Tag Archives: religion

Incendiaries: A Novel by R. O. Kwon

When I was in college, my boyfriend, for some reason, had to miss one of his upper level advanced mathematics courses and asked me to tape the class and copy down the notes written on the chalkboard. (Obviously this was quite a few years ago). The teacher was Asian with a stilted accent, but even if he had been totally fluent in English, my year of Introductory Calculus was not enough background for me to make heads or tails of the subject matter which the professor was attempting to impart, so I just nodded and copied and pretended that I had an inkling of the topic under discussion, flipping the tape over as appropriate.

This sense of confusion is similar to my experience in reading Incendiaries: A Novel by R. O. Kwon. Flitting from character to character giving little to no reference point with statements which only at times resemble sentences, flipping back and forth with tenses and pronouns so I wasn’t sure who was speaking and when the event occurred, I waded through this book (which was fortunately a quick read) until I finally got the gist of what was happening and was able to confirm my suspicions by going back to the beginning and skimming the chapters after my first go around with the text.

Not a traditional narrative, this book is about a group of students attending Edwards College in Noxhurst, a city somewhere in New York State (I think). There are side trips to New York City with a visit to other locations in the Northeast, although the main characters are originally from California and think nothing about bopping home. Ultimately the story is about a cult started by John Liel which entraps Phoebe Lin and almost ensnares her boyfriend, Will Kendall. The main characters all have some Korean blood and have experienced a past which makes them vulnerable to brainwashing, taking advantage of their questions concerning faith and Christianity. The Pro Life contingent is also a theme which reoccurs throughout the book.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to be sympathetic to any of these protagonists who are all self absorbed, with personality flaws that makes them largely unlikeable. Their college education is alluded to, but for the majority is more a setting than an activity. Bars and other gathering places abound with drinking, drugs, and sex which seem to be the primary activities mixed in with religious allusions. It’s a very jaded view of the college scene.

While the majority of the narrative is disjointed, there is a brief glimpse of a book which I could have liked – the section describing Will’s job as a waiter at an upscale restaurant and the difficulty he had with one of the patrons. Unfortunately, this is a mean spirited episode with more than a touch of misogyny, but at least it was readable.

So, if you like a challenge and are in the mood for a negative plot line, go for it. I, for one, plan to find a book which will make me laugh so as to remove the bitter taste which is currently lingering, just as I decided to major in English and not in Math.

Two and a half stars and a thank you to Edelweiss for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

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Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

What makes Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson so special is not the story, although the plot is full of subtle wit and unforseeable plot twists, but the rich and quirky characterizations of the personalities living in the small town outside London, England.

At first Major Pettigrew seems kind of opinionated and stuffy, but his relationship with Mrs. Allie, the shop keeper of Pakistanee descent, softens his attitude, and making him endearing to the reader. We find ourselves rooting for the Major as he attempts to surreptitiously woo the widow while remaining a perfect gentleman.

To make the enjoyment even more complete, add in a couple of obnoxious, money grubbing in laws, a son who pursues prestige over tradition, a Lord willing to sell out the entire village in order to maintain his decadent lifestyle, a crass, egocentric American Industrialist whose annoying behavior threatens to ruin every gathering he attends, and a woman’s group who between gossiping sessions run many of the social events expounded upon in the novel.

In short, the Major finds himself having difficulty dealing with the death of his brother and Mrs. Allie, the local shop keeper, who happens to be in the right place at the right time, is able to comfort the man. There is a spark between the two and as they both deal with their own personal challenges involving the embarrassing indiscretions of various family members, they find a moments relief and even joy in each other’s company.

A major focal point in the tale is the story of the two matched rifles, Churchills, which were presented to the Major’s grandfather by an Indian Maharaja, as a reward for protecting his daughter from harm by some rebels. While the Major expected to inherit the pair, his father gave one to his brother with the expectation the two would be reunited upon one of their deaths. No such stipulation was written into the will and much to his horror, his sister in law is mentally spending the money to be earned by selling the family heirloom(s). The Churchills seem to drive the plot forward, somehow relating to the various interactions of the characters throughout the plot.

While there is a bit of action, along with a few plot twists, most of the story focuses upon the life of the Major as he pursues his interests (such as plotting the ways he can keep both Churchills) while trying to advance his relationship with the alluring Mrs. Allee. His clever, deprecating remarks to the questionable comments of his fellow townspeople result in numerous laugh out loud moments, a personal barometer of a book destined to be a favorite. The contentious relationship between father and son also inexplicably brings a smile to my face as despite their different viewpoints on life, they reluctantly share a love which goes beyond kinship. Kudos to Simonson for a superb debut novel as well as to Peter Altschuler who was the spectacular reader of the audiotape.

