We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

TLDR Review:

Story: 4/5 Weird. Very weird. Not an incredible amount of plot, but enough for those of us who prefer the plot to be the driving factor in stories.

Pace: 3/5 Slow beginning. Medium middle and end.

Characters: 5/5 No complaints here. Merricat, the narrator was extremely strange and fascinating to live in for the story. The two other main characters, Constance and Uncle Julian, were also memorable.

Setting: 3.5/5 This story basically only took place in their home and the land surrounding it. I liked how Merricat interacted with the setting

Look at how pretty that cover is! I love the cat.

Shirley Jackson may not ring a bell for you right away, but you’ve likely either read or watched her work before. Shirley Jackson wrote, “The Lottery,” a creepy short story about a town that performs an annual rite in which a community member is chosen to die to maintain the wellbeing of the community. This was her most well-known story until Netflix put out their series The Haunting of Hill House, a horror story that was binged by most everyone when it came out. That series is based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, although many people probably don’t know that. I have read both “The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House and now, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I won’t compare The Lottery with a full novel, but I can say that I much preferred We Have Always Lived in the Castle over The Haunting of Hill House. So, what’s it about?

“Delving deep into a labyrinth of dark neurosis, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a deliciously unsettling novel about a perverse, isolated, and possibly murderous family and the struggle that ensues when outside forces disrupt their delicate way of life. Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood—among the most memorable narrators in twentieth-century fiction—lives in the Blackwood family home with the reclusive company of only her sister Constance, once accused of fatally poisoning her own family, and her Uncle Julian, confined to a wheelchair and obsessed with his ongoing memoirs. Together, they have grown comfortable with a quiet, isolated existence, despite continual persecution by the townsfolk. But when their estranged cousin Charles arrives at the estate armed with overtures of friendship and a desperate need to get into her father’s safe, Merricat must do everything in her power to protect her remaining family.”

Penguin Classics description

This book is a very quick read. The Penguin Classics version I read came in at 146 pages. It was published in 1962 and if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing, you might notice that it does read a little “old fashioned.” But after the first chapter or two, you’ll get in the groove. It is a bit slow to start. Jackson takes care to set up Merricat’s very particular perspective in a way that pays off excellently as you go through the story, but it can be a bit odd while you wait for that pay off. 

And trust me, it does. The best part of this novel is the narrator. The plot is okay. The other characters are interesting, but it’s Merricat who kept me reading. I knew from the beginning she is a classic unreliable narrator, but that didn’t matter. I was living in her world and it was fine with me. Jackson’s ingeniously weaves in these superstitious rules and behaviors that Merricat does to keep her home safe in a way that makes them seem the most logical and natural thing in the world. They are the perfect amount of strange that witchcraft comes to mind, but is never mentioned or even implied:

“On Sunday mornings, I examined by safeguards, the box of silver dollars I had buried by the creek, and the doll buried in the long field, and the book nailed to the tree in pine woods; so long as they were where I put them nothing could get in to harm us.”

pp. 41

And that isn’t even the weirdest one.

Honestly, the climax of the novel was not what I expected or maybe even hoped for. There wasn’t that big reveal that I was expecting, but a more quiet understanding. But don’t let that deter you. If you are looking for a read that brings you that unsettling, creepy feeling we all weirdly crave in the fall, pick this up. The Haunting of Hill House is also a good choice.

The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

I picked up this book in my effort to educate myself after the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. If you look up “how to educate yourself about race,” or really look at any racial justice reading list that has been published in the last few months, you will likely find this book mentioned. Before I get into what I thought of the book, I want to make it clear that I know reading is not enough. Yes, white people need to educate themselves on the true reality of our racial past and present. We need to do it in ways that do not put undue burden on black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC). But becoming educated or well-versed in these issues doesn’t do anything to affect the systemic racism engrained in our country. It’s all too tempting to use our self-education as a way to pat ourselves on the back and love that we aren’t contributing to the problem. Wrong. This isn’t ever about making us (white people) feel good. We must remember always that it is a privilege to learn about these things in books rather than lived experience. We must use this knowledge as a foundation for our listening, for our donations, for our activism. We must use this knowledge to put ourselves on the line in ways that BIPOC may not be able to because our privilege allows us to live and act in ways some not accessible by others. I will be continuing to add more books by and about BIPOC, but I know that the work does not end there. It just begins.

