Book Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (1994)

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Review 2.12

 

Shots rang out in Savannah’s grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self-defense? For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares. John Berendt’s sharply observed, suspenseful, and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction. Berendt skillfully interweaves a hugely entertaining first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case. [Source]

The murder-mystery at the center of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil doesn’t occur until almost halfway through the book. First, Berendt takes his readers on a tour of Savannah, Georgia in the early 1990’s. He introduces us to a cast of characters so bizarre they can only be real. Among the colorful denizens of Savannah are Joe Odom, the charismatic thief who swindles his closest friends one evening and then attends their parties the next. There’s the Lady Chablis, the outspoken transvestite drag queen who nominates Berendt as her personal chauffeur. The pampered former beauty who is a near recluse. The eccentric who claims he has a bottle of poison powerful enough to kill the entire population of Savannah. I could go on and on. These voices serve as quirky and often hilarious backdrop to the trial of James Williams for murder.

Of course the star of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is the city of Savannah herself, and Berendt describes the small coastal city with language usually reserved for beautiful women. Savannah is sultry and mysterious, seductive and veiled with secrets. She’s wary of outsiders, but still honors the Southern tradition of hospitality. People go to church on Sunday and then hire the local voodoo woman to work charms in the graveyard the next night. I dare anyone to make it through this book without stopping at some point to look up flights to Savannah. I think I got to page fifty.

The central plot deals with the murder of a male escort by a prominent member of Savannah society, and the nearly ten-year series of trials that followed. How Berendt became privy to so many intricate details of the case is never made entirely clear, but I wonder if Williams didn’t keep Berendt well-informed as a way of ensuring that his version of events was the one people would remember. Either way, Berendt’s fly-on-the-wall perspective gives a unique insight into a case that got little national publicity, but which rocked the insular community of Savannah to it’s core.

Overall, I can see why Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has received so much praise from high circles. After this book was published in 1994, the city of Savannah saw a boom of tourism that continues to this day. For me, Savannah has now joined cities like Boston and New Orleans on my list of must-see places in the United States.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3) by Katherine Arden (2019)

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Review 2.11

 

Note: I highly recommend reading The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower before reading this review.

Following their adventures in The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, Vasya and Morozko return in this stunning conclusion to the bestselling Winternight Trilogy, battling enemies mortal and magical to save both Russias, the seen and the unseen. [Source]

The Winter of the Witch has all of the ingredients necessarily for a dark, mature fairy tale. There is a twisted villain, a mysterious king, an enchanted forest. There are swordfights, helpful sprites, and magic horses. Front and center of it all is the courageous heroine, Vasilisa Petrovna. Vasya is a marvel, at once vulnerable and indomitable. Her journey from a scared girl in the snow to a crusading warrior-witch has made the Winternight trilogy one of my favorite finds in recent years.

Of course, all these elements would amount to nothing without the beautiful and poetic writing of Katherine Arden. She has constructed a world that feels simultaneously ancient and immediate. The best fairy tales exist in a world of misty morals, and The Winter of the Witch is no exception. No one, no matter how seemingly good or evil, is ever quite what they seem. This comes as a natural development rather than a sudden cheat, and I never felt as though Arden had sacrificed her characters for the sake of a easy ending.

After the climatic events of The Girl in the Tower, Vasya has just risked everything to save Moscow from the flames. Her secrets are now exposed, and the obsessed priest Konstantin has her cornered. After suffering a devastating loss, she flees into the realm of Midnight, a land of eternal darkness. Weakened and grieving, Vasya must search the midnight lands for Morozko, the king of winter.

I won’t say anything more, for fear of spoiling the surprise. I am definitely looking forward to buying the entire Winternight trilogy on hardcover once it’s released. These books swept me away.

My rating: 5/5

You can find The Winter of the Witch here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Rescue Cat Wednesday! 13/02/19

 

While reading is my oldest love, I am also very passionate about animals. I volunteer twice a week with a wonderful Toronto-based charity called Action Volunteers for Animals. They rescue homeless cats from all around Ontario, as well as run Trap-Neuter-Release programs to help control the population of homeless cats. Every week, I plan to post pictures of some of the delightful kitties currently staying with us at the local adoption facility.

If you or anyone you know is interested in adopting a rescue cat, you can find out more at actionvolunteersforanimals.com

 

Pretty Tabitha and sweet Georgiana were adopted together to a forever home this week!

 

 

Jazz and Tuxie are definitely not shy anymore, and have made it their mission to inspect every corner of the adoption kiosk. Jazz is quite the little acrobat; I had to scoop her out of the back cupboards the other day! These two are great friends and must be adopted together!

