Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Full disclosure.  I am a HUGE fan of Atwood in general and The Handmaid’s Tale specifically, so keep in mind that my comments regarding this work are not unbiased.

First, I love the format. The alternating viewpoints give a full picture of what is happening in Gilead and outside of it, but interestingly, the first person narrator of each point of view still constrains what the reader can know. I know that some readers do not like this, but I find it an interesting format, reminiscent of an epistolary novel, which can be challenging for writers, but fantastic fun for readers. Les Liaisons Dangereuse or Lady Susan anyone?

Spoiler alert:  if you haven’t read the book, stop now.  The following paragraphs will discuss plot and character points that you will not want to know if you have not read the book.

I LOVE that Aunt Lydia turns out to be a resistance fighter!  Plus her character contains many contradictions, just like real people.  She wants to fight the patriarchy, but to do it, she decides that she may do some short term harm.  She enables resistance with her behind the scenes machinations–my favorite instance the one in which she manipulates Aunt Vidalia into doing her bidding. She moves the people around her like pieces on a chessboard and one cannot help but admire her ability to do so, however objectionable she is as a person. There is much fodder for a good book group discussion here, because Lydia raises the age old question–”Is it permissible to do wrong in the short term, if the ultimate goal is right?”  Or, to phrase it more simply, in Machiavellian terms, “do the ends justify the means?” I would argue that they do not, however, I am well aware that there is room for nuance. I would also argue that there is always a way to work for good by doing good; that trying to do good through nefarious means is the lazy way. If I use Aunt Lydia as an example of this–she could have made choices to do good at several turns, but she chose to stay silent and gather power around herself in order to do what she would claim was good in the BIG picture.  I would argue that she could have achieved the same purpose by being willing to sacrifice at some earlier point in the story. She herself acknowledges this when she writes about her early meetings with Commander Judd. She rationalizes her choices by saying she always had working against the system in mind, but is that really true? I am not sure she is a reliable narrator, which is something else to consider.
I also wonder how plausible it is to think that there would be enough resistance to topple a regime as repressive as Gilead in the short amount of time it exists.  I can see that having been used to freedom before, people would be less likely to accept severe limitations, but people in general can be extremely stubborn in defending something that is nonsensical. The question further arises, would there be a large enough number of people willing to make the sacrifice necessary to engage in real resistance, or would the sheeple just follow blindly as long as they were being fed and clothed? Something else to discuss.

As in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood evokes America’s Puritan past to great effect by taking it to the extreme.  Fifteen years ago, I would have argued that something like Gilead could never happen in the modern world, but I think that recent events have proven me completely incorrect in this judgement. What I see as possible now is a new puritanism of the Left, which is just as unforgiving and inflexible as the religious puritanism of the past. The characters are finely drawn and fabulously imperfect. The suspense about the final outcome for the rulers of Gilead is palpable. I finished The Testaments in 4 days, and it only took that long because I had to go to work.  I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy dystopia, Atwood, or just want to read something infinitely  discussable.  

Below are some discussion questions for your Book Club.  Enjoy!

  1. How long had it been since you read The Handmaid’s Tale?  If it had been a long time or you had never read The Handmaid’s Tale, do you think it hindered your enjoyment of The Testaments?  Why or why not?
  2. Which character was your favorite and why?
  3. If you were casting a movie, who would you cast as Lydia?  As Becka? As Judd? Any of the other characters?
  4. What do you think you would do if you were rounded up as the women were at the beginning of Lydia’s story?  Do you see a way to respond to the situation that would have a better/different outcome to the way she responded?
  5. What parallels do you see between Gilead and modern society in the United States?  What parallels do you see between Gilead and Medieval Europe?
  6. How does intolerance manifest itself in Gilead? How does it manifest itself in modern society?  
  7. What role does the Bible play in Gilead’s society? 
  8. Even though it is not explicitly revealed in either The Handmaid’s Tale or The Testaments, what kinds of events, issues do you imagine led up to the fighting which gave birth to Gilead?
  9. Why do you think Atwood chose the title she did?
  10. If you could give one piece of advice to your favorite character, what would it be?
Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: The Last Book Party by Karen Dukess


I got this book as an e-galley and I was really looking forward to it.  It had rave reviews and the pre-pub buzz was great. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to the hype. I should have known better, when I saw the protagonist referred to as a female Philip Roth. Full disclosure–though I have tried many times to read various titles by Philip Roth, I have never made it all the way to the end of one.  Usually I get about a third of the way through, and that is only because I make myself. Call me a Philistine if you want, but he is way too pe— absorbed for me. I have always found him self-consciously literary, and not in a good way. I mean, really, how literary is one man and his constant obsession with sex and his Johnson? Overrated, in my humble opinion…

Our heroine, if we dare call her that, is Eve Rosen, an aspiring writer who works for a small publishing house that really only has one author who makes them any money. Eve is desperate to become a part of the East Coast Literati, mostly snobs who summer in Truro, Massachusetts, summer playground of Boston academic and artistic elite. She leaves her publishing house gig to work as an assistant to one of these literary giants, Henry Grey. What follows is a boringly predictable May/September romance, in which Eve becomes Henry’s willing partner in adultery, brushing aside the much more interesting and actually available Jeremy Grand, who has incidentally written the next great American novel, and whom the Owner of the said small publishing house hopes will save him from bankruptcy and ignominy. Jeremy has an interesting secret, which I will not reveal in case any of you want to read the book.

