A Review of Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend (by Jill)

Crazy rich and china rich covers

Sometimes a bookblogger just needs to read something silly and fun.  I’m not sure if I have much more to say about Kevin Kwan’s two pop-lit novels than that they were silly and fun, but I’ll try.  Shout out to my old college roommate, Lauren, for insisting that I read these books.  They brought some levity to my overworked and exhausted brain at the end of 2017.

Plot-driven novels are always a challenge for me to review because I find myself falling into the plot summary trap.  I’m going to try to avoid that here.  Crazy Rich Asians opens with Rachel Chu and Nicholas Young, a millennial couple living in New York City.  Both are professors at NYU, Rachel in economics and Nick in history.  When the book opens, Nick invites Rachel to come to Asia with him for the summer.  He is from Singapore, and his best friend Colin is getting married in June, and the plan is to bum around Asia for the rest of their summer break.  Rachel is a bit trepidatious about the big trip, and about meeting her boyfriend’s family, but Nick reassures her it will be just fine.  He leaves out the bit about how his family is crazy rich, like so rich that the regular wealthy people don’t know who they are because they can afford to keep themselves out of the press and keep their private lives private, which is a concept that is strange in foreign in this day and age.  Not surprisingly, things do not go as Nick and Rachel hoped.  There are shenanigans with Nick’s parents, side plots with Nick’s cousins and their families, so many descriptions of food that I wanted to eat Chinese food almost constantly while I was reading this book, and so many funny footnotes explaining the intricacies of Singaporean society.  Definitely a light read, but a fun one.  There were so many clothing brands thrown out there that I had never heard of that I didn’t believe that they existed, so I googled a few.  They exist.  The reason why I don’t know about them is because they, like the Young family, are out of my price range.

The sequel, China Rich Girlfriend, still has Nick and Rachel at the center, but the story spirals away from them, and I felt like that was a mistake on Kwan’s part.  We find out at the beginning of the sequel that Rachel’s father, long thought deceased, is actually very much among the living, and is an extremely wealthy businessman in mainland China.  Rachel’s mother and father met and fell in love when she was married to another man (a bad one), and she fled China when she learned she was pregnant to start a new life with her daughter.  There’s much more to it, but remember how I said I wasn’t going to get bogged down in plot summary?  Anyway, Nick’s busybody mother Eleanor figures all this out, and then insinuates herself into the Bao family’s good graces.  Rachel’s half brother Carlton is in a huge car accident in London, and the family goes to Singapore for his recuperation.  Rachel’s father learns of her existence from Eleanor, and insists that she and Nick spend their honeymoon in China.  One would think that our protagonists would have figured out after their last trip to Asia on vacation that this was not a good idea, but alas.  So the Young’s get to Asia, and end up spending a lot of time with Carlton, and his girlfriend/friend Colette Bing, the China Rich Girlfriend of the title.  I think.  The other suspect is Kitty Pong, a minor character from Crazy Rich Asians who is trying to fit into this crazy rich world but is failing miserably.  Neither woman is especially likeable, and I really feel like Rachel and Nick turned into the straight men for Colette and Carlton’s crazy rich antics.  There’s only so much snooty entitled rich people talk I need to hear in one series of books.  That being said, “rich” is in the title of both books, so I guess I had fair warning.

In summary, these books are fun light quick reads with several likable characters and several who are so awful that I really hope people like them don’t exist in real life.  The characters in the second book were over the top; I suspect this was purposeful and meant to be satirical, but it was maybe too much so.  I’m hoping that the third book in the series, Rich People Problems, which came out a few months ago, will be more focused on Nick and Rachel and how they fit into the crazy rich world, or potentially on Nick’s cousin Astrid and her family.  I liked them too.  Colette Bing and her signature scent in her home and Eleanor Young’s constant meddling (by the way, does anyone else feel like the word “meddling” has taken on much more sinister connotations in the past year?  Thanks for that, Russia.  Or whoever.  I’m not trying to make political statements here; I’m just trying to write about obnoxious rich people.) in her son’s life are definitely things I can do without the next time around.

