Review: Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight

Sometimes expectations get the better of us. Sometimes a description is so well written, the reviews by other authors so promising, and the buzz so enticing that there is nothing to do but raise your hopes for the occasion.

That is what happened to me with The Hex. Wow. This is not the book I thought it would be. It certainly wasn’t the book I wanted it to be. 

For starters I would like to direct you to the goodreads description of Hex. It is lush, full of drama and some very interesting botany. 

A more adequate description would read “an expelled PhD student continues to obsess over her advisor, loses all motivation, sort of tries to do something with toxic plants? Maybe? And there are somehow lots of love triangles and shitty relationships all in a brief 250ish page stream of consciousness novel.”

See how my expectations may have been artificially raised? As a lover of Circe, Outlander, and other books with women working with herbs and plants I really thought Hex would be a tour de force. I wanted a descent into madness over plants that could kill, and a quest to find antidotes out of some goodness. None of that happens. 

In its place there is Nell. Nell who isn’t even interested in her own PhD research. Nell who is in love with her advisor, Joan, but not her boyfriend. Nell, who is only upset about her expulsion because it means she see’s less of Joan. Joan, Joan, Joan. It would help if there was anything remotely interesting about Joan, but she is just a normal person in academia. There is no impressive CV mentioned, no indication that her teaching style is anything other than intimidation and harsh grading. Nothing. She’s just a person, once who Nell cannot even describe in a way to make the reader mildly curious about her, let alone obsessed over her ourselves. 

The stream of consciousness writing was admittedly beautiful. Paired with short diary entry style chapters it is easily the start of the book. Without these choices by Knight I am sure this would have been in my DNF pile within pages. Instead it is one of my most highlighted kindle books of the last few months while also being my most disappointing read of the spring. 

I’m curious to read other bloggers thoughts on Hex. Let me know if you’ve posted a review and I’ll be sure to check it out! 

On Time Traveling Through Quarantine

Anyone else want to just get up, take a big stretch, and time hop? I found myself the other day listening to the Counting Crows and telling my boyfriend I wanted to live through the 90’s. He reminded me I did, in fact, live through the 90’s, but as I was a child I don’t think it really counts as the real experience. It is also far enough back to still have legit medicine but without a majority of this internet nonsense. 

Anyway I digress. This came up because I was eyes deep in Outlander 4: Outlanding in America (what I affectionately call Drums of Autumn.) Despite having to cancel our fall trip to Scotland I can still enjoy snippets of the highlands through Gabaldon’s work. 

I can also enjoy a time where no one is fighting about “fake news” or making Tik Tok videos. 

Last week I spent my reading time in Siena, both medieval and current. I learned about delicious sounding Italian food, frescos, and bad ass women. I learned more about scribes. Okay, the black death was there too, but it was so far removed that I didn’t even feel bad reading about an actual plague while being stuck in my house because of…well…you know where this is going. 

Anyway, if you’re interested in conspiracy, Medichi’s, medieval romance, and time travel check out The Scribe of Siena. It’s a really great read. 

Reading Drums of Autumn and The Scribe of Siena so close got me thinking about some of my other favorite time travel stories. Claire and Beatrice are such singular, amazing women. In my time travel reading I’m used to more men and aliens jumping through eras. The Time Traveler’s wife is an obvious jump here. Henry jumps through time, always rooted to his future/current wife. But what about Harry Potter? It took me a minute to remember that Hermione and Harry are the ones doing the time traveling, albeit in hours, not in years. 

I used to think owning a time turner would be the best. Now there is so much unaccounted for time I think I’m okay moving at normal pace. 

The other time travel stories I’ve read and loved have been more supernatural in scope. Slaughterhouse 5 has time traveling aliens. So does the Chaing short story Story of Your Life, which is just as gut wrenching as it’s movie counterpart Arrival. Oh, and how could I forget A Wrinkle in Time with all of its time and universe jumping? 

I’m hoping to see more women like Claire and Beatrice in time travel fiction in the upcoming years. I suspect I am missing a few noteworthy women as I write this post and look forward to meeting them through their pages as well. 

In the meantime I’m grabbing How To Lose the Time War for my kindle and hoping to enjoy all of the bumps and battles along the way.

Oh, and if you have a favorite time travel story please leave it in the comments! I’d love to continue exploring this genre with more than just google recommendations.

Review: House of Salt and Sorrow by Erin A Craig

Holy Book Club Discussion Batman. 

I put off reading House of Salt and Sorrow for about a year. I saw it on all of your blogs. I read your reviews. It popped up on goodreads all the time. I thought, 12 dancing sisters, meh. 

Part of me still thinks I was right to wait. Especially since reading House of Salt and Sorrow for my now virtual book club was easily the best experience of my quarantine. 

For starters I should point out my book club is now biweekly, as we have nothing better to do and large TBRs. That meant we were all actually reading on the same schedule. Our group chat BLEW UP. Salt and Sorrow is many things but sane, predictable, and slow paced are not qualities it possesses. 

