Book Club: Better Luck Next Time (+Mini Review)

It’s always weird to read a book for the first time and then turn around to run a book club on it. You take notes, but because you have no idea where the story is going, the notes you take aren’t always focused on the right things. Better Luck Next Time by Julia Claiborne Johnson was not the book I expected. Based on the description and the blurbs, I expected it to be cynical and darkly comedic, a reflection on gender imbalance and divorce that would make the reader laugh and cry with the same wry observations. The real thing is more hopeful. It’s about a few specific divorcees more than it is about divorce in general, and I would be quicker to label it a romance than a comedy. It doesn’t necessarily follow the necessary story blocks for a romance—it lacks the cookie-cutter happily-ever-after that romances must employ—but I certainly didn’t laugh enough to consider Better Luck Next Time primarily by its ability to amuse. It wasn’t not funny, but it wasn’t funny. If that makes sense. Like, I didn’t laugh much, but I also never thought this is trying and failing to be funny.

My overall impression of the novel is that it doesn’t really fit in any category. It’s too cynical to be a great love story, but too neat and romantic to feel like real life. It includes too many difficult subjects to be a fluff piece, but doesn’t reflect deeply enough on them to be traditionally literary. It’s too tragic to be a comedy and too lighthearted to be a tragedy. It sits right there in the middle, and the overall effect is that it is a good read but not quite a great one. I didn’t have any difficulty preparing discussion questions (scattered notes aside), but I can’t see Better Luck Next Time topping critics’ lists of best novels or individual people’s lists of personal favorites. I liked the characters. I wanted things to go well for them and I was interested to know their secrets, but I don’t think they’ll stick with me.

That said, the fact that I liked but did not love this novel makes me think that it’s a particularly good choice for a general book club. Half the point of a book club is to get people to pick up titles they’d otherwise overlook, and for that reason a good pick should appeal to lots of different kinds of readers. While I think that Better Luck Next Time should have backed off its love story to focus even more on the socioeconomic realities of the many divorcees at the ranch, there are likely readers who felt Emily and Ward’s relationship spoke more to them than the reflections on classism and feminism. Better Luck Next Time has the ability to reach a wide swath of readers, and for that reason I’d strongly recommend it to a diverse group to read together, but not necessarily to an individual looking for their next favorite.

B/⭐⭐⭐⭐ 

What’s it about?

In the thirties, Ward was a cowboy at a dude ranch for divorcees; wealthy women would flock to Reno, stay at the ranch long enough to become Reno residents and obtain their divorces, and then return to their lives one husband fewer. As an old man, Ward reflects back on his experiences, specifically the events of one particular summer that brought two particular women into his life: Nina, a carefree young aviator divorcing her third husband and Emily, an heiress who lives for her daughter.     

Please feel free to use these discussion questions for your own book club discussions. Be aware that these questions are full of spoilers, so make sure you’ve finished Better Luck Next Time before diving in.

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Supernatural Investigations #1: Amari and the Night Brothers (Book Review)

I always intend to theme my reading a bit more, and I always do a terrible job of it. Here we are, two-thirds of the way through Black History Month and I’ve only read two books by Black authors. I started the month with Angie Thomas’ Concrete Rose, and I just finished Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston. I’m planning to reread Thomas’ The Hate U Give post-Concrete Rose, but I definitely need to do better.

I haven’t been reading a whole lot of juvenile fiction since I left my library job three years ago, but Amari called to me. For one thing, look at the gorgeous cover. Also, it’s blurbed by Angie Thomas and Nic Stone, who are both great. Plus, Amari is the start to a fantasy series that has been comp’d to Harry Potter. Harry Potter was my childhood, and I’m really struggling to reconcile that love with the things that JK Rowling says now, so anytime I see a fantasy series that is HP-akin but inclusive, I sprint to it. Also, like I said, it’s Black History Month and I’ve taken a look at what I’ve read recently and realized that, much as I try to read diversely, I desperately need to read more books by Black writers (especially when they look this fantastic). If you have any recommendations for me, please let me know in the comments.

A/⭐⭐⭐⭐

What’s it about?

