articles

In Defense of Dumbledore

Warning: there are spoilers.

It’s come to my attention over the past year or two that Potter fans online aren’t too happy with Albus Dumbledore.

They aren’t happy that he sent Harry to the Dursleys. They aren’t happy that he made mistakes in his past. But like most characters in the series, they all have light and dark inside of them. What matters, like Sirius said, is the part they choose to act on.

I, for one, don’t think Dumbledore is a bad character. Rowling’s characters often have shades of good and bad, but Dumbledore changed his life around to what I think is the better. Sure, he originally sided with a power-hungry wizard, but that was partially because he didn’t want to stand up against it and jeopardize their friendship. Not that I’m advocating for that, but the fact that he was able to turn against those ideals says a lot more than people who are power-hungry from the beginning and never learn. Voldemort was not one of them.

What about his relationship with Harry? Snape accuses him of raising Harry like a pig for slaughter, and sometimes, he doesn’t always explain things to Harry straight out. But in the magical world of prophecies that must come true–in this case, neither can live while the other survives–there isn’t really a lot that Dumbledore could have done other than prepare him for what is to come. That is a hard fact of wizarding life. It’s not the only hard truth either. One can wipe another’s memory, control another, or torture with one flick of a wand. These flaws make the wizarding world much more real. Such is true of prophecies. Overall, though, I have a hard time believing that Dumbledore doesn’t care about Harry. Does he make mistakes? Would it have been better to be honest from the beginning? Possibly. However, Dumbledore wanted him to have a childhood, so his intentions weren’t bad ones.

He did, however, do a good job of training up Harry for battle and unlocking the keys to Voldemort’s past. He couldn’t help his allegedly untimely death, so even though Harry was on his own by that point he had some good preparation and friends to help him out. (When he left out the Mirror of Erised, and discovered him in the dungeons at the end of the book, he certainly wasn’t disappointed in Harry. He knew where his life was going and wanted to give him a chance to take on Voldemort.) This isn’t so terrible, since Harry has proven himself to have solved complex mysteries with the help of Ron and Hermione. Dumbledore may not have been able to straight out explain the things he left out for them in the will, seeing that if it fell into the wrong hands, someone else may be inspired to try and take on Voldemort themselves (or worse), whilst the trio were more than capable of coming to their own conclusions.

And then there’s the matter of the Dursleys. No doubt that it’s an abusive environment. Still, Dumbledore did sort of take steps to protect Harry while he lived there. The Howler he sent to Petunia in Book Five was a good example of this; Petunia, in turn, listened and kept Harry in the house. Petunia would never have allowed anything truly terrible to happen; not that her behavior shows this, but it wasn’t obvious to Harry at the time. Harry was obviously fed and cared for to some degree as a child. He went to school. He didn’t sit in a cupboard for his entire life. Obviously, Petunia was willing to work with Dumbledore somewhat, so his intentions weren’t awful. Another detail that I’ve just picked up on, too, was the reminder of Mrs. Figg living down the street. Although the was a Squib, she was able to keep an eye on him. Of course, was this life at the Dursleys perfect? Definitely not. The important part was that he had a place to call home. Upon leaving his first year at Hogwarts, he also seemed more capable of leaving himself to his own devices. Again, not a perfect home life, but Dumbledore’s plan was better than leaving Harry with no protection at all.

With that, then, let’s go to another argument I often see against Dumbledore: why didn’t Dumbledore give Sirius a second chance and let him sit in Azkaban? Because anyone could have betrayed their friends. He probably thought that Sirius did do it. Not many would have guessed that Pettigrew would have betrayed his friends, yet that is exactly what he did. Dumbledore is not at fault for any of this. If we are going to attack Dumbledore for not giving Sirius a second chance, we also have to attack him for not seeing what Pettigrew did, and for not giving Pettigrew that second chance, which doesn’t make sense.

Now of course there is his past. A love of power, a terrible friend, and the death of his sister. Yes, Dumbledore probably wasn’t that great of a guy back in the day. However, he’s clearly changed. And I think that that change is important. After all…”it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.” That is why Dumbledore is a strong character. He learned from past mistakes to be a great mentor to Harry and a legendary headmaster of Hogwarts. Being a wise old wizard of his type creates an illusion of perfect wisdom, which is why readers may see flaws and be fast to point out that as soon as he’s flawed, he’s a bad character. I personally respect him, and he is one of my favorite wise old wizards of all time.

reviews

The Affair; Sheryl Browne

The Affair: Sheryl Browne
Genre: Psychological suspense
Published: 2018
Pages: 318
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Hufflepuff, Slytherin

They’re a perfect, happy family that would never hurt one another. Or are they?

After tragedy strikes, Alicia is shocked to run into an old flame. Justin picks up on this, and Alicia is forced to confront the past and tell her husband what happened all those years ago. Just when it seems that things can’t get any worse, another secret is revealed causing their daughter to flee the house. Justin is not only on a mission to save his marriage, but to save his daughter from whatever threats are out there. Without Sophie, what does he have left to live for if the rest of his life was a lie? But the random run-in may not have been so random, and Justin must confront not just a threat to their marriage but to his whole family, and his life.

Normally, novels about affairs don’t thrill me. For one, I can’t stand the perpetrators; if you don’t want to hurt your family by doing so, why do it? For another: they’re boring. It seems like predictable affairs take place in every domestic drama lately. But it came as an addition to the original Browne novel I bought, and as it was two books for the price of one, I couldn’t just ignore a free book.

This book features the 3rd person perspectives of Justin, his wife Alicia, and daughter Sophie. (What is it about Sophies in the media always having their main plot be about finding their father?) Of course, you want to hate Alicia for what she’s done to the family, and at first I did. But I was also surprised at how my feelings toward these characters changed as the story went on. The character development, or the way that Browne makes you think differently about people, is pretty strong. I was always in Sophie’s corner. But I did feel some twinges of sympathy toward Alicia farther along, and I didn’t like Justin as much by the end. Maybe. There is also Jessica, Alicia’s sister, who plays a role I should have seen coming but didn’t. Who is right and wrong here? There are multiple conflicts at play between them; to Sophie running away as she doesn’t trust her family to Justin’s disbelief to Alicia’s guilt. The novel does get a little repetitive in saying that “Alicia felt guilty” over and over, and that’s what added to some of the slowness for me. What elevates this novel from the standard is Paul Radley, Alicia’s love interest. You can tell something is off about him from the get-go, though we don’t learn much about him. He seems to have a bigger plan in mind, one that involves Sophie, that escalates as the novel progresses. I wasn’t sure why he was appearing now after so many years apart, however.

