Book Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Book Review: The Round House by Louise ErdrichTitle: The Round House
Author: Louise Erdrich
Release Date: October 2, 2012
Publisher: Harper
Page Count: 336
Genre(s): Literary Fiction
Summary from Goodreads:
One Sunday in the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface as Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to relive or reveal what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and thirteen-year-old son, Joe. In one day, Joe's life is irrevocably transformed. He tries to heal his mother, but she will not leave her bed and slips into an abyss of solitude. Increasingly alone, Joe finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world for which he is ill prepared.

While his father, who is a tribal judge, endeavors to wrest justice from a situation that defies his efforts, Joe becomes frustrated with the official investigation and sets out with his trusted friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, to get some answers of his own. Their quest takes them first to the Round House, a sacred space and place of worship for the Ojibwe. And this is only the beginning.

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To say The Round House is a book about a rape investigation would be unfair, though true. On a very superficial level, Louise Erdrich writes about the investigation and background revolving around Joe’s mother’s rape, but this is not really just some gloomy mystery novel. It is that, but this books is also an often hilarious coming of age story and a window into the rich heritage held by these characters. All at once, both Erdrich highlights sad realities of Native rape victims and portrays a preteen’s seemingly typical adolescence on a North Dakotan reservation. It’s a very masterfully written story, in my opinion.

Spanning the course of one fateful summer in 1988, this book is narrated by Joe Coutts many years after, as he looks back on when he was 13. The Round House opens with Joe and his father doing yardwork on an apparently ordinary day, which turns into a not-so-ordinary day when Joe’s mother arrives at home covered in blood and vomit. The rest of the book deals with the aftermath, how everyone (literally everyone) was affected by what happened to Joe’s mother.

Rape is a sticky subject that requires respect and concern. You can’t just write a rape into your book and putz around with the consequences, or brush of the severity of what you’ve just inflicted on your character. Louise Erdrich does not do that at all. She is mature in her handling of the subject, and she’s starkly honest. The Round House is absolutely excellent in the way it goes about dealing with rape and its aftermath. Joe’s mother is a very real character, and her actions are palpably genuine. Likewise, the way everyone else on the reservation behaves in regards to the attack is well-drawn. Erdrich didn’t just write this on a whim, and that’s exceedingly obvious.

Beyond rape, I think the author also touches upon the issue of law and justice when it comes to reservation lands. Who has jurisdiction? Who can be charged with a crime? etc. Joe’s father, who is a judge, has something of an Atticus Finch aura about him, and as both he and and Joe struggle to obtain vengeance for the wrong done upon their wife/mother, the reader gets a very real sense of how limited Indians are when it comes to dealing with crimes the involve white people or non-reservation lands. Their sense of impotency is frustrating for them, and also ultimately, for the reader as well.

However, The Round House is not always a sober, depressing read. Erdrich also highlights the richness of Joe’s heritage, the pains that come with growing up, and the simple, day-to-day conflicts of life, often in a way that’s hilarious and silly and touching. In many ways, Joe’s lighter moments are reminiscent of Sherman Alexie’s Junior, though perhaps Joe is a bit more of a cynical, serious figure.

At the same time, to say that The Round House is something of a mix between To Kill a Mockingbird and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is unfair, because Louise Erdrich offers her own voice and talents and sensibilities to the text. While reading this, I didn’t feel it was derivative of anything that had come before. This stands upon its own feet and provides a story worth reading and remembering, worth discussing and exploring. It’s not a fast-paced story, or entirely a pleasant story, but I’d say it’s not really meant to be. The things that happened in Joe’s life the summer of ’88 are true and valid, and The Round House is the kind of book that stands out and stays with readers. It’s not a happy novel, but I nevertheless believe it to be a necessary one.

4 Stars

Book Review: Practically Wicked (Haverston Family #3) by Alissa Johnson

Book Review: Practically Wicked (Haverston Family #3) by Alissa JohnsonTitle: Practically Wicked
Author: Alissa Johnson
Series: Haverston Family #3
Release Date: October 2, 2012
Publisher: Berkley Sensation
Page Count: 328
Genre(s): Romance
Summary from Goodreads:
As the illegitimate daughter of a scandalous woman, Miss Anna Rees is almost as well known for having been raised in the hedonistic demimonde as she is for her quiet nature. Anna longs to leave behind her mother’s world of courtesans...until she unexpectedly meets the handsome, charming and decidedly wicked Lord Dane. If only she could convince him to join her in search of respectability...

