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Carry On, My Wayward Daughter

A minor spoiler, but then again, wasn’t everything about this book a minor spoiler? I finally finished a book after a long time of reading bits and pieces, and this one was Don’t You Cry, a contemporary thriller by Mary Kubica.

Cover photo: Amazon.com

So this book starts with a small mystery – the mystery of how I got a copy.

Well, I know how I got it – in the mail from paperbackswap.com a few weeks ago – but why I had to have a copy right away? No idea. And why I read it right away? Again, no idea. But I read it anyway.

Don’t You Cry is a contemporary thriller told from two points of view. In Chicago, Quinn Collins wakes up one morning to find that her roommate Esther is missing, and in Michigan, recent high school graduate Alex Gallo works a dead-end food service job to support himself and his alcoholic father in a small lakeside town where nothing happens, which changes one day when a mysterious woman shows up at the cafe where he works. She becomes the object of his fantasy, and he calls her “Pearl” because of a pearl bracelet she wears. While Quinn discovers that Esther may not have been who she said she was, and possibly even a murderer, Alex gets closer to the strange but attractive Pearl, who squats in an abandoned house across the street from Alex’s. Revealing much more would spoil the book for you, but the big reveal brings up almost as many questions as it answers.

I had mixed feelings about this book. It definitely wasn’t your typical mystery. I thought it might end up veering towards chick-lit, but it surprisingly didn’t; one of the two main points of view was male. I did want to keep reading, if only to find out how Quinn’s and Alex’s stories intersected, which doesn’t happen until the last chapter or so, but at least something about it kept me interested. The language was interesting; it seemed like Kubica got quite a lot of use out of her thesaurus, and some of the words the characters used didn’t seem to fit with what a twenty-something and a teenager’s vocabulary would be like. In addition, there were so many things brought up that turned out to be dead-ends/red herrings, and it seemed like some of the answers to the clues were awfully arbitrary, like the Kelsey Bellamy storyline and the Ben storyline. Finally, the end. I don’t think I’ve ever been as annoyed by a character’s death as I was at Carmen’s at the end of Bel Canto, but suffice it to say that one of the main characters dies for no reason at all. Overall, while I don’t think I’ll read another Mary Kubica book anytime soon, I’ll put her remaining books on the maybe pile for now.

If anyone can figure out what website or book blog or list suggested this to me, let me know.

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Always Fresh, Never From Concentrate

Flip the Script….will be back soon (I know, everyone’s favorite), but I’ve been doing a lot of reading and have not posted a book review for awhile, so here goes. Forget V8 and wave Ocean Spray goodbye, because today’s blog post is all about Alphabetter Juice by Roy Blount Jr.

Cover photo from Amazon.com

It’s not a cookbook or a guide to cleanses; rather, Alphabetter Juice is the sequel to a book by the same author which I haven’t read yet. I saw it on the shelf at Dollar Tree and it looked interesting, so I got it, read it, and sent it off to someone in California via PaperBackSwap. I can’t say it was the most thrilling read, but if you’re into words, etymology, and tangents, this one is for you.

Blount breaks down the chapters by alphabet letter, selecting five or ten words from each letter and writing a short entry about their etymology and the curiosity of their existences. A lot of it has to deal with the way the words sound when the come out of the human mouth. For example, when we say the letter “o”, our mouths form the same shape, and the unpleasant hardness of the “nk” sound leads to words like yank, spank, wank, and shank, all of which have connotations of something taboo. I’d be interested to hear what a vocalist or a dialect coach had to say about some of these examples.

Probably the weakest part of the book is the author’s tendency towards long, rambling stories that, after a certain point, are utterly uninteresting. The best entries are the ones which are succinct and to the point. At a certain point, I felt like I was glossing over a lot of the stories, looking for some interesting key words and going off of those.

I did learn a few interesting things from Blount’s book. For example:

  • Beans – They are only mentioned twice in all of Shakespeare’s writings, leading the author to believe he wasn’t fond of this vegetable.
  • Elephant – The term “white elephant” may have come from the King of Siam, who reportedly would gift a rare white elephant to someone he didn’t like. Anyone who would turn down a gift like that from such an illustrious person would be looked down upon, but elephants are quite hard for the average person to take care of, especially one of a rare breed.
  • Knee – The English language has no word for the back of the knee. The author suggests “eenk.” I couldn’t care less.
  • Pun – He introduces this entry with a pun about a transit strike in Manhattan. When asked how to get around, one man said “diesel.” The asker looked confused, until the man pointed at his feet and said…wait for it…“Diesel get me anywhere.” So bad, it’s…not too bad.

The best thing about this book was that it actually helped me get a question right in HQ Trivia. I had just read the entry on cleave, which talked about words that have two meanings which contradict each other, and cleave was the exact answer to the question. I still lost at question 6 or so, but thanks, Roy Blount Jr.!

This book review was brought to you by words. You can’t read without them.

 

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Tea Cozy, Cracked!

One of my guilty-ish pleasures is cozy mystery novels; you know, the pocket-sized ones with themes like cats, or sewing, or in this case, tea. I haven’t picked up one of Laura Childs’ Tea Shop Mysteries in years, but I guess I was missing Cabot Cove Syndrome, so I picked up where I left off, with the 11th book in the series, The Teaberry Strangler. 