Admittedly it was a slow start. It was 50-70 pages of characters mourning their own life and a tragedy that’s taken place which has little to do with the main storyline. Lots of “woe-is-me” is present. It’s a little repetitive here as well, but it does lay the groundwork, which was dull as I expected. But maybe that’s just me; I’m tired of the “affair reveal.” It picks up when Paul enters the picture, but sometimes other events are called upon to keep the story interesting. Browne lays the tragedy on pretty thick here. There’s a car wreck, a stabbing at a bar, and another death. Not all of these things had to do with the plot. I read in the author’s note that Browne herself was struggling from the loss of a child. While maybe this helped her, it really didn’t serve a purpose for the novel. Adding to my above point, it may even have added to the slowness of the first part of the book. I may have cut the tragedy that happens near the beginning for more focus on Sophie’s time at Paul’s apartment.

The ending does get a little Lifetime-movie-ish, preaching about how their family is working toward building their future together, and healing from the past. Mostly where I had mixed feelings was the “excuse” for Alicia… spoiler paragraph below…

…which was that she was actually raped. O….kay. But isn’t she still at fault for having the affair in the first place? And she frames it as an actual affair in her POV chapters, so that didn’t make sense to me either. Maybe it was meant for shock value? I can kind of see how it might work, seeing that it gave her and Justin reason to make up a little faster, but I’m not sure if it did or not. It was a bit of a cop-out.

End of spoilers

The reveals that were supposed to be shocking weren’t shocking at all, and I don’t think that most readers will find that to be so either. I don’t like to take anything as truth until the accusations are proven, so I wasn’t shocked at the reveal of Sophie’s father, either. (I’m not entirely sure I even got the ending, though I have a pretty good idea, Browne doesn’t explicitly say anything.) Either way, this wasn’t a bad ending, even if it wasn’t the shock it was trying to be, and I’m happy that hopefully my strong ending slump seems to be over for now. There are some unanswered questions, like why Paul was trying to put Sophie on a healthy diet, but they didn’t matter too much. Overall I think I enjoyed Sophie’s plot the most.

I’m still not sure whether I would have picked this up as a stand-alone novel, but The Affair brings enough new things to the table where I feel that it wasn’t a waste of time. I even found myself caring about that characters, particularly Sophie, and while it won’t be a favorite of mine it’s not a bad book.

3 stars

Book Club Questions (spoilers)

  1. Why do you think Alicia went ahead with her relationship with Paul? She herself said that she didn’t want Justin to blame her. Does he? How much of a real relationship do you think was present?
  2. Is Justin a good character in this novel? Readers will notice that he has some aggressive tendencies–is he good as a husband? What about Alicia?
  3. Sophie is so angry that her first and only thought is to run away from home. By the end of the book, she is blaming herself. Who is right and who is wrong in this novel, and how so? Do you think that Sophie is to blame for anything?
  4. Do you believe in the saying “once a cheater, always a cheater” as Justin seems to? Or are you okay with second chances? What does it take to ruin a family–the action or the lies?
  5. What happens after Justin and Alicia drop the final bombshell on Sophie at the end? Is their family going to survive this?
writing wednesday

I Completed NaNoWriMo for the first time…and won!

Happy one-month-till-NaNoWriMo! This is a post I wrote for my former writing website last year.

Yes, guys, I did it. I wrote a novel in 30 days.

And you know what? It was much more manageable than I thought. Some days I would cruise along. Other days, especially near the end, it would be hard to generate enough material. I would try to get it done as early as I could. I usually get inspired in the evening, so I would often continue then as well. Nevertheless, I pulled through and ended up with something that resembles a novel. That’s still weird to say: I’ve written a novel! I am not a published writer, but a novice who writes for fun; most of my published things being in a literary magazine, Wattpad, fanfiction.net, or my blog. And I did it.

So what’s my advice? I don’t have anything be-all-end-all, but I thought I’d share just a few thoughts on my experience to help you see if it’s right for you.

title: I Completed NaNoWriMo for the first time!

Pin me for later!

Tip 1: Get experience with larger projects.

In college, I learned that a good way to write a paper without being overwhelmed was to do a page a day- most of them were no more than 6 to 8 pages, so pretty simple. If I was inspired, I could write more, but I did at least one page a day. When I wrote my supah-long paper in senior year, I did two pages a day (and started early). I also wrote a novella, Twelve Days Till Dating. This took a long time, mostly because I procrastinated and wanted to wait to edit until spring so I could put it on Wattpad for Christmas in July. It made me look forward to doing other projects. I also realized that it was doable.

Tip 2: You don’t need a “reason.”

Much like hiking, you can just do it because it’s there. It’s also great motivation if you want to start writing and there’s a great community behind you. That alone is a great reason! More on the community…

Tip 3: Utilize your resources.

You can declare your novel on the official National Novel Writing Month website. You will then have access to forums filled with writers to talk to. You’ll also be able to connect to writers from your area, who may even have a Facebook group. Mine did meet-ups all the time, or gatherings where you could get together and write. I didn’t get to any of those, but hey, that’s just motivation to do this again! You can also shop from their store, earn badges for completing various tasks, and compete in “word sprint” challenges.

Speaking of community, social media can actually be great. Instagram is always a good place for writers to begin with. But in November, you can easily connect with and see what other writers are up to by searching for hashtags likes #nanowrimo or #writersofinstagram, among many more. I participated in a 30-day challenge that had the unique tag #nanothatwrimo so I could be connected to other writers doing the same challenge. I should mention that “challenges” consist of taking a photo of something, or posting a text graphic in response to the question. It was fun!