Posted in Fiction - Funny, Fiction - general, Kevin Kwan, Reviews by Jill, TV/Film Adaptations | Leave a comment

A Review of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass cover image

Recently I was reminded of a core truth: teachers don’t read much in the fall. Nor do we blog, as you have seen. Come to think of it, my blogging life began within days of my resignation from full-time teaching in 2012., and I don’t think that was a coincidence. The kind of thinking that goes into reading and writing seriously about the books I read is not entirely compatible with my current lifestyle of simultaneously grading three sets of quizzes, negotiating foursquare disputes, wondering how the sixth graders know so much about cockfights, trying to figure out where the broom is, and explaining to a ten year-old how it’s possible to survive with only one kidney. Not much is compatible with that lifestyle, honestly. I am 42 years old and have been teaching in some capacity or other for twenty years, but I am living the first-year teacher experience all over again. It is maddening and humbling and wonderful.

So at the moment Jill and I are in the room where it happened – specifically, the Panera in Vacaville, CA where we launched Postcards from Purgatory in 2012 – trying to resuscitate this blog before it dies for good. Airway, breathing, circulation. Two rescue breaths. Soon we will be interviewing current and former U.S. senators who might be interested in performing some chest compressions.

I’ve been interested in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series for at least a decade, ever since I learned it was based on Paradise Lost, but for some reason the first few pages always pushed me away when I tried to read it. Now that I’ve read the whole thing (plus all of the first sequel and most of the second), I can’t quite imagine what put me off. I mean, Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen has about everything a first sentence is supposed to have: introduction of protagonist, mysterious element (the “daemon”), and a clear action that is also symbolic of the plot of the book as a whole, a plot that involves sneaking and being on the run in all kinds of situations that can be described as “darkening.” But whatever. Mulling over why this book didn’t engage me much in the past will take precious time away from explaining why it did draw me in this time, and precious time is not something I have in large quantities any more.

So in Lyra’s world, a daemon is a person’s soul, and it takes animal form. Children’s daemons can change form based on their emotions or on the needs of the moment; for example, a daemon that is afraid and wants to hide can become a mouse and hide in its person’s clothing, while a daemon that is aggressive and wants to fight can become a tiger or eagle. Adults’ daemons take a fixed form, and in this world, the settling of a daemon into one form is an important sign of the end of childhood – and the end of childhood is of great importance in this trilogy that is, among other things, about original sin. Lyra’s daemon’s name is Pantalaimon, and in the opening scene he is a moth.

In the opening scene, Lyra, who is ten years old and lives a semi-orphaned existence at an Oxford that differs in some important ways from the real-world institution that bears the same name. I was fascinated with the process of trying to piece together the weirdnesses of this world. In some ways, the novel seems to be set in the Reformation – which is consistent with the fact that this series was inspired by Paradise Lost – but not all details support this hypothesis. The Oxford of this novel is decidedly low-tech in most ways, though there is something called “anbaric power” that seems to exist in place of electricity (we learn more about it in The Subtle Knife), and in the opening scene a guest arrives bearing startling news from the far north, documented by what seems to be some very advanced forms of photography. Because I’ve read the sequels, I now know what Pullman’s overall vision is and how this Oxford fits into it, but I’ll hold off until it’s time to review the sequels.

In the opening scene, Lyra and Pantalaimon hide in a wardrobe (Narnia allusion, I wondered? Figuratively speaking, this moment does eventually lead Lyra to an alternate universe) in an Oxford study in which they were snooping when some college officials unexpectedly arrived. The officials are awaiting a guest named Lord Asriel, whom they are planning to serve some poisoned wine. Lyra is able to warn Lord Asriel – her uncle – about the plot, and he spills the wine instead of drinking it. Lord Asriel is the one who brings the sophisticated photographs – photographs of people whose bodies are surrounded by a substance called “Dust.” The Oxford dons are intimidated by Dust, and it is this discovery of Lord Asriel’s that made them want to kill him.

So let’s flash forward. One of Lyra’s friends – a servant in the Oxford kitchens named Roger, sort of a human house elf – is kidnapped by “Gobblers,” a band of semi-legendary criminals known for snatching children, and to find him Lyra enlists the help of some “gyptians,” a gypsy-like group of wanderers who live in riverboats. Then Lyra is called into the study of one of the dons, told that she needs to go live with a mysteriously seductive woman named Mrs. Coulter and also given a device called an alethiometer. The alethiometer tells its bearer the true answer to any question, but it does so in a language of symbols that most people can’t understand. Lyra, however, has a mysterious ability to understand the symbols intuitively. Eventually Lyra overhears conversations that lead her to believe that Mrs. Coulter and her associates are the Gobblers, so she runs away and takes refuge with some gyptians, who are headed off to the far north to retrieve Roger, who is being held captive there.

