Category Archives: Book Review

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living Book Review

Harper Lee starting her writing career in a fashion that most writers can only dream of. Knowing that she wanted to write for a living, friends of hers gave her the Christmas gifts of all Christmas gifts: they paid her salary for one year, freeing her up from the juggling act of maintaining a full-time job and attempting to write. The result of that year is To Kill A Mockingbird, one of the most beloved and respected novels of the 20th century.

Harper Lee was one of the lucky ones. The rest of us have to find the balance between our full-time jobs, our families, whatever else we have to deal with and (hopefully being paid for) writing. This challenge (which seems to be universal among all writers) is addressed in the non fiction collection of essays, Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living Book Review. Edited by Manjula Martin (editor of the now defunct Scratch Magazine), the collection contains interviews and essays by well-known writers such as Roxane Gay, Jennifer Weiner and Nicky Hornby.

I really, really appreciated this book. What made me appreciate it is the universal struggle of all writers. Especially in the beginning, when we are starting our careers and hoping that our dreams come to fruition.

I absolutely recommend it.

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The Kommandant’s Girl Book Review

When faced with decisions of life and death, we make choices that in retrospect seem questionable, but in the moment, feel like it is only thing we can do.

In Pam Jenoff’s 2007 novel, The Kommandant’s Girl, 19-year-old Emma Bau is reveling in the glow of being a newlywed. Not even a month after she marries her husband, Jacob, Germany invades Poland. Jacob has no choice but to disappear and Emma joins her parents in the quickly overcrowding Jewish ghetto. Smuggled out of the ghetto and into the home of her husband’s Catholic aunt, Emma is now Anna Lipowski, a Polish orphan.

Adding to the danger, Anna/Emma is hired as an assistant of Kommandant Richwalder, a high-ranking Nazi official. While she is working for the Kommandant, Anna/Emma uses her status to help the resistance. But while she is doing this, she is potentially compromising her life, the lives of her loved ones and her marriage vows.

This book left me with wanting more. I felt like I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. My favorite thing about the book was the character of the Kommandant. On one hand, he was responsible for the death of an untold number of innocents. But on the other hand, his affection for Anna/Emma was humanized him and if only temporarily removed the mask of the monster.

I absolutely recommend it.

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Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice Book Review

At the beginning of their career, every young writer has a long list of questions. The problem is that the list of answers, depending on whom is asked, is often longer than the questions.

Earlier this year, respected writer Colum McCann, published Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice. Though the book is small and the essays contained within the book are short, they are reassuring, inspiring and powerful. He speaks of the writing process from the start of the initial draft (shaping character and narrative) to editing (the dreaded kill your darlings) to hopeful publication and the many rejections that will come before one is hopefully published.

As a writer who hopes to be published one day, I found this book to be a worthy read. The one thing that strikes me about the book is that he takes the reader/young writer on a journey from initial draft to publication. Is that path easy or smooth? Not by a long shot. But if one goes on the journey and is willing to deal with the pot holes along the way, they may have the success they have working and yearning for.

I absolutely recommend it.

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Difficult Women Book Review

For an untold number of centuries, women have been portrayed as one note 2-D characters. We were either the virgin or the slut. The power/money hungry woman or the innocent. There was little to no in-between.

In Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion, through the character of Anne Elliot, Jane speaks of this one-sided view of women.

“I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

Thankfully, things have started to change for the better in recent years. Respected writer Roxanne Gay’s new book, Difficult Women, is about difficult women and how complicated we truly are. In this anthology of short stories, she writes about everyday women deal with in their own complex way. Love, sex, relationships, jobs, etc. Not one of her female characters is a 2D cardboard cutout of a character. Each has her own unique sets of traits that makes her difficult, complex and thoroughly human.

I very much appreciated this book. Even in 2017, it is still hard to find female characters that are not confined to either a stereotype or forced into a character trope that has been seen one too many times. I appreciated this book not just because of the vast array of stories and characters, but because I enjoyed reading it.

I recommend it.

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The Awkward Age: A Novel Book

Life, as we know it to be, is never simple. Whether we are a teenager, middle-aged or in the twilight of our lives, life will always be complicated.

In The Awkward Age: A Novel The Awkward Age: A Novel by Francesca Segal, Julia and James have found love again in the UK and are happily co-habituating in Julia’s house. Julia is a widow with a teenager daughter, Gwen. James is a divorced American ex-pat with two children. His daughter, Saskia lives in America with her mother while his son, Nathan lives with his father. Neither Gwen or Nathan are happy with the new family arrangement. When the relationship between Gwen and Nathan takes a dramatic turn that no one saw coming, the repercussions of this unforeseen shift may just be the thing that set all of them on a path that changes their lives.

I really enjoyed reading this book. I enjoyed it because the characters felt real. A good book has to make the reader believe that the character are real human beings, not fictional creations. While some writers are not able to make the characters feel real, Ms. Segal does an excellent job of humanizing the characters. I could feel the new love of James and Julia, the teenage antagonizing of their children and the change in their relationships as a pseudo family when the twist in the narrative occurs.

I absolutely recommend it.

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The Jane Austen Project Book Review

History records that Jane Austen died in 1817, at the age of 41. She left behind six published novels and numerous unfinished manuscripts. What if there was a way to go back in time, to prevent her from dying young so she could write for years to come?

