Category Archives: challenge

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace coverMy final book of the summer reading challenge and I am thrilled to have finished this one just under the wire! This is my third Margaret Atwood book I’ve read and it just might be my favorite one yet; earlier this summer I read The Blind Assassin and a few years ago I read The Handmaids Tale. While I greatly enjoyed the The Blind Assassin, I found myself getting slightly bored at times; it’s a brilliant novel and has a phenomenal ending, but a few sections in the middle tended to drag for me. With Alias Grace, however, I was hooked from the start and could not put the book down until I was finished.

The novel is based on an actual case of murder in the 1840s. It tells the story of Grace Marks, a beautiful, 16-year-old girl, who was convicted for her involvement in the murders of her employer and his housekeeper, who was also his mistress. Grace is serving a life sentence but claims to have no memory of the crimes. That is all true, and Margaret Atwood does not change any known historical facts. She says, “Where mere hints and outright gaps exist in the records, I have felt free to invent.” And what a brilliant writer and inventor she is. In the novel, a young doctor studying mental illness begins visiting Grace, hoping to tease out her memory and determine if she is a true amnesiac or a gifted liar and ruthless “murderess.” The chapters alternate between the doctor, Simon’s, experiences with Grace, as well as his own experiences in the small Canadian town where he is staying, along with chapters on Grace’s experiences in jail and her meetings with him. Chapters in-between also include letters from various key players in the novel, such as the doctor, a reverend petitioning for her release, and Grace herself, among others.

Because the narrative switches around from various characters, we learn a little something from each one. And Atwood loves to hide important details in the most minute of statements or fragments of a letter, to where you could easily miss an important clue if you are not reading carefully. I have also noticed from reading a few of Atwood’s novels that she likes to play with the idea of the unreliable narrator. Grace, when she is the narrator and also when Simon is the narrator yet talking to her, comes off so genuine and truthful. We as readers believe her, or at least want to. But then just as we start to believe her, she makes us question that. Just as Dr. Simon probably feels, never knowing if he can believe her or not. There are passages such as this, where the doctor has brought Grace a gift and in her inner monologue we hear: “I set to work willingly to tell my story, and to make it as interesting as I can, and rich in incident, as a sort of return gift to him.” Are we meant to take that as her embellishing her story, or simply divulging more of the truth than she ever has before because the good doctor has been kind to her?

This book will keep you guessing until the last and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I highly highly recommend. It is a fantastic murder mystery, a great period drama, and an in-depth character study, on both Grace and the doctor attempting to figure her out. It’s definitely one of those books that sticks with you long after you put it down.

Availability:  SMCM, USMAI and COSMOS
Review Submitted by:  Kaylie Jasinski (class of ’14)
Rating:  Must Read
Challenge: Book to TV

Summer of ’69, by Elin Hilderbrand

cover artAn easy beach read for those looking to not use their brain, Summer of ‘69, is for you! This book features Creedence Clearwater Revival, JFK, Woodstock, and the Vietnam war all woven into a family of 6 and their 4 kids. Taking place in one summer (hence the title) the reader will identify with all members of the family as they each must go through a painful experience. Expect great song references and recommendations from this novel.

Availability: COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by:  Emily Murphy
Rating: Highly Recommended
Challenge: Published in 2019

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

cover artAmerican Gods connects well with Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, which I listened to earlier this summer. American Gods also appeals to Gaiman’s interest in mythology, following a well intentioned but down on his luck man named Shadow as he tries to restart his life with a new job and a journey through America where he meets beings he previously thought were only characters. They have immigrated to America looking for something new.

The story is timely given the current discussion on immigration and heritage in our country, while still serving as a fun, seedy story reminiscent of neo noir genre. The “coming to America” sections (which Gaiman notes were used as ways to get around his writers block while he wrote) are an interesting and fun way to break up the main story with something very different but still on theme. The version I read was a multi cast reading, featuring different actors for all the characters. Given the wide diversity of the characters featured in the story, this plan serves the book well. Rather than abridge or adapt the book, they decided to instead use the unabridged original manuscript Neil Gaiman originally plan to publish before the final edits were made. Overall the voice reading is very good, especially the leads, and the story is an imaginative and fun look at mythology, the American dream, and the lengths people will go to get what they need.

