If The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware were to be adapted, I hope it’s for the small screen. You can’t fit this mystery/horror into a two hour movie. This story of a governess taking care of three little girls in an old estate has many layers, polarizing characters, and a twist you do not see coming. It would be a crime to rush this story.
Whew! American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is not for the faint of heart. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like for migrants coming from Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico…look no further. Immigrants do the work Americans find too low paying, demeaning or difficult, but what you don’t know is that washing dishes, cooking, landscaping and all those other labor intensive jobs are a cakewalk compared to what they went through to get here.
American Dirt is the story of Lydia and her brilliant 8 year old son, Luca. They must get out of South and Central America for reasons I won’t ruin for you. Know that you will care about these characters, and that what they experience is the reality for many. Their travels will keep you on the edge of your seat, because survival against the elements, cartels, and border patrol is unlikely.
This story is really a testament to saying goodbye, grief, and to new horizons. What I liked most was the insight Cummins gives to each character, how they process their emotions and trauma through impossible situations.
I’d heard rumblings about people and critics disliking American Dirt… none of which I read. Given the political climate, any book about crossing the border into the United States would be controversial. I highly recommend you give this a chance regardless of what anyone says. Go into it knowing nothing, and out of it rewarded with the knowledge that those who seek to be near us have good reason to.
Oh dear. If you’re new here, you know I rarely unleash one of my handy “just stop” memes for my book reviews. And that when I do it, it’s for good reason. I’m saddened to report a “wtf book” so early in the year, but here we are. That said, I don’t think many will agree with me when it comes to The Maid by freshman author Nita Prose. The book has already been picked up for a movie adaptation and is high on the NYT Bestsellers List. I can see why people will enjoy this, but I didn’t. It has all the makings of ~the unputdownable~: first person narrative, overcoming the struggles as the underdog, murder, romance, suspense. And still, this fell flatter than a pancake. If you read further, here’s the obligatory 🔥 SPOILER ALERT 🔥.
The story follows Molly the Maid (yep), a character I can only describe as a female mashup of Sheldon Cooper and Forrest Gump, who happily works at a four-star hotel. She is dedicated to bringing rooms back to a “state of perfection”. One day she finds one of the hotel’s prolific and famous guests dead. From there, she unwittingly uncovers a series of dark happenings, all while trying to survive on a measly salary following the death of her grandmother.
What bothered me was the inconsistency with Molly. She was naive and uneducated when it worked for the story, then deceptive, capable, and cunning in the next instant which made her innocence about the most basic of things ridiculous. Molly is a complicated character, which would have been fine had there been any consistency whatsoever. Yes, she was sheltered, had what I can only guess would be considered Asperger’s, and was raised through her grandmother’s endless usage of proverbs and empty platitudes (which you will have to read over and over). But that still doesn’t explain her actions, which led me to believe the author did it to try to create the element of surprise for the reader. And by creating that element of surprise, you lose the believability of your titular character. The other, more disturbing, issue is that if you are going to write a story about a person with autism, be careful to do it justice. Make it clear that wrongdoing, lying, or turning a blind eye to unforgivable harms is a moral compass issue, one that has nothing to do with the disorder the character may have. Otherwise, you run the risk of creating confusion and suspicion about an already misunderstood diagnosis millions of people live with.
Don’t waste your time or money on this maid service. Let this one collect dust.
She died in 2006. That said, I intend no exaggeration when I say Octavia E. Butler saw Trump and his enablers/supporters coming. Ten years after she died, Trump was elected. Within these pages, there is a destructive and incompetent politician, Andrew Steele Jarret, who actually says he wants to Make America Great Again. No lie. And there are even “maggots” that invade safe spaces and destroy the property and lives of those who don’t agree with said politician. (This made me think of “MAGAts”, a term for frothing at the mouth Trump supporters like those who attacked the Capitol). Butler writes of the spread of disease long before COVID reared it’s ugly head. And most important of all, she writes of the tragic impact uneducated demagogues and their vicious refusal to listen to science have on humanity and the planet. The time period of the books is our NOW and the years ahead, and while there are clear differences between reality and Parable, it’s still scary as hell that there are even more similarities. She wrote these books in the 90s.
These are hard books to read, but worth it. The story of Lauren Oya Olamina, the motherless daughter of a Reverend who can feel what you feel. And I mean, really feel it. Her mother was addicted to a drug that left Lauren with the ability to experience what others do. And it’s to her detriment because she’s living in a violent, collapsed America where survival isn’t likely. If people know she can feel another’s pain or sickness, they can use it against her and harm her. As a result, Lauren has no choice to be violent to protect herself and others. She has to kill, look the other way when she knows she shouldn’t, and never, ever let her guard down. People are rabid with sickness and addiction and communities have fractured, and this existence is hell. Life changes for Lauren, who lives in a compound, when she is separated from her family and must survive on her own. Ever the realist, though just a teen, she forges ahead and connects with others who are also looking for safety. Her intentions change when she realizes she wants to start her own belief system called Earthseed, something she started working on as a child but kept secret due to her Reverend father’s religious leanings. Earthseed is a simple but straightforward approach to viewing and making it in our ever-changing world. A world Lauren has realized humans must leave if our species is to survive.
