Review: The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin

I almost reviewed James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time on my education blog rather than here, where I mainly talk about books and other things. I consider it professional reading in addition to personal reading. However, I think I will write there more generally about the educational implications of this book and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I finished earlier this week as well.

Baldwin writes lucidly and persuasively about the oppression of African Americans in 1963. I wonder what he would make of the world we live in today. Not much seems to have changed, and Baldwin’s warnings about the dangers we face if we cannot begin to love one another, if we cannot be free, seem to be boiling over in our current political climate. One wonders if what we see around us is the last gasp of white supremacy before it is submerged finally. I hope this is true, but I cannot tell.

The structure of this book takes the form of two letters: one letter to Baldwin’s nephew on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the second letter to Americans in general. It was a little hard not to underline everything Baldwin says in the book. Not a word seems out of place or unnecessary. Like one of the best sermons or gospel songs, the entire book and every letter of every word in it is critical. Baldwin argues that Americans fear freedom and that none of us, black or white, is truly free. Baldwin could be writing about our current political movement when he says

We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels. Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster. (89)

Baldwin says that our only constants are birth, death, and love, “though we may not always think so” and “safety… or money, or power” are “chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed” (92). Clinging to safety, money, and power will result in the disappearance of “the entire hope—the entire possibility—of freedom” (92). We do have a chance if we are willing to take it.

[I]f we, who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we condemn ourselves with the truly white nations, to sterility and decay, whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are, we might bring new life to the Western achievements, and transform them. (94)

Baldwin concludes that “we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are to become a nation” (97). The way forward is through love. Radical love, which is the theme of the post I will write on my education blog if I can manage to string together my thoughts coherently. Radical love is what we need if we are going to survive, for “hatred becomes too heavy a sack to carry” (99).

Reading Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator writing about the effects of oppression on education, and Baldwin, writing about the impact of racism on human dignity, has helped me understand what happened in our recent election with a little more clarity. Some of us are afraid. The oppressed are not staying in “their place.” But as long as continue to think of each other in terms of superiority and inferiority and cannot love each other, we will none of us be free. I wish the world around us had changed since Baldwin wrote this book in 1963 and Freire wrote his in 1970, but alas, both books speak all too clearly about and to our times.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I don’t remember when I added this book to my TBR list, but I certainly wasn’t serious about moving up the list until recently. I have definitely wanted to read it since I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The title of Coates’s book comes from The Fire Next Time. I definitely want to read The Fire This Time. now.

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Review: The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas

I bought Angie Thomas’s debut novel The Hate U Give last March, and I’ve been meaning to read it ever since. It was published at the end of February last year, and the buzz around this novel has been incredible. The buzz is completely justified. This book tells an important story.

Starr Carter lives between two worlds. She goes mostly-white Williamson Prep, but she lives in Garden Heights, a neighborhood in the crosshairs of gang violence and drug abuse. Her parents send her to Williamson after one of her childhood best friends, Natasha, is killed in a drive-by shooting. As the story begins, Starr has agreed to go to a neighborhood party with her friend Kenya. She catches up with her other childhood best friend Khalil, whom she hasn’t seen in months. A fight erupts at the party, and Starr and Khalil flee the party after hearing shots. After a few moments in the car, they see the blue lights of a police car behind them. In an echo of the story that has become a refrain, the officer kills Khalil. Starr must decide how and when to speak up.

This novel is the book we need to document this moment. I don’t think I’ve ever run across a novel that captured the times we live in so well. Of course, Angie Thomas makes the point that violence against African-Americans has existed always, but what is new is the documentation of it and the awareness we see among people who were previously blind to what was happening right in front of them.

