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Weekly Top Posts: 2021-08-01
2021-08-01 04:00 UTC

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A Mother’s Heartbreak
2021-07-26 15:00 UTC by Michelle

People have every right to exclude family members from their lives for whatever reason. I am not one of those who subscribes to the idea that blood is thicker than water, as much as Jim does not agree with me. I still believe this even though we are currently in such a situation with Connor.

It all started when Connor went off to college. While his high school years were tough for him and us – not doing homework, staying up until the wee hours to game, struggling with cross country his last two years, some rough grades his first two years, not ever being able to get out of bed, and all of the scream matches and fights that occurred as a result of all of this, we thought he ended high school well and prepared to go away to school. He seemed happy and ready.

During that first year, we found that Connor rarely responded to our phone calls or texts. When we did talk to him, we discovered that he was struggling to go to class and even failed one of his classes. He LOVED marching and pep band though, so he kept going to enough classes to maintain his eligibility for both. He continued to struggle his second semester, not going to classes and dropping at least one class because he couldn’t handle it or didn’t like it.

He came home for the summer, working at Jim’s company. Out of work, he did nothing but sit in his room gaming and sleeping. He hung out with friends while he could, but he was fairly antisocial the entire summer. Unfortunately, he didn’t make the greatest impression among Jim’s coworkers either. We tried to talk to Connor about his issues with school. It seems most of his problems about going to class all came down to crippling anxiety and not liking the undergrad courses he had to take before he could get to the good stuff. Once we found this out, we recommended he take the year off so that he could get some help with his anxiety and growing depression. He refused.

We took him back to Ames for his second year with heavy hearts and more than a little anxiety ourselves. We met what would become his current significant other and some of his other friends on that trip. We felt better once we understood that he had a good circle of friends that would keep an eye on him. Or so we thought. Once school started, we were on radio silence again. He didn’t respond to texts or calls very often, and what little information we did get seemed that he was doing okay. As his first year, the highlight of his sophomore year was marching band and being able to go to a second bowl game.

When he did come home, we found out the truth. Unbeknown to us, Connor stopped going to most of his classes after the first week of school. He did the bare minimum to maintain marching and pep band eligibility and that’s it. Because we never saw him over winter break thanks to another bowl game, we again didn’t know how bad things had gotten.

His second semester went about as well as you would expect. He faced the same issue with attending classes and ended up dropping all but the minimum. What made it worse was a phone call in the middle of the night in late winter wherein we found out that he had been admitted for a psych eval and put on suicide watch. He was released with 24 hours, but that is not a phone call you ever want to receive. To make it worse, he didn’t want us to visit, didn’t want to come home, and really didn’t want to have anything to do with us. We talked, and he reassured us he was okay, that his friends jumped the gun in calling officials for a health check, and that he was never in danger of committing suicide. We couldn’t do anything but listen and hope he was telling us the truth.

He stayed in Ames that summer after assuring us he had a job and that he was co-letting an apartment in town. We don’t think he had a job and he was basically living on someone’s couch for the summer. That fall, he continued to ignore our plea of not going back to school. Instead, he moved into an off-campus apartment with his significant other and again struggled to go to class. We went to visit him, and things seemed okay. He looked happy and content, and we didn’t discuss school or grades at all. A few weeks later, we found out he dropped out of school altogether.

All this time, we were encouraging Connor to visit campus therapists. We offered to pay for all of his medical costs to get psychiatric help. After his suicide scare, he told us he was seeing someone and that they were working on finding the right combination of medications for him. Unfortunately, we don’t know if he really was getting help or just telling us that to keep us quiet. Since he ended up dropping out of his third year of school after not attending ANY classes that semester, we don’t think he was.

Unfortunately, things didn’t get any better once he dropped out. During one short visit home with his significant other and their kitten, he dropped the bomb that he blamed us for ALL of his problems. In his rant, he told us that our high expectations set him up for failure, that we should have known he had anxiety issues and that we failed him. He also told us that we owe him the money he spent towards his failed college attempts (he took out at least one student loan and borrowed money from his grandmother), even though we already paid for his freshman year and were willing to pay for additional schooling if he had taken some time off after that first year. He went on to tell us that we should have known all that time in his room was a sign he needed help and again reiterated how much we failed him as parents.

