Book review: Sawkill Girls

Dear friends,

I just finished Sawkill Girls, which I had borrowed from the university library:

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A brief synopsis: Sawkill Girls centers around a trio of girls living in a place called Sawkill Island (Sawkill Rock).  Young girls have been mysteriously disappearing over a period of years, and local legend has it that there is some kind of monster lurking in the woods.  So Marion (plain-Jane newcomer to Sawkill), Zoey (daughter of the local policeman), and Val (the beautiful rich girl) team up to locate and destroy this evil before it strikes again.

The author incorporates diversity (Zoey is mixed-race, and there’s some girl / girl romance going on), and is clearly a feminist, but the girl-power message became a little heavy-handed (to me) near the end, when a gathering of community men turn out to have dark motives that only the girls can vanquish.  Females good, males bad (aside from the girls’ friend Grayson, a kind and gentle young man who bakes cookies).

This book has a lot of mixed reviews on Goodreads, and I can understand why readers would have a “love it or hate it” reaction.  For me, it was just ok.  It became a bit of a chore to finish.

First: I don’t think I’m the intended audience for this book.  It’s a YA (“young adult”) tale, and I’d put it in the horror / paranormal genre, which really isn’t my favorite.  So part of my lukewarm reaction is probably tied to those factors.

Beyond that, my main issues with the book were:

The horror / suspense doesn’t build – rather, it’s intense from the start, and stays intense all the way through.  This level of constant danger and violence is unsettling after a while.  I didn’t feel like I got to know the characters as people, beyond the ways they reacted to paranormal threats.

The book is long.  Looooong.  Around 450 pages.  With horror scene after horror scene, in an episodic format (I was going to say, episodic rather than building to a climax, but that wouldn’t be fair, the episodes *do* build to a climax, but often don’t seem to be heading anywhere).  There’s no mystery as to which character is the “villain” (or aiding the villain) – we’re told from the start.

Bottom line: I didn’t care for it, but I can see how fans of the genre might enjoy it.  Give it a try if you enjoy paranormal tales.

Happy reading,

Winnie and the Professor

 

Book review: Sold on a Monday

Dear friends,

Just finished this book.  It’s a tear-jerker:

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The book is a fictionalized story based on this depression-era photograph:

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In Sold on a Monday, we meet a 1930s newspaper reporter named Ellis Reed, who is young, ambitious, and desperate to get a byline in the paper.  He needs a big break.  One day, while driving around looking for a story, he comes by a country house with a sign in the yard announcing “2 children for sale.”  He takes a photo.

His boss, upon seeing the photo, commissions a story, but then both the photo and negative are ruined, so the story can’t run.  Ellis, being resourceful, returns to the remote area, retrieves the sign from the front of the now-abandoned house, and props it up in front of another house in order to re-create the picture.  Then two kids and their mother emerge from the house to see what he is doing.

Later, when the kids go missing, a mystery ensues.  Were they kidnapped?  Taken into care?  Purchased?  Did the mother take advantage of the idea and actually sell them?

Ellis faces a moral quandary – Did his “staging” of the photo make all of this happen?

Together with his coworker Lily, Ellis seeks to locate the children and their mother, and to ensure that the family is doing all right.  Along the way, we meet Ellis’s parents, Lily’s boyfriend, and a gang of mobsters who might be connected to the kids’ disappearance.  Ellis and Lily find themselves getting in deeper and deeper, both for their own reasons.  And Ellis is desperate to assuage his guilt and ensure that he didn’t harm this family.

I found the book to be a fascinating character study.  Ellis is desperate for a byline in the paper, but did he go too far?  Were his actions innocent, and just turned out badly?  Or did he set this chain of events in motion because of his own ambition?  We see Ellis twisted and turned by this moral quandary, all while trying to put things right.

There are many plot surprises along the way.

Definitely recommended.

Blessings,

Winnie and the Professor

Book review: On Writing

Hello friends,

I just finished listening to the audiobook of “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” by Stephen King.  I had read the book years ago and enjoyed it, and since I am going through a bit of a writing struggle, I thought it might be helpful to revisit it.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I’ve never read any of King’s fiction, as I’m not fond of the horror genre, but I’m always willing to listen to the voice of experience.  In this book, King narrates the story of his life, interweaving memorable incidents with his writing adventures.  As a child, he was drawn to science fiction and scary stories, so those are the stories he set out to write.

