The Institute


I have never, ever bought a brand new Stephen King book until now. Why? Well, partially because I got into his work very late, and I’m also very cheap and usually do not buy a book at cover price. Buuuut… I love this cover, and I just really, really wanted to read a brand new Stephen King. I also recently read Firestarter by him, and The Institute sounded like it was in the same vein.

On the spur of the moment, Tim Jamieson decides to hitchhike north instead of flying. An acquaintance may have a job for him in New York, but along the way Tim finds a job as a night knocker in a sleepy South Carolina town. Far up north in the Maine wilderness, Luke Ellis wakes up in a room that is not his bedroom. Luke finds that he has been abducted in the night from his Minneapolis home and put into a government facility with several other children. And what is the reason for his and the other children’s abduction? The children are said to have telekinetic and telepathic powers. But why are they locked away from the rest of the world? Tim and Luke’s paths eventually cross, but the effects may be far reaching.

If you’ve read Firestarter, you probably see the similarities already. I also got some strong It vibes with there being a group of children characters fighting against an evil. If you haven’t read those two, you should. But concerning The Institute, it was actually a lot of fun. There was a lot of adventure and excitement, and the secrets of the government facility are unraveled at a good pace. It was great to cheer for the kids in the face of a shady government entity. I wouldn’t call this horror even though that seems to be its given genre. Horrible things do happen, and they even happen to children, but I guess I would call this book more of a dark, modern-day sci-fi? Is that even a real genre?

Anyway, the pacing of the book starts a just little slowly. The book is separated into several sections, with the first forty pages focusing entirely on Tim Jamieson. From then on we focus primarily on the kids in The Institute, so don’t be disappointed or confused by the early focus on Tim. Tim returns later in the novel, and introducing him in depth early on makes more sense in the latter part of the book. Speaking of the latter half of the book, although Stephen King is known for sometimes not ending his books well, I thought that the ending for The Institute was pretty satisfying.

What I disliked about the novel actually bothered me quite bit though. The kids do remind me of the children in It, but one of the reasons for this is that the kids sometimes talk like those kids from the 50’s and 60’s. Maybe I’m just out of touch with the youth, but I haven’t heard phrases like “starvin’ Marvin,” “jeepers,” or “yankin’ your chain” from many people younger than me or even my own age. King threw in a fair amount of modern references that make more sense, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the children’s dialogue often felt too old for them. Luke is a boy genius, so his dialogue was forgivable, but some of the other children just felt a bit off.

You don’t need anyone, especially me, to tell you that a Stephen King book is good. This one is good though, and I would recommend picking it up if it sounds interesting to you. Again, it’s not quite scary but more disturbing. I don’t think it will be a classic like It, but I gave it a solid four out of five stars, and I’ve thought about the book a while after I finished it.




I don’t read much nonfiction, let alone memoirs, but when a book keeps popping up on “best of” lists and it seems like everyone, including my own husband, is interested in one particular memoir, I can’t resist either. And to be fair, the premise sounds almost fictional anyway– a girl from Idaho with basically zero education and crazy doomsday-prepping, government-distrusting parents somehow pulls herself out of her father’s scrapyard and into places like Harvard and Oxford. And it’s a true story.

Tara Westover was born in Idaho to a father who deals in scrap metal and builds barns for a living and a mother who was a homemaker but later became a midwife and alternative healer. Tara recounts parts of her childhood as she works at her family’s businesses alongside her siblings. Tara watches her older siblings grow up and either leave the farm or stay in the tight-knit Mormon community. As Tara grows older, she sees more and more of the outside world. This new perspective affects her complacency at home. Despite having very little formal education, Tara scores high enough to go to BYU. Her hunger for knowledge only increases out in the real world, but she quickly feels out of place in “normal” society. Tara struggles with her identity and wrestles with the expectations her parents had for her, all while trying to become educated.

This can be a tough book to read if mental illness, physical/emotional abuse, manipulation by a loved one, parental expectations/guilt are things you also struggle with. I would say that I am past many of those hurdles because of therapy, but I acknowledge that I could not have read this book a few years earlier without it impacting my mental state in a negative way. So, I’d definitely consider this a trigger warning for all of the aforementioned things!

The book is very, very readable. So, even if nonfiction intimidates you a bit, I would still suggest reading this. At times it reads like a thriller and is hard to put down. While flipping the pages, I asked questions like, will Tara be OK? Will her family come around? Is that person going to hurt her? Tara Westover is a talented writer. She is very good at pulling the reader into her world and not letting them ago until she has finished her story. Whenever I read a memoir that recounts many past events, I definitely question how the author could remember so much in vivid detail to retell it on the page. I liked that Tara admitted when she couldn’t remember something or when her siblings remembered the same event differently. She also kept a journal for most of the events later in the novel. This helps her credibility, in my opinion, and I respect when a writer admits that they can’t remember something instead of making something up and embellishing it for effect.

