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Book Review: The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

October 23, 2016 Leave a comment

Book Review: The Kind Worth Killing by Peter SwansonSummary:
On a night flight from London to Boston, Ted Severson meets the mysterious Lily Kintner. Sharing one too many martinis, the strangers begin to play a game of truth, revealing intimate details about themselves. Ted talks about his marriage and his wife Miranda, who he’s sure is cheating on him. But their game turns dark when Ted jokes that he could kill Miranda for what she’s done. Lily, without missing a beat, says calmly, “I’d like to help.”

Review:
You know from that description that this is going to be a thriller. I was fairly certain it would be in the vein of Gone Girl, and it certainly was.

This book takes you on a delightful rollercoaster of emotions. It’s hard to determine precisely who to root for because they’re all just so darn despicable. In a way, you’re kind of glad that they’re taking things into their own hands amongst themselves because then society won’t be burdened by dealing with it ourselves. On the other hand, there’s certainly an aspect of “look how off the rails things get when we let just any individual decide who deserves what.” That said it’s never heavy-handed. It has more of a delightful sneaky glance into disastrous lives ala a murdery Lifetime movie.

The plot is kept moving forward and twisty and full of surprises partially through alternate viewpoints (more than two). This is a technique I really enjoy when done well, and it was done quite well here. The transitions felt smooth and natural. Never cheap.

I also must say as a New England local that the author got both the logistics and the vibe of multiple New England locations right, everywhere from the ritziest Boston neighborhoods to central Massachusetts towns to rural Maine. If you want a true sense of the area and can handle some murder, definitely pick this up.

I’m not sure how I feel about how the book ended, which is what kept me from loving it. I knew where it was going by about two-thirds of the way through, and I just don’t think it was as smooth as the rest of the book. That said, I do think it ended at the right point in time (with the particular plot it was telling). It left me perfectly satisfied, unlike quite a few thrillers lately.

If you’re still looking for a quick Halloween read, pick this one up. It’ll keep you up and on the edge of your seat waiting to see who comes out on top.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: Tara Road by Maeve Binchy

September 28, 2016 2 comments

Book Review: Tara Road by Maeve BinchySummary:
Ria lived on Tara Road in Dublin with her dashing husband, Danny, and their two children. She fully believed she was happily married, right up until the day Danny told her he was leaving her to be with his young, pregnant girlfriend. By a chance phone call, Ria meets Marilyn, a woman from New England unable to come to terms with her only son’s death and now separated from her husband. The two women exchange houses for the summer with extraordinary consequences, each learning that the other has a deep secret that can never be revealed.

Review:
Is “two women swap houses and their lives change” a subgenre of women’s fiction? Because I feel like it should be. I have a real soft spot for house swap stories, starting back when The Holiday came out (one of my favorite romcoms). I was excited to see one featuring both Ireland and New England (Connecticut, specifically), and I sensed that the drama would be pretty high in this story. I wasn’t disappointed.

I learned a lot about recent Irish history from this book. For instance, I had no idea that divorce wasn’t legal in Ireland until 1995! The whole culture, too, wasn’t just that divorce wasn’t legal but that young marriage was expected. This directly impacts Ria’s life and her decisions. Learning this recent Irish history through Ria’s eyes helped make it more real and reminds the reader that these cultural norms and laws have a real impact on real people.

The settings were beautifully rendered. From Tara Road to the home in Connecticut, I felt completely present in each. I could hear the noises and smell the cooking at Tara Road and feel the cool pool water in Connecticut. The rich settings helped me take the perhaps at times ridiculous plot with the grain of salt such a story warrants.

Many issues are covered without ever feeling like the book was written just to talk about them. Rather, the issues exist because they just happen to in real life so why wouldn’t they in this book. Among the issues: alcoholism, domestic violence, grief, infertility, and more that I can’t mention without being plot spoilery.

Still, though, in spite of the strong setting and interesting plot, I did feel that it ended a bit too abruptly. I felt as if I was left hanging, wondering what ultimately was going to happen with these women. Being left wanting more isn’t necessarily a bad thing but after investing so much into these two women, I would have enjoyed at least an epilogue.

