besides my present knowledge of the Marx Brothers, the main difference between the Caterham Sevens book and this one is how they target their audiences. In the former, the author Chris Rees tries to reach out to those who love cars even if they know very little about the vehicle in question because one is more likely to run into a car expert than into a Marx Brothers one. Rees does this through a variety of methods like car lingo and pop culture references. In the latter, Coniam is very aware that being a Marx Brothers fan is very niche. In fact, his aims for the book are “more to divert the confirmed enthusiast than to introduce the subject to the newcomer” and “to dig beneath the surface, and see if there are any surprises hiding there” (p. 3). Therefore, those who read this book should already have basic knowledge of Groucho’s solo career. Those who want to get into the Marx Brothers can read books like Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo by Joe Adamson and watch documentaries like Marx Brothers in a Nutshell.

All in all, That’s Me, Groucho!: The Solo Career of Groucho Marx by Matthew Coniam is a wonderful add to the Marx Brothers book universe. Even though its appeal is primarily for Marx Brothers fans, readers will appreciate the research and information that even the most diehards might not know. As a huge fan myself, it was definitely a book that I couldn’t put down.

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49 Books* Ranked From Worst to Best

*I know that some are movie adaptations, but that’s besides the point.

It seems so unbelievable that I’m now approaching my 50th book review. To celebrate this, I will rate each of the 49 books that I have reviewed on this site. These are based on the rates that I gave them on Goodreads.com, but some have changed since their initial postings.

Here is the chart that I used to rate^ them:

* = Bad

** = Meh

*** = Decent

**** = Good

***** = Great

^Note: The books within each rating are in no particular order.

Now, let’s begin!

*

**

***

****

*****

And there you have it! Let me what you think via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or email!

For my upcoming book review, all I can say is that it’s about one of the most famous mustached comedians of the 20th century! See ya next week!

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Oasis Book Review

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

There are some books that I finish pretty quickly and others that take me longer to read. This is not to insinuate that I enjoyed the former more because it held my interest longer than the latter. Sometimes, it is worth taking more time to read a book in order to appreciate it better. I realized this after reading Oasis by Bharat Krishnan.

In Oasis, there once was two kingdoms: one named Desperaux, which controlled the west with magic, and other named Desire, which maintained power in the east with steel and science. However, the magic disappeared, which made the world change, and Desire wanted to maintain the new order. On Juno’s wedding day, their Mengery soldiers stormed through the Nine desert and ripped his world apart. Now, Juno journeys to the east with his adopted brother, Trey, for revenge after the murder of his family. They encounter bandits and magical creatures that live in the Nine, but once they get to Desire, they will face their biggest obstacles – their own fears and ambitions.

There are some reasons why it took me longer. The first being that I don’t usually read a lot of fantasy. In fact, the last two fantasy books that I have reviewed on this site were ones that were either based on fairy tales (The Vampire of Maple Town), or a parody of the said genre (Kill the Farm Boy). I have absolutely nothing against the category. I simply take a little longer to read it. The second is that the novel contains a lot of details. It has plenty of characters and specifics related to world building. Many were pretty interesting, yet I sometimes wondered if it was too much (who was Tsoul again?). Nonetheless, every time I came back to the book, I immediately remembered where I was at. Krishnan knows how to end chapters with a bang, especially if it’s reminiscent of the red wedding from Game of Thrones.

The novel is from Juno’s perspective, but it alternates with that of Trey. It’s divided into four parts. The first part is devoted to Juno, and the second one is about Trey. The third and fourth sections swap between the two, even during a single chapter. I didn’t mind this because these characters are written with clear and distinct voices. Juno is a kind, but passive guy, who, throughout the novel, evolves into the leader of the rebel camp as their savior. Trey is a more assertive and anger-filled person with abandonment issues, who works his way up from a chief’s assistant to the king of Desire.

I really like how the novel focuses on brotherhood and the consequences of not taking any action. Usually, a lot of books in the fantasy genre have a lot of romance between the main and supporting characters. While Oasis has some of that, the focus is on the relationship between Juno and Trey as brothers. They had been together since Juno’s family adopted Trey and his sister Drea when they were kids. As the book progresses, the two become separated both physically and mentally even though both of them thought they knew one another.