Even though Quinton disappeared months ago and is presumed dead, Amari Peters is certain that her beloved older brother is still out there somewhere. It feels like the mystery is breaking open when she attends a magical camp and she discovers that he was a famous supernatural agent. Unfortunately, the break stops there, because the people in this magical world don’t know what happened to him, either. Amari, though, is determined to find her brother, even if it means joining the dangerous ranks of junior agent herself and getting ostracized every step of the way when she learns that she possesses a type of magic deemed illegal.

What’d I think?

I should preface that I did not read Amari under the best of circumstances. I live in Texas, and if you’ve seen the news at all, you probably know that we got hit with a big ice storm that we were in no way prepared to deal with. I was without power, so I had to grab a reading light, bundle up in multiple layers, and camp out under a giant pile of blankets and hats while praying my phone would keep enough charge that I could find out if I’d be expected at work the next day. It was very cold and quite miserable. I enjoyed Amari, but the experience of reading it was marred by the fact that my hands were so cold it hurt to turn the pages, and the knowledge that I had to read it because I had nothing else to do.

I probably would have read it all day even if I could go outside or watch TV or edit my novel, but I was forcibly aware that I didn’t have any other options and that’s never very nice. But the power is back on now, and now that I’ve had a chance to warm up, workout, and strip down to just one pair of socks, I’m in a much better mood.

There are some books that are harder to review than the average, and Amari is one of them. The best part of the novel is the end, and I can’t talk about my favorite bits without getting into deep spoiler territory. I’m definitely going to talk about the ending, but I’ll do that at the end and mark it with a spoiler warning for anyone who doesn’t want to see it. Just know, non-spoiler people, that this book has a great ending.

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And Then There Were None: Book to Series Comparison

Recently, I rewatched the excellent BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. And Then There Were None is one of my two absolute favorite mystery novels (the other is The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, and they’re in a league of their own). I’ve read And Then There Were None multiple times over the years, because it’s so psychologically fascinating that it’s thrilling even if you already know whodunit. The 2015 BBC adaptation is great. It’s very faithful but makes a few minor changes. It’s the only adaptation I’ve seen (not counting the computer game, which I loved), and from what I can tell, it’s the most faithful one. I rewatched the series with my family, and although they’d all seen it before, it had been long enough that they’d forgotten even more than I had, so when I’d tentatively ask wasn’t this bit different in the book? no one could definitively answer me. Which, fair. If you don’t remember the murderer, you’re unlikely to remember whether or not Wargrave had cancer.*

*cancer isn’t specified, but he was dying; the reader doesn’t find out about it until much later than in the series

We finished the series and less than an hour later I’d pulled out my well-worn copy of the novel. As I’ve mentioned here before, I get obsessive. If I enjoy something, instead of moving on like a normal person, I ask how can I extend this for as long as possible? So I reread the book, taking notes of all the differences so that I could write a detailed comparison between the two. This isn’t the first time I’ve done an Agatha Christie book-to-series comparison post, but it is by far the most detailed. Like I said, And Then There Were None is my favorite.

Also, it’s just been way too long since I’ve done a super-nerdy, extremely over-involved post.

What’s it about?

Ten strangers are invited to a mysterious island, but when they arrive, they realize that they were summoned under false pretenses. On the first night, a mysterious voice accuses each of them of murder and in the days that follow they are meticulously killed off one-by-one.

So what changed?

Since this is an in-depth comparison, I’d recommend against reading it unless you’re okay with spoilers or have already either watched the series/read the book. I don’t know if it’s strictly speaking necessary to slap a spoiler warning on a post about a book that was published in 1939, but in case it is, this is that warning. If you don’t know And Then There Were None yet, do yourself a favor and check it out. The miniseries is about three hours long all told, and the book will take you only slightly longer. It’s absolutely worth it.

I figured I’d start with the most minor changes and work my way up to the larger ones (although, as I said, this is a faithful adaptation, so even the largest changes are—in the scheme of things—relatively minor). I’ll also assign points to either the book or the series depending on whether or not I liked the change. I love both versions, so this is just an exercise for my competitive spirit. If I had to guess before starting how it’ll end up, I’ll say that the series will probably get more points early on, and the novel will score more towards the end. The series does great things with the individual characters, but there are a few things about the mystery itself that are stronger in the novel.