And this is how the last eighteen months have gone. He blamed us for all of his problems, even going so far as to say we gaslighted him regarding his anxiety (except we didn’t since we took him to therapy as early as second grade because we recognized he was having problems) and accused us of increasing his anxiety by not financially supporting him while we attempted to mend fences without conceding anything. As before, our communication with him was sporadic, and not for lack of our attempts. We visited them, and they visited us once or twice. Things seemed better the last time we saw them.

Unfortunately, once Connor dropped out of school, he was no longer eligible to be part of my health insurance. Then, I lost my job, and we moved to Jim’s insurance, where we couldn’t even add him as a beneficiary. In November, I was asking Connor for Christmas ideas, knowing that since neither Jim nor I had a job, we had to be creative in Christmas spending. For some reason, the fact that I was asking him for wish lists infuriated him, and he went off on me. Again, it came back to this idea that we OWED him money because he shouldn’t be in debt at his age. He ended the conversation, which only happened via text, by telling me to f*ck off. So I did. Those are the last words he spoke to me.

Because that wasn’t enough, Connor reached out to Jim in December, asking him to pay for his meds, which supposedly cost $600. I don’t know if he gave a reason for wanting Jim to do so. I know that Jim told him we couldn’t afford that because he was out of work but told him to check out Good Rx or another prescription coupon app like it, explaining that we were using it to pay for the meds we had no insurance.  As before, Connor became irate at this, and that was the last time Jim heard from him.

We keep trying. Jim even called him around my birthday trying to mend fences because that was the only thing I wanted for my birthday. Connor won’t answer phone calls or texts from my parents or Jim’s mom. I’ve sent him a few texts and a penned note with his new insurance cards because Jim’s new company will cover him. Unfortunately, he ignores everyone but his sister. Everyone tried desperately to get him to attend my dad’s surprise seventieth birthday party, but he refused – apparently because he is not ready to face us.

Through Holly, we know they are getting ready to move to Denver. That he doesn’t have a job yet but does have an apartment. We don’t know what his plans are. We know that we are not a part of his life right now and that Holly assures us we did nothing wrong.

We’ve kept this a closely-held secret partly to respect Connor’s privacy and partly out of embarrassment and shame that our son would decide to stop speaking to us. After all, we don’t think we did anything wrong and to have someone as intelligent as Connor drop out of school and seemingly settle for a low-paying, no-future job with no plans to do anything else is not exactly what you want to share with others.

Except, I know this is why I continue to struggle with ennui. This is why I spend so much time worrying about Black Lives Matter, women’s rights, climate change, and pretty much every other hot topic out there right now. It’s why I spend so much time playing on my phone rather than doing something/anything. It’s why I can’t find pleasure in anything, why I haven’t been blogging. I was able to ignore everything when I was busy unpacking and setting up the house, but now? I can’t hide it anymore.

It breaks my heart that my little boy, the one who always had a hug and a kiss for me, who was MY boy thanks to all the time we spent together when Jim was in the Army, doesn’t feel comfortable enough to talk to me anymore. I miss him so much. I try not to let it affect my relationship with Holly, but I already warned her that his ongoing silence is only going to make her last year of high school that much worse for me – because there will be that fear that she will move and do the same thing.

I have only ever wanted my children to be happy and healthy, and I can’t say that my boy is either. I can only hope that he comes back to us one day. Our home is his home and always will be. While I still expect an apology for what he texted me, we won’t stop trying to mend fences because that is what we do as parents. But let me tell you if you think parenting young kids is difficult, parenting adult children is ten times more so.

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Weekly Top Posts: 2021-07-25
2021-07-25 04:00 UTC

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Weekly Top Posts: 2021-07-18
2021-07-18 04:00 UTC

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  5. Novel Nuggets – Overdue Reviews – Spring 2021 Part 3

Novel Nuggets – Overdue Reviews – Spring 2021 Part 3
2021-07-13 00:29 UTC by Michelle

When you have twenty-five books to review, you cry uncle and resort to short reviews. Plus, after all this time, I’m not certain I remember enough about any of them to write a full-length review. We will be breaking these into five parts. This is part three. There may be some spoilers within these short reviews; readers, consider this your warning.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
The first thing you realize about Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir is that it does everything possible to remind you that this is not The Martian. Ryland Grace is the anti-Mark Watney. The most obvious differing characteristics which separate the two are the fact that Ryland is a microbiologist and a teacher, as well as a coward, and he doesn’t swear. At all. Whereas Mark used curse words to perfectly indicate his emotions, Ryland sounds exactly like what he is – a teacher who won’t say anything that might harm a child’s innocence. While he provides some semblance of entertainment, once Rocky enters the picture, Ryland becomes the sidekick. Rocky is hands-down the best part of the story, and their friendship makes you believe humanity is pretty damn good. As is true of most of Mr. Weir’s novels, there is more scientific discussion than plot, and it can get pretty esoteric and theoretical. Still, not understanding astrophysics won’t prevent anyone from enjoying this survival story.