I know a few people who have read this memoir and said that they simply didn’t believe it. Well, it sounds believable to me. I’m from the middle of nowhere in America too (though not to Tara’s extent), and I know people and families very much like Tara’s who are paranoid, prep for the end of days, or become a little too fixated on religious visions. It certainly happens, but that doesn’t mean everyone who cans their own food is struggling with reality, either. In fact, if you do not know much about extremes of rural America, read this book, but keep in mind the majority of us aren’t crazy.

The only thing about her book that I question is how she got adjusted to life outside her parents’ community and how exactly she got into all of these school and programs. She, of course, mentions a lot of it– scholarships, testing into schools, intense studying, awkward encounters with other students and teachers, etc.– but I still feel that she could have been a little more clear about those aspects of her life in order to fend off more “unbelievers” of her story. However, I am sure that I can find that detailed information elsewhere online, and I am also sure that reading in depth about college entrance practices and the paperwork that goes along with it isn’t very compelling.

With all that being said, this is a book that is well worth just about anyone’s time. You’ll learn more about rural America and some of the strangeness that can come along with being so isolated from society for one thing. But beyond all that, Tara shares a lot of the lessons she has learned, and they can be quite valuable. As I said, she struggles with being who she wants to be and who her parents thinks she should be. She also struggles with leaving home and cutting out toxic people. Her struggles are very relatable at their core, even if her circumstances are very different from yours or mine. I gave Educated four out of five stars.


Series Review: The Southern Reach Trilogy


Earlier this year I reviewed Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer, the first book in The Southern Reach Trilogy. Personally, I loved it, and since then I have seen the movie, which is also worth a watch. The first book is an atmospheric, environmental-horror, stream of consciousness ride. I’m sure that many people read the first book and wondered how the rest of the series played out, or maybe you haven’t started the first book yet and wonder if you’d like to dive into this series. So, this week I will do a little something different and discuss the series as a whole. I hope to answer two main questions to help those on the fence about starting or continuing this series.

Are the next two books worth it? Is the series good or satisfying overall? Yes and yes, but the books are certainly not for everyone. If you like hard sci-fi with precise science and properly explained conclusions, beware. If you like atmospheric novels, unexplained mysteries, bread crumb hints, drawing your own conclusions, and have an abstract appreciation for nature and science, the book might be perfect for you. I will also warn that all three books in the series are very different.

Book 1, Annihilation, is focused on one character and has a thriller-like claustrophobia to it. It has a rather open ending, but it could be happily read as a standalone novel. However, if you are still curious about Area X, the sequel, Authority, does yield a few answers. Again, the focus is on one main character (different from Annihilation‘s protagonist), but instead of taking place in Area X, most of the novel unfolds at The Southern Reach, the laboratory that is studying Area X. There are a lot of “behind the scenes” discoveries about Area X in Authority, but by the end, there are more new questions raised than answers given. As someone who really enjoyed being in Area X, I had a hard time getting through Authority as it felt a bit dull in comparison to Annihilation. Although, oddly, Authority has some humorous moments in an otherwise serious series.

Book 3, Acceptance, rounds out the series well. Multiple characters are followed in the last novel, and we see some old faces from previous books. There are many flashback chapters, but they do a good job of answering how Area X became what it is today, even if it does not explain why. That really sums up the third book: the why doesn’t matter and the how barely does. As I said, don’t expect to have the ending tied up nicely with a bow on top, but the author gives just enough clues throughout the series for careful readers to cobble together an opinion. After finishing the series I had a lot of fun browsing the web for theories concerning the series and its ending. If that doesn’t sound fun to you, again, the series might not be your cup of tea, and that’s completely fine!

As for the writing and characterization, I thought both were strong. Some of the descriptions of Area X are beautiful and yet horror-inducing. The scenes in the lab are oppressive, unsettling, and bleak. Vandermeer’s writing deftly conveys the tone and atmosphere of the novel. I also enjoyed how he got into each character’s head. Their actions make sense and feel realistic. Even when I questioned a character’s decision, it would later be revealed why they did something, and then it would all make sense. At this point I’m just singing praises for the series, but I genuinely think at least the first book is worth a read just for the experience.

I rated Annihilation 4/5 stars, Authority 3/5, and Acceptance 4/5. As a whole, I rated the series 4/5. It was a fun, unique, and thought-provoking series. I enjoyed the overall plot and all of the little details along the way. The scope of the series impressed me, and Jeff Vandermeer is definitely a new favorite author.



I’m sure most of us here remember or have heard of The Girl With All of the Gifts. It is sci-fi/post-apocalyptic novel with action, surprises, heart-warming moments, and it gives a lot of food for thought with its themes. The author’s next novel, Fellside, is more of a mystery/thriller with a touch of fantasy.

