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I read because I must. It's like breathing to me. And I love talking about books. But I'm also an Arsenal fan, a wine drinker, a music lover and weirdly obsessed with pop culture. I mostly blog about books, but sometimes about things I'm thinking or doing. When I'm not on the blog, I'm scoping deals for a professional services company, hanging out with friends, or seeing some live theater.

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Meddling Kids

Posted on 25 Aug 2017 In: Reading

Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids was everything and nothing I expected.

From the publisher’s summary:
SUMMER 1977. The Blyton Summer Detective Club (of Blyton Hills, a small mining town in Oregon’s Zoinx River Valley) solved their final mystery and unmasked the elusive Sleepy Lake monster—another low-life fortune hunter trying to get his dirty hands on the legendary riches hidden in Deboën Mansion. And he would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids.

1990. The former detectives have grown up and apart, each haunted by disturbing memories of their final night in the old haunted house. There are too many strange, half-remembered encounters and events that cannot be dismissed or explained away by a guy in a mask. And Andy, the once intrepid tomboy now wanted in two states, is tired of running from her demons. She needs answers. To find them she will need Kerri, the one-time kid genius and budding biologist, now drinking her ghosts away in New York with Tim, an excitable Weimaraner descended from the original canine member of the club. They will also have to get Nate, the horror nerd currently residing in an asylum in Arkham, Massachusetts. Luckily Nate has not lost contact with Peter, the handsome jock turned movie star who was once their team leader . . . which is remarkable, considering Peter has been dead for years.

The time has come to get the team back together, face their fears, and find out what actually happened all those years ago at Sleepy Lake. It’s their only chance to end the nightmares and, perhaps, save the world.

A nostalgic and subversive trip rife with sly nods to H. P. Lovecraft and pop culture, Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids is a strikingly original and dazzling reminder of the fun and adventure we can discover at the heart of our favorite stories, no matter how old we get.

If you’re of a certain age, you can’t read the synopsis of Meddling Kids and not immediately think of Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, and Scooby Doo.  And there’s certainly a nod to the Scooby gang in the book.

Somehow, when I read the synopsis of the book originally, I missed the “… and, perhaps, save the world” part of it (and perhaps the cover should have made me rethink the context).  I thought this was going to be a deeper look into the PTSD that resulted from mysteries more Dateline than cartoon.  And the PTSD, the unresolved issues, the feeling that there are things left unfinished is there from the beginning of the book.  But it’s far more fantastical and adventurous than I had expected- much more Buffy than Friday Night Mystery.

That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Meddling Kids, just that I had to reset my expectations about the book.  It’s fun and campy and a mystery. It’s fantastical and completely unrealistic, which makes for escapism reading. At the same time, the characters are drawn such that you empathize with their insecurities and old wounds that are slow to heal.

That Tim the dog is more than just a mentioned character in the book delighted me.  It’s a twist hard to pull off in a lot of ways.

The book isn’t perfect. It’s a bit of a mind fuck in some ways, and that isn’t for everyone.  I’m still not sure I completely follow the manifestation of the bad guys. And there was one scene that was a gut punch to me.

But, if you like nostalgia,  if your Saturday mornings were filled with cartoons and you’ve actually said “Zoinks” before, and you like reading something that gets you out of your own head, then take a chance on Meddling Kids.

Hillbilly Elegy

Posted on 8 Jun 2017 In: Reading

One of the things I find most difficult about reviewing memoirs is questioning the narrative. Of course, I do it when something doesn’t ring true or if I find part of the story particularly notable (see my review of Wild), but sometimes a story is more complicated than it first appears and the complexity allows you to see one viewpoint while feeling others are still there to be examined. Such is the case with Hillbilly Elegy.

From the publisher’s summary:
From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.

The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.

But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.

A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.

I have long been fascinated with the culture of Appalachia, and that is what drew me to this book.  Vance doesn’t pull punches in describing his family and his growing up.  I understand the fierce family loyalty, and I appreciate the nuances of the poverty and fighting to get ahead.