Tip 4: Don’t be afraid to plan. Actually, you should plan.

I’ve found a few great ways of planning. One is a chapter outline, or an outline of what should be accomplished in each chapter. Another is a scene-by-scene list. Of course you may deviate from this as you go, but they are a great start.

For a novel, you should at least do some planning. Knowing what you’re going to write about that day makes it so much easier, as is knowing who your characters are and what any plot twists are going to be–for me, the twist was the hardest part. If you don’t have any plan for a novel when you start, it’s going to be much harder for you. Once you’ve figured out the basics, all you have to do is write.

Tip 5: Write 1,667 words a day, no excuses, and try for more.

This is likely not going to be a problem for you if you breezed through papers in college. It really only takes 1-2 hours at absolute most if you keep at it. If you get inspired, don’t stop there. You never know when you’ll need to take a day off, or when something will pop up. I had a massive headache one day that prevented me from doing anything, but since I was ahead of schedule there was nothing for me to worry about. Keep in mind that Thanksgiving also falls in the same month as NaNoWriMo, so you’re probably looking at writing a novel in 29 days if you’re from the U.S., and that doesn’t count any surprise “off days” like mine.

You should really try for more than 50k. I had a word count mishap where I came up with 3 different word counts near the end…one in OneDrive, one in Word, and the other for the NaNoWriMo word counter. Just to be safe, write more! It turned out I would need almost 1,000 words on the last day rather than the 300 I was planning on.

Tip 6: Keep track of your writing.

I had a folder labeled “Seeking You” (my novel title) and used a one-document-per-day method, saving each one as you go. Seriously….SAVE SAVE SAVE! In more than one place! Use your computer, use Google Drive, use DropBox, and use Microsoft One Drive. Or use whatever you’d like. The more the better…even flash drives have been known to randomly stop working on me in the past. The NaNoWriMo website will not save your work. Then I entered the total on that day’s document into the NaNoWriMo word counter. (Sometimes it helped to have each document be one chapter, or half a chapter [so two days= 1 chapter], just to keep track of words. This of course can be changed in editing.)

You’ll also want to think of a method to keep track of word count. You could use a new document for each day of writing, and then add that word total to the rest of them, which is usually what I did. (Make sure you do a total count at the end of each day.) NaNoWriMo.org will do a total count for you if you use the word counter on your dashboard to enter the number of words you wrote that day. If you’re writing in one big document, or continuing in an existing one, separate that day’s writing from the rest by coloring that day’s words in a different color. Then highlight the colored text, count the words, and add it to your current total. This is why you should always find a good stopping point rather than leave your last sentence unfinished.

Tip 7: Remember it’s not the end of the world if you don’t win.

Many people don’t win, or finish the full 50k in November. That’s okay. The important thing is that you start a project, or told yourself you can do it, or whatever. Suit your goals to meet your needs.

Tip 8: If you have little going on in your life at the moment and/or considerable time in November, realize that this may be a good year to do it.

That would be me! My current job allows me considerable downtime; something I likely won’t have as much of in the future. It was a great place to get some writing done. How many people could say that?

Tip 9: Get it done as soon as possible.

Me personally, I get inspired at night and that’s when I churn out the most words. But what if I had plans one evening, or just didn’t feel like doing it one night? I tried to have writing be one of the first aspects of my day. Then it was done, and anything else I completed was a bonus and kept me ahead of schedule.

I have no idea what the next step even is. They say that NaNoWriMo is just the first step, but I feel that it is a big one! I do think that this won’t ever be published. Looking back, it may borrow from other novels a bit too much. Of course, I’d need someone to read it to be sure.

Wherever your writing takes you, be bold. Be fearless. Just write, even if it sounds ridiculous. Anybody can do it. Prose can be changed later. Or maybe you’ll look back in revision to see that it didn’t sound so terrible after all. Honestly, NaNoWriMo was just an idea lingering in my head. And then I started doing it, and it became much more real. And now look at me. I have a novel just waiting to be polished! Now that it’s done, the possibilities are endless. The hardest part is getting started.

Update in 2019:

My novel, Seeking You, has sadly been abandoned for the time being. I think I need to figure out how to tackle the editing process for larger projects, and the story itself just seemed messy.

Still, I’m very glad I did it, and it’s there should I want to return. Right now I’m working on a YA thriller and another twisty suspense story, both of which have more promise I think. Ultimately I would like to use NaNoWriMo to either start a children’s series, but either way I look forward to doing it again.

reviews

The Babysitter: Sheryl Browne


This is a repost from 2 hours ago due to wordpress cutting words from the last post.

The Babysitter: Sheryl Browne
Genre: Domestic suspense
Published: 2018
Pages: 352
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Slytherin

Mark and Melissa are happily married. But when they stumble across Jade, they know that they’ve found the perfect person to help out with their children. Since Jade’s house just burned to the ground, they can’t help but think that it is perfect timing.
Maybe it is too perfect. As Mark spends long days tackling a missing child case at work and Melissa struggles from depression, their marriage is put to the test. As a result, Jade spends lots of time looking after the kids. But something more sinister might be going on. Is it possible that Mark and Jade used to know each other? What does she want, and what is she going to do to the family to get it?

The Babysitter is my first foray into this genre in which someone has easy access to the house but isn’t the person that they seem. I loved the premise, but wasn’t expecting much from a big, thick book that advertised “Great Price!” on the front and also advertised a “bonus novel inside.” Clearly, I shouldn’t have been put off.

