Staff Review – And I Do Not Forgive You

And I Do Not Forgive You
by Amber Sparks

This collection of short stories was interesting in the sense that presents its theme very clearly on the cover. It is a series of stories and “other revenges.” A revenge fantasy can be a delicious treat for the psyche when done right. I found that some of these stories did not deliver on the edginess that a bright purple axe on the cover would suggest. “Mildly Unhappy With Moments of Joy” is one such story that is bogged down by its passive-aggressive tone.

 

 Passive-aggressive revenge is a very modern way to deal with problems. Personally I would much rather read something with a Shakespearean flavor.  In it two best friends seemingly drift apart. The cause is unclear. Divorced friend attempts to track down married friend even after being artfully ghosted by her. (Married friend decides to skip town in order to solidify that she really doesn’t want to talk to divorced friend.) Eventually everything settles down and the equilibrium of mild unhappiness is restored.  “In Which Athena Designs a Video Game with the Express Purpose of Trolling Her Father,” is similarly passive-aggressive, but in a much more  delightful way since Athena is making a very pointed statement by making her dad the villain of the game. 

 

“A Place for Hiding Precious Things” stood out as one of the more powerful tales. It’s about a motherless princess whose father decides that he would like for her to marry. Marry him that is. The princess and her fairy godmother are having none of that and devise a plot to facilitate an escape. This story uses the fairytale rule of three wonderfully as the princess asks for the royal seamstresses to create three dresses: one the color of blood, one the color or bone, and the last the color of death. Other honorable mentions are “Is the Future a Nice Place For Girls,” which is about a medieval queen who gets the opportunity to travel through time with her infant daughter. The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines,” is a pleasant romp as the protagonist cons a fellow conman who is able to see her despite her plain appearance as she shoplifts her way through life.  

 

The best of the tales in terms of telling a gripping and revenge-soaked story is “The Eyes of Saint Lucy,” where a daughter recounts the series of events that led her martyr-obsessed mother to strike out against her philandering husband once and for all. With a chilling refrain of, “Because there is no God,” this one is the one most likely to induce shivers.  – Katie

 

Staff Review – Where’d You Go, Bernadette

 

Where’d You Go Bernadette?
By Maria Semple 

Bernadette Fox is a MacArthur Grant winning architect first, a mother to a 15 year-old daughter, and a wife I guess. This was one of those books that really just hit me at exactly the right time. I picked this book up because a patron recommended it to me and I had also seen the trailer for the movie. I found myself completely engrossed in the character’s little domestic squabbles because it was so funny. It also probably helps that I too fantasize about buying a quirky old house and then disappearing  into a thicket of blackberries. 

Bernadette’s daughter Bee has earned herself the reward of her choice because she’s been pulling in top notch grades and she decides she would like for the whole family to take a trip to Antarctica and as the title suggests, Bernadette vanishes before the family finishes zipping their parkas into their luggage. This is primarily because her husband, Elgin Branch, is seeking involuntary commitment because she has just gone far too cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs for his liking. 

This novel is written in an epistolary style (mostly in the form of emails) and I think that lends itself well to the content. The characters are so self-involved and ridiculous that it is a delight to watch them muddle their lives in such style. It was a very quick read and some marvelous hijinks ensue, but what I really wanted to delve into was the way that Semple portrays the struggles that Bernadette faces as a woman in a male-dominated field. Her one and only completed project, the Twenty Mile House, was a residence that she built using recycled and locally sourced materials before eco-consciousness was even a thing. When her house is purchased by wasteful male architect that she had some battles with over discarded fixtures, she decides she would rather destroy her noteworthy creation rather than see it in the hands of a gnat. 

All creators have been known to have artistic hissy fits from time to time, but Bernadette Fox takes this to the extreme and develops agoraphobia and what many around her consider an obstinate and abrasive personality. She’s essentially a female Howard Roark, but instead of being praised for her genius she’s branded antisocial and therefore a target for everyone in her community. Truly Bernadette’s major fault is that she demands excellence from everyone around her and most people to not measure up to her standards. As Whitney Cummings put it, “For a girl to get called crazy, we just have to send you two text messages in a row.” – Katie

 

Staff Review – My Lady’s Choosing

My Lady’s Choosing
by Kitty Curran and Larissa Zageris

In honor of Valentine’s Day I thought I would mix it up by trying something completely different. By different I mean a choose-your-own-romance novel that resembles Jane Austen on steroids. Normally I am not enraptured by this sort of work, but what I found interesting was the format. Typically narratives with branching pathways are reserved for adventure tales and not deciding who the heroine rides off into the sunset with. Essentially it takes a staple of childhood and updates it for a more mature audience and it proves to be fun.