 

 

This big boy is Manny. He is an incredibly affectionate four-year old. Manny spent most of his life as a tom, and doesn’t do great with other animals. He is a total lap cat, and would be great as the only pet in a household!

Manny

 

You can see more photos of our wonderful rescue cats, learn more about AVA, and become involved as a volunteer by visiting actionvolunteersforanimals.com

 

Thrift Store Finds!

There was a $.50 book sale at my local Salvation Army, and look what I found!

 

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It’s a full color comic book adaptation of Return of the Jedi. And…

 

 

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It’s a first edition from 1983! And…

 

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It was produced by Stan Lee!

 

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This thing is so cool!

 

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin (2015)

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Review 2.10

 

Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries. [Source]

If you’ve ever seen AMC’s The Walking Dead,  you’ll have noticed that episodes of the show tend to follow a very predictable pattern. Something really interesting and surprising happens in the first ten minutes, which grabs your interest and makes you excited to keep watching. This is followed by roughly thirty minutes of aimless wandering, idle chatter, and speeches about the unfairness of life, during which time you zone out and mostly stare at your phone. Then, in the last three minutes there is another interesting and surprising event which leaves you hungrily awaiting the next episode.

The Fifth Season is the high fantasy novel equivalent of an episode of The Walking Dead.

The set-up is narrated in the second-person and introduces you to the main cast of characters. A woman is mourning the death of her son at the hands of her husband. A mysterious figure in a shining city causes untold destruction. An ambitious acolyte takes on an undesired task. It is written in a way that reminded me of death’s narration in The Book Thief, distant but personal at the same time. Things were off to a good start.

The problem comes when Author N. K. Jemisin continues to employ that second-person narrative style in every chapter focused on Essun, the main female protagonist. Rather than adding an extra layer to the story, switching back and forth from the second to the third voice was incredibly jarring. It pulled me out of the story time and time again.

After its promising beginning, The Fifth Season spends the bulk of it’s 350+ pages moving various characters from one place to another. This offers multiple opportunities to explore the land and peoples inhabited in this world, but also becomes increasingly tedious as time goes on. At some point my curiosity dwindled, and I no longer cared very much about the fate of the broken Earth or its residents.

My rating: 3/5

You can find The Fifth Season here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Rescue Cat Wednesday!

While reading is my oldest love, I am also very passionate about animals. I volunteer twice a week with a wonderful Toronto-based charity called Action Volunteers for Animals. They rescue homeless cats from all around Ontario, as well as run Trap-Neuter-Release programs to help control the population of homeless cats. Every week, I plan to post pictures of some of the delightful kitties currently staying with us at the local adoption facility.

If you or anyone you know is interested in adopting a rescue cat, you can find out more at actionvolunteersforanimals.com

 

First off congratulations to Scar, Felicity, Sadie, Ginger, and Rose who have all found their forever homes!

 

 

Oakey is back with us after spending some time with a foster family. He had several teeth removed,  and is definitely more comfortable now. He loves his special wet food diet, playing with wands, and visiting his cat friends!20190204_192444

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Two year old Jazz and Tuxie are shy but sweet cats who came to us from Oshawa. They are settling in nicely and have begun coming out of their cages to explore for short periods of time. Both are comfortable being petted and gently handled, and have definite lap cat potential. We would love to see Jazz and Tuxie go to a new home together; they’re very good friends! 20190204_194500

 

 

We learned that this gorgeous boy’s name is Spencer, and he has become so much braver in the past week! He likes pets and has come out of his cage to sniff around a few times. He has the softest, most luxuriant fur in the whole world!20190131_141056

 

You can see more photos of our wonderful rescue cats, learn more about AVA, and become involved as a volunteer by visiting actionvolunteersforanimals.com

 

Book Review: The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel (2017)

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Review 2.9

Many people dream of escaping modern life, but most will never act on it. This is the remarkable true story of a man who lived alone in the woods of Maine for 27 years, making this dream a reality–not out of anger at the world, but simply because he preferred to live on his own. [Source]

Right from the title, something rings false about The Stranger in the Woods. Finkel (or his publisher) draws us in with the promise of the last “true hermit”, and then spends a large amount of the book’s length debating whether or not Christopher Knight was even technically a hermit at all.

This book was odd. I don’t quite know how else to describe it. Author Michael Finkel doesn’t seem to know exactly what point he is trying to make. The sections describing his interviews with Knight are juxtaposed with chapters detailing the history of hermits and the psychological need for human interaction. However, Knight’s particular case is so unusual that he shares almost nothing in common with what we often think of as a hermit. Knight did not enter the forest seeking wisdom. He wasn’t running from something or trying to hide from the government. He did not embark on a spiritual journey. There are really only two pieces of information that I took away from this book.