In addition, I like how it acknowledges that even not doing anything can lead to some dangerous results. In the beginning of the novel, Trey gets consumed by some demons and is later separated from Juno. Those fiends grow inside Trey throughout the novel, and they even convince him that Juno is not the friend that he thought he was. Juno spends a good chunk of the novel wanting to know if his brother does not have the demons anymore. At the climax, Trey accuses Juno of not helping him fight them, but the latter asserts that it was not that he didn’t care, it was that he didn’t know what to do. Readers might see this with political implications as some might conclude that the lack of action is equivalent to contributing to something evil.

Oasis by Bharat Krishnan is a good read. For me, it took a long time because there was so much to absorb. However, what I got out of it really stuck with me. The characters are well-thought out, and some emphasized aspects like brotherhood and the consequences of not doing anything help make it stand out among other fantasy books. I recommend this book to those who like this genre, especially if they want something a little bit different.

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Book Reviews From the Vault: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Audiobook Narrator Edition – Eric Idle vs. Douglas Hodge

Next week marks what would have been Roald Dahl’s 104th birthday. To celebrate this, I analyzed which actor captured the spirit of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with their audiobook narration better. Will it be Eric Idle or Douglas Hodge? Let’s see how they did!

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl is one of the most beloved children’s novels of all time due to its whimsical nature and memorable characters. It has recently come to my attention that not one, but two actors have recorded the audiobook of this classic story. These actors are Eric Idle and Douglas Hodge, and both have their own connections to the story itself.

Eric Idle is one of the founding members of the comedy troupe Monty Python, and he was considered for the role of Willy Wonka for both the 1971 and 2005 movie versions. He recorded his version of the story in 2003 and later earned a Grammy nomination for his performance.

Douglas Hodge is a Tony-award winning English actor and playwright known for co-writing the play Pacha Mamma’s Blessing. He played Willy Wonka in the 2013 West End musical production of the book prior to its transfer on Broadway. He recorded his version in 2013 as promotion material for the musical.

Whose is better at capturing the spirit of the book? Let’s find out!

1. Charlie Bucket:

Idle voices Charlie with politeness and whispers a lot of his lines. While it doesn’t add a whole lot to Charlie’s personality, Idle gives him humility as a way to stand out from the rest of the chosen children.

Meanwhile, Hodge gives the same amount of humility to the character, but with more urgency and less whispering. This allowed me to not adjust the volume as much whenever Hodge was pretending to be Charlie. Also, the increased urgency permits Hodge to savor everything that Charlie says as if he was constantly eating some of Wonka’s chocolate bars.

First point goes to Hodge!

2. Grandpa Joe:

Idle channels fellow Monty Python member Michael Palin by giving Grandpa Joe a Yorkshire accent. He maintains this accent for Joe for the duration of the book, which helped me to know who was talking and give me a distinct connection to the character.

Unfortunately, Hodge let me down with his performance of Grandpa Joe.  He essentially imagines Joe as an older version of Wonka, which I would not mind as much if it weren’t for the fact that I had a hard time figuring out when Hodge was speaking as Joe. One of the most important aspects of recording audiobooks is to distinguish each and every character, even if it is very slight, and I felt that Hodge fell short with voicing Grandpa Joe.

Idle has now scored a point!

3. Supporting Characters:

Idle gives Augustus Gloop a hollow sound and mumbles the majority of Mike Teavee’s lines; both were done very well. However, Idle stands out with his vocal deliveries of both Violet Beauregard and Verruca Salt. Violet is portrayed as a fast-talking gum chewer, who could care less of what other people thought when she stuck her gum behind her ear. Idle rapidly fires through her initial Golden-Ticket-finding speech with great articulation. Meanwhile, he provides Verruca a contrasting, nasty, self-indulgent American accent. This particular switching of accents was very interesting to me since in the films, she is depicted as being British, while as Violet and Mike were the American children. Nonetheless, he enunciates Verruca extremely well and consistently. On the other hand, I cringed when he chanted as the Oompa Loompas simply because he cannot rap. It almost seemed like he was still trying to feel the rhythm when he needed to record right at that moment, and it did not feel consistent as a result.

Like Idle, Hodge gives Augustus Gloop a hollow sound, but he tries to do a German accent, which was pretty good. Hodge also voices Violet Beauregard and Verruca Salt as one would expect while watching the 1971 movie (or at least as close to it as possible), and it was pretty convincing. He stands out in particular with his vocal performances of Mr. Salt – Verruca’s father – and Mike Teavee. Mr. Salt is the one with the Yorkshire accent, while the other members of the Salt family do not speak with that dialect (or at least I did not hear it as much as I did with the father). Regardless, this shows a lowly nature of the Salts despite their high status. With Mike, Hodge voices him like a slurring rock star. I thought that this was an interesting take, but the problem with this was Mike sounds a lot older than the rest of the kids, even though it is implied that all of the chosen children are around the same age. It was a good idea, but it needed tweaking in the overall execution. I still cringed during his chanting as the Oompa Loompas, but not quite as much as I did when Idle performed it. Hodge demonstrated a better flow than Idle did, which made it more tolerable.