There are four main love interest options (a few more if you count some of  the side characters that are thrown in here and there.) You are the plucky but poor attendant of a noblewoman until your life takes a turn for the better and you are freed from her service. There’s the bitingly witty Sir Benedict Granville, the absurdly manly horseman Captain Angus McTaggert, the bad boy  Lord Garraway Craven, and the charming explorer Lady Evangeline. Each plot line has their own little intrigue to entice the reader. The path you choose depends largely on whether you’re into Darcy and Elizabeth style banter, teaching war orphans, being a governess to the children of a house with a dark secret, or egyptology. 

While this book is not going to win any awards based on literary merit, it’s short and sweet. Like a lot of choose-your-own books and games, the decisions that you make are often reflective of you as a person. When I  read My Lady’s Choosing, I was specifically  aiming to go to Egypt with Lady Evangeline and found myself ending up with  an outcome that was completely unexpected. –Katie

 

Staff Review: The Institute

The Institute
by Stephen King

Ah, Stephen King, my old friend. It’s been a long time since I read anything by the Meryl Streep of horror and I went into this book hopeful and thinking, “It’s going to be traumatic X-Men. I’m definitely going to like it.” To reiterate, it was a very enjoyable experience starting with the punchy cover art of a child in a boxcar, meant to simulate his own bedroom (this is relevant to the narrative and not just for looks). 

The novel starts out with twelve year-old Luke Ellis minding his own business and kicking back to have pizza with his parents while he decides whether he wants to go to MIT and Emerson, prematurely, now that he has surpassed the educational capacity of his elite private school. Besides his intellect, what makes Luke special is that he can move objects with his mind. Nothing major, but he does make pizza pans shake and other unusual disturbances that could attract unwanted attention. 

One night he is stolen away from his home by a team of expert kidnappers and taken to The Institute where there are other children with similar powers. Some have telekinesis and some have telepathy, but all of them are being experimented on. Luke and his friends are determined to escape and uncover the secrets of this strange and highly secretive facility. Along the way, Luke befriends a number of his fellow inmates and forms an unshakable bond that will last, no matter where they go after their time at The Institute has come to an end. 

What really impressed me about King’s latest venture into a coming-of-age story is, that he managed to pull off a really fantastic ending and some truly heartbreaking and horrifying twists. Stephen King is not generally known for having very good conclusions (I’m looking at you, IT),  but in this one, everything was wrapped up in a very sensible and satisfying fashion. 

The only major criticism I have for this book is that Luke does not sound at all like a child. His dialogue comes across as something that was written by someone who has not encountered someone in their early adolescence in a long time. Since this title has been branded as having cross-market appeal and can be targeted toward young adult and adult audiences, that could be a stumbling point. That may not be a dealbreaker for most people, but I found that some of those choices took me out of what was happening in the narrative because of the way something was said. It felt inauthentic. For an actual teenager, this may cause them to laugh out loud and hit the shelves to find something else. – Katie

 

Staff Review – The Testaments

The Testaments is the rabidly anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale and I was eagerly counting off the days at the beginning of September until the launch date. Virtually everything about the book was shrouded in mystery. It would be set in Gilead, it would be 15 years after the close of the first book, and there would be three point of view characters. That was it. After over 30 years of wait time in between these works, some hype was felt, especially by me. I tried not to let it color my opinions, but it was extremely difficult.

One of the recurring stars of this dystopian drama is someone readers will  be familiar with if they have read the previous installment or seen the tv show: the taser-wielding Aunt Lydia,  the scourge of Gilead. Then there is Agnes. Agnes is a true child of Gilead who doesn’t remember any other way of life but she is fearful that she will be married off to the most powerful man that will have her. Last but certainly not least is Daisy. For this Canadian teenager her whole life and identity comes into question on what she believes is her 16th birthday.