But I really have mixed feelings about this one.  Vance is right to a large extent- we should not expect anyone else to get us out of poverty and we should work for what we  want.  I understand his frustration at his co-worker who had a good job and a baby on the way yet was perpetually calling out of work and walking away from a good, reliable job.  But I also try to realize that my perspective on this comes from a place of privilege.  I’m not sure that there isn’t a societal component.  I don’t know if anyone  has an answer to Appalachia.  I don’t know that gumption is enough to get you out of this situation if you don’t have some resources to show you other ways of living; how to seek out opportunities; what to do when every step forward you take, you’re pushed back three.  This is one of those subjects where people like to point fingers, but few want to sit down and have the hard conversations.  And even when we do, where is the tipping point between personal responsibility between societal aid?  What do  you do when cultural influences and history work against your own best interest?

If you look up commentary on Hillbilly Elegy,  you’ll see both praise and criticism for Vance’s story.  I agree with the New York Times review that regardless of where you come down on this issue- and I’m not convinced there is a single right side- it’s good that we have the discussion.  I hope you’ll read Hillbilly Elegy  and I hope you’ll continue to think about it after you read the last page.

Kim Vs. The Mean Girl

Posted on 24 May 2017 In: Reading

Remember high school? Remember that one person who got under our skin? Who just knew our weak spots and how to taunt us? Those little digs? Well, in Meredith Schorr’s debut Young Adult novel, Kim Vs The Mean Girl, you get to go back to those days and live vicariously as Kim tries to best her nemesis, Hannah.

If you’re a fan of Meredith Schorr, you will remember Kim and Hannah from Blogger Girl and Novelista Girl, but you don’t have to read those to read and enjoy this one.

From the Publisher’s Summary:

High school sophomore, Kim Long, is no stranger to the “mean girl” antics of Queen Bee Hannah Marshak. When Hannah steals Kim’s diary and in front of the entire class reads personal (not to mention humiliating) entries Kim wrote about her crush, Jonathan, Kim vows to enact revenge.

Kim and her loyal best friend, Bridget, come up with the perfect plan to put the evil Hannah in her place once and for all. But will their scheming have the desired effect of getting even, or will Hannah emerge more celebrated by her peers than ever?
Kim vs. the Mean Girl can be read as a young adult standalone novel, set in 2000, but is also a prequel to the popular Blogger Girl adult romantic comedy series. Told in the dual perspectives of teenage Kim and Hannah, fans of the series will get an inside look into Kim’s early passion for reading, writing (and Jonathan), and find out why Hannah is so darn mean.

Writing for young adults is obviously different than writing for adults, and it  isn’t something I think all authors could do.  I think Schorr manages well, perhaps because it is a glimpse of characters I already know and it’s cool to get their backstory.  This is more throwback to Sweet Valley High or The Girls of Canby Hall than Thirteen Reasons Why and I was glad to have something more lighthearted to read.

As all of us who survived high school know, there are some relationships that leave an impact on us long into our adulthood. If we are lucky, we  all grow up and get past it, but the seeds are there. And we see how Hannah set the seeds to make Kim’s high school life miserable.  While funny from Kim’s perspective, her attempts at revenge are almost cruel to a point because innocent people could find themselves hurt as part of the shenanigans.  I thought that was an important takeaway- in our youth, we don’t always take stock of how our actions can impact other people.

Like her other books, Schorr creates some terribly authentic moments here.  I felt my stomach drop and my face burn as I saw coming one of Hannah’s mean girl skewers- and I’ve been out of high school for a while now.  I think it’s a talent that Schorr could still take me back to that mortification that can only happen at that age.

My biggest criticism of the book is that I felt it ended a bit abruptly. But it’s a fun read and would make a great addition to your summer vacation reading list.  If you’re new to Meredith Schorr’s books and a fan of chick lit, do yourself a favor and check her out.

The Circle

Posted on 2 May 2017 In: Reading

This is another venture between Silver Screen Capture and TheBookFetishBlog. I’m reviewing the book, Stephen is covering the movie, and then we’re talking about them together.