The Hate U Give

This book is wake-up call to America’s conscience. I think everyone should read it. I’d like to think we could read it again in ten or twenty years and think about the distance we have come. Like Starr, I’m not sure when things will change, but I have hope they will. I sense they will. I know I’m sometimes accused of being overly optimistic, but what does it say about us if we don’t have hope that we can change? That things can be better? For the first time, it seems like people can see and hear each other. Not everyone, but a critical mass that didn’t seem to exist before. People are not forgetting. People are remembering the names. People are using their words. Not everyone sees and hears. Yet. But books like The Hate U Give help. One thing I plan to do as a teacher is put this book into as many hands as I can.

Rating: ★★★★★

Beat the BacklistWhile this book was not on my backlist when I started the Beat the Backlist reading challenge, it has been on my backlist for a while. I’m counting it anyway—I’m not in any danger of completing the challenge with the boost this single book will give me.

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Review: Tales of the Peculiar, Ransom Riggs

Ransom Riggs’s Tales of the Peculiar is a collection of short stories presented as folklore from the peculiar world and gathered and edited by Millard Nullings, the invisible boy in his Miss Peregrine series. Each of the stories is a window into the history and beliefs of the peculiar world, including an origin story for the ymbrynes who protect peculiar children in their loops. One major theme that emerges from the stories is to accept yourself just as you are, to accept others as they are, and to avoid letting others take advantage of you or make you ashamed of being yourself.

The collection includes ten stories. Of the ten, my favorites were “The First Ymbryne,” a tale explaining how ymbrynes came to be and began creating loops; “The Woman Who Befriended Ghosts,” which was a story about a peculiar girl whose dead sister was a cherished childhood companion and who used her gift for speaking to ghosts to help people plagued by hauntings; “The Girl Who Could Tame Nightmares,” which was the story of a girl who removed people’s nightmares but discovered perhaps nightmares serve a purpose; and “The Locust,” an interesting tale of a boy whose peculiar talent is that he shapeshifts into the form of creatures who show him the most love. All of the stories were entertaining peeks back into the peculiar world. They are excellent on their own, but they are also great for fans of the Miss Peregrine series. You do not have to have read the series to enjoy the books, and they might be a great introduction to people who want to read the series and want a small taste first. Some of the stories are downright creepy, and the collection as a whole (as is true of the entire Miss Peregrine series) is perfect for the R. I. P. Challenge if you’re looking for one last book to squeeze in.

Rating: ★★★★☆

R. I. P. XII

 

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Sherlock Holmes: Charles Augustus Milverton and The Final Problem

The Final Problem
Illustration of “The Final Problem” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

I have once again fallen behind in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge, which seems to have become a refrain. In any case, I read two short stories this morning, “Charles Augustus Milverton” and “The Final Problem.” I don’t claim to know a whole lot about it, but it’s my feeling that both are among the most popular stories—I can say with certainty that the latter is.

The first story, “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,” concerns Holmes’s attempt to turn criminal himself and steal incriminating letters purchased and collected by odious master blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton. A client engages Holmes to help her negotiate with Milverton, who is threatening to divulge the contents of her letters to her fiancé, but Milverton will not accept her terms. Holmes disguises himself as a plumber and gains the confidence (and affection) of Milverton’s maid. Holmes enlists Watson to help him burgle the Milverton House, but the two are nearly discovered when Milverton enters his study right after Holmes has cracked his safe. However, Milverton has another surprise visitor that night, and the adventure doesn’t end up exactly as Holmes planned.

“The Adventure of the Final Problem” is famous for being Conan Doyle’s attempt to kill off his famous detective. Holmes is pitted against criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty, who unsuccessfully attempts to convince Holmes to stop pursuing him. Holmes meets his match in Moriarty, who will stop at nothing to defeat Holmes. After several attempts are made on Holmes’s life at the behest of Moriarty’s gang, Holmes convinces Watson to travel with him to mainland Europe, where Holmes ostensibly dies at Reichenbach Falls, taking his nemesis over the falls with him. Of course, Conan Doyle would later famously resurrect his great detective amid public outcry.

