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Hello, my name is Valorie. I have a Master's Degree in History and a license to teach-- I have been both university professor and public school teacher. Currently, I am a middle school social studies teacher. I love horror movies and spooky things. Every day is Halloween. I am also a passionate book blogger.

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Book Review: 23:27 by H.L. Roberts

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Book Review: Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

Title: Sag Harbor
Author: Colson Whitehead
Genre: Fiction - Drama
Finished: February 28, 2009

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead is the semi-autobiographical story of a young boy named Benji and his summers spent in the New York summer town of Sag Harbor. Benji is a young African American struggling to fit into a world that he straddles varied sides of. As an African American, he doesn’t fit into the white prep school world that populates the school he attends, but he also defies African American expectations that confront him as he spends his summers in Sag Harbor. Benji is an avid player of Dungeons and Dragons, loves Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees, and reads Fangoria magazine. In short, Benji has GREAT taste. I found a kindred spirit in Benji because of his interests… I love horror movies and The Smiths. Yet, where I saw a similarity between us, I also found a great and important difference. No one ever looked at me strangely for my interests, whereas Benji's were atypical for a young African American male of the time. 

Sag Harbor is also a coming of age story, the tale of a boy becoming a man and how he copes with all of the new expectations placed upon him and disappointed when he doesn't simply ease into the mold of how a man is supposed to be when he becomes a man. His braces make him feel childish, his skinny frame makes him appear young, and he is not that successful with the ladies. Benji is surrounded by Sag Harbor friends, each with their own distinct personality. To just give a sampling of a few, there's NP, for whom life is a joke and an elaborate story; Randy, who is the top man for a while when he gets his car and lords it over everyone; and Clive, who is that one "cool" one, the can-do-no-wrong one. The adventures and misadventures of this group of boys are chronicled in the book. We're taken through a series of moments in their lives: when they all went gun fighting and Benji wound up wounded, the group trying to sneak into a concert, and the eventual teenage meeting of girls and getting girlfriends for the first time. These group adventures stand apart from Benji's own singular moments, his own personal experiences that shape him into an awkward but compelling figure. He is the product of a strict father, a bad afro, and one hand holding that was to be his only contact with the opposite sex for a long, long time. I really enjoyed this book because it was a slice-of-life piece. Whitehead put such a humorous spin on the trials and tribulations of being a teenager that I couldn't help but be charmed by the bad and the good. You really can feel Benji's pain, even as you laugh about the unfortunate nature of his life. I think it is also inspirational the way that Benji doesn't become disheartened by all of it. Despite all that has happened to him, all of the flaws he finds in his person, he never retreats.

What else is great about Sag Harbor? I like the insight the book gives into race relations in the 80s era in which it is set. The youngsters of Sag Harbor express a mild dislike for the rich white Hamptonites that border their summer areas, more for what they represent than anything related to skin color. The boys watch the whites tour Sag Harbor as reluctant visitors with views as misguided as the views the white's may too hold. This difference shows how a person is the culmination of their environment and experiences, of their influences as much as their own inherent personality. I really did enjoy reading this book and recommend it to anyone looking for a book that isn't overwhelming with adventure, but remains interesting and captivating throughout. You'll laugh, you'll get angry, and you might even get sad from time to time. But you'll definitely never get bored.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Book Review: Legs Talk by D.E. Boone

Title: Legs Talk: A Modern Girl's Dating Tale
Author: D.E. Boone
Genre: Fiction- Humor
Finished: February 22, 2009

Legs Talk: A Modern Girl's Dating Tale by D.E. Boone is a small book, about 112 pages with full page black and white photographs. It takes the reader through the story of a woman in a relationship with a man who has a special interest in her legs and her legs only. It begins as most of these type stories do: girl meets boy, boy comes on very strong, girl consents, boy turns out to be a big jerk, girl walks away, girl goes back, boy is still a jerk, the end.