The name of the island

The miniseries changes Indian Island to Soldier Island, and ditto for any other instance of “Indians.” The murderous rhyme becomes “The Ten Little Soldier Boys” instead “The Ten Little Indians.” The original title was even worse. The novel is absolutely brilliant, but the racist poem—particularly with the original language—is awful. The change to “soldier boys” doesn’t do anything to alter the best parts of the novel, but it takes out some inexcusable racism. See? Some changes are for the best.

Novel: 0            Series: 1

Lombard’s racism

Yep, another one about racism. This one is more complicated, though. The series softens Lombard in some ways (it hardens him in others, but we’ll get to that later). In the novel, Lombard is vaguely racist. He disparages the Jewish Isaac Morris, and—more damning—is guilty of causing the deaths of twenty-one men, members of an East African tribe. In the novel, Lombard callously implies that killing these East African men is nothing because they are less human than the English, and therefore care less about dying. The series presents it a little differently. Lombard is still unapologetic for the deaths, but it is depicted as him owning up to his crimes. Yeah, he’s a killer, but unlike the other nine he admits that he’s a killer, to himself and to the others. It’s also implied that he would have felt the same about the crime if the men had not been East African. Series Lombard killed people, yes, but he wasn’t racist about it. Interestingly, the series brings in racism in a different way. Although his nationality is not specified in the novel (he’s assumed English), TV’s Lombard is Irish and the others to regard him with added suspicion. He’s not just a murderer who brought a gun to a mysterious island. He’s an Irish murderer in 1939 who brought a gun to a mysterious island. Irish Lombard contributes to the setting and period of the piece, which could otherwise be almost any time or place. He brings a bit of the real world onto the island, demonstrating that no matter how isolated you might be, you can never be entirely cut off from the world at large. On the other hand, Lombard being actively racist makes him considerably worse, like top two bad. Still, since Lombard’s multiple murder is still awful even without it being racially motivated—and because the racism is just present without being much remarked upon—I think I’ll give this one to the series.

Novel: 0            Series: 2

A matter of strength

In the novel, much is made of the fact that Lombard and Blore are the most physically strong. When the group locks things up, they do so in cases with multiple locks, giving one key to Lombard and Blore with the idea that neither of them would be able to take it from the other without causing a ruckus the others would hear. Each time a murder happens, the group discusses who would have had the physical strength to do it, and it is repeatedly reiterated that just because someone (read: a woman) looks weak, they can’t count anyone out because madmen have incredible, unexpected reservoirs of power. In the series, Judge Wargrave says near the beginning that any one of them is capable of the murders and it’s left at that. Book Vera’s story about Cyril (the little boy she killed by sending him into a current he was too weak to swim) is doubted because Cyril was a sickly little boy. In the series Hugo points to Vera’s strength rather than Cyril’s weakness as the suspicious element. I prefer the way the series approaches this one. I’ve never liked the a woman couldn’t have done this; they’re too weak thing that mysteries often have, so it was nice to get it out of the way. Anyone could have done it. They’re all strong enough, and they’re all equally suspicious. Making a mystery more about who is strong enough to do something than about who would have done it is, to me, less interesting.

Novel: 0            Series: 3

Written accounts

In the final few chapters of the novel, the police are fruitlessly trying to figure out what happened on the island. They go over the various clues but are at a loss. Some of their clues come from writings left by the victims. Vera, Miss Brent, and Blore all left written accounts of their time on the island, which give the police some framework. Still, these clues only make things more complicated, as it all seems impossible. The series has no indication of written accounts, and furthermore there is no outside investigation. Once the last character dies, the show ends, and there is nothing afterward. This is a minor thing, but I much prefer the novel version. There’s something especially clever about a crime that remains entirely mysterious despite detailed accounts. Blore was a detective, but his reports still don’t shed any light on the matter. The way this works, alongside Wargrave’s death—we’ll get to that eventually—is just so cool. The way the novel is written, I legitimately thought for a minute that I’d never know who’d done it. I knew it was twisty and clever, but that chapter with the police makes it all the more so. The series version is more cinematic, but less thrilling.

