Review: Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald

Review: Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. GreenwaldBlindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji, Anthony G. Greenwald
Published by Bantam ISBN: 0345528433
on August 16, 2016
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 272
Format: Paperback
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three-half-stars

I know my own mind. I am able to assess others in a fair and accurate way.

These self-perceptions are challenged by leading psychologists Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald as they explore the hidden biases we all carry from a lifetime of exposure to cultural attitudes about age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexuality, disability status, and nationality.

"Blindspot" is the authors’ metaphor for the portion of the mind that houses hidden biases. Writing with simplicity and verve, Banaji and Greenwald question the extent to which our perceptions of social groups—without our awareness or conscious control—shape our likes and dislikes and our judgments about people’s character, abilities, and potential.

In Blindspot, the authors reveal hidden biases based on their experience with the Implicit Association Test, a method that has revolutionized the way scientists learn about the human mind and that gives us a glimpse into what lies within the metaphoric blindspot.

The title’s “good people” are those of us who strive to align our behavior with our intentions. The aim of Blindspot is to explain the science in plain enough language to help well-intentioned people achieve that alignment. By gaining awareness, we can adapt beliefs and behavior and “outsmart the machine” in our heads so we can be fairer to those around us. Venturing into this book is an invitation to understand our own minds.

Brilliant, authoritative, and utterly accessible, Blindspot is a book that will challenge and change readers for years to come.

I read this book along with other administrators and department chairs at my school. While I think it covers an interesting topic well, it’s nothing new to folks who have read The New Jim Crow or who have been engaged in learning and reading about issues of social justice. The book’s real value is in the Implicit Attitude Tests (IAT). These tests are very interesting and typically reveal that we have preferences for people who exhibit the dominant or so-called “default” attribute—white people/black people; thin people/overweight people; young people/old people; non-Muslim/Muslim; male/female. In most instances, even people who share characteristics of the non-dominant group will show implicit bias toward the dominant. For example, many would associate men more with work and women more with the home. Still. There are several tests you can take, and the results are really interesting.

Weirdly, the test revealed I have a preference for black people over white people. I have no idea how to explain this because my results should have demonstrated a preference for white people, especially since I am among that group. Even African Americans who take the test often demonstrate a preference for white people. I was sure I had done the test wrong or “gamed” it somehow. I took it three times. Each time, the result was the same, no matter whether I used paper/pencil, an iPad, or a computer. I just took it again for the fourth time. Same result. Always a moderate or slight preference for African Americans over European Americans. I don’t know what’s up with the result. I’m not disappointed or upset about it, but I am surprised because I expected the IAT to reveal a different result. I have a lot of questions about how malleable the brain is. We are hardwired to categorize and to stereotype because it helped keep us safe when we were developing as a species. Strange “others” were often dangerous. I have done a great deal of work on trying to root out racism. I am not perfect, but I have put in a lot of effort to be better. Has the work I have done in this area changed my brain? I was not raised to be non-racist. It’s a sad fact, but it’s true. I had to work very hard to root out explicit bias, so I really expected more of an implicit bias to remain. And in some of the tests, my results revealed an automatic preference for a dominant group. I could stand to lose a few pounds for sure, and my test revealed I have a preference for thin people over overweight people. I demonstrated an automatic preference for non-Muslims over Muslims. The key, as the authors note in the book, is not to beat yourself up because you have automatic preferences you didn’t realize you had—instead, realize you have them and actively work against them. Even the authors admit they have automatic preferences for the “dominant” group when they take the test.

I take issue with the authors’ assertion in Appendix 2:

Explicit bias is infrequent; implicit bias is pervasive. Appendix 1 presented the evidence that early twenty-first century Americans display low levels of explicit (overt) race prejudice in survey studies. This is a well-documented and striking reduction from the overt expressions of prejudice that were commonplace in studies done fifty to seventy-five years previously. (208)

Okay, I know the authors are at Harvard, in the so-called “People’s Republic of Cambridge,” but really? They think explicit bias is infrequent? They must not be on Facebook or Twitter. True, the tiki torches came out in Charlottesville after this book was published, but Donald Trump was campaigning on his hateful rhetoric when the paperback came out. I don’t know where the authors are looking, but I see overt racial prejudice everywhere. I agree implicit bias is pervasive.