Dave Eggers did something in The Circle that not a lot of authors do for me: he gave me a main character I simultaneously wanted to slap and strangle, while also wanting to know how the plot plays out.

From the Publisher’s Summary:
When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency. As Mae tours the open-plan office spaces, the towering glass dining facilities, the cozy dorms for those who spend nights at work, she is thrilled with the company’s modernity and activity. There are parties that last through the night, there are famous musicians playing on the lawn, there are athletic activities and clubs and brunches, and even an aquarium of rare fish retrieved from the Marianas Trench by the CEO. Mae can’t believe her luck, her great fortune to work for the most influential company in the world—even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public. What begins as the captivating story of one woman’s ambition and idealism soon becomes a heart-racing novel of suspense, raising questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge.

The premise is good- At The Circle, connection and transparency mean everything. Isn’t it selfish to not share wonderful experiences with people who can’t do those things?  If you know you are being watched, would you choose to behave differently? Is it so much to give up a little privacy if we can take the chance of a kidnapping or terror attack to near zero? Wouldn’t it be great if we knew exactly how our politicians conduct their business? No more backroom deals.  Yes, but…  And that’s the crux of The Circle. Where is this line drawn?  What is the point where giving up individuality and privacy is worth it to serve the greater good? When does electronic connection- and its associated validation and judgement- become as important as real life relationship? And what does this mean for our future?

The fact the I’m writing a blog post that I hope gets read, liked, and shared at the same time that I’m talking about the dangers of caring too much about this kind of validation is not lost on me.  What is lost on me is the choices Eggers made in writing this book.  He takes an intriguing idea, but leaves so many plot holes and implausibilities that the potential of the book is lost.  There are a couple of character arcs that lead to a WTF moment when someone’s true identity is revealed and you remember his previous actions. There is a nefarious underbelly to The Circle, and we are given nuggets of warnings about it, but the sense of urgency about reigning it in just isn’t there.  That could be Eggers’ point- that by the time we see the danger, too many things are set in motion to see a way out from it- but if it is, it could have been handled better. The book is worth reading if it makes you think, but its one I would recommend with reservations.

 

Now here is the Q and A between Stephen Michael Brown and me about the book and film.  Minor spoilers so consider yourself warned.

What was the biggest plot hole for you?

Ashley:Ugh! There are a lot! This is going to be a bit spoilery, but here goes: That Kalden was Ty (a founder of the company) and he randomly chose a newbie to the organization to show “deep secrets” to and weakly recruit Mae to try to take down the Circle- oh, and that he banged her in a company bathroom. Consensual? Yes. Grounds for a massive sexual harassment case? Also Yes.  The movie left out some very graphic scenes that I skimmed over in the  book, but that were important to show Stenton’s real personality. His vision of The Circle is the one we most need to be concerned about, and that is completely left out of the movie.

Stephen: To me, it was a series of unfulfilled plot potholes – from Hanks’ surveillance speeches that seemed oblivious to moral implications, to tours of underground tunnels to nowhere, to a framed love story that I didn’t even know was happening. This director, who incidentally made a very wonderful film called The Spectacular Now, did a very poor job focusing in on what he wanted the viewers to care about.

 

What did you miss in the film that you hoped was fleshed out in the book?

Stephen: I found Emma Watson’s character to be bland, seemingly defanged from what was presented in the novel. Without sufficient background characterization or motivation – or even evolution to grow or change, there really wasn’t a driving force or momentum here. In fact, I felt the film was lacking both protagonist and antagonist. Dare I say it felt lost a bit in the cloud.

 

What stood out as the biggest flaw from the book to the movie?

Ashley: Annie’s character was very, very different in the book. A Scottish actress couldn’t tell the story of Book-Annie. By not giving movie-Annie a comparable backstory, movie goers don’t really understand Annie’s downward spiral.  She’s a harbinger in the book- in the movie, she’s just haggard.

 

What worked well?