The Lights of Prague by Nicole Jarvis
The Lights of Prague by Nicole Jarvis is nothing more than a mediocre story regarding vampires and vampire hunters. And just like almost every other vampire story, not all vampires and other baddies are all that bad just as not all of the perceived good guys are good. The story contains the typical red herrings and false clues to distract and drag the story forward. The main character is a bit too naive and too damn good to be an interesting character. In fact, all of the characters are one-dimensional. This is one vampire story that has no bite to it.

Legacy by Nora Roberts
All hail, Queen Nora! Legacy is a fantastic story of family and strength. As always, she captures complicated family relationships so well. She is even better at portraying friends as family. Adding to that, she layers loss, the idea of blended families, and the importance of roots. I simply love Nora’s mind and the families she creates for us.

The Ninth Metal by Benjamin Percy
I really wanted to love The Ninth Metal by Benjamin Percy but just could not settle into it. The familial relationships are so convoluted and dysfunctional that they make for uncomfortable reading. To make matters worse, the story cannot decide whether it is a science fiction adventure, a mob story, political intrigue, a statement against capitalism, or something else. Because of this lack of clear identity, nothing is cohesive, and the story is simply too confusing to enjoy.

One Great Lie by Deb Caletti
Deb Caletti does it again. In One Great Lie, Charlotte’s story comes with all the purposeful heartbreak one expects from Ms. Caletti. She excels at captures those sticky situations in which young women find themselves because they don’t have the life experiences to avoid them. In fact, this is one story I would make required reading for teens if only to show them just how easy it is for someone in a position of power to take advantage of someone else and silence their voice after the fact. At the same time, Ms. Caletti stresses the importance of the #metoo movement and its importance in reducing rape culture and the ongoing silence of victims. While watching all of this unfold through Charlotte’s eyes is as painful as you can imagine, One Great Lie is a must-read for anyone looking to be an ally for abuse victims.

The post Novel Nuggets – Overdue Reviews – Spring 2021 Part 3 appeared first on That's What She Read.

Weekly Top Posts: 2021-07-11
2021-07-11 04:00 UTC

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  5. Sunday Reflections – 4 July 2021 – Holiday Nonhappenings

Novel Nuggets – Overdue Reviews – Spring 2021 Part 2
2021-07-10 01:29 UTC by Michelle

When you have twenty-five books to review, you cry uncle and resort to short reviews. Plus, after all this time, I’m not certain I remember enough about any of them to write a full-length review. We will be breaking these into five parts. This is part two. Only fifteen more left to write!

Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is an excellent writer. His dedication to research shows in his meticulously detailed stories. Unfortunately, Hour of the Witch is not what I would consider one of his better novels. I appreciate the use of “original” court documents to pique interest and throw a reader’s suspicion off the main plot. Unfortunately, the story itself is yet one more about a strong, independent woman stuck in an abusive relationship and out of sync with the society in which she lives. There are some fascinating historical details, but I feel the ending is a bit too pat for the reality of the times. That being said, I do love the term “devil’s tines” and try to incorporate it into everyday conversation.

The Last Watch by J. S. Dewes

I love a good science fiction novel, and J. S. Dewes’ The Last Watch does not disappoint. It is a fabulous story about a group on the very edge of the universe faced with a surprise enemy. There is a great balance between action, science, humor, and adventure with a hint of romance and fantastic conspiracy the crew must discover. The Last Watch hits all the right notes, and the charismatic cast of characters left me wanting more.

Blade of Secrets by Tricia Levenseller

Blade of Secrets by Tricia Levenseller is the type of novel I wish existed when I was an actual young adult. Not only does Ziva have cool powers, but she also has severe social anxiety. It is so refreshing to have a heroine who doesn’t doubt herself so much as she understands that her fears while irrational are still very real for her. Even better, we see her succumbing to those fears time and again, making it one of the few novels to show that it is okay for our heroes to fail. As if that isn’t amazing enough, we also get to see how her sister and friends accept her neurodivergence, protect her where possible, and accommodate her at all times. Plus, it is just a really good story.

