May 2022 Bookclub: The Turn of the Key

Cover art for The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware.

The Turn of the Key drew me in within two or three paragraphs and quickly became a stressful book that I couldn’t put down. I genuinely enjoyed the way that Ruth Ware started (and then proceeded to tell) the story as if Rowan (Rachael?!) was writing a letter to a lawyer in hopes of getting her side of the story out. It reminded me of reading Amanda Knox’s memoir where you want to believe her but also want to know what happened to her roommate that night (Note: Amanda Knox’s story is one that I’ve been following since the beginning, I’m glad she’s back in the states with her family).

One of the early images that stuck with me early on was Rowan describing how she didn’t belong in the prison, only to look in the mirror and see that she had been transformed by her environment. It was fantastic foreshadowing of how she was going to be shaped by the nannying job and provided insight that Rowan was possibly someone who could be influenced by those around her.

When I read books like this, I’m often left pondering the “real or not real” question. In other words, does Rowan actually hear someone pacing in the attic every night or was it actually a bird and her imagination? Where did the doll head actually come from? Do the little girls have the ghosts of the little girls who died speaking to them on a regular basis? If Rowan hadn’t been primed that the previous nanny’s had quit due to superstition, would she spend so much time questioning her surroundings?

Having completed the story, I can’t help but be amazed by the ending. What a little girl. What a thing to have to live with for the rest of her life. This book was fantastic and I didn’t see it coming! This begs the question, what exactly happened to Rowen. It’s clear that the letters are never sent and that they “don’t really matter” when found in the future, does that mean she’s found not guilty? Or does it mean that she kept the secret and took a life sentence?

Cover art for Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman.

As the weather gets warmer, I find myself itching to get out and start foraging again. In honor of wandering through the woods and learning about how plants can be used, we’ll be reading Practice Magic by Alice Hoffman for June’s book club. Since this is a movie I’ve seen a handful of times, it will be interesting if I can let go of picturing Sally as Sandra Bullock and Gillian as Nicole Kidman.

The Owens sisters confront the challenges of life and love in this bewitching novel from New York Times bestselling author Alice Hoffman.

For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town. Gillian and Sally have endured that fate as well: as children, the sisters were forever outsiders, taunted, talked about, pointed at. Their elderly aunts almost seemed to encourage the whispers of witchery, with their musty house and their exotic concoctions and their crowd of black cats. But all Gillian and Sally wanted was to escape.

One will do so by marrying, the other by running away. But the bonds they share will bring them back—almost as if by magic…

April 2022 Bookclub: Stardust

Cover art for Stardust by Neil Gaiman.

Stardust has a special place in my heart. It’s a book that I can reach for again and again, without the intention of discovering something new, but rather the intention of falling into a land I wish I could go to. Portal literature (think books like Alice in Wonderland where the reader starts off in the real world before “falling down the rabbit hole”) tends to hold a special place in my heart because I love the idea that there is a magical land waiting for me to discover the door to it.

There are many different adaptations of Stardust and they all seem to tell the story just a little differently. One of the most notable differences, in my opinion, is whether or not there is a final battle between the witches and Tristian for Ivaine’s heart. In the book, the witch recognizes that Ivaine’s heart was given freely to Tristian and therefore not usable to her. Though not very sensational, this idea has always struck me as romantic and beautiful. After all the idea that a heart freely given to someone cannot be taken by someone else provides a beautiful moral to the story, be careful who you give your heart to for you have no control how gentle they will be with it or how willing they will be to protect it.

The book also feels more adult than the movie does, spending more time developing the land beyond the wall as a place as opposed to racing the viewer through it while bouncing from one plot point to the next. This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy the movie (in fact it’s one of my favorites), it’s just that the two versions are very different experiences.

No matter which version you are enjoying, it’s hard to get over the idea that a bunch of brothers need to kill each other for the right to rule over the land. There’s no way that I can look at this where I end up with confidence in the final son who is allowed to rule (although perhaps that is the point considering that Tristian is said to do a good when he finally decides to take up the mantle).

May’s book club will be a little more serious than Stardust, we’ll be reading Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware. It’s been a little while since I’ve fallen into a good suspense story and The Woman in Cabin 10 was enjoyable. Let’s see if reading about a nanny working with children who ends up in jail is more intense when you have a baby sleeping in the other room!

Cover art for Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware.

When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.

Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the unravelling events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the cameras installed around the house, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman, Jack Grant.

It was everything.

She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder. Which means someone else is.

Full of spellbinding menace and told in Ruth Ware’s signature suspenseful style, The Turn of the Key is an unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.

February 2022 Book Club: The Henna Artist

Cover art for the Henna Artist by Alka Joshi.

The Henna Artist is the story of Lakshmi, a 30ish-year-old woman who fled an abusive marriage in hopes of the freedom that comes with being self-reliant and independent. For ten years, Lakshmi creates beautiful henna designs on the wealthy women of Jaipur and uses herbal medicine to help them with their fertility, arthritis, and other health ails. The interesting thing about Lakshmi is that the things that she’s worked so hard for, the beautiful house where her family can come live with her, create a prison more restrictive than her gender or abusive marriage.