For starters, the book is well written. Browne’s writing style flows and paints a vivid portrait of this family’s world while also getting into the heads of her characters so we see their thoughts firsthand. Mark has to balance being a police officer with taking care of his kids. Melissa stays at home working on her pottery business, keeping afloat after they lost a child years ago. Then Jade arrives at the perfect time to help them out. Loving how Jade behaves with the kids, Melissa forgoes the background check, one example of how a single decision will change the course of the book. In addition, there is drama at the police station where Mark works. There is levelheaded Lisa, scumbag Cummings who Mark is hoping will get his just desserts as he tries to catch him in the act of being a sexual predator, and Edwards, the boss of the operation. Although they all play important parts in this book, and Jade figures out ways to use them in her plot, I also think they were some of the most underrated characters in the novel. I loved watching the dynamics between them. Melissa and Lisa were supposedly friends until Jade got in the way. I would have liked to see more of that (this isn’t a criticism, just a suggestion). I think Browne may have a possible series on her hands with these characters. I also took a particular liking to Poppy, their Peppa-Pig loving, daddy’s-girl daughter. Browne can write kids very well. She was a little beacon of light in an otherwise dark tale.

As for Jade, I hated her. As I wrote in my Instagram, I had Professor Umbridge-levels of dislike for this character. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps it was because she was beautiful and got her way. Perhaps it was because she seemed to get away with everything–I thought she had ultimate motives for their baby, which never quite came to fruition. Or maybe because the family didn’t seem to think anything was happening. Personally there would have been a few times where I’d think to check things out, like look at what exactly was going into Melissa’s drinks that someone else was giving her. (Seriously, a cup spills with powdery substances in it and nobody thinks to check this out?) In short, I was frustrated! The book is filled with little mysteries like these–Jade may have a plan, but ends up changing it later on. And she’s obviously telling Poppy some things but we never figure out what they are. Readers will be kept on their toes, whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing; maybe some of these questions could have been fleshed out. Overall, it was hard not to just skim the pages to find out what had happened to this family. It is a strength of Browne’s writing that she is able to create a villain so especially dastardly, even though I’ve seen many characters like her before. Her actions truly kept me turning pages. Jade does have an ultimate goal, but most of the enjoyment comes from seeing her little actions play out, rather than seeing if she accomplishes what she is setting out to do.

As for the end, I can’t really complain minus a bit of rushing. I wasn’t quite sure on a few details of the climactic action, like locations. Otherwise, there’s closure, but there’s also a hint of uncertainty, as in how the family will keep going. Could it be that I’m pulling out of my strong ending slump? I hope so. Sure, Mark does seem to put things together very quickly while not even at home, but at least they finally got to that point!

If you’re looking for a well-written novel with characters that will keep you worried for them, The Babysitter might be a good one for you. It’s filled with all the things I love in domestic suspense with an antagonist I won’t soon forget.

4 stars

SONG OF THE NOVEL: Stranger

Book Club Questions (spoilers!)

  1. How sympathetic was Jade as a villain? Was Mark in the wrong at all, or was it entirely Jade’s fault? Did Jade have a right to be upset? Do you think that her house burned down by mistake? How long had she been plotting everything?
  2. There is a brief mention of Dylan’s past in the book by the police office–so brief you might miss it. Do you think Jade’s Dylan is the same Dylan? Think about his backstory and how he got to where he is today. Where does life end up taking him?
  3. There are several little mysteries sprinkled throughout–what Jade was telling Poppy about her father being annoyed with her, how her grandmother died, what Jade was originally going to do with Cummings. Pick one of these questions and answer it.
  4. How are these characters’ futures determined by their pasts? Not just for Jade, but for other characters as well. How will Evie and Poppy turn out having gone through this?
  5. Describe a time in your life when someone you knew and trusted ended up not being the person they seemed to be. Maybe it wasn’t as extreme as Jade’s case, but maybe there was a betrayal, or maybe they ended up being different for the better. How did this impact the relationship?



reviews

The Night Before: Wendy Walker

The Night Before: Wendy Walker
Genre: Psychological suspense
Published: 2019
Pages: 310
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Ravenclaw

Laura has never found “the one.” She must be content with watching her sister Rosie be happily married, unable to truly bond with any man after an incident in her youth. After she leaves her job and runs off to Rosie’s home in Connecticut, she decides to give things one more try. She signs up for online dating and decides to meet up with a man named Jonathan Fields.

While Laura goes on her date, Rosie sits at home and worries. She knows that Laura has had a troubled past, and when Laura doesn’t return home, she embarks on a search mission. Is Laura’s date who he says he is? Or has Laura done something terrible to him?

The Night Before is a domestic suspense novel that takes an interesting turn. Instead of a romantic affair, the tale is about two sisters, one who is flighty and troubled and the other who is more levelheaded. So what drew me to it? I liked the possibility of the protagonist being the bad guy. I also enjoyed the idea of sisters. In the end, it’s a challenging book to review. Is it about what happened to Laura? Is it about what Laura did or didn’t do years ago? Is it about family secrets that the book becomes muddled with? It doesn’t seem to want to decide.

Much of the book takes place within a 24-hour time frame, as Laura goes on her date and then doesn’t return. She’s still haunted by a tragedy from her high school past involving a guy that she sort of liked, and doesn’t fully trust herself. . Rosie can’t help but worry, so she enlists her husband and their childhood friend to help. As they do, more things begin to unravel. Ultimately, it becomes a tale of many secrets; this isn’t just Laura’s story. That’s where things get maybe a little too complicated.

The biggest problem is that it suffers from purple-ish prose. It’s hard to explain in the context of a review, but the text itself was essentially just…hard to follow. Laura’s chapters are narrated by her, and it’s clear that she’s a messy person. On pg. 72, on her date with Jon, Laura is talking about Rosie’s family and says, “I know my nephew. I do.” Now out of nowhere she’s wondering about if her nephew is who he says he is? Her two year old nephew who doesn’t really have anything to do with this novel? What was the point of those lines? The thoughts overall are just scattered; that’s just one example. Characters just start talking about something else. They use weird phrases–someone uses the word “whale” as a verb at some point. There are way too many incomplete sentences for my liking. Characters even sound the same–religious or not, I wasn’t impressed with the constant use of “Jesus Christ” as an interjection. Overall, Laura’s story felt more like a choppy first draft. Walker obviously had material to work with here, but it’s pretty much that. It’s not organized especially well. I think she made things too complicated with the addition of some irrelevant twists and turns involving a family secret and Jon’s identity. And then there’s the fact that most of what happens in the story really isn’t relevant to Laura’s issue, not to give too much away. Too much time is ultimately spent on red herrings and side characters that contribute nothing, like Laura’s roommate. There is another potential twist that doesn’t go anywhere about a family affair, and another about someone who Laura used to date, and probably more that I’m not thinking of. It’s disjointed, and that’s where it missed the mark for me. There are too many possible suspects and plots thrown in and many aren’t relevant, and at a certain point I wondered whose story I was reading.