I enjoyed both of these stories quite a bit and would rank both of them among the best I’ve read. The BBC series Sherlock adapted both stories. Charles Augustus Milverton becomes Charles Augustus Magnussen, and he is played by the brilliant Lars Mikkelsen, brother of Hannibal actor Mads Mikkelsen, in the episode “His Last Vow.” Magnussen is a master blackmailer like Milverton but keeps his information locked in his “mind palace. Sherlock winds up shooting Magnussen and has a great deal of trouble getting out of being punished for the crime. I was interested to learn that Milverton was based on a real person: Charles Augustus Howell, who was an art dealer by trade and is believed to have blackmailed many of his former friends. Of course, Sherlock adapted “The Final Problem” in one of its most popular episodes, “The Reichenbach Fall.” The episode features Sherlock faking his suicide to convince John Watson that he is dead and then going into hiding as his own Moriarty kills himself on the roof of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. Sherlock wonders for the rest of the series if Moriarty has managed to escape death and is hiding, biding his time until he can defeat Holmes for once and for all.

“Charles Augustus Milverton” Rating: ★★★★★
“The Final Problem” Rating: ★★★★★

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the thirtieth and thirty-first stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Empty House.”

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Review: Meddling Kids, Edgar Cantero

Edgar Cantero’s latest book Meddling Kids is what would happen if you mashed together Scooby DooBuffy the Vampire Slayer, the Cthulhu Mythos, the Famous Five, and the Hardy Boys. It’s a glorious postmodern pastiche of teen detective mysteries and Lovecraftian horror along with a dash of bananapants comedy.

In 1977, the Blyton Summer Detective Club—Kerri, Andy, Nate, Pete, and Sean the Weimaraner—cracked their biggest case and made the papers. They nabbed Thomas X. Wickley masked as an overgrown salamander running around the creepy Deboën Mansion and trying to find Damian Deboën’s gold mine. And he would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for… well, you know.

Underneath the news story, however, lay a secret. Wickley was more than happy to spend 13 years in prison if it meant being safe from whatever was in that house. The meddling kids themselves were never the same either. Brainiac Kerri, set on a path to become a biologist, drifts from one low-paying job to the next. Andy is wanted in Texas and has done prison time. Nate is locked away in Arkham Asylum in Massachusetts. And Pete has committed suicide. Knowing their unfinished business will follow them for the rest of their lives if they don’t return to Blyton Hills and the Deboën Mansion and confront the evil lurking in its halls, Andy gathers the gang back together, including their dog Sean’s great-grandson Tim, and the group heads back to Blyton Hills to solve their biggest case once and for all.

This book is drawing a lot of comparisons to Scooby Doo, including my own, and while it’s an homage to the show, it has its separate charms. It’s hilarious in some parts, and the self-awareness with which Cantero writes is a lot of fun. I enjoyed the notion that there are real monsters out there, not just men in masks, and the last fifty pages or so of the novel were a breakneck climax with some surprising twists.

I had a lot of fun with this book. It’s a perfect selection for the R. I. P. Challenge. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who loved teen mystery shows like Scooby Doo (which is still a favorite of mine, even as an adult).

Rating: ★★★★★

R. I. P. XII

 

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Review: The Hearts We Sold, Emily Lloyd-Jones

Emily Lloyd-Jones’s novel The Hearts We Sold is probably not a book I’d have picked up on my own, but it shipped in my last Owl Crate. I read the book’s cover blurb and realized it would be perfect for theR. I. P. Challenge, so I dove in.

The Hearts We Sold is the story of Dee Moreno, a student at a boarding school in Portland, Oregon. Dee discovers that the school doesn’t have the funds to continue her scholarship, and knowing her parents, abusive and neglectful alcoholics, will never give her the money she needs to keep attending school, she finds herself willing to try something desperate. So she makes a deal with a demon. She trades her heart to him for two years in exchange for money to attend school. But her deal comes with a price—she must help him wage a war against strange monsters appearing in voids. Dee befriends the other members of the demon’s other “heartless” gang, but she quickly realizes that she has chosen a dangerous path, and she might have more to lose than her heart.