Overall, a strong entry in women’s fiction. It’s a house swap story that stays unique with the house swap not being about romance but rather about dealing with personal issues and where you want your life to go.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

July 22, 2015 2 comments

cover_peytonplaceSummary:
Peyton Place appears to be a picturesque small town in New Hampshire. But over the course of the novel, the secret passions, lies, and cruelties of its various inhabitants are revealed.  From a single mother lying both about her daughter’s age and being a widow to the school janitor who drinks to dull the ache of his wife’s cheating to what exactly is buried in the sheep pen in the Cross’s yard.  Small town life is anything but simple and picturesque.

Review:
This book was first recommended to me on either LibraryThing or GoodReads for being similar to The Group (review), another book written in the mid 1900s featuring an ensemble cast.  I wound up ultimately picking it up because I read that it was quite scandalous when it first came out and it was the inspiration behind the first successful nighttime American soap opera of the same name (source).  Additionally, I grew up in Vermont but spent a lot of time in New Hampshire, since I grew up on the Vermont border with New Hampshire.  I even went to high school in New Hampshire (public school, my town in Vermont was too small for a high school so bussed us out to other ones nearby).  I was curious to see if any element of the book would successfully evoke New Hampshire to me.  I often find that books set in New Hampshire just don’t ring true with the New Hampshire I know.  What I found was a book that almost gave me chills at how well it depicted a typical New Hampshire small town, but also was nowhere near what I would in my modern mind describe as scandalous, although I can see why it was at the time.

The story explores the intersecting lives of many town folk in the 1940s and 1950s, but primarily focuses on Constance MacKenzie, her daughter Allison, and her daughter’s friend from the wrong side of the tracks, Selena Cross.  Constance is a frigid woman who has tamped down her sexuality in an attempt to raise her daughter who she conceived out of wedlock while having an affair with a married man in the right way.  She has gone so far as to lie about her daughter’s age and to lie about being a widow to help her daughter seem “acceptable.”  Allison grows up over the course of the novel, first having typical teenage angst, then moving away to NYC to become a writer.  Selena Cross suffers from a good-for-nothing stepfather, living in a shack, and living with a mother who is not all mentally there.  Through their eyes and lives we see snippets of the lives of many others in the town.

Here are the things that were considered scandalous when the book was first published: rape of a stepdaughter by a stepfather (you can probably guess who), abortion (which was illegal at the time), men locking themselves in a basement to go on a bender for weeks at a time.  Things that were probably also considered scandalous but to less of a degree: teenage sex, out of wedlock sex, middle school aged boy spying on a couple having sex, murder in self-defense.  I had to sit here and think for a bit to remember what was possibly deemed scandalous.  It mostly just seemed like a very eventful book to me, and honestly I was just a bit surprised that nothing more scandalous happened.  (Apparently, Metalious originally wrote the book with having a father rape a daughter, but the publisher made her change it because America wasn’t ready yet. Oh my how times have changed. Source).  The only part of the book that really bothered me at all in the way that perhaps people were once scandalized was the depicted of Constance’s relationship with her new boyfriend.  Basically she is frigid and he has to get her to open up and accept her sexuality in order to be her true self.  That’s a fine plot, but the way it’s done often verges on the border of “she said no but ignore it because she really means yes.”  I understand in the 1950s when this was written that it was progressive to have a woman character learning to open up and embrace her sexuality, so I shouldn’t be too harsh with modern critiques.  Certainly the character herself deems what occurred between her and her boyfriend as lovemaking.  But I definitely don’t think this portion aged well, and it soured my enjoyment of that particular chapter, and Constance’s plot as a whole.

I found the two abortion plots to be particularly poignant and important.  Even though abortion is now legal, a lot of the arguments for and against it in the book are still heard today.  I found the two abortions in the book to be an important reminder of why it’s important for abortion to be legal and also why it’s important to educate about safe sex at the same time.

