Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: Why We Write by Meredith Maran

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Why We Write by Meredith Maran is a collection of twenty essays written by published novelist on the topic of why (and sometimes how) each author goes about the crafting fiction. Each essay is preceded by an introduction of the author and a “Vitals” bulleted list of highlights about the author (born, education, where they live, complete list of works, etc.). Each essay concludes with a “Wisdom for Writers” section, a bulleted list of take-away points the author made in his or her essay.

A portion of the proceeds of the book are given to support 826 National, a youth literacy program.

The editor pulled together a diverse collection of authors. Some of them include Sue Grafton, David Baldacci, Gish Jen, Armistead Maupin, and Terry McMillan. Not only are they diverse in gender, sexual orientation, culture, and race, but they are exist on various points of the “literary vs entertainment” spectrum of publishing. This topic comes up in a number of the essays. Some authors embrace the literary or entertainment camp to which they belong, others take the opportunity to bash the opposing side.  More than a few authors dismiss this continuum as a marketing or hegemonic device designed to pander to a certain demographic. The later essays were the most interesting.    

While the book presented a diverse collection of viewpoints, I couldn’t help but notice that certain genres were left out. There were authors from “mainstream” literature as well as the mystery and thriller genres. However, there were no authors of speculative or YA books.  Why We Write was published in 2013, during the time when these genres were rapidly gaining in both popularity and recognition as quote-unquote “serious” forms of literature. It could be that the author reached out to some of these authors and they weren’t interested or couldn’t fit a contribution into their schedules. However, I can’t help but feel that including authors from these backgrounds would further round out the book and the discussion of why individuals feel compelled to write fiction.

The twenty authors in the book state a wide array of reasons behind why they do what they do. However, one central theme crops up in each of their responses: Writing sucks, but not writing sucks worse; one never feels that a piece is completely finished, but having written is a wonderful feeling.

As someone who dabbles in writing and is always looking for more time to complete larger projects, I completely agree. And, in it’s own dark way, it is comforting to read twenty writers state that they belong in the same mental hell that is being a writing human. I think I’ll keep the book on my desk for inspiration and comfort the next time I find myself banging my head against the wall when writing gets difficult.      

Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: Biblio Tech by John Palfrey

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Libraries have been around for a while and will go extinct if they do not adapt to modern society.

That, in a nutshell, is the thesis of Biblio Tech. The author, John Palfrey, a law professor and library director discusses several factors that have changed  the way we procure information. Most notable, and no surprise to anyone reading I’m sure, is the internet.  The author comes down strong on the case that libraries can no longer be large storehouses for books and other information, waiting for people to come to them. Rather, libraries must take a more active role in becoming information synthesizers and distributors.

Within the ten chapters of the book, Palfrey expands on his vision that libraries must become interconnected through the internet and technology and thus become “hubs” of a giant information database. He describes ways in which some libraries are already doing this. He also discusses how libraries have failed in procuring a role in the “Digital Age”. Then, he lays out a plan for libraries to move forward. Each library contributes its specialized collection of information into a comprehensive whole that is available to anyone with access to technology (Something libraries can continue to offer as well!) The book makes the case for libraries continuing to be both a physical space for hard copy media while expanding their online presence and offerings. The book takes a strong stance against doing away with librarians or allowing the field to be flooded with professionals with backgrounds in areas other than information science. The giant “hub” of information would be a wonderful accomplishment. However, we’ll need trained professionals to help the rest of us navigate this world of information and find what we need. In our post-truth and “alternative facts” society, librarians play a very important role.

Throughout the book, Palfrey sprinkles in a defense of why libraries should continue to exist in the era of Google, Facebook, and numerous for-profit online databases. Libraries, in the purest form of the institution, are truly free, open to everyone, and exist without a double-motive. They are simply there to provide people with the information they want and need.

I’ve always been an on-again off-again user of libraries. However, after reading Biblio Tech, I’m going to make it a point to utilize more of the resources my local library has to offer.

The book ends with a potent passage on the importance of libraries:

“It is not too much of a stretch to say that the fate of well-informed, open, free republics could hinge on the future of libraries. Maureen Sullivan, then-president of the American Library Association and one of the great librarians who give me hope, told me: “The reason I think the future of libraries is so important is because I want to ensure that every child in AMerica has access to the information he or she needs to be well-informed before casting a vote.” Our public, institutions have every reason to work together on a common, bright, delightful, digital-era future. Libraries matter too much to democracies for us to fail at this task.”

–John Palfrey, Biblio Tech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google

 

Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

 

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Psychological thrillers aren’t my usual cup of tea. I enjoyed Gone Girl, but haven’t read any of the other books in that vein that have been released recently. If I’m in the mood for a mystery, I tend to lean towards the Agatha Christie and Alan Bradley side of the spectrum. I stumbled across The Girl on the Train sort of by accident.

I was making plans for an upcoming trip that would take about three hours by car, and I was looking for things to listen to during the drive. I’m a big podcast fan but have never really gotten into audio books. I wish I could. I salivate when I think about the amount of books I could tear through if I listened to them will I cooked dinner, folded laundry, or completed paperwork. But every time I listen to them my mind wanders. By the time I’ve realized this and brought my attention back to the book, I’ve missed several minutes and have to rewind it. It’s just not my brain’s prefered way to soak up a narrative.

Nevertheless, I have a hard time taking no for an answer. Every so often I’ll give another audiobook a try. I’d recently moved to a new county and gotten a library card for a new system, so I explored their Overdrive selection and Girl on the Train was one of the few books that seemed interesting and was available. So, I gave it a try.

Two things came out of that experiment. First, I learned, again, that I’m not an audiobook person. Second, once I got back from my trip, I went to Barnes and Noble and snatched up a paperback copy of The Girl on the Train because I had to see how it ended.

The novel follows a woman named Rachel who is divorced from a husband who cheated on her, has lost her job (but hasn’t told her landlady/roommate) and who is suffering from alcohol addiction. She takes a train every day into London (hence the title) to sit in the library or a bar and kill time so that her landlady doesn’t find out she’s unemployed and kick her out. While on the train, she passes the house she use to live in that now belongs to her ex-husband and his new wife. Another couple lives down the street from the house. Rachel begins to watch the couple every time she passes the house and crafts a story around their lives. In her head, the couple, who she names Jessica and Jess, have a storybook marriage. However, when the train passes by one day and Rachel spies something disturbing going on at their house. Soon after, the woman turns up missing. Rachel feels she must get involved, and from there the novel gets twisty and turny real quick!

I won’t say anything else, but a lot more happens in the novel. I enjoyed the character of Rachel. She’s not a likeable character, and in fact some of her choices had me yelling at the book in that don’t-go-in-the-house-the-killer-is-waiting-for-you sort of way. But her alcoholism is depicted very realistically in the book. I believe that Rachel, for all of her problems, really wanted to help in the situation presented in the novel; however, her drinking problem made it difficult for her to focus or make the best decisions. Throughout the novel, she is caught up in a cycle of drinking, trying to pick herself up, realizing she needed to stop drinking, then drinking again. After a while it began to get redundant and I felt like the author was repeating the same scenario over and over. But then I realized that was the point. Someone suffering from alcoholism does become trapped in that cycle.

While I read the novel, I thought about the state of mental health services in our country, and our “suck it up and power through it” answer to people suffering from mental health issues. I don’t think The Girl on the Train is the best book to depict alcoholism. There are other books that tackle the subject more head on than this novel’s fast-paced thriller plot allows. But the book does let us inside the head of someone suffering from an addiction. It shows us that for people with this problem it’s not as simple as wanting to put down the drink and just trying really hard to not pick it up again. And I think that’s an important narrative to read.

The novel is told in first person from the point of view of Rachel and two other characters. Like I said, audiobooks are not for me, but I did enjoy how each character’s chapters were read by a different narrator in the audiobook version. If you are an audiobook person, I’d recommend it.

I think I’ll check out the move soon and see how it compares to the book.

Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: The Love Interest by Cale Deitrich

 

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This book was fun! Good summer reading fun! 

If you’re looking for something heavy with plusable world-building and a slow moving plot then this book is not for you. However, if you’re in the mood for a novel with an angsty M/M/F love triangle, teenage spies, a secret organization, and killer robots (killer robots!) then this is a must read.

Caden is a spy for the Love Interest Incorporated, an organization who sends highly trained teenagers into the field to make their assigned targets fall in love with them. The goal is that they will eventually get married. The corporation then uses the spies to influence their targets, always people who show signs that they will grow up to become top players in their professional fields.  

When pairing the target with their love interest spy, the corporation always sends a Nice( a boy-next-door type) and a bad (a wrong-side-of-the-tracks type). The two spies complete for the targets affection until they make a choice. Once that happens, the losing love interest is killed by the corporation (talk about an incentive to work hard). Caden is determined to win, but there is a problem: he starts having feelings for his rival love interest, Dil.

Though the book contains science fiction elements, the plot stays focused on the relationships between the two love interests and their target, a girl named Juliet who has a knack for inventing complex technological gadgets. There’s a lot of introspection as the main character sorts out his feelings for his target and his rival. The past few YA books that I’ve read that feature gay characters showed teenagers who understood their sexual identity from an early age. The Love Interest is different in that it depicts Caden realizing he has feelings for a boy and coming to terms with them. As I read, I couldn’t help but feel that this probably rang true for the many teenagers who don’t grow up realizing their gay at an early age. It was nice to see this represented in YA fiction.

The dialogue is light, the plot is fast moving, the characters are likeable, and, in short, this was a very entertaining novel.  If Hollywood wasn’t so scared of putting gay characters on the big screen, it would make a great summer blockbuster style action movie.

If I had any complaints with the book, it would be with some of the story elements in the third act. Some of the dialogue and character actions felt like they had been included to extend the page length and simply for the sake of building tension. They didn’t add to the plot or flesh out the characters. But this is a minor gripe. Overall, the book was great!

I can’t wait to see what Deitrich writes next!

Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: Goodbye Days by Jeff Zenter

Spoiler Alert: I tried very hard not to give away too much, but my review does contain some small details about novel’s plot. Sometimes it’s hard to gauge when the providing a synopsis ends and spoilers begin. If you want to read the book knowing absolutely nothing beforehand, wait until after you’ve finished before reading this review.

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I became a huge fan of Jeff Zenter after reading his first book, The Serpent King. I approached this book hoping it would be ever bit as fulfilling as the first, and it did not disappoint.

Goodbye Days follows Carver Briggs, the main character who sent a text to his friend Mars while he was driving. This act may or may not have lead to Mars crashing his car, killing himself and his two passengers, Carver’s other friends. Following the funerals, Carver begins to hold a series of “Goodbye Days”, a day for each of his departed friends, where he spends time with their parents and loved ones. The intent is that they will spend the day doing things that the departed enjoyed and tell stories about them. It gives them a chance to say goodbye and celebrate their loved ones’ lives.

Carver has to deal with coming to terms with the death of his three friends and his possible role to play in the tragedy. We see how various friends and family members of the deceased teenagers deal with their grief, their varying reactions to Carver’s possible role in the deaths, and how losing a loved one effects their lives as well.

This is not light reading; however, it is not dark for the sake of being dark. Zenter is good at evoking the emotions that company depression and guilt, but he also does something much harder: he depicts the slow, jagged, uneven journey of moving through those motions to something that might be considered finding peace. I hesitate to go into too much detail for fear of dropping a spoiler, but will I’ll say that there is an emotional payoff to reading this novel. You’ll come away feeling satisfied and renewed.

Here’s a few things that stood out to me as I read:

1) The Humor. I know I said it was a dark novel, and it is. But Zenter knows how to balance the heavier themes with truly fulfilling comedy. I straight laughed out loud while reading this novel. What’s more delightful, the humor occurs amongst the interactions of the characters. Not only does this deepen the characterization, but it gives the reader this warm and fuzzy feelings you get when you see people who care about each other cracking inside jokes. At the risk of sounding prudish, most of the humor we find in our current tv shows, books, and social media feeds is spiteful in nature. It’s refreshing to see a piece of work that captures the feeling of close friends cracking well meaning, albeit still immature, jokes.

2) The South. I grew up in a small town in Western North Carolina. Both of Zenter’s books capture the nuances of living in the American south. The small town feel, the voice he gives to one of the character’s “Nana”, driving into a bigger town to go to the mall, the way religion is tied to everything, always hanging in the background. Zenter evokes this perfectly. His character’s are southern without being stereotypes.

3) Religion. It’s probably an unavoidable topic when writing southern fiction, even if your writing about today’s south, but the way Goodbye Days handles religion was refreshing. Carver beings to question his religion and belief in the afterlife for the first time in his life following the deaths. We see how several of the characters use religion, in both good and bad ways, in response to the deaths of their loved ones. The novel doesn’t beat you over the head with the topic. Rather, it gently plays with religion’s role in dealing with these life events. In some ways, it reminds me of Madeleine L’engle’s work. The presence of religion in the novel is not intended to convert, but to question.

4) Stories. The central theme of Goodbye Days is stories. How stories can help us heal after a terrible loss. How the stories we construct about someone will always leave out information we don’t know. How sharing stories with one another can be an act of fellowship, of repair. How stories can help us better understand our own feelings about something. Lately, we’ve heard a lot about “alternative facts”. This is a form of the misuse of story, of taking a narrative and twisting it to control, hurt, and gain power. This is what we talk about when we use the word story as a synonym of lying. But not all stories are lies. Goodbye Days is about the better types of stories, stories that heal, stories as an act of fellowship, stories as an act of hope.

