Monday, July 28, 2014

Book Review: Help for the Haunted

I'm not the kind of person who loves ghost stories or just has to see the latest scary movie, but not because I hate being scared. It's just that ghost stories and the paranormal can be so scary. I don't just scare easily, I scare very easily. Pity my husband after we watch a scary movie or after I read a book about ghosts. I basically become his shadow and he can't do anything without me right there behind him, demanding he turn on all the lights in the room. However, I decided to give Help for the Haunted a chance because it's not just a pure ghost story. There's a lot of doubt that creeps in, and it's full of mystery and a healthy streak of whodunit that ties it squarely to the land of the living.

Sylvie Mason’s parents have an unusual occupation: helping “haunted souls” find peace. After receiving a phone call late one snowy night, they are lured to an old church on the outskirts of town, where Sylvie falls asleep in the car and is awoken by the sound of gunshots.

Orphaned on that night, Sylvie comes under the care of her reckless, distant older sister, still living in the rambling Tudor house that guards the relics of her parents’ past. As she pursues the mystery of their deaths, Sylvie’s story weaves back and forth between the time leading up to the murders and the months following, uncovering the truth of what happened that night—and the secrets that have haunted her family for years.

First things first: Sylvie's parents are a piece of work. Her father is self-righteous, in that "God said man was head of the family and the womenfolk in my household will do what I say" kind of way. Her mother, while sweet and gentle, has no backbone to stand up for herself. And her sister Rose, in whose care she is left (care being the operative word here), is in the throes of terrible teenager-dom when suddenly she has to take charge of her little sister following her parents' death. Spoiler alert: she does a terrible job. But Sylvie, sweet Sylvie, powers through most of this without becoming too jaded or spiteful herself. She tolerates teasing at school, her sister's wild mood swings, and her grief over losing her parents, all while working to uncover the secrets surrounding the night her parents died.

The book skips back and forth a lot--starting in the middle of the action on the night her parents died, and then jumping around with flashbacks, etc. I found this kind of confusing, but I'm the kind of person who has trouble with any story (book, movie, you name it) that doesn't unfold in a linear fashion. This is more a reflection of me than the book, but if you are the same way, be warned. Because of this narrative structure, I found the pacing to be a little strange at times. Parts of the story seem to unfold slowly, and then just before you're ready to give up, the author puts in another little twist or clue that has you reading on to find out what happens. The ending wasn't a total surprise for me (and I'm not going to spoil it here) but I did think it was cleverly done. The climax of ghost stories can often be totally hit or miss, and John Searles definitely does not "miss" in Help for the Haunted. This would be the perfect story to read as the days get shorter and cooler in the fall (although I'm still kind of hoping for an endless summer because we all know that after fall comes winter, shudder).

Also to note: this would be a great book club book. I've found that books where there is any ambiguity foster great discussions and lots of thrilling and scary personal anecdotes. Book clubs that sign up to chat with John Searles about Help for the Haunted could win a tote bag of books for each member of their book club! Find out more details about John Searles’ goal to speak to a book club in each state of the United States over at Book Club Girl!

Disclosure: TLC Book Tours provided me with a complimentary copy of this book to review. The opinions and views are all mine.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

5 Tips for Reining in Spending

This past weekend, after I impulsively bought a new trench coat* from the Nordstrom anniversary sale that I did not need even a little bit, I decided that something had to be done. I am officially going on a mini spending freeze. Nothing as drastic as superfrugality month, but enough to get back to saving for what I really want instead of reaching for my credit card with reckless abandon every time I see something pretty. 

Generally I have my personal finance ducks in a row. However, I am not above temptation, and my adherence to my monthly budget ebbs and flows. I’ve overspent a bit recently, mostly on clothes and accessories I don’t need, so I decided a mini spending freeze is in order for the next six weeks, through the end of August. Want to play along at home? Here are some of my tried-and-true tips for getting back on track. 

1.  Put down the credit card. For me, this is the number one way to stop spending money: I just have to make my credit card annoyingly hard to use. I alternate between leaving it at home and carrying it in my wallet with a brightly colored post-it stuck to the front that says something like “NO!” or “WHAT ARE YOU BUYING WITH ME?!” Take it from me: being at the cash register and having to pull out a credit card with a big goofy note stuck to the front will do a lot to curb unnecessary spending.

2. Return stuff (provided you can and want to). Some people never return things. Perhaps they mean to but never get around to it, or they lose the receipts, or something else keeps them from getting that item back to the store. Not me; I love returning things. I read return policies with zeal usually reserved for more exciting endeavors. I almost never buy anything that’s not returnable. So, for the next week or so I’ll be returning a few recent purchases that I only feel so-so about. At this point, I’d almost always rather have the money back in my pocket than yet another article of clothing. I have so, so many clothes. 

