Quickie Reviews: Landline and American on Purpose

In which I cut the fluff and get to the heart of some reviews.


Landline, Rainbow RowellWoman whose marriage is on the verge of crumbling discovers she can call a younger version of her husband from her mother’s landline. Drama ensues. Mainly I just ended up mad at the husband, who doesn’t seem to have any real dreams/plans of his own but sulks and is super passive aggressive at his wife when she goes after what she wants. Drop the dud and move on, girl!

American on Purpose

American on Purpose, Craig FergusonI love Craig Ferguson’s stand-up, but had no idea he’d written a memoir. The book covers his childhood in Scotland, his fight with alcoholism, and his rise to stardom in the US. A dark and fabulous read. “Between safety and adventure, I choose adventure.”

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Review: Mambo in Chinatown

Mambo in Chinatown, Jean KwokCharlie Wong was born in America, but has spent all of her 22 years in New York’s Chinatown. Her widower father, suspicious of Western ways, has kept Charlie and her 11 year-old sister Lisa close. In contrast to her bookish sister, Charlie is a bit of a screw-up. She didn’t do well in school, is chronically single, and works as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant.

But things change when Charlie accepts a receptionist job at a dance studio downtown. The lessons she learns at the studio force her to take a closer look at her life, what her father and community expect of her, and what she wants for herself.

As Charlie gains new strength, her sister is losing it. Lisa is sick, but their father refuses Western treatments. Can Charlie save her sister without losing herself?


I enjoyed Mambo in Chinatown. My heart hurt for Charlie, who’s clumsy and unhappy and doesn’t know where she fits in, or who she even is. As an ABC (American-born Chinese) she is expected to rely on tradition, even if it goes against what she has learned as an American.

The conflicts between these two worlds are central to the plot. Charlie likes the changes in her life, but has to hide them from a disapproving community. She doesn’t want to disappoint or anger her father, but she knows things can’t continue as they’ve been.

Jean Kwok’s novel focuses on Chinese culture and traditions, but I think young people from all backgrounds experience similar challenges. Families of all kinds can be resistant to change, reluctant to let their children leave the nest and do something different than their parents. It’s a universal experience, and made me feel closer to Charlie despite our differences.

All the dancing stuff was fun, too — mainly because it was Charlie’s springboard into better understanding herself. The romance stuff was nice (and secondary, which I appreciated).

I loved Charlie’s little sister Lisa as well. The two have an almost mother-daughter relationship, and it was fun seeing that progress through the novel. I suspected the truth of Lisa’s illness long before the truth was revealed, and am glad Kwok took it in the “better” of the two directions I thought it might go.

Mambo in Chinatown is a lovely book about growing up and making your own choices. I think almost anyone would enjoy it, but it would be especially cool book for parents and daughters to read together.

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Writing Prompt #10: Camera

(This month’s writing prompt is Camera: Take your camera for a walk and write based on one of the photographs you take.)

Photo of shady alley in South Carolina, with plants lining the walkway and a bicycle in the background.

Leta pulled the last clean dish from the hot, sudsy water and set it next to the others on the counter.

“That’s the last one, Hannah,” she said, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand. The head cook looked up from trussing a chicken.

“That’s good, Leta,” she said, still working quickly while inspecting Leta’s work from a distance. “Go on and have a stretch while I finish here. When you come back we need to start on the vegetables.”

“Of course.” Leta dried her hands on her apron and stepped into the pantry to scoop up a generous amount of Hannah’s homemade liniment before walking out the side door. Charleston’s renowned summer heat meant that it was actually warmer outside than in the stuffy kitchen, but there was a nice breeze and the liniment felt good on her red, chafed hands.

She rubbed in the last of the sweet-smelling concoction and reached her hands up to the sky, twisting to a fro to stretch the tight muscles in her lower back. She took a few steps down the alley to look out on the main thoroughfare; a few carts meandered by, but mostly it was quiet.

Leta turned and headed down the alley in the opposite direction, her hands brushing over the lush plants as she walked.

Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a bicycle leaned against the wall of the neighbor’s home. The little basket on the back was filled with vegetables and neatly wrapped packages, and a sign draped across the handlebars declared that the produce inside was fresh from Wilson’s Market.

Leta hadn’t ridden a bicycle since she was a child. Surely the delivery boy wouldn’t be back for a few minutes.

After glancing up and down the alley to make sure no one else was about, Leta tiptoed over to the bicycle. It was old, but in good shape — clearly the delivery boy took excellent care of it. Leta pulled the bicycle away from the wall and climbed on. After one more quick glance around the alley she pushed off.