What Dukess does well is depict the New England Literati as mostly self-absorbed and useless, though I am not sure if that was the point.  The reader wishes Eve were smarter than she is, though she eventually figures out that Henry is not worth her time. I suppose if you like Philip Roth, you might like this book, but for the rest of us (I would guess about 90%), it really isn’t worth spending your time reading it.  I finished it because I was on a plane without a lot of options, having already exhausted my video downloads and the print books I brought with me, if that tells you anything. 

Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: The French Lesson by Hallie Rubenhold

This novel popped up when I was doing an Amazon search for Hallie Rubenhold, because I thoroughly enjoyed her historical account of the Scandalous Lady W. (See my earlier post on that book here.) If you are looking for a fun summer read to keep you company in your beach chair or on your couch, or if you have finished streaming season 2 of The Crown on Netflix and need something else to fill your time with, The French Lesson is a pretty good choice; you could definitely do worse.

Set during the French Revolution, we follow our heroine, Henrietta Lightfoot as she follows her lover to Paris in 1792, against his wishes and advice. Henrietta, I must say, is a little bit annoying in her willful obtuseness.  I would not go so far as to say that she is an unreliable narrator, but she is awfully naive for a courtesan, or at least she pretends to be. I wasn’t sure the whole way through whether she didn’t realize what was going on or she was playing along for reasons of her own, but at the end that will become apparent, dear reader.

Henrietta fails to find her lover, as he is working undercover as a spy–no spoilers here, I promise this is apparent to the reader from the outset–and she takes refuge with Grace Dalrymple Elliot, notorious mistress of the Duc d”Orleans, among others, and spy for Royalists during The Terror. With Grace’s help, Henrietta enters the household of Orleans and befriends his current mistress, Madame de Buffon. 

Adventures and intrigue ensue…

The French Lesson is a quick, easy, and enjoyable read for those who like historical fiction. The characters are fairly well drawn, the plot is fast moving, and in the end everything is tied up rather neatly. My only real complaint is that Henrietta is a little too good to be true, as is her paramour, but that is to be expected in romance fiction. 

If your book club decides to read The French Lesson, here are a few questions for discussion:

  1. Why does Henrietta decide to ignore Allenham’s instructions for her to remain in Brussels?  Do you think she has other reasons than those she states?
  2. Why does Henrietta so easily fall prey to Savill?  Shouldn’t she have been a little more streetwise, considering her time among the demimonde?
  3. A historical truth is that a woman’s wealth was often in her possessions, such as jewelry, clothing, shoes, etc. Why is Henrietta so quick to abandon her only money at the hotel?  Why did she bring it in the first place? Why not leave it in Brussels?
  4. Do you like Henrietta?  Would you be friends with her?  What about Mrs. Elliot? Would you have been friends with her?  Why or why not?
  5. Madame de Buffon is a real historical person, as is Mrs. Elliot and the Duc d”Orleans.  Do you think Rubenhold did a good job weaving her story through the real life events and people?  Why or why not?
  6. Did you see the ending coming?  If you were writing the ending of this book, how would you have worked it out?
Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: Circe by Madeline Miller

This one has been on my list for a while, so I am happy to be able to say I have finally read it.  All those awards lists and reviewers were right, it is a great book. It is not a quick easy read, but it is worth savoring, because the writing is lyrical and thought provoking.  In case you missed it, Circe tells the story of several Greek myths, in particular The Odyssey, from the point of view of Circe, who was more of a bit player in Homer’s version.  There is also a feminist twist, which I found refreshing.

Circe is the daughter of Helios, the Titan who drives the chariot of the sun every day.  Unfortunately, in Harry Potter parlance, she’s a squib. She doesn’t appear to have power, she is not beautiful, which of course was the currency women were able to trade in most easily, and what’s more, she does not appear to draw much interest from Helios, though she is desperate to earn his approval. All her life, Circe has had an affinity for mortals, unlike most of her kind.