Fellside is a maximum security women’s prison in the Yorkshire Moors. Jess Moulson finds herself heading toward the prison after an intentionally-set inferno consumed her apartment, killing a child in the flat above her. Jess has no memory of the fire, and she would have never killed Alex, the child from upstairs that she had befriended. With no memory and no grounds to defend herself, Jess goes to Fellside where she encounters a drug ring, tough and troubled convicts looking for a fight, rampant corruption, and a familiar ghost.

I was completely on board with the tone and pace of this novel, at least during the first half. It is creepy, you are unsure of what is going on, and we start becoming close to the main character who has an unreliable memory. However, I have heard that many readers found the pace of Fellside slow, and I can at least see why. The book begins after the tragic fire, so we know how the biggest plot point turns out, but we spend the rest of the novel rather slowly finding out how it all happened. The novel also focuses on some other subplots related to the prison staff and inmates, but they lack the same emotional pull as the mystery of how/who started the fire and killed Alex. The prison subplots have been done before– corruption, drug rings, prison riots and fights– so I wish there was more focus on Jess’s personal mystery because that felt more unique and interesting.

Although Jess is our main character, there are several chapters that center on other characters within the prison. These chapters usually move the prison-related plots forward, so I found myself wanting more of Jess’s chapters instead. In fact, you could probably completely remove several of the side character chapters without impacting the overall plot much, but it would speed up the book and make it more focused on Jess and the fire. I know it probably sounds like I hated the subplots (I didn’t), but they made the book less unique, they slowed it down, and they took focus away from Jess and her troubles, which was what hooked me to begin with. Add to that, when we do figure out everything about Jess, the ghost, and the fire, I ended up pretty disappointed. Also, I mentioned that there is some fantastical element to the novel. This element is not clearly explained in the way it works, its limitations, and who can use it and why. Some readers won’t care that it isn’t clearly defined, but I know other readers who are more strict about magic systems. I am usually OK with a lot being open to interpretation, but even I wanted a clearer explanation of what was going on. Because things were a little muddled in how they were described, the scenes taking place on other planes of existence felt cheesy and unrealistic, which clashed with how dark and serious the “real world” issues had become by the ending.

I had high hopes for this one, but it was a slight disappointment. M. R. Carey can certainly write, and he has some very unique plot ideas. I am still interested to read more from this author, but this novel wasn’t quite as strong. I gave it a three out of five stars.


The Gloaming


In the fall I like to read Gothic tales and historical fiction– things that are a little gloomy and brooding. The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan fits this mood as well. If you recall my review of The Gracekeepers by the same author, The Gloaming is supposed to be a “spiritual prequel,” though it has little to do with her other novel, and you do not need to have read The Gracekeepers to understand or enjoy The Gloaming.

The Ross family lives in a very large, pink house on an island where people turn to stone instead of dying. In the Ross family we have Peter and Signe and their children, Islay, Mara, and Bee. As with any family, people change, grow, and go away in one way or another. Islay and Mara are both becoming young women, and they must decide whether to stay on their island or find a home elsewhere. The novel includes themes of grief, romantic and familial love, fairy tales, and growing up to name a few. We follow Mara, Islay, and their family throughout a few years of hardship and acceptance.

The Gloaming is a melancholy little novel. Kirsty Logan’s writing is always beautifully descriptive and lyrical but not over written. Her descriptions have an economy to them, and she easily sets the tone of a scene in a few well-chosen sentences. The writing is easily one of the strongest parts of The Gloaming, but that is up to personal taste to some extent. I also enjoyed the characters. I especially liked how Peter and Signe’s relationship was portrayed almost mythically in the beginning of the novel, but as time goes on, the reader learns more about the reality of their relationship’s beginning and a more realistic story unfolds. Mara and Islay both grow up and change in ways that may be surprising but are realistic given their circumstances.

I enjoyed the experience of reading The Gloaming, but the atmosphere and interest in the characters wasn’t quite enough for me. I wish there had been more of a plot. An event tests the family’s bond, which is the catalyst for the novel, but from there it withers out. There’s a love story, some family drama, and of course some death, but there is a lack of direction or urgency. There’s a slight threat in that people turn to stone instead of die on the island, and there’s something about a bridge connecting the island to the mainland, but not much really happens with that until the abrupt ending.

It’s a very character driven novel, and that’s fine for some people, but even I wanted a little more plot to guide the narrative. There are also many flashbacks that slow the pace even more, though they do add a lot to the character development. However, I do wish that some parts of the characters’ lives were shown in more depth. For example, I wanted to see where Islay and Mara went when they parted ways. The ending was also a bit disappointing. It is open ended, but a major event suddenly solves some of the potential plot lines (like the bridge), which felt a little unsatisfying.