So the texts were amazing. The number of us who stayed up late reading and then could not sleep due to terror were not insignificant. Even our members who don’t traditionally read YA were SO HERE FOR THE DISCUSSION.

I say all of this because without my lovely friends to direct all of my DID THAT JUST HAPPEN energy too I think the whole experience would have been very lackluster. 

Let me back up. House of Salt of Sorrow is, as I mentioned, a retelling of the 12 dancing sisters myth. Except in this version the sisters aren’t just dancing, they are dying. There is a step mother, a potential love triangle, and a whole new mythos that was honestly unexpected out of a novel of this size. 

Annaleigh, the sister whose story we follow most closely, is a sane and likeable enough girl. But woah, that is not true of all of her family. Her step mother is annoying enough – per fairytale tradition, her current eldest sister, Camilla is intolerable. Her baby sister Verity is basically like every off child in a horror movie. Oh, and I mentioned a love triangle? Fisher is lacklust – which ends up being an appropriate characteristic, and Cassius is equal parts suspicious and swoon worthy. 

I give you these characteristics to not give away too much of the plot. The plot. Wow. I’m not sure this is a book I could say I liked. I’m not sure I enjoyed my time with the pages. I certainly was compelled to keep reading. I wanted to know what happened next. The twists, of which there were many (maybe too many?!) always fit within the story. Nothing felt forced, but it didn’t feel entirely cohesive either. It was a rollercoaster, but one where you couldn’t see the track with drops and twists out of nowhere! 

Salt and Sorrow was the type of story I had to share with others. If I had read it on my own I would have been angry, confused, disappointed, and a smattering of other negative emotions. Now I can look back at it fondly and remember the crazy gifs and texts that went back and forth between my book club at lightning speed. 

I honestly don’t fully get who the audience is for this book? Fairytale lovers? People who like unexpected horror? Dancers? Anyway, I suggest if you think House of Salt and Sorrow sounds interesting that you tackle it with a friend! 

On Reading with Purpose instead of for Distraction

This weekend I did something I try to do every April. I got together my TBR. I prepped snacks and ordered take out. I sat down with my pup and I read. I read and read and read. Every year I try to participate in at least 1 of the Dewey 24 hour readathons. I started back in college, close to ten years ago. 20 year old me had a completely different life with different obligations, and a much messier sleep schedule. Dedicating 24 hours to reading then was a fun challenge, but not one that required marking up my calendar months in advance. 

Over the last few years I find myself missing most readathons. I don’t have the time, and my schedule usually fills up weeks, if not months in advance. In the past few years even if I had a readathon day free it would include meeting friends for coffee, running to the store, or hosting an impromptu game night. 

In short, it is really hard to cancel plans with real people just to read. 

But plans are nonexistent right now, but my TBR pile is still very real. Prior to Saturday I was in the middle of 6 books. Now I’m at 3. 

For the first in close to a decade I approached this readathon with purpose, and it changed the way I read. 

The last couple months have been full of distraction reading, skimming paragraphs to finish a story, and barely keeping characters straight in my head. Distraction reading isn’t immersive for me. The things I am trying to avoid are always there, just below the surface. It is easy to stop to scroll twitter, to go bother my boyfriend, to walk my dog. The story is there as a crutch, not as something I actually care about. 

This weekend I turned my distraction reading on its head. I appreciate every book with purpose. When I sat down I sat down to read, not to pass time, not to forget about the pandemic outside my door, not in place of doing something productive. 

And my quarantine reading experience completely changed. I forgot how freeing reading with purpose could be. That falling into a story is possible, and that I am still entirely able to binge a book without issue. 

I also found the book doesn’t matter. I took this readathon to cull  my ever growing “Currently Reading” pile, so I was almost exclusively attacking books I’ve been reading for weeks, if not months. I finally finished The 4th Outlander book, and found that I could actually retain the events that happen in the last quarter of the book with some detail instead of a foggy sense that something weird just happened. I finished a tongue and cheek romance that I auto-bought the day it was released because it sounded so perfect. It turns out it was pretty perfect, my lack of interest in it over the last few weeks had more to do with my lack of purpose in my reading, not in a lack of story. 

I was able to feel connected to characters, appreciate motive, and to not just go through the motions. 

So I am taking this lesson with me for the rest of this week. My reading will not be for five minutes between meetings, or as a hold over when I am too bored and lazy to do anything else. I will pick up my books because I want to enjoy them. And hopefully that means I will get more out of them. 

Review: The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel

Has anyone else found their ability to recommend books has changed during this pandemic? I, for one, have spent the last few years singing the praises of Station Eleven to anyone with a love for any type of fiction. I’ve given copies to a few self proclaimed “non-readers” too. I find it is easy to read, love, and digest. That is until our society was also hit with a virus, and then suddenly the fictional tales of a post apocalyptic event seemed less appropriate.

Luckily for me Ms Mandel released another powerhouse of a book at the end of March. The Glass Hotel is both nothing like Station Eleven and yet still everything that I needed it to be. 

At once a tale of a woman floating through life, the people she touches, the great recession of the early 2000’s, and a Ponzi scheme The Glass Hotel is Mandel at her finest. Even without the pandemic that made her National Book Award Finalist novel so powerful she is able to convey the messiness of being human. The choices we make, for better or worse, and the people we encounter. 

I’ve always felt that Mandel’s work is like meeting an old friend in the street. I never go in expecting to be utterly captivated. Her plots always sound a bit far off, but then I start reading and it is the only place I want to be. She is a transporting writer. Her settings are very real and atmospheric. Her characters, while not always likeable, feel like people that exist in this world. 

After spending time at The Glass Hotel I want to travel to Vancouver Island, visit Toronto, and wander around New York. I wanted to spend time with Vincent, just for a day. Basically I wanted to spend a day in the life of The Glass Hotel. Not the days I did experience as a college student during the 2008 financial crisis, but a day in the world of these characters, I wanted to experience it through their eyes.

Clearly I loved this novel. I think everyone should read it. The writing is crisp. The characters are heartfelt but not perfect, and the story is compelling without becoming overwhelming.

On Filling My Time: Virtual Author Events

We’ve been at home for a while now. Everyone is bored. Zoom is now an obligation. There is nothing left to clean and everyone has baked all the bread. 

So what else are we supposed to do?

Lucky for us book lovers our favorite Indiepend book stores hit the ground running last month and Virtual Author Events are now a very real very fun thing that you can do in your pajamas with a glass of wine.

You can even get all of your bookish friends together in a group chat and watch together. You can freak out over new book news, get excited about character revelation, and cheer general feel good statements without getting that annoying side eye from the person down your row who would really like you to stop whispering. There is no row. There are no other people around. Cheer all you want. Enjoy. 

I bring this all up as I have been watching through Midtown Scholar’s Madeline Miller event last Friday. It was inspiration and led me to their youtube channel, where they had also uploaded events with authors like Casey Cep, who I reviewed last year, and a ton of other favorites. 

Literati is also doing “At Home” events with some amazing authors. This week they Rebbeca Dinnerstien Knight will be live to talk about her new book, The Hex and next week they will be featuring Lillian Li, who is also one of their booksellers as well as a celebrated author. 

Also a shameless plug. Literati is my local indie of choice, so check them out. They are a wonderful store. 

This week Parnassus has Don Winslow. Politics and Prose has a full week of live events, including a talk with Samantha Irby. Greenlight also has an impressive schedule to close out April. Women and Children First is hosting 2 book launch events including one for Dancing at the Pity Party. Harvard Book Store is also going virtual with a packed schedule for April and May that includes Emily Gould and Bess Kalb. Most of these events are free, but you are incouraged to pick up books by the featured authors (or just your next must read book) by the presenting Indie seller. Makes sense, right? 

I know this is not an exhaustive list of virtual author events happening right now. It has been heartening to see our community come together to still bring joy and social interaction in a time when we are all stuck at home with our own thoughts and loneliness. 

If you come across any other fun events let me know in the comments. If you have already attended a virtual event that has past link me to the recording, if available! Oh, and if you saw Emily St. John Mandel at the end of last month when I was not mentally capable of keeping up with my dog, let alone the onslaught of digital content please know I envy you. 

On Dabbling: Loving Short Fiction

As someone who can’t just read one book at once I sometimes struggle with closing. I have books left unfinished that I started months ago. As someone who will proudly DNF a book it isn’t that I have an issue with abandoning texts. I’m a mood reader at heart and moods come and go even when that 600 page novel on my nightstand doesn’t. 

This has lead to a love of short story collections. There is something so satisfying about finishing a story in one sitting. There is no remembering back to 200 pages ago when something important may or may not have happened. There are no unnecessary characters. Just a single story. 

I also love the focus of short stories. There is never a winding tale. At most there is a passage of time, but always a very tight central theme. Always a message that needs to be conveyed. They feel urgent, important. Like the words flew out and didn’t have time or place in a larger tale. 

I love the sense of completion that comes with finishing a story, and then a collection. I like the power that comes behind a dozen or so stories all around a similar theme. 

One of the things I am missing most right now is strolling through my local bookstore and finding new story collections. I almost always buy one every time I am in a physical store. I will put down a best seller in favor of a short story collection by an author I am only marginally aware of. I know I’ll remember to come back for the best seller. The stories may not stay on my radar as long, but I’ll probably enjoy them with a bit more intensity than that shiny new blog hopping book. 

As I have spoken only generally about short story collections here I will also admit of course they are not all created equal. Instead of trying to list out all of my favorites I did want to provide a few authors who I think regularly put out solid content that I devour on long summer nights, on planes, waiting at the DMV, and before bed. So if you are looking for some  fantastic prose but without the time commitment check outAmber Sparks, Helen Oyeyemi, Danielle Lazarin, Anjali Sachdeva, Rebecca Schiff, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Ted Chiang, Helen Ellis, Lauren Groff, Allegra Hyde,and Alexander Weinstein.