The characters are…okay. Nor great, even. Laura drove me up the wall with her constant “woe-is-me” and “I’m sooo messed up and broken” attitude. She seemed to refuse any sort of change. Her date, Jon, isn’t especially interesting either. In fact, this date night, the plotline the story is supposed to be based upon, ends up primarily being a vehicle for the backstory to expose itself, and they don’t actually do a lot of dating activities. Rather, she just opens up to him about “that night,” or when she was accused of doing something terrible. Would you open up to a guy you literally just met by spilling every last detail on a personal tragedy that happened years ago? These two could have had an interesting night, but it just wasn’t, and I found myself tempted to skim these chapters. It read more like a therapy session.

The family dynamics should have been more interesting also. I like the idea of two sisters together. Of course, Laura chalks up all her issues to her missing father who ran out on them years ago. This is getting highly unoriginal. Not that we’re even sure that he is to blame. He’s just kind of a scapegoat in a larger picture. I would have liked to see Rosie and Laura’s relationship explored more, though, as it seemed more relevant here.

As for the ending, it’s more solid than ones I’ve read recently. The prose finally tightens up to focus on a singular issue: where Laura is. Now readers of this blog will know that I like an epilogue, just so I can learn how life continues on. This ending walks the line between knowing and fearing the future and does it pretty well. There are explanations given (though I would have liked a more definite answer to some questions), and Laura finds an answer to what she must do next, regardless if her life becomes happy or not. So, points for that.

I’m not sure if The Night Before works. I think it’s a collection of ideas that needs to be refined and expanded upon. I think there was opportunity for expansion on the sisters’ lives and it focused too much on the past. I think the writing style made it suffer more than it needed to as well. Organizationally, it tries to take on multiple plots which distract from the main purpose of finding Laura, or wondering whether she was the bad guy–and I don’t think many readers will peg her as the culprit there, so it’s wasted time. This is hit-or-miss really, and if you’re interested I certainly wouldn’t say you shouldn’t pick it up, but it wasn’t a highly memorable novel either.

2.5 stars

Book Club Questions (spoilers!)

  1. Laura looks to her sister Rosie to find her ideal of marital bliss. Is all that it seems, or is the grass always greener on the other side of the fence? Will Laura need a guy to complete her?
  2. How does parental involvement play a role in shaping the children of this book? Discuss the impact of parenting on Laura, Rosie, Gabe, and even Mason. Does it have any impact on how they turn out, do you think?
  3. What are the perils of online dating? Have you ever tried to create a profile? If so, how did it go? Did you choose to hide anything about yourself? Why might Jonathan want to hide his identity? To what extent does he show his true self?
  4. Why does Laura choose to act the way that she does? Is it because of her upbringing, or something else? Is she incapable of loving herself or does she choose not to?
  5. There are multiple cases of mistaken identity, or of a character not truly knowing someone they think they know. Consider Joe and Rosie, or Rosie and Laura, Laura and Mitch, or Laura and Gabe. How do you go a good portion of your life without knowing someone? How well can you truly know anyone?
reviews

With You Always; Rena Olsen

With You Always; Rena Olsen
Genre: Christian suspense
Published: 2018
Pages: 339
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Gryffindor, Slytherin

When Julia meets Bryce, she is smitten. He is the perfect guy–charming, sweet, and handsome. Together they begin their life’s journey and become members of the church that Bryce and his family belong to. Soon his family is having a huge say in their marriage, from the details of the wedding planning to how Julia should behave as a wife. But are they overstepping their boundaries? As Bryce starts to reveal his true nature, step by step, Julia finds herself becoming isolated from everything she loves about her life, from her job to her nephews and parents, giving Bryce and the curch her only attention. Eventually, there is no way out as her dream come true becomes a nightmare. Is living with Bryce the fairy tale she thought it would be? Or is it a trap?

I have to admit: With You Always is one of the most unique psychological suspense novels I’ve picked up recently. As a Christian myself, I wasn’t expecting the church to be such a prominent aspect of the book (probably because it seemed to be omitted entirely from the description…looking at you, BookBub). I was expecting something about a Christian cult, and that’s kind of what I got. But it’s also a unique Christian suspense novel, a subgenre I had no idea existed.

Now, the first 1/3 of the book was pretty slow. Bryce is so charming and perfect that the chapters that we do see of them dating are pretty bland. It takes a while to go through them and Olsen herself summarizes at points. And they decide to tie the knot so quickly that I have a hard time getting invested at the beginning. On the other hand, I see why readers would want a solid foundation. However it does pick up. Even though it’s not an action packed journey, it crackles with underlying suspense that builds up as readers move along.

Bryce attends the Church of the Life, a massive institution that includes a church, a school, a cafe, many Bible study groups, and a mysterious “Gathering” which is by invitation only. It’s run by the Reverend and his wife, Nancy, whom Bryce considers his parents. Julia, of course, starts joining him at church because it’s a strong part of his life and begins to delve deeper into the faith herself. Then her marriage begins to take a turn. Olsen studied psychology and that knowledge is evident throughout. She goes into great detail of how Julia is duped into believing that everything she does is her fault through Bryce and his family. Eventually she doesn’t even need Bryce to tell her that she’s wrong about some things; she just believes it internally. There were several times where she could make a clean cut getaway and I wanted to scream at her a bit, but I can also understand why she didn’t, because by then she truly believed she’d be doing wrong. Her thought processes are well thought out. These same processes are depicted in watching her isolate herself from her job, her friends and her family. You want to be frustrated with her for making these choices, but at the same time, you can’t be.