One of the things about cozies that is always interesting is the mystery. (Well, duh.) Some authors are better than others about leaving clues for the reader; some are more blatant, others are a complete surprise until the final few pages from someone you didn’t see coming. It gives me a sense of satisfaction when I pinpoint the killer early on, and end up hypothesizing correctly. And I’m happy to say it happened with The Teaberry Strangler. By about a third of the way in, after meeting all the characters, I was pretty sure who it was; the why remained a bit of a mystery, but one final detail at the end made it all fit together.

Some people like to read the last chapter of a cozy first, finding out who the murderer is, and then follow the protagonist along as he/she attempts to solve it. I tried that once and it didn’t feel satisfying, so I’m sticking to just reading it straight through. I have, however, developed a theory (not fool-proof, but pretty accurate) of solving the cozy mystery.

Warning: Spoiler Alert.

So here’s the sitch in TeaberryTheodosia “Theo” Browning, the main character, witnesses a struggle in a back alley behind a map shop which leaves her friend Daria, owner of the map shop with a resemblance to Theo, dead. She must find the murderer. In a side plot, she bought a new house, and when a human bone is found, the town’s historical society descends on her yard to dig it up, much to her consternation.

When reading a cozy, you pretty much immediately rule out any character who is a mainstay in the series and appears in multiple books; in this case, Theo’s co-workers Haley and Drayton, her ex-boyfriend Jory, Detective Tidwell, Delaine Dish and the like. You can also safely rule out any character who has been caught in an earlier book and is seeking redemption. Case in point: Nadine, Delaine’s sister.

The main suspects in Daria’s death appear to be the following:

  • Joe Don, Daria’s boyfriend, amateur treasure hunter.
  • Jason, Daria’s assistant at the map shop.
  • Fallon, Daria’s sister.
  • Jack Brux, Theo’s future neighbor, a grumpy old man.
  • Cinnamon St. John and Miss Kitty, newcomers to town who open a perfume shop next door to Daria’s.
  • Beth-Ann, current girlfriend of Theo’s ex Jory.

The first one I ruled out was Joe Don. Even though he was kind of a jerk, he was present and accounted for at the scene of the crime, probably too soon to have stashed the murder weapon and cleaned himself up. Then, there are Jack Brux, Cinnamon St. John, and Miss Kitty, who all seem too caricature-ish and obvious with their over-the-top behavior. (As it turns out, Jack Brux ends up being one of the good guys even though he is still a grump, and Cinnamon and Miss Kitty are found guilty of another crime). This leaves us with Jason, Fallon, and Beth-Ann.

After Theo interviews Jason, the assistant, he openly tells her that he has a prison record. If you’re going to murder someone, confessing to your past sins is a terrible way to defend yourself, especially to someone who is investigating. That alone cleared Jason’s name for me. As for Beth-Ann, even though she is shady, crazy, and a stalker, if she wanted to kill Theo, she would probably make 100% sure that the person she was killing was the correct one. Also, not being from the town, she had the furthest connection from the deceased, Daria.

Which led me straight to Fallon. She’s close enough to the victim to have a relationship, yet has an easy alibi (being the loving sister). She doesn’t do anything too out of character for the most part and she doesn’t seem overly emotional. The most we get from her is when one night she shows up at Theo’s tea shop to thank Theo for being on the case while crying about her sister’s death, which did not seem very convincing to me. When Fallon pounces on Theo in the last few pages of the book (which I saw coming but Theo did not), she revealed that she was adopted by hers and Daria’s mother and always jealous of her sister’s success in business and love.

And that’s how to solve a cozy mystery. Results not always guaranteed.

4

Sarah Zuckerman, Amateur Defective

Last week, I finished a book that I’d encountered after reading an article on the Internet. More on that article later, but for now, a brief review of said book, You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt.

You Are One of Them is told from the point of view of Sarah Zuckerman. As a young girl in 1982, at the height of the Cold War, Sarah made friends with a girl called Jennifer Jones who moved onto her block. They decided to write letters to the Premier of the Soviet Union, and though Sarah never heard back, Jenny’s letter received international fanfare and resulted in an invitation to go to the USSR. Some time after, Jenny and her parents perished in a plane crash, resulting in Sarah and her mother creating a foundation in Jenny’s name. One day in 1996, Sarah receives a mysterious email from a woman called Svetlana, who hints that Jenny might still be alive and living in Russia. Sarah follows the trail, tracks down Svetlana, and suffice it to say, has quite an interesting adventure with an unexpected outcome.

That’s all I’m going to say because you should definitely get your hands on this book.

However fictional the book might be, it is based on the short life and tragic death of Samantha Smith, a girl from Maine who exchanged letters with Russian premier Yuri Andropov, and traveled to the Soviet Union as “America’s Youngest Ambassador.”

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Ex’s And Y’s

I’ve actually been getting quite a lot of reading done lately, and the two latest books I’ve finished, I’ve realized, have quite a few similarities other than the facts that they both have letters in their names. They are Generation X by Douglas Coupland and The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas. So, it’s a double book review!