This is a novel for people who enjoy fairy tale influences but don’t need a solid plot. If you enjoy character driven novels that are a little dreamy, a little gloomy, this might be perfect for you. For me, it was about a 3.5 out of 5 star read. Enjoyably moody and thoughtful but lacking a little in the plot area.

Real World


As we get closer to fall, I get more in the mood to read mysteries and thrillers. I’m also craving some Gothic fiction, so this fall’s reviews might turn out to be very fitting for the season.

If you remember my review of Out, Real World is by the same author. In Real World, we follow four Japanese high school girls. The girls are all friends, but you can tell that there are some issues with their relationships with one another. As she is getting ready in the morning, one of the girls hears glass breaking and a scream from the house next door. After frantically calling her friends, she sees the neighbor’s son exit the house looking quite pleased with himself. The girls are soon tangled up in a murder investigation, and their differing personalities make them handle the situation in very different ways.

I liked this novel, but I would say that Out is a little stronger in both plot and characterization. In Real World, each chapter is written in first person perspective, but the narrator differs between chapters. The strongest part of the novel, in my opinion, was the characters and how in depth their narratives were. This is a very short novel (~200 pages), but each character is given a bit of backstory, and their pasts impact the current plot line. The reasons behind the decisions that the characters make and why they react to certain events in a specific way are all connected. It was interesting to see how the author pulled back each layer of the characters’ personalities and pasts to highlight their unique thought processes.

Despite all of that, I still considered some of the choices the characters made to be a bit dumb. All of the main characters are teenagers, so some questionable choices are going to be made, but I had a hard time understanding why anyone would make some of these very dangerous choices. Sometimes it felt as if the character made a choice simply to move the plot forward, which made some events near the end feel unrealistic. I also had some issues with the dialogue feeling a little stilted, which could be a translation issue. The author writes in Japanese of course, and the translator for Kirino’s other novel, Out, was different from the translator or Real World, so there could be some difference in translation quality.

I gave Real World three out of five stars. It was an entertaining and fast-paced read, but I felt some character choices and plot points were a little unrealistic. I will certainly read more from this author if I can find more translated works from her.



Collapse begins by telling the story of modern-day Montana’s small towns changing and collapsing. The farms have shuttered, the youth are moving away, and the rich are using the farmland to build mansions in the beautiful valley. This greatly impacts the demographics, economy, and daily life of the people who originally carved out a living by farming, mining, and logging. This is done so that the author can show how real, micro-level problems develop and affect the people living in modern society. Since we cannot get this “micro view” of past collapsed civilizations, this is helpful for perspective’s sake, but some readers might view it as casting doom and gloom on America’s small towns. This is not the case. It is clear that the author has a deep love of Montana and is friends with many of the people there (the book is even dedicated to Montanans).

Collapse was published in 2005, but as it is a history/science book, there have probably been some scientific advances and discoveries since its publication. It is easy to see parallels between modern society and those that have fallen in the past, and in some cases, the book is nearly prophetic in what it suggested would happen after the book was published. All of the environmental and societal issues are presented in a sympathetic but factual way. After setting the stage with Montana’s current problems, the author discusses collapsed island civilizations, native North and South Americans civilizations, as well as Norse civilizations, then the book moves to more modern societies in Rwanda, the Dominican Republic, Hati, China, and Australia. The final part reflects on the causes and cures for civilizations that have or are in danger of collapsing.

You could go into this book with very little environmental knowledge and not knowing much about the histories of these people and regions. For each civilization, the author explains the geography and issues with each settlement, how the people lived/live, what factors led or are leading to their downfall, and ultimately what happened to the settlers or what was left of the land after the humans died or left. The text is accompanied by detailed maps and a few photos of the regions, people, and artifacts from the civilizations analyzed in the text. Particularly in the long chapters on Greenland and Iceland, the text drags with smaller, inconsequential details that cloud the main point of the chapter. A little more editing might have helped, but the massive amount of detail lets the reader more clearly picture parts of daily life in these past civilizations. I was just surprised that chapters on smaller civilizations sometimes had more detail than modern, more developed societies, like China. The text might be a bit long winded and dry at times, but I read this 542 (not counting the index and bibliography) book very quickly. If this is a topic that interests you, I am sure you will be as hooked as I was.

Other reviewers seem to enjoy the author’s previous book, Guns, Germs, and Steel (which won a Pulitzer Prize) a bit more because it is a little less meandering, so I will certainly pick that one up soon. Although it was a little depressing to read, I learned a lot from this book and would give it 4 out of 5 stars. My biggest takeaway would be this: humans must always be willing to adapt to survive, and greed, a lack of foresight, and  prioritizing the wrong things (large monuments, luxury items over needs) will lead to a civilization’s downfall. Luckily, humans are great at adapting, but we just have to be willing to do it.