Viscount Maximilian Dane is perfectly content being a rake. After years of obeying the dictates of proper society—with disastrous results—he stopped following the ton’s ridiculous rules, and he sees no reason to begin courting respectability anew. Except that it may be the only way for him to win the lovely and fascinating Miss Anna Rees—if only he could convince her that the grass is greener on the wicked side of the fence...

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After three solid books in a row, I think we can officially be certain that Alissa Johnson is one of my favorite historical romance authors. Practically Wicked was charming, sweet, and enjoyable from start to finish. I loved how Max and Anna’s story had familiar elements but at the same time wasn’t exactly what I expected. Really, the entire book just made me exceedingly happy.

Johnson’s type of romance consists of lighthearted but real stories about mature adults. But as cute as her books are, they’re not fluffy or corny, and they don’t read like fake stories coated in sugar syrup. These books are about nice people who find love and a mostly rational, grown-up way. There is communication, there is honesty. All very important.

Practically Wicked is about Max and Anna, who met one fateful night and were instantly attracted to each other. They made plans to meet in the future, but Anna’s courtesan mother kept them apart, and both lived for four years in disappointment. But when Anna escapes from her mother, she runs back into Max, and they pick things up again.

Anna, firstly, is a great character. All of Johnson’s female protagonists are fabulous, but each in different ways. Anna grew up in a difficult place, the daughter of an infamous courtesan whose goal was only to get away from London society and be her own person. When she does make that escape, she’s through the moon with her new life, though still dealing with feelings of unlovableness. Our male lead, Max, on the other hand, is not at all the rake the reader is promised in the jacket copy. Like all Jonhson male leads, he is nice and wants only what’s best for his love interest, and is willing to do much to get that for her.

The progression of the relationship in Practically Wicked proceeds smoothly and without unnecessary or unrealistic drama. Initially, Max and Anna are awkward together because they’re both operating on the belief that four years ago they were rejected, being unaware of the mother’s part in all of it. But after that was cleared up, the couple went forward more or less smoothly. Obviously there was still tension, because without it we wouldn’t have a book, but nothing overly dramatic really happened.

I think Practically Wicked is a great story. Anna was a strong, proactive woman, and Max was the kind of man who’d try to help her achieve her goals. Alissa Johnson always writes a very satisfying Regency romance, and this book was no different.

4 Stars

Book Review: An Unexpected Gentleman (Haverston Family #2) by Alissa Johnson

Book Review: An Unexpected Gentleman (Haverston Family #2) by Alissa JohnsonTitle: An Unexpected Gentleman
Author: Alissa Johnson
Series: Haverston Family #2
Release Date: December 6, 2011
Publisher: Berkley Sensation
Page Count: 312
Genre(s): Romance
Summary from Goodreads:
Adelaide Ward has but one goal- to obtain an offer of marriage from the respectable, if less-than-appealing, baron Sir Robert Maxwell before her family is ruined. But it's the devilishly handsome Connor Brice who captures her imagination- and a kiss in broad daylight- in front of a dozen members of the ton. Now Adelaide must decide if the charming scoundrel who stole away her reputation might still be trusted with her heart.

Connor Brice seeks a long overdue revenge on the baron. And what better way to launch his campaign than to steal the lovely Miss Ward for his own? A quick "compromising" and an even quicker wedding ought to do. But if Connor wants to establish any sort of domestic tranquility, he'll have to regain Adelaide's trust and choose what means more to him- his thirst for vengeance or his need for Adelaide.

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This is not the perfect book, but it’s very, very close. An Unexpected Gentleman is sweet and tender and funny. Alissa Johnson’s writing perfectly characterizes those emotions, and the story she tells is extremely satisfying. This book is on the lighter side of things but no less genuine because of that.