Novel: 1            Series: 3 

Mountain climbing

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Concrete Rose (Mini Book Review)

Angie Thomas is a fantastic writer. She’s one of my absolute favorites. The Hate U Give blew me away when I first read it, so much so that it was one of my first selections for the YA book club I used to run. It made for a great discussion. On the Come Up is just as good, and it officially elevated Thomas from an author who wrote one great book to a consistent favorite who writes only good books. To say I was excited for Concrete Rose would be an understatement. Lots of my favorite writers are releasing new books this year, but Thomas is the first and I was excited to let her start 2021 off in the right literary direction.

A/⭐⭐⭐⭐

What’s it about?

Before Maverick Carter was the wise and patient patriarch we meet in The Hate U Give, he was a young man with his own problems. Concrete Rose is his story, and it details a period during which he sells drugs to support his mother and learns that a one-night stand with his best friend’s on-again-off-again girlfriend has resulted in a baby. As Mav struggles to figure out how to raise a kid when he’s barely more than a kid himself, fatherhood forces him to decide once and for all what kind of man he aims to be.

What’d I think?

Apparently a lot of readers really latched onto Mav when they read The Hate U Give. I liked him—how could I not? He’s a great dad and a great character—but I’m not one of the people who clambered for a prequel about him. Like I said above, I’ll read anything that Angie Thomas writes, but I’d have preferred a continuation or something entirely new. Prequels are fine, but a lot of dramatic tension is leeched out of them by virtue of what they are. You know how a prequel will end before you crack the spine. We know from The Hate U Give that Mav ends up in a good place. He’s a respected member of his community. He married Lisa and they’re happy together. He got out of the gang and no longer deals drugs. We know he was in prison for a while but now he’s out and he is loved and respected by his children. Knowing all this, it’s hard to get deeply worried about Mav’s romantic woes. We know that Lisa and Mav eventually get married. It’s hard to worry that Mav will fail as a father when we know that Seven—and, later, Starr as well—ends up well-adjusted and happy.

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Fence: Striking Distance (Book Review)

A few months ago, I read Sarah Rees Brennan’s novel In Other Lands and absolutely adored it. I loved it so much that I promptly bought the next book by Rees Brennan that I saw. That book happened to be Fence: Striking Distance. I was slightly hesitant going into it because it is not entirely original. It’s based on a graphic novel series (also called Fence) by C.S. Pacat and Johanna the Mad. The writing in In Other Lands is great, but the creative story and hilariously adorable characters are the stars. I know that Brennan has written for other people’s characters before—she writes short stories for Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunters—but I’m not at all familiar with C.S. Pacat and therefore didn’t know what kinds of characters and storylines she had to work with.

I needn’t have worried. Fence: Striking Distance is lots of fun. It’s about a fencing team struggling with teamwork. The coach assigns the four boys a series of team-building exercises and the team carries them out to… middling success.

A/⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The novel balances four different POV characters: Aiden, the charming heartbreaker; Harvard, the over-responsible captain; Seiji, the socially-confused future Olympian; and Nicholas, the untrained and overeager newbie. While overall I liked all four of them, one could argue that that’s at least one POV too many. I don’t think it’s possible to write that many perspectives without some being more compelling than the others. That was certainly the case here. When I was reading before bed, I’d almost always set the book down if the next chapter was Nicholas. It’s not that I dislike Nicholas. It’s just that if I was winding down and saw Aiden was next, I’d say, “Well, I can read one more” regardless of the time. Same with Harvard. If it was Seiji I’d weigh how tired I was and usually I’d keep reading. Nicholas, though, I could always set aside. I think he might have worked better as a side character like Eugene or Coach: important, but not central.

I was surprised, therefore, when I discovered that Nicholas is the primary hero of the original Fence. I assumed wrongly that Brennan’s novel was essentially a novelization of the existing comic. When I finished the novel and found it significantly less wrapped-up than I anticipated (no one told me this was going to be a series!), I immediately did some Internet research to see if I could get some answers via Pacat’s version and as far as I can tell, the answer is… no. Fence: Striking Distance is an original novel, and while it clearly grabs Pacat’s characters and world, it seems to have adjusted the lens. Nicholas is Pacat’s hero, and Aiden is Brennan’s. All four boys are written well, but Aiden is the one we spend the most time with, the one we empathize with the most, the one who gets the most laughs and the most developed backstory. He’s ever-so-slightly more in focus than the other characters even though from the outside it looks like everyone has equal billing.

