Two Across

Book cover: Two Across by Jeff BartschWhen Stanley Owens and Vera Baxter first meet, they’re rivals on the stage of the 1960 National Spelling Bee. Vera thinks Stanley is smug and privileged — he lives in the fancy hotel where the spelling bee is being held — while Stanley thinks Vera is pale and strange. Regardless, both are brilliant teens who find themselves the last ones standing on that stage. It’s a life-changing day for both of them, and initial impressions aside, they form a friendship that will last for many years to come.

Both teens are pushed hard to succeed by their mothers: Mrs. Owens has grown steadily more anthropophobic since her husband died in battle in Normandy; she never leaves their hotel room and is terrified of the world at large. She pushes Stanley to excel and has his whole life mapped out for him: he’ll attend Harvard and become a senator. Period. Meanwhile, Vera and her mother live out of hotels as well; Vera’s mother logs a lot of hours traveling as a salesman’s assistant and has goals of breaking the glass ceiling and having her own IBM sales career. She also expects Vera to go to an Ivy league school, but unlike Stanley — who is resentful that he has no say in his life and instead wants a career creating crossword puzzles for national newspapers — Vera wants to go to school and become a brilliant mathematician.

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Among the Ten Thousand Things

Book cover: Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julie PierpontDear Deborah,

Do you go by Deborah? It sounds so uptight. I bet you hate Debbie. I hate Debbie, too.

Jack calls you Deb.

This is a letter about Jack.

I began sleeping with your husband last June. We were together for seven months, almost as long as I’ve known him.

Julie Pierpont’s debut novel, Among the Ten Thousand Things, opens with a devastating letter from a lover scorned. The letter is placed on top of a stack of printed correspondence spanning the duration of the affair and left with the doorman of Deb’s building. But instead of going to Deb, the package makes its way into the hands of her curious eleven-year-old daughter, Kay, a sensitive girl who is bullied at school. Her father’s sexually explicit emails stun Kay, as do his occasional references to his wife and children: he actually talked about them — about her — to The Other Woman.

It doesn’t take long before Kay shares everything with her fifteen-year-old brother, Simon, a moody teen who’s desperate to be seen as an adult. He, in a fury, automatically takes the damning evidence to his mother and expects her to immediately file for divorce. She doesn’t: she’s horrified that the children read those emails and she’s furious at Jack, but she’s hit with so much so fast that she needs time to figure out what to do.

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Sunday Salon: I Have Returned!

Heyyyyy! Long time no see!

When I posted my last review, I was in Kazakhstan(!!!). That was actually the fifth country I stopped in this summer; I started by revisiting a few countries I went to last year, then headed to Central Asia for the real part of my journey: I backpacked overland from Beijing to Istanbul, a journey that took me about 7,000 miles through terraces, mountains, deserts, and beautiful green valleys. Not counting a couple of airport transfers in Russia (I couldn’t leave the airport without a visa), my journey took me to Finland, Austria, Germany, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Turkey, and back to Germany. It all feels like a dream!

(Click on images to enlarge)

I’ve been writing about the journey and posting pictures on my travel blog, Abandoning the Ruins (so far, I’m only up to the China portion of the trip).

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Apples Are from Kazakhstan: The Land That Disappeared

Greetings from Almaty, Kazakhstan! I apologize for the radio silence as of late. I’ve been traveling for almost two weeks now and just got to Almaty following a 36-hour train ride from Urumqi, China. This is the first solid internet connection I’ve had in a while, so it’s been hard to post reviews. So far, the trip as been exhausting but exciting, and although I’ll only be here for about 12 hours, I can tell you Almaty is gorgeous. I arrived at sunrise and the first things I saw were the snow-covered mountains looming over the city.

Apples are from Kazakhstan by Christopher RobbinsDuring a conversation on a flight, Christopher Robbins learned that his American seatmate was traveling to Kazakhstan to marry a woman he’d met online. The stranger went on and on about this country that few people know much about (other than it being where Borat is from). Robbins was intrigued by this country’s contributions to the world, but the one tidbit that stuck with him was, “apples are from Kazakhstan.” Robbins went on about his business, but after that, Kazakhstan kept calling to him. Finally, he decided to travel there and write a book about the country.

Kazakhstan is a former Soviet territory that is huge: four times the size of Texas. Parts of the country seem inhospitable to life — descriptions of the windy winters on the steppe sound particularly terrifying — yet nomadic Kazakhs lived and worked there for centuries before the Soviet Union moved to wipe them out. Communist Russia also sent a large number of its enemies to brutal gulags in Kazakhstan, and often sent intellectuals into exile there as well; Trotsky was sent into exile there for a period, as was Dostoevsky (partially inspiring Crime and Punishment). Vast areas of land have suffered irreparable environmental damage since then: the Aral Sea is quickly disappearing, and citizens in many areas are still suffering the effects of fallout from nuclear testing. The country has suffered quite a number of dark periods in its history.

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Quickies: Unrequited & Choose Your Shot

Unrequited: Women and Romantic ObsessionBook cover: Unrequited by Lisa A. Phillips by Lisa A. Phillips

Publisher/Year: Harper, 2015
Format: ARC
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher

What it is: Part memoir, part investigation, Phillips explores the role of obsessive love in women’s lives. She begins with her own story: many years ago she fell hard for someone, was rejected, and kept pursuing him. She ended up sneaking into his apartment complex early in the morning and was shocked that he remained locked behind his door with a baseball bat, ready to call 911. Phillips examines how she, an educated and confident person, could have done that. She also looks at case studies and interviews other women who have done similar things and closely examines the gender-based double standards: former NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak, for instance, became a comedic punchline in 2007; male stalkers, on the other hand, are universally feared and considered dangerous. Women who go through life pining over an unrequited love are pathetic and desperate, whereas men suffering from unrequited love are at the heart of many pieces of classic literature. Towards the end of the book, Phillips also looks at the positive sides of unrequited love.

Why I read it: It sounded like really interesting subject matter, and I was curious how the subject of stalkers would be handled.

What I thought: There are a lot of complexities to this subject, and Phillips does a great job of exploring the different angles. Some parts dragged a bit, but overall, I appreciated the historical context and the way she teased out the double standards. I also like that she split her own story up, interspersing each stage of her romantic obsession into relevant chapters. It’s really interesting how common unrequited love among women is; most women will experience it at some point in their lives (although not everyone will act on it).


Choose Your Shot: An Interactive Erotic AdventureBook cover: Choose Your Shot by Christine d'Abo by Christine d’Abo

Publisher/Year: Carina Press, 2013
Format: eBook
Pages: 208
Source: Purchase

What it is: This is the fifth and final book in d’Abo’s Long Shots series. I haven’t read the other four books, but they all revolve around a BDSM club called Mavericks, which apparently burned down at some point before Book 5. In this particular book, Mavericks has now reopened for business, and Tegan, one of the regulars, is back for its opening night. Each chapter ends with different options and lets you choose what kind of sexytimes Tegan will have.

Why I read it: To examine the book’s structure and see if “choose your adventure” books worked better in eBook form. (Like, for real. I’ve been toying an idea for a writing project of my own for about a year now.)

What I thought: This is the second “choose your adventure” type book I’ve read. The other one was a romance with hook-ups; this is straight up erotica. In theory it’s a neat idea, but I’ve yet to see it executed in a non-cheesy way. The options just feel too paint-by-numbers. And I know this is erotica and not a romance novel, so it’s more about sex than plot, but when you have so many options, the already weak plot gets stretched way too thin.