Stephen: I liked the logo for The Circle, the depiction of the headquarters campus and the way text messages popped up around the characters. The film brought up some pretty heady concepts to botch them so royally in terms of script and direction. History may look more fondly on the film as its predictions come true. Heck, some of the events straight out of headlines happened a bit just last month. It’s a prescient tale, just told in a fairly predictable and pedestrian style. In this same genre, I recommend Gattaca.

Ashley: It does make you think. We are quick to share big parts of our lives on social media, but that doesn’t mean that we really know each other. And we like streamlining a lot of things- touch ID to log in to applications. Tapping our phone to pay for things in a store. Emoji’s to show if we are happy or sad. Any number of things made easier by technology and connection, and that can be a wonderful thing. But we don’t stop to think on where the sharing, the streamlining, the data collection, should stop. If that part of the story makes us think more about what our future could be, then it is worth reading.

The Handmaid’s Tale

Posted on 25 Apr 2017 In: Reading

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale is indeed a classic. I read it years ago but didn’t remember much of it. With the Hulu series coming up, I decided to re-read the book before watching the series. I’m so glad I did because I don’t think I fully appreciated the insidiousness of the story on my first reading.

For the uninitiated, The Handmaid’s Tale’s publisher’s summary is below:

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable.

Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now….

Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid’s Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and literary tour de force.

So, how did I react when reading it? I was struck by how very timely it is for this part of our history. While I’m no conspiracy theorist, and while The Handmaid’s Tale projects an extreme outcome, we are not far off some of the mentality that lead to this society.

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time (174).”  

The Sons of Jacob manipulated the country, creating destruction and fear of another whole group of people, in order to take control.  Where else have we heard that recently?

The crux of the story is the theocratic Gilead run by the Sons of Jacob, where gender roles and castes are distinct and rigid. Legitimate marriages, those of one woman and one man who had only been married to each other, never divorced, are the most highly regarded. Women who do not fall into this category may be designated “Unwomen”, women  defined as “Sterile women, the unmarried, some widows, feminists, lesbians, nuns, and politically dissident women: all women who are incapable of social integration within the Republic’s strict gender divisions. Gilead exiles unwomen to “the Colonies”, areas both of agricultural production and of deadly pollution. Joining them are those handmaids who fail to bear a child after three two-year assignments. (wikipedia)”

Or they may be a Handmaid, the surrogates who get pregnant and have children for the Wives.  It is their only worth. But it is a practical need, not salacious.  The birth rate has declined. Pollution has led to birth defects and non-viable babies. Many of the Wives and Commanders are unable to have children on their own.  Those Commanders and Wives who rank highly enough receive a Handmaid.  The Handmaid belongs to the household. Her own name-her “before name” is irrelevant. Her names becomes her home: Offred, Ofwarren, Ofglen.

The ick factor is big in this one, folks.  When Offred is in training to become a Handmaid, the class harshly rebukes Janine, who, in the Before world, had been gang-raped at age fourteen, and had an abortion. Whose fault? Her fault, the class chants in unison. “Men are sex machines” later in the class.  The Handmaids dressed in neck to ankle dresses, and head coverings that obscure their faces, expected to look down, not make eye contact.  The women need protecting.  It is almost absurd as you read it, until you realize that this thinking is quite prevalent among some groups in the  US today. You can read about it here, here, here, and here for just a few examples.

This is what Atwood does so well. She picks out a few things, things that may appear innocent on the surface, and shows how insidious they can become.   You feel Offred’s desperation, her longing for freedom, her resignation to her fate, her desire to survive. While only a flashback in the narrative, Atwood shows how easily fear leads to complacency. The population has been taught to fear Islamic extremists, so when the Sons of Jacob execute their coup, there is a ready made group to blame. In the aftermath of a tragedy, it’s easy to look to others for guidance, to give away a few freedoms for the “safety” of all and the “greater good”.

With The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood gives a perfect example of what can happen when these attitudes are taken to an extreme.  It is a quick read, and at times an uncomfortable read. But more importantly, it is a necessary read.

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