Realm Breaker by Victoria Aveyard

Goddess knows I wanted to like Realm Breaker by Victoria Aveyard. After all, there are few fantasy novels I don’t like. Maybe because it came on the heels of two outstanding SFF novels, but I could not get into it. While I know that its similarities to The Lord of the Rings trilogy are intentional – because Ms. Aveyard tells us so in her author’s notes – I found it difficult to not compare the two. Of course, Realm Breaker can not compare. Not only does it take too long to build the merry band of adventurers, but there is also no real enemy to unite them. Plus, they don’t have nearly the same charm and magic as the Fellowship. To make things worse, I find the worldbuilding lacking and struggled in general with the fact that the Frodo of the group just so happens to instinctively know what to do when it comes time for her to do her thing, especially after she spends most of the novel before that point worrying about the fact that she had no clue about any of it. While I came around as the story drew to a close, I can’t say that I am vested enough in the story or the characters to want to continue with the sequel.

The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave

The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave is an outstanding missing person story that has an ending I did not expect but which I love. Because the suspense element is not enough, it is a bittersweet story about family, love, and sacrifice. Hannah’s attempts to befriend Bailey are perfect, as are Bailey’s snubs. Ms. Dave must have a sixteen-year-old at home because I found Bailey way too similar to my own daughter at times. Their tentative bond is poignant, as is Hannah’s protection of Bailey at all costs. I was already a huge fan of Ms. Dave, but The Last Thing He Told Me convinced me I need to go back and read everything of hers I missed.

The post Novel Nuggets – Overdue Reviews – Spring 2021 Part 2 appeared first on That's What She Read.

Novel Nuggets – Overdue Reviews – Spring 2021 Part 1
2021-07-08 23:19 UTC by Michelle

When you have twenty-five books to review, you cry uncle and resort to short reviews. Plus, after all this time, I’m not certain I remember enough about any of them to write a full-length review. We will be breaking these into five parts. Have fun!

The Absolutist by John Boyne

The Absolutist is another gorgeous story by John Boyne. Not only does he tackle post-war survivors’ guilt as well as the idea of objecting to a popular, patriotic war, he showcases the difficulties of finding and accepting your sexuality during a time when anything but heterosexuality was illegal. He tells this complicated tale with his usual delicacy to create a heartbreaking, horrifying, and yet poignant reading experience.

You Love Me by Caroline Kepnes

You Love Me by Caroline Kepnes is the continuation of a story I’m not certain needs to continue. It is slow, slow, slow. One good thing is that Ms. Kepnes changes things up this time by having Joe try to be a productive member of society without caving to his baser urges. Ironically, bad things still happen around him. While he remains a fairly unreliable narrator, his problems center on the blindspots he puts up and his complete underestimation of his acquaintances. While I liked this new Joe to some extent, I do think this new Joe is boring. Plus, I am not a fan of how this part of his story ends.

These Feathered Flames by Alexandra Overy

While I love mythological retellings and pretty much any fantasy story, I did not like These Feathered Flames by Alexandra Overy. Not only was it an extremely slow-paced story, but I also could not garner enough sympathy for one of the two main characters to move beyond the fact that she is a terrible person. Plus, the other main character takes way too long to accept her new normal in spite of the fact that she prepared her whole life for it. The whole story is nothing but a nature versus nurture argument with trauma at its core. Between the lackluster characters and a story that builds too slowly, this retelling of the Firebird myth is not something I want to revisit anytime soon.

Dustborn by Erin Bowman

Erin Bowman’s Dustborn is a decent post-apocalyptic story about limited resources and the fight to control them. There is a fabulous twist in the middle of the story that you don’t see coming and that drastically changes the narrative in a fun way. Meanwhile, Delta is a fantastic survivalist, reluctant to lead but knows the importance of loyalty and teamwork when it comes to survival. With good pacing, fun action, and a satisfactory ending, Dustborn is a solid story that is as entertaining as it is timely.

Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart

Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart is everything I love about fantasy novels. Simply, it is a fabulous story, rich in backstory and culture with its basis in Caribbean folklore. The two main characters play off each other to perfection with their opposing desires for revenge versus better leadership. I never knew what was coming, and I definitely didn’t know how it was going to end. While I find myself more sympathetic to one of the main characters, the entire story has me vested in both their stories, so much so that the sequel will be one of my more anticipated stories for 2022.

The post Novel Nuggets – Overdue Reviews – Spring 2021 Part 1 appeared first on That's What She Read.

Sunday Reflections – 4 July 2021 – Holiday Nonhappenings
2021-07-04 13:00 UTC by Michelle

Sunday Reflections Button

I don’t know about you but my desire to celebrate the founding of this country is at an all-time low. Which is a good thing when you have absolutely zero plans to do anything this holiday weekend. Holly has to work again tonight. Meanwhile, Jim is currently in bed felled by the very same cold that had me flat on my back for two days last weekend. (This is what he gets for laughing at me when he found out I had a cold after spending the previous weekend facing masses of humanity without masks at the last dance competition of the year.) Plus, the temperatures are back up into the 90s again. We don’t have a grill yet, so there will be no cookout regardless of whether Jim felt up to the task or even wanted to eat. All of this is enough to make me do nothing but camp inside with the dogs, doing whatever I want and determining which takeout I want to order for myself.

I am slowly but surely coming out from under the rock under which I unknowingly buried myself. As I was telling Jim the other day, I don’t know which is scarier – the type of depressive episode which keeps you in bed unable to face the world or the type of depressive episode which keeps you functional and completely unaware that something is wrong. I can’t go to the doctor until September, but I will be adding this spring to my list of notes to discuss with her at my appointment.

We bought Holly’s car when she was fourteen. With no need to keep a third car at that time, we sold my car and I had been using hers with the intention that I would get something new once she got her license. Then the pandemic hit, and I lost my job. I definitely didn’t need a car then either. Except, a funny thing happened. It turns out that when you have a child as busy as mine and a husband who travels almost constantly for work, you do need your own car after all. It was a frustrating fall and spring as we juggled vehicles and did late night dropoffs and pickups from bus stations to make sure everyone got to where they needed to be. Thankfully, and much to my surprise, Jim presented me with a new car for my birthday. Well, he presented me with a picture of my car, which had yet to be manufactured. After another frustrating six weeks of juggling vehicles, I finally picked up my shiny new Tesla Model Y last Saturday. She is SO pretty and fast. It will take some adjusting to the autosteer feature, but I love her so much. She makes me want to make sure I am always put together before I go anywhere so that I can match her. Which isn’t a bad thing when trying to find yourself again.

Holly’s one week of vacation comes to an end today, and she picks right back up with her dance schedule of nine hours of dance classes on top of rehearsals as well as work. There is also talk of her trying out for a local version of The Nutcracker, auditions for which are this Wednesday. I don’t know where she will find the time to add that to her schedule this fall, but I have no doubt she will make it work. Somehow, she always does.

On a fun note, my fifteen-year-old nephew pitched his first no-hitter this past Thursday. To say we are all a little excited is an understatement. He was born with a glove on his hand, as my brother played baseball through college and is the head coach for the high school where he teaches, so it comes as no surprise that he excels at the sport. Yet, he continues to surpass our expectations for his age, having pitched at the varsity level this past year while still a freshman. He has his eye on one of the schools that always has a place in the College World Series, Vanderbilt. If he keeps showing improved speed and that deadly accuracy he showed on Thursday, when he struck out 16 of 21 batters, that is one very realistic dream. It is just so much fun to watch unfold.

As I told Holly before she left for work last night, this holiday is one of the worst for drunk drivers, and this year is going to be particularly bad as everyone tries to shake off the past year. I saw it a little bit two weeks ago when the dance competition took away its mask mandate. People are ready to party, and this weekend is the perfect excuse for them to do so. I hope everyone is staying cool and safe this holiday weekend. I may not have been interacting with anyone for the past few months, but I have been watching all social media from afar and I don’t want anyone I know to get hurt this weekend!

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Weekly Top Posts: 2021-07-04
2021-07-04 04:00 UTC

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  5. Pandemic Ennui and other thoughts

Pandemic Ennui and other thoughts
2021-06-30 15:00 UTC by Michelle

The struggle is real, folks.