Having evaluated these supporting characters, Idle gets another point.

4. Character Consistency:

Idle is known for doing a variety of silly voices throughout his career, so it was interesting to hear how he manages to voice one character and then quickly switch to another. It was mostly consistent. There were 1-2 times; however, in which I heard him slip into his English accent while voicing an American character. Along with this, there was also one place in the story, in which he accidentally voices an English character with an American dialect.

Hodge was also fairly consistent. There were times that he too, slipped into his English accent while voicing the American and German characters.

At this point, I will give both Idle and Hodge half a point each because maintaining dialects for every character is hard!

So far, here are the scores:

Idle: 2.5

Hodge: 1.5

5. Pacing:

One book reviewer thought that Idle was too nimble in his narration. Listening to it, I can understand why that person felt that way, but it didn’t really bother me. Idle always had a tendency for over acting, and much like kids’ movies, there is more leeway for such a thing in children’s audiobooks. It kept me on my toes in a good way.

Hodge can also be agile with his vocal delivery, but he transitioned better when he switched from one character to another.

Again, half a point is rewarded to both!

6. Volume:

The only real complaint I have with Idle’s performance is that he can be too abrupt with his volume. At one moment, he could be whispering, and then in the next, he was practically shouting at the top of his lungs. I had to adjust the volume multiple times because of this.

On the other hand, I didn’t have to tweak the volume as much when Hodge was narrating. He would take his time from being quiet to being loud, and still retain that vocal balance to refrain the listener from adjusting the volume constantly.

So, the point goes to Hodge!

7. Willy Wonka:

Idle vocally embodies Wonka with what readers would expect – an eccentric and highly imaginative fellow who would prefer to be around children than grownups despite some of their flaws. I am perfectly fine with this since Idle has a natural affinity for Wonka’s mannerisms.

Hodge voices Wonka in a similar fashion, but despite his efforts of creating his own spin, I gravitated towards Idle’s performance more.

Last point goes to Idle!

Now! Here are the final scores:

Idle: 4

Hodge: 3

It was a close race, but both narrators did a great job with the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory audiobook. I can imagine how difficult it is recording an audiobook, and I applaud anybody who does it for a living. In this instance, both Idle and Hodge did a good job with the source material that they were given, but ultimately, it was Idle’s vocal delivery as well as the subtler differences in some of his accents that made him stand out more than Hodge.

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The Bouncer Book Review

I came across The Bouncer by David Gordon in a very interesting way. I was processing books one day when I discovered this title. Initially, I didn’t think much of it until I saw one of the advanced praises on the back. It used the words “comic-thriller.” I had never seen a book described in that way before. Now that I’ve had the chance to read it, it was worth it to a certain degree.

The Bouncer revolves around an average Dostoevsky-reading, Harvard-expelled strip club bouncer with a highly classified military history named Joe Brody and a cast of colorful characters. These include Gio Caprisi – Brody’s best friend, strip joint owner, and head mafioso who dresses like a female dominatrix – and Donna Zamora – a FBI agent and single mother who’s stuck manning the bureau’s information hotline. These and others collide in a variety of situations like a crackdown on Gio’s strip joint, a back-road gun show intervention, and a perfume heist.

At first, I thought the story would be more like ha-ha funny because the novel tended to promote its comedy side. However, the more I read it, I realized that it had more British-like humor, as in dry and sarcastic. I didn’t mind that because it immediately made me think of films like the Ocean series due to their blend of humor, crime, and thrill. In fact, I think a lot of the jokes could play out better if the novel was adapted into a movie. I hope it does since the book feels very much like a film, especially the fight scenes. The final one between Brody and Adrian – a domestic terrorist – went on so long that I thought that it would outlast the one in The Quiet Man.

I also enjoyed how fast paced it was. A lot of the chapters were pretty short and filled with action. This is especially good for people who are reading it before they go to bed.

A lot of the characters are developed when needed. I do not mean that they are one-dimensional. I simply noticed that the characters were only developed when the plot called for it. For example, in the beginning, it is revealed that a minor Korean character is getting married soon, but he winds up dead within the next 5 chapters after getting involved in the gun heist. If this was a standalone, I would have a problem with this, but I don’t because Gordon released a sequel to The Bouncer called The Hard Stuff in 2019, so I expect more character development.