Our discussion of the book this morning was rich and interesting. I suppose the main reason this book didn’t earn more stars from me was the fact that much of the information revealed wasn’t new to me, and perhaps that is why the book felt repetitive. This book might be best for people who are just beginning to explore issues of social justice, or for people who haven’t explored it at all.

three-half-stars

Review: Sky in the Deep, Adrienne Young

Review: Sky in the Deep, Adrienne YoungSky in the Deep by Adrienne Young
Published by Wednesday Books ISBN: 1250168457
on April 24, 2018
Genres: Fantasy/Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
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three-half-stars

OND ELDR. BREATHE FIRE.

Raised to be a warrior, seventeen-year-old Eelyn fights alongside her Aska clansmen in an ancient rivalry against the Riki clan. Her life is brutal but simple: fight and survive. Until the day she sees the impossible on the battlefield—her brother, fighting with the enemy—the brother she watched die five years ago.

Faced with her brother's betrayal, she must survive the winter in the mountains with the Riki, in a village where every neighbor is an enemy, every battle scar possibly one she delivered. But when the Riki village is raided by a ruthless clan thought to be a legend, Eelyn is even more desperate to get back to her beloved family.

She is given no choice but to trust Fiske, her brother’s friend, who sees her as a threat. They must do the impossible: unite the clans to fight together, or risk being slaughtered one by one. Driven by a love for her clan and her growing love for Fiske, Eelyn must confront her own definition of loyalty and family while daring to put her faith in the people she’s spent her life hating.

I received a signed first edition of this book in my Owl Crate box subscription. The cover and premise of the book intrigued me. Sky in the Deep is unusual in that its Viking-inspired setting and warrior heroine aren’t often found in YA fantasy. The book’s trailer does a good job capturing the setting, the real star of the novel:

The egalitarian society Adrienne Young describes in the book is one of its more interesting aspects. Women and men both can be warriors, healers, spiritual leaders. Eelyn, the novel’s heroine, is a warrior, and based on descriptions of her prowess, a pretty good one. Despite a lot of wishful thinking, I believe the jury is still out on the extent to which shieldmaidens were a real thing in the Viking era, though a quick glance at Norse myth supports the idea at least in part. I liked the Riki characters Eelyn winds up living with, but one can’t help cry foul over the Stockholm syndrome. I’m not sure how healthy it is for YA books to continue with the trope of the woman who falls in love with someone who captures and in this case, abuses the protagonist—he has his blacksmith fit her with a slave’s collar. Fiske never emerges as very interesting to me anyway; though he’s written in that swoony way you see in a lot of YA fiction, it’s not overdone (to the author’s credit). I loved that the author didn’t try to make the reader fall in love with Fiske.

In any case, the book is a quick, fun read. Be warned: it’s pretty violent. Young doesn’t flinch from describing this warrior culture in full detail. Many of the names—both people and places—come from Old Norse and are still in use today. In searching out some of the names in the book, I stumbled on the author’s Pinterest board for inspiration. Of course, now I’m looking for it to link it, I can’t find it again. I halfway wonder if she’s made it private in the days since I found it. I am not sure why, but discovering that Pinterest board of inspirational images utterly charmed me.

This book is different from typical YA in many ways, and it’s easy to keep turning the pages, and though the plot unwinds in a fairly predictable fashion, the ride isn’t any less fun. I probably would have loved it had I read it as a teen, and given that is who the audience is, it’s worth giving it a try if you’re in that demographic. If you’re not, you still might enjoy it.

Though it might be more accurate to describe this book as Viking-inspired fantasy, I’m still going to count it as historical fiction also because I think it fits that genre, even if the story is not strictly based on true historical events. For the Literary Voyage Challenge, I’m settling on Norway as a setting.

 

 

three-half-stars

Sherlock Holmes: Caught Up

Dancing Men Cipher
AM HERE ABE SLANEY Cipher by Sidney Paget for The Strand

I’m all caught up on the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. I read “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange,” “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” and “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman” over the last week.