One of the first themes that presents itself in this book is that starting over is not a sign of weakness but a sign of hard work. In some ways, it would have been easier for Lakshmi to stay with her husband than to leave and try to make her way in the world. But she allowed herself to dream and then gave herself the space to make that dream come true. When that dream fell apart, Lakshmi tried to pick up the pieces only to discover that it was no longer her dream. This lead to moving on to work with doctors to create a complementary medicine program, work that she could be truly proud of. Radha (Lakshmi’s sister) throws herself into starting over when she moves to Jaipur, but then struggles to leave behind the idea that her baby wasn’t born of love. Then she struggles to leave her baby behind so that she has the opportunity of a better life. Lakshmi’s struggles to start over after she leaves him, but learns how to support women instead of abusing them.

Freedom is another interesting theme throughout the book. Freedom of choice. Freedom to make money. Freedom to move throughout the world. Yet, everytime Lakshmi turns around she’s faced with something that directly challenges her freedom. First, her husband and Radha come to find her, effectively turning her life upside-down. Then, Lakshmi must balance proving herself to the palace with keeping her benefactor’s wife happy. On the one hand, the opportunity provides Radha the freedom to attend a nice school, on the other hand, it traps Lakshmi into long work hours and leads to her sister getting pregnant. Then the lies start and Lakshmi’s world starts to fall apart around her, which is semi-ironic as the world she created was in itself created by a lie. Perhaps the message is that honesty can set you free as much as true freedom is found when you allow yourself to change your mind.

Another interesting theme throughout the book is the idea of being cursed and having that curse follow you no matter where you go. The curse began when Lakshmi fled her marriage and left her family behind for a new life. By creating a new name for herself, Lakshmi was able to live her day-to-day life with minimal reminders of what she left behind. Lakshmi’s curse was a deep fear of her past catching up with her and a desire for her parents’ forgiveness and approval. Radha’s curse was more out in the open, constantly being called the “bad-luck-girl” and a constant struggle to find self-worth. Both sisters had to let go and take a hard look at their choices/impulses in order to move forward in their lives. I appreciated the hope that this theme brought to the book, as both Lakshmi and Radha were able to take charge of their own destinies and move forward.

Though the story gave us a surface-level understanding of Jaipur and the lives of our characters, the Henna Artist was an enjoyable read. Though I haven’t settled on when, I do think I’ll pick up the second book, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, to find out what happens next. Something that is unusual for me when an initial narrative wraps up nicely while giving me space to dream about what happens next.

It’s been a little while since I’ve picked up a non-fiction book, let’s give Laziness Does Not Exist by Devon Price a try for next month. Price came onto my radar after they were featured on the NPR podcast Life Kit: You aren’t lazy. You just need to slow down. It’s a quick 17 minute listen that I highly recommend.

Cover art for Laziness Does Not Exist by Devon Price.

Extra-curricular activities. Honors classes. 60-hour work weeks. Side hustles.

Like many Americans, Dr. Devon Price believed that productivity was the best way to measure self-worth. Price was an overachiever from the start, graduating from both college and graduate school early, but that success came at a cost. After Price was diagnosed with a severe case of anemia and heart complications from overexertion, they were forced to examine the darker side of all this productivity.

Laziness Does Not Exist explores the psychological underpinnings of the “laziness lie,” including its origins from the Puritans and how it has continued to proliferate as digital work tools have blurred the boundaries between work and life. Using in-depth research, Price explains that people today do far more work than nearly any other humans in history yet most of us often still feel we are not doing enough.

Filled with practical and accessible advice for overcoming society’s pressure to do more, and featuring interviews with researchers, consultants, and experiences from real people drowning in too much work, Laziness Does Not Exist “is the book we all need right now” (Caroline Dooner, author of The F*ck It Diet).

August Book Club: Sourdough

Cover art for Sourdough by Robin Sloan

This book was so fun and there were several points in the story that I had to remind myself that it’s a fictional story and not a biography (like when the starter took over everything). Lois is a relatable character, taking a job because she is good at it and then working hard because that’s the culture in addition to her nature. Her feelings of burnout were real, right down to the idea that eating a special diet would solve all her problems.

While reading Sourdough, I was left with feelings of yes that’s true (we totally are the children of Hogwarts) and awe at the amount of work that went into feeding the starter (like plants, you have to pay attention to its needs). What I wasn’t left with was a lot to say when the story was over. Would I recommend this book to a friend? Absolutely, it was an enjoyable read. Is it a book that has inspired a lot of discussion beyond the initial “you should read this”? Not really, it’s about a girl trying to find herself and discovering that she can along the way.

