Book Review

"The Sister" by Louise Jensen Book Review

"The Sister" by Louise Jensen Book Review

The Sister is the debut novel of author Louise Jensen, and was one of three books I read on my honeymoon. It’s a good thing we had nothing to do but sleep and eat, because those were the only two other things I could make time for with such a gripping book just waiting to be read!

The story follows the “now” and “then” of Grace, a woman who is grief-stricken from the tragic loss of her best friend.

Luckiest Girl Alive Book Review & Why Ani is All of Us

Luckiest Girl Alive Book Review & Why Ani is All of Us

If you haven’t read the book yet, the story follows TifAni FaNelli, soon to be rebranded as Ani Harrison after her impending marriage to the epitome of urban WASP, Luke. The marriage is the summit of everything she believes she’s ever wanted—money, status, and overall, protection. But just before the wedding, Ani is scheduled to participate in a documentary about an internationally recognized event from her early teens—an event that was initiated by her own gang rape. She recounts the rape to the reader in flashbacks of her youth.

Go Set a Watchman Book Review

"Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends." Harper Lee BooksHarper Lee's long-awaited sequel to the Pulitzer Prize winner To Kill a Mockingbird once more takes us back to the deeply racially divided South, where our color-blind heroine Scout Finch returns home to Maycomb County to visit her father Atticus in Go Set a Watchman. While discussing the book with a friend on a Labor Day trip to New York, I was reminded that though this is a sequel, it was, in fact, written before Mockingbird. In fact, it’s actually an early version of the novel that was to come To Kill a Mockingbird. I cannot imagine how hard this must be as a writer--to take a character on an emotional roller coaster and then yank them backward into their own childhood. Kudos, Ms. Lee.

Personally, I believe my own second book to be far better than my first attempt. This is how I feel about Harper Lee's work as well. To Kill a Mockingbird infuses the leisurely lifestyle of the southern culture into the novel itself, slowly easing the reader from young Scout's childhood adventures into the story at hand. But beneath her tomboy ways and misadventures with her brother and friends, a tidal wave of change arises in the form of racial inequality. Atticus, Scout's father, is a noble and steadfast rock, guiding Scout and Maycomb with a strong moral compass and nerves of steel. "It's not time to worry yet," he tells his children. The affliction of prejudice unfolds in a relatable and vibrant story.

Go Set a Watchman falls a little short of the pinnacle we see in Mockingbird. The novel starts slowly, introducing us to Scout's love interest and reminding us of how distasteful she finds the expectations put on her as a woman. This isn't surprising, considering we knew her as a tomboy girl, rough around every edge and existing in a largely sexist environment. When something does finally get moving in the plot, chapters filled with page after page of dialogue are difficult to follow. It's hard to understand how someone with such a close relationship with her father wouldn't stop to ask him a question or two before coming unhinged.

The writing isn't completely airtight, or perhaps Scout's personality evolved as she grew older--for some reason our strong, intelligent heroine can't seem to drive well, and never noticed a pregnant woman's belly enough to ask questions about the birds and the bees until in her mid-teens. She is no longer sensible. Instead, she pukes a lot from disgust and stress and refuses to listen to reason, which is one of the lessons imparted by her uncle at the end. There’s also a strange moment where the reader is told that “Atticus could and did prove consent,” with regards to the rape trial, which isn’t true of the first novel.

However, the lessons presented in both books are good ones. Change needs help to walk the miles to the finish line, and that the walk happens one small step at a time. Listening to others, even if you disagree is also important in order to build debate and gain trust. Those upholding the law have a duty to uphold it as written, and not write their own rules without following due process. And a sense of self and who we are, apart from those we admire, is important in guiding our opinions and lives.

We all know racism and discrimination are wrong. But as Hank says, sometimes a mild answer is better than showing his rage. It's difficult, at times, to understand the motivations of the characters in Watchman, but it is similarly difficult in real life. Perhaps that’s how the author meant it.