Because it’s been a while (about two months) since I read this book, I am not entirely sure that I’ve gotten these details in the right order. I’m going to hold off on more plot summary except to tell you that we learn more and more interesting things about daemons, and there are witches and hot-air balloons and talking bears. We also learn that in Lyra’s world John Calvin was once pope (what???), and it becomes clear, at least a little, what Pullman is saying about Reformation theology. I enjoyed the novel – and the series – a lot, though I can’t fathom what its intended audience – ten year-olds(!) – would make of it (and I have a high opinion of ten year-olds, in general). But since I have a captive audience of ten year-olds (and 11-14 year-olds too) at my disposal five days a week, sometime soon (probably next year) I am going to try to find out.

More soon on the rest of the trilogy. Happy Saturday, everyone!

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A Long Overdue Review of Libba Bray’s Lair of Dreams (by Jill)

I started this post like a year ago.  I’m not going to finish, but am going to put it up in its unfinished state as a testament to what happens when a pair of good bookbloggers get way too busy in their non-bookblogging life.  But never fear, my friends.  Bethany and I are going to get some stuff done today.  We hope.  

Lair of dreams cover


Where was I?  Oh, that’s right.  Libba Bray’s latest, Lair of Dreams.  It is a sequel to her earlier young adult fantasy/horror/historical fiction novel The Diviners, that I posted about back in 2015, and it is compelling a.f.  I’ve never disliked a single Libba Bray book I’ve ever read, and I think I’ve read four of them.  But this one is special.  The only reason why I’m calling this a young adult novel is because the characters are mostly all teenagers.  They have serious problems, though, these kids.  One is gay and can walk in other people’s dreams, one is an alcoholic and can see the history of an object just by holding it in her hand, one is a white girl who is a chorus girl and can start fires with her mind in love with a black guy who is a poet and can also heal the sick.  And that is just four of the major characters.  This is a “cast of thousands” sort of book, and I tend to love those.  I’m sure doing a shifting limited omniscient perspective novel with close to ten primary characters and numerous others who we only know for a chapter is not easy, at least I don’t think it would be?  They are all fairly well fleshed out, though obviously not as well as a first person narrator would be.  Of course, it helps that this is the second book that I have read with these same characters.

This time, Evie O’Neill and her fellow diviners are facing up against an unseen foe.  I’m on page 475 out of 613, and I’m just figuring out what these creatures look like, and we still have no idea why they seem to be feeding on people’s dreams.  I’m not sure if they’re ghosts (though I think they are) or zombies (they could be this too) or vampires (not likely) or if they have rabies (really just reaching with that one).  Evie has become The Sweetheart Seer.  She has her own radio show where she reads objects for people, though never delving too deeply, because that wouldn’t be fun, and she is all about fun now, even more so than in The Diviners.  She is drinking and partying every night, using gin to wash away the chronic headaches that she always has from using her gift on a nightly basis.  Theta and Memphis are trying to make their relationship work despite flack from all sides, but things are not going well.  Henry finds another dream walker named Ling, a girl with polio who lives in Chinatown with her Irish mother and her Chinese father.  Together they find (or do they?  I’m not convinced either way yet) things they have been searching for—Henry finds his lover Louis, and Ling finds a friend, a girl named Wai-Mae, who is another dream walker on a boat travelling from China to San Francisco to be a mail-order bride.  The entire world Libba Bray has made, from the historical setting, to the varied abilities of all the diviners, is so detailed and ********


Now it is 2018, and I still haven’t finished this post.  I’m going to just say this: being a bookblogger is no joke, guys.  Read The Diviners and Lair of Dreams and the sequel that’s sitting in my to read pile.  They’re great books. 