Eventually, she falls in love with one and it is then that she discovers her power.  She is a mistress of Pharmaka, herbs and medicines, and she can use plants to cast spells, charms, etc.  In other words, she’s a witch. She changes her mortal crush into a god, and dear reader, I’ll bet you can guess what happens next.  He never really loved her. In her despair, she changes her rival into a sea monster with dire consequences. Zeus and Helios agree that Circe must be punished.  She is banished to an island, alone. The funny part is that she doesn’t mind all that much. She likes the quiet, and she enjoys learning more about her new power.  Through the visitors to her island, including Hermes, we learn the story of Odysseus and more. Ever wondered why Circe changed all the sailors who stop on her island into pigs?  Read the book!

This novel is beautifully written; it echos the poetry of The Odyssey.  One caveat, readers who are familiar with the Greek myths will enjoy it a lot more than those who are not; a certain amount of familiarity is assumed. I was one of those kids who checked out every mythology book in the junior high library, read them all, and then started over–yes, I was that nerd. (!)  So, I loved this book.

If your book club decides to read it, here are some questions for discussion:

  1. What did you know about Circe before reading this book?  What did you think her character would be like? Were you accurate–why or why not?
  2. Why do you think Circe is so different from her brothers and sister?  They all have the power of witchery, but Circe uses hers in very different ways to her siblings.
  3. Which of her lovers do you think was the love of Circe’s life and why?
  4. How do Circe’s actions with regard to her son compare with modern “snowplow parents?”
  5. Which character would you like to invite to a dinner party and why?
  6. One of the themes Circe refers to is “gods and fear,” in fact her son, Telegonus chides her for her fear.  Why do you think “gods and fear” recurs throughout Circe’s life and the novel?
  7. Would you like to be alone on an island?  What would you pack if you were banished and could only take what you could carry?
  8. Was the character of Penelope what you expected, why or why not?  Between Circe and Penelope, which one do you think you would have the easiest time being friends with and why?
  9. In Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses are often portrayed as silly, vain, and mercurial (pun intended). Miller doesn’t really stray from this convention.  Why do you think the Greeks imagined their gods and goddesses this way?
  10. What role does fate play in Circe?  Do you think fate or free will is the guiding force of the plot and why did you choose as you did?
Book Reviews/Discussions

Guilty Pleasure: Mine: a Novel of Obsession by J. L. Butler

I received an ARC of this last year at the Texas Library Association Annual Conference.  Full disclosure–this is definitely a fun beach/vacation read, not serious literature. Having said that, though, there is a lot to recommend it if you are in the right mood.  

Francine Day is a divorce attorney in London and her most recent client is handsome, wealthy, and extremely attracted to Francine, a feeling she returns with abandon.  This is a problem, because he’s a client. You know that little thing they talk about in law school, called ethics? Well, dear reader, as you and I both know, a suspense writer never lets a little thing like ethical behavior get in the way of an exciting plot. So, before we get to chapter six, the attorney client relationship has turned, shall we say, heated, but not in an angry way…More full disclosure, there is some on page sex, so if you, like me, prefer things like that be left to the imagination, be prepared to skip those parts.  It isn’t super sexed up, but there are several scenes which one might rather were off page.

When Martin’s soon to be X-wife turns up missing the day after he has make-up sex with her under the jealous eye of Francine, who then drinks herself into a blackout episode, things begin to get dicey.  Throw in the creepy neighbor in Francine’s apartment house and Martin’s business partners, a married couple with plenty of motive, and you have yourself a somewhat suspenseful way to pass the time in an airport terminal or on a commuter train.  The astute reader will figure it out before the end, but it is always nice to read through and get confirmation.

While Mine is worthy of an entertainment read, there are a couple of problems with it.  First, Francine seems to have WAY too many problems. She’s bipolar, lonely, appears to have commitment issues, and ,weirdly, is willing to throw her career away, one which she has spent over a decade building, for an affair with a rich client who has at least as many issues as she does. Color me skeptical, but it seems out of character for her, unless she is supposed to be an unreliable narrator, in which case, the novel is even weaker, so let’s stick with option 1.  Also, Martin’s attraction to Francine is never adequately explained. He is going through a messy divorce and trying to keep his half of the business out of his wife’s greedy hands, but he is willing to distract the person he needs to make sure that doesn’t happen? And what about Peter, the creepy neighbor? He’s just an extra complication that we don’t really need. He serves a purpose in the plot, which I will not divulge here because spoilers, but I think there was probably a better way to handle it.

Bottom line:  If you like suspense novels or as they are often called now, domestic noir, this is a passable entry into that category.  Not on par with Gillian Flynn, but it works as a quick read for fun. Enjoy!