What really made me enjoy the book though was its depiction of small town New Hampshire life.  It just rang as so very true to me, right own to the scandals.  I think too often people get this idealistic picture of small town life, and that is just not the reality for people who actually live there.  People in small towns are just as human as people in cities.  The real difference is that it’s hard to change your reputation in a small town.  Similarly, small towns are more able to be a law in and of themselves.  If the people agree on something, no outsiders can make them change their tune.  That can both be a blessing and a curse.  If you are interested in New Hampshire, this book certainly presents it in an unvarnished way.  From the scenery to the proximity of Vermont to the mills and the problems with the mills to the way the small towns block out those who aren’t from here.  If what the reader is looking for is a real representation of small town New Hampshire, they should certainly look no further.

One side-note: I find the story of the author’s life and how her book was received to be quite fascinating.  For instance, how it was mostly received as chick lit, in spite of the fact that if the same story had been written by a man it would have been considered serious literature.  I also find how the author found the information to inspire the story, as well as how she reacted to fame to be fascinating.  If you want to read more about the former, I recommend picking up this edition of the book, as it has a great foreword talking about the history of the book from a women’s studies perspective.  If you’re interested in the latter, I recommend reading this article from Vanity Fair about her life.

Overall, it is easy to see how this book was scandalous in its time, although it mostly holds no shock value today.  Readers interested in small town New Hampshire life with a side of multiple overlapping juicy plots will not be disappointed.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Counts For:
Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge

Book Review: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest (Series, #1)

Book Review: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest (Series, #1)Summary:
“Lizzie Borden took an axe; gave her mother forty whacks….”
Any New Englander knows the nursery rhyme based on the true crime story of Mr. and Mrs. Borden who were murdered with an axe in 1892.  In spite of being tried and acquitted for the murders, their daughter (in the case of Mrs. Borden, step-daughter), was widely believed to actually be responsible for the murders.  In this book, she definitely was, but maybe not for the reasons you might think.
A darkness is trying to take over Fall River, Massachusetts, and Lizzie and her ailing sister Emma are all that might stand between the town and oblivion, with Lizzie’s parents being the first casualties in the battle.

Review:
I grew up chanting the nursery rhyme about Lizzie Borden the first half of which is quoted above (this perhaps says an awful lot about New Englanders, but I digress), and I also love tales from the Lovecraft universe, which also originated in New England.  When I heard about this book that mashed up the two, I put it on my wishlist.  Lo and behold, my future sister-in-law, who had never even seen my wishlist, bought it for me for Christmas last year.  I thought this would be the perfect read for the fantasy challenge, and although it was a bit different than what I was expecting, I still enjoyed the mix of Lovecraft and women’s history that Priest has woven and am eagerly anticipating reading the sequel.

The story is told through a combination of first person accounts from Lizzie, Emma, and Nance, diary-style entries by their neighbor doctor, letters, police and fire reports, and first person ramblings of a professor from Miskatonic University (another Lovecraft element).  Some readers may be put off by the combination of first person perspectives, but I’ve always enjoyed this style, particularly when it includes things like letters and police reports.  I felt that it was one of the strengths of the book, and I also particularly enjoyed getting to see both Emma’s and Lizzie’s perspectives, as well as that of Lizzie’s lover, Nance.

The Lovecraft mash-up basically is that some sort of Dark One in the deep is out to turn everyone on the seacoast either into worshippers or victims or literally turn them into monstrous ones who live in the deep.  Emma and Lizzie’s parents were among the first to begin succumbing to this infection and that is why Lizzie had to kill them.  Lizzie and Emma now are conducting research, trying to figure out how to prevent the Dark One from actually rising up.  This is all extremely Lovecraftian, including the fact that some of these developments don’t make a ton of sense, but things just don’t make sense in the dark fantasy world of Lovecraft, so I was ok with that.  Readers new to the world of Lovecraft might be a bit more frustrated by how inexplicable most things to do with the Dark Ones and the deep are, however.

