“The Plot” by Jean Hanff Korelitz – Review

By: Angie Haddock


a psychologically suspenseful novel about a story too good not to steal, and the writer who steals it.

Goodreads


The basic idea of this one is that an author – Jacob Finch Bonner – hears an idea for a novel from one of his writing students. Years later, he finds out that the student died without ever writing the novel. So, Bonner writes it. It becomes wildly popular – on Oprah’s list, being made into a movie, etc.

But then, Bonner starts getting anonymous threats. Someone out there knows he stole the idea. They are threatening to expose him, but will that be as ruinous as he fears? He did write the whole book, so is it plagiarism if it was just the plot he stole? And more importantly, who else knew the plot? The dead student was very stand-offish, and most of his family is also dead, so who did he tell?

All of this sounds fine, but this book was all the rage in the summer of 2021! It made several lists, and was a Goodreads Choice nominee for Mystery/Thriller.

I will say, a lot of this book struck me as something that would specifically appeal to writers, publishers, and people who work with them. So much of it takes place in that world, and I wondered if that appeal is why people who write about writing/books were crazy for it.

Not that it was bad, by any means. But it was a bit slow. Things progress with Bonner’s online stalker, a bit at a time, over the course of months. In the meantime, Bonner travels around on a book tour, meets a woman who eventually moves in with him, and works on his next novel. A decent story thus far, but nothing revolutionary.

All the punch of this book comes in the last 25% of it! There are about three big revelations, by my estimate, and they definitely increase in craziness. But of course, why would I give away the ending?! If this book sounds at all interesting to you, you’re going to have to slog through it like the rest of us and find that epic ending for yourself!


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“Woman, Captain, Rebel” by Margaret Willson – Review

By: Angie Haddock


A daring and magnificent account of Iceland’s most famous female sea captain who constantly fought for women’s rights and equality—and who also solved one of the country’s most notorious robberies.

Goodreads


Last year, I read a handful of non-fiction books about badass females… albeit, some better written than others. One was even written by the first lady of Iceland! So the reasons this book appealed to me should be obvious.

This is the story of Thurídur Einarsdóttir, who was born on the Southwest shores of Iceland in the late 1700s. She lived a long life, from 1777 to 1863, and spent all of it in roughly the same region. (Although she did take to traveling in her later years, it was all still within Iceland).

Thurídur was born to a poor family, and while she was very young, the area suffered from a volcanic ash-induced famine. Her dad refused a lodger, as they had no food in the house to offer him, but this was a cardinal sin in their culture. The lodger supposedly cursed his family for nine generations.

And here our story begins.

Despite the curse, Thurídur did fairly well for herself. She learned to fish as a young teen, and developed a knack for being able to read the coming weather. As her fishing skills grew, she became highly sought after as a deckhand, and even outearned many men on her boats. She was eventually hired to captain other people’s boats, even, and was trusted among the boat owners and the fishermen (and women) under her care. In fact, in 52 years of fishing, it is said that she never lost a crew member.

While she did not have much trouble getting her crew to respect her knowledge of the sea, she still did face some discrimination in life. She was known to wear trousers everywhere except to church, and later she added a top hat to her ensemble (just because she liked it!). She also did a lot of farming when it was the season for it, and could scythe hay with the strongest of men. So of course, some were put off by her way of living.

She was married a few times, and had one daughter who died in childhood. She later adopted her sister’s daughter, who was disabled. In her later years, she spent all of her money trying to make sure her niece would be taken care of after her own death… and that niece did live to be 89 years old!

We spend a lot of time in her home village getting to know all the townspeople, as she does interact with them constantly – both on land and at sea. So by the time a very brazen robbery happens, we have established that Thurídur knows everyone. A county commissioner is sent to town to investigate, and – not knowing the townspeople himself – immediately pushes her for her thoughts on it. (This set-up definitely made me think of the BBC’s “Broadchurch.” Anyone else?) She doesn’t want to implicate her friends, but starts pointing out clues the commissioner missed. This leads to confessions, and four area men being sent to prison in Denmark (which ruled over Iceland at the time).

After the convictions, Thurídur has a tougher time with her neighbors. Several make threats, and someone even goes so far as to set fire to a boat in her care. She still has many allies, also, and they try to help her. Eventually, she is forced to move to a bigger city nearby, where she starts out working in a shop. She also starts acting as a tour guide, leading travelers through the nearby mountains to other villages and cities. She remains lively and sharp into old age, but ultimately ends up destitute anyway (because she spends all her money on her niece).

This is a great story, and well written. There is drama, action, and politics.

When I first got this as an advanced reader’s copy, it was set to publish on January 31st of this year… but the date moved, and this book has already come out! We’ll still call it a new release, though. I read it thanks to Netgalley and the publisher, Sourcebooks.