Posted in Fiction - Fantasy, Fiction - general, Fiction - Young Adult, Libba Bray, Reviews by Jill | Leave a comment

Concluding thoughts on Diana Gabaldon’s Drums of Autumn (by Jill)


Drums of Autumn cover

The last few hundred pages of Drums of Autumn definitely went much more quickly than the first few hundred, which was a good thing.  But the plot point that made the action pick up was possibly the worst kind of mistaken identity shenanigans I’ve ever experienced in a novel.  I just can’t believe the series of coincidences and nonsense that Diana Gabaldon put together, and how pig-headed Jamie, Bree, and young Ian were.  I know that’s supposed to be a Fraser family trait, but Gabaldon took it too far in this instance; it could have been the plot of a slapstick comedy if it were played correctly.  I actually wonder how they’ll play the fight between Jamie, Roger, and Ian on the show next season….  Anyway, the review that follows is riddled with spoilers, so beware.*

First, Bree and Roger travel through the stones at different pagan holy days: Bree goes at Beltane 1971 and Roger goes at Midsummer 1971.  (A brief aside in my complaining: Bree got to Lallybroch and meets Jenny and Ian and her cousins; I always love getting to spend time with Jenny.  She is one of my favorite minor characters in the Outlander series, and getting to see Bree meet her father’s side of the family is lovely, and an example of the level of story-telling that Gabaldon is capable of.)  They arrive in Scotland in 1769 and both make their way to North Carolina, spurred on by the knowledge that Jamie and Claire are set to die in a fire at Fraser’s Ridge in 1776 that they both acquire separately, but do not tell the other about.  Roger doesn’t tell Bree because he knows she will try to go to the past to save them, and Bree doesn’t tell Roger because she knows he will try to stop her.  They finally reunite and are hand fasted and consummate their marriage in a shed or a barn or somewhere, during which time here is far too much discussion of Bree’s glorious female attributes.  After they finally come up for air early the next morning they learn what brought the other through the stones.  Bree is enraged that Roger didn’t tell her about the fire, and they part in anger, never exchanging pertinent details, like what names they are going by in the past. Roger, for some reason, decided to start going by MacKenzie (his birth name) rather than Wakefield (his adopted father’s name, which he has gone by in the present day) when he arrived in the eighteenth century.  In the meantime, Brianna and Claire are reunited, and Brianna and Jamie finally meet.  These reunion scenes are also lovely.  But wait, there’s more.  Bree’s maid, Lizzie, realizes that Bree and Roger (whose name she heard was MacKenzie when she overhears him talking in a pub prior to meeting with Bree) have had sex when she does Bree’s washing, and she assumes it was against Bree’s wishes when she sees how upset her mistress is when she arrives back at their room after her blow up with Roger.  When she learns that MacKenzie is looking for Bree and is on the Ridge, she tells Jamie and Ian, and they beat the crap out of Roger and sell him to the Iroquois.  Bree eventually draws a very realistic likeness of Roger, in hopes of finding him more easily, when he continues to fail to show up as promised.  Jamie and Ian realize their error, and tell Claire and Bree, sending Bree into a Scottish rage, resulting in Jamie calling her a harlot or a whore or something like that.  Oh, did I not mention that Bree is pregnant, and that it may not be Roger’s baby?  Because she gets raped by Stephen Bonnet (yes, he’s still around) the day after she has sex with Roger when she goes to try to retrieve her mother’s wedding band (from her first wedding to Frank Randall).  Don’t ask me how Bree learns that Stephen Bonnet has it.  I don’t remember and I don’t really care.  By the time all the secrets are out, Bree is at least 5 months pregnant, and not fit for a winter gallop through the forest trying to find her husband/fiancé/possible baby daddy.  So Claire and Jamie go, along with Ian.  Eventually Roger is found and rescued, though the price they pay is Ian staying behind with the Mohawk and becoming one of the tribe.

So many pages to fix a mistake that could have been dealt with so quickly if Roger had just told Jamie and Ian his adopted name, or told Bree what name he was going by.  Or if there were social media or cell phones or something.  That being said, Drums of Autumn came out in 1997.  There was barely internet back then, much less social media.

I know that was a terrible rant, and really, it’s all in fun, and annoyance, with characters who I have spent a fair amount of time with at this point, and who I consider fictional family members.  I enjoyed this entry in the Outlander series enough to be considering starting book five, The Fiery Cross, as my next book, but not enough to have already started it.  I did pick it up.  And it’s over 1400 pages.  I’d like to finish at least one more book before 2017 comes to its end, and I know that I won’t be able to push through that many pages in slightly more than a month, no matter how many exciting adventures Jamie and Claire can manage to have in the 1770’s.  I’ll stick with something easy to close out this year….   