Christianity is an important part of the novel–not something you usually see in suspense. Olsen acknowledges that bad churches do exist, but there is still plenty of good. For example, Julia likes her Bible study with Jenny until Bryce makes her stop going. She continues to do Bible studies when her marriage reaches its lowest point. While there are sinister things going on, there are positives too. Julia does not even give up on her faith at the end of the novel. I liked that Olsen didn’t depict faith as a bad thing, and instead, something that could be manipulated by people who aren’t good.

This novel unfortunately doesn’t do much to end my “strong ending” slump. It leaves a lot to be desired, and like many suspense novels, pretty much ends at the point of no return. This leaves considerable unanswered questions about Bryce’s motivation and why his behavior changed, his family, what kind of things the church was really up to, why the Reverend did what he did during the Gathering, and how things end for Julia and her family. I personally am a big fan of the “where are they now” epilogue, so maybe part of it is just me, but I’d like things to be wrapped up a bit more. (Edit: After I published this post, I saw that Goodreads reviewers are saying the same thing, not just about this novel but for others I’ve read this year. It’s clear to me by this point that readers want questions answered if they invest their time in a story, so hopefully this ending slump will end soon!)

With You Always stands out among recent suspense novels for the subject matter. I had a hard time putting it down, but I would really, really love to see more endings that tied things together. I’m tired of having to decide outcomes for myself, and I do ultimately buy books so the author can tell me the story. Still, it was a unique spin on an abusive relationship tale with well-written psychological tension that will keep readers turning pages, knowing that the slow beginning will be worth it. It’s not an action-packed thriller, but it’s suspenseful all the same.

4 stars

SONG OF THE NOVEL: Take Me to Church

Book Club Questions (spoilers obviously)

  1. Kate was seeing red flags in Julia and Bryce’s relationship from the beginning. What were some of them, do you think? Would you rush into a marriage if the guy seemed perfect?
  2. Many victims of abuse get the same question: “Why don’t you just leave?” Why couldn’t Julia feel as if she could just leave, despite opportunities? What do you think you would have done?
  3. Events such as the Gathering are seen as good by those who attend–but it is not a Godly experience. Christians: have you ever felt a true connection to God in your life? How can you tell if it’s God speaking or if it’s someone else?
  4. Think about backstories for the Reverend and Nancy. What in their life led them to this point? Why did the Reverend decide to just take in Bryce off the street without regard to his parents? Do you think either of them knew God? Why did they choose to take advantage of so many people rather than to truly lead them to Christ? Are his motivations good, at all?
  5. Have you ever been duped by someone of faith? How did it change your belief system?
  6. Is Bryce a good character who had just been brainwashed into the Reverend’s plans and beliefs? Or was he a victim of his past, or something else?
  7. The events after the end are largely left to interpretation. Where do you see Julia’s life going from here? Do you think her family will take her in so she can start over, or does she have a long battle ahead with the legal system and prison time? Do you think the Reverend and Nancy will try and make her pay or frame her for murder?

articles

Stories of My Childhood: Just Grandma and Me

In this series, I explore books that have had a special meaning to me as a kid. It can be any book that tells a story that isn’t a board book, counting/alphabet book, and that is one I remember well. Of course, it should ideally be good too. This month’s choice is a special pick for Grandparents’ Day.

What is the book about?

This is a simple little story about Little Critter and his grandmother. Together, they have many adventures at the beach. Narrated by Little Critter, it tells all about their day from morning until he falls asleep on the bus ride home.

How did I discover it?

It was part of Grandma’s book basket–more on that below. It was a staple whenever I came for a visit, usually on my own. It did, after all, feature a grandmother and one grandchild.

What do I like about the book?

It’s a simple story about grandparent appreciation. I don’t remember most of the things that Little Critter actually does, but there are events that you’d often see at a typical beach day…but the focus is on the grandmother. It’s a different approach to family stories. I remember there being some nice illustrations, too. One particular two-page drawing featured lots of animals and little critters having fun at the beach, and I remember being intrigued by a plane carrying a “sign” behind it that said “Work for Peace.” This may have been because I was used to seeing so many “planes with signs” at the Jersey shore as a kid.

Favorite memory involving the books

Grandma used to have a book basket–pretty much an Easter basket with books inside. Titles included things like “Peanut Butter and Jelly,” “If You Give a Pig a Pancake,” “Nina Nina Star Ballerina,” “The Berenstain Bears’ Week at Grandma’s,” and the books about the Westie terrier whose name I can’t recall. But by far the most fun to read was Just Grandma and Me. Sometimes Grandma would even read it from her perspective instead of from Little Critter’s. It was especially funny at the end, where Little Critter insisted his grandmother fell asleep on the bus ride home even though it was he who did so.

Not that I don’t give the Berenstain Bears book any credit; that too was a good grandparent book. It showed Brother and Sister Bear going to their grandparents’ home for a week while their parents took a second honeymoon. I never understood why they were disappointed about it; going to Grandma and Grandpa’s was fun! But they learned to have fun too, through baking and ship building and square dancing. That was almost my choice for this month’s Childhood Stories post. Both are great.

Digging deeper into the fandom

Little Critter had “grown up” books too. In second grade, I was delighted to discover a series for young elementary school students starring him, now called LC. He and his friends had many adventures, and while I don’t remember what they were, I do know that I loved checking them out for silent reading time. They’re very hard to find now it seems. I may have outgrown Just Grandma and Me, but it was fun to continue the series later on.

My thoughts on the book now

Just Grandma and Me probably isn’t as popular as it used to be, but it does bring back memories. I’m sad I don’t remember too much about it, but it is what it is. If I can remember the happy times it brought, it must be a good story.

Happy Grandparents’ Day to all!

reviews

Watching You; Lisa Jewell

Watching You: Lisa Jewell
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2018
Pages: 324
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Slytherin

Tom Fitzwilliam has enjoyed a successful career as a schoolmaster, being placed into struggling schools across the country and fixing them up again. And the women are taking notice even today. New neighbor Joey isn’t sure about her marriage, but Tom sparks something inside her that she hasn’t recognized in her own marriage. Teenage Jenna helps deal with the reality of her paranoid mother by hanging out with her friend Bess–who also seems to harbor an interest in their teacher. And then there’s Tom’s son Freddie, who watches everyone and everything play out within his neighborhood…including a seemingly fraught relationship between his mother and father.