That is the premise of the new novel, The Jane Austen Project, by Kathleen A. Flynn. Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane live in an alternate universe where time travel is not just science fiction, but real life.  Rachel and Liam are sent back in time to 1815 to steal what they believe is an unpublished Jane Austen novel. Posing as a West Indies doctor and his unmarried sister, their plan is simple: infiltrate the Austen family, get close to their target and find the novel. They are supposed to not change history and play their part, but the task is not as easy as it seems.

I was very intrigued by the concept of the book. While the concept drew me in, I have to sadly admit that I felt at times that I was forcing myself to finish the book. The first third of the novel is rather slow and by the time the narrative began to quicken at the half way point, I still felt like I was not completely hooked.

Do I recommend it? Maybe.

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Mr. Rochester Book Review

Readers of Charlotte Bronte’s immortal book, Jane Eyre have been in love with her leading man, Edward Rochester for more a century. One moment he is brooding, Byronic and mysterious. The next moment he is vulnerable and open in his feelings about Jane. But Jane Eyre is told through Jane’s perspective and we only see Mr. Rochester through her eyes.

Sarah Shoemaker’s new novel, Mr. Rochester, is a first person account of the events in Jane Eyre as told from the perspective of Edward Rochester. The readers first meets Edward Rochester as an eight year old boy. His mother died in childbirth, his father is emotionally distant and his elder brother, Rowland is not above hitting or verbally abusing Edward. Sent to school and then to work in the office of a factory, he grows up, slowly becomes the man who Jane meets on that cold wintry night on the road to Thornfield.

I really liked this book. What I liked about it was that Ms. Shoemaker rose to the very daunting task of re-creating the world of Jane Eyre while putting her own spin on the cannon narrative of the novel. The challenge for any writer re-writing a beloved novel is to write the story that not only feels right to them, but also easily exists within the world of the original novel. While some writers try and unfortunately fail in this quest, Ms. Shoemaker succeeds.

I absolutely recommend it.

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The Orphan’s Tale: A Novel Book Review

Destiny is an odd thing. It can take us to a world of peace, love and tranquility, or it can take us to a world of fear, secrets and danger.

In the new book, The Orphan’s Tale: A Novel, by Pam Jenoff, the destinies of two women collide and forever alter the course of each other’s life. In her late teens, Noa has been impregnated and abandoned by a Nazi soldier. Forced to give up the baby, Noa finds a train full of infants headed toward the concentration camps. Taking one of the infants, she runs away from the rail station which she cleans to put some money in her wallet.

Found by a circus, Noa claims that the baby is her brother and trains to become a trapeze artist. Astrid, the lead performer in the trapeze act, is not initially thrilled with the new recruit. But Astrid has a secret of her own, that if revealed, could mean death, not just for her, but everyone in the circus. Astrid and Noa become friends, but that friendship is tested when the facade that is keeping them alive starts to wear thin. When the danger becomes too apparent, the women must make a choice: try to save each other’s lives or die with the secrets of their true selves.

I really liked this book. What made it memorable was the fear of just Noa and Astrid, but the fear of the world around them. The bounds of their relationship are not only tested by their pasts (and their secrets by extension), but also by the noose that is slowly being wrapped around their collective necks.

I absolutely recommend it.

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Sinful Scottish Laird Book Review

A good romance is hinged on the potential coming together of the lead characters. Without that potential, the story is dead in the water and the reader is uninterested.

In the new book, the Sinful Scottish Laird, by Julia London, Daisy Bristol, Lady Chadwick is in a bit of a bind. A widow for nearly three years, her late husband’s will is explicit. If she does not re-marry within three years of her husband’s passing, her fortune and her son’s inheritance will be lost. Sought out by every bachelor and fortune hunter in London, she travels to her Highlands estate to wait for her first love to return to her so they can marry.

Cailean Mackenzie, the Laird of Arrandale was not looking for love when he met Daisy. In fact, he wanted nothing to do with the Englishwoman, at least at first. Daisy is in lust, but Cailean is in denial that he is equally attracted to her. Then Daisy’s first love appears and Cailean must bite the bullet and fight for a woman and a future he now realizes he needs.

I’m not usually a fan of this genre, but this book is enjoyable and appealing. I like that Daisy is a strong-minded woman who has been through enough in life to make her own decisions. I also like that Cailean is just stubborn enough to fight his own desires until he realizes that he is giving up his future if he does not act quickly.

I recommend it.

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Jane Steele Book Review

Jane Eyre is one of those books that does not need an introduction. Originally published in 1847, it has been revered, admired, criticized, reviewed, argued about and adapted/rebooted, for better or for worse since then.

The most recent literary reboot of Jane Eyre is Jane Steele, by Lynsday Faye. The overall narrative of Jane Steele closely resembles it’s predecessor. Jane is orphaned young, abused by the relations forced to take her in, sent away to be educated at a school where the headmaster is less than ideal and grows up to be a governess who falls in love with her employer.

When I saw the book originally, I was intrigued by the concept. While Jane Steele is not a straight up reboot of Jane Eyre (the main character has read Jane Eyre, there are striking similarities between the two characters), it has enough of the Bronte cannon to please fans who prefer the original text. While I appreciated the author’s attention to period details,the injection of the Sikh culture and the other changes made to shake up the familiar narrative, I just felt like I was forcing myself to finish the book.

Do I recommend it? As much as I would like to say that I did, I can’t say that. I don’t recommend it.

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