I found the book meaningful and useful as he addressed the struggles of writing, especially with a full-time teaching job, and the inevitable rejections a writer must be willing to face.  I also appreciated his advice to read a lot – he contends that a successful writer needs to also be a voracious reader.

Upon finishing the book, I watched some YouTube interviews.  He’s an interesting man, and surprisingly endearing.  I felt a kinship with him when he stated something I’ve always believed – that anything we have in this world is “on loan.”  We enter this life without anything, and we leave it the same way.  The things and people we call “ours” we don’t get to keep, but to enjoy for the time we are here.

It’s a useful idea for keeping perspective.

Blessings,

Annette

A is for anxiety

Dear friends,

Let’s talk about anxiety.

There are basically two kinds: social anxiety, and clinical anxiety.  You may experience one or both.

Let’s start with social anxiety.  This is the common form of anxiety that most of us feel when we have to make a speech, perform to a crowd, or attend a party where we don’t know anyone.  When you stand on the threshold of a room before a job interview, for example, and your stomach has butterflies, that’s social anxiety.  This is perfectly normal, and it’s “organic,” i.e., it’s a chemical reaction in your body.

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There’s a little gland inside your brain called the amygdala, and it’s the seat of the “fight or flight” impulse.  It’s there to protect you.  When you’re in danger, it sends hormones through your body to alert and agitate you.  We live in community with others, and we depend on the goodwill of our “tribe” for safety.  When you stand at the front of the room and everyone is staring at you, your amygdala sends a message that you’re under attack – even when you’re not.

This type of social anxiety is very common, and normal.  Remember, it’s a chemical reaction in your body, not a character flaw.

Now let’s talk about clinical anxiety, i.e., the type that’s diagnosed by a doctor, and that you may need to be medicated for.  This type of anxiety often goes hand in hand with chronic depression.  I experience this type of anxiety/depression.  My doctor explains that it’s not a willpower thing, but how my brain is “wired up” – it doesn’t make sufficient “happy hormones,” which can leave me continually sad and anxious.  Medication that helps increase my serotonin levels has helped tremendously.  I am able to stay on an even keel, emotionally, and my quality of life has improved a lot.

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Please understand that such medications are not “happy pills” – they don’t make a person feel joyous or exuberant.  They just bring you back to a baseline where you aren’t too depressed or anxious to do your work and live your life.

Why do I share this information?  Because we need to debunk the stigmas around these conditions.  You’re not “weak” if you experience anxiety, and you’re not “ungrateful” if you are depressed.  Mental and emotional issues are not character flaws, and our challenges can’t always be overcome with willpower or personal strength.  If your anxiety and/or depression are debilitating – if they keep you from living your life at your best, every day – please talk to a doctor.

Sending love,

Annette

Book review: The Book of Useless Information

Dear friends,

I just finished this one, which was my bedside book for a few weeks:

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This book is filled with “fun facts” about lots of different topics: food, animals, geography.  As I read it, I thought it would really appeal to fans of Jeopardy!  It’s a great book to carry in your bag, or keep in the bathroom, so you can just read a page or two to pass the time.  Here are some pages from inside the book, to give you a taste of what’s in store:

Inside book

This book would make a great gift for Father’s Day, or for anyone who likes “nerdy” information (I count myself there)!

Cheers –

Winnie and the Professor

The perils of “Booktube”

Hello friends,

I enjoy watching Youtube videos about reading and books.  Do you?

Creators of such videos refer to themselves as “booktubers,” and post videos with themes like reviews, hauls, current reads, DNFs (“did not finish”) and TBRs (“to be read”), along with various other features such as anticipated new releases, unhauls, and reading marathon vlogs.  For book lovers, these videos can be fun and informational.  I learn about a lot of new releases and popular books from watching these videos.

Some of my favorite booktubers are:  Books with Emily Fox, Lauren and the Books, Jean Bookish Thoughts, Peruse Project, and Chelsea Palmer (there are many others).  Booktube leans heavily toward the YA (“young adult”) genre, but these particular creators tend to read more widely.