While I enjoyed  this book, I don’t think that it has quite the same acidic punch that The Handmaid’s Tale possesses and I think that is mainly due to splitting up the narrative focus between three characters. The absence of June’s incredibly strong voice leaves a considerable void for the reader, but ultimately this book is  a well-written exploration of how life finds a way even under the darkest of regimes. Drawing inspiration from current politics, as always Atwood makes it very clear what her stance is and that alone makes this a delightful read. The Testaments also sprinkles in some additional details of the inner workings of Gilead and the true corruption and dysfunction that it takes  to make the sausage. It’s not just birthmobiles and punishing handmaids; the aunts are the keepers of genealogies and they ensure that there are new aunts to go on pilgrimage outside of Gilead.

I’m honestly  really hoping based upon what happened in this book, that there will be a sequel to this sequel coming down the pipeline. As Margaret Atwood herself puts it, “All good things come to she who waits.” – Katie

 

Staff Review

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

While reading this novel, I had to keep reminding myself that it was published in 1969 because of the themes that are so pervasive in today’s ongoing dialogue about gender. I haven’t read any of Le Guin’s work prior to this, but I can understand her ascendance to the heights of the sci-fi/fantasy canon. The one caution I have for the more casual genre fiction reader is that there are a lot of words from Le Guin’s Hanish universe and that can be quite confusing at first. You don’t want to get your kemmer and your shifgrethor mixed up. If you can assimilate these terms and flip back to the glossary to remember the various words that the people of Gethen use to describe their frigid weather, you’ll be okay. Le Guin was also a poet and I think it really shows in what I like to call the thesis of The Left Hand of Darkness:

Light is the left hand of darkness

and darkness the right hand of light.

Two are one, life and death, lying

together like lovers in kemmer,

like hands joined together, 

like the end and the way. 

The humans of the Hanish universe are people that are experimental branches on the evolutionary tree. Genetically they are are all very similar except for one or a few modifications that make them distinct from the others. Genly Ai is a Terran native who has come to the planet Winter as an envoy whose task is to convince the king of Karhide or one of the several other kingdoms of Gethen to join the Ekumen, an alliance of other humanoid planets. As the name Winter would suggest, these humans are adapted to withstand remarkably low temperatures. The other (and much more interesting) fact about the inhabitants of Gethen is that they are ambisexual; in other words, they are completely androgenous for most of their reproductive cycle … until they’re not. This leads to a great deal of tension between Genly and the natives. He wants to classify them and finds the idea of a pregnant king strange while the people of Karhide and abroad call him a pervert (a Gethian term for a human that remains in a fixed gender state outside of mating). 

Part political intrigue and part treatise on gender roles and the way they shape human interactions and society, this novel is remarkable because it manages to sneak in romance elements without the reader even really noticing until the very end of the book. Estraven, the prime minister and adviser to King Argaven, attempts to persuade the king into forming an alliance with the Ekumen but by pushing him continuously he only incurs Argaven’s wrath and finds himself exiled and out of a job. Genly too is affected by this shift in power and Estraven does everything in his power to help Genly out of it. They travel on sledges over great distances together to see Genly’s mission through and along the way come to an understanding of each other. Genly’s internal struggle throughout is centered around not thinking in the way he has been conditioned to by his own masculine behaviors. That in this place there is no binary. Hope and despair, light and dark, male and female, beginnings and endings all exist in a grand circle that feeds into itself. 

There are some pretty significant Taoist influences and Le Guin takes an opportunity to explore spirituality in addition to the other themes that are threaded throughout her work. This story is not driven primarily by a plot but more by concepts except in a few places where it feels very grounded and much more easy to follow. This one is definitely a mind-stretcher, so pick it up if you’re in the mood for philosophical pondering or you’re looking for a unique experience.

-Katie

Staff Book Review

 The Bookish Life of Nina Hill
by Abbi Waxman

I picked up this book because the blurb mentioned the main character being a bookish, self-proclaimed introvert. Those are some of my favorite kind of people! Well, this book was, cute. In the literary world that is probably an insult. But I certainly don’t mean it that way! It was a quick read, but I enjoyed it! The beginning reminded me a lot of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine but the surrounding story wasn’t quite as difficult. Each chapter begins with an illustration of her daily journal which adds a little humor and quirkiness.
– Kristin