Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

Shutter IslandFor September, we read Dennis Lehane’s 2003 mystery Shutter Island. This book was made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio in 2010. Steeper Kristin had submitted this book for our consideration quite some time ago. I must admit that we picked it from the teapot a few times previously. This time, when we chose this title and it looked like it was going to be discarded again, Kristin murmured with displeasure, “We’re never going to read that book.” Well, that was enough to make sure we chose it!

It ended up being a solid decision since almost 100 percent of our attendees (including two new members, yay!) completed the read. We all ended up finding it pretty creepy and twisty, which as you may or may not know, horrors! horrors! is our motto. Shutter Island definitely provides plenty of horrors. We found that it is wise to consider our narrator as unreliable, as is often the case with mysteries. The majority of us enjoyed the twist and didn’t catch on too early. A few of our members were hip to what was going on way early.

Surprisingly few of us had seen the Scorcese film prior to reading the novel and we all seemed to like it that way. Those of us who watched the movie afterward were underwhelmed. Despite a fairly stellar cast (DiCaprio being the least of these), we found that the movie attempted to beat the viewer over the head with too loud discordant music which actually decreased the suspense. As Steeper Melissa exclaimed in frustration, “Scorcesio!” It’s going to be our new curse word . . . . or a way to call the power of WonderTwins, or something like that. Try it, screaming “Scorcesio!” can actually be quite soothing.

We felt like one of our steepers seemed to have read a different book than the rest of us, his understanding and interpretation of the novel was so wholly different from our collective one. We agreed it was worth the read, despite several of us admitting that we may have found ourselves skimming the novel, mostly to get to the next clue.

Miss Kristin also found a really interesting theory about the end, but I don’t want to post any big spoilers here. So, if you’d like to know the secrets of Shutter Island . . . guess you’ll have to visit me at the library and check out a copy!

Our rating average turned out to be about 3.75 teacups, but since I only go by halves, we’ll round it up to 4!

4 teacups

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A-Tree-Grows-in-BrooklynThe Steeper discussion of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was great! Initially we had about 5 people show up and Meghan, the member who chose the book since it is her “very favorite of all time” was feeling like her book wasn’t getting much love. Then 4 people who never before attended a meeting showed up simply because of the book choice! She was very pleased and we all loved having new voices adding to our discussion.

The majority of our attendees finished reading the book, I, however, failed in my quest to finish each of our books for this year. I will finish A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I just couldn’t before our meeting. The others who didn’t complete the read also agreed, which I think does say quite a bit about a book. Continue reading

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

Physick Book logoMarch’s selection The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe. I’m sorry to say that I seemed to have misplaced my notes about our discussion, so I’m going to have to do this mostly from memory . . . thankfully I usually have a decent memory, especially about books that I enjoy. This book was chosen by Steeper Kristin and many of us saw the similarities between this and our October 2012 read A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. Both books follow academic ladies through their introduction to their family history as witches . . . the difference (we thought) was that Howe is able to convey a more interesting story in a much shorter book and she didn’t need vampires to do it.

That being said, there were some criticisms of Deliverance Dane. Some of us felt that it read like a first novel (which it is). The majority felt that any roughness in Howe’s style could be worked out and voiced an interest in reading some of her other works. Steeper Kristin pointed out that it is getting slightly tiresome to read the trope of the perfect grad student. Connie (like Diana in Witches and countless others) are at the top of their classes in prestigious schools in difficult areas of study. Several of the members of Read It & Steep have their master’s degree and voiced a desire for, just once, the opportunity to read about a grad student who is struggling or confused. My biggest complaint was that if Connie is so brilliant, she most certainly would have known that recipes were known as “receipts” in the past, especially considering her field of study. My master’s degree is in library science and even I knew that . . . side note: I had to change my recipe pinterest board from “Receipts” to “Yum Yums” since several friends pointed out the “mistake” I’d made in naming it. I thought I was witty. Seems not.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the only time this very smart woman shows obtuseness. We all felt it took her too long to come to the realization that Deliverance may have been an ancestor and realize the significance of her name being “Constance.” We all felt the “bad guy” was a bit blatantly bad. We all yelled at Connie to recognize the malevolence in the villain. Perhaps she would have been quicker on the uptake if there was a thick curling mustache and a damsel tied to train tracks . . .