“The Abbey Grange” involves one of the sharper murder schemes in the series. When Sir Eustace Brackenstall turns up dead, no one much laments, and Inspector Hopkins thinks the notorious Randall Gang might be behind it. But Holmes, as usual, notices a few things that everyone else has missed and puts the pieces together.

In “The Devil’s Foot” Watson thinks he and Holmes are in for some rest and relaxation in Cornwall, but instead find themselves confronting a grisly scene. Three members of the Tregennis family are found sitting around their table. One of them is dead, and the other two are mad. What could have caused it? Obviously not the devil, but that’s how it looks… at first.

In “The Dancing Men,” probably one of the more famous Sherlock Holmes stories, Mr. Hilton Cubitt approaches Holmes with a mystery: several notes with stick figure men. Surely, they are only childish drawings… except they horrify his wife, who has expressly forbidden Cubitt from asking about her past. Holmes solves the cipher to determine why Mrs. Cubitt feels threatened, but he arrives too late to save his client from the menace behind the coded messages.

In “The Retired Colourman” Josiah Amberley hires Holmes to investigate his wife’s disappearance. He accuses his wife of eloping with a friend of his and making off with a great deal of money in cash and securities. Holmes naturally smells a rat and enlists Watson to dupe Amberley so that he can do some investigating on his own.

BBC’s Sherlock alludes to “The Dancing Men” in two episodes. Ciphers feature in “The Blind Banker,” and the “AM HERE ABE SLANEY” cipher appears on a chalkboard at the end of “The Final Problem” episode. I didn’t notice any other references to these other stories in the series.

“The Abbey Grange”  Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Devil’s Foot” Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Dancing Men” Rating: ★★★★★
“The Retired Colourman” Rating: ★★★½☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the 44th, 45th, 46th, and 47th stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “Thor Bridge.”

Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Illustration for The Sign of Four from The Bristol Observer

The Sign of Four is the third novel and the nineteenth story in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. This novel introduces Watson’s future wife, Mary Morstan and develops Sherlock Holmes’s cocaine addiction.

Mary Morstan seeks Sherlock Holmes’s help after receiving a mysterious message from a stranger. The stranger has sent her single pearls from a great treasure and promises that her wealth will be even greater if she agrees to meet with him. Holmes agrees that she should go, and he and Watson decide to accompany her. They arrive at the house of the eccentric Thaddeus Sholto, the son of Major Sholto, who served with Mary’s father in India. However, Thaddeus Sholto’s timing in contacting Mary couldn’t have been better, as his brother Bartholomew is mysteriously killed that evening, and it looks like only Sherlock Holmes can prove Thaddeus Sholto’s innocence and solve the case of their father’s missing treasure that Thaddeus promised he and his brother had found and had agreed to share with Mary. In the meantime, Holmes must deal with bungling police officers and Watson’s infatuation with their client as well as a slippery duo he believes has absconded with the treasure.

This novel was better than both A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear, which I previously read for this challenge. Both of those novels suffered from Conan Doyle’s lack of understanding of America and Americans, though it’s also true that this novel suffers from his lack of understanding of India. I’m sure for his era, he might even have been progressive, but I can’t help but notice the racism when he writes about India, and it’s come up a few times in the stories so far. His depiction of Tonga, the Andaman Islands native who blows poison darts in attempts to kill (sometimes successfully) is particularly problematic, though his depiction of Jonathan Small’s confederates, the others that comprise the “Four” of the novel’s title, is not much better. It might just be me, but this kind of story seems to be one that Conan Doyle writes with some frequency: a mysterious missing treasure from an exotic locale, terrible murder, conspiracy, all bound together. For its type, this novel is a decent one, and it was a fairly quick read.