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“Daughters of the New Year” by E.M. Tran – Review

By: Angie Haddock


In present day New Orleans, Xuan Trung, former beauty queen turned refugee after the Fall of Saigon, is obsessed with divining her daughters’ fates through their Vietnamese zodiac signs. But Trac, Nhi and Trieu diverge completely from their immigrant parents’ expectations. Successful lawyer Trac hides her sexuality from her family; Nhi competes as the only woman of color on a Bachelor-esque reality TV show; and Trieu, a budding writer, is determined to learn more about her familial and cultural past.

Goodreads


This one intrigued me for several reasons – firstly, the family in the book ends up in New Orleans. Secondly, astrology is fun. Thirdly, I tend to read a lot of books about characters from other places.

The story starts with all three daughter characters as adults, and we’ll call this the “present.” As we go through the chapters, we learn more about all of the daughters and their mom. The story is also moving backwards through time, though. We progress through their teenage years, see how the family fared during Hurricane Katrina, and move onward to their childhoods. The daughters all have their personal struggles, obviously, but they collectively deal with the pressures of being first generation Americans – like having parents who eat, shop, and speak differently than those of many of their classmates.

The chapters move around between perspectives, too, so we’re also consistently seeing things from the mom’s point of view. And eventually, we get to the parts of Xuan’s life from before she had her daughters – how she met her husband, how she left Vietnam, and the real story behind that beauty pageant trophy she prizes.

As we progress further, we start to see things from the perspectives of Xuan’s mom as well… and then her mom, and even further back. Most of these earlier generations are really only represented in the last quarter of the book, though. Here we learn about how their family was rich and respected in Saigon, and how they got that way.

I enjoyed this story, in both the New Orleans and Saigon parts. I also found the mom’s obsession with her daughters’ signs fun. (I should point out that she uses astrology based on the Lunar year, and not the Western kind many of us might think of first.) I did kind of wish that we knew more about what happens to the characters when we first meet them, though. For example, one is a contestant on a “Bachelor“-like program… but then we move back in time, and never know what happens to her on the show. It’s such a small thing, though, amid a very rich story.

This book came out in October, 2022. I read it through NetGalley, albeit after its release date, thanks to the publisher (Harlequin Trade Publishing) and BookClubbish.

Happy Lunar New Year, and Happy Year of the Rabbit!


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“The Sisters We Were” by Wendy Willis Baldwin – Review

By: Angie Haddock


The weight of their family secrets could not have shaped Pearl and Ruby Crenshaw any differently. Ruby’s a runner, living in Dallas and only reluctantly talking to their mother, Birdie, when she calls from prison. Pearl is still living in her mother’s fixer-upper and finds herself facing a line in the sand: her weight is threatening to kill her. She’s hundreds of pounds beyond the point where she can celebrate her curves or benefit from the body positivity movement, and unless she takes drastic action, the future looks dire.

Goodreads


I find that I get roped into reading more contemporary fiction than I intend to, but sometimes it pays off… and this is one of those times!

While this story is fiction, it’s based on some real experiences of the author and her sister. More on that later.

The sisters in the book are Pearl and Ruby. When I first read the description, I assumed Pearl’s weight was just a part of the setting, but it really is the main driver of the whole book. Pearl struggles at first to commit to bariatric surgery, but she knows she has to do something before she gets any bigger than her 531 pounds. She is obsessed with Chip & Joanna Gaines, and tries to view herself as a “fixer-upper” project.

She and Ruby don’t really talk anymore, and their mom is in jail. So reaching out to Ruby to ask her to come and help during her recovery is another hurdle Pearl has to jump to make this surgery possible. That’s on top of the cost, the idea of not bingeing Taco Bell anymore, and of course… seeing herself as “worth” all the work and money this transformation will need from her.

The book includes some notes from both the author and her sister, who really did weigh in at 531 lbs at one point. In the author’s notes, she mentions that other publishers turned down this story because they found a protagonist that size “distasteful.” Obviously, this is just plain sad. For starters, I’m sure some people that size are readers, and would love to see themselves represented! But also…

The first half of the book is pre-surgery, so the struggles to make the decision and go through with it are really as much of the book as the actual weight loss. And I think that’s what makes it universal. As much as it does deal with transformation, it also deals with finding the motivation to take those first steps. And isn’t that something most of us struggle with? (Especially this time of year!)

The book also delves into the reasons these sisters are dealing with the struggles they’re dealing with. Content Warning: one of these that is not revealed until very late in the story has to do with sexual molestation.

I, for one, applaud Sourcebooks Landmark for publishing this book! It is the debut novel from Wendy Willis Baldwin, and a topic that I have not previously read a lot about. This look at obesity – and a real human suffering its effects – was at times poignant, funny, triumphant, and informative (for someone who hasn’t gone through such a surgery).

This one comes out today, January 17th. I was able to read an advanced reader copy through NetGalley and the publisher.


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Meet Tory, Our Newest Reviewer!

By: Angie Haddock


What better way to enter a shiny new year than by welcoming a new reviewer to Reading Our Shelves! Tory has been a friend of mine for over a decade, and you can see her official bio here.

Look for some reviews by her in the coming months… but for now, let’s learn a little about what she loves to read!

Favorite classic: “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott


Favorite author you’ve discovered in the past 3 years?: Gail Carriger and Alison Weir


An upcoming release you’re excited about: “Loathe to Love You” by Ali Hazelwood and “The House with the Golden Door” by Elodie Harper


Favorite time of day to read: Evening/ before bed


A book you find yourself recommending often: “Lamb, the Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal” by Christopher Moore and “The 7-1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle” by Stuart Turton


A book you’ve read more than once: “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott, and “Wicked” by Gregory Maguire


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“Wiijiwaaganag: More Than Brothers” by Peter Razor- Review

By: Angie Haddock


Niizh Eshkanag is a member of the first generation of Anishinaabe children required to attend a U.S. government boarding school—schools infamously intended to “kill the Indian and save the man,” or forcibly assimilate Native students into white culture. Though Roger is frightened of his Indian classmates at first, Niizh Eshkanag befriends him, and they come to appreciate and respect one another’s differences.

Goodreads


Let’s start with the name: wiijiwaaganag means companions or partners (plural).

The author, Peter Razor, published his own memoir in 2002. It looks like his family is posthumously publishing more books written by him, including this one. I am not sure how long ago he wrote this fiction novel, or if it is at all similar to his other works. I’d seen some other reviews that did not like the writing style – the book is all in third person, and told in a straight, linear manner. It’s not exactly the most exciting style, especially if you only read modern novels, but I don’t think it really detracts from the story.

As stated above, our main characters are the Anishinaabe-born Niizh Eshkanag and a white boy of the same age, Roger Poznanski. They befriend each other at a boarding school where Roger is only attending because his uncle is the headmaster.

Roger is suspicious of his Native classmates at first, but is quick to help when any of them get into trouble. This earns him their respect and friendship, but also infuriates his aunt, who doesn’t want him hanging out with the Native kids.

When summer break comes, Roger wants to visit Niizh’s village. After fighting with his family about it, he decides to head out on his own – basically, he runs away. He only intends to stay for a short visit, then make his way to Milwaukee, where he has other family.

But when his family offers a monetary reward for Roger’s return, the boys find themselves spending much of their summer in the woods, hiding out from white trappers and agents who are trying to find them. They get into several scrapes, some resulting in injury. Most of their troubles come from the white agents, but even some other Anishinaabe teens from Niizh’s village decide to go after that reward.

There is a lot of action in this book, and of course an exchange of ideas between the two cultures represented. While we do see some of the life of the boarding school, the story moves past that at around 35% of the way in. If you read classics, and don’t mind the writing style being a little dry, it’s an interesting look at a different time in our (American) history.

This book is set to be published this week, but I was able to read ahead thanks to Netgalley and the publisher, Michigan State University Press.


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“On the Come Up” Directed by Sanaa Lathan – Movie Review

By: Angie Haddock


I just read this book a few months ago, and sat down to write my review the same day the movie came out!

The movie gets right into the grit of the story, showing flashbacks of Jay leaving her kids before we really even see where they are now. The first thing that struck me as “different than I pictured” was the ring, though… in that all the rap battles there are done a cappella, and not with beats behind them. A minor thing, for sure, and nothing to sweat.

As it went on I found that, in streamlining the story to fit into two hours, the movie cut out a whole slew of characters: Bri’s grandparents, and any of the scenes at church are gone. So is Curtis, the boy she befriends there. Malik and Trey’s girlfriends are also missing, and Bri and Malik become romantically involved instead.

This brings me to another major change: instead of cutting her first track with Pooh’s friend, movie Bri – along with Sonny and Malik – are all flown down to Atlanta on Supreme’s dime for her to record. This section, around the middle of the movie, gets a little more “Pretty Woman” than anything we saw in the book. Supreme gets Bri new clothes, everyone goes clubbing. This is where Bri and Malik become involved, and also where Milez and Sonny become involved. (In the book, they met online first, and Sonny didn’t know it was Milez.) So this section brings some of the biggest deviations from the book.

Plenty of other important plot points remain the same, though, and overall the movie was pretty good. I liked the casting. Bri seemed almost too innocent, but that worked toward the end when her mom was trying to make a point to the school board that she was “still a kid.” It felt right to have the likes of Sanaa Lathan, Mike Epps, and Method Man as the grown-ups in the movie. I wasn’t familiar with Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who played Aunt Pooh, but she was perfect. (Looks like she’s a Broadway vet.)

This one is streaming on Paramount+, if you are interested in watching it.


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“Jane Eyre” Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga – Movie Review

By: Angie Haddock


I read this book over the summer, and decided to check out at least one movie version of it to compare. This one was one of the more recent adaptations, and, bonus: it has Michael Fassbender in it.

The movie opens with Jane running into the wilderness and getting lost. She is eventually rescued by a man, whose two sisters help nurse her back to health. Of course, this really takes place about 60% into the book version. The movie goes back and forth, between what we’ll call the “present” (her time with the Rivers family) and the “past” – including her early childhood, time at boarding school, and time at Thornfield Hall. The book is told in a more linear manner, but the back and forth is pretty common in modern books and movies alike, and I didn’t feel like it was hard to follow. Just different (from the book).

Another difference I noticed near the beginning was that her time at boarding school was presented as being very bleak and abusive. As I had stated in my book review, it does start out looking like it might go that way, but her time there gets better. She finds teachers she connects with, and actually thrives there. But in this version, we only see the bleak parts.

Of course, the main action takes place after she gets to Thornfield, where she is a governess for Adele, and meets the master of the house, Mr. Rochester. Naturally, the actions throughout these parts are all condensed, but they are otherwise very true to the book. For example, there is really only one scene with the Ingrams and the other party guests… whereas in the book, they stay at Thornfield for a month. But in that scene we learn what’s important to know about any supposed engagement between Blanche Ingram and Mr. Rochester, and then we move on.

With the constant back and forth, I feel like we see Mr. Rivers almost as much as Mr. Rochester in this version. I almost thought we’d get away without seeing his most cringey moment – him insisting that Jane marry him in order to travel with him – but it does happen with about 10 minutes of the movie left. Ah, so close.

I did like the casting here. Jane is only 19 when she leaves boarding school, so maybe 20 or 21 by the end of the story. Main star Mia Wasikowska was only 22 when this movie was released, and Michael Fassbender (as Rochester) is 12 years her senior. The members of the Rivers family looked as young as Wasikowska, too. So they seemed to avoid middle aged people playing younger, and actually had a cast that was age-appropriate. Add in Dame Judi Dench as Thornfield’s housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax… and what is there not to like?!


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“Stars of Wonder” by Rebecca Dwight Bruff – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Five curious kids set out on an adventure that will teach them the value of wonder, gratitude, joy and love.

Goodreads


Another fun, short holiday read! This one is a children’s book – it comes in around 50 pages, divided into 3 chapters, with some sporadic but lovely illustrations. I would think it would appeal to parents of kids in early elementary school.

In this version of the Nativity story, five young travelers from the East follow the bright star to see what wonder it leads to. There are three brothers, who are princes, and their sister, the princess. They also bring along a friend, whose family takes care of their camels… because, obviously, they need a camel.

The camel gets injured, though, during an attack by mountain lions. So the friend and the princess stay back with the camel, near a spring, where they have water and a good view of the terrain around them. The three boys continue the journey, and promise to come back the same way to reconnect with the other two.

Both groups – and their parents, who head out to look for them – encounter some tricky situations along the way. The author pauses during these times and asks the readers what they would do, forcing them to take note of the lesson being set up in each situation.

This book is available in paperback, hardcover, or ebook. I was gifted a copy through the team at Books Forward.


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“The Case of the Disappearing Beaune” by J. Lawrence Matthews – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Christmas morning, 1901: Sherlock Holmes discovers that the wine in a bottle of French Beaune (intended as a gift for Dr. Watson) has been switched with sand, and he suspects it means threat to the newly crowned King of England. Or does it?

Goodreads


What better way to kick off December than with a Sherlock Holmes short story that takes place on Christmas?! This one came out in September of this year, so it is still a relatively new release – and maybe flew under the radar of the Holmes fans out there.

We start with Dr. Watson heading over to Sherlock’s home on Christmas morning, with the task of inviting him to Christmas dinner. Sherlock has always turned him down in the past, but Watson’s wife wants him to ask anyway.

As they exchange gifts, though, Sherlock’s intended bottle of wine for Watson has been exchanged for a bottle of sand. And so, as they say… the game is afoot!

This short novella follows our main characters as they race around London trying to find out who knows what, and what it all means. We hear about many of the expected Holmes characters – Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft, Lestrade – without actually encountering them until the very end.

And no, I won’t give away the ending.

This one is available both in paperback and e-book editions. A perfect little stocking stuffer for any mystery lover.

Thanks to the team at Books Forward for sending me the e-book for review.


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