The book is a short read, though; I read it in about 10 minutes. Each turn of a page brings a blank page with writing and a black and white photograph featuring below the waist leg shots. There are a lot of shoes and stockings, every now and then sprinkled with casual jeans and boots. The point isn't to show the faces of the two characters, only their legs. Legs are the focus, after all! If you could see the rest of the body, it would distract from the imagery of the legs. Since legs are the topic, they should be thrust into the photographic spotlight. Legs Talk takes a humorous look at dating. It's a great book for anyone who has ever broken up, or has gone back to the same man over and over again. True to the nature of relationships, the book is not cut and dry about how they do or don't work out. Within the short phrases and sentiment, you can see how confused the woman is about the relationship she is presently in with her leg fetishist boyfriend. She gives in to him against her better judgment, makes concessions to the man, and wavers in her decision to quit seeing him. I especially like the small piece of their post breakup phone conversation when the women replies to a "have you missed me?" type question with, "How can I miss you if you won't go away?".

The words are short and simple, but effective if not terribly sexist and problematic when it comes to issues of feminism, male masculinity, toxic relationships, and emotional abuse.  Knowing that Legs Talk  undermines important issues of feminism and abuse makes this book a not so charming read.  Rather, it is cringeworthy in its essence.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Book Review: Matrimony by Joshua Henkin

Title: Matrimony
Author: Joshua Henkin
Genre: Fiction - General
Finished: February 19, 2009

Matrimony by Joshua Henkin is a novel about people, relationships, and life. The book follows the life of Julian Wainwright, his wife Mia, and a select few of their friends. We first meet the characters in college and follow along as they grow, mature, and face the new challenges of life that inevitably come their way. There’s betrayal, love, friendship, and just simply growing up. This book was different from what I normally read, though. It was not a nonfiction book about some historical event or person. There were no vampires, no supernatural forces doing battle, and no complex theories of magic and mysticism. Matrimony is quite simply about people. When I got the book and looked at the quaint and relatively unadorned cover, I gave an audible, "Hm." I wondered if this sort of book would be the right fit for me. Julian begins the story in college, studying to be a writer. He wants to write that great American novel and escape the corporate expectations of his rich family. He and his friend Carter are the stars of the class. The two of them develop a strong friendship and bond even after they meet the women of their dreams. Julian falls in love with a young woman named Mia. After graduating college, the two of them marry, propelled to push their life together forward faster when Mia's mother comes down with breast cancer. Life takes over and people move apart-- Carter moves away to California and Julian and Mia are left to decide what to do with their future. Julian begins his novel and finds it a harder task than he imaged. Mia has to cope with the death of her mother while getting her graduate degree, her interest in psychiatry peaked after she goes to therapy herself. After this, it's just life. Couples talk of kids, divorce, and what middle age means. Friendships are severed and people grow apart, but in the end the characters find that they are in the very same place as they have always been, only stronger for what they have been through. 

Most of what we see comes through the eyes and experiences of Julian and he becomes an easy to relate to figure because of this. I found that because he was the most central character, he was the one I sympathized with the most. When bad things happened, I was on Julian's side. When he was betrayed by Carter and Mia, I felt wounded in my stomach as if I were him. One thing that I especially liked about the book is how it approached the nature of friendship and how we form and keep strong bonds with other people. For example, Julian and Carter were great friends, but not entirely loyal to one another. People are not perfect and even good people who sincerely care about each other are capable of doing things that are hurtful. Matrimony shows how people cope with betrayal and how friendships can survive very devastating obstacles. No matter how good or fun a friend Carter is, he is always kept back by the fact that he envies Julian. To Carter, everything Julian has is somehow better than what he has; Mia experiences this too through the eyes of her sister Olivia, who fails to see or find her own self worth because she is hung up on how much better Mia supposedly has always had it. Whether Carter or Olivia both have cause for feeling as they do, they do. Henkin doesn't make her characters perfect. I get annoyed very quickly by characters that are created just to be infallible and without any fault whatsoever. Julian is never quite sure enough of himself, Mia has a coldness about her that is hard to accept, and Carter is envious by nature and compensates for what he sees as imperfections in himself. 