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think Francine is willing to begin an affair with her client, given her apparent dedication to her career?
  2. Did you expect what happened with Peter?  Why or why not? How do you think the action could have been propelled forward without him in the story?
  3. What purpose do you think Dominic served in the story?  How was he a stand-in for Martin, to allow Francine to see her own irrational behavior?
  4. What did you think of the ending?  Did you know who the killer was? Why or why not?  Why do you think Francine decided to use herself as bait to catch the killer?
  5. What about the “epilogue?” Did you expect what happened between Francine and Martin?  How would you have ended the book?
Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: Dracula, My Love by Syrie James

As fan fiction goes, Syrie James’s is some of the best.  I first read her Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen a few years back, and she also wrote The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen.  I lost track of her after that, so I was delighted to find a paperback copy of Dracula, My Love at Half Price Books. Now, let’s be clear, this is a fun, fairly quick read in which James fills in some of the gaps left by Bram Stoker and writes the whole thing from Mina’s point of view.  It is not attempting to provide literary heft, although James’s writing is solid. Mina was always my favorite character besides Quincy Morris. I mean he was a Texan, and he did represent pretty well. 🙂 He also gets to die a hero, so there’s that.

In James’s version, and I don’t think there are any spoilers here given the title, Mina and Dracula carry on a clandestine romance the whole time Van Helsing and the boys are trying to find and kill Dracula. If that seems like it might be a bridge too far, just  go with it. If you are a fan of Stoker’s book (I am) and if you enjoy decent fan fiction ( I sometimes do) then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Mina comes off slightly unsympathetic, but maybe that’s just me. It is interesting to see how James’s Dracula explains all the vile deeds attributed to him by Van Helsing et al. Jonathan becomes a fuller character in James’s telling and the reader is rooting for him all the way to the twist at the end, which the astute reader will see coming a mile off.  That doesn’t make it less satisfying. If you are in the market for something fun with classic ties, give this one a try, I think you’ll like it.

Discussion Questions (in case your book club decides to read it):

  1. How does Dracula appeal to Mina at the beginning?  What do you think is missing at first in her relationship with Jonathan?
  2. Do you believe all of Mr. Wagner/Dracula’s explanations for events, why or why not?
  3. Do you think Mina’s backstory with her parents adds to the book, why or why not?
  4. If you had to get rid of one of the characters, which one would it be and why?
  5. Which decisions of Mina’s would you also have made, and which would you not have?  What about at the end, would you have chosen as Mina did? How do you think Dracula’s supernatural magnetism plays into the choices Mina makes?
  6. If you had eternal youth and life, what would you do?
Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: Educated: a memoir by Tara Westover

My book club met this week and we had read Educated.  Although I found the book interesting and Westover an engaging writer, certain aspects of the book were disappointing.  First, it bears more than a passing resemblance to The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. This is not a reason not to read it, of course, but I wonder a couple of things.  

**How many memoirs by abused/neglected children of poverty in dysfunctional families do we need? This is not to minimize anyone’s suffering, nor to object to a light being shown on aspects of the American experience that need more attention. At what point do we become callused to the horrific stories of the children who managed to escape?

** As has been noticed before, America loves an underdog. We love to read/hear/watch the stories of people who made it against the odds, because it means that anything is possible for anyone in America.  It means that if you have the gumption/grit/intelligence, you, too, can succeed. However, we like to ignore the fact that those who manage to succeed are really outliers. There are plenty of smart, determined people who don’t make it.  They don’t have the lucky break, the mentor, the roommate/sibling/friend who helped them defeat the odds. It is true that the story arc would be more challenging and the ending less neat, but what if someone wrote a memoir about being one of the unlucky ones?  Would it even get published and if it did, would anyone read it?

**Then I saw this article in the NY Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/01/opinion/vance-westover-trump.html and I was more than a little insulted.  I live in rural America and I grow weary of East Coast Entitled Intellectual Elites lumping all of us in “flyover country” together as if we were one large basket of dummies.  If we would just be more like Tara and J. D., we would get a clue and our lives would be great. No worries about money, jobs, dying small towns, etc. Newsflash: it isn’t that simple.  Shocker: some of us are actually educated; we aren’t all rubes and survivalists. And some of us are REALLY tired of being condescended to. Life is complicated, and we didn’t all get the brass ring…but I digress. All of rural culture isn’t toxic, and by the way that word is totally overused.

Here are some discussion questions to think about if you or your book club are reading Educated.

  1. How much do you think is left out of the story?  Do you think there was physical abuse of Tara’s mother?  Why or why not?
  2. Why did the family continue to allow Shawn’s obvious abuse and violence? What would have been the price of  speaking up?
  3. When Tara’s father brings home the shearer, one of her brothers refuses to run it before Tara is ordered to do so.  Why did he feel able to refuse their father and Tara did not?
  4. Why do you think Tara was so reluctant to get help once she got to BYU? Why did her professor push her to apply for the program in Cambridge?
  5. Imagine an alternate ending to this story.  What would your alternate ending be?