This book kept me turning pages. I think it’s intended teen audience would enjoy it. It’s honest, and it includes some diversity in its cast, including a lesbian character and a transgender character; however, they aren’t exactly major characters. Dee shows strength in dealing with her family’s problems, but her parents are bit one-dimensional, and it bugged me for some reason that the author referred to them, when she named them, as Mr. Moreno and Mrs. Moreno. It felt like they didn’t have any identities. I think I would even have preferred something like “her father” or “her mother.” Probably it wouldn’t bother most people. I’m noticing a trend in YA fiction in which it seems secondary characters (at least, usually secondary) have to be quirky in ways that don’t seem important or maybe don’t make sense. For example, Dee’s roommate not only has the odd name Gremma, but she also vivisects her teddy bears because she’s interested in medicine. That makes no sense to me because vivisecting teddy bears won’t help anyone learn anything about anatomy. I could see it if she were dissecting animals or something, but perhaps that was a bit too gross. I guess this trend just reminds me too much of the “manic pixie dream girl” thing that ran rampant in movies a few years back. I do like the fairy tale allusions and there were some other fun surprises along the way, too. The book was a fun diversion, though, and if anyone’s looking for something new to read for the R. I. P. Challenge, you might check it out.

Rating: ★★★★☆

I am counting this book as my second selection for this year’s R. I. P. Challenge.

R. I. P. XII

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Sherlock Holmes: Three Short Stories

The Red-Headed League
Illustration of “The Red-Headed League” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

After school started again, I fell a bit behind in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge, in part because I needed to finish our all-school summer reading book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. As of today, I’m all caught up, having read “The Copper Beeches” and “The Red-Headed League.” I had read “The Blue Carbuncle” some time back but neglected to blog about it.

“The Blue Carbuncle” takes place at Christmas and involves the loss of a large, blue jewel. An innocent man is accused of stealing the jewel. After the jewel is found in the crop of a Christmas goose (geese don’t have crops, by the way), Holmes deduces how the theft was carried out and by whom.

In “The Copper Beeches,” a young woman consults Holmes over whether she should accept a governess job that seems too good to be true. The pay is three times as high as typical pay, but she will need to cut off her long chestnut hair, wear a blue dress, and sit in a window. Discomfited by the odd requests, but attracted by the pay, the client retains Holmes’s help after finding a hidden room in an unused wing of the house.

“The Red-Headed League” is the story of a mysterious beneficence offered to redheaded men in exchange for light work four hours a day. Jabez Wilson consults Holmes after showing up for this work only to see a cardboard sign indicating the League has been dissolved. Holmes quickly deduces that Wilson has been taken in and that a more serious crime is about to take place.

All three of these stories are classics, frequently filmed or otherwise anthologized. I enjoyed all three. It had been a long time since I had read them. All three are excellent examples of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at the height of his mystery-writing powers. If forced to pick a favorite of the three, I’d say “The Copper Beeches” for its atmosphere.

None of the three is explicitly the focus of any BBC Sherlock episodes on their own, but the deduction competition in the episode “The Empty Hearse” has a phrenology reference similar to the one in “The Blue Carbuncle.” Other than that minor reference, I can’t recall any references to either “The Copper Beeches” or “The Red-Headed League” in the series.

“The Blue Carbuncle” Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Copper Beeches” Rating: ★★★★★
“The Red-Headed League” Rating: ★★★★½

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the twenty-seventh, twenty-eighth, and twenty-ninth stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “Charles Augustus Milverton.”