It isn’t long before someone’s obsession reaches a breaking point when someone is killed in the Fitzwilliam house. Soon neighbors and friends find themselves questioning each other and wondering how far is too far.

Watching You is an interesting twist on the mystery thriller that brings several different stories together and turns them into one. Many people have roles (albeit sometimes small) in this neighborhood of colorful homes. The title manifests itself in different ways; watching a love interest, watching your neighbors, and even keeping an eye on your family and friends.

The novel reads like a thriller or character study rather than a mystery. It focuses more on the events themselves then it does with the police procedural, though chapters are interspersed with interview snippets. Readers don’t even know who was killed. I had the “who” and the “why” about midway through, but Jewell includes other twists and last-minute thoughts that will shock even the best detectives.

And because they don’t know who for most of the book, it presents itself as more of a character study. This isn’t a bad thing here, though, because I found most of them to be interesting and not caricatures. I liked that Tom wasn’t the perfect definition of handsome as you might expect. I liked getting a glimpse into the life of semi-popular-but-not-entitled Jenna. Overall, Jewell does a great job writing characters as unique people. The character who fell a bit short for me was Joey and sometimes I found myself being bummed out when the chapter changed to to her arc again. I initially thought it would mostly be her story since we spend a lot of time in her perspective in the beginning, but it isn’t. There is nothing new about her affairs and watching her miss her dead mother (yet another “missing parent” subplot I thought was unnecessary).

Yes, there are certainly a lot of stories here! One might even wonder if there are too much. By the end of the book it was pretty clear to me that a lot of the chapters were filler meant to serve as red herrings, which I guess is a good thing if you like to challenge yourself to solve the plot before the pages end. However, again, the characters were for the most part interesting and I didn’t mind. On the other hand, some of these subplots stray considerably from the main storyline. Freddie, Tom’s son, is an awkward teenager who struggles with the fact that he may have Asperger’s. He also struggles with dating, and while they do give some interesting insight, they add nothing to the overarching story. Entire chapters are devoted to his dating life and probably weren’t needed. It’s some nice representation, but it should have been tied into the novel. I was also questioning why he suddenly started acting according to his new label after he realized he had the disorder. Overall, everyone has a part to play even though I felt at times like Jewell went out of her way to include stories for the sake of throwing us off. Of course, then the book would be a lot smaller, so I guess it kind of works.

As for guessing? This could either be an easy or challenging book to solve, depending on your experience with the genre. I read one sentence or two that blew the thing open for me, but then again I could just be speaking for myself. One aspect of there being several characters to hear from is that everyone has a reason for having a motive, from Jenna’s paranoid mother to Joey herself, and that adds an extra challenge as well as a new level of interest.

Watching You is a somewhat slow burn, but it does begin to get interesting in the second half. which I liked better. I don’t have a lot more to say about it than that other than it’s an interesting look at obsession with interesting characters, and if that’s your thing, you’ll probably enjoy this one.

3 stars

SONG OF THE NOVEL: Every Breath You Take

Book Club Questions (spoilers obviously)

  1. There is a lot of “watching” to be done in this book. Who watches who? When is it harmful and when it is okay? Does social media make it more acceptable for us to spy on people?
    1a. Did you ever learn something about someone else that you weren’t supposed to by watching them? What was it? How did things play out from there?
  2. Who did you first guess to be the murderer? Who did you think was murdered?
  3. Think back to a time in school when there was a big scandal. What happened and what came of it, if anything?
  4. Rebecca has a clear-cut motive for what she did. Do you think that she is a good or bad person? What would have been a better way to go about it? What would you have done?
  5. How much was Tom to blame in any event described in the novel? Do you think he was involved in Viva’s death, directly or indirectly? Was he an intentional womanizer or just a victim of his circumstances?

articles

6 More Things I’m Tired of Seeing in Modern Stories

To see the first six things, click here.

The Bar Scene

Going to bars is more exciting in person then it is to read about. On the page, it can be pretty dull. You have your MC, often female in my experience, meeting a guy and having a conversation over beer. It just doesn’t translate all that well and usually serves as a plot device.

The Random French-speaking U.S. Citizen

This is an oddly specific trope that has popped up in at least 4 books I read this past year. It consists of a side character (sometimes MCs do it as well though) who mostly speaks English, but occasionally drops French phrases for reasons often unknown. Oh, they’re not usually French or anything, they just do it…because…uniqueness? A recent book I read did call themselves out on it, but that still doesn’t mean it was necessary. In another case, I think it was because the author took French and was looking for an excuse to use it. This is frustrating when the French helps to move the story along and I have no idea what they’re saying! Unless France or its culture is important to the US-based novel, I’m tired of reaching for a French-English dictionary just to understand the story. (Obviously, it was fine in Jenny Colgan’s The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris.) If authors want to make quirky characters, I’d like to see them stick to using interesting traits, not having them spew French phrases now and then. (And it’s always French, never random Spanish or Japanese, furthering my theory that the author is trying to jump on a romantic, stylish trend.) Characters should have reasons for suddenly sliding into other languages.

Sexual scenes

This is a matter of opinion, but I would much rather have a story than read about what characters do in the bedroom, sometimes over and over again. When I read a book, I want excitement and interest. This usually takes the form of having the characters go out on dates, having adventures, and getting to know each other. I don’t feel the need to go any more personal than that…and it’s just not very interesting to me, especially when they’re done over and over.

The Open-Ended Ending

Possibly one of the biggest issues plaguing my book choices, sometimes authors feel like they want readers to imagine their own ending. But I personally buy books because I want the author to spin me a story, and for me that means coming up with an original ending that’s thought-provoking and doesn’t leave me hanging. I don’t want to decide for myself. And yes, stories should have endings.