I was torn about Lauren. Is she well intentioned? Not always. Can she be cruel? She must. Is she just another manipulative cult leader? Kinda. Is she a survivor? Absolutely.
Parable represents one of those rare cases where the genre are multiple things at once. Dystopian, science fiction, black American experience, technology, women’s literature, politics, romance, religion, young adult? Yes. All of it. I was left heartbroken, angry, and speechless by these amazing works of fiction. I cared about the characters, flawed as they were. I was also in awe of Butler, who not only gave us something special and timeless, but a red alert warning for what is to come. And here we are. At each other’s throats, confused, and dealing with people who have a ferocious refusal to put health and safety first. I’m not a religious person, but I pray it never gets as bad as Parable. We still have time to turn things around. Why don’t we?
As an aside, I looked into Octavia E. Butler. A black woman who writes science fiction? A fellow nerd and minority? I feel like I would have been best friends with her if I’d ever met her. Maybe I give myself too much credit that someone so talented would want to be friends with me in return. I wish she was here. I wish I could thank her for writing something so very hard, but so extremely necessary. Why I never read her books sooner, I’ll never know. I just didn’t know about her. So don’t be me, don’t wait another moment. Read these books, and know that you will be better for it.
Rating for both books: 5/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
DREAMCAST: 🍿 🎥 🎭
If Hollywood adapted the books, I think it should be a mini-series. You can’t property capture this story in a two or even three hour movie. That said, this is my dream cast. And they all have such kickass names:
Lauren Oya Olamina (Teen/YA): Amandla Stenberg
Lauren Oya Olamina (Adult): Queen Latifah
Doctor Taylor Bankole: Colman Domingo
Reverend Olamina: Samuel L. Jackson
Zahra Moss: Juno Temple
Travis Douglas: Jeffrey Wright
Natividad Douglas: Alexis Bledel
Harry Balter: Domnall Gleeson (older version played by his father Brendan Gleeson)
I’ll be blunt. A Million Things by Emily Spurr will break your heart. But know the following: even as you lie on your kitchen floor shattered and ugly crying into a dish towel after reading this remarkable book, you will be better for it. We all need a reminder that we aren’t alone, even if we are lonely. To know that animals are just like any other family member worthy of respect and care, that parents can hurt and leave us, and that judging neighbors harshly can prevent us from forming the most meaningful of relationships.
I waited for this to come out on Audible because I was hesitant to read it, and knew I’d stop picking it up if I had a hard copy. I knew it would hit too close to home. Mentally ill mom. Check. Becoming an adult when you aren’t even a teenager yet. Check. Being left alone way too young. Check. Having your closest family member be a pet. Check. Based on those similarities alone, I didn’t think I could get through this given the heavy subject matter. But I found it was actually good for me to read something that shows the complicated upbringing of a girl, because I haven’t seen much of that or felt any connection with a female protagonist in this way. And y’all know I read a lot. We have so many coming of age stories about boys (Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies). And if the story Is about a girl, it’s always about how her heart is broken over a boy, or she has an eating disorder, or how she’s in love with her middle aged teacher. This here is no YA book. This was more like Room, where the perspective of a vulnerable but resilient child going through very adult trauma tells their story. We need more books like this, about children with imperfect parents, and how they survive the unimaginable. Know that this is a hard read, but a good one. Content warnings include suicide, hoarding, and mental illness, and child and animal physical injury.
Big spoiler: I clearly loved the book so I feel like I need to explain my rating. The reason I gave this four stars instead of five was because of the graphic part involving the description of Splinter’s injuries at the end. It actually made me feel a bit sick. It didn’t add anything to the story and was overkill. I didn’t think the same was true for the way Rae must cover up the smell of her mother’s corpse, as that served a purpose in showing the reader how she was trying to maintain appearances and save the only home she’d ever known.
Who knew death could be so much fun? What a creative and unique world Neal Shusterman invented for us through his Arc of the Scythe series. I ate this post-mortality concept up. How did he do this? I’ve read a lot of dystopian literature, and I think this one might be my favorite. It gave me the same feeling that The Hunger Games did, in that I was transported into a world far from where we find ourselves now. This reminded me why books are magic. In a year where we are inside all the time because of a deadly pandemic, you will feel far from quarantined once you enter the world of the Scythedom.
