It’s about time to reassess my progress on my 52 books reading challenge, hosted by Rachael over at The Booklist Queen. So far I’m really enjoying this reading challenge, but at this point it’s still easy to squeeze the books I’ve chosen into categories. Ask me again in November and December when I’m struggling through those items outside my comfort zone. Without further ado, here are the updates:
Oh my, this review is bound to be a bit different. I’m also not planning to spend a whole lot of time on this one. Lately I feel like I’ve read a lot of great books. And, by nature, I’m a generous reader and reviewer. So it might surprise you to learn that in some instances I can become quite fussy and ill-tempered when displeased by a book. Buckle up and grab a cup of coffee so it can warm you, because it’s about to get a bit chilly.
Tucked away somewhere in Tokyo, there’s a cozy little windowless coffee shop (can you say death trap in a fire??) that somehow doesn’t ever get hot even in the most sweltering parts of summer (yeah, I’m still not sure why but maybe I just missed it because that was one of the moments I stopped listening). Sorry, I’ve devolved into rambling side notes already. Anyway, despite the fact that this coffee shop is supposedly famous for allowing you to go back in time, there’s never anyone there except like two people in addition to the staff. That alone makes no sense at all, even if the rules are annoying enough to force some people away. If you sit in one particular seat and drink a cup of coffee, you can visit a particular moment in the past as long as you develop a very clear picture of the point in time before the coffee gets poured. There’s a gaggle of crazy rules you must follow, but as long as you follow them you can visit the past to accomplish nothing but merely visiting the past. Over the course of the novel, we’re introduced to a handful of people who do this and get to know their stories.
Ok. This is a very interesting premise. It’s not the first time I’ve encountered the coffee shop/diner time travel trope. It was much more well done in Stephen King’s 11/22/63, though in other respects they are very different stories, and the mode of time travel was different. Despite the interesting premise, the execution of this novel was severely lacking. It was not at all well-paced. Despite being exceptionally short, I found myself getting extremely bogged down and frustrated. Every time I had to listen to the list of time travel rules over again, I got progressively more irritated. I realize each individual character needs to be reminded of the rules. As the reader, however, I do not because I literally just heard them about 10 pages ago, so please don’t make me sit through it again! When Kazu says, “Do you remember the rules,” I want to hear a defiant yes and then let’s get the show on the road! That wasn’t the only thing in this book that was needlessly repetitive, it’s just the most memorable.
As for characters, I thought there were a few interesting story lines. I just felt so disconnected from all of them. It took about half the book before I could even keep the characters straight. They weren’t well presented and were very flatly drawn. I kind of felt like the woman in the white dress who was distracted by the fact she needed to pee and wanted everybody to move out of her damn seat so she could go read something interesting. It wasn’t until the very end that something slightly interesting happened, but it didn’t wind up being much of a surprise. I saw it coming well before I should have.
Here’s the thing that I want to really gripe about. You can return to the past. You can do this over and over if you want to, as often as one woman needs to pee. So why did so many characters act like it was the end of the world if they didn’t say things exactly right the first time? All you have to do is wait for the next potty break, hop back in the time chair and try it again. Don’t sit there risking your coffee getting cold because feel like the world is ending if you go back too soon. Such a big plot hole!
EDIT: So after our discussion at book club, I learned that there was evidently one small mention of a rule they chose not to tell all customers about (even though reading the rules seemed to be of utmost importance) that you could only return to the past one time. So I was wrong on that above thing. However, of everyone at book club, half of us caught that and half of us didn’t. So I’m still going to call foul on the fact that this was a very important detail that was so glossed over that it could be missed very easily. Though, my apologies for missing it. Carry on with the original review…
Another big plot hole is the fact that there’s even a rule stating that you can only meet people while visiting the past who have visited the cafe. Well, you also can’t get up from your seat, so unless someone picks up the seat with you in it and sets it outside, that’s a bit of a moot point, isn’t it? And so much unexplained stuff. Who was the woman in the white dress? Why don’t we get her story? And why couldn’t we get a birds eye view of what happens when someone takes the place of the lady in the white dress? Now that would have been interesting. Better yet, let’s get this story through the lens of the woman in the white dress. It would become a gripping Japanese horror tale in which a woman stuck in the hell of her own torment only able to drink coffee and pee and watch boring people do boring stuff has to come to terms with an eternity of misery. Maybe she somehow finds a way to manipulate the present, leading someone else into the trap of letting the coffee get cold, and the cycle starts anew. Muahahahaha…
I realize that time travel is a very difficult concept to bring to page or screen. There are automatically plot holes that can’t be filled, issues that can’t be explained away. In this case, the rule about not being able to change the present by going to the past is simply unrealistic. Any amount of dabbling in the past would be sure to have a rippling effect that would change something. And if you really wanted to get technical, maybe your experiences in the past don’t change the present for the person you met, but they can change the present for YOU. A conversation could and does irrevocably affect the decisions you make from that point on, so by visiting the past you have altered the present as well as the future. But then when you add visiting the future to this book, well now you’ve just thrown all the damn rules out the window. The rules don’t mention the future, and that adds a whole new layer of complexity. And a whole slew of things that now don’t make any sense.