I particularly enjoyed how Priest explores how societal and cultural norms of 1890s New England affects women’s lives.  Emma could be a scientist now that women are being accepted into colleges, but she chooses to instead write her scientific papers under a male pseudonym because she believes she would never garner respect otherwise.  Lizzie and Nance are in love and must hide it, although Lizzie often feels why should she bother when she is already disgraced after the trial.  The clashes between Lizzie and Emma regarding both her affair with Nance and the fact that Lizzie believes in trying out magical and fantastical defenses against the Dark One whereas Emma believes purely in science are interesting reading.  They are two very different people who are thrust together both by virtue of being siblings and by the fact that as women in the 1890s their lives are limited.

On the other hand, in spite of liking the characters of the neighbor doctor and the Miskatonic professor and enjoying the exploration of Lizzie’s and Emma’s relationship and getting to see some of Emma’s character, I couldn’t help but feel that Lizzie didn’t get a chance to be enough in this book.  Lizzie Borden is such a looming large figure in local history, even on the book cover she presents as a bad-ass in a period skirt holding a bloody axe.  In contrast in the book she spends a lot of time dealing with her annoying sister.  Similarly, I’m not a fan of the fact that Lizzie does very little of rescuing herself in this book, which is, I believe, if the historic Lizzie really did kill her parents, what she actually did in real life.  To me Lizzie has always been a woman who said fucking enough and took an axe and dealt violently and finally with her problems.  Whereas in the book, she starts off off-screen that way (we don’t actually see her kill her parents) and she sort of tapers off.  Much as I enjoyed seeing her messed up relationship with Emma, I couldn’t help but feel it would have ended more powerfully if she’d said fucking enough and whacked Emma through the skull for being such an insufferable bitch and in the way all the time.  This was my main issue with the book.

My second, more minor, issue is that I felt the plot takes too long to build up to actual horrifying events and/or murders.  The first murders, as I mentioned before, happened off-screen.  The beginning of the book then is a build-up of a lot of tension with not much actual gore or murder occurring.  I should mention that I was watching “The Lizzie Borden Chronicles” on tv at the same time as I was reading this book.  In that show, Lizzie kills at least one person an episode.  Now, some of that gets over the top, but it does get the idea of the pacing one would expect from this type of story right. More mayhem. More murder. More danger. More often.

On a positive note, the scenes between Lizzie and Nance are beautifully done, and while I was frustrated to see Lizzie turn a bit into a lovesick fool, I was very glad it was happening with Nance.  Their relationship and dynamic jumped off the page and really brightened up the book for me.

The set-up at the end of the book for the sequel is well-done, although I’m uncertain how the series can proceed forward so far removed from the actual historical event, I am excited to read it and see what happens.

Overall, this Lovecraft fantastical take on the Lizzie Borden of history and what led to the murders of her parents hits just the right note for Lovecraft fans.  Readers who are new to the dark fantasy world of Lovecraft may be a bit surprised by the slow burn of the horror and how much of it winds up not making much sense, but those readers who can embrace this style of dark fantasy will enjoy it.  Those looking for a bad-ass Lizzie should be aware that this Lizzie only acts when absolutely necessary and then with restraint, and they should perhaps tune into the made for tv movie Lizzie Borden Took An Ax instead.  Recommended to fans of Lovecraft who are interested in getting some local history woven in to the New England settings they are familiar with from the Lovecraft universe.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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Once Upon a Time IX

Cross-Stitch #14: Fiddleheads

I’m happy to announce that I’ve finished designing and stitching the second item in my Foraging New England line.  I actually finished this a few weeks ago, but I gave the completed stitch away as a present, and I didn’t want to post it until I had given it away.  Didn’t want to spoil the surprise!

The second plant featured in the Foraging New England line is: fiddleheads!

Cross-stitch of a pair of fiddleheads. Fiddleheads is stitched above, matteucia struthiopteris is below.Fiddleheads are young ferns before their fronds have unfurled. They are foraged by New Englanders for use as a vegetable, generally boiled or steamed and served alongside a main course.  The pattern is stitched on oatmeal aida with the common name (fiddleheads) above the plant, and the scientific name (matteuccia struthiopteris) below it.  This is done to reflect older hand-drawn plant guidebooks.