The breakdown: What would happen if we became so technologically advanced that disease and death were eradicated? Where if we were hit by a car and rendered “deadish” we could be sent to a “revival station” and be brought back to life? Wanna look younger? That can happen, too. The one problem: How would we control the population? Shusterman gives us the answer with his creation of the “Scythedom”: a superior and respected group of people who kill others in order to prevent overpopulation.
At the center of this amazing series are two teenagers, Citra Terranova and Rowan Damisch, who undergo training as apprentices to Honorable Scythe Faraday (I loved Faraday so hard). Each youth struggle with the “art of killing”, and eventually become extremely important to the future of not only the Scythedom, but to life on Earth as we know it.
Technology is also the star of the show. An advanced computer system known as the “Thunderhead” controls society. Who is preventing plane crashes, sinking ships, and terrorist attacks? The Thunderhead, that’s who. Yep, and it’s watching when you accidentally electrocute yourself and need to be brought to a revival station? The Thunderhead sends reinforcements to bring your fried ass back to life. The Thunderhead is a form of AI that does not make mistakes or have regrets, and serves the population in life, while the Scythedom serves us through permanent death. It operates separate and apart from the Scythedom. In the second and third books, we see how this AI tries to save humanity from itself after the Scythedom goes rogue. And how it’s inability to interfere with the Scythedom complicates matters. What a testament to show that even without disease and death from violence, the same things lead us to hurt one another: greed, power, jealousy, and groupthink.
I loved these characters, even the horrible ones. I also liked to imagine what life would be like if this were real. Would I be a Scythe? Hell no. Would I enjoy getting the 18 year old version of my ass back every few years? Hell yes.
As an aside, I loved the words and concepts Shusterman created. Examples: “Gleaning” (permanent killing), “MidMerica”, “Tonists”, “Revival Stations”. It goes on. The names he gave the Scythes, too. So much fun.
The Arc of the Scythe series is worth your time. Read (or listen) to all three books. If you choose to listen to the audiobooks, you won’t regret it: Greg Tremblay does a fantastic job bringing each character to life.
Well, damn. The true story of the Galvin family is as mind blowing as it is tragic. Quick note: I conduct Pre-Sentence investigations for the Court. Family of origin and mental health is always a big part to research for the report. These are serious crimes I cover, and at the end of the report there is an evaluative analysis that needs to be prepared so that my sentencing recommendation is supported. And it takes a meticulous review of records, all of them confidential, to complete each report. I’ve done thousands of reports. That said, Robert Kolker puts me to shame. An excellent writer and researcher, I’m not sure anyone else could have told the story about the family on Hidden Valley Road. Patience, attention to detail, and understanding from Kolker are evident. And a wealth of material that is so organized and presented so well, it helps keep the reader stay engaged (and not confused!).
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Familyis about midcentury American family living in Colorado Springs, CO made up of twelve children, six of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia (notably, all boys). The family became an important sample for researchers investigating a genetic origin for schizophrenia. The family matriarch is, at first, reluctant to admit there is a problem but eventually has no choice but to acknowledge that she has more than just a kooky family. The patriarch is an overachieving provider, but fairly absent figure, in the lives of the children. Both parents, and eventually their oldest son, Donald, take a liking to working with birds of prey. I couldn’t help but note the irony that the parents of schizophrenic children were also falconers. Falconry is a breaking-in of sorts, a control over another, and a way to have someone with less power than you do what you want them to do and act how you want them to act. Not so for children with one of the most difficult disorders to manage and treat. While schizophrenia manifests differently for each patient, there is often the presence of anger, hallucinations, delusions of grandeur, paranoia, religious obsessions, and a difficulty coping with rejection. Worse, many don’t want to take their medications. A person who is accustomed to the cooperation of a falcon has a rude awakening when it comes to a child, especially a mentally ill one. Unlike a falcon, a person with schizophrenia has their own road to travel, and your plans for him or her don’t mean sh*t. Acceptance, without the enabling of abusive behavior, is the name of the game.
On a personal note, I’ll say schizophrenia can be very scary. And not only for the person afflicted, but to those around them. I’ve seen and been at the end of extremely unhinged and paranoid behavior from probationers. And the harassment can be relentless. They already distrust the government and are convinced there is a conspiracy against them. That said, there were many times throughout this book I said “been there”. And I’m sure it was for other readers as well. It makes you realize how pervasive the disease is, and the commonalities those afflicted have. I cannot imagine what it was like for the children in the family who didn’t have the disease. How terrifying some days must have been for them. And for those young patients that suffer, there are no words.
I think most people that pick up a book of this kind know what to expect but, just in case, be warned that there are a lot of triggering events within these pages. You name it, it happened in this family. Rape, molestation, homicide, suicide, animal cruelty, and more. And there is also some enabling from the matriarch that may anger you.
That said, this is quite a story of survival and a must-read.