However, unlike Discovery of Witches Howe was able to convey an interesting tale with a smattering of romance, making the story much more about Connie’s journey than her romance with, let’s face it, a doomed Sam. We felt that Howe’s description of the fates of several men who loved Dane women might have tipped off Connie that Sam wasn’t going to be safe. Also, her mother should certainly be a little less thrilled that Connie’s found love if she knows that men in their family don’t necessarily fare well . . . but you’ll have to read the book to know more about that.

All of us, without fail, loved the dog Arlo and the subtle twist of his character. We applaud Howe for how well thought out and presented a character as seemingly unimportant as the dog is. Arlo really added to Connie’s story and several of us found ourselves paging back and forth to re-read some of his story.

There is a part of the book where Sam and Connie visit a “mystic” shop and Connie is indignant about the state of the herbs and that they’re all expired. Several of us, myself foremost, lament that Connie would be appalled by the state of my own herbs. What can I say? I like my food bland.

Overall, Read It and Steep enjoyed The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and would recommend it as a quick and fun read. The mystery aspect isn’t as sharp as it could be, but it’s an enjoyable read anyway. I will say that we will re-read Howe or check out some of her other books since she not only retweeted one of our tweets but actually wrote to us! We geeked out and we give her massive props for being a cool, down-to-earth author.

Katherine Howe

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane gets 4 teacups from us!

4 teacups

Hello?! A Monster Calls

monstercalls1Our November 2014 book was A Monster Calls and a small group of our steepers met to discuss the book. This one was chosen by Steeper Terri, who unfortunately couldn’t make it to our meeting.  Notice this cool cover for “adults” that I found on the interwebz.  I don’t know that I understand the need to have different covers for YA and adult readers, but I always do enjoy looking at them.  The sad thing about this cover, however, is that it doesn’t have the artwork of Jim Kay.  While The Hangman’s Daughter had a few images here or there in the book, this was our first book that had a lot of illustrations and let me tell you, they are amazing!  I even told our group, this was the first time I felt cheated when reading an ebook version of a novel, because, while some of the illustrations were included, the print version has so much more.  So much so that I put down my trusty ereader, and borrowed a print copy from the library.

A Monster Calls is the story of Conor O’Malley, a young boy whose mother is ill with cancer.  Each night Conor is visited by a monster in the form of a giant yew tree in this back yard.  The monster informs Conor that he will be told 3 stories and then will be expected to tell his story to the monster.  Conor’s fear is that he’ll have to tell the monster about a recurring nightmare he’s been having.  The book follows not only Conor’s visits with his yew monster, but also with his interactions at school with bullies, his former friend Lily, his absentee father, and his unaffectionate grandmother.  The book was written by Patrick Ness, but inspired by an idea by Siobhan Dowd before her death from Cancer.  It’s never really told how full the idea was from Dowd before Ness started writing the book.
One of the things that struck me specifically about this book was how Ness (and I guess Dowd) wrote the book or developed the idea around what was already popular for teens.  The last several years has shown that not too many YA books are firmly planted in a realistic setting.  Of course, with one of the most popular books this year (also dealing with cancer) being The Fault in Our Stars, we may see this trend shift, but ever since the popularity of magical series like Harry Potter, supernatural series like Twilight, and dystopian series like The Hunger Games, it was difficult to find a YA title that had no touch of supernaturalism to it.  This book came out a while before The Fault in Our Stars and I felt that the style in which this heavy subject matter was approached, blended with the supernatural was very smart.
The book raised many questions for us, including whether or not the monster was real.  Conor struggles with this too, believing that he’s dreaming initially, but upon finding leaves, berries, and a sapling in his room when he awakes, starts to think that his visitor is all too real.  We then questioned just who is the monster?  Some of us felt that the monster was God, telling morality tales to Conor to help prepare him for his mother’s death.  Others of us felt that the monster was quite possibly Conor’s anger, guilt, and fear manifesting itself in a way he could handle.  We all felt that the stories the monster told (mostly ending in ways that Conor had not expected) were a powerful way to remind the character and the reader that there are all kinds of people in the world and very few are all good or all bad.
All of us have had experience with illness or the death of a loved one, whether from cancer or not.  We ended up having a conversation about anger and blame and our shared belief that no one should have to bury their child.  I had a very personal connection to Conor, because much of his behavior and feelings I felt reflected my own experiences when my father was dying from cancer.  I was especially struck when Conor mentally voices his irritation with his school mates and teachers who constantly either avoid him or ask him inane questions.  I shared with the group how I nearly lost my temper with the nun who was my teacher when my dad was sick. Every morning she’d ask me how my dad was doing.  Of course, now, as an adult, I understand that it was partly because she just didn’t know what else to say, it was a way of letting me know she was thinking about my family.  My nine-year-old self, however, was just pissed off.  How was he?  He was dying.  The next day he’d still be dying, and so on and so forth until the answer would be that he was dead.  I don’t know what Patrick Ness’s experiences have been, but I felt he really hit the nail on the head with Conor’s emotions (not to mention his grandmother).
We all had some anectdotes to share about our own Grandmother’s in response to Conor’s detatched grandmother.  Those of us who had the joyful grandparents who are positive constants in our lives, felt that Conor’s grandmother was cold and unrealistic.  Those of us who’ve had a more aloof grandparent felt that she was a very realistic character.  Once we reminded ourselves that this character’s daughter is dying, all bets about personality are off.  She and Conor can come to an understanding that they both love a woman who is very ill and need to deal with it separately and together.
Read It & Steep thought that A Monster Calls turned out to be a very powerful read with a touch of whimsy and stunning imagery.  It’s also a super quick and easy read that inspired lots of deep conversation.
We collectively gave it 4 teacups.