In The Warmth of Other Suns Wilkerson writes about the Great Migration, which was a mass movement of nearly 6 million African-Americans out of the South from 1915-1970. The Great Migration is often a forgotten, or even not mentioned, part of U.S. history and certainly is not as studied as other mass migration movements. This migration was sparked by the racial violence and oppression that merely transformed from slavery before the Civil War to Jim Crow laws after. I had never heard of this before I picked up the book, which is not surprising seeing I grew up in county in Michigan that is, as of 2019, 93.6% White (.4% Black). After reading this book, it’s clear that my experience is not an aberration. It’s the norm.

Isabel Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1994. The book won many awards as well. And they are more than deserved. I have rarely ever read a non-fiction book so well-written and absorbing. Wilkerson follows the lives of three individuals who participated in the Great Migration: Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling, and Robert Foster. Their stories read like fiction and it was often hard to put down. Wilkerson uses their lives to show the arc of the Great Migration, as well as highlight many of the reasons that people felt they had to move away to the South. Many times, their survival depended on it.

However, once they reached the North (or the West Coast in Robert Foster’s case), they found it was not a land free of the discrimination and hate they had hoped to leave behind in the South. This was the greatest lesson I learned from this book: No part or person of the country was free of racial discrimination and it still isn’t. Growing up in the North, we were taught that we were the heroes of the Civil War. We opposed slavery! But, I learned from this book that, in fact, the North just had its own special flavor of racism and hate. They may not have had Jim Crow laws to fall back on, but there was plenty of other ways to oppress POC. The North reacted to the influx of African-Americans with housing discrimination, job discrimination, police brutality, white supremacy, education discrimination, and more. Wilkerson points out:

“By the time the Migration reach its conclusion, sociologists would have a name for that kind of hard-core racial division. They would call it hypersegregation, a kind of separation of the races that was so total and complete that blacks and whites rarely intersected outside of work. The top ten cities that would earn that designation after the 1980 census [ . . . ] were, in order of severity of racial isolation from most segregated to least: (1) Chicago, (2) Detroit, (3) Cleveland, (4) Milwaukee, (5) Newark, (6) Gary, Indiana, (7) Philadelphia, (8) Los Angeles, (9) Baltimore, and (10) St. Louis – all of them receiving stations of the Great Migration.

The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson, pg. 398

White people have pulled the wool over their own eyes for too long about our racial past and present. These discriminatory practices still exist today, yet white people love to say we are in a post-racial society. That we don’t “see color.” Black people are still getting unfairly treated, persecuted, and killed by the police. By white people who know that the law is still statistically on their side. Don’t take my word for it. Start to get educated about the realities of U.S. history, as well as how racism and discrimination persist today. Books like The Warmth of Other Suns will show you that our history lessons have skipped over many crucial details. It’s uncomfortable. It’s necessary.

And by the way, Isabel Wilkerson’s new book just came out a few days ago. Check that out too.

The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time Book 1) by Robert Jordan

TLDR Review:

Story: 4/5 A great set up for the rest of the long series. I did feel a bit confused at times about certain concepts in his world-building, but could still understand the general plot.

Pace: 3/5 There were a few times throughout that dragged. I kept having to remember that this is truly an epic fantasy series, with the focus being on the long term series. Needs a lot of set up.

Characters: 5/5 So many different characters all with intriguing stories. I can’t wait to learn more about them in the following books.

Setting: 5/5 The world building was excellent and extremely complex.

Before I picked up Eye of the World, this book series intimidated me. I’m not sure if it was because of the length of the series (14 books, although it was originally planned to be 6) or if it was because of the iffy 90s fantasy art, but I never felt pulled to dive in. But I saw the audiobook was available at the beginning of the social distancing efforts here, which was going to mean a lot of extra time at home, so I figured that now would be as good a time as any. I downloaded the audiobook and checked out a physical copy from the library and used both consumption methods to chip away at this fantasy book, which made it much more digestible.