Moira Rose is my hero

Now that the house is 90 percent complete, for the first time in over a year, I find myself with a lot more time on my hands. I will admit that I don’t really know what to do with myself. To further complicate the issue, I spend just enough time at a computer at work every day to not want to spend any more time on a computer once I get home. Summer temperatures make me want to hibernate inside until the humidity and temperatures drop to more acceptable levels. I try not to spend all day in front of the TV and the thought of grabbing my current read during the day holds no appeal. I also try to avoid the time-suck that is TikTok, but I have been spending my days spending way too much time mindlessly scrolling through IG and playing hours upon hours of Homescapes and Gardenscapes.

After losing my job last year, I stopped planning my day. I had certain things I wanted to do each day, and it worked. Then, we decided to sell our house, and I spent the next six months packing and prepping. Moving into the new house came with its own list of to-dos that I was happy to complete each day. Since starting my job in February though, I am struggling to find a good routine. It didn’t help that Jim was out of work until May 6th, or that he has been out of town for three out of the six weeks since he started his new role. Covid hit the house through Holly, and she suddenly had to virtually attend school for the first time in a year. Add to that the craziness of the dance competition season, end of year insanity, and I really struggled.

I think I am finally in a better mental space to start becoming more active online (and not in a mindless way). The key is going to be starting small, like with this post, and updating my reading archives. While I have a ton of reviews to write, I’m trying to not let the number overwhelm me. Plus, I don’t know if I have a lot to say any more about the books I read almost three months ago now. So, I’m just trying to find something that works for me that will shake me out of the mind-numbing boredom with which I’ve been plagued this spring.

Quick updates – Holly finished her junior year on the strongest of notes, attending prom, and rocking a 4.0 for her third trimester. She is currently averaging more work hours per week than I do and loves watching her account balances increase. In addition, she has already started working with her fellow seniors to plan and choreograph their pom routines for fall; plus, she is working with her coach to create more of a dance team for the basketball season as a way to change things up and make the season more fun.

Because she wants to become more involved in school activities, she took it upon herself to email the director of her school’s fall musical about obtaining a spot on the cast list because of her years of dancing. The director loved the idea, and she now gets to look forward to participating in her very first musical as part of the ensemble. They are performing Footloose, which is one of the reasons why she felt so strongly about participating.

As if that isn’t enough, she became a member of a modeling team one of the local photographers has for high school seniors. To round things out, she continues to dance, as if she would ever quit her first love. I don’t quite know if she completely understands just how busy she is going to be starting in September once the school year begins, but I know she loves a good challenge.

For Holly, summer is essentially over. She has her one week off from dance this week and starts right back next week. Jim spends about half of his time traveling for work. So it is up to me to maintain the house and watch the dogs. We are talking about having me go with him on one of his shorter business trips for a chance to get away and spend time by a pool, so we will see if we can make that happen. Holly has a short trip to NC with her bestie. While we may not get a family vacation this year, we are trying to get away after spending all that time homebound. Thank goodness for vaccines!

All Shannons are now gainfully employed. Jim started his new role the first week in May and really jumped in with both feet. It is a similar role to his previous role but with a smaller company. It’s great to see him back at work, finessing people, and making plans. The only downside is that the few remaining house projects are now in limbo. However, he’s happier, and therefore we are all happier.

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Weekly Top Posts: 2021-06-27
2021-06-27 04:00 UTC

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Weekly Top Posts: 2021-06-20
2021-06-20 04:00 UTC

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Weekly Top Posts: 2021-06-13
2021-06-13 04:00 UTC

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Weekly Top Posts: 2021-06-06
2021-06-06 04:00 UTC

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Weekly Top Posts: 2021-05-30
2021-05-30 04:00 UTC

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Weekly Top Posts: 2021-05-23
2021-05-23 04:00 UTC

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Just how big is that damn tree?
2021-04-16 15:00 UTC by Michelle

The Witch Elm by Tana French

The Witch Elm by Tana French reads less like a thriller and more like a mystery. Even then, it is less a whodunit and more of a search for the correct psychopath. All of this with elements of a family drama, a coming-of-age reckoning, and a reflection on the idea of memory. Toby’s story doesn’t appear to be complex, and yet there are more layers to it than a good lasagna. And yet, you will spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out just how big a tree needs to be to hide a man.

Ms. French puts poor Toby through the shit in The Witch Elm. Not only does he face a brutal assault at the hands of burglars in his home, but he must also deal with his favorite uncle slowly dying from brain cancer. Because that is not enough for one person to experience in a matter of weeks, she then adds a murder mystery at the family home on top of all that. Yet, for the most part, Toby handles all of it better than I would on my best day. Just thinking about dealing with all that is enough to send me into an anxiety-filled paralysis.