Gay carciatures

Come on, people. It’s 2019. Of all the gay characters I’ve met this past year, there were TWO (in the same book) that weren’t flamboyant, fashion loving, stylish, or resorted to terms like “sweetie” and “darling.” Let’s start making gay people sound and talk like actual people. The occasional semi-stereotype is probably fine for diverse reasons, but even so, characters should have some sort of uniqueness to them.

Drawn-out drinking scenes

I sometimes wonder whether characters in the adult fiction world have hobbies other than drinking. It’s rare these days where I read a book without hearing someone wax poetic about their favorite wines or beer or who knows what. Maybe this is just me again (I find drinking overrated), but these are often the scenes I find most dull in a novel. I feel the characters are putting on airs, and it just seems so superficial. Characters are allowed to have hobbies and activities other than drinking. Additionally, scenes where characters socialize at bars are rarely exciting in themselves (see above).

articles

Elite Eight: Fictional Teachers

As back-to-school season is upon us, sometimes it’s hard to think about going back and leaving summer behind, especially not always knowing what you’re getting into. But one thing that can truly make the difference between a good year and a bad one are the teachers. So today I’ll be talking about what teachers I love…in books! Most of these teachers will be from kids and YA books, since after all, kids are the ones in school–and I find that most of the teachers in adult novels I’ve read haven’t been very good so far!

Do you love any of the teachers I mention? Did I miss any other good ones? Let me know in the comments.

Mrs., Junie B. Jones

While everyone else is worrying about what the note in Pam’s teapot said or what Penny’s last name was in the Big Bang Theory, I’m over here wondering about what Mrs.’ last name was. (Seriously, what was it?) Not always patient with rambunctious Junie B, Mrs. was nevertheless a great teacher. It wasn’t that she didn’t like Junie B; in fact, Mrs. was often supportive, sticking up for her when she brought in a fish stick for Pet Day and celebrating with her when she got the biggest Valentine in the class. She also isn’t afraid of a little wrongdoing, like testing grapes in the grocery store. It was then that we learned that teachers are real people (who don’t live at school). And when Junie B. moved on to first grade, I found myself missing Mrs. in the same way I always missed my old teacher on the first day of a new year.

Professor Lupin; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

There are many teachers to choose from here-McGonagall, Hagrid, and are other contenders, but Professor Remus Lupin wins out. He’s a great, supportive teacher whose class you actually look forward to during the week because you get to do super fun things in that class period, like fight actual magical creatures. He doesn’t let other teachers harass his students (coughSNAPEcough), but instead lets the unassuming, shy students be recognized. He’s also not afraid to get to know his students, though having a connection to Harry likely helped with that.

Mr. Gianini; The Princess Diaries

Normally your algebra teacher coming to live at your house would be a nightmare, especially for Mia and I (words people). But after a while, having Frank Gianini as her stepfather wasn’t so bad. Sure, it came with some downsides–extra practice at home, anyone? But hey, it was all in the name of helping Mia try to get good grades. Soon, he became a cool drum-playing member of the family, though it probably helped matters when Mia was no longer taking high school algebra too.

Mrs. Claire Shawcourt; The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris

At first glance, Claire Shawcourt may seem like your average French teacher. Anna takes her class and doesn’t take much away from it…or does she? When the two reunite, Claire suggests that Anna go to France, and helps her brush up on her French skills even as adults. It’s revealed that Claire has an ulterior motive to have Anna help reunite her with a long-lost love, but the adventures they have together are those of two friends. Who says you can’t be friends with your teacher? Mrs. Shawcourt proves that you really can use high school skills later in life.

Bill; Perks of Being a Wallflower

Sometimes it’s hard to share your thoughts in front of the whole class. Charlie knows, but so does his advanced English teacher, Bill. Seeing potential and passion in one of his shy students, the two often talk about books that he assigns Charlie in private. He automatically gives Charlie As, because he likes him, but gives him the real grades in private. Seems sketchy? Not really, considering that Charlie is getting a good education. And it’s nice that the two can become genuine friends. Bill gives lots of advice to Charlie about putting himself out there, and it seems to pay off.

Ms. Bunder; Amazing Days of Abby Hayes

Not even an official teacher, Ms. Bunder still proves that learning should be fun. A friend of Abby’s real fifth grade teacher, Ms. Kantor, she came in once a week to share creative writing exercises. How cool is that? She encouraged Abby, and the rest of the class, to be creative in their work. She often let the students decide writing topics. And when Abby was less than thrilled about being the class advice columnist, Ms. Bunder gave her advice to reach her full potential. The two had such a special bond that Ms. Bunder gave Abby her business card at graduation. We’d all love to have a class, and teacher, like Ms. Bunder, even if you don’t love creative writing. As for me, the whole thing would be a dream come true.

Miss Winston; Kirsten Learns A Lesson (American Girl)

It must be terrifying to move to a new country and have to speak the native language only at school. For Kirsten, it was. And Miss Winston expected not just English only, but for her to recite a poem in English. Although Miss Winston seemed strict, she was able to assist Kirsten in learning the poem and even helped her choose one that reminded her of home in Sweden. She’s what we need in teachers: she expects hard work, but is willing to help you through it all.

Mr. Ratburn; Arthur

Because Arthur originated as picture books and had a chapter book series, I’m including Mr. Ratburn here too. A feared teacher by Arthur’s new third grade class, he does have a reputation for giving a considerable amount of homework. In some episodes, we see Arthur look longingly at Miss Sweetwater’s class, who are often singing songs and telling jokes. But when it comes down to it, Mr. Ratburn is truly a great teacher. He helps his students study for tests and spelling bees and genuinely wants them to succeed. He takes them on actually fun field trips and is a great puppeteer too. And if you want to find an excuse to have a class party, Mr. Ratburn is almost always game (he LOVES cake). If you want to see some examples, just watch some Arthur (it’s actually a great show and not just for nostalgia purposes). I see many more instances of Mr. Ratburn’s good side than his bad one. And we all know this: Miss Sweetwater’s class will fail fourth grade, but Mr. Ratburn’s class will be prepared for anything.

Who is your favorite fictional teacher? Did I miss any?