The Eye of the World revolves around Rand al’Thor and his two best friends, Perrin Aybara and Matrim Cauthon. They start the story as innocent boys, sheltered from the world from their home in the Three Rivers, and then must start on a journey due to an evil force that is wrapped up in all of their fates. Pretty much every review and article about this series says that it is a foundational fantasy series. It has all of the elements of an epic fantasy: A chosen one (or a few); battle against an evil force; journey into the unknown; magical and dark creatures; and, of course, the most important feature . . . a world map. So, if you’re a major fantasy fan, it ticks all of the boxes.

One fairly unique feature of Eye of the World is that women have more power than some other fantasy series I’ve read, at least ones that were published around or before this time. Rand, Perrin, and Matrim are lead on their journey by Moiraine, who is an Aes Sedai. Aes Sedai are women who can channel the One Power, feared by many but also revered. There are a few other main female characters who are a part of the journey and they each have their own storyline that isn’t only tied to the men. I must say that despite this glimpse of autonomy for the female characters, I find that they often are portrayed as annoying, controlling, and bossy–or at least that’s what the male characters think about them. Maybe we can call it two steps forward and one step back, hey?

If you’re a fan of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, or Harry Potter, you’d find yourself enjoying Eye of the World. I would say it’s less polished than LOTR, less sexy than GOT, and a bit gruffer than Harry Potter. It has a huge world and a huge fandom, so that means that there are endless blogs, illustrations and wiki entries to explore online. I’ll chronicle my thoughts on the rest of the series, but you might find they come few and far between. For me, this is much more of a slow, savory story than a fast-paced, get-me-the-next-installment type of series. We’ll see what the next ones bring!

Follow Me by Kathleen Barber

⭐⭐⭐ -3 stars

When I picked up this book (courtesy of my local bookstore providing curbside service), I suspected that it would be like candy. Fun to eat, but not very filling. I was right. I read it over two days. I started it yesterday and finished it today.

It was entertaining, don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the read, but it seems pretty similar to other books out there right now. It fits in the genre of paranoid woman who turn out to be in danger (think Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn, The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware, Girl on a Train by Tate Taylor). While these books all are different in their own right, they all kind of blend together at a certain point. That fact doesn’t make them less entertaining, at least to me! I’m a sucker for easy to read thrillers. Here’s the summary:

Audrey Miller has an enviable new job at the Smithsonian, a body by reformer Pilates, an apartment door with a broken lock, and hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers to bear witness to it all. Having just moved to Washington, DC, Audrey busies herself impressing her new boss, interacting with her online fan base, and staving off a creepy upstairs neighbor with the help of the only two people she knows in town: an ex-boyfriend she can’t stay away from and a sorority sister with a high-powered job and a mysterious past.

But Audrey’s faulty door may be the least of her security concerns. Unbeknownst to her, her move has brought her within striking distance of someone who’s obsessively followed her social media presence for years—from her first WordPress blog to her most recent Instagram Story. No longer content to simply follow her carefully curated life from a distance, he consults the dark web for advice on how to make Audrey his and his alone. In his quest to win her heart, nothing is off-limits—and nothing is private.

Amazon Summary Blurb

The back cover of this book says that it is perfect for fans of Caroline Kepnes’ You. I haven’t read the book, but I watched the Netflix show and loved it. It was almost too similar to You. The only big difference is that it is told from the perspective of the woman, not the obsessive stalker. It’s described as a “cautionary tale of oversharing in the social media age.” Another blurb says “Follow Me is a gripping, chilling, and relevant deep dive into the dark and scary side of social media. ”

These descriptions miss the mark. I don’t think social media was the real villain here. It was used as a plot device, but a very small one, considering that this book was made out to be all about the evils of social media. Sure, Audrey cultivates a following on social media and her stalker uses it to obsessively follow her but the thing about toxic, dangerous men is that it doesn’t matter how many followers the object of their obsession has. No woman is ever asking for it…even if they post their whole lives on social media. Men have, and continue to, stalk women and behave inappropriately without the help of social media. That is now another one of their tools. This whole book is filled with problematic men–all except one turn out to be “innocent” of the book’s crime (stalking Audrey). The reader is unsure of who the stalker will turn out to be. But all of them are guilty of either intentionally or not intentionally making the women in their lives uncomfortable (to use a mild word). Sadly, most women who read this book, including me, will find it familiar to be unsure of certain men in their lives. Can they be trusted? Are they going to respect me? And unfortunately, sometimes the answers to those questions turn out to be ones you don’t expect. Follow Me would have been more substantive, in my opinion, if the the real issue was more explicit–that lonely men who feel disenfranchised can hurt women anywhere, online is just another platform.