3. Assess the damage, and take a look at the rest of the month. Once I’ve put away my credit card and returned anything I wasn’t crazy about in the first place, I take a look at how much money I have for the rest of the month, or until my next paycheck is going to come along. Then I assess. Do I need to move some money around to different accounts? Are there any outstanding bills or big expenses I need to be ready for, or is the time until my next paycheck just going to feel extra lean?

4.  Make a plan for getting back on track. This is actually my favorite part, because it makes me feel more in control, and I love having a plan. Depending on the damage, my plan could involve eating out less for the next couple weeks or picking up an extra babysitting gig or freelance project, etc. Anything to make money coming in tally up to more than money going out. Usually all I need to do is not eat out or hit up Starbucks and I’m back in the black again. 

5. Remind myself that I have enough stuff. Most of what I’m wasting my money on is just that: stuff. I almost never regret paying for experiences, but the shine of a new outfit or thing quickly wears off. If I just look around my apartment or try to fit another hanger into my closet I’m reminded that I have more than enough possessions and the urge to spend money on another thing is effectively squashed. 

So, like I said, I’m going on a spending freeze for the next 6 weeks or so, until the end of August, and I’m vowing not to buy any more new clothes or unnecessary frivolities. D and I want to take a trip over our Christmas break (the only time we both get enough days off in a row) and I plan to take any extra money I have after my spending freeze and move it over to that vacation fund. What we have planned is way more fun than a cute new fedora, even if it was on sale. 

*That trenchcoat is on its way back. I already have a kickass raincoat that I just bought at the beginning of the summer. I don’t know what I was thinking. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book Review: The New Men

It’s no secret that I’m fascinated by Detroit--the city, the history, and the industry that made it the way it is today. I’ve read several nonfiction books about Detroit in the last few years but no fiction, so this book, a historical story set in Detroit at the height of the Ford Motor Company’s dominance in the city, fit nicely into my “all about Detroit” book niche. 

For us, the new man, he is one of two things. First, he is the new worker, a man we instruct and investigate until his probation is complete. But also he is an idea. In the foundry, they make parts. On the line, they make autos. But in Sociological, we make men.

Tony Grams comes to America at the start of the twentieth century, set on becoming a new man. Driven to leave poverty behind, he lands a job at the Ford Motor Company that puts him at the center of a daring social and economic experiment. The new century and the new auto industry are bursting with promise, and everyone wants Henry Ford’s Model T. But Ford needs men to make it. Better men. New men. Men tough enough and focused enough to handle the ever-bigger, ever-faster assembly line. Ford offers to double the standard wage for men who will be thrifty, sober, and dedicated… and who will let Ford investigators into their homes to confirm it.

Tony has just become one of those investigators. America and Ford have helped him build a new life, so at first he’s eager to get to work. But world war, labor strife, and racial tension pit his increasingly powerful employer against its increasingly desperate enemies. As Tony and his family come under threat from all sides and he faces losing everything he’s built, he must struggle with his conscience and his weaknesses to protect the people he loves.

The first thing that struck me about this book was that it was more scholarly than most fiction I pick up. From the first pages, where the author makes extensive notes about dialogue and word choice to prepare the reader for the book ahead, through the carefully detailed descriptions of places and furnishings, you can tell that Jon Enfield got everything exactly right. A quick flip to the “About the Author” section reveals that he received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago for his dissertation on the relationships between American film and fiction 1910-1940. Ah, that explains it.

However, the overly attentive detail and dialogue should not put you off of this book. It’s not exactly a light beach read, but rather a closer look into a social experiment by the Ford Motor Company that most people don’t know much about. It also raises interesting questions about the role of a company in the lives of its workers, which is something that definitely still has relevance today, whether or not we realize it. 

Enfield explores this theme and more through the main character, Tony Grams, who while not exactly likable is a good tool for delving into the darker side of this for-profit company’s social experiment. Henry Ford was widely touted for his “$5 A Day” proclamation, but the idea of more than doubling some of his workers’ pay wasn’t solely an act of goodwill; it was actually aimed at reducing the extremely high turnover in his auto plants, which was negatively affecting production. Tony’s  experiences also reflect the politics and social changes of the time--he has a relationship with a divorcee and observes racial tension and its repercussions in the town, and much more. Overall, I found the book interesting and well-researched. If the history of the auto industry or the city of Detroit interest you at all, pick it up, with the caveat that it’s not exactly a lighthearted beach read. 

Disclosure: TLC Book Tours provided me with a complimentary copy of this book to review. The opinions and views are all mine.