*I have no wish to offend the legions of Diana Gabaldon fans out there with this post.  The complaining is very tongue-in-cheek and my irritation stems from my knowledge that she is better than some of the plot devices she uses in Drums of Autumn.

Posted in Diana Gabaldon, Fiction - Historical, Reviews by Jill, TIME TRAVEL, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Long-Ago PFP Board Meeting


This is Jill and me on the beach at Tahoe just a little over four months ago. The day after this photo was taken, I woke up before dawn, drove back to the Bay Area, and started my new job – my first full-time teaching job in five years. See that book I’m reading (I’m the one in the chair, with the polka dots)? I finished it maybe two months later, and my goal ever since has been to read another book that’s actually for grown-ups. I’ve almost succeeded, but not quite. If it’s possible to be run over by a truck and love it, that’s what this fall has been like for me on every level – physically, emotionally, professionally, intellectually, personally. Insert mandatory truism here about securing your own oxygen mask before helping others, yes, but the fall is almost over and soon it will be winter break and surely I’ll read books and blog about them then, won’t I? Of course I will. See you soon.

Posted in Glimpses into Real Life, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Progress report on Drums of Autumn (by Jill)

Drums of Autumn cover


As usual when reading a Diana Gabaldon book, progress has been slow but steady.  After a month of reading I’m just about halfway through, but haven’t gotten to a point where I felt an update was warranted just yet.  But it seemed like maybe I should just go ahead and do one even though it seems like many pages are going by without a whole lot actually happening.

That being said, Drums of Autumn opens in June of 1767 with Claire, Jamie, and their nephew Ian about to watch a hanging in Charleston, North Carolina.  Two men are to be hanged, one of which Jamie knew back when he was in prison for his part in the Rising back in Scotland.  The other may be important later.  The second convict manages to escape.  After this happens, Jamie and Claire and Ian and someone named Duncan, another former prison friend, break into a cemetery to bury said friend.  Then they find the escaped convict and help him make his way to some friends.  Then Jamie and Ian and Claire hop on a boat up some river to get to Jamie’s aunt Jocasta’s plantation, River Run.  The escaped convict and his friends are pirates and they steal the jewels that the Frasers found in the cave at the end of Voyager.  Many more pages go by, with long, long descriptions of how hot it is in North Carolina in the summer.  After possibly the longest river trip ever, they arrive at River Run.  Aunt Jocasta is blind, and a widow, but has a staff of slaves who are devoted to her, and seems to be getting along just fine.  But she needs her nephew to be the male face of the family.  Which Jamie doesn’t want to do.  So after Claire fixes an inguinal hernia on the dinner table during a party one night, they decide to head out into the frontier and find some land, as the governor of North Carolina recommended they do.  Where I am right now it’s Christmas of 1767, and Jamie has thrown out his back hunting an elk.  So he and Claire hole up for the night to have sex and hide from the savages.

In the meantime, back in 1969, Roger Wakefield and Brianna Randall are falling in love and trying to find any information they can about what has happened to Claire and Jamie.  And they just found something in a newspaper from 1776 that says they are killed in a fire.  Which I’m pretty sure is going to precipitate another trip through the stones, and not just because I know the bare bones of the plot of the rest of the book.

So.  I am enjoying Drums of Autumn because I love the characters and am happy to spend time with Claire and Jamie.  But I’m starting to see that Diana Gabaldon has a problem: her editors are afraid of her.  The trip up the river from Charleston to River Run really didn’t need to take as many pages as it did, and if Stephen Bonnet (the convict who they help escape from Charleston who ends up robbing them on the boat to River Run) doesn’t turn back up later on to cause more trouble or to be punished for his misdeeds then I’m really going to be annoyed, because if so, all the pages dedicated to him were wasted.

I’m not minding the occasional side trips to the twentieth century to hang out with Roger and Brianna; I like them, but wish they would hurry up and get to the part where they decide to time travel.  In this series, the eighteenth century is infinitely more interesting than the twentieth.

More soon, I promise.