As most of her novels are more character than plot-driven, this is exactly the point. She takes Toby and pushes him to see what his breaking point is. How she does this is brilliant, fascinating, and cruel, as she questions the very nature of memory. She starts with the obvious with Toby’s memory loss due to the brain injuries he suffers. Her shift towards the frailty of memory as a whole is subtle and yet terrifying, as she points out again and again that two people will remember two very different events. While Toby questions the very nature of his relationships with his cousins, you too can’t help but question the validity of all of your memories. Eventually, the term unreliable witness has a completely different meaning as you watch Toby repeatedly reconcile his memories with the stories others tell him.

Because Ms. French is a writing master, she doesn’t stop with memory though. She throws in the complications of family dynamics. Here too, Toby realizes that the relationships he thought were so important may not have the same importance to other family members. This hurts in any relationship, but there is something particularly bittersweet when this happens among family. For Toby, it throws yet another level of tension into an already intense situation.

The Witch Elm is the type of story where the whodunit is less important than the reasons why and what happens next. That doesn’t mean that the whodunit reveal isn’t chilling. In fact, it is so matter-of-fact as to be very disturbing upon reflection. Still, after everything Toby experiences, everything we learn about the reasoning behind the murder is essentially anticlimactic. While not totally predictable, one can infer a lot before the big reveal, and the whole scene is less than satisfactory, which again is Ms. French’s plan.

If anything, The Witch Elm is a tough read that reiterates that life rarely provides satisfactory answers to its problems. I expected the intensity and the level of disturbing given the other French novels I read. I was not prepared for the emotional aspect of the story. Toby bears so much, and you can’t help but empathize with him as he waffles between anger, grief, confusion, anxiety, and everything in between. All while obsessing over the size of that damn tree.

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Loggers be crazy
2021-04-15 15:00 UTC by Michelle

Deep River by Karl Marlantes

Deep River by Karl Marlantes is one of those novels that is deeply personal to the author, something he shares with the reader in his author’s notes at the end of the story. Unfortunately, because of the personal nature of the story, the storytelling suffers. It is not because the author is not capable, but rather an overly-enthusiastic attempt to include every single detail of the subject while paying homage to family history.

At its most basic level, Deep River is a fascinating story about Finnish immigrants who settle in Washington state and become players in the logging industry against the backdrop of the growing laborers’ rights movement. There is a lot to love for those who enjoy family sagas of this kind. Family is the heart of the story. The Koski siblings continuously prove that blood is indeed thicker than water, as they weather changing fortunes, political and religious differences, as well as a growing divide between urban versus rural dwellers.

Plus, Mr. Marlantes brings turn-of-the-century logging back to life in all its brutality and insanity. Unfortunately, this is also where Deep River starts its descent because Mr. Marlantes spares no word or description when it comes to logging. Paragraph after paragraph, page after page, he details readers with every aspect of logging life. Granted, loggers were insane to do what they did and deserve their chance to shine. Sadly, the story suffers while they get their chance.

The other area in which Mr. Marlantes proves to be a bit too effusive with his descriptions is with the laborers’ rights movement. While workers’ rights are at the very heart of the Koski family story, his explanations of each side drag on and on. As in the case of the descriptions of logging, while he goes into ideological detail, the story comes to a halt.

In both of these instances, a good editing session could greatly improve the flow of the story while maintaining the detail Mr. Marlantes wants. These bits are interesting by themselves but detract from the overarching story so that it all becomes a bit of a slog to get through.

One true flaw with Deep River is with Aino Koski. While Mr. Marlantes does not portray any female in the best light, preferring instead to stick to various caricatures of women such as the ice queen or the submissive wife, I find Aino to be particularly troublesome. For one, she is utterly incapable of separating ideology from reality when it comes to her belief in communism but has no problems facing reality in every other situation. She is idealistic to a fault and too unrealistic, which is so odd given that Mr. Marlantes takes pains to portray her as supremely pragmatic and realistic.