This book is good for:
1. People who enjoy fresh takes on diverse mythology
2. People who enjoy seedy neo noir style settings and characters
3. People who enjoy audiobooks with a varied and strong cast. Or if you only read, an interesting variety of characters.

Availability: USMAI, COSMOS, SMCM
Submitted by: Nick Huber 2013
Rating: Highly Recommended
Challenges: Audiobook Narration, Books adapted for tv/film

There, There by Tommy Orange

cover artThere, There by Tommy Orange is for all current history buffs. Featuring a variety of short stories at a relentlessly paced multigenerational story about violence and recovery, memory and identity, and the beauty and despair woven into the history of a nation and its people. It tells the story of twelve characters, each of whom have private reasons for traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. For lovers of Native American culture and history, this book is sure to delight you.

Availability: COSMOS, USMAI, SMCM
Review Submitted by:  Emily Murphy
Rating: Recommended
Challenge: TOB 2019

Plum Island by Nelson DeMille

cover artYears ago I read Plum Island and loved it! When I saw the audiobook was available immediately on Libby I jumped on it. It had been long enough that I couldn’t remember the major plot points and enjoyed listening to the audiobook just as much as reading it years before. The basic plot is this: John Corey, a NYC homicide detective, has traveled to the rural North Fork of Long Island, recovering from gun shot wounds sustained on the job. While there, he meets a vivacious young couple who are research scientists on Plum Island, a top secret animal disease research facility. When they turn up murdered, Corey finds himself pulled back into the job, trying to investigate their murder, whether or not he is welcomed by the local police force. This really is a great mystery and there’s not much more I can say without giving any of the plot away, but all is not as it seems regarding the murder. If you enjoy mysteries, cop thrillers, and history, I really think you will enjoy this book.

Regarding the audio, the narrator is great for the main character John – he has a nice, deep voice, which works for the other male characters as well, though there is not much variety from one male character to the next (in the audio). Regarding the female voices… that was a little hard to take. The narrator employs an awkward breathy voice for the women that was a little much. I also found the main character far more annoying when listening to the audiobook versus reading the book – he is incredibly cheeky and quite the smart ass, but he comes off as more funny and charming when reading his lines. When listening to his lines, it can be pretty obnoxious. So if this is your first foray into a Nelson DeMille novel, and his novels often feature witty but smar tass men, I would recommend reading one first before trying an audiobook. That said, I highly recommend Plum Island.

Availability: USMAI and COSMOS
Review Submitted by:  Kaylie Jasinski
Rating: Highly Recommended
Challenge: audio book

‘Tis by Frank McCourt

‘Tis, the sequel to Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, continues his autobiographic fear and self loathing on the oft dreamt about American soil. The US does not welcome him with open arms as he had hoped, and he finds himself not much better off than he’d been back in Ireland. At times humorous, other times heart wrenching, this book was a must read, especially if you read its prequel. Found in COSMOS, it also is a bonus one word title!

Availability: COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by: M Denise Brace Lerch ’82
Rating: Must Read
Challenge: Book with a one word title.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

cover artAlthough The Jane Austen Book Club is a New York Times Bestseller and a well-loved book, I found it kind of bland and hard to get through. Fowler’s set of characters are amusing and it’s fun to learn about their lives in relation to the books they choose, but there’s depth missing to the characters that makes it hard to like them or connect to them. I recommend this book because it is well written, but with reservations as the reader may need a deeper understanding and love of Jane Austen in order to fully appreciate the details of the characters and their relationships to each other.

Availability:  COSMOS, USMAI, SMCM
Review Submitted by:  Izzy Lott
Rating:  Recommended with Reservations
Challenge:  Book to film