There are several references to The Sign of Four in the BBC Sherlock series. The episode “The Sign of Three” in which Mary Morstan and John Watson marry is the most obvious. Major James Sholto, a character in the episode, had been Watson’s commander in Afghanistan and had been the subject of death threats. At one point, someone does try to kill him by means of a stiletto blade, which might be meant to remind the viewer of the blow darts. In addition, the feeling that things will change between Sherlock and Watson because of his marriage is palpable at the end of both the episode and the novel. The references to A.G.R.A. turn out not to be treasure, but Mary’s true identity as an assassin, which Sherlock discovers in “His Last Vow.” She is the “R” in the initials, and she believes that the other three had been killed, which is similar to Jonathan Small’s notion that the other three members of his treasure confederacy will not be able to access it because they are imprisoned for life. Bill Wiggins is also alluded to in “His Last Vow,” though in that episode he is a drug addict rather than the leader of the Baker Street Irregulars. In the episode “The Six Thatchers,” someone is trying to track down an A.G.R.A. memory stick like Mary’s, and she discovers that one of her former colleagues did not actually die and is angry with Mary for leaving him behind.

In all, the story is probably essential for its introduction of John Watson’s love interest, but I honestly like what the BBC series has done with the story more than the actual Conan Doyle story itself. I do remember The Hound of the Baskervilles being my favorite of the Sherlock Holmes novels. I haven’t read it in years, but based on my memory and the re-reading of the other three Holmes novels, my mind hasn’t changed. I actually think Conan Doyle does better with the short story format, which explains why the bulk of the Sherlock Holmes adventures are written in that format.

Rating: ★★★½☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge

I read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is nineteenth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is Silver Blaze.”

Review: The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee, Stewart Lee Allen

The description of Stewart Lee Allen’s book The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee would have prospective readers believe that Allen was on a quest to answer two big questions: “Did the advent of coffee give birth to an enlightened western civilization?” and “Is coffee, indeed, the substance that drives history?” I’m not really sure either question was answered, but I did learn a few things about coffee, and I was entertained.

Allen begins his journey in Harar, Ethiopia, said to be the birthplace of coffee.As he claims partway through the book, “Coffee and humanity both sprang from the same area in eastern Africa.” Next Allen treks through Yemen, Turkey, Austria, France, and from there to Brazil and finally across America on Route 66, following the course of coffee-loving mystics and adventurers and the coffee plant itself. It’s a little bit like what might happen if you put Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in a blender. It wasn’t what I was expecting, which was more a straight history of coffee, and though there was some history, it was equally Allen’s memoir of his trek around the world in search of coffee’s history.

However, I did learn a few things, such as why coffee dominates in America and tea in Britain (it really has a lot to do with the American Revolution and the Opium Wars), how coffee houses have fomented revolution, and about coffee’s origins among Sufi mystics. For a self-professed coffee fanatic, Allen holds some surprising views. For instance, he doesn’t rag on Starbucks like most coffee snobs I know. Instead he says:

Sure, they’re a megacorporation destroying hundreds of mom-and-pop cafés. But that’s just something large corporations do. The important thing is that they serve fine coffee. Their baristas are generally first-rate.

 

I actually really like Starbucks, but a lot of people don’t describe their coffee as “fine.” I realize that’s partly because it’s really uncool to like anything that’s popular. Hipsters seem bent on making everyone unhappy about liking anything. I am admittedly not a real coffee aficionado, so perhaps that explains why Starbucks and Dunkin and the like taste good to me. I am also not a hipster—not even close.

This was entertaining, quick read, and most of all, it was fun to read with a nice cup of coffee in the morning, but if you’re looking for the straight history that the book’s title suggests, look elsewhere.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I’m counting this book as the “object you might hunt for” for the Wild Goose Chase Challenge because, not only because Allen spends a lot of the book hunting for various types of coffee and stories about coffee’s history and travels, but also because I have sure spent time on a quest for a good cup of coffee on occasion, myself.

Review: 13 Rue Thérèse, Elena Mauli Shapiro

I found a copy of Elena Mauli Shapiro’s novel 13 Rue Thérèse at a used bookstore in Northampton, MA, where we spent my birthday weekend last year. As such, I suppose this book was a birthday present for myself. I loved the cover, and in flipping through the book, I was intrigued by the premise.

An American historian named Trevor Stratton is given a box of artifacts belonging to a woman named Louise Brunet, who lived at 13 Rue Thérèse in Paris with her husband Henri after World War I. He discovers through piecing together her story that she lost a cousin with whom she was in love and whom she wanted to marry in World War I. She married a man who worked in her father’s shop, and she was desperate for a child. She embarks on a flirtation with a new neighbor, a teacher, who surprises Louise by taking her up on her suggestions. Meanwhile, Trevor can’t explain why he knows things about Louise’s life that don’t appear in the artifacts. How can he know, for example, so intimately how Louise feels and what she does as she goes about her life in Paris in November 1928?