Now when I mentioned that I thought that it was worth it to a certain degree, the main reason why I said that is because some of the characters and subplots got in the way of the main story. For example, the whole subplot of Gio dressing up as a female dominatrix with his wife suspecting him of doing something shadier was far more unnecessary than intended. It took up a few more chapters than other subplots, and there was no payoff, which irked me the most. It’s like Gordon is trying to slam almost everything crime movie trope into the book. I hope The Hard Stuff scales this back.

All in all, The Bouncer by David Gordon was mostly worth it. It’s a fast-paced, action-packed heck of a novel that evokes heist films like the Ocean series. The overuse of subplots and characters may detract from the overall enjoyment depending on how the reader reacts to them. I would recommend this book to those who like humor-based crime novels and movies. I liked The Bouncer so much that my profile picture for the website contains it and that I immensely look forward to reading The Hard Stuff soon.

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Movie Reviews From the Vault: Where’d You Go Bernadette

This week’s Book Reviews From the Vault will be different as I will be reviewing the movie version of Where’d You Go Bernadette. After 10 months of release delays, my book club was able to see it around this time last year. Was it worth it? Let’s find out!

WARNING: THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS!

About two weeks ago, I saw Where’d You Go Bernadette with some members of the book club that I facilitate. We had been looking forward to seeing it ever since we heard the announcement that book by Maria Semple was going to be turned into a film last year. After 10 months of release delays, I felt that the movie was worth the wait even with its differences from the book since it stuck to the core of the story.

Directed by Richard Linklater, Where’d You Go Bernadette is about a woman who was once a famous architect. After years of sacrificing her career to take care of her husband and daughter, she tries to reconnect with her creativity by going an adventure that makes her and her family realize her truth worth.

For those who are familiar with the book, it is easy to see the shift in perspective. The novel focuses more on Bernadette’s daughter Bee as she tries to find her mom through various letters and documents. In contrast, the movie emphasizes the title character so much that its opening scene actually reveals where she had gone to. In other words, a more accurate title for the film version of Where’d You Go Bernadette is What Made You Go Here Bernadette. Say what you want about that, but I did not have a problem with that because the film shows what led the titular character to go on her journey straight from the horse’s mouth. Letters and documents can only reveal so much.

Another major difference between the book and the movie is the absence or reduction of some subplots in the latter. The subplots that were eliminated were Elgie – Bernadette’s workaholic techie husband – getting his secretary Soo-Lin pregnant – and Audrey – Bernadette’s “nemesis” – getting in trouble at the hotel that she stays at after the blackberry incident. Even though I did not mind them in the book, I was glad that Linklater did away with them. They made the plot more complicated than it should be, especially the Elgie/Soo-Lin saga. Elgie is a good husband to Bernadette and tries to help, yet he simply does not realize how creatively deprived she is. Additionally, the subplot of Bee going to Choate – a prestigious boarding school – is reduced in the movie. In the book, Bee eventually goes to Choate, yet because of her mom’s disappearance, she becomes so depressed that it affects her attitude and grades. While it does add some nuance to her relationship to Bernadette, it again makes the story far more complicated than necessary. That is why in the movie, Bee simply does not want to go after some careful consideration.

The primary complaints about the movie revolve around three things that I am not bothered by: the pacing, Linklater’s creativity, and the fake YouTube documentary. To begin with, reviewers quibble about how slow it was in the beginning. I personally did not mind this because a good chunk of it shows how eccentric Bernadette can be, the bond between her and Bee, and her relationship to other people. Moreover, people seem to agree that this is Linklater’s least creative effort. I understand where they are coming from since he directed Boyhood, which was shot over a 12-year period, and he plans to do the same thing for the movie adaptation of Merrily We Roll Along, just over a 20-year period. To them, Where’d You Go Bernadette is not the most ground-breaking film from him. Maybe it comes from the fact that I have not seen his other films, but I am not worked up by this because there is a lot of pressure to be creative in Hollywood. It is fine to do something simple every now and then. Plus, there is something quite innovative in Bernadette, and that is the faux YouTube documentary. The video serves as exposition for Bernadette’s architectural career, but people have complained about how it felt like they were in another movie while watching that part. I admire the documentary’s authenticity, yet at times, the main film can lose itself through this video. Despite that, it knows when to get back to the main story.