Posted in Diana Gabaldon, Reviews by Jill, TIME TRAVEL, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

A Review of Lawrence Osborne’s The Forgiven

The Forgiven cover image

A month ago I could have written a fantastic review of this book – its tension, its creepiness, its unlikeable protagonist, the works. But for now, here are the basics. This is a novel about David Henniger and his wife Jo, successful but unhappy London professionals who travel to Morocco to attend a hedonistic weekend gathering at the home of their friends Richard and Dally. David and Jo are fractious on the long drive from the coast to their friends’ rural enclave, and David drinks way more alcohol than anyone who is about to be driving for hours in a rental car on narrow dirt roads in a foreign country has a right to drink. Jo complains about his drinking but doesn’t insist he stop or that she take the wheel. This early exposition seems to epitomize their relationship, which is miserable and driven forward by habit and inertia. Before they reach Richard and Dally’s compound, a young man steps into the road in front of the car, and David hits him. Unsure of what to do, David props the dead man up in the back seat of the car, and he and Jo continue on their way.

Writing the plot out in this way makes me wonder why I continued reading after this opening chapter. I don’t have much experience with late-night vehicular manslaughter, mind you, but if I did I certainly would not put the corpse in my rental car and bring it along to the home of my hedonistic friend. In every other way, David is portrayed throughout this novel as a jerk. Not as a terrible person – there’s no suggestion that he killed the man on purpose, and he definitely feels guilty for the accident – but as a jerk, the kind of guy who if he killed a man by accident certainly wouldn’t bother to take responsibility for the body. This moment is also clearly the novel’s first crisis point: the place that determines the route the novel will take. And this novel is very well structured: it unfolds from this moment of original sin and proceeds step by step toward its conclusion in a series of plausible, inevitable steps. But the initial incident is a bit off, in my opinion. The novel never fully convinces me that David is the sort of person who would take a body into his car in the way he does.

This is a novel about both the clash of cultures and the divide between rich and poor. Richard and Dally are fantastically wealthy and have essentially purchased a small town, built a wall around it, and created their own little world of miniature pleasure palaces. They have many local servants whom they seem to treat relatively well, but they are also distrusted by the locals both for their Western-ness (one is British and one American) and for being, you know, “sodomites.” But while they are known factors in their community who, if nothing else, help stimulate the local economy, the locals have no patience for David, whom they see as a symbol of Western arrogance and dislike immediately. Dally also becomes angry at David for bringing the body to their party and therefore bringing suspicion and bad joo-joo down on their home. So when some of the dead boy’s relatives show up at the compound wanting to take David for a three-day ride into the Moroccan backcountry, Dally and some of the servants stand back and let them take him.

This book is part of the “multiple threads of cultural misunderstanding lead to tragedy” genre that for a while seemed poised to be the seminal art form of our era – a genre epitomized by Little Bee and White Tiger and Tortilla Curtain and Barbarian Nurseries and by the movies Crash and Babel – until it was eclipsed by the climate-change-related dystopia. Of course every character has his or her own perspective on the plot, and Osborne provides flashbacks to the life of the dead man, whose name was Driss, and we learn that he too had his complicated story. And along the way we also learn about Morocco’s fossil market. Before I read this book, I did not know that one of the primary livelihoods for the poor in North Africa comes from selling fossils that apparently are a dime a dozen in the naked rock cliffs in the northern Sahara (I did, however, experience the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon about the Moroccan fossil market for about a week after I read this book, and what’s not to like about the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon?). Many of the local people who climb the cliffs, remove the fossils (which seem to be largely sea creatures, from a previous geographical era when the Sahara was covered by water), clean them, and prepare them for sale believe that they are the remains of demons that once populated the earth but were destroyed in Noah’s flood. So when they learn that wealthy people in the west want to pay large amounts of money to buy demon corpses to mount in their homes and gardens, they become even more suspicious of Westerners than they already were.