1. Knight was just a guy who wanted to be left alone.

2. He committed hundreds of burglaries in order to achieve that goal.

Those are essentially the only ideas that Finkel was able to convey in The Stranger in the Woods. Knight was not some noble hero; he stole every single thing that kept him alive during his decades in the forest. He made people feel insecure and ill-at-ease in their own homes. He said in court that he was deeply ashamed of his actions, but was he truly sorry for stealing or only sorry that he was finally caught? Finkel doesn’t explore any of those questions, and instead adopts an almost fanboy-esque attitude towards Knight.

One of my goals this year was to read more nonfiction, but it wasn’t until The Stranger in the Woods that I fully understood how important a role the author plays in this kind of narrative. As readers, we need to be able to trust Finkel and his motivations in order to accept his version of events as the truth. Finkel, who was fired from the New York Times in 2002 for false reporting, does not inspire that kind of trust. But even before I knew about the NYT incident, something felt off about Finkel and his attitude towards Christopher Knight.

Finkel becomes increasingly stalkerish as The Stranger in the Woods progresses. He shows up announced and uninvited to visit Knight in jail. He shows up unannounced and uninvited at Knight’s family home. He refuses to listen to Knight’s frequent pleas to “stay away” and “leave me alone”. During the course of his time spent with Knight, Finkel traveled through the dense Maine woods no fewer than eight times in order to visit Knight’s “camp”, spending the night on several occasions in a kind of pilgrimage. He asks psychiatrists who have never met or heard of Christopher Knight to talk about whether or not Knight might be autistic. It all adds up to a narrator who is unreliable, unprofessional, and potentially unethical. I felt a cringy, awkward sort of empathy for Knight as Finkel refused to leave him alone. After all, that’s all Knight ever wanted in the first place.

My rating: 2/5

You can find The Stranger in the Woods here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible version is narrated by Mark Bramhall and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson and illustrated by Emily Carroll

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Review 2.8

“Speak up for yourself-we want to know what you have to say.” 

From the first moment of her freshman year at Merryweather High, Melinda knows this is a big fat lie, part of the nonsense of high school. She is friendless–an outcast–because she busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so now nobody will talk to her, let alone listen to her. Through her work on an art project, she is finally able to face what really happened that night: She was raped by an upperclassman, a guy who still attends Merryweather and is still a threat to her. [Source]

Apparently I live under a rock, because I had never heard of Laurie Halse Anderon’s award winning 1999 novel, Speak. It only came to my attention when I learned that Emily Carroll had done the illustrations for the graphic novel edition of the book, which was released last year. Carroll wrote and illustrated the fantastically creepy Into the Woods, which was among the favorite books that I read last year. I immediately ordered a copy from my library and brought it home.

It sat on my desk for six weeks.

I could never bring myself to actually begin reading Speak. I knew it was going to be one of those books that left me feeling wrung out and exhausted, and I just couldn’t commit myself. A few days before the book had to be returned to the library, I finally decided to make myself a giant cup of hot chocolate, top it off with a dash of brandy, and curl up on my couch to finish the book.

I’m so glad I did.

I haven’t read the original source material, but Anderson’s writing style adapts itself perfectly to the graphic novel format. Her narrative has a lyrical, almost poetic quality; it bounces from subject to subject in a continual train of thought that carries us into Melinda’s mind. The mind of the average high school girl is a swirling maze of pressure and anxiety: pressure to fit in, to get good grades, to be popular to have boys like you, pressure from parents, from peers, from boys. Melinda, who is dealing with more anxiety and pressure than any ninth grader should ever have to experience, is teetering on the knife’s edge between crippling depression and debilitating stress. Her experiences are as tragic as they are tragically ordinary, and Melinda’s journey to find her voice is a powerful one.

Emily Carroll is a tremendously talented artist, and her illustrations heighten and define Melinda’s experiences in so many ways. Notice the way Melinda is nearly always depicted with her hair covering part of her face as she seeks to hide from staring eyes. Or how certain characters are drawn with horribly exaggerated features. Carroll has a tendency towards the macabre that I love, and it suits the dark material presented in Speak.

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I put off reading this book because I thought it was going to leave me feeling bitter and upset. Instead, I found Speak to be empowering. As Melinda journeys out of the darkness and finds her voice, there were a series of small victories. A new friend. A helping hand. A sympathetic teacher. Small reminders that a person is never really alone. I’ll take this as a reminder that the most difficult stories to read are often the most important to tell.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Speak: The Graphic Novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!