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While I enjoy these videos, I find that watching too many can “mess with my head.”  Many booktubers post monthly hauls of 20 or more books, which they never seem to get around to reading (and ultimately unhaul).  Many post ambitious TBRs that are impossible to finish.  Some talk about feeling guilty about not reading more, or post stats of how many pages they read during the month.

All of these things seem to take the joy out of reading.

This is why I don’t believe in huge hauls (I plan to show a few books at a time), and why I don’t believe in TBRs (every book I own is a TBR).  When I finish a book, I consider whether it deserves a permanent place on my shelf, or if I will pass it along to someone else who would enjoy it.  I have a large “pass along pile,” which will ultimately be given to my university’s book sale when it comes around each spring.  I believe that books should have a life – either through re-reading (we are a different person each time we approach the same text), or by sharing with someone else.

I also feel like a strict and lengthy TBR list doesn’t allow for whims.  Sometimes I feel like reading something light and fluffy (usually after I’ve read something dense and difficult).  Or I learn of a brand-new release that I’m willing to buy in hardcover because I know I will love it, and I want to read it right away.  Or something comes across on Kindle Unlimited that looks like fun, so everything else gets pushed back.

Reading should bring you joy.  Booktube videos are fun to watch.  But if you ever start to feel guilty, or inadequate, or caught up in comparison with these voracious readers, it might be time to step back.

Do it for fun.  Do it for you.

Blessings,

Winnie and the Professor

Give yourself grace

Dear friends,

The other day, I was watching a Youtuber talk about books she plans to read.  She gave a brief synopsis of each, and explained why it appealed to her.  One book was about a couple who had fertility issues, an experience the Youtuber herself had gone through in the past few years.

She stated that she wasn’t sure if she was ready to read the book, although she’d heard it was good, and it might be healing for her.  So, she said, “I’ve decided to give myself grace” in approaching this subject matter – the grace to bail out at any time, the grace to decide she wasn’t ready after all, the grace to start the journey with permission to not finish.

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I was struck by her words.  We often talk about showing grace to others, but showing grace to ourselves is an important part of self-care.  We need to give ourselves permission to fail, permission to decide that we’re not ready after all, permission to back out of our choices if the time comes when they don’t seem right for us anymore.

Look, I’m all for “seeing things through.”  Perseverance – what my mom calls “stick-to-it-ive-ness” – is essential for completing many of our life journeys.  But just as we would be gentle and understanding with others, we should show ourselves the same consideration when it comes to challenges that may be – just for a moment – more than we can bear.

We talk about falling down and getting back up, but sometimes getting up takes time.  Healing and recovery take time.

Be gentle with yourself today.  Show grace to the person in the mirror.

Blessings,

Annette

Book haul # 1

Dear friends,

I’ve acquired a TON (probably literally) of books over the past months, including a few dozen at a library sale this weekend.  I thought I’d show them to you a few at a time.  As you know, I read a lot of backlist titles, as well as new releases.  While I occasionally buy a new release in hardback if it’s something I’ve really been looking forward to, I acquire most of my books in other ways:

  • Borrow from the library
  • Lent from friends
  • Purchased at sales
  • Purchased at retail, in paperback format
  • “Shop my shelves” (and storage boxes)
  • Listen on audiobook and/or read on Kindle

Let’s look at my first little haul:

  1.  Daisy Jones and the Six.  I flew through this one, and my review’s already up.  I had received an “ARC” (advance reader copy) of this one months ago, but never got around to it till now.  The story of a 1970s band similar to Fleetwood Mac – their rise to fame and fall from popularity.
  2. City of Girls.  This one just came out June 4 and I can’t WAIT to read it!  New York showgirls in the 1940s.
  3. Sawkill Girls.  Borrowed from the Library, and I need to finish it as it’s due very soon.  A Young Adult “YA” title, I don’t know much about it other than it’s a mystery about girls who go missing on Sawkill Island.
  4. Our Lady of the Prairie.  Lent to me by a coworker.  Written by a colleague at my university, who was pleased when I told her I was reading it.
  5. The Clockmaker’s Daughter.  I bought this in hardback when it first came out, and it’s just been released in paperback … need to get to it!  I understand it switches back and forth along two (or more?) timelines.

