Sunday, August 5, 2012

MY SISTER LIVES ON THE MANTLEPIECE/Annabel Pitcher


Jamie's older sister Rose haunts the family from the mantelpiece in this hard-hitting children's novel. She lives there. She's spoken to, she's offered food and she even manages to buy her family gifts. But Rose is dead. In fact, she was killed in a terrorist attack 5 years previously and Jamie can barely remember her - let alone cry for her. In contrast, Jamie's parents' inability to let her go eventually tears the family apart. Mum walks out, Dad drinks to forget and Jamie and Rose's remaining twin Jasmine are left desperately trying to patch their lives back together.

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece is an honest and unsentimental portrayal of an imperfect family struggling to come to terms with the death of a child. It's telling that this children's book feels more authentic than the majority of popular adult 'tragic lit' titles (or whatever Waterstones are labelling them as this year). Far from featuring stock, dependable adult characters, in Pitcher's world grief has made children out of the adults and adults of the children.

Jamie is an unselfconscious narrator and he paints a brutally clear picture of the children's neglected state. The faith that he relentlessly places in his mother could distress some adult readers. But the success of this book suggests that children respond well to such a honest representation of a dysfunctional family. And why shouldn't they? Children are on the whole much more honest than adults. And their response to death is usually way more pragmatic than an adult's. In short, Jamie's parents could stand to learn a lot from him.

The book has its sweet moments as Jamie interacts with his sister and his only friend Sunya, (a friendship that Jamie's Dad would definitely NOT approve of). It's clear early on that his chance for happiness rests on these two young pairs of shoulders. I was a little disappointed that the author has made both of the only 2 nurturing/supportive figures in the novel female. I suppose it just felt predictable, especially as the school bully was male, for the parenting void in his live to be filled by two females.

Also the romantic aspect of Jamie and Sunya's relationship didn't really ring true for me. His infatuation seemed to devalue their friendship in the way that it served as a convenient motivation for his continued resistance to his Dad's tyranny. It would have been way cooler if Sunya's personality (which did rock) was the main instigator for Jamie's loyalty rather than an attraction