Like I said,this is an interesting concept that had a lot of potential. But a sweet and sad story of these people whose lives were connected by this cafe (though surprisingly lacked any other deep, meaningful connection) got seriously lost in clunky writing and paltry character development. For a book so short, it should never have dragged on and frustrated me quite to the degree it did. I do realize this book is translated from Japanese, so some of the issues could have occurred in translation. But certainly not all.
Anyway, I am sorry. I am sorry that I didn’t like this and I couldn’t find much to talk about that was pleasant. It’s short. That was pleasant, I guess. Now I can move on. 2 Stars.
Rating: 2 out of 5.
Pub. date: Dec 6 2015, audio pub Sept 19, 2019 by Picador; ISBN 9781529029581: ; Runtime 6 hrs, 52 min, Read by Arina Li.
In 2020, I felt like I saw Isabel Allende popping up everywhere. She stays relevant by having a presence in pop culture, making guest appearances in major television shows like Jane the Virgin, in which she confronted her own real life trauma for the purpose of helping a character deal with her own. It was an incredibly moving and pivotal moment in the show that helped illustrate literature’s important place in helping us make sense of the incomprehensible tragedies of life. As an avid reader, I find it strange that I made it to the age of 36 without having picked up one of her books, so I added her to my TBR ASAP list.
Daughter of Fortune follows Eliza Sommers, a young Chilean woman left on the doorstep of Jeremy and Rose Sommers, a brother and sister who reside in the British colony of Valparaiso in Chile. She’s raised by Rose with the help of Mama Fresia, the native Chilean cook who helps out at the Sommers estate. Eliza grows up in these dichotomous worlds, both a lady of culture and style and one of resourcefulness with a lust for adventure and knowledge. The novel spans time from the early 19th century in Valparaiso through the mid-1800’s at the height of the California Gold Rush that sees our young heroine set off for California by herself in search of her lover, the idealistic Joaquin Andieta. The novel finds Eliza facing harrowing obstacles, instantly forcing her to confront the bounds of her own perseverance. By her side on her quest is a Chinese healer, Tao Chi’en, a grieving sailor who was duped into a sailing contract by the captain of a ship sailing for Chile despite his successful career as a zhong yi, or a Chinese physician. Though they both are in search of a specific kind of deliverance, they will each discover their destinies are not what they had originally expected.
Allende is considered a leading author in the genre of magical realism. I would place this book more into the category of straight historical fiction. Sure, there’s a bit of the fantastical here. An example would be the presence of Tao Chi’en’s dead wife, a ghostly presence that follows him and provides counsel from time to time. However, it’s purely up to reader interpretation as to whether or not Lin is actually present or is just a figment of Tao’s imagination meant to help him cope with the stress of his new life. Overall, this novel presents a realistic look at the difficulties and hardships of the North American frontier as immigrants from all over the globe converged on California in pursuit of the all consuming obsession that was gold. Allende is not overly verbose. She gets to the point. Her prose is as raw as the California landscape in the 1840’s, quite effortlessly beautiful when warranted, though more than a little harsh. This was a time that either saw people flourish or become consumed by the ill-tempered fury of the times. People either relented under the pressure of pain, prejudice, lust or vengeance, or they became stronger, more compassionate, more willing to come to the aid of their fellow humans, if they survived at all.
Prejudice was rampant, ignorance of other cultures mixed with greed and desperation pitted immigrants against one other instead of bringing them together, but occasionally ignorance could be displaced to make way for more temperate humanistic principles. Tao Chi’en was an excellent example of this. I thought he had a very believable and refreshing character arc. At first, I cringed at his belief systems, though they were extremely authentic to someone who had grown up in China during this period. I enjoyed seeing the softening of his heart and his ascent into a more progressive outlook on life. The way his developing relationships with the women in his life, especially Eliza, opened his eyes to truths he hadn’t previously considered. In turn, Eliza experienced the same awakening. Following them along this journey allowed me to more intimately know both of them. Character development is Allende’s strongest attribute as an author, judging by this book. Each and every character breathed life and took shape. They were authentic, and every character experienced the kind of growth you’d expect from a saga such as this. They all experienced in their own ways that human expectation rarely becomes reality. Rather, real and lasting contentment often lies in the setting aside of expectations and finding that purpose you never knew you needed.
Thematically, this is a very important book. You can glean from the title, Daughter of Fortune, that you’re probably going to encounter at least one strong woman. Allende is very open about the fact that she writes about strong women. She writes fiction that celebrates them, the obstacles they encounter, and the sacrifices they are forced to make simply because they are raised in a world that teaches them their sex is an affliction. She writes about women who defy societal norms to live their truth, to take what they know the world owes them without regard to the people who say women were born to give and never to dream of something of their own. It’s difficult to believe, at times, that Eliza is no more than a teenager when she boards a ship by herself headed for the coast of California. While her decisions are the rash and foolish decisions of a teen, she also throws herself headlong into the task of survival with the maturity and poise of a woman four times her age.