This hasn’t been a great review, since my memory of the book wasn’t the greatest – but I do recommend it. I was riveted by it while I was reading, and I think it’s well crafted and look forward to reading other titles by this author. And the ending – well, the ending borrows a play from Flannery O’Connor’s playbook (spoiler alert for those in the know: think Misfit), and was moderately satisfying. But only moderately.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Fiction - Multiple Threads of Cultural Misunderstanding Lead to Tragedy, Lawrence Osborne, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In which Diana Gabaldon resurfaces on Postcards from Purgatory (by Jill)

Drums of Autumn cover

The fourth book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is called Drums of Autumn, and as I begin my annual trip back in time with Claire Beauchamp-Randall-Fraser and her Scottish highlander husband Jamie, I can hear the titular autumn drums beating outside my door. It’s been a long summer, and I can almost smell the pumpkin spice in the air the past couple of days. I haven’t gotten very far into the novel yet, because there is this pesky situation that I have: I also just started watching Game of Thrones, and it’s a difficult show to watch with only one eye. So until I find out why all of my coworkers cried while watching the season seven finale, reading progress is going to be a little slow.  But I promise to keep everyone updated on Claire and Jamie’s adventures!  Bethany tells me there are going to be some really interesting anesthesia-free surgeries in this book….

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An Indiespensible Update (by Jill)

I may have not been writing much lately, but I have definitely been reading. Not as much as I’d like, of course, but that would be true even if I weren’t working 12-13 hour days at work more often than not.

One of my reading goals for this year has been to get caught up on the Indiespensible books that Powell’s sends me every 6-8 weeks, and I’ve actually managed to make some headway, having read six of them so far this year. I’ve still got quite a few to go before I’m caught up. I’m never actually going to get caught up, but I’d like at least to have read all of the books that I received prior to this calendar year before 2017 becomes 2018. The good news is that the last one I finished, City on Fire, gets me through all of the books from 2015, and that means I only have to read 2016’s selections (there are seven of them) in the next five and a half months to reach my goal. That is probably not going to happen, because I think the average length of these books is over five hundred pages…. But you know how we are around here: we like to set borderline unattainable reading goals and then have angst about it. Or at least I do.

I thought maybe I could talk about my Indiespensible reads in one post, because that would be a sensible way to lump things together but not so cumbersome of a post that no one wants to read it!

Our Endless Numbered Days, Claire Fuller (Indiespensible #52 from April 2015)

I finished this one in March. When I first started it I was worried it was going to be like In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, which if you remember was a super weird Indiespensible book that I read back in June of 2014, but it wasn’t really. And that’s a good thing. Our Endless Numbered Days starts in 1976, with 8-year-old Peggy Hillcoat living with her parents in the London suburbs. Her mother is a concert pianist and her father is, well, a wacko. He is a survivalist, and he and his wife are not getting along well in the summer of 1976 when we meet this strange family. Mom goes on tour, and Peggy and her father go camping, as they like to do. After a few days of hiking across the countryside, Peggy’s father tells her that the world outside has ended and that they are the only ones left. They find a cabin in the woods of Germany I think (that maybe he knew about in advance) and set up housekeeping. And they are there for nine years before Peggy escapes and makes her way home. I don’t want to do spoilers but let’s just say that Peggy is something of an unreliable narrator. I quite enjoyed this book and wouldn’t mind rereading it someday.


The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, Vendela Vida (Indiespensible #53 from July 2015)

Read in April. Bethany actually read and blogged about this book back in 2015 shortly after it came out, and I thought she didn’t like it, but upon rereading her review just now, she actually did. I liked it too, though the structure was a bit annoying—no chapters, written in the second person. Thankfully there are page breaks, or else I would have been in some sort of reading hell. The only thing worse than no chapters is long chapters with no page breaks. I was surprised that the second person narration didn’t bother me at all. It seemed to be the right way to tell the story of a woman who has found herself alone and adrift in a foreign country (Morocco) with no identification or money. Bethany did a great job summarizing The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty in her post, so I’ll refer you there. Suffice it to say there is no tidy ending and if I had endured what the protagonist endured I would definitely be tempted to chuck it all and go to Morocco too.


Best Boy, Eli Gottlieb (Indiespensible #54 from August 2015)

Also read in April. Best Boy is a story about a man named Todd Aaron, who has lived at the Payton Living Center for almost forty years. He’s autistic, and had the misfortune of being born back when people who were a bit different got put in asylums. I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time about ten years ago and did not love it, so I was worried that this book would go down likewise. But it did not. Todd was a really sympathetic character and the author did a great job of not turning him into a caricature. Best Boy was partially character study and partially plot-driven, and did a really good job of telling a simple story with great detail.