Of course, there are moments of long contemplation, especially from Mia, that sort of drag on. In reality, I doubt many people are so introspective. It isn't insincere or unrealistic, though, for Mia to be this way; I've spent enough time within the walls and atmosphere of a university to know that graduate students really ARE that long winded and pseudo-philosophical-- sometimes exhaustibly so. Mi's transcendent self-speeches were a bit haughty and pretentious like she is trying too hard and doesn't even realize it, but that is just the way that some people are. I guess there was really no way for her not to be since her parents were strong liberal advocates. They probably had protest signs stored in their closet for the next opportunity to protest inequality or unfairness of some sort. That brings me to another point. Even though Mia's parents were liberal and modern minded, it was odd and almost hypocritical that her mother had to give her up her dreams and her career to be a mother. Wouldn't that sort of thing be the very thing her parents would reject for being part of the norm? The traditional way of doing things that kept people down? You see? Matrimony doesn't try to create perfect people and situations. People are just who they are. By the end of the book, you will feel as if you "know" the characters intimately. You've been through all of their trials and tribulations and survived them, too. It is really impressive the way that Henkin delivers such a character driven book that doesn't need exaggerated drama or passion to keep it interesting. Henkin has an admirable ability to describe people's thoughts and actions in a relatable way. He certainly has a way with words and description. This is a great book. If you like the 'slice of life' type of book, you'll enjoy this one. And hey, even if you're like me and have only just begun to explore this sort of story, you may still enjoy it. I certainly did. In case you haven't noticed, I am currently holding a contest to win a copy of Joshua Henkin's Matrimony.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Book Review: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Title: Year of Wonders
Author: Geraldine Brooks
Genre: Fiction - Historical 
Finished: February 14, 2009

The year is 1665 CE. A traveling tailor named George Viccars finds himself in a small Derbyshire village located in central England. Unknown to him and the village that takes him in, his residence being with a widower named Anna Frith who has two sons, he is carrying the plague. After his death, his goods spread and with them the deadly plague. The town vicar, Michael Mompellion, and his wife Elinor convince the people of the village to contain themselves within their walls in order to keep from spreading the plague to the rest of England. As the author states, this story is based on an actual event that happened in a village aptly known as Plague Village. Though the village people could very well flee and perhaps outrun the disease, they (for the most part) remain in their village to wait out the disease. Convinced that this plague is a trial sent by God, the people come together even as some of them fall apart. Innocent herbal women are beaten as witches, men and women seek to repent with violent means of self-mortification, and anger runs rampant. In the face of oblivion, moral codes and personal virtues are abandoned for pleasure and destructive behavior makes it all the easier for people to forget. The people of the village struggle with each other, their personal connections, and their connection to God. Eventually, they begin to question the nature of their suffering and God's ultimate plan.

This story is how people manage. It is about how people stay strong and how they break down. Personally, I liked the story. I think anyone who has read my previous reviews knows how I feel about accuracy in historical fiction: while I enjoy critiquing historical fiction for accuracy, I also don't expect it. I'm realistic and perhaps overly forgiving in that I accept details must be altered or exaggerated for understanding or dramatic effect. After all, we don't want fiction to read as a tedious textbook! Attentions have to be grabbed, held, and kept until the end. Did this book that? Yes and no. Sometimes I felt the story dragging on and on. For the first few chapters, I read very slowly. Eventually, though, as the story moved on, I found it becoming more interesting. About the middle to nearly the end, I couldn't put the book down. Nearly the end. I found myself wondering if Anna were superwoman for all she had managed to do in that time between the plague coming and finally disappearing. She was a simple peasant and servant, yet she could interpret Latin, create herbal remedies, ride a horse like a man, act as a midwife and deliver a breech baby, set a fire to mine iron; yes, the woman can and does do everything. Even those things well above her station as a servant. I think it was the excessive nature of her talents that started to annoy me and grate on my nerves. If not for Anna's shows of occasional modesty that seemed sincere, she would have been a Mary Sue. After a while, I began to wonder if Anna was going to start to sparkle and cure the plague with her tears. When she began yelling at her former masters and acting well out of her station, I had to wonder if Brooks was paying any attention to realistic social boundaries of the time. Again, this might not have annoyed me had I not grown weary of Anna's super talents. Though I say annoyed above, I mean it in a very amused way. I don't get angry about books, at least not often. I just found myself shaking my head and snorting at certain parts of the books. And why would a rich Muslim doctor marry a widowed infidel from England? There's also much romance to be had. Okay, there is supposed to be romance. Up until Anna and the vicar Mompellion connected eyes over a shave towards the end of the book, there was absolutely no chemistry between them. Yet all of a sudden the two of them were copulating on the floor in a manner totally unlike an Anglican man of God and a modest, holy servant. The romance between them came completely out of nowhere. I guess I should have seen it coming when throughout the book Brooks dedicated countless lines of adjectives and praise for things like the commanding boom of the Mompellion's voice, or his strong arms, or his dominating nature. I thought it a bit odd that he was being described in romance book terms, yet there was absolutely no personal intimate chemistry between him and Anna. And I am still disappointed in the turn Mompellion's character made towards the end. It was so completely out of his character that I had trouble accepting it. Twists are one thing, but making a character into something opposite with no hints to his true nature is just out of the blue and confusing. I know that I sound overly critical, but book readers know that a book can be flawed while still being a very great story.