Goodbye Days was another wonderful novel by Jeff Zenter. I just read on Goodreads that his third book now has a title, TV 6. It’s about two high school aged friends who host a “creature feature” show on their local cable channel. Can I get that now, please?

Posted in My Blog

In Which I Attended a Deliciously Nerdy Wedding

I’ve been a little behind on my blog posts lately.  Turns out this summer was more eventful than I thought.  This wedding was actually held on June 25th in my hometown.  I was honored when two of my favorite people in the world asked me to be a groomsman as they tied the knot.

I really don’t know any non-nerdy people, and they’re wedding was deliciously nerdy…in the most literal way.

Behold: white chocolate Lego bricks!

 

In addition to the edible goodness, the wedding festivities also included a Man of Hornor speech with references to Game of Thrones (and, of course, that wedding), and Funko dolls for each member of the wedding party.  The bride and groom put a lot of thought into each doll, making sure they gave each person a character they would enjoy.  I was given Sam from Halloween, which is one of the few horror movies I can stand to watch.

 

Overall, the day was a great start to what will be a story-book marriage.

 

 

Posted in My Blog

In Which I Post a Good Thing

Last school year I provided occupational therapy services to students in about 5 different schools throughout the county where I work.  All of my schools had this poster prominently displayed, either somewhere near the front entrance or along one of the main hallways.  It always made me happy when I saw them.  Who knows what they’ve meant to a struggling student who needed to see an affirmation.  Sometimes a piece of paper can be everything.

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…you

 

 

Posted in My Blog

In Which I Dine at Crafted the Art of the Taco

Two food related posts in a row!  The last one contained fudge, this one contains bacon.  My next post should probably contain a personal vow to sign up for Crossfit (spoiler alert: it won’t).

I went to Crafted the Art of the Taco in downtown Greensboro tonight.  This is my third time and cannot say enough good things about this place.  Every dish I’ve ordered has been truly phenomenal.

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I mean, as an appetizer you can get a mason of bacon with camel and chocolate dipping sauce.  What’s not to love?

They do a variety of tacos, but also some other dishes like salads and burgers.  My burger had white cheddar pimento cheese on it (Whaaaaat!) They have a few vegan options too.  If you’re in the area I’d definitely check them out!

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Posted in My Blog

In Which I Attempt Baking (sort of)

I like to cook.

My repertoire is pretty limited.  I tend to stick to go for casseroles or crock pot dishes.  As I remarked to my boyfriend the other day, if I see a recipe on Pinterest with more than 5 ingredients I’ll scroll on without a second thought.  Still, I enjoy the act of preparing food for myself and others.  It may not be fancy, but hey, almost anything you make at home has to be better than MacDonald’s, right?

I might love to cook, but I’ve never been much of a baker.  I’ve tried a recipe here or there with varying amounts of success.  I don’t have a big sweet tooth.  When I’m looking for desert, a bowl of fruit or an iced decaf coffee drink with a little Splenda is usually enough to satisfy.  Plus, baking takes time and precision.  When you’re working from a baking recipe you can’t just dump everything in a dish, put it in the oven, and walk away.  Science is required!  This takes more brainpower than I’m willing to muster.

Maybe I should amend the first sentence of this blog to say: I like to cook…things that cook themselves.

However, as I’ve said before, I recently began working as a school OT.  It’s the last week before summer vacation, and celebration is in the air.  Field days, graduations, pizza parties, ice cream sundaes in speech therapy sessions- everywhere you look someone is bringing in food for some reason.  So I thought I’d join in too.  I decided to bake some treats to share with my coworkers.

I wanted to make two things, so I’d have a backup in case one dish turned out bad or I blew up the kitchen or something.  After searching “easy desert recipes” on Pinterest I found two I liked.  One was a Rainbow Frosting Fudge recipe that basically involved combining the title ingredient with white chocolate chips and refrigerating it.  No baking involved, hence the “(sort of)” in this blog’s title.  The second dish, however, involved some baking-but only a little.  It was a chocolate chip cheesecake bar recipe.  While it did involve some measuring and leveling and mixing, it was fairly simple.  I whipped up both dishes yesterday evening and brought them to work today.

My coworkers enjoyed them immensely.  One called them “scrumptious”, and three people asked for the recipe.  When I told them how the recipes were prepared, they couldn’t believe how simple they were.

Overall, I’d say my first foray into baking went well.  Maybe next time I’ll try something a little more complicated.  But only a little more complicated.  There is the whole “I like cooking things that cook themselves” issue after all.

If you want the recipes, they can be found here:

bettycrocker.com Rainbow Chip Fudge

Ebay.com Chocolate Chip Cheesecake Cookie Bars

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Rainbow Fudge
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Cheesecake Bars- before cutting