Shepherd & the Professor – By Dan Klefstad

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*Note : I received a digital copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review*

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Synopsis2

Most people take comfort knowing their family and friends will remember them after they die. For Susan Shepherd, “remembering” is bullshit. She wants an eternal shrine to her sacrifice: a book that never goes out of print.

Shepherd served her country in the Gulf War, got shot while serving her community as a cop, raised an ungrateful daughter by herself — and for what? A diagnosis of terminal cancer and she isn’t even fifty. If you were in her shoes, you might agree that nothing short of national perpetual acknowledgement will do.

She’s glad you feel that way; she just wrote a memoir and sent a flurry of query letters, hoping a publisher will memorialize her with a best-seller. After hitting Send, she waits not-at-all patiently for an editor to decide if her story will sell enough copies — that is, if her life really mattered.

My review

The writingUnconventional and refreshing. Slightly acerbic at times, Klefstad isn’t afraid to let his characters indulge in highly-charged conversations at the risk of not sounding PC. The format of the book does lend itself to being categorized as an epistolary (but it is one long query letter, and not a series of short ones) and it did take some time for me to get used to the changing narrators (as different people take over at from Susan at different times) and the initial time-leaps in the reminiscences. But once the book hit its stride – I got more comfortable reading it after 35-40% – I appreciated the atmospheric detailing that made the small university town of Charters come alive.

(Check out some of my favorite quotes from the book here.)

The charactersThis is Susan’s story and I found it interesting that Klefstad completely skips addressing the details about the big cancer-related chapter of her life – and I think it is a gutsy decision! I mean, kudos to the author for not making this entire book and Susan’s life about cancer.  Instead, we are given brief glimpses of a couple of early incidents in her life, including her only significant but brief relationship with a guy (who is the father of her child). All these experiences left indelible marks but I would like to think they only made her stronger and more equipped to deal with everything that came with single-parenting.  But from what we see of Susan’s twenty-something daughter Emma, and by Susan’s own admission, she has a lot of regrets with how things have turned out for her daughter. Although as a reader, Emma is absolutely infuriating to read about, an ungrateful brat who is hell-bent on throwing away whatever her mom is working very hard to provide.

Though this is Susan’s story on the query letter, the plot itself doesn’t move by the precipitating actions of any one single character. It is an ensemble plot in the truest sense as every character’s actions have a ripple effect though each one thinks they are doing what is required for them to survive and move up in Charters. So, there is a student, who is at loggerheads with his devout lecturer by arguing the under-representation of atheism in literature. Then there is a campus law enforcement chief vying for the position of the new President of the University. There is a also a radio jockey fighting to keep the seven-minute interview hosting slots amid reports of falling ratings. Finally, there is a woman identifying herself as Judy Peterson who is a bit of an enigma, a loose cannon willing to do what it takes to become the president.

Through all this radio station, university and law enforcement politics, there is a shady drug dealing business that Susan keeps trying to shoo away from Emma and herself, but her efforts prove futile as Emma is bullish about sticking to her drug-peddling boyfriend.

The plottingI felt that the book could have used one single high-stakes plot point centering all the characters instead of many – such as the president nomination, funds misappropriation, drugs consumption, investigative journalism and so on. The only thing holding these characters together in one book is the university and I just found the whole plot surrounding the president post a bit weak and unconvincing. Maybe it is because I could never get a sense of how “evil” Judy is. I mean, she is described as someone who has gotten away with scheming for years and yet, she makes so many mistakes – so many basic ones – that I just couldn’t believe she has never got caught. She came across as too vulnerable.

Then there was this drug peddling business that the Sheriff’s department has been looking for an opportunity to bust. I was a bit confused about how the entire thing went down. The department apparently was “successful” by the end of it, but the result of the entire operation seemed to be a heap of mess, so I am not sure what happened there.

Overall impressionsWould definitely recommend the book if you want to read something that just – well – reads differently! It tested my patience at times (especially the first half), but I began enjoying the leisurely vibe later on.

The Probability of Miracles – By Wendy Wunder

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Campbell “Cam” Cooper is seventeen, lives in Florida and is from a family of Polynesian dance show “Spirit of Aloha” performers at Disney.  When she isn’t dancing alone in front of the mirror, she is doing morning work shifts at one of Disney’s restaurant kitchens. She has also recently received a letter of acceptance from Harvard. And oh, she has cancer.

When she isn’t visiting doctors, she spends time in feeding her canary and crossing off things to do (before you die) from a “Flamingo List” (like erm.. shoplifting) , a list penned by her best friend and another cancer fighter, Lily. After being in and out of trials, treatments and hospital visits for years, she is finally told that science just isn’t going to cut it anymore, miracle is what she needs.

What follows is a road-trip with her mother and kid sister, journey to a hard-to-find quaint little town called Promise in Maine, which is said to have healing powers. Where queer things happen; like sunrise and sunset in the exact same spot, dandelions growing purple, and flamingos flocking near winter.  Where she meets Asher .. and her heart skips a beat *winks*.

Is it also where Cam gets another shot at life? Just what are the probabilities of miracles happening here?

My thoughts:

Cam is a rockstar! Though she wouldn’t like to admit it, she is such a goofball even when she is perpetually moping around.  I loved the entire family unit – her mom Alicia, sister Perry and her Nana. None of them ever give up on her till the end, and keep trying to advocate “in favour of” Promise being a miracle town.  So when Cam tries to orchestrate miracles of her own to keep up their belief, they feel affronted and hurt.

It was such a sad irony that a Disney dweller seeks for a fairy tale ending in another place, away from the make-believe settings that Cam keeps jesting about. But I loved how the story comes to a full circle.. when she is homesick and looks back with fond memories of the place she came from.. Maybe that is the miracle that worked for Cam.. to realize that the probability of a miracle doesn’t increase or depend on a place… nor can be forced or conjured.

It is about believing.. of finding happiness .. in your first love, or a first part time job, the one best friend who has stood by you, breaking curfews under your mum’s nose, sharing egg creams with your sister, or rescuing a newly hatched flamingo!  Just recognizing that the cancer doesn’t have to define the entire “You”.

I felt the story meandered a bit though (the kind of meandering that would probably translate better into a screenplay), and the “Flamingo List” plot device was kind of a weak spot … or maybe just wasn’t used too well. She sort of unintentionally ends up crossing off most of the things in the list every time, so it isn’t like the list acts as some source of motivation to achieve something. More than anything else, the author used it just to bring up Cam and Lily’s zany friendship in the book occasionally. Or maybe I just didn’t get it.

For those who have read The Fault In Our Stars:

Well, one big similarity is that both have a female teen protagonist (Cam and Hazel) diagnosed with cancer. However, unlike TFOIS, where the love story plays out as a major part of the book and also in Hazel’s personal journey, the Cam-Asher story didn’t make much of an impact in my mind. This is perfectly fine with me, as the book had an array of other characters that enriched Cam’s life. I liked that the author focussed on Cam and we meet and get to know everyone else through her (including Asher) and not letting the teen romance overwhelm the later part of the book.