This book contains some very dark themes, like the sex trafficking of women and girls for the purposes of prostitution during the Gold Rush, a time in which few women traveled to California willingly. We experience first-hand the blatant disregard for them as humans, and the tragic end that befell a large percentage of these unlucky women, not only because of their gender but because of their low socioeconomic status. Sadly, this is a world even we still contend with to this day. This book also is quite relevant in today’s environment, as it deals with issues of gender identity. Additionally, we are introduced to a common theme in historical fiction from this time period, the fickleness and pure pretension of English high society in the 1800’s. Corresponding with this is the dangerous high-wire act that all high society people were forced to perform for the sheer purpose of ensuring their place among the respected few. One misstep could mean utter disgrace. Which begs us to reconsider the meaning of the word fortune. Is one born to the fortune of money and comfort, or does one discover the fortune of enlightenment and self reliance? While I may not have the fortune of a bank account bursting at the seams, I did have the good fortune of reading this book.
This novel is a part of a series. On its own, I found myself a bit let down by the conclusion. One important plot point is addressed, probably the most vital of all. That’s a positive thing. There were some other details for which I would have liked to have received closure, but since I haven’t yet read the sequel I’m not sure if closure is in the cards. Then again, I always feel a bit bad as a reader making this quibble. As we see most of the events in this book unfolding through the eyes of Eliza, and sometimes Rose Sommers, we are a bit limited in scope of the information we glean. This is natural. This is a reasonable. A woman who boards a boat in the mid-nineteenth century set for California would probably not learn the fate of a certain character she left behind in Chile, for example. She would have to live her entire life without closure. Therefore, it’s only natural I would have to come to terms with that as well. Still, lack of closure often sits a little hollow in my chest and leaves me feeling uneasy. If you’re the kind of person who absolutely detests that kind of thing, you might not enjoy this one, but I will tell you it’s mild. Just a very small twinge of disappointment and a wish to follow the story a bit further. This is still a very worth-while read, and a fabulous book. 4.5 stars.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Pub. date: May 10 2005 by Harper Audio; ISBN: 10060833874; Runtime 13 hrs, 19 min, Read by: Blair Brown.
At first glance, I could tell this book was right up my alley. Badass women, trips down deep back corridors of the darkened streets of historic London, and a bit of a mystery to sweeten the pot. As for the cover, I adore the blend of colors, the font, the aura of mystery. I’m intrigued by stories with dual timelines, though this can become tricky if one is more well executed than the other, so I’m generally wary. It didn’t hurt that this book is a very short read, as I’m woefully behind on my reading goal.
The Lost Apothecary follows three women. In present-day London, we find American tourist Caroline Parcewell, a distraught escapee who fled to London prompted by the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. What was supposed to be a romantic anniversary getaway became a journey to figure out where it all went wrong. However, freed from the shackles of marital obligation, Caroline finds herself making her own choices and taking daring risks for the first time in years, driven only by her own curiosity and thirst for knowledge. An impromptu bout of mudlarking, a concept I found fascinating, led her to an old vial stamped with the mark of a bear. Caroline finds herself drawn to the relic and sets off on a historical scavenger hunt to uncover the truth about her find, a truth that could lead to this unsuspecting tourist unmasking a serial killer from a century ago. Juxtaposed with Caroline’s story, we are presented with Nella, an apothecary in London in 1791, as she reaches a pinnacle moment in her life as an aid to womankind as they battle the evils put upon them by men. When a young girl named Eliza Fanning steps into her shop, Nella finds herself at a precipice that will decide not just the fate of her business, but the life or death fate that awaits her on the other side of a harrowing chain of events.
If you’re looking for a good mystery, this isn’t really the book for you. I won’t say there aren’t any twists and turns, because there’s at least one WTF moment. From the very beginning, we know the identity of the apothecary killer. It’s our job to follow Caroline on her quest. Honestly, it’s not so much a quest to find cool history and unmask a killer, though that part is quite interesting. The real backbone of this story is the journey of self discovery. When we first meet Caroline she’s not just despondent about her marriage. Upon self reflection through the lens of grief, she’s finally reached a point in which she doesn’t recognize the woman she’s become. She used to have a passion for history and literature. After many years of settling, she’s slowly chipped away at the aspects of her personality that used to define her. Upon uncovering the worst of betrayals, she’s come to consider what it was all for and whether she can reclaim a small part of that beautiful spirit that’s eroded over the passing years. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I don’t identify with Caroline. I, too, have had those moments where I wonder just exactly how I got pushed so off course of my planned trajectory. Unfortunately for me, my rescue won’t be as simple as stumbling upon a mysterious vial that washes from the bottom of the Thames.
While I did identify with part of Caroline’s story, I didn’t find hers near as compelling as that of Nella and Eliza. Part of that is more rooted in the fact that I just find historical fiction more compelling in general, especially this time period in Great Britain from the late 1700’s to mid-1800’s. That’s why I have such a love for literature from that time. It’s a nostalgia for a moment I didn’t actually live through, so I do it vicariously through literature and film. This was a period of great progress but also one in which many people dealt with great pain, especially women. Also, nothing about Caroline’s story was really that surprising, except for one detail later on which wound up being a bit anti-climactic. I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about that part. I don’t do spoilers, so I’m just going to allow you to be confused. If you’ve already read it, I hope you know what I’m talking about. It felt like a very contrived way to make a connection between the two timelines, and I’m not sure that was necessary. The true connection of the story was lecherous bastards and the women who have to put up with their abuse.