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A side note: I don’t believe in doing “TBRs” (“To be read”) lists, because I like to have the freedom to choose what appeals to me in the moment.  I believe that we have a relationship with our books, and that reading should never feel like a chore.  Also, when I finish a book, I pass it on if possible, so it will continue to have a life.  I might give it to a friend, or to charity.  Only a few take up permanent residence on my shelves, and those are the ones that have spoken to me on the deepest level.

I am also re-listening to the Harry Potter books on Audible.  I read the originals so long ago that I’ve forgotten a lot, plus the movies have muddied my memories a bit.  By revisiting them now, I can really see the books-to-movies changes.  Mind you, I’m not touchy about such changes – I understand that it’s a different task to tell a story visually than to tell it in writing.  I just find it interesting.  I’m halfway through Chamber of Secrets now, and I’m wondering about something:

How did Dobby intercept the letters from Ron and Hermione?  Considering how the owls in the first book were able to track Harry down wherever he might be, I can’t see how this would happen, and I don’t see it being addressed in the story.  Plot hole?

Happy reading everyone!

Winnie and the Professor

Book review: Daisy Jones and the Six

Dear friends,

Like so many others, I enjoyed this book immensely, though not quite as much as Reid’s previous book, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.

If you’ve read other reviews of this book, you know that Daisy Jones and the Six (the band) is loosely based on Fleetwood Mac, and the relationships among its members.  The story in this book takes place years after the band broke up, with each member telling the story as they remember it – and their memories sometimes contradict one another.

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Which parts did I like?  The interview format felt like a conversation, which filled the characters with life.  Each of them felt real, struggling with the desire to express themselves creatively, in the midst of complicated relationships with the rest of the band members.  Each character also had ethical dilemmas about choosing to put themselves first at times.  Do you do what’s best for your own career, or for the longevity of the band?  The romantic relationships and sexual tension between band members helped make it a page-turner.

Which parts did I dislike?  It may make me sound like a lazy reader, but … too many characters.  In addition to Daisy and the other six band members, we have various record producers, sound engineers, tour managers, etc. adding their two cents to the story, and each of these characters has a name and backstory.  Each of them have their own lines in the interview transcript.  I became confused at times about who was who.  In the end I decided it didn’t matter, and when a non-band member was “speaking,” I just classified them as a peripheral person.

Verdict?  It’s a fun, page-turning read that captures a moment in time, a rock band at the height of their popularity, along with the events that caused them to eventually fall from the charts.  A brief epilogue tells the reader what each of these characters is doing “today.”  And the song titles and lyrics felt real.

Recommended.

Blessings,

Winnie and the Professor

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Book review: Woman Last Seen in Her Thirties

Dear friends,

I recently finished this book on Kindle:

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Woman Last Seen in Her Thirties tells the story of Maggie, a woman in her fifties who finds her life in crisis.  Her husband suddenly walks out, and as she faces the world as a separated, soon-to-be divorced woman, she realizes that she has lost her sense of identity.  She has been a wife and mother for so long, she hasn’t really had a strong sense of who she is and what she wants since she was in her thirties (hence the title).  Maggie knows she must pull herself together and create a new life – but how?

As she casts about for new friends and a new vocation, she makes a lot of mistakes, but her confidence grows.  Her divorce is finalized, and she works on closing that chapter of her life by attending a support group for new divorcees and making future plans.  She befriends a man who could be a potential love interest, but is she ready?  And when her ex-husband makes contact again, will she long for her former life?

The book was just ok for me … this is not a reflection on the author or her work (the story was nicely written), but I didn’t identify with the subject matter very much.  Maggie and her husband/ex-husband were both having their own version of a mid-life identity crisis, which I haven’t dealt with.  I tried listening to the audio book first, and found that I didn’t care for the narrator – she read the story in a defensive, slightly snarky tone that I found at odds with Maggie’s uncertainty and sadness (it felt like the narrator was indignant on Maggie’s behalf).  But I thought the story was pretty good, so I read the Kindle version instead.

I would recommend this one if you identify with the subject matter.

Blessings,

Annette