That’s a large soap box to step off of, but let me do that for a moment and say, if you want an easy, entertaining read, this is a great book to pick up. Perfect for a little quarantine escapism. It’s sleek and thrilling with its descriptions of Instagrammable meals, museums, hot boys, trivia nights, and all the other fun things that I miss while being holed up in my house. This isn’t a book that will stick with me for the long run, but it was fun while it lasted.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

⭐⭐⭐ -3 stars

Comfy reading with my kitty

Is it safe to admit now that readers do judge books by their covers?

If anything can be said about The Dutch House is that its cover is gorgeous. The painting on the cover (by Noah Saterstrom) is a painting that is discussed in the book. It took me a while to realize that the painting was the exact one mentioned in the book: a portrait of one of the main characters, Maeve. For reasons that I will get to in this review, I think it is a very fitting cover. From the title, one might expect the cover to be of a house, a painting that could be just as beautiful as Maeve’s portrait. But read the book and you’ll find out that this book really isn’t about a house. It’s about a family.

If you pick up this book expecting it to be an atmospheric read centered around an old house (think Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca), you will be disappointed. I’ve read and loved many books where the house/mansion/cottage etc. becomes its own character. Despite the name, Patchett does not do this in The Dutch House. The novel starts with the Conroy family moving into a Pennsylvania mansion called the Dutch House and follows the Conroy siblings, Maeve and Danny through their life. Soon after they move in, the children’s mother, Elna, moves away and disappears from their lives. Eventually, the two are exiled from the house by their step mother Andrea, but find themselves returning to the house over the years without actually going in it. The house serves as a place in their memory (even when they return to it) that allows the characters to reconnect, reflect, and reminisce on their lives–to examine the hole that was left by their mother and father.

In a Time interview, Patchett said that the book was about wealth and poverty and the movement between the two. That’s not what the book left me with. I felt that this book was really about the relationship between Maeve and her mother. The book is told from the perspective of Danny, the only boy in the family and the younger brother of Maeve. I found myself getting frustrated at his character. He seemed the entire novel to be moved passively through his life by one female or another. He has opinions about his educational path, his marriage, even his relationship with his sister, but he mostly just lets life happen to him. I kept expecting for his character to become more vivid, but I realized that Patchett used Danny as a vessel through which to tell Maeve’s story. I wonder if that was a choice and what the novel would have been like if Maeve had been the narrator. In that same Time interview, she did say that she wanted to name the book “Maeve.”

Why three stars? The best part about this book was the characters, some of which will be staying with me for a while, as well as Patchett’s ability to see into relationships and how people’s carry their “baggage” through their lives. The not so good part was the lack of plot. I acknowledge that not everyone needs plot to stay interested, but, for me, it helps. Throughout the book I kept making the comparison to The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. To me, it felt very similar in tone…feel…I’m not sure what. Maybe it was the fact that both the books feature a large character explanation of a boy throughout his life. But, what sets The Goldfinch apart is that there is something external that keeps the story moving, that thing being the painting of course. There is nothing like that in The Dutch House, to its detriment in my opinion. But, I am one who tends to enjoy external conflicts more than internal conflicts in stories.

The Dutch House is an exploration of family relationships and of how childhood can tether you to memories that seem impossible to let go. If you like introspective and beautifully written tales, this book is for you. If you prefer a complex plot with lots of twists and movement, this book probably isn’t for you.