On a more serious note, this is a story about women who don’t know the bounds of their own strength and perseverance until they are tested. That’s the part of the story I enjoyed the most. The theme of the enduring power of women throughout history. The specifics may change, but women, in general, still deal with obstacles that test the bounds of our endurance. Thankfully for the men of the world, it’s no longer really necessary to kill them. That part is totally optional. 😉
Overall, I thought this was a pretty enjoyable but fairly standard read in the genre. There was a bit of squandered potential, but overall I did enjoy it. Though I was initially pleased to find this to be a quick read for productivity sake, I do often think a book could have been longer. This is, perhaps, one of those. Strengthen the character development and paint that beautiful portrait of the city so I can immerse myself in it. As a whole, I thought the pacing of the narrative was effective. I never got bogged down with any details. In truth, if a reader gets bored with such a short read, it was pretty shoddily executed. Not the case with this one. It’s definitely an attention grabber, though there’s nothing really that will stick with me long term. As for format, I listened to this one and was very excited to find a brand new book on Hoopla. Hooray! At a little over 10 hours, I moved through it in a couple of days. It’s narrated well by Lorna Bennett, Lauren Anthony and Lauren Irwin. However, Bennett has a much more relaxed pacing to her narration. So, depending on your reading speed (mine is usually at 1.25x), there’s a pretty drastic difference between Bennett (I preferred hers) and the other two. I kept the speed the same without toggling it back and forth, as that would have become irksome quite quickly.
Considering all factors, I give this one a 3.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
Pub. date: Mar 2 2021 by Harlequin Audio; ISBN: 1488210764; Runtime 10 hrs, 18 min.
I’ve always loved classics, but I gravitate more toward 19th century British lit, and authors like Vonnegut often have been relegated to the “I know I should read it and I’ll get to it eventually” pile. We all have one of those piles, correct? That’s why it’s helpful in book club when every now and then a member chooses one of these classics. Such was the situation with Slaughterhouse-Five. And I’m really glad to have finally picked this up. This is a very personal novel for Vonnegut. In 1943, Vonnegut enlisted in the army. He was sent to fight in the European campaign during WWII where he was captured during the Battle of the Bulge. He was sent to Dresden and was, in fact, in a meat locker during the fire bombing of Dresden by Allied forces in February 1945.
While Vonnegut was there during the fire bombing of Dresden, this story is considered fictitious. It’s loosely based on his experiences. There is a narrator who tells the story who is, in fact, supposed to be Vonnegut himself. When we first meet him he’s writing a book about the war that no one really thinks he should write. This book is called The Children’s Crusade. That’s a very profound title. It is a truth that many soldiers in all wars throughout the centuries are little more than children. However, I wasn’t really 100% sure that I could trust this narrator. My gut tells me yes, I can. I know Billy Pilgrim is a fictional persona, but he’s the embodiment of many different people that Vonnegut came into contact with during the war. We are introduced to him as an awkward and reluctant soldier. He relays his experiences both during the war and during certain time traveling experiences throughout his life. In some timelines he’s back in the future after the war doing his job as an optometrist. He’s married, has children, and leads a fairly standard life. Other times he’s been abducted by aliens from Tralfalmadore who keep him captive and study him to learn more about humankind. It’s clear to us that Billy believes all of these things to be true. Our task throughout the course of this novel is to discover what all of this means.
I’ll start by saying this book was a fabulous book club pick. There’s so much to analyze and to discuss, and I actually found myself growing to admire Vonnegut even more after discussing the book with the other members of Read Between the Wines. Also, I knew this book was on the banned books list, which basically gives me extra incentive to read it. In the Mentalfloss article, “15 Things You May Not Know About Slaughterhouse-Five,” they cite to the court case from Oakland county, Michigan, in 1972 when it was banned from public schools. The circuit court judge stated in his decision that the book was “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian.” Well, sign me up, because that’s my jam!! I also distinctly remember the 2011 (I repeat: 2011!!!!!!) fiasco in which a local professor successfully petitioned to get Slaughterhouse-Five removed from the Republic, Missouri, school system. In response, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library gave away 150 copies of the novel to any student who wanted to read it. These ideas are harmful and ridiculous. And anyone who doesn’t really give this book a chance to open their eyes to something is really missing out. Then again, you only get that shitty by not being very well-read in the first place.
The tone is quite appropriate and authentic. Vonnegut isn’t one to use a lot of superfluous words, but the words he uses carry so much weight. For instance, “so it goes.” According to Mentalfloss (thank you so much for actually counting these so I didn’t have to), this simple three word phrase is used 106 times over the course of the novel. On the surface, this phrase is flippant and seemingly meaningless. It’s used in the same way someone would say, “I stubbed my toe. Shit happens.” But this phrase is anything but flippant. It pops up at the mention of death. At this time, soldiers like Vonnegut saw death on a nearly daily basis, sometimes by the hundreds or thousands. It became just another aspect of daily existence. It’s difficult for those of us living in idyllic little neighborhoods sitting in coffee shops writing book reviews to understand the sheer magnitude of that reality. It’s often through literature and art that we are shown a glimpse. When viewed in context, Vonnegut’s short “so it goes,” becomes infused with a desperate melancholy. It’s worth mentioning that this phrase in the novel has another meaning as it’s tied to the Tralfamadorians. These alien beings exist in a four-dimensional reality. They can experience and perceive any point in time, past, present and future, simply by willing it to be. They believe that death is irrelevant, as a being that dies in one point in time is still present and alive in another. So it goes. Billy adopts this phrase, as well as the Tralfamadorian philosophy of life, after his encounters with them.