Both the completed item and the pattern are available in my shop!  Completed items ship to the US, the European Union, and Japan.  Patterns ship worldwide as an instant digital download.

Use the coupon code INSTAFID1ST through the end of the day Saturday, July 19th to get 25% off either item!

ETA 3/5/15: I have now closed my Etsy shop, but I’ve made my patterns available on my Cross-Stitch page.

Cross-Stitch #13: Rhubarb

Since I finished the Miffy / Nijnjte line for my shop, it was time to think of a new one! I knew I wanted to do something to pay homage to New England, both where I grew up and my current home.  It’s a truly beautiful place.  The spring weather and planting my (incredibly tiny) container gardening got me to thinking about plants.  Then it struck me.  I could make a line about the plants you can forage for in New England!  Foraging is the act of gathering plants that grow wild to eat, as opposed to gardening.  My grandmother on my father’s side was incredibly knowledgeable about foraging.  She passed her knowledge on to my dad, who passed it on down to me.  Of course, my father knows more about it than I do! I consulted him some on the new line on everything from which plants to choose (there are so many edible wild plants in New England!) to getting the look of each plant just right.  I decided that I would include with the plant itself the common name and the scientific name.  The line is intended both to decorate and educate.

The plant I chose to stitch up first for the new line is: rhubarb!

Cross-stitch of a rhubarb leaf. The word "rhubarb" is above it while the words "rheum rhabarbarum" are below it.Rhubarb features in my favorite pie, strawberry-rhubarb pie!  It can also be used in everything from breads to jams to drinks.  It has a savory, bitter flavor, so it generally is combined with something sweet to bring out its underlying sweetness.  The pattern is stitched on oatmeal aida with the common name (rhubarb) above the plant, and the scientific name (Rheum rhabarbarum) below it.  This is done to reflect older hand-drawn plant guidebooks.

Both the completed item and the pattern are available in my shop!  Completed items ship to the US and the European Union.  Patterns ship worldwide.

Use the coupon code INSTARHU1ST today or tomorrow to get 10% off either item!

ETA 3/5/15: I have now closed my Etsy shop, but I’ve made my patterns available on my Cross-Stitch page.

Friday Fun! (October: Orchards, Hay Rides, Motorcycles, and Hiking)

October 31, 2013 Leave a comment
Copyright Amanda McNeil. Image of a hay ride down a country road surrounded by fall colors.

One of my film shots from the orchard of the hay ride going by us.

Hello my lovely readers!  Happy Halloween!

We had a rather oddly warm October here in New England right up until this week.  Which was ok by me because a) cheaper heating bills and b) more motorcycle rides and outdoor activities.  A particularly nasty cold has been going around the city, and unfortunately both myself and my partner caught it.  I wound up having cold symptoms for two weeks.  Since I started focusing on health a few years ago, it has become rare for me to have a cold for more than a few days to a week.  This one knocked out pretty much everyone who got it.  I am pleased to say it is finally gone, but it definitely put a damper on some of our activities this month.

In spite of the doom cold, I still managed to get out and enjoy fall!  My partner and I took a motorcycle ride out to Western Mass to go to an apple orchard.  Since we were on the bike, we didn’t buy bunches of apples (also, we get lots from our CSA anyway), but we did drink cider, eat cider donuts, take a hay ride, and do some old-fashioned film photography.  My bf bought me a sardine can film camera recently, and I am enjoying starting to get into this photography thing.  The orchard was the perfect place to try out my first roll. 🙂  The hay ride was also fun, as were the apples we picked to eat on our walk.

I also go to go for an old-fashioned hike on some state land with my bf and a friend.  It was so so much fun to scramble up rocks again and be out in the fall colors up close.  We had a lovely picnic with curry egg sandwiches and the salad I made that I mentioned in yesterday’s review.  Then when we got off the trail, I warmed up with a salted caramel latte. Yummm

I hope you all have a lovely Halloween tonight! My plan is to go to the gym then have dinner and a scary movie at home with the bf. The perfect Halloween celebration for this introvert. 🙂