In retrospect, this makes perfect sense. Sure, some readers are going to be like me, but I bet a lot of them come from Pacat’s version. With that in mind, it makes far more sense to focus on the characters whose stories haven’t been told (or, at least, not told completely) while still keeping the original protagonists close enough to the forefront to satisfy fans of the graphic novels. Knowing that Nicholas anchors the graphic novel absolutely explains why he’s so central to Fence even though, from a traditional storytelling standpoint, he doesn’t need to be and would arguably have worked better slightly sidelined.

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January 2021 Wrap-Up

Wow, January was a month. The headlines have been crazy, but my personal life has calmed down. Since the holidays are over, work has gone back to normal. There’s still the extra pandemic stress, but pandemic stress is nothing compared to pandemic-and-holiday stress. Plus, I’ve had more time to play with the puppy. We adopted Darcy in November, and she is an absolute sweetheart. She’s smart and adorable, and she only occasionally tries to eat my books while I’m reading.

I didn’t read any YA this month. That’s deeply uncharacteristic. I promise I haven’t been replaced by an evil twin or anything.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

⭐⭐⭐

Well, I finally did it. It took me a whole month, but I finally got through Middlemarch. I’m not really sure why it took me so long. It’s a huge book, but I’ve read equally fat tomes in far less time. Usually my reading speed tells you what I thought of a book. I race through anything I love and slog through the books I dislike. The thing is, though, that I didn’t dislike Middlemarch. It’s a very well-written novel, and it does an excellent job capturing an era of major reform. It juggles an immense cast of characters, and the way that their storylines all come together at the end is nothing short of masterful. There’s no question in my mind that it absolutely deserves its status as part of the literary canon, but there’s also a reason I didn’t write a full review for it. It didn’t really make me feel anything. I enjoyed it for the most part, but I didn’t fall in love with it. None of the characters particularly spoke to me, and I found myself occasionally setting it aside for days at a time. That doesn’t happen with books that I love. Middlemarch is a very long book, and it feels very long. There are other classic novels of comparable length that don’t feel nearly as long. Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo and Hugo’s Les Misérables are similarly immense but kept me so engaged that I hardly noticed that we were approaching 1,000 pages. Middlemarch makes you feel those pages. It takes its sweet time getting to where it’s getting. Some of the main characters don’t show up until more than a hundred or two hundred pages in. As far as classic literature goes, this one is an investment. It takes a lot of time and commitment and a lot of attention. Unless you’re a history scholar, you may need to have to research some things or accept that you’re going to miss some nuance. At the end of the day, I was relieved to finish Middlemarch. There are some books you want to live in for as long as possible, and there are others that, even if you ultimately give them the thumbs up, you’re glad to finish. For me, Middlemarch is one of the latter. But at least I can now appreciate my sister Maleah’s absolutely phenomenal comic rendering of Lydgate and Rosamund’s plotline:

artwork by Maleah Miller; words by George Eliot

Please, please do yourself a favor and check out the rest of the comic and Maleah’s other art on her website. It’s a way better site than this blog, I promise.


Better Luck Next Time by Julia Claiborne Johnson

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Finally, a book club book that I enjoyed! I miss the days when I got to curate the book club books, because overall I have not been impressed by the ones I’ve read recently. More than one made my Worst Books of 2020 list. Better Luck Next Time is not exactly my type of book–too much focus on having children–but it is a quick, entertaining read. It is set on a divorce dude ranch during the 1930s. Apparently back then this was a thing: wealthy women who had to go to Reno for divorces would stay at these ranches for the six weeks required to become “residents” eligible for said divorces. I did not know such a thing existed, but it definitely makes for a compelling setting. Better Luck Next Time is just funny enough to keep from being depressing, and it tackles some really interesting themes (I had a fun time writing my discussion questions; there was a lot of material to hit). While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it widely, it is certainly a good book club choice: there’s a lot to discuss, it’s short enough that there’s no excuse not to finish it, and it’s the sort of book that’s difficult to dislike.


A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

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