Recursion by Blake Crouch

⭐⭐⭐⭐ -4.5 stars

Two things about my reading experience with this book:

  1. I loved it.
  2. I listened to it on audiobook.

Number 2 is a really big deal for me. I check out a lot of audiobooks because I enjoy listening to things in my car and when I’m working out, but that I rarely finish them. My usual problem is that I abandon books because I get bored. Sometimes I’m annoyed by the narrator. Sometimes my favorite podcast comes out with a new episode and I would rather listen to that and then never return to the book. I find that I don’t have that same drive to finish a book when I’m listening to it. This was NOT a problem with Recursion. I didn’t want to stop listening! The two narrators in this book became the characters and not in a theatrical way. So, if you struggle with finding entertaining audiobooks like I do, give Recursion a try!

Okay, back to number 1…I’m not sure what drew me to click on this book. The cover isn’t that interesting and doesn’t do much to tell you what the book is about. But once I did click, the description got me.

Reality is broken.

At first, it looks like a disease. An epidemic that spreads through no known means, driving its victims mad with memories of a life they never lived. But the force that’s sweeping the world is no pathogen. It’s just the first shock wave, unleashed by a stunning discovery—and what’s in jeopardy is not our minds but the very fabric of time itself.

In New York City, Detective Barry Sutton is closing in on the truth—and in a remote laboratory, neuroscientist Helena Smith is unaware that she alone holds the key to this mystery . . .and the tools for fighting back.

Together, Barry and Helena will have to confront their enemy—before they, and the world, are trapped in a loop of ever-growing chaos.”

Amazon description

Yes please! The book lives up to that description. It’s even stranger than that description. It’s a book that I’ll be telling others to read so I can talk it through with them. I really don’t want to tell you more about what the book is about because I don’t want to ruin anything if you want to read it. The book is full of twists and turns, so this review is going to be a little bland so that nothing is revealed.

If you’re a really science-y (yes, I just made that up) person, you will probably have to work a little harder to suspend your disbelief while you read it. If you can’t do that, it might not work for you. Crouch does spend time explaining how the technology in the story works but I can’t tell you whether or not it was very believable or not. I don’t know much about time and neuroscience and all that jazz, so it was easy for me to follow Crouch’s story logic. I’m not saying I believe that what happens in Recursion could really go down, but I didn’t have that little voice in my head arguing with the “science.”

The story is told by two narrators, Barry and Helena. Usually when books are broken up into multiple points of view (POV), I prefer certain characters. From all the research I do in writer land, this is fairly common. One of the big tips that writers give to newbie writers is if they want to use multiple POV than they need to make sure they’re all engaging, otherwise your reader could get frustrated. Crouch does not fall into this trap. I found myself excited to go back to both Barry and Helena. If I had to choose one, I think I found Helena’s story slightly more exciting, but they both complimented each other so well and their stories became more and more intertwined as the book went on.

The one so-so thing about Recursion is that I felt it went on too long. Have you ever read a book and you’re following along, you’re engrossed in the story, the themes, the struggles of the characters and all of a sudden the pacing either accelerates or decelerates and you feel the story slipping out of your hands? That’s how I felt in Recursion. The pacing was brilliant for the first 3/4 of the book, but then it did this weird thing where it accelerated too quickly for my liking and then near the end I was like…”this again???” (Once again, hard to explain without spoilers).

All that being said, overall it was an excellent read. The story is so thrilling and thought-provoking and it’s an easy read, which makes it a great book to recommend to people who maybe aren’t big readers or get bored with books that are heavy on the literary prose and deep character dives. This is a STORY. And a good one. Go along for the ride!

My Books of the Decade

I’m back!

I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November and it significantly impacted my productivity on this blog. Obviously…it’s already January and I haven’t written anything here since the end of October (face palm). NaNoWriMo is a worldwide event where wanna-be writers attempt to write 50,000 words in the month of November. The goal is to write a novel. I participated in NaNoWriMo 2018 and didn’t reach the 50,000 word goal, but this year…I WON. That meant a LOT of writing and I didn’t want to use up any of those words here. So, with the start of the new year, I’m ready to get back to it!

This post is going to be a list of the books that shaped my reading life from 2010-2020. This isn’t a list of all of my favorite books of the decade. Truthfully, I’ve only kept good track of my reading in the past five-ish years. Instead, I wanted to pick some books that stuck with me, books that made me remember why I love reading so much, books that are representative of a change in my reading life or a broadening of my reading life. The following books are representative of my reading life in the past decade in some way.

Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins

I began the decade graduating from high school and starting college. If I remember correctly, I read this my first year of college. This book was making its way around my friends and so, of course, I had to read it too. Another Roadside Attraction is incredibly weird, funny, and has plenty of great lines. It takes on the entire basis of Christianity. I had never read anything like it at the time and it made me feel insightful and cool, which is just what I needed at that exploratory time in my life. Honestly, I’m having a hard time describing it and I’m realizing….I need to read it again.

Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott

Traveling Mercies was the first book I read by Anne Lamott and thank God I picked her up because she has become one of my favorite writers. I lap up everything she writes, including amazing Facebook posts (like this one). Her writing is inspiring and hopeful, even when covering hard topics. She’s helped me to think about my own faith and shown me that it’s okay to be hard on it. Her work also opened my reading world to non-fiction memoir type books, which I hadn’t read a lot of at the time. Lamott writes about motherhood, addiction, faith, hope and writing to name a few. Pick her up if any of those resonate with you.

The Stand by Stephen King

It’s only been in the last year or two that I started to read Stephen King. It’s laughable now, but I used to see Stephen King as a non-literary author. Someone who wrote a lot of consumable books and made money (Why I thought that was a bad thing is another issue…). After reading more of his work, I realize that there is a reason that it has so much popular appeal. They are entertaining. They’re good. Really good. If you need any convincing of that read The Stand. It’s a huge book but it’s totally worth it. I’d have to say that this book is on my list of all-time favorites. As I wrote in my review of ‘Salem’s Lot, King has the ability to write about Good and Evil in a way that does those concepts justice.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

At the very end of the decade, I wandered into the mystery genre. I can’t remember which Agatha Christie book I read first (I think it was Murder on the Orient Express), but it only took one and I was hooked. Of course, Murder on the Orient Express is one of Christie’s most famous novels and it unfolds like most of her novels, in a tight, detailed fashion with no excess. It’s funny that one of the main things I love about this genre is that they often follow the same structure even though the reader is in the dark about what the plot will reveal. Now that I’ve explored the genre (Tana French, Louise Penny, any other recommendations??), I can’t believe that I didn’t read in it sooner. I’m looking forward to reading more mystery/thriller in the next decade.

Atlantis Grail Series by Vera Nazarian

I included this series on the list because it lit that reading fire inside me. I didn’t want to put it down. Is it a literary accomplishment? No. Is it the best thing I’ve ever read? No. But it has that bookish magic that makes you want to live in it’s world. I can’t remember reading another series this decade (except maybe Sarah J. Maas a Throne of Glass series) that made me HAVE to get the next installment as soon as I was finished with the current volume. I wanted everyone in my life to read them so I could talk to them about it. When I first saw these books, I thought…not for me. The covers are sort of cheesy and the formatting isn’t very polished, but the old adage is true…you shouldn’t judge books on their covers.

The Secret History & The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I couldn’t pick between these two books. Donna Tartt knows how to write entertaining stories and how to write beautiful novels. The Secret History has every thing I like. It takes place at a New England college and follows a group of Ancient Greek students who test the limits of morality. The story and the atmosphere is richly dark. The Goldfinch follows a young man as he grows up after his mother is killed in a bombing. The relationship between Theo (the protagonist) and his friend Boris is one of the most exquisitely written relationships I’ve read.

How will my reading change in the next decade? How will it stay the same? I don’t have any set goals other than to keep exploring different genres and to keep better track of my reading, which should be easy due to Goodreads.

Cheers to 2020!

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ -5 stars

Kitty doesn’t believe in vampires

I’m cuddled up on the couch with my cat warming my feet and a glass of red wine sitting on the table next to me. It’s October. Unfortunately, the Texas weather isn’t as chilly as this scene calls for, but I’m in the spooky mood. I just finished ‘Salem’s Lot and, I must admit, the glass of red wine is looking a little creepy.

‘Salem’s Lot is about vampires. And these vampires are the ones of lore–of myth–not the desirable vampires that have become so popular in our culture. The vampires in ‘Salem’s Lot are chilling…evil. Evil, of course, is what Stephen King does best. King has a way of being true to Evil, of reminding the reader why evil things are so scary to begin with. We forget that monsters, vampires, werewolves are not scary because of what they do to people, but because of what they are…Evil Incarnate. King makes Evil a force big enough for Good to struggle with. (Read The Stand, one of the best books I’ve ever read).