My five star rating shouldn’t be a surprise and I hope the movie version lives up to the cleverness of the author’s original text.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Leanne Oelke

17 year old Jane Sinner should be enjoying her senior year of high school, but a traumatic incident has her constantly looking over her shoulder and second guessing the furtive glances of her classmates making it impossible for her to emotionally face their suppositions. Thus begins Nice Try, Jane Sinner where the author, Leanne Oelke, provides an interesting option for a main character suffering with depression and other mental health issues. Constantly skipping school, however, is not one of the acceptable choices, so by mutual agreement an alternative is suggested – a special program at the local community college where she can finish up high school and even take some college classes. Jane’s parents are so desperate to restore some normalcy to their daughter’s life that they agree to her demands of moving out and rooming with a friend near the campus. Little do they know that the place Jane chooses to live (sans said friend) is The House of Orange which is a Big Brother style set up filmed for the Internet with a used car as a prize for the last man standing.

Jane doesn’t have to worry about her past while attending class at Elbow River Community College, so she can relax and focus on her goal of “winning” the prize. For someone who shrinks from attention, she surprisingly doesn’t mind (too much) the invasive cameras which indiscriminately film her actions. She even forms an alliance and develops a friendship of sorts with her fellow contestants. A self-proclaimed psychology major, Jane sets out to administer a negative stimulus whenever one of her obnoxious housemates raids her personal dorm-style fridge – a nightly occurrence. Her aggressive, competitive style along with her sarcastic sense of humor and sardonic wit make her popular with an audience whose growing viewership leads to a spot for the reality show on a local tv channel along with a corporate sponsorship, complete with a scholarship and a cash award.

Complications include the fact that Jane cannot legally consume alcohol (at least not on tape) since the drinking age in the province of Alberta in Canada is eighteen. Even though she partakes the forbidden beverage off camera, the after effects of her imbibing is evident in the footage. This could lead to problems for everyone involved especially since the producer, a fellow student, assumes she is of legal age (probably because she lied on the application). It also becomes harder for Jane to keep the truth hidden from her parents as more and more viewers tune in to watch and she finally has to come clean with her younger sister who is pissed that Jane doesn’t visit home more often.

Oelke has the main character tell her story uses a journaling style with a conversational dialogue imitating lines of a screenplay, including a bit of imaginary dialogue and a few inner psychotherapy sessions where Jane unsuccessfully attempts to psychoanalyze her own uncooperative self. The addition of some explanatory narrative nicely rounds out the plot making this book a fast paced, entertaining read despite the 400+ page length.

The cast of characters from her “new” life (along with her diverse fan base) plus those high school friends she occasionally sees, as well as her family and the members of the youth group she’s promised to attend each week, provides an extensive list of names to keep track of that’s just long enough for an annotated list of “cast members” to be helpful.

My major complaints were the melodramatic and over the top conclusion to the competition and the way Jane’s little sister is portrayed – more like a whinny twelve year old instead of her slightly more mature age of fifteen. Kudos, however, for dealing with the topical issue of teen depression, along with the adolescent angst of discovering ones own identity (separate from that of their parents) which includes questioning ones faith in God and searching for the answer to the age old query “what do I do next?” Oelke provides a possible answer in an ending which promises a positive future for someone that needs a happily ever after.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

For This Life Only by Stacy Kade

Jacob Palmer is a PK or Pastor’s Kid and has difficulty living under the family strictures requiring him to always be on his best behavior since the neighbors might be watching and judging his actions. To make matters worse, his twin brother Elijah is on the fast track to follow in the steps of both his father and grandfather to become the pastor at the local church which has become a family legacy. Needing to get away from another night of scrabble with his parents and young sister Sarah, Jace takes off to hang out with his friends, bumming a ride off his twin. Making it an early night so as not to break curfew, he has to call Eli to pick him up after he accidentally gets doused with a cup of beer (can’t let his dad know he’s had a sip or two). On the way home the car spins out on a patch of ice and their vehicle goes over the bridge killing one boy and almost taking the life of the other.

Even as he physically begins to mend, life for Jacob will never be the same. No longer able to throw the ball, his goal of a college sports scholarship is out the window. That’s the least of his worries as he has to adjust to a new family dynamic with broken parents and a traumatized baby sister as he carries the guilt of his brother’s death on his shoulders and tries to avoid the well
meaning platitudes of his classmates and the community.

Inexplicably Jacob finds himself seeking comfort from the school pariah, the daughter of the psychic who lives across the street from the church with the garish neon sign which makes his dad fume. This girl is off limits even to his friends since they hold her responsible for losing the state championship when two seniors were suspended based on her allegations of sexual harassment. Yet Jace sees a different side to the once hated Thera and, through her, starts to view life via a different lens.

For This Life Only by Stacy Kade is a powerful story dealing with some heavy topics such as sexual abuse, faith and religion, death and grief, loyalty and rejection. Kade shows a realistic snapshot of a family trying to deal with a senseless loss.

While there’s a lot going on with various subplots, unfortunately many of the characters aren’t fully developed and the story doesn’t quite gel. A further complication is the quick but confusing resolution leaving out some pertinent details which prevent the reader from attaining a fulfilling closure. While many YA books tend to be too wordy and need a little editing, this one could have easily added another fifty pages to properly wrap things up instead of using an epilogue to try and put a bow on a slightly incomplete story.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on my blog, Gotta Read.