Did You Ever Have a Family, Bill Clegg (Indiespensible #55 from September 2015)

This one was one of my favorite books I have read this year, I think. Actually, now that I think about it I’ve enjoyed most of the books I’ve read this year. This book was not terribly long, but it’s difficult to sum up in a couple of words. It’s a multiple viewpoint novel, which I love, that revolves around a tragedy that takes place in a small Connecticut town. June Reid’s entire family: her daughter (and only child), her daughter’s fiancé, her boyfriend, and her ex-husband are killed in a freak explosion that burns her house to the ground on the morning of her daughter’s wedding. Clegg jumps around in time from events leading up to the accident to the aftermath. I found it to be stunningly well done. The characters were generally all good people, but were not perfect, and the author did such a good job with all of them. I may be exaggerating because it’s been a few months since I finished it, but I don’t remember anything I disliked about this book. I definitely recommend it. It was sad, but also hopeful.


City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg (Indiespensible #56 from October 2015)

Oh this book. I was afraid of its girth but ended up finding it tremendous, and looking back I can’t think of how Hallberg could have made it any shorter than its nine hundred and eleven pages. I could have lived in its pages for longer than the month I spent in it. I didn’t want to put it down. The novel takes place in New York City in the fall of 1976 to summer of 1977, but really reaches back before then and extends much past then. This is yet another novel with a large cast of characters with many points of view, though unlike in Did You Ever Have a Family, I did not like all of the characters in City on Fire. Some of them were just not good people. Some of them were remarkably complex, because we get to learn what many different people think of them. I highly recommend City on Fire for anyone who wants to get immersed in a long novel.

Posted in Reviews by Jill, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Brief Review of Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine

When the Emperor Was Divine cover image

This is one of those “quietly good” books I keep meaning to read more of. Though only 144 pages long, it tells a complex story from five distinct points of view: one chapter each from the third-person perspective of a mother, her daughter, and her son; an odd first-person plural chapter told by the combined consciousness of the two children, and a very short final chapter in the first-person voice of the children’s father. This family is removed from their home in Berkeley during the Japanese internment. The children’s father – we learn slowly – was removed from his home on the evening of the Pearl Harbor attack, incarcerated first in Montana, then in Texas, and then in New Mexico. He remains in prison until after the war ends. His wife and children are removed from their home several weeks later and sent first to live in horse stables at the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, CA (now a mall where Jill and I used to go to discount double features for – what was it? – $5? Maybe less?) and then to Delta, Utah, where they lived out the war in a tiny cell.

What makes this book distinctive is its defiant refusal to explain anything – a wise yet sad strategy, I suppose, in a book about an episode in history that defies explanation. This book simply narrates. It’s like an exercise in simple narration from a Creative Writing I class – but an exercise done very, very well by a gifted writer. We’re never told outright that the family is Japanese. In the opening chapter, which opens at the moment the children’s mother reads a notice about “Evacuation Order #19” and immediately turns around and methodically packs her possessions and arranges to be at the train station at the required time, we rarely enter the protagonist’s head. Even when she starts to purchase a hammer, changes her mind, then goes home and matter-of-factly kills the family dog with a shovel, all we see is her determination – her actions, not her thoughts. The book is full of moments like this: when the 11 year-old daughter meets a man on the train and tries to lure him toward her mother (“Isn’t she beautiful?”) only to quickly retreat. When the son captures a turtle and keeps in in a box, listening all night long to the sound of its claws clicking against the box. When the family comes home and settles automatically to sleep on the living room floor as if they were still in their cell in Utah. When the father comes home. Holy crap, when the father comes home.

As quietly good as this novel is, I am actually thinking of teaching it to my eighth graders this coming year. Eighth graders and quietly good novels don’t always mix well, but I think this novel is emotionally resonant enough that it will win the students over, and the fact that much of the novel is told by youthful narrators is a plus as well. Most importantly, this book is an excellent tool with which to teach students to keep track of details and use them to make inferences. Like many quietly good novels, book is like a game of Taboo. Certain themes are present – the cruelty of authority, discrimination and injustice, the individual vs. society, quiet endurance as a central facet of the human condition – but they are never addressed outright. Like The Diary of Anne Frank, this book is also about the fact that life – especially the interior development of children and adolescents – keeps rolling right on ahead even under terrible conditions. I recommend this book to a wide variety of readers.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Julie Otsuka, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment