Saturday, March 27, 2010

Book Review: When You Reach Me [2009]

Rebecca Stead's Newbery-award winning When You Reach Me is set in New York City in the late 70s. Twelve year old Miranda is a latch-key kid. Her mother drills her on safety techniques, and a creepy homeless guy ("The Laughing Man") lives outside her apartment building. She only ever reads one book, A Wrinkle in Time, and she carries it with her wherever she goes. But when her best (and only) friend, Sal, stops interacting with her altogether the day he gets randomly punched by a mysterious kid named Marcus, her world begins to open up in all sorts of unexpected ways. She makes new friends, among them someone who was formerly her enemy; she helps her mother prepare for her appearance on the $20,000 Pyramid game show; and she receives mysterious notes that accurately describe things that are going to happen in the future. The details of this small but intricate mystery are unraveled slowly, through short chapters (many of their titles are patterned after Pyramid categories: "Things that Blow Away," "Things That Turn Upside Down"), and are well worth the wait.

Grade: A-

The bulk of the story is actually autobiographical. Stead does a great job of recreating the feel of the urban landscape of her childhood: the endlessly walked route between home and school, with occasional deviations to friends' apartments; the network of adults with whom Miranda interacts; and numerous small details (mimeographs, $2 bills, Vietnam) that build a realistic tone. The discussion of time travel in which Miranda, Marcus, and Julia engage did sprain my brain for a while, but I appreciated that Stead didn't dumb it down for any reader of any age. She assumes we can keep up. The net effect of this (setting + time travel) was to remind me of books I read when I was twelve, and I found that familiarity very enjoyable.

Random Thoughts:

I listened to When You Reach Me in what seemed like the blink of an eye; it was only four discs long. I guess that's the difference between most children's books and doorstops like The Gathering Storm. The single narrator was fairly competent, although sometimes it was difficult to distinguish between her adult characters. I would probably recommend this book to kids who are reading ahead (tweens) as well as teens and adults. It doesn't feel particularly bound to one age range.

I haven't spent much time watching the $20,000 Pyramid (or any of its other, larger-denomination iterations). If I'm going to watch old game shows, I definitely prefer Match Game. Perhaps this is because I'm just not very good at the Pyramid, especially the Winner's Circle part.

Reading this really made me want to grab A Wrinkle in Time off my shelf, but that would be violating my "only read new-to-me" books rule. Most of what Miranda said about the plot was actually unfamiliar, because it's been so long, but I do remember really liking it as a child. I guess I should probably re-read it before the new movie comes out?

Dead Mother: No
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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Book Review: The Help [2009]

Kathryn Stockett's first novel, The Help, was the sleeper hit of 2009, and still occupies the number two spot on the best-seller lists for hardcover fiction. It still has at least a two-to-one holds ratio in our library system, and it has also been the source of some controversy. Set in Jackson, Mississippi beginning in 1962, the novel revolves around the lives of three characters: one privileged white woman and two black maids. Naive Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan has just graduated from Ole Miss and wants to be a writer, but so far has only managed to get a job writing the housekeeping column for the local newspaper under an assumed name. Since she doesn't know anything about keeping house, she asks her friend Elizabeth's maid, Aibileen, for assistance, leading to a deeper acquaintance than customary between a white lady and "the help." Aibileen is an older woman who has raised many white children and been deeply wounded each time they grow up to be just like their parents. Aibileen's friend, Minny, is an outspoken maid who manages to get herself fired and earn the enmity of Junior League President Hilly Holbrook at the beginning of the book. Hilly is the undisputed villain of the piece (well, other than the institutionalized racism that she personifies), from her proposal that all white families install separate bathrooms for their help in order to keep free of "colored diseases" to accusing Minny, and then Aibileen, of theft, to her tyrannical rule of what seems to be all of Jackson society. She may, in fact, be a little too irredeemably evil, but she is a character that everyone should love to hate. Despite Hilly's ever-watchful eye, Skeeter and Aibileen embark on a project to publish real stories from the maids of Jackson, including the ugly truth about the white women who employ them. They struggle to find interviewees (beyond the initially reluctant Minny) for a task that could easily get its black participants fired, or much worse; a palpable sense of danger hangs over much of the novel, set as it is in a time of civil unrest. However, at its heart The Help is an uplifting and ultimately optimistic story about how we aren't that different after all.

Grade: A-

Even though it has a great story, the book is perhaps a little too self-conscious about its historical time-period (you can practically hear the signposts being printed in caps lock, like a telegram: MEDGAR EVERS-(STOP)-WOOLWORTH'S COUNTER-(STOP)-MARCH ON WASHINGTON-(STOP)-KENNEDY ASSASSINATION-(STOP)-BOB DYLAN). However, within this broader context there are many small, moving, and weighty moments that make that aspect of Stockett's writing, which I guess I would call obvious contextualizing, negligible.

Now, about the "controversy" that surrounded the book, I must of course say a few words. See reviews here and here that discuss Stockett's use of heavy dialect for her black characters. In this interview, Stockett seems genuinely humble about her attempt to recreate the voices of black women in the 1960s. She actually indicated that she added the character of Skeeter "because she worried that readers wouldn’t trust her if she only wrote about black characters. 'I just didn’t think that would ever be allowed to sit on the shelf,' she said. 'So I threw Skeeter in the mix and I felt a little better about it, because I was showing a white perspective as well.'" HUH? When you're reading the book, it sometimes feels like Skeeter is a less developed and less rich character, and now that makes sense. But we have to ask ourselves why an author felt like she would be crossing such a huge line by writing solely with the voices of black women. If authors only wrote about what they knew first-hand, the selection of books would be pretty uninteresting. Are women not supposed to write from the perspective of male characters, and vice versa? Can straight authors accurately represent the thoughts and feelings of queer characters, or not? Should Stephenie Meyer have confined herself to writing about normal teenagers, because she isn't actually a vampire or a werewolf (hang on a sec, maybe that would actually be a good thing . . . Twilight crazies, I'm kidding! Please don't spam me.)? In a similar vein, if Stockett had chosen not to write Aibileen and Minny's parts using dialect, would their sections of the novel have felt as vibrant? You can't write a romance novel set in Scotland without throwing in some Scottish dialect (even if you're an American). I did, however, agree with the Christian Science Monitor, which wondered why none of the white characters were written with a similarly distinct dialect. My favorite review was actually William Boot's "Do I Have to Read The Help?" (answer: yes):
My only problem with The Help is that, in the end, it’s not really about the help. For all her assurance in sketching out the foibles of the Junior League, Stockett is shakier when it comes to the maids. They never quite come into focus—they’re more useful for what they see rather than who they are.
I'm not sure I entirely agree with him, but perhaps if Stockett hadn't felt the pressure to include a white character in order to get her book "on the shelf," that wouldn't have been the case. In my opinion, the book is stronger because it has both white and black characters, and both perspectives are fully explored.

Random Thoughts:

A friend of mine (whose taste in books I trust implicitly) recommended the book to me by handing me a paper copy, but things being as they always are, I didn't have time to read it before I felt like I'd probably better release that one back out into the wild. As I often do, I ended up listening to the audio version instead, which was narrated by one actress for each main role, as well as a narrator for the strangeness that is Chapter 25 (in which Stockett inserts an omniscient narrator for the first and last time). It's possible that my feelings about the dialect would be stronger if I had seen it on the page, rather than hearing it performed by the two excellent narrators for Aibileen and Minny. Of the three, the "Miss Skeeter" was definitely the weakest link, but I thought that was true of the character as well. The omniscient narrator of the benefit scene was terrible, and clearly had no idea how to speak with a southern accent. The unexpected upside(?) of listening to the book, rather than reading it, was an unconscious desire to adopt a faux-Southern accent.

I literally cannot read or hear the word "Jackson" without thinking about Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. At least it's a good song. I also found myself humming Chuck Berry's "Maybellene" on numerous occasions as I was getting out of the car.

Especially interesting in context: This article about a black writer's conference. I wonder, do black writers feel like Stockett is co-opting their narrative space? Most of the reviews I found were by white women (like me).

Dead Mother: No, which was actually a surprise
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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Book Review: Black Magic Sanction [2010]

Black Magic Sanction is the eighth book in Kim Harrison's series about the witch Rachel Morgan and her thoroughly complicated life with Jenks, her pixie backup, and Ivy, her living vampire roommate/potential love interest. Having recently survived a banshee while solving the mystery of her vampire boyfriend's death, Rachel now finds herself violently pursued by the witches of Coven of Moral and Ethical Standards, who have somehow discovered that Rachel has the ability to give birth to demon children and want to lobotomize her or imprison her for life. That may sound like a far-fetched premise, but Harrison makes it work well within the fully realized universe of The Hollows, which she has carefully expanded over the course of the previous books. Throw in Rachel's demon tutor, her nasty, thieving ex-boyfriend Nick, and Trent (the elf with political ambitions), and you have a thoroughly entertaining story. Black Magic Sanction has healthy amounts of action, humor, pathos, and even (gasp!) character development. In fact, it has everything that I was looking for (but not finding) in Divine Misdemeanors.

Rachel finally admits to herself that she is something more than a witch, but she still clings to a moral code that will not allow her to harm others, even to protect her loved ones. At the same time, she struggles with the ease of using black magic when its only cost is to herself. This book also marks the commencement of her romantic relationship with Pierce, the recently re-incarnated male witch/demon-hunter, who speaks in what is possibly the most irritating dialect I have ever read. Kim Harrison, I am begging you: Please please please transition Pierce to a normal way of speaking by the time the next book comes out! Either that, or remove him from the picture entirely; I'm not picky. After devouring this book, I am eagerly awaiting the next chapter in the story of Rachel and her friends.

Grade: A- (mostly because of Pierce's stupid dialect!)

Dead Mother: No
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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Book Review: Cleaving [2009]

Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession is Julie Powell's follow-up to the wildly popular Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen (which I will confess up front that I have not read, though I did see the movie). There was a slight tremor in the publishing and book blogging world when the release of Cleaving was delayed so as not to coincide with the release of the Julie and Julia movie, allegedly because the publisher didn't want to flood the market with Powell's books beyond the planned movie tie-in editions. I thought then, and believe even more firmly now, that Cleaving was delayed because someone, somewhere was afraid that its subject matter would have a negative impact on movie ticket sales. I actually think the reverse might be true, but all of this is simply to point out that there was a lot of hype surrounding the book by the time it was finally published in late 2009. As I write this review, I will attempt to ignore this and address the book, and Powell's voice, on its own merits.

The title, Cleaving, is by far my favorite part about the book. It has a clever double-meaning embedded in one (rather old-fashioned) word, given that the two-fold subject of the book is Powell's infidelity and her introduction to the craft of butchery. Throughout the first portion of the book, entitled "Apprentice," Powell makes (sometimes strained) connections between her training as a butcher and her breakup with the enigmatic "D":
To clean a skirt steak . . . It's a time-consuming process, slicing gingerly at all the stringy bits, judging just how clean is clean enough . . . It takes me a while of picking off the bloody bits that remain to realize that I'm not the tearer, but the thing that's been torn away. And I pick and I pick and I pick at these connecting shreds that cling to me. [pp. 54-59]
I hate to say it, but Powell's prose sometimes reminded me of Pamie's unsent teenage love letters. There is so much painful, dramatically worded honesty strewn about the book that I often felt as if I had accidentally cracked open a personal diary that should have remained buried at the bottom of a hope chest.

After the success of Julie and Julia, Powell received a phone call from "someone I'd not heard from in years, a half-remembered murmur coming across the line, sparking uncomfortable memories of a handful of long-ago nights I'd nearly succeeded in forgetting." This person, whom Powell spends the bulk of the text simply calling D, returns to her life and sweeps her into his bed, despite the existence of her mild-mannered and supportive husband, Eric. The details of the affair, and its dissolution, are parceled out between scenes of butchery. After she concludes her apprenticeship, Powell (still feeling restless), leaves the country to visit famous meat-tourism destinations of the world.

Just to be clear, I don't have any problem with adultery as a subject of this book. Heck, it's refreshing that Powell is offering a female perspective, particularly from someone as internet-famous as she is, on the nitty-gritty of an extramarital affair (or at least its brutal aftermath). What I do take issue with is the way she represents herself: as helpless and completely lacking in agency as D has his way with her. She is equally responsible, yet time and time again she refutes her agency and absolves herself of guilt. She's an adult who has made certain choices, and she should accept the responsibility. Similarly, I have no problem (even though I'm a staunch vegetarian) with the many descriptions of meat, entrails, blood, etc., but it was hard to feel at some point that they were relevant to anything. If I'd wanted to read that much about joints and boning (see what I did there?), I would have checked out Practical Meat Cutting and Merchandising. There were recipes, too, but I largely ignored them. At some point, it became so difficult to want to continue reading (because of Powell's attitude, rather than her subject matter) that I stopped--for four months. Even though I was past the apprenticeship part and into the part where Powell wandered the globe in search of herself/to get away from the mess she had created at home, I had used up my reserve of goodwill such that it took that long to force myself to finish.

Apparently I have a lot to say about this book, and it's true that this review has been in the works for a very long time. I will attempt to make some conclusion other than *headdesk*. To borrow a word from Simon Cowell, the book as a whole reads as more "indulgent" than "intriguing." Julie and Julia was successful, I think, because it had a clear goal: cook all of Julia Child's recipes in one year. It had an anchor: Julia Child. It had a narrative arc that took Powell from her humdrum life to this revelation: "Julia taught me what it takes to find your way in the world . . . It's joy." Unfortunately, Cleaving has none of these things. It has only Powell, who comes off as a woman who has no idea what she wants and is determined to find something that gives her an elusive feeling she is searching for. At the end of the book, she is officially a butcher, and nominally back with her husband, but there is no feeling of closure, or satisfaction, or revelation as there is in her previous book. She has experienced several things, over the course of two years and 300 pages, but has she actually learned anything? It's not clear.

Grade: C-

Dead Mother: No
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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sports I Love: Baseball

Unlike ice skating and basketball, I didn't really have a serious appreciation for baseball until relatively recently. Sure, I spent time playing Flies' Up1 as a kid, owned a glove, envied my neighbors' their tee-ball team, went to a Salt Lake City Trappers game or two, and embarked on a brief but intense baseball card-collecting spree (thanks to my future brother-in-law) during my teen years.2 However, I didn't really know, or even care much about the rules of baseball, or its history, or even its major teams. But when we moved to Boston in 2003, I began listening to Red Sox games on the radio as I drove our boxes of stuff from western Massachusetts. I clearly remember driving on Route 2 and hearing Bill Mueller hit grand slams from both sides of the plate--pretty cool stuff, even when you don't know much about the details of the game. I remember getting a baseball tutorial from my father-in-law (I think it was at a Friendly's Restaurant and the subject was types of pitches) and solidifying my knowledge by watching or listening to the Red Sox play at every opportunity. My brother-in-law bought us tickets to a game at Fenway Park seats that season, and we saw the Sox lose to the other Sox in the rain. It was strangely satisfying. I also purchased my first Red Sox hat in a long line of Red Sox hats. It has since turned from blue to some strange grey/brown hybrid, but I love it dearly.

The thing that solidified my love of baseball in general (and the Red Sox in particular) actually had very little to do with sports. I had taken what turned out to be a completely miserable job when we moved to Boston, and I was able to make it through each day largely because I knew that the Red Sox would probably be playing at 7:05 on the other end. I learned a lot about the game by simply watching for three hours a day, every day. It's amazing how much you can learn when you put that much time in to something. (Side note: I'd like to thank my partner for being extremely supportive of me during this time; hers is the baseball family, but I think every game is a bit much for anyone to muster enthusiasm for, if you're not using it as a coping mechanism.) 2003 and 2004 were excellent years to become a Red Sox fan, as well, with the agony of 2003 being swiftly refuted by the ecstasy of 2004. We happily joined the World Series parade route and honked around Boston after beating the Yankees. If anyone wants to tell me that I haven't experienced the full range of fandom because I wasn't a Red Sox fan before 2003, and thus do not understand the years of futility and anguish before the World Series, etc., etc., I will refer them to my status as a lifelong Utah Jazz fan. At least the Red Sox have actually won several championships.

One of the things I love about baseball is its easy pace. You don't have to pay attention during the entire game; the announcers don't even do that most of the time. Sometimes the more bored (ahem, imaginative) announcers start talking about a random topic like all the major league players in recent memory that went to Ivy League schools. As a television spectator, you can read your book between innings, or even between batters. You can be as fully engaged as you want to be, from checking the scores occasionally to filling out a scorecard during the game.  It's also one of those sports that is almost better on the radio than it is to watch live. I don't have the time I'd like, caught up in the full bloom of young motherhood as I am, to follow the Red Sox with the passion and intensity of my earlier years. However, I am still paying attention. I will watch when I can, and check the scores when I can't. I will make room for the important games, just as I do with all my other sports. Don't worry, there are other sports.

1  Um, do they have that out here? It's a game where one person hits the ball to everyone else, and if you catch it three times you get to go and do the hitting instead of the knocking each other to the ground part. It's probably called something else, isn't it . . .someone enlighten me.

2 The aftermath of which was a lot of Bobby Bonilla cards and a strange affection for that pink cardboard masquerading as gum that they included in each pack. That stuff is amazing.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Team Unicorn FTW

A few days ago I posted something at another blog on librarians and personality tests. This is a particular passion of mine, and I'm so glad that could finally combine it with libraries. This post was also my first foray into group blogging, and so far the experiment seems to be going very well! Of course, it helps to have such a fabulous group of co-bloggers.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Meditation on the Definitive Version

The other night we were watching Peter, Paul, and Mary's 25th Anniversary Concert (on VHS all the way from Worcester, one could only dream of PBS re-broadcasting it so that we could, um, "have" our own copy) and I had one of my "fantastic" ideas for starting all kinds of arguments. PP & M were singing "Blowin' in the Wind"1, or maybe it was "If I Had A Hammer"2--anyway, the point is that it wasn't a song they had written, but they nevertheless recorded the definitive version. For all intents and purposes, the song is theirs because most people don't even realize that the song wasn't written by them. This is all terribly subjective (hence the arguments), but it is my belief that each song has a definitive version that can be determined by either 1) a poll of everyone in the entire world, or 2) one's own strong opinions on the matter. So, Jimi Hendrix owns the definitive version of All Along The Watchtower, even though it was written by Bob Dylan. In fact, I am eager to make as many Bob Dylan songs as possible definitively recorded by other artists, because I really don't like the sound of his voice. These songs would now be introduced as "as written by" to give due credit to their origins. For example: "Leaving on a Jet Plane" (as written by John Denver).

Newer examples of this phenomenon (perhaps less common when folk is less prevalent?) would be Whitney Houston's "I will Always Love You" (as written by Dolly Parton), Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Passionate Kisses" (as written by Lucinda Williams), or Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" (as written by Leonard Cohen).3 My favorite suggestion came from my brother-in-law: The Byrds' "Turn! Turn! Turn!" (as written by Ecclesiastes and popularized by Pete Seeger). Does anyone else have some good examples to add to my small, but intensely awesome list? What do you think of this approach to music?

Edited to fix my Turn! Turn! Turn! errors.

1 Written by Bob Dylan.
2 Written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays.
3 Is it just me, or is that song everywhere these days?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sports I Love: Basketball

While figure skating was a sport that I shared with my mother, basketball is the sport that I share with my father. For me, more than any other sport, basketball means home. It seems like it has always been a part of my life. We had a hoop attached to our garage, and although I have perhaps only beaten him one-on-one a handful of times, it is always enjoyable to play against my father. In addition to watching great teams like the University of Utah and the Utah Jazz, I also played competitively for most of my childhood. Well, "competitively" on a relative scale, considering I started in fourth grade, where games sometimes resembled the stereotypical bee-clustering of juvenile soccer games.

When I first started playing, I was the only girl on the team. I was small and had to shoot my free-throws underhand from between my legs in order to get the ball to the rim. I was also not very assertive. I remember my coach (his son was the star of the team, but that's another story) always made it a team goal for me to score at least one basket a season. This meant that the last game of the season usually consisted of my teammates trying to make me take the ball, and me trying to make a basket. Luckily, his ploy was usually successful, as well as being a huge confidence-booster for me. Once in a while, another girl would join the team, taking a little of the pressure (and sense of uniqueness) away.

I continued playing in that league through junior high, with a brief moment of stardom during Spirit Week at school, in which all the classes (grades 7-12) competed against each other at various things. To this day, judging by my yearbook scrawls, I'm pretty sure there are some people who would only know me as that girl who won the three-point shooting competition as a seventh-grader. Or was it eighth grade? It was junior high, anyway. They let me shoot from closer-up for some reason, which has always made me feel a little bit like a cheater, but hell, I was a pretty good shooter anyway. In fact, that has always been a problem with me and playing basketball: I love to shoot, but I hate running. And you kind of have to run a little bit if you want to actually play. So although I made the team each of my high school years, I spent most of my time on the bench due to my bone-deep laziness. When I participated in a high school basketball camp over the summer with U of U Women's Coach Elliott, she basically told me that I needed to move my ass if I wanted to play well. These were words I cherished (since they came from Coach E), but never actually put to practical use. If there were a version of basketball that involved mostly shooting and guarding people and somehow very little running, I would be all over it.

Since I don't really play, I currently turn all of my existing basketball energies, such as they are, to fandom. In my imagination, I was a Utah Jazz fan before I started to walk. This may not be true, but it certainly feels that way when I get misty-eyed at the thought of John Stockton's Hall of Fame induction or the great (and not-so-great) names of Jazz players past: Karl Malone, Mark Eaton, Thurl Bailey, Darrell Griffith, Adrian Dantley, Felton Spencer and Greg Ostertag (for some reason they are always together in my mind, as centers should be), Jeff Hornacek, Bryon Russell, Antoine Carr, Adam Keefe . . . sadly, I could continue, but I will spare those few still awake to read the end of this post. My passion for the Jazz is matched only by my passion for the Utah women's basketball team. Since there is only about a .01% chance that the Lady Utes will be on television here in a given year (if they get in the tournament and if they are part of wrap-around coverage and if the UConn women or some other regionally interesting team isn't playing at the same time), I usually watch their games online when I get the chance. That is what being a fan of western basketball teams on the East Coast entails.

Other teams I root for: Kansas; most Big 10 teams; anyone playing Duke, BYU, or North Carolina; UConn women; Tennessee women (I realize this is somewhat contradictory but I don't care); the Celtics, since they're on TV out here; the underdog.

When forced to choose a favorite sport, I will generally choose basketball, but not for any of the reasons above. Unlike baseball (post forthcoming) or football (ditto), there is more gender parity to be found in basketball. There are female referees in the NBA. There are female coaches at various professional and amateur levels, most recently the NBDL. Of course there is room for improvement, but there is a lot more room for improvement in most of the other sports I like. I'd be willing to stake the current UConn women's team against many men's college teams out there. And basketball seems to be a sport that most people can play for fun, even people in wheelchairs. You can play nerf basketball indoors, you can play it with people you don't know, and you can play it all by yourself in the driveway. Yeah, it's a pretty cool sport.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Book Review: Divine Misdemeanors [2009]

I continued to read Laurell K. Hamilton's Merry Gentry series after abandoning the Anita Blake series several years ago, because it tended to have more plot and less sex (or at least more plot-based sex), and I liked the characters. I guess I still like the characters, but Divine Misdemeanors felt pretty much like a placeholder book after the climactic events of Swallowing Darkness. Merry is back in the human world, pregnant with twins (by six fathers), having turned down rulership of the Unseelie Court "for love." Strange magical events continue to happen, particularly when she has intercourse with one of her many, many lovers: different fey are brought back to their old powers, troops in the Middle East are miraculously saved, etc. In the meantime, the book also maintains a tissue-thin plot about a serial killer of demi-fey that gets wrapped up in the blink of an eye. Here is the takeaway for the next book, which I may or may not read: Merry must aid in bringing faerie and its magic to the human world.

Grade: C+

Random Thoughts:

This may be the shortest review I've ever written, but I just don't have that much to say. It took me a long time to even get through this book in the first place.

I found myself being taken out of the story repeatedly by the prose style, of all things, which was very workmanlike and not, well, pretty. If I were endowed with a great deal of time, I would count all the times the word "thick" was used in conjunction with male anatomy.

Dead Mother: I don't think so.
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