First Impressions

Pride and Prejudice by Leigh DoguetLook at how pretty this “cover” by Philadelphia artist Leigh Doguet is!
In August, we finally read a novel by my very favorite author: Jane Austen.  The group decided that we would read Pride & Prejudice, which a surprising (to me) number of us hadn’t read.  Isn’t that a funny thing?  I just assumed that my smart, funny, well rounded group of female reader friends would have already read a novel that I’ve devoured at least 6 times in my 32 years?  Well, duh, Kate, not everyone is creepy like you and just cause some of them haven’t doesn’t make them any less smart, funny, or well rounded. I’m okay, I swear.
Unfortunately, I didn’t take many notes during our discussion, which probably had something to do with the fact that I didn’t shut up long enough to write anything down.  It was fun to share the ridiculous amounts of knowledge I have on the subject and point out things that the normal 21st century reader would miss, including Miss Austen’s wicked sense of humor and how much her writing is satire of societal norms of her day.  We had a great conversation of Miss Austen’s masterpiece including how and why it still resonates today.  Our discussion ranged from how Jane Austen has recently been credited as the first game theorist (seriously, there’s an entire book about how she applied game theory non-mathematically before game theory was even a thing) to how P&P has been successfully updated and translated to 20th & 21st century ideals al la Bridget Jones.
The only notes that I did make about our conversation was that we agreed that Mr. Bennett is lazy and doesn’t deviate from the path of least resistance.  Even when he goes after Lydia in London, he does so for a few days and then throws his hands up, “Oh, well!  Can’t find them.  I tried.”  He relies on others to do his heavy lifting for him, which makes him and Mrs. Bennett actually a better fit for each other than I had ever realized.
Further proof that Jane Austen was generations before her time, not only was she practicing game theory without knowing what it is, she wrote a character who’s quite possibly on the autism spectrum before the autism spectrum was a thing.  The Read It & Steep group thinks it’s quite like that Mr. Darcy has some kind of high-functioning autism, possibly Asperger’s syndrome.  Definitely, he suffers from some pretty extreme social anxiety if nothing else.
With a novel that has been picked a part and shown in every conceivable format, it was only natural that we would discuss some of the adaptations of Pride & Prejudice, from the holy horror that is the Kiera Knightly (Sorry, Melissa, I know you like it, but it’s simply awful) film to graphic novel (yes! Marvel comics?!?!), to the homages like P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley (newly aired on PBS Masterpiece with Matthew Goode!) and Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.(which is, God help us, going to be in theatres sometime soonish).  I recommend Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant for witty comics on all kinds of stuff, P&P included (she’s got some great stuff on the Brontë  sisters) and for a really fantastic reimagining of Pride & Prejudice, I can’t recommend the YouTube series The Lizzie Bennett Diaries highly enough.  You’ll never think of Lydia Bennett the same way again!
While I would give Pride & Prejudice a resounding 10 teacups, as a group we think this is a 4 teacup book.