I particularly struggled with accepting that she turned her back on her child and that any mother would choose an ideology versus caring for her baby. I mean, she literally leaves her infant daughter behind to go help striking workers with only a few sentences describing her guilt at doing so. It isn’t as if she doesn’t love her child. In fact, the birth of her daughter and the feelings that having a child creates in Aino is the one rare scene in which Aino shows that she is capable of emotion. So, to have someone as stoic as Aino willingly give up that love and devotion and put strangers ahead of family in importance flies in the face of what we know about her character. It is almost as if Mr. Marlantes does not understand the mothering instinct at all.

With all that said, I finished Deep River with a greater appreciation for loggers and for those workers who risked everything to fight for shorter workdays, safer work environments, and better benefits. As workers continue to fight for the opportunity to unionize, there are lessons to learn from those early struggles. There is a part of me that continues to mourn the loss of the immense old-growth trees Mr. Marlantes loving describes, but you have to give props to the crazies who felled them with nothing more than wire cable, saws, and muscle. Insane.

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After the End is brutal
2021-04-14 15:00 UTC by Michelle

After the End by Claire Mackintosh

I fell in love with Clare Mackintosh through her strong thrillers. Her sleight-of-hand twists never cease to amaze me. Except, After the End is not one of her thrillers. Instead, it is a deeply personal and heartrending story of parents forced to make an unthinkable choice and their lives after making that choice.

One sign that we left a typical Mackintosh far behind is how she tells her story. Told through the eyes of each parent, After the End has a bit of a choose your own adventure feel to it. Not only do we see the story through both Pip’s and Max’s eyes, but we also follow each of the two paths from the choice Pip and Max must make. Both versions are equally brutal in the constant emotional battering that occurs. It truly is a case of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t, and Ms. Mackintosh shows all of it without mercy.

Personally, I found nothing redemptive about either path. My heart broke over and over again as Pip and Max each weather their new normals, if only because I kept dwelling on what could have been had one thing been different. Because of this, either ending upset me because I could not accept them. I still want a third path, one which would be just as emotional and upsetting but which, to me, remains true to Pip and Max as a couple. Call me a romantic or someone seeking some form of happiness in this story that has little.

Intense in a completely different way, After the End is still an excellent read, if only because it makes you cherish what you have and improves your empathy skills for those for whom the story is their reality. Just don’t look for it to make you feel good or help escape reality. Ms. Mackintosh is a bit too good at what she does for that.

The post After the End is brutal appeared first on That's What She Read.

The Infinity Courts suffers from infinite questioning
2021-04-13 15:00 UTC by Michelle

The Infinity Courts by Akemi Dawn Bowman

There is no doubt that The Infinity Courts by Akemi Dawn Bowman has an interesting premise. After all, for as long as progress occurs, humans harbor a fear that the technology we crave could prove to be our downfall. So, when the Alexa surrogate known as Ophelia turns out to be real and has found a way to take over Ms. Bowman’s version of an afterlife, she simply feeds into that fear.

Unfortunately, what The Infinity Courts has in potential because of its premise, it lacks in execution. Frankly, the main character, Nami, is insufferable. She spends ten percent of her afterlife worrying about her loved ones still alive and lamenting her death, which I can get. Her death is a tragedy, and she has every right to mourn the end of her life just as she was on the cusp of adulthood. It is how she spends the rest of her time that causes all the problems.

Nami spends 80 percent of her afterlife repeatedly asking herself the same questions about humanity and mankind’s inherent goodness. Once again, I can sort of understand why this is an obsession for her. After all, Ophelia takes over Infinity because she deems humans unworthy and too evil to create an environment in which electronic minds can coexist with human minds. Yet, almost every other page has her asking the same damn questions. After four hundred pages, I cannot stress the tediousness of her lamentations enough.

To make matters even worse, Nami spends the rest of her time ignoring all the well-meant advice and plans of her fellow colonists because she determined that her ideas are the only ones with merit. Maybe it is my age showing, but Nami ignoring the experiences of others rubbed me the wrong way. She professes to be so mature and yet so scared to do anything, but she is way too quick to ignore hard-won lessons and plans. She espouses the importance of seeing all sides, but she turns a blind eye to everything the colonists tell her. The hypocrisy, however unintentional, really bothered me.

Combine that with a completely predictable and unnecessary love story, and The Infinity Courts becomes another lackluster fantasy story. In truth, it is at least 100 pages too long and requires some major editing to limit the number of times Nami agonizes over whether humans can be good, the not-so-veiled analogy between the Residents instead of BIPOC or LBGTQ+ notwithstanding.

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