Image result for generation x coupland

The End Of Mr. Y

Generation X by Douglas Coupland is kind of about nothing. It centers on the lives of Gen-X twenty-somethings Andy, Dag, and Claire, who spend their days flitting between occupations and locations in southern California, and telling long personal stories with convoluted meanings. Overall, I felt like it didn’t have too much in the way of meaning, possibly because I’m technically a Millennial, but some of Coupland’s self-coined terms made quite a lot of sense. And – fun fact – this novel popularized the term McJob, referring to a low-wage job with little prospect for advancement and skill-learning, as well as the titular Generation X, or those born in the 1970s and early 1980s. The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas is the polar opposite, in that it almost has too much meaning. The book takes place in England, where protagonist Ariel Manto is searching for answers about an extremely rare book, also entitled The End of Mr. Y, which is believed to have caused the deaths/disappearances of all who have read it, including Manto’s Ph.D. advisor. Eventually, Ariel learns about the Troposphere, a location within the mind, sort of everywhere and nowhere, a parallel universe where you can jump backwards and forwards in time through inhabiting peoples’ consciousness. I liked this book, but it also kind of scared me with its extremely existential nature.

It is interesting that I read these books in succession. They have a lot in common, despite their stark differences; one is America, the other in England; one is about pointlessness, the other is about possibility. Both, however deal with the importance of the meta-narrative, and how it gives the characters dimension as they learn along with the reader. True, sometimes the reader gets lost in the universe; for example, at some points in Mr. Y I had no idea whether Ariel was in the dreamlike Troposphere or her real existence, and in Generation X I was sometimes unsure of who was narrating and who the story was actually supposed to be about.

Overall, though, both books are quite a trip for the curious mind to embark upon. I think I need some lighter reading for the next few books on my list.

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A Bicycle Trip For Two

Not so much about the song, but about a book I finished today. Maybe it’s all the stress, but I’m burning through books these days.

But I ain’t complaining.

Today’s adventure was Across America by Bicycle: Alice and Bobbi’s Summer on Wheels by Alice Honeywell and Bobbi Montgomery.

This book is one of my favorite types to read; travelogues, complete with maps (hand-drawn) and mileage counts. This book details Midwestern grandmothers Alice and Bobbi’s journey across the USA on their bicycles in just 13 weeks, from Astoria, Oregon, to Bar Harbor, Maine. In about 250 pages, the two travel through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, and have lots of fun adventures along the way. They (or I should say she, since the book is written from Bobbi’s point of view) focus on the hidden gems of America, from the cinnamon rolls they ate in Montana to the many “road angels” who stopped them and helped along the way.

But the trip isn’t all just a grand old time; they face a lot of serious issues, both on the road and at home. Each state brings its challenges, from closed campgrounds to aggressive drivers to unkempt roads (they do mention how nice the roads are in Wisconsin, but then again, Alice lives here in Madison, according to the book). Their bikes and bodies get worn down, but it strengthens them in the end. Though both of them contemplate quitting at different points – Alice due to family drama and her husband’s poor health, Bobbi due to an injury and other reasons – they stay steadfast and remain best friends. A lot of the book is repetitive, describing this little boy and that group of ladies asking them the same questions, over and over, but I guess that’s part of a trip across America, especially the more rural parts where it’s just hill after hill, tree after tree. And though they compliment most of the people they meet, there’s more than a fair share of complaining, mostly about dingy old hotels and bad food, but they paint an interesting picture of America on the whole, a mix of small towns and even smaller towns.

Overall, the story flows along really nicely without dwelling too much on insignificant or uninteresting details. And aside from their references to it, you wouldn’t be able to tell that the protagonists are two older ladies crossing America from coast to coast. Plus, they don’t make any Odyssey Expedition-esque attempts at purism, accepting rides when necessary or when they just don’t want to ride with all their gear anymore.

That is, though, quite the accomplishment in and of itself. If you’re thinking “hey, I could do that,” let me tell you about the last time I rode a bike.

On my second Summer Odyssey, when I was staying with Dan in Boston, we decided to spend a day on Martha’s Vineyard, a place I’ve always wanted to see. So, we drove to Woods Hole, left the car there, and took a ferry. One we landed in Oak Bluffs, and had lunch, Dan suggested we see the rest of the island, and rather than taking a bus or hitching rides, we could…rent bikes. Now, even though Dan bikes to work every day, I haven’t ridden a bike since elementary school. I don’t feel comfortable on a bike, and I don’t know what exactly got into me that it would be a good idea to try one out, and especially in a place I’d never been before.

Martha’s Vineyard is cut in half, with Oak Bluffs at the center, so we rode west along the southern edge of the island, stopping off for ice cream or window shopping in the island’s small towns. For the first hour or so, I was terrified, and by the end of the day, I was exhausted, but…slightly less terrified. It ended up being fun and I didn’t fall or die, but I’m not in a rush to get back on a bike anytime soon.

So the fact that these two ladies spent four months crossing unknown territory on bikes means that they’re probably more hardcore than I’ll ever be.