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Review: The Secret History of Twin Peaks, Mark Frost

I was a big fan of the series Twin Peaks, which I watched faithfully each week until some time into the second season, after which I felt the series took a nosedive (I did ultimately watch all the episodes at some point last year). I read Laura Palmer’s secret diary (and wished I hadn’t). I watched Fire Walk With Me (and wished I hadn’t). When it was announced that the series would return, I was excited because I thought I’d have some answers about what, exactly, was going on. Well, if you watched Twin Peaks: The Return, maybe you liked it. Maybe after it was over, all you could think was “WTF did I just watch?” (That was me, by the way.) I think I did like parts of it, but in general, I can’t really recommend it because I felt it dropped too many threads and didn’t resolve much of anything. I was so frustrated by the ending of the series, that I decided to read Mark Frost’s book, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, hoping it might offer some answer. I also decided I would check it out of the library rather than buy it because I had a feeling it wouldn’t be something I’d need to own. I have to say that it did explain the series a bit, but not enough.

The book presents itself as a dossier compiled by a “mysterious” person the FBI refers to as “the Archivist.” No one who has watched the series will likely be surprised by the Archivist’s identity, but they might be surprised by a few of the revelations the book offers. Recorded weirdness in the area near Twin Peaks dates all the way back to Lewis and Clark, and the book implicates everything and everyone in this weirdness, from aliens and UFOs, the Air Force, Richard Nixon, Jack Parsons, L. Ron Hubbard, Aleister Crowley, the Masons, the Illuminati, the Nez Perce and Chief Joseph, and Douglas Milford, who you may remember married a young siren named Lana in the original series and died on his wedding night—it’s strongly implied sex with Lana did poor Dougie in. However, much of the series still remains unexplained. Frost has another book coming out on Halloween, and perhaps this final tome will put the mysteries to bed, but I am starting to feel about the Twin Peaks franchise the same way I feel about Anne Rice.

Let me explain.

I really loved Interview with the Vampire. I rushed right out and read the rest of the Vampire Chronicles that had been published at the time. I also loved The Vampire Lestat. I didn’t love The Queen of the Damned, but when I enjoyed The Tale of the Body Thief, I decided maybe The Queen of the Damned was a fluke. Then came the others. MerrickThe Vampire ArmandMemnoch the Devil (which remains the only book I’ve thrown across the room). I couldn’t finish Blackwood Farm. I decided maybe I should quit Anne Rice because I was disappointed time and time again. But then I’d give her another chance. Finally, I gave Prince Lestat a chance, and it was just bloody awful. I kept trying because I kept hoping Rice would return to the storytelling I enjoyed in the first few books I read, but after being disappointed time and again, I was forced to conclude that I should quit Anne Rice. And I was a big fan. I used to check her fan website for news nearly every day in 1995 or thereabouts.

I won’t give too much away because part of the fun of reading this “dossier” is discovering the creepy history of Twin Peaks and trying to figure out how some of the events in Twin Peaks: The Return fit in. For example, this crazy episode. No, it still doesn’t make complete sense, but it makes a little more sense after I read this book. Also, some of the characters’ histories, ret-conned or no, definitely take on more significance than they appeared to have in the original series. The book also has some inconsistencies, both internally and connected to the series. I always find it frustrating when that happens. The book definitely goes in a more X-Files direction than the original series did.

Honestly, some of the episodes of Twin Peaks, both the original series and The Return, remain some of the creepiest things I’ve seen on TV, and for my money, villains don’t come much scarier than the ones you find on Twin Peaks. But I admit my patience with the franchise may be at an end—not that it’s clear that Lynch and Frost plan to continue.

So am I going to give Twin Peaks another chance with this book on Halloween? Probably. I mean, I still have too many questions about what the hell I watched this summer. But let’s just say I’ll be wary of anything else that comes down the pike if this next book disappoints as much as the series. And as I did with this book, I’ll be checking it out of the library. I’m wary to say the least.

Rating: ★★★☆☆


R. I. P. XIII am counting this book as my first selection for this year’s R. I. P. Challenge, as I found it sufficiently creepy (just like the series) to be an R. I. P. read.