This book is based on an interesting idea. Shapiro apparently has a box of relics belonging to a real-life Louise Brunet who died alone. The landlord of 13 Rue Thérèse allowed the residents to claim her belongings, and Shapiro’s mother selected this box. From the artifacts in the box, Shapiro constructed this story. I’m not sure how I feel about her taking that kind of license with a real person’s life, especially when so much of the story is speculation and doesn’t necessarily cast Louise in a positive light. She is a likable character, but I wonder what her descendants, had she had any, would have thought about her fictional treatment. There is a time-travel element that is not quite gracefully handled as well. One wonders about the necessity of including Trevor Stratton at all. His story seems somewhat superfluous, perhaps because it isn’t woven into Louise’s story as seamlessly as it might be. I love a good time travel story, but I wonder if this book might not have been better as strictly historical fiction. In addition, I would have liked to have seen the plot hang together a bit more tightly.

Despite some flaws, I didn’t give up on it, and it was a very quick read, if not a gripping one. I think in the case of this particular book, I am probably just not the right audience because many reviewers seem to have liked it more than I did. The QR codes in the back of the book are a nice touch; they allow the reader to see higher resolution photos of the artifacts. I found the color images in the book sufficient. The book is a beautiful book, as well, with a gorgeous cover and thick creamy pages and a pleasant font. It isn’t quite like any other book I’ve read before. You might enjoy it if you like quirky French films.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I’m counting this book for several reading challenges. It’s Paris setting makes it my French book for the European Reading Challenge. I’ve had it on my backlist at least since September when I bought it, so I’m also counting it for the Beat the Backlist Reading Challenge. Finally, it is set mainly in 1928, so I’m also counting it for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

European Reading Challenge 2017 Beat the Backlist

Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Valley of Fear
Illustration for The Valley of Fear by Frank Wiles for The Strand

The Valley of Fear is the second Sherlock Holmes novel I’ve read for the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. Holmes and Watson receive a strange message in cipher and divine that it reads “some devilry is intended against one Douglas,” the wealthy owner of Birlstone Manor in Kent. Sure enough, Inspector Macdonald turns up and tells the dynamic duo that Douglas has been murdered. Holmes is sure his nemesis Professor Moriarty is involved. Holmes and Watson travel to Kent to investigate, and Holmes quickly deduces that, as usual, the local constabulary has overlooked some important details and that there is a great deal more going on in the case than the murder of the gentleman of Kent. And also as usual, he’s right. Douglas’s murder is at the center of the Pinkertons’ infiltration of the Scowrers, a murderous gang affiliated with the Eminent Order of Freemen, a union/fraternal order that is somewhat harmless is some areas of the country, but which has a stranglehold on the Vermissa Valley in California. In the denouement, Holmes is more convinced than ever that Moriarty is at the heart of even this far-flung criminal organization.

I find myself perplexed again by this novel’s placement in the chronology adopted. I know I have mentioned this issue several times, but it feels so clearly late that it doesn’t seem right here; however, I should mention that in this novel’s case, there’s nothing to put my finger on really except writing style, and that’s explained by Conan Doyle’s having written it later. I enjoyed it more than I thought, especially after I caught wind that Conan Doyle was once again going to try to set part of the novel in America. My previous experience is that he doesn’t really understand Americans all that well. This novel, however, didn’t betray the usual issues (inaccurate dialect, being chief among them). It’s also based on the true case of Pinkerton agent James McParland’s infiltration of the Molly Maguires. Perhaps it’s the additional research Conan Doyle did that lends more of air of authenticity to the story. Once again, however, I found the parts of the story set in England to be far more interesting. Conan Doyle is clearly interested in America, but he writes more engagingly about his own home soil.

The only mention of this novel I found in the Sherlock series is in “The Final Problem” episode, in which Moriarty’s brother is described as being a station master, though in this case a broadcast station and not a railway station. I wouldn’t put this book as up there among the essential or the best, but it wasn’t bad. I found a few passages earlier in the book that I enjoyed, and this one the most, as it captures the characters in a way so many adaptations don’t seem to capture:

I believe that I am one of the most long-suffering of mortals; but I’ll admit that I was annoyed at the sardonic interruption. “Really, Holmes,” said I severely, “you are a little trying at times.”

Tell me you couldn’t hear Martin Freeman saying that to Benedict Cumberbatch.

Rating: ★★★½☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is fifteenth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition) and second novel. Next up is “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

Review: The House Between Tides, Sarah Maine

Sarah Maine’s novel The House Between Tides begins with a mystery. Hetty Deveraux (which feels too much like a name only a novel character would have) travels to a remote manse belonging to her ancestors and discovers a body has been found under the floorboards. Hetty soon finds herself untangling a century-old murder as she tries to determine what to do about Muirlan House—tear it down and try to preserve the island’s unique character, as the inhabitants of Muirlan Island think best, or renovate it into a resort hotel as her partner Giles urges her to do. Meanwhile, Hetty becomes curious about her ancestors. The island had once been the inspiration and refuge of her great-grandmother Emily’s brother Theo Blake, a famed painter. Hetty discovers that Theo’s wife deserted him under mysterious circumstances, and she begins to fear she knows whose bones were found underneath the floorboards of Muirlan House. Meanwhile Beatrice Blake, Theo’s wife, tells her story in flashbacks. The the stories of two women, living a century apart, link inextricably with family secrets and a crumbling ancestral home in the space between them.

I have to admit this book was a slow starter for me, even with the discovery of a body under the floorboards. Maine does a great job of creating the atmosphere of Muirlan Island in the Outer Hebrides, a remote and unforgiving landscape that nonetheless lures both Hetty and Beatrice with its fierce beauty. Once the story gets going, however, it’s pretty good. Some aspects of the plot were a little easier to guess than others, and the unraveling of the mysteries that lay buried for so many years made for a satisfying ending. However, I was a good third of the way through the book and contemplating giving up on it before it started to capture my interest. I enjoyed the rest of the book. The parallels between Hetty and Beatrice were interesting, and the family secrets intrigued me enough to persevere through some of the parts that dragged. I have seen some reviewers claim not to have enjoyed the parts set in 2010 with Hetty, but I actually found them more interesting because the discovery of the body as well as Hetty’s conflicted feelings about her partner and his plans for her ancestral home were intriguing to me. I love historical fiction, and at first, I found Beatrice’s story the less interesting of the two. However, as I kept reading, Beatrice grew on me. The book is compared to Daphne Du Maurier’s atmospheric writing, which is a shame because few writers can create a brooding setting like Du Maurier, and anyone suffers by comparison. I think I need to stop having such high expectations of anyone whose work is compared to Du Maurier’s. Still, it was a good read, and the setting was well drawn, if perhaps the characters were not always—I found the minor characters very difficult to keep straight, and the family trees impossible. I also found parts of the story frustrating as I hoped Maine was going somewhere with a thread that was never quite woven in well enough.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I am counting this book toward the following reading challenges:

Beat the BacklistI am counting this book for the Beat the Backlist Challenge. This book has been on my Kindle since last September, but I didn’t start reading it until recently. It was published in 2016, and therefore meets the challenge’s qualification of being released before 2017. I read this on my Kindle, but Goodreads says the paperback version has 400 pages, which is the equivalent of 40 points for Ravenclaw, and posting this review should net 50 more points for a total of 90.

Because about half the book takes place in 1910, I’m also counting it for the Historical Fiction Challenge. In addition, Sarah Maine is a British writer, so this book counts towards the British Books Challenge.

British Books Challenge

Finally, as the book is set in Scotland, part of the UK, it also counts as part of the European Reading Challenge, though this is the only UK book that will count toward the challenge.

European Reading Challenge 2017

Review: Faithful, Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman’s novel Faithful was released last month and arrived on my doorstep as part of my November Cozy Reader subscription box. I was reminded today that I had decided about seven years ago not to read Hoffman again, and I might not have picked up this book had it not been sent to me, but the reviews were good, and I decided to give it a shot.

Faithful is the story of Shelby Richmond, who survives an accident that puts her best friend into a coma. The novel explores Shelby’s feelings of guilt as the survivor and her subsequent search for meaning in her life as she recovers. Spanning about ten years in Shelby’s story, Faithful in particular explores Shelby’s relationships with family and friends who try to help her see that she is worthy of love and also discover her purpose in the world—”to save a small part of the world.”

I found Shelby to be a bit of a cipher. She pushed everyone away to such a degree that I found it difficult to like her myself—not that I have to like characters to enjoy a book. I do however, need to be interested in them, and it took me a while to become interested in what happened to Shelby, but by a few chapters in, I was. The present-tense storytelling didn’t work for me as a reader, though I think I understand the point in using it. It did make the story feel more immediate in some ways, but it also made it hard for me to place in time.

I’m not sure what to make of this book. I read the first chapter, and I thought it was going to the did-not-finish pile in short order, but I gave it another chance. I liked it way more than 3 stars, but I’m not sure it’s a full 4 stars for me either, even though I basically read almost all of it in a day. There were moments that were a bit wrenching for me as I lost my grandmother last month, and this book confronts the pain of loss in multiple ways, but it didn’t quite get inside me in a deep way. Perhaps it was that I never fully warmed to Shelby. I certainly felt bad for her, and I wanted her to forgive herself, but even her descriptions of what she was like before the accident made it hard for me to feel like I knew her. I felt like even as a reader, she didn’t want to let me in. Still, it looks like lots of readers are loving it, and it’s a pretty good read, though the NY Times review by Helene Wecker captures my feelings about the book well.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Review: A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler

Not too long ago, I joined Litsy, which has been described as a combination of Instagram and Goodreads. It’s not, but I guess that’s as close as it gets. I posted a picture of the books I had purchased and wondered which to start with. A commenter recommended Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread. While I’ve had some things going on and haven’t felt much like reading, it’s also true that this book only sort of half grabbed me. I picked it up because the opening pages are excellent, but they also deceived me about what the book would be.

You’ll have to forgive me. I haven’t read any of her other books, so from what I understand, this one is familiar territory for her: set in Roland Park in Baltimore, about family dynamics and the million tiny ways families disappoint one another. The Whitshank family lives in a house built by the patriarch, Junior Whitshank. His son Red and daughter-in-law Abby live in the house after the passing of Junior Whitshank and his wife (Red’s mother) Linnie Mae. Red and Abby raised their own four children in the house. The novel moves back and forth in time, beginning in the 1990’s with a phone call the Whitshanks’ son Denny makes to announce he’s gay and ending as Denny boards a train to New Jersey to see what appears to be an on-again, off-again girlfriend who is battening down the hatches for Hurricane Sandy. In between, we meet the rest of the Whitshank family and see the Whitshank grandchildren born, we go back and see Red and Abby before they started dating, and then we go further back and meet Junior and Linnie Mae both before and after they move into the house on Bouton Road.

When I say I was deceived by reading the beginning, here is an example of what I mean. Denny calls to announce he is gay. And that whole thread is completely dropped after the opening as Denny has relationships with women and even a daughter, Susan. I have to wonder what the point was. The thread is never picked up. And yes, I am using that metaphor on purpose. Maybe that was what Tyler had in mind. Leaving a lot of loose threads around. For instance, we learn Junior and Linnie Mae died in a crazy car accident, but we don’t really learn why. How did they really even feel about each other? After you read the section about Junior and Linnie Mae, you will wonder if there is more to it. The novel ends without a clear resolution, too. It doesn’t feel satisfying at the end. I wanted to like it more because I do feel that Anne Tyler drew very realistic and recognizable characters, and I liked them. I just didn’t get to see enough plot. It was sort of like peeking through the drapes and watching snippets of a family’s development. I guess I wanted to be a bit closer. In the end, I just kept wondering why Tyler wove in certain scenes and didn’t go anywhere with them.

I am not sure how to rate it because there are parts I liked, but as a whole, it didn’t hang together for me. I will not count it as historical fiction, even though much of it is, because the main storyline is too current.

Rating: ★★★½☆