I definitely loved both of the protagonists in this book, but especially Adelaide, the female lead. 27 years old, a step away from the poorhouse, Adelaide is practical and intensely loyal to her family. She agrees to marry Connor because he appears to be a somewhat decent wealthy man, and she’s fine with it. The woman Johnson portrays Adelaide to be is 100% admirable. She’s brave, loyal, clever, and honest. She doesn’t take crap from other people, even when she loves them.

Connor, on the other hand, has been infatuated with Adelaide for quite some time but is just unwilling to admit that out loud. Not to be sexist, but typical man, am I right? So he comes up with this scheme to trick Adelaide into marrying him because he can’t bear to be without her. Marriage machinations aside, I liked Connor a lot as well. He wasn’t a perfect guy, obviously, but he meant well most of the time. He genuinely cared for Adelaide, was willing to give her anything, let her family (including a toddler) live in his house, and in the end sacrificed all other ambitions in favor of keeping their marriage alive. I can work with that, definitely.

An Unexpected Gentleman did suffer a bit from the communication issues that tend to plague romance novels, but not to an extreme that was terribly frustrating. Most of the tension in the book came from Connor not really understanding what Adelaide needed from him or what he wanted to give her. He was happy with sex and having her in his house and didn’t really look past this veneer of happiness and instead focused his attentions on other things. Which, of course, didn’t work out because Adelaide isn’t really the sort of person to sit around and wait while her husband ignores her.

And just a quick note on the topic of sex: Adelaide is a virgin when she marries Connor. Naturally. However, after that first night, she and Connor…wait a reasonable amount of time before they do it again. I know, right? A romance novel where people are rational about a woman’s first sexual experience and the possibility that maybe she doesn’t want to do it 18 times in a row the first night? Color me shocked.

All in all, An Unexpected Gentleman was quite good. I loved the characters and the relationship they built over time. Alissa Johnson certainly knows how to write a feel-good story that seems real and true, and this is an excellent piece of historical romance, all told.

4 Stars

Renae Recommends: Lesser-known Contemporary YA

renaerecommendsI read a wide variety of genres. I don’t really have anything I’m not interested in. I also read a lot of backlist books and/or books that don’t get hyped in the blogging world. And a lot of these lesser-known books are just as good as (or better) than the popular titles. So. I thought I’d do some sharing and book pushing and what-not. Here are 12 contemporary YA books that maybe you’ve not see around as much, or maybe haven’t heard of at all. All are recommended by yours truly.


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Drowning Instinct by Ilsa J. Bick
140 Character Pitch
: Jenna’s home life is awful, school is the only place she feels comfortable, Mr. Anderson wants to help. NOT a typical student/teacher story. Read my review. Add it on Goodreads.

What She Left Behind by Tracy Bilen
140 Character Pitch
: Sara’s mom has disappeared, and she’s sure her dad is behind it. It may be time to open up about his frequent abuse, but who can she trust? Read my review. Add it on Goodreads.

Faking Faith by Josie Bloss
140 Character Pitch
: Dylan gets drawn into the lives of fundamentalist Christian bloggers, pretends to become one. A visit shows the grass isn’t always greener… Read my review. Add it on Goodreads.

Fat Cat by Robin Brande
140 Character Pitch
: To win a scholarship, Cat decides to live like a cave woman. The project has unexpected results: weight loss and overnight male attention. Read my review. Add it on Goodreads.

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A Little Wanting Song by Cath Crowley
140 Character Pitch: Dealing with grief and loss, Charlie spends the summer with her grandfather in a small town, befriends lonely Rose, and finds her music. Read my review. Add it on Goodreads.

Torn by Stephanie Guerra
140 Character Pitch: Stella, a Latina teenager, navigates finances, family, friendship, and first love. People in her life let her down, but she pushes through. Read my review. Add it on Goodreads.

Want to Go Private? by Sarah Darer Littman
140 Character Pitch: Abby falls prey to an online predator and quickly loses sight of common sense. Yet as bad as her choices are, the consequences are worse. Read my review. Add it on Goodreads.

Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy
140 Character Pitch: Bad choices send Nikki’s life spiraling out of control. Without friends, sentenced to jail, she must learn to live with what’s she’s done. Read my review. Add it on Goodreads.

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Surive by Alex Morel
140 Character Pitch: Suicidal girl is in a plane crash on the way home from rehab. Stranded in the mountains, she and another survivor try to find the way home. Read my review. Add it on Goodreads.

Trafficked by Kim Purcell
140 Character Pitch: Hannah is offered a chance to leave Moldavia for US, but her sponsors steal her papers and threaten prostitution. Escape seems impossible. Read my review. Add it on Goodreads.

The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin
140 Character Pitch: Lida is sent to a reform school in the mountains. There, friendships are formed, tested, broken, won, lost. Rehab can be a vicious place. Read my review. Add it on Goodreads.

Trinkets by Kirsten Smith
140 Character Pitch: Three girls meet in Shopaholics Anonymous and become friends. Through their journal entries, we watch them grow, regress, and transform. Read my review. Add it on Goodreads.

Have you read any of these books? What are some lesser-known contemporary YA novels you wish more people had read?

Book Review: The Monstrumologist (The Monstrumologist #1) by Rick Yancey

Book Review: The Monstrumologist (The Monstrumologist #1) by Rick YanceyTitle: The Monstrumologist
Author: Rick Yancey
Series: The Monstrumologist #1
Release Date: September 22, 2009
Publisher: Simon & Schuster BFYR
Page Count: 434
Genre(s): Horror
Summary from Goodreads:
These are the secrets I have kept. This is the trust I never betrayed. But he is dead now and has been for more than forty years, the one who gave me his trust, the one for whom I kept these secrets. The one who saved me . . . and the one who cursed me.

So starts the diary of Will Henry, orphaned assistant to Dr. Pellinore Warthorpe, a man with a most unusual specialty: monstrumology, the study of monsters. In his time with the doctor, Will has met many a mysterious late-night visitor, and seen things he never imagined were real. But when a grave robber comes calling in the middle of the night with a gruesome find, he brings with him their most deadly case yet.

A gothic tour de force that explores the darkest heart of man and monster and asks the question: When does man become the very thing he hunts?

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In this Printz Honor book, Rick Yancey delivers a gory teen monster-hunter novel that’s, well…gory’s about all I can say, because it’s really gory. The problem is that for all the gore, The Monstrumologist isn’t all that exciting, really. It’s slow, overwritten, and doesn’t have the most proactive protagonist. More mystifying, this very open-and-shut book has three (count them, three) sequels. Mostly I’m just underwhelmed.

Our protagonist is William James Henry, orphaned at 12 years old and now living with a possibly sociopathic scientist whose specialty is monsters. Mostly, Will Henry just sits around and does whatever this scientist dude tells him to do, so I didn’t personally find him to be interesting at all. The star of The Monstrumologist is most certainly the monstrumologist himself, so having Will Henry as the protagonist at all was mystifying. Will Henry just didn’t do anything.

On top of a protagonist who doesn’t do anything, we have a book that doesn’t seem to go anywhere until well past the halfway point. Yancey writes in a very purple faux-Victorian style that’s cloying and oppressive. It doesn’t ring true at all, and just bogs down the entire story. I assume The Monstrumologist is supposed to be a fast-paced monster story, but it isn’t, because we’re often stuck with Will Henry’s overlong philosophizing (because, again, he’s 12 years old and doesn’t really do anything important).

So, you could say this book was boring, because it was. At the same time, when I managed to find my way through the truly overwritten, overdone prose, the story itself is very interesting. The story isn’t boring, but the writing and main character are. It’s like this book has some gunk on it that just needs to be cleared away, as underneath it’s actually something of value. Too bad Rick Yancey didn’t bother to do some extra polishing.

All in all, I’m not terribly impressed with The Monstrumologist. It’s a very explicit monster story when it wants to be, bother otherwise Yancey’s storytelling is plain dull. I’m not planning on picking up the sequels, partly because I didn’t love this book, but also because the epilogue seems to have satisfactorily concluded things in an open-ended way. Most books, I find, are better on their own, without the author dragging the character through various trials again and again.

2 Stars