Now, trust me, I love(d) Twilight and the Vampire Diaries as much as the next 00s teen. Some of my favorite shows feature those glamorous vamps: Buffy (nothing can beat Buffy) and True Blood. But it is good to read a story with truly terrifying vampires, which, for most of human history was the case. Recent vampires, like the ones in stories I just mentioned, blur the line between good and evil (Check out this video from Monstrum, Dracula: The First Modern Vampire). The vampires become redeemable because they show that they have a soul, despite the traditional belief that vampires have no souls. Well, King’s embraces the old vampire. There is nothing redeemable about these creatures. They drain their victims of blood, but are still empty, hollow shells for the evil that animates them. It’s scary good. Really…scary good.

As always, King’s writing is superb. Clean, clear, and to the point. He was able to narrate with a large lens when he shaped the town of Jerusalem’s Lot (fun fact, this was going to be the title but King’s publishers thought people would think it was a religious book) and its inhabitants, but also was able to create an emotional closeness with Ben Mears, the main character. I love it when authors are able to give me a sweeping big picture while also zooming in me effectively. King is one of those authors that makes me think, “Yup, this is what I want my writing to be like.” It’s both inspiring and envy-making that this was his second published book after Carrie.

If you’re a person who wants to dip their toes into horror, I think this is a great start. It was very creepy, but I didn’t think it was grotesque, overly violent, or keep-you-up scary. The hardcover is a pretty hefty book, but the story moves quickly. I didn’t want to put it down. I feel like I’ve read a lot of Stephen King (Under the Dome, The Gunslinger, The Stand, The Eyes of the Dragon, Elevation and now, ‘Salem’s Lot), but he is such prolific writer that I’ve barely scratched the surface. Once again, though, he tells a story so well that every time I finish one, I’m resolved to read more.

And, because it’s Halloween season, I’ll leave you with a very 1970s trailer for the movie version of ‘Salem’s Lot (1979).

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

⭐⭐ ⭐⭐ -4 stars

Science fiction has always intimidated me. It doesn’t help that of the few sci-fi books I’ve read one of them was Dune by Frank Herbert. I really want to be a person who has read Dune but I quit after a few chapters. (See: Sixth Attempt to Start Reading Literary Classic “Dune” Going Okay). Maybe it’s the fact that science fiction bases most of its rules in science that makes me nervous. (My inner high schooler who never understood chemistry or physics is still inside my brain.) Despite my hesitation, I’ve always thought I don’t give sci-fi enough of a chance, so that’s why I picked up Old Man’s War. Am I now a science fiction convert? No. Did I enjoy the book? Yes. Published in 2006, it’s already considered a sci-fi classic. It’s the first book in the Old Man’s War series.

Long story short: Sometime in the future, humans have joined other alien worlds in colonizing the universe. Humans on Earth can choose to join the Colonial Defense Forces (CDF) when they turn seventy-five. Once they join they will be given a brand new body (an improved version of their younger self) and will never be able to return back to Earth again. Once in the CDF they fight a variety of aliens who are also competing to colonize. The story follows our main character, John Perry, as he joins CDF and starts his new life.

If Dune is on one side of the science fiction readability spectrum, Old Man’s War by John Salzi is on the other. Like much of fantasy and science fiction, the reader gets dumped into the world and has to figure out what’s going on. Sometimes this can be a deterrent, at least to me, because it can lead to feelings of frustration or lack of interest before I can orient myself in the story. That’s what happened when I read Dune. But Old Man’s War got to the point quickly. It helped that Scalzi wrote a catchy narrator. Really, the first-person narration by John Perry is the best thing about Old Man’s War. I’ve heard it over and over again: Don’t write boring characters, especially in first-person (I). Who wants to read the inner dialogue of a bore? Perry feels fully real: stubborn, witty, and funny. The book is short too, which made it a super fast read. I didn’t want to put it down.