S. M. Peterson

The Girl with All the Gifts Book Review and “Relationship Reading”

GirlWithAlltheGiftsLike most authors, reading is one of my favorite pastimes. I’ve always had this romanticized dream of meeting a man who wouldn’t think lying in bed and reading to each other was overly dorky. For the first time, I (sort of) realized that dream with Mr. Perfect! On a recent trip back to my hometown of Arnold, Nebraska, we decided to spend the five-hour drive listening to an audio book instead of the radio. We selected The Girl with All the Gifts because of the high ratings on Audible,’s audio book platform acquired for $300 million in 2008. Later we realized that this book was over 13 hours long, so it ended up taking us several car rides and many nights listening on the couch before we finished it.

But what a treat! Author M. R. Carey adds a chilling twist to the tried-and-true zombie apocalypse tale based upon real science in which cordyceps parasites take over the bodies of their hosts and eventually fruit, spread, and populate. One of the more impressive things about this book was the depth of the characters in this book—though the cast was small, each had a very clear goal they fought to realize and a distinctive voice that implants the reader into the brains of the narrators. The book is a bit verbose at times, and I can’t say the ending turned out as I hoped, but overall it was an excellent read/listen. ****4/5 Stars.

Listening to the book as a couple made me think a lot about the impact of reading on relationships. At first, I assumed it would be like watching a TV series together. But as we all know, translating the written (or spoken) word into pictures in our brains takes a little more effort than watching television. Perhaps because of this extra “work,” this experience felt far more interactive. There were many times when I paused the book to ask about some element of the plot. We talked about the book more than we do TV shows, wondering aloud whether or not they characters would make it safely to their destination or whether they were about to be killed.

The experience was particularly powerful to me right now, since Mr. Perfect has been working the night shift. He typically leaves around nine o’clock to head in to work, so listening to this book together felt like something we could share in the limited time we had each night. In fact, it almost felt like a private joke—we laughed together at the funny bits in the book and worried together about the fate of our favorite people. I think it’s because investing the time and effort into listening to or reading a book together creates a kind of special bond.

We’ve already talked about starting another book. Maybe this time we’ll read it aloud instead of having someone read it to us!

Has anyone out there ever done a little “relationship reading” of your own? What did you think? How did it make you feel?


S. M. Peterson

Far From the Madding Crowd Book & Movie Review

Up until very recently, I always thought the title of this classic novel was Far From the Maddening Crowd. “Maddening,” not “madding.” When Thomas Hardy wrote the novel in 1874, he took the title from a poem by Thomas Gray.

Far From the madding crowd's ignoble strife Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray; Along the cool sequester'd vale of life They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

I read somewhere that in this instance, Mr. Gray (not to be confused with THE Mr. Gray) meant that the crowd was frenzied. I always read it and assumed that the crowd was maddening just because it was a big ol’ bunch of people.

Whatever the crowd was like, in both the book and the movie adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd, the readers and viewers are definitely far away from them. Set over 200 miles away from London, pastoral England is beautifully drawn in the story, as are the spirited cast of characters.

If you are unfamiliar with the story, it’s a classic love triangle, and at times a love quartet! Bathsheba, our female lead, is a vain, proud, and independent woman. Gabriel Oak, a man as strong and solid as his name, recognizes these qualities and loves her in spite of them. On the other hand, Farmer Boldwood, master of the neighboring farm, is so blinded by his need to possess Bathsheba he can’t see what she really is. Sergeant Troy, an impetuous cad of a soldier, is simply distracted by Bathsheba’s wealth and spirit, when the girl he really loves goes missing.

The movie has to cut a lot of fat from the book, of course, but it’s surprisingly well done. One of my only regrets is that I wish the film would have introduced Bathsheba and Gabriel more slowly. Her display of vanity at the beginning sets a slightly different stage for the book than the movie. There are also a few deviations from the book that don’t have a clear explanation.

One of my favorite things from the book is the extraordinary quotes. How someone can perfectly pour ideas like this into words is beyond me.

“It is safer to accept any chance that offers itself and extemporize a procedure to fit it, than to get a good plan matured, and wait for a chance of using it.”

“Wisdom lies in moderating mere impressions.”

“Some women only require an emergency to make them fit for one.”


S. M.

Why Women Must be Perfect (and The Girl on the Train Book Review)

girl on the train“Women are still only really valued for two things—their looks and their role as mothers. I’m not beautiful, and I can’t have kids, so what does that make me? Worthless.” I’ve always wondered if I’m the only woman who has ever felt this way. At least now I know Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train, has at the very least considered it.

When I was both single and without a particularly impressive career, not one person ever came to me with a twinkle in their eye to ask me, “What types of career successes are you chasing?” However, at least on a weekly basis, I got, “Have you been dating?” “Tick tock! You should try a dating site!” “Don’t you want to have kids some day? If you want to have kids, you really shouldn’t put your career first…”

In The Girl on the Train we become acquainted with two women, Megan and Rachel. At first, they seem to be as opposite as opposite could be—Megan is beautiful and slender; Rachel is fat and slovenly. Megan is sharp and successful; Rachel takes the train into London each day to pretend she wasn’t fired months prior. Megan has a gorgeous home and a handsome husband. Rachel, in contrast, says “It’s been a while since anyone touched me with anything approaching tenderness.” Megan is actually strikingly similar in my mind’s eye to Amy from Gone Girl. I’m not sure which of the two is more of a train wreck (pardon the pun!)—Megan or Rachel.

As we get to know the two women, we learn that they are actually quite similar. Both feel the weight of the pressure to be perfect, and yet deal with it in different ways. Rachel’s pain is all on the surface—she turns to alcohol and stops taking care of herself. Megan, on the other hand, hides her pain away, causing it to build and build in pressure until she has an affair and is ultimately murdered by a lover.

I really believe that as women, we’re saddled with much more pressure than men.

There’s the pressure to look perfect and pin-thin all the time. There’s a pressure to be “together,” with everything organized and planned perfectly. There’s pressure to have a personal trainer so you can talk about while showing off your toned calves, eat elegant meals so you can Instagram the photos, and travel to exotic places so you seem worldly and cultured. Don’t even get me started on Pinterest and the Martha Stewart-esque craft mania we’re supposed to recreate. (Disclaimer: I love Pinterest.)

And, of course, there’s pressure to have a picture-perfect family.

When we see women without these qualities and achievements, many of us are quick to judge. But at the same time, we HATE women who actually achieve this state of perfection.

In the rush to try to achieve more, we often forget to ask ourselves an important question: “Do I even WANT to be perfect?”

“Would I rather eat my ice cream and be a little rounder than go without, only to STILL fall short of the fitness levels of other women in the room? Would I rather spend my weekends with Mr. Perfect, or stuck behind my computer in pursuit of a career that will probably not end up as I imagine anyway?"

Do I hate Rachel from The Girl on the Train? I definitely dislike her. But extreme dislike is hard when there is so much about her to be pitied. It’s easier to hate Megan, because she at least has options, and she’s choosing wrong.

“I’m frightened and I don’t want to have to think,” Rachel says at one point. She’s so weak its painful. Part of me wants to tell her to sack up, put down the bottle, and get a frickin’ job. The other part of me wants to hug her and say, “I know exactly how you feel. Let’s snuggle and eat some ice cream!”

Perhaps the defining line is that Rachel has nobody in her life who finds her interesting, and she simply isn’t capable of becoming interesting on her own, so she inserts herself into someone else’s interesting story by force. Megan, on the other hand, is plenty capable. It’s laziness keeping her from finding a hobby or choosing a path for her life. That laziness eventually chooses the path for her—a path ending in death.

I keep searching for that line. How do we know the difference between trying—being un-lazy—and being so un-lazy it kills us? I’m not sure.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.


S. M.

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape

I have exciting news to report! The truth is, Bellicise and Luce are real. There really is a war out there. It’s a tough and dangerous battle of good versus evil to save all of mankind. But, never fear! As long as we develop Dynam, the world will be saved!

You, too, can help in this cause. All you have to do is pay a course fee and I can train you how to help save the world. It will be for the greater good, so it’s very much worth it. The road will be long. You’ll work endlessly while earning very little money. You’ll rarely see your family. If you step out of line, you’ll have to be punished. (And let’s be honest, sometimes we’ll punish you “just cuz.”) But again, it’s for the greater good. So open your wallet and let’s get moving.

Ohhhh wait. Never mind! That’s not right! I’m talking about Scientology, NOT Dynam. But since L. Ron Hubbard created a religion out of thin air after gaining lots of writing practice on his Sci-Fi novels, can’t I do the same thing with my fiction? Oh, that seems strange to you? Yeah, I guess that’s because it is…

beyond beliefIn Beyond Belief, Jenna Miscaviage Hill, niece of the dictator ruling Scientology, David Miscaviage, gives us a poignant tale of her bizarre and dysfunctional upbringing within the Church. Because of her familial ties, we get an inside look at the organization that calls itself Scientology.

Before reading this book, I wasn’t aware Scientology had its own language. For instance, Scientologists undergo a process called auditing, where they’re asked a series of questions while holding fast to an electronic device called an E-Meter. It’s meant to be a cross between a lie detector test and psychotherapy—the receiver of the auditing is supposed to release bad “stuff” in their life, or in past lives. Do your spiritual housekeeping through auditing (while paying hefty fees!) and you’ll eventually gain the status of “Clear,” where you’ll be happily free of the nasty influence of engrams. Do REALLY well, and you’ll get to the Operating Thetan level. Scientology_e_meter_blue

So far, it doesn’t sound all that bad, does it? You pay some money and people talk to you about your childhood—not an unusual thing in our society. There are lots of made-up words, but that’s not the worst thing ever. And after all, if it’s good enough for Tom Cruise and John Travolta, it should be good enough for me, right? But, look more closely. There are important red flags.

Scientologists are encouraged to detach from emotion and approach everything with the rules that have been drilled into their heads—rules that are supposed to help Scientology save the world. Independent thought of any kind is discouraged, and folks who step out of line receive “chits” for bad behavior. They’ll be accused of things like an “Out 2D” or of being “Out Ethics”—all things which have arduous and terrifying consequences, like working 23-hour days with little food, only to be given a soggy mattress on a rooftop to sleep on at the end of the night.

Another incredibly scary thing about the religion is that if you vocalize concerns or leave the religion, you might be labeled a “Suppressive Person,” or a person that is against the aims of the church. Members of Scientology are instructed to disconnect from SPs—in a nutshell, cut them out of their life completely and never speak with them again. For some Scientologists who grew up in the church, like Jenna, this means choosing between your own health and safety, and never seeing your family or friends ever again.

scientology letterThe main point of the religion is quite clearly the cash money. L. Ron himself said to one of his ex-wives that the way to make the big bucks was to start a religion. And make the big bucks he sure did! For a Scientologist to reach the OT levels (the higher levels of Scientology) they would pay over $100,000. Keep in mind as you read—Scientology managed to get itself classified as a religion, and billions of tax dollars they owe you and I, as American citizens, go unpaid every single year they exist. You’re paying for this shit to go on, people.

Another interesting element to this story for me, personally, was that the author is just six months older than I am. As I read this book, I kept looking at her timelines and realizing that while she was doing manual labor hauling railroad ties, scrubbing toilets with a toothbrush, acting as “medical liason” at age 7, and reciting mindless quotes by L. Ron, I was doing normal kid stuff like building forts, crushing on boys, and being pissed off at my parents that we weren't having macaroni and cheese for dinner.

The writing itself is no masterpiece. There’s everything from bad grammar, to repetition, to spelling problems. The younger portions of the author’s timelines seem to have a ton of detail. I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember nearly as much as she did when I was two years old. She’s also got some major timeline issues in there. She mentions getting to the Ranch around March of 1999, shortly after that mentioning she was six years old. So, I’m pretty sure she meant 1990. Her publishers didn’t really do their jobs on the editing piece, which is a shame.

But all in all, the story is an emotional telling of the first eighteen years of a woman’s life, which were largely destroyed.

Way to make it out alive, Jenna.