If we were to break this down, it becomes fairly obvious that the creation of the Tralfamadorians within Pilgrim’s mind are a coping mechanism. They are a way to explain and process that which is unthinkable. His jumping through time is his way of placing himself within a happier existence, convincing himself that as long as he has been contented and will be again, the present agony doesn’t matter. And the deaths of his fellow soldiers as well as the strangers in Dresden who were all blinked from existence in a raging fireball don’t matter because a being can’t actually die in a four-dimensional reality in which all points in time exist concurrently with one another. It’s both comforting and simultaneously tragic. In a prior life of my own I may have gone down the research rabbit-hole and devoured page upon page of literary analysis from people much smarter than myself. As it is, I’m merely content to regurgitate my gut reactions. I’ve seen people classify this book as science fiction. I would completely disagree with that. Despite the presence of the Tralfamadorians, I don’t believe we are meant to believe they actually exist.
In my opinion, this novel is an excellent portrait of the living casualties of war. Those who return home haunted by the ghosts of the past. Really, this is a flawless portrait of PTSD. According to the U.S. Dept. of Veteran Affairs, post traumatic stress disorder officially became a diagnosis in 1980, 11 years after Vonnegut published Slaughterhouse-Five. While it may have never officially had a name prior to 1980, it has always plagued not just soldiers coming back from war but anyone who has experienced any form of trauma that leaves a lasting impact. In every case, humans seek out coping mechanisms, something to get lost in as a distraction from the traumas of the past, something comforting. Unfortunately, these coping mechanisms often result in destructive behaviors that do nothing to better the lives of the afflicted. But this is a completely different subject for discussion.
I could say a lot more about this book, but I think I’ll leave it here. Suffice to say, it’s a worthwhile read. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly enjoyable, but it is one of those essential classics that everyone should read at least once. Though published in 1969, it remains relevant and will remain relevant for many years to come. Overall, I give it 4 stars.
I’ve been doing a much better job this month at actually getting some books checked off my list, so I thought I’d take a bit of a break in my review writing to do a little checkup on my 52 book challenge. Unfortunately, I’m still a couple of books behind, but I’ve made a lot of progress very quickly, so I’m still hopeful considering I have lots of this year left to go. The 52 Books challenge is hosted by Rachael over at The Booklist Queen. So, without further ado, here are the categories with my edits, designating completion and/or progress with a book in that category.
If you could sum this book up in one line, it would probably be: Idiots are people too. As usual, Backman presents us with startling truths in a way that also brings a smile to our faces. His writing is always superb, his characters refreshingly quirky, and his stories the kind of heartfelt fare to which you can’t help but return. It’s amazing to me that Backman’s first novel came out in 2012 and he’s since consistently been able to release incredible books on a regular basis.
Anxious People begins with a very bad decision. An idiot, because everyone in this book is an idiot, decides to rob a bank. It isn’t planned, because that would make too much sense. The bank robbery is so poorly executed that it doesn’t wind up being a bank robbery at all. It then devolves into what is probably the weirdest hostage situation of all time. The bank robber storms into an apartment viewing involving a real estate agent, an elderly woman, a headcase of a banker, two married couples, and a giant rabbit in his underwear. Oh, and they are all idiots. But the thing about bad decisions is that they always have unintended consequences, but sometimes those bad decisions can lead to a wide variety of other effects, some not all so bad.
I don’t think there’s anything about this book that isn’t charming. Once again Backman has exhibited that he has a very intimate grasp of what it means to be human. He sees people, inside and out, with all their flaws and idiosyncrasies. And he makes that complete package beautiful and understandable. So much of this book is relatable simply because we’re all people. And, honestly, we’re all idiots. To someone, anyway, you are an idiot. And to you, they are an idiot. But what would happen if you were forced to really connect with that person on a level that we never grant to strangers? That’s the question that this book poses. And if you really take time to think about it, you start to see people differently. Deep down we’re all battling so many of the same things. Whether it be crippling anxieties, feelings of inadequacy, unrealistic expectations, abject loneliness, we all have our inner demons that stop us from feeling quite right about where we are in life. These feelings have no regard for how much money or status one has. We’ve all looked in a mirror or listened to our own voices played back to us, cringed, and thought, “why do I have to be this way?” Frankly, if you haven’t had these experiences, you’re probably dreadful to be around.
Backman presents us with a situation in which a handful of strangers who don’t know they need each other come together in the most awkward, reluctant way possible. Even people who aren’t in the apartment during the hostage situation wind up finding their lives irrevocably altered by the events of the day, and even events from the past that have lingered over the town like an ominous shadow. In all of that is peace if you know how to process it. The way the novel unfolds is superb and masterful. It’s told in different ways. In some sections it reads as flashbacks to events of the past, including those during the not-quite-robbery and not-quite-hostage drama. In other sections, it’s told during police interviews with the hostages. The dialogue and narration are a delightful mix of hilarious and insightful. I do urge all readers who enjoy audio to listen to this one. It is read by Marin Ireland, which is a name I wasn’t previously familiar with, but she does an amazing job capturing the separate voices and personalities.
There’s also an aura of mystery to this book. With each subsequent page the reader is chipping away at a shell encasing the truth. Backman makes sure to insert a few well-veiled surprises along the way, and he masterfully weaves together the characters’ storylines in a way that’s believable and represents the connections we all have as humans, even if we don’t really know we share them. Essentially, Backman’s books are life itself. They contain the whole depth of human emotion: sadness, happiness, grief, loneliness, amusement, confusion, exasperation, and so much more. They put our own thoughts and feelings into words and present them to us in a way that’s so accurate it’s almost uncomfortable, and I don’t mean that as a criticism. The only criticism I could give this book seems to be a common one, and it isn’t really a criticism at all. It took me a while to really hit my stride. At first I was thinking I wouldn’t like it. I was annoyed. The police interviews of the real estate agent and the bank teller, London, were the most grating conversations ever. Idiots!!
Backman did this on purpose, of course. He doesn’t do anything accidentally. Unlike the bank robber, his plans are always perfectly executed, and I have no choice but to give him a pass for first leading me astray.
In sum, this book is amazing, as expected. Backman does not disappoint, and you should read it. 5 stars.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Pub. date: Sep 8, 2020 by Simon & Schuster Audio; ISBN: 9781797105826; Runtime 9 hrs, 53 min.
*Trigger Warning: This book review contains talk of very difficult subject matters that might be upsetting for some readers. I’m also going to say some potentially controversial things about religion, so reader beware.*
If ever there were a person qualified to write a legal thriller, it’s Nancy Allen. Ms. Allen is a former Assistant Missouri Attorney General and assistant prosecutor out of Greene County, Missouri, which is the exact location in which I sit while writing this review. She currently teaches law at Missouri State University, my alma mater, and uses her expertise and knowledge of the legal profession to write incredibly compelling legal thrillers. You can find her on the web at http://www.nancyallenbooks.com/. The Code of the Hills is the first novel in theOzarks Mysteriesseries. The series follows assistant prosecutor Elsie Arnold as she navigates the frustrating and sometimes stifling environment of the legal field in a small deeply conservative and religious community. She sometimes finds herself taking on cases that not many would want to tackle.
“As a prosecutor who had handled many of these cases, she knew that a strict code of silence generally accompanied a family history of abuse. And something must have happened to crack it. She knew all too well the ways in which terrible wrongs could be hidden from the world.”
– Nancy Allen, Code of the Hills
In Code of the Hills, Elsie is tasked with prosecuting a particularly difficult child rape and incest case involving a father and his three daughters. In rural McCown County, a fictional county in Missouri that Allen has created for her series, people don’t discuss matters such as abuse or neglect, and they especially don’t discuss incest. Members of the police department and the prosecutor’s office, however, know that such evils roil and seethe beneath the surface of the idyllic facade of this small community. Beautiful rural countryside hides an awful truth. Poverty and drug use are rampant, and mothers often can’t or won’t protect their children from the men in the home preying on them, as interfering could get them hurt or killed. Because you really can’t protect you’re children if you’re dead. Elsie is tasked with proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that one such father should be put behind bars for the sake of his family’s safety. But as she’s seen in past cases, this is often easier said than done. Elsie will uncover an even uglier side of her town as her very own life is threatened by the supporters of the assailant, people who will stop at nothing to silence women like Elsie. After all, the Bible says a woman shall remain silent in the presence of a man, and there’s nothing more threatening to these people than a woman in a pantsuit with an opinion and a degree to back it up.
I’ll begin by saying that it’s really obvious that Nancy Allen knows her stuff. Working for the Court system for over 15 years, I’ve seen my fair share of court records from abuse and neglect and child molestation cases, and this book is not wrong. But the saddest reality is that the people tasked with interfering in these cases, from social workers to attorneys, can only do so much and can only do so within the confines of the law. We see Elsie struggle to hold her composure in the rodent and cockroach infested home of a mute little girl, trying desperately to reach her, realizing that even after the father is removed from the home there is still so much standing in the way of this little girl ever having a normal life. Elsie relies on the testimony of two older girls, girls whose years of abuse have already caused irreparable damage. Even when child welfare agencies get involved, it’s often a long and agonizing process that only does further damage to the children.
The real foe, however, for Elsie, is not the defendant. It’s the raging patriarchal prejudice that dictates the decisions made by many members of the community, event those at the top. This book presents us with religious folk, members of what I would call a cult, who sit self righteously in their pews on Sundays and then commit evil and threatening deeds on behalf of a child molester simply because, in their estimation, fathers have inalienable rights as heads of household. These people use threats and coercion to protect the evil and vile criminals in society under the guise of “family values.” There’s a part of me that wants desperately to believe people like this don’t really exist, but I’ve also heard enough crazy ramblings over the past several years to know that OF COURSE THEY DO.