That aside, I’ve identified a couple things that we can (and probably should) discuss here. For starters, Lois brings a robotic arm to a farm to table food share and works throughout the book to teach the arm how to preform human functions. The idea that a robotic arm is learning how to crack an egg at a farmers market is both comical and interesting. On the one hand, you have an environment where people are interested in a more analog environment, one where the idea of hand crafted/organic is valued. On the other hand, the novelty of the robotic arm helping bake Sourdough is unique and exciting. This blending of future technology with craftsmanship is similar to the idea of selling machine made socks at a craft fair. True, it’s hard to handknit enough pairs of socks to sell in a booth (for context it takes me about 16 hours per pair), but can you really compare handknit socks to socks cranked out (literally) on a machine? And if the quality is similar enough, how much do we, should we, care?

The other piece of Sourdough that I’m sure no one will be surprised that I’m pointing out is the love story between Lois and her email pen-pal. I didn’t pick up on it until the end because I thought they were just becoming really good friends. Did the romance need to be there? Could she still have gone abroad if she wasn’t taking a risk on love? I’m not sure the story needed it, and in the end it felt a little forced.

September’s book will be The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids by Michael McClung and was discovered while falling down the Goodreads Fantasy suggestion rabbit hole. This book won the first ever Mark Lawrence Self Published Fantasy Blog Off and is promised to have some morally grey characters, let’s check it out together!

Cover art for The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids by Michael McClung.

Amra Thetys lives by two simple rules—take care of business, and never let it get personal. Thieves don’t last long in Lucernis otherwise. But when a fellow rogue and good friend is butchered on the street in a deal gone wrong, she turns her back on burglary and goes after something more precious than treasure: Revenge.

Revenge, however, might be hard to come by. A nightmare assortment of enemies, including an immortal assassin and a mad sorcerer, believe Amra is in possession of The Blade That Whispers Hate—the legendary, powerful artifact her friend was murdered for—and they’ll do anything to take it from her. Trouble is, Amra hasn’t got the least clue where the Blade might be.

She needs to find the Blade, and soon, or she’ll be joining her colleague in a cold grave instead of avenging his death. Time is running out for the small, scarred thief.

July Book Club: The Queen’s Gambit

Cover art for The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis

As I sit here writing this blog post, I feel that it’s worth noting that I have still only watched one episode of the Netflix’s series The Queen’s Gambit. The main reason for admitting this is to, naturally, point out that my observations are for the book and the book alone. I know for previous book clubs I have taken the time to also watch the movie/tv show, but the weather is beautiful and I find myself itching to sit on the deck instead of curled up on the couch. This is not a reflection of the quality of the TV series, but a nod to the fact that I am more likely to watch TV when it’s dark and cold outside.

This book left me feeling very neutral and wondering if I was expecting more from Beth Harmon. For example, I think we can agree that her ability to visualize chess boards as a child is phenomenal. When you combine that with her narrow focus on the game and how her whole life revolves around it, you’re left wondering is this because she finds comfort in the game now that her parents are dead or does she have a touch of Asperger’s? When you combine this information with her ability to interact with others as a young adult, it’s hard to judge.

With Beth as our narrator, we’re not given complete pictures of the other people that encompass her tail. Whether she she falls on the spectrum or was severally emotionally handicapped as a child, it’s clear that her emotional and social intelligence were stunted and we’re not getting a full picture of what’s happening around her. With this in mind, it made sense that Beth reached for childhood friends when her world felt turned upside down.

I’m not sure we can really call this a book about addiction. Beth’s addiction to the green pills existed to allow her to play a more focused game of chess in her mind and her brief run with drinking seemed like more of a conscious decision to self sabotage. Which leaves me wondering, is this a story about addiction or has addiction been thrown in there as a temporary plot device?

At it’s very core, The Queen’s Gambit is a story about an underdog and we all, myself included, want to root for the underdog. We get to watch Beth struggle to be allowed to learn chess and her development into an eventual champion. You can’t help but root for her as she works towards mastering her next challenge.

In honor of the sourdough trend that I didn’t participate in, we will be reading Sourdough by Robin Sloan. This one comes highly recommended by my town’s public library and I’m excited to read it.

Cover art for Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Lois Clary is a software engineer at General Dexterity, a San Francisco robotics company with world-changing ambitions. She codes all day and collapses at night, her human contact limited to the two brothers who run the neighborhood hole-in-the-wall from which she orders dinner every evening. Then, disaster! Visa issues. The brothers close up shop, and fast. But they have one last delivery for Lois: their culture, the sourdough starter used to bake their bread. She must keep it alive, they tell her—feed it daily, play it music, and learn to bake with it.

Lois is no baker, but she could use a roommate, even if it is a needy colony of microorganisms. Soon, not only is she eating her own homemade bread, she’s providing loaves daily to the General Dexterity cafeteria. The company chef urges her to take her product to the farmer’s market, and a whole new world opens up.

When Lois comes before the jury that decides who sells what at Bay Area markets, she encounters a close-knit club with no appetite for new members. But then, an alternative emerges: a secret market that aims to fuse food and technology. But who are these people, exactly?