Nevertheless, the one main problem that I have with this movie is how everything is neatly resolved. Conflicts like the one between Bernadette and Audrey are naturally played out, yet they are solved when the script calls for it. Hollywood has always done this, so that does not annoy me. What irritates me is that the main story is supposed to be necessarily complicated. The reality is that not every problem is neatly tied up like strings on a present.

Overall, despite its alterations from the book, the movie version of Where’d You Go Bernadette is still good and faithful to the novel, for it focuses on the main story. I would recommend watching the film to anyone who is interested, especially to people who have read the book. Not every movie that is based on a novel is going to be 100% faithful, but as long as one sticks to the core of the story, films like Where’d You Go Bernadette are worth watching.

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We Need to Talk About Kevin Book Review

Warning: The book that I am about to review deals with school shootings.

Even though I am aware that not every book will appeal to everyone, readers have a tendency to step out of their comfort zone once in a great while in order expand their mindsets. Some might enjoy a novel so much that they would like to read more books similar to that. Others might not like it, or they may have a hard time reading it. No one can blame them for that. I read We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (a female author) recently, and even though I thoroughly enjoyed it, I can certainly see all three sides of this debate.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is about fictional school shooting around the same time as the Columbine High School massacre. Through a series of letters to her husband, Eva Khatchadourian – the teenage killer’s mother – tries to figure out why her son killed 9 people and what made him that way.

As seen in the summary, it deals with a very touchy subject. Just this alone might turn people off from reading it. However, Shriver treats this topic in a non-sugarcoated manner. As seen in my Turtles All the Way Down and The Survivors Club reviews, it’s the best way to deal with sensitive issues due to their sheer honesty. Throughout the novel, Eva harbors suspicions of Kevin’s behavior since he was born, but then again, she was not exactly keen on being a mother either. In addition, there’s a possibility that his killing spree clouded her perspective. Without this level of frankness, the novel would not have a realistic portrayal of what led to the school shooting.

Additionally, a lot of readers had some strong opinions about Eva. Many of them believed that she was so self-centered and egotistical that they didn’t care what happened to her. But then again, the book clouds the debate between nature versus nurture, unlike The Bad Seed by William March, which rules in favor of the former over the latter. On one hand, as Kevin got older, he adopts some of the same demeanor as Eva. On the other hand, Eva didn’t pay that much attention to her son and continuously suspected him of committing horrendous actions like pouring a cleaning product onto Celia’s – his sister’s – eye. She may have possibly drunk a little more wine than usual when she was pregnant with him, and she definitely overreacted to some of his behavior when he was a child like the scene in the restaurant. It does not help that Franklin – Eva’s husband – constantly comes to Kevin’s defense with a “boys will be boys” mentality and does not discipline him. I don’t exactly like her as a person, but I felt a lot of her frustrations. And, that’s one of the beauties of reading books; they allow people to empathize with characters that they wouldn’t normally like. At the same time, one has to ask if Kevin would’ve turned out the same way if Eva was a loving mother.

Another complaint that I have seen about this book is that the ending was predictable. I didn’t really think it was that foreseeable since it came as such a shock to me. However, when Franklin gives Kevin a crossbow for Christmas, I can see how some readers put the two together.

I listened to the audiobook, which is narrated by one of the most popular and award-winning narrators in the United States – Barbara Rosenblatt. Along with recording audiobooks like Bridget Jones’s Diary, Rosenblatt has also originated the role of Mrs. Medlock in the musical version of The Secret Garden and has acted in shows like Law and Order: SVU and Orange is the New Black (the latter as Miss Rosa). After hearing her on We Need to Talk About Kevin, I can see why she received all those praises. Rosenblatt’s interpretation of a variety of characters including Eva, Franklin, and Kevin served as the highlight of the audiobook. She plays Eva with pure bluntness and great sarcasm, and when she has to be vulnerable, she goes all the way. It’s through this performance that made me feel for Eva even if others didn’t. The narrator gives Franklin the voice of a dad from the 1950s, which falls in line with his “boys will be boys” mindset, even though I noticed that she uses that same tone with some of the minor male characters. The best of all was her vocalization of Kevin, which oozed slime and a psychopathic vibe. It undoubtedly made me fear for Eva because I wondered how long he would torment her, especially when he eventually gets out of prison.

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver is a book that’s not for everyone. The subject matter and the character of Eva will be off putting to some readers. On the contrary, the novel refuses to soften the subject matter, and Eva is such a multi-dimensional character. This would be the part where I recommend it to certain groups, but all I have to say is give this book a try, and if one doesn’t like it, I completely understand.

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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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