This book also highlights the inherent institutional sexism that even to this day slithers its way through the legal community, ensuring that women have to be twice as good at their jobs as their male counterparts to even be considered for the kind of upper level positions men have enjoyed for years. And many times these positions of power weren’t gained with merit but with political posturing. That good ole’ boys club card is good for a lot more than just entry to the country club for a round of golf. That being said, it’s not just men that enjoy the spoils of political posturing, as evidenced by Elsie’s horrible boss, the wife of some powerhouse businessman and political donor who’d racked up a few favors with higher-ups, ensuring his wife’s appointment despite the fact she doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing. That’s all just a very small taste of what’s in this book. And it’s a big, infuriating mess of WTF. And it will piss you off because there’s so much fact interspersed amongst the fiction.
Let’s talk about Elsie for a moment. On the one hand, I really like the fact that Elsie is actually believable, relatable, and quite flawed. When I say quite flawed, I mean she’s the kind of woman I want to take by the shoulders and shake while yelling, “WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU????” But, the thing is, I KNOW what’s wrong with Elsie. Because I feel like a lot of us women who were raised in communities like Elsie’s in Southwest Missouri and similar locales can completely understand what it’s like. Here we are looking at other women in other situations saying, “I could never be like that.” We see the woman being abused by her husband and say, “how can she put up with that?” Or maybe, “why doesn’t she just leave?” But then how many of us have ever been in a room with one of those cock-sure masters of the universe who were born on a pedestal and found ourselves flustered and cowering? Or even merely just disrespected and ignored at a car dealership or a bank or wherever else you encounter the “men are the heads of the household” mentality. How many of us have disappointed ourselves by giving in and just letting things go in these situations, not standing up to the old man who tells us all our problems will be fixed if we’d just find a husband? In Elsie we see a woman who originally believes herself to be strong, confident, and very unlike the women she often encounters in her profession. But everything that happens to her challenges that notion. It opens her mind to the notion of sisterhood and understanding that as women, we’re all fighting somewhat the same battle. And, often, that battle is with those elements of ourselves that echo the sentiments we’ve always been fed that maybe, just maybe, we can’t really measure up. The challenge is how to arm ourselves against the vicious attacks that aren’t necessarily physical but are still just as damaging. Unfortunately, we carry damage from the toxic things we’ve been fed in childhood and find ourselves tasked with retraining our brains. My favorite thing about Elsie, ultimately, was that I saw a lot of growth in her. I won’t lie, though, the journey was a bit tough to bear and I didn’t always like her. Then again, I don’t always like myself either.
This whole story was tough to bear. Perhaps it hit a bit close to home. I mean, it literally is home. It’s a birds-eye view into all the things I hate about the community in which I live. The religious zealotry that dictates decisions and has permanently altered political ideals, cherry picking the most atrocious things from the Bible to excuse their prejudices. I’m not trying to make this a critique of religion, of course. I don’t find these opinions I’m discussing to actually be biblically based, but a pure bastardization of the original principals. It’s mostly driven by fear instead of by faith, and that’s where communities go astray, and that’s why rational people find themselves leaving organized religion in droves. Can you blame them?
Needless to say, this book is a challenge. It’s emotionally challenging, it’s heavy, and it drains you of just a little bit of hope for humanity with each page. Ultimately I think the journey was worth it, and these are definitely topics that need to be discussed. I’m not one to put down something just because the message is a little irksome. If it’s important, it needs to be said, and I need to absorb it and carry it with me into the future. I realize I wound up making this review a bit long without really talking much about the substance or the writing. Overall, I can tell that Ms. Allen has a lot of experience in the legal field. Very much of the narration deals with procedural legalese, though it was easily digestible and I didn’t feel like the story got lost in all that, so well done. It was good but not necessarily masterful writing. Sometimes I felt like I needed a break, because it’s full of such awful negative stuff. Then again, that’s what an authentic story is: depressing and soul-sucking descent into humanity’s abyss. Overall rating, 3 1/2 stars.
Welcome to a new week of WWW Wednesday. This is a meme now hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. In it, we answer three questions and leave a link in the comments sharing our own posts for other bloggers to view.
The Three W’s are:
What are you currently reading?
What have you just finished reading?
What will you pick up next?
What am I currently reading?
On audio, I’m tackling another book by an author who is on my list to read their entire body of work, Fredrik Backman. I absolutely adored A Man Called Ove and read a couple of others after that. So this time I’ve picked up Anxious People. This is a book that’s been getting a lot of buzz, and the reviews have been pretty great. I’m almost finished with it, so I should have my review come out pretty soon. Backman seems to have this knack for deeply understanding the human condition, and his books are almost instantly relatable.
In hardback, I am reading a classic. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. This is one of those books I’ve been telling myself for years are a must read, but for some reason I never actually picked up a Vonnegut book. Thankfully, one of the members of my book club chose this for our selection a couple of months back. Yes, this means I didn’t get it read in time and it’s been languishing, but I’m determined to set aside my other pursuits in order to finish it by the end of this week. While this isn’t a long book by any stretch of the imagination, it is one to be carefully considered and not rushed through. Just because an author uses fairly simple language doesn’t mean there aren’t deeply complex ideas at play. I should have a lot to say about this one in the coming days.
What did I just finish reading?
I just finished reading a book by a local author and veteran of the legal profession, Nancy Allen. It’s called The Code of the Hills and is a part of her Ozarks Mystery Series. The series follows a young prosecutor in a rural Missouri County as she tackles difficult cases and the stifling, sexist ideas that permeate her community. I’m currently working on my review for this book and expect to have it posted in the next couple of days.
What Will I Read Next?
For the first time since I started this series, I’m going to do a total cowardly move on this part. I thoroughly intend to pick up one of my previous entries in this section, but I’m not exactly sure which one. So, like Miss Allen, I’m creating a little mystery for you to ponder until we meet again. Happy Reading, and feel free to share what you have been, are, and will be reading over the coming days.
I have yet to do an update for my reading challenge, which is on my To-Do list, but my To-Do list is about a mile long so some things have gotten pushed aside. That being said, I have managed to tick a few books off of my 52 book list, including a couple of fairly specialized ones. This one came about when I put a call out on Facebook to my librarian friends for some recommendations. I received some fabulous recommendations, and The Bookshop of Yesterdays caught my attention because it could fit into another category which allowed me to pick one of the others for the recommendation category. So I decided to make this one my Book About Books. And boy, was it a book about books. Among the classic titles dropped in this book are The Tempest, Frankenstein, Bridge to Terabithia, Pride and Prejudice, The Feminine Mystique, Jane Eyre, The Grapes of Wrath, Fear of Flying, and more.
Miranda Brooks hasn’t seen or heard from her uncle Billy in sixteen years. Her memories of Uncle Billy are mostly happy ones. He was the cool uncle with the cool job and the amazing book store that felt like home. He sent her on rambling scavenger hunts with literary clues that always led to something wonderful. Miranda didn’t care that Billy was completely unreliable, always missing special occasions, a fact that irritated Miranda’s parents much more than it irritated her. Then on a fateful night after Billy missed yet another birthday, Miranda witnessed a terrible argument between her mother and Billy. After that fight, she never saw or spoke to Billy again. After sixteen years, Billy is merely the distant memory of a 12 year old Miranda, but news of his death still strikes a hard blow to her. She’s shocked to find out that Billy left her the bookstore, Prospero Books. Additionally, Miranda starts receiving clues to a new mystery. Billy has sent her on one final quest. One final scavenger hunt that will lead her back home on a journey in search of the ultimate treasure: the truth.
This is a very fascinating concept. I think deep down all of us avid readers can appreciate how awesome it would be to have a mysterious relative we haven’t seen for years die and leave us an amazing book store. Not the dying part. That’s sad. But the bookstore would be cool. There are certain aspects of this I love. I loved the literary clues for the scavenger hunt, for example. It’s a treasure trove of literary name drops. And if you’re a really savvy well-read individual, you can figure out a lot of the clues before Miranda does. Most of the clues, additionally, are symbolic in some way of Billy’s feelings and choices throughout his life. It’s still a bit sad, however. It’s a romanticized way of dealing with the fact that Billy is a human completely devoid of the ability to communicate with the people he loves.
As far as plot goes, there’s nothing I found particularly surprising. In the beginning, we open to Miranda far from home, a history teacher at a boring little school. Her boyfriend is an obnoxious idiot. Sadly, I was rooting for her to dump him for the other guy before there even WAS another guy, so he doesn’t even seem like much of a conflict. He’s simply another convenient not-quite-hurdle in her journey toward embracing a new path in life. Even the big reveal in the end feels like something I knew was coming for quite some time. I still rather enjoyed the journey, but it was far from Earth shattering. I kind of hate reviewing books like this, because I always want to talk about specifics but I don’t do spoilers…
My main quibble with this book is Miranda. I found her personality to be a bit grating. Perhaps I should give her the benefit of the doubt, because I do want characters who are flawed. And she’s definitely realistically flawed. I often didn’t understand her motivations. And while she definitely had a reason to be upset about a lot of things, she could be quite callous and stubborn, especially when it came to her mother, who was actually the character in the book I felt to be the most solidly drawn. Even with the idiot boyfriend I just wished Miranda would opt for a little honesty instead of delaying things unnecessarily. I guess I just never really grew very endeared to her. I like to feel close to a character, even if I don’t like them. I want to develop some sense of understanding of who they are, where they came from, and how they got to be the way they are. In this case I feel like I was told what happened but it still didn’t convey the feelings I was meant to be given. I also had sympathy for Uncle Billy, but I still found his character arc to be completely infuriating. I merely didn’t understand how one could make the types of choices he made and never attempt to make things right in life. Other characters on the periphery had their charms, but I don’t believe there’s anyone that will stick with me after I have a few more books under my belt.
One thing I believe to be a positive about this book could also be looked at as a negative if you’re not as strange as I am. I thought this book would wind up being a cozy, fluffy read. In certain respects, it is. But there’s also a profound sadness that permeates the book, which gives it a much greater feeling of authenticity. Life is not perfect. Things go wrong. Sometimes we screw up, and sometimes it’s too late to go back and undo a lifetime of mistakes. So while some people may hate finding a book to be depressing and soul crushing in some ways, I feel like it was a bit of a saving grace for this book. It stopped it from becoming too commonplace, just another cozy fireplace read that you devour in two sittings and then subsequently forget. Overall, I thought this was a solid debut novel.