She was wobbly at first, but soon her muscle memory took over and she could put both feet on the pedals. She went to the far end of the alley and back, giggling as she barely missed the wall as she made the turn in the narrow alley.

She had already made her second turn and was halfway through her third when she heard a loud, angry voice behind her.

“Hey! Don’t you be stealing that!”

Leta nearly nearly took a tumble in her haste to hop off the bicycle. She recovered her balance and looked up just in time to see a young man striding quickly toward her.

“Now what in the blazes did ye think—” he began, then saw the ashamed look on Leta’s face.

“I’m so sorry, I just wanted to…” Leta trailed off. The man walked around Leta and inspected his produce for damage.

“It’s alright, lass, no harm done,” he said, tucking one package away more tightly. “I can’t think what you were doin’, though, makin’ off with a man’s livelihood.” Leta pushed the bicycle roughly back into the man’s hands.

“I wasn’t stealing. I’m a respectable girl. I merely…borrowed it for a moment.”

“Aye, ‘borrowed.’ Sounds much better than stealin’.” Leta turned on her heel and stomped away down the alley, doing her best to control her temper. The man leaned the bicycle against the wall and dashed to catch up, then stepped in front of her.

“Forgive me,” he said. “I was mostly funnin’ with you. I only saw you from the back first, but as soon as I saw your face I knew you weren’t a thief. I’m Declan.” He held out his hand.

“Leta,” finally said, shaking his hand.

“It’s good to know you. You work here?” Lena pointed down the alley.

“Just there. Number twenty-seven.” Declan nodded.

“I deliver there on Saturdays. Maybe I’ll see you sometime?” Leta opened her mouth to speak.

“Leta! Where are you?” Hannah stuck her head out the kitchen door. “We’ve got vegetables that need chopping!”

“Coming, Hannah!” Leta yelled, waving to the cook. She turned back to Declan. “Thank you for letting me borrow your bicycle.”

“No problem. Just maybe ask permission next time, eh?” Leta smiled.

“I will. Good day, Declan.” The man doffed his cap and bowed formally.

“Miss Leta.” Leta smiled one more time, then headed back into the kitchen. Hannah materialized from the shadows.

“Who’s the boy?”

“Hannah, you scared me!” she gasped, clapping a hand to her chest. “He’s the delivery boy. His name is Declan.” Hannah smiled like the Cheshire Cat.

“Oh, is it now?” Leta rolled her eyes.

“Let’s go chop vegetables.”   

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Scare Yourself Silly with These Spooky October Reads

October is a bizarre time of the year, especially in America. It’s a weird mix of history, the occult, slutty costumes, and candy corn. The weather is finally starting to cool off, which means winter isn’t far behind. As the world turns colder, humans draw closer to their hearths and homes. Wrapped up in the winter’s silence, our minds are free to dwell on the things that go bump in the night, the things that may be just outside our windows…

Now is the time to read dark things, frightening things that make you question the world, its inhabitants, and even yourself. Any of these books is a good place to start.

The Seeker

Aine Cahill arrives in Concord, Massachusetts in search of the truth about her ancestor. The more she digs for the truth, the faster her world unravels. There are old, evil things lurking in the forests, things that Aine slowly realizes have been with her since childhood. This one kept me up at night.

The Woman in Black

A young solicitor arrives in a remote village to settle a client’s affairs. There he is terrified by a ghostly figure in black. He’s determined to discharge his duties, but he has no idea of the horrors in store for him. This book is atmospheric in the extreme — the house itself is the best character — managed to terrify me without using a single jump scare.

Heart-Shaped Box

Judas Coyne loves the macabre, so when he’s given the chance to buy a “haunted” suit he does so gleefully. But it turns out the suit is truly haunted…and its ghost has a score to settle with Judas. This book was too scary for me, but if you enjoy being absolutely paralyzed with fright, this could be the book for you.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

Sometimes true things are the scariest of all. The big house a little way out of town is locked up for the night, the 12 inhabitants asleep in their beds. In the morning one of them, a four year-old, is dead. A London detective nearly destroys his life uncovering the truth — but we may never know the whole story. I’m just as obsessed with this book as I am with author Kate Summerscale’s other book, The Wicked Boy.

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Review: Blood of Elves

Blood of Elves, Andrzej SapkowskiHumans, dwarves, gnomes, and elves have coexisted peacefully for over a century. But that peace has always been tenuous, and now The Continent is on the brink of war. Skirmishes are common — especially on the border between the Northern Kingdom and the Nilfgaard Empire — and everyone is choosing sides.

Except for Geralt of Rivia. He’s a witcher, one of the few remaining monster killers. His job is killing, not politics.

But Geralt’s destiny is far larger than he realizes.  He and his ward, the child Ciri, are at the center of a prophecy that will change their world — and may destroy it forever.

A bit of backstory

My first encounter with the witcher world was 2015’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the third game in a series created by CD Projekt RED. It’s a great game that I still enjoy playing, but I had no idea it was based on a book series until recently.

Geralt of Rivia first appeared in a short story written by Andrzej Sapkowksi and submitted to the Polish science fiction and fantasy magazine Fantastyka. Sapkowksi expanded the world with dozens of short stories and published his first novel, Blood of Elves, in 1994. The first Witcher game was released in 2007, and Blood of Elves was translated and released in America in 2009.

I’m an enormous fantasy fan, and loved every second of The Witcher 3. The way the game itself works and is crafted is amazing, but I also loved the characters. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if there was a way I could read more about them?

So of course I was ecstatic when I found out about Sapkowski’s short stories and novels.

Sapkowksi’s world is large and complex, and you get thrown right into the deep end from the first page; I recommend you check out How to Get Into the Witcher Novels before you dive in.

I loved this

This novel has two of my favorite things: detailed world building and fantastic characters. And it’s got both in spades.

The Continent was once a much less dangerous place. But when it collided with other planes of existence, all kinds of Bad Stuff made its way over. Normal people, even knights and warriors, were not able to keep the monsters under control and protect the people.

Thus were witchers created. Young boys (rarely girls) were taken from orphanages and ditches, trained in fighting and basic magic, and given powerful mutagens. These mutagens gave them the additional strength, reflexes, and supernatural powers necessary to defeat the things that go bump in the night.

Yet for all the good they do and people they save, witchers are considered half-monsters themselves. They recognize no laws but their own, and will dispatch a monster only if paid well enough for their trouble.

They live in a moral gray area — Geralt in the grayest of all. He’s caught between warring factions, all of which would love to have an assassin on their side. He also knows that his ward, Ciri, is more than she appears, but isn’t ready to admit just how powerful and important she is — or how vital he is to the prophecy surrounding her.

Geralt is the protagonist of Blood of Elves, but the novel is packed with many great characters — several of them female and total badasses.

Although Ciri is young (around 13 when the book opens), she’s intelligent and clearly powerful. She’s also curious, stubborn, and brave.  She’s the most truly good character in the novel.

The sorceress Yennefer is much (much) older, and much more jaded. She inhabits some of the same gray areas as Geralt, and in some ways is more of a bad guy than many of those the reader meets.

The more I read of Blood of Elves, the more I wanted to read. These characters are tough, nasty, strong, and trying to do what they think is best — either for themselves or for their world. I love seeing how they react to the situations Sapkowski throws at them.

I didn’t love this

As much as I love fantasy novels, I don’t often enjoy what seems to be their mandatory political intrigue plots. I wanted to learn more about the world, the characters, and the prophecy swirling around Ciri — not about wizards colluding with various leaders to gain more power for themselves, or how Nilfgaard is encroaching on the Northern Kingdom again.

Seriously, did we need that entire chapter with the group of wizards talking about how armies can/should/shouldn’t cross a river to fight? It all seems so meaningless when set next to a prophecy that could mean the end of the world.

Plus, it’s an election year, and I’m dealing with enough political garbage in real life. I don’t want to read it in my books.

An awesome read

I loved Blood of Elves. It’s got everything I love in a fantasy novel, and I’m so glad to get the opportunity to read the stories that inspired a game I enjoy so much.

In what turned out to be a fortuitous mistake, I actually read The Last Wish, Sapkowski’s first set of short stories, before I picked up this novel. There’s an additional set, The Sword of Destiny, that wasn’t translated until last year but is set chronologically between The Last Wish and Blood of Elves. I think reading both of those anthologies will give folks new to the world some much-needed context — I know it really helped me. Then you can hop right into the novels and enjoy them more.

Fantasy lovers and those who enjoy getting totally immersed in incredible worlds will love Sapkowski’s stuff. Go check it out right now!

(I read this book as part of the Monthly Motif Challenge. September’s challenge was to read something steampunk, science fiction, or fantasy.)

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