I liked the morbidity of the story; witnessing the breakdown of the people in this town as they battled adversity and death was fascinating. It was unreal to me to submit myself to death in the way the town people did. I had to commend the bravery of Brooks' characters, even as I condemned them for their actions in other regards. Yet, it was understandable how they behaved under certain circumstances. When faced with death, who knows what one would do or how to cope? And yes, Anna had her moments, but I found her a very likable character. This book was like sociology and morbid psychology in action. Year of Wonders is actually a very good book. It is a good and interesting read. You will read the book and find yourself captivated by much. I didn't grow bored with what I read, even as I snorted in mirth. If you like historically based novels with a lot of drama and a fair mixture of people going absolutely crazy, you'll really enjoy this one. I did.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Book Review: Breathing Out the Ghost by Kirk Curnutt

Title: Breathing Out the Ghost
Author: Kirk Curnutt
Genre: Fiction - Suspense
Finished: February 7, 2009

Colin St. Claire lost his son. Kidnapped. There was no resolution for him because there was never a body found. All St. Claire had was a suspect and the ghost of his son. Following his "whale", St. Claire goes off on a speed fueled mission to find his son and punish the man he thinks did it. Following him is an ex-detective named Heim who can't seem to let St. Claire go just as much as St. Claire can‘t let go of his son. Sacrificing his own family and his own career, Heim is determined to save St. Claire even if St. Claire won't save himself. Mixed into this is a woman they both come to know, a woman named Sis Pruitt- paths crossing and connecting by the experience of pure and plain suffering- who too lost her daughter Patty when she was murdered. The subject matter isn't something that can be shaken away or read with a light heart. Curnutt's masterful use of description and language is almost poetic. Yet, instead of beautifying the story and masking the horror of what has happened, it only illuminates the darker context under which every one and everything moves and works. Time and time again I caught myself rereading passages, sometimes just because I like how they sounded and sometimes because I wanted to absorb the words into myself. I wanted to understand what was being said and try to feel every bit of it because it was so plainly written. Underneath the prose is something so harshly true to life that it sinks into you. You realize as you read it, â]this is really how we are and think.

Only, we don't often delve that deeply into our nature to find out. Breathing Out the Ghost tells us how people cope. Or rather, how unrealistic an expectation it is for us to expect people to move on after tragedy, as well as how people function and react in unique ways. It's about pain and obsession and destruction and failed attempts at redemption. This book exposes how we think and feel about tragedy, both those who experience it and those who witness it as outsiders. I came to see through reading this book that we all are more comfortable assuming that life goes on. Yet, the truth of the matter is that it's not so easy. So many times as I read, I found myself frustrated with St. Claire. He was selfish to think that his quest was not hurting anyone or that his pain was larger than other people. But isn't it also selfish for people to assume that he should let go and move on? Who was I to judge him? It was all very painful to be a part of, but not in a way that made me want to close the book and avoid picking it back up. This book offers absolutely no resolution. I don't say that to criticize. At the end of the book, no one has found peace. Curnutt doesn't try to create drama so that he can fix it and leave his readers with a warm and fulfilled feeling at the end. The drama is the story itself and reflects the hard truth of reality: sometimes there is no end, there is no peace, there is no happiness or light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes all that there is at the end is just more wandering and wondering, tediously carrying forward for each day.