That being said, there is a but (of course). The concept was unique and I loved reading about the different alien species, but I found the character development lacking. John Perry was a fun narrator, but there was never a deep back story or inner conflict that made me care about what happened to him (or any of the other characters for that matter.) I don’t have enough interest to follow Perry throughout multiple books.

*A digression* I’m proud of myself for being more confident about NOT reading books. Like so many other readers, I’ve always felt pressure to finish books I didn’t enjoy and even continue series I wasn’t that interested in because…I don’t know why. To give the story a chance? To say I finished it? I’m not going to put that pressure on myself anymore! I’ve been inspired by Anne Bogel who is passionate about encouraging readers to put puts down that they don’t like! Her reasoning is that we don’t live forever and we’re only going to be able to read a limited amount of books. Why waste some of those pages on something you’re not enjoying? SO: I won’t be continuing the series.

I still gave this book four stars because it was a delicious read. Quick, intriguing, unique, funny. I feel satisfied enough even though I know I’m not going to read the rest of the series. It’s a great introduction book to people who haven’t picked up sci-fi and are interested in the genre.

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐-5 stars

Cover of the Priory of the Orange Tree. Pictured is a dragon on a tower against an orange background
Beautiful Cover

Quoted on the back of the book:

“Spellbinding…Extraordinary…A well-drawn feminist fantasy with broad appeal for…readers of Zen Cho, Naomi Novik, and V.E. Schwab. Highly recommended.”-Booklist (starred review)

All I had to do was read that and I was in. They had me at “feminist fantasy” and for fans for Naomi Novik (Uprooted was excellent and her Temeraire series is super fun). The Priory of the Orange Tree lived up to Booklist’s review.

Long story short: The Priory is an epic fantasy that takes place in a world with magic and dragons. We get four points of view (POV): Ead Duryan, Queen Sabran’s courtier in the West, who isn’t quite who she says she is; Tané a dragon ride from the East; Niclays, a banished alchemist; and Loth, a friend of Ead and Sabran. The Nameless One, an evil dragon, is stirring again after a thousand years and the world must rise to defeat him.

Fantasy books have a lot of common themes, character types, conflicts, and plot points, which is part of the appeal. Shannon was able to make this book have that classic fantasy feel while also giving it a refreshing breath of air. I love that she was able to write a “feminist” fantasy that just felt natural. One of the big draws of the books is that the main romance is a female/female romance. The only “transgressive” thing about their romance is that they are from different classes. The story wasn’t about women and their struggle to gain respect and equality, Priory’s world was just built around not taking the patriarchy and heteronormativity as a model.

The book is long. My copy (hardback) is 804 pages, not including the Persons of the Tale guide and the Glossary. I’ve watched and read a few reviews and people question whether or not this should have been a series. Shannon certainly had enough material to break this into a series and there were parts of the story that I was interested in reading more, but I’m glad she chose to do a standalone. I can’t remember the last time I read a fantasy book that wasn’t a part of a series. I understand that series are popular in the fantasy genre because so much of fantasy is about the world building. Often times it takes multiple books to form complex and interesting worlds, as well as the evolution of an epic story. I love a good series, but with The Priory, it felt nice to get a neatly wrapped up fantasy story in one book.

Shannon’s characters were really memorable, even the minor ones she crafted with care. My favorite POV was Ead. For me, her story line carried the whole book. If Shannon ever writes more books in this world, Ead’s story is the one I would most be excited to read. Niclays and Loth tie for second. Niclays was the most complex character. Out of all the characters, I wish that Shannon had followed his story line more. He was weak and flawed, but aren’t we all. I was most disappointed with Tané. The way Shannon set up the beginning of the novel made me think that Ead and Tané were the two main characters, with the other POVs just added to help the plot. At the beginning, Tané seemed stuck up, which I told myself was just set up for deeper character development. But as the story progressed, there was less of Tané and I didn’t think that she got the evolution that was required to make me like her. Maybe I just read too much into her character at the beginning.

Overall, I loved the book. Shannon created believable and interesting cultures and religions that were fascinating to read. Her characters were diverse, complex, and addicting to read. There is magic and talking dragons, which is never a bad thing. If you like fantasy I would highly recommend this book. It reminded me what is so great about the genre, but also that there is always room for improvement!