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Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

My school’s Upper School read this summer was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I initially picked this book up some years ago, but something interrupted my reading, so I wasn’t able to finish it. I had always wanted to go back and finish it, so I was glad of an opportunity.

If you are not familiar with the book (though probably most people are by now), it’s the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family (as well as how Rebecca Skloot obtained Henrietta’s story). Henrietta Lacks was a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. She had cervical cancer. Her doctor excised tissue samples including both normal cells and cancer cells. Her cancer cells, known to science as HeLa, became the first immortal cell line. It has been used to create the polio vaccine, and also conduct research in AIDS, various forms of cancer, and innumerable other projects. Henrietta Lacks’s family, however, did not know about the research done with her cells, nor did they benefit monetarily from their use. This book explores not only the story of Henrietta Lacks’s contribution to science but also the ethical dilemma introduced by lack of informed consent, as well as racism and poverty.

This book raises some interesting questions. I found it fascinating. I love reading about people’s stories. However, the story, in this case, is in the hands of a white woman who is no part of the Lacks family. Some have argued she blurred the line of objectivity toward one’s subject in how close she became with the Lacks family, particularly Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. I have also heard others argue that Skloot took advantage of the Lacks family as much as Johns Hopkins did. I would argue she was not going to obtain the story without blurring that line, and it’s also possible that family members would not have been able to tell the story without Skloot’s interest and help. Still, it’s an important consideration in terms of what happened to Henrietta Lacks’s cells. The cells are outside of the control of the family, and many argue that it’s too hard to figure out how to compensate the Lacks family, who have struggled in poverty and often (ironically) without health insurance. Anyone can order a vial of HeLa cells online, but the Lacks family receives no part of the profits on those sales. HeLa cells have benefited humanity tremendously, and a great deal of good has come from the research done with them, but very little consideration has ever been given to her family. For instance, Henrietta Lacks’s genome was released a few years ago, though it was later withdrawn after the Lacks family voiced concerns about privacy. In this era, when information like that is out there, it’s impossible to put back in the bottle. Henrietta Lacks’s medical records have also been released. It’s a shame the Lacks family has been treated the way it has, and though it’s hard to say whether or not the treatment would have been different had she been a white woman with the means to pay for her healthcare, my personal belief is that her race and class played a role in how she and her family were treated. It’s still true that once tissue is excised from our bodies, it is no longer considered ours, and doctors and scientists can do whatever they like with it. I suspect that will change some time down the road, but right now, case law says we do not own our tissue once it’s no longer part of our body. Think of all the times you may have had blood drawn, or a biopsy. Or even signed up for 23 and Me or a similar DNA site. In fact, the agreement you make with 23 and Me is that your DNA can be used for research, and you don’t get your results about family, ancestry, or health information without making that agreement.

This books definitely exposes interesting ethical issues in science and medicine, and it finally tells the story of the woman behind the HeLa cell line, and I think both stories needed to be told. I really enjoyed reading the book. It raised a lot of questions and made me think.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I am counting this book for the Backlist Reader Challenge, as I have been meaning to go back and read it after starting it years ago. This time, I started over at the beginning rather than pick up where I left off, which turned out to have been a good idea since I read the book quite some time ago.

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R. I. P. Challenge XII

R. I. P. XIIIt’s my favorite time of year again. Fall, and the R. I. P. Challenge! I am late signing up because I didn’t realize that the challenge had permanently been transferred to Estella’s Revenge. You can access the sign-up post through this link.

I don’t really know what I want to read yet. I have a few ideas, as I have been thinking about books for the challenge, but as usual, I don’t really want to commit to titles because I like the flexibility of grabbing something that interests me.

I am going, as usual, with Peril the First: “Read four books, any length, that you feel fit (our very broad definitions) of R. I. P. literature. It could be Stephen King or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Shirley Jackson or Tananarive Due … or anyone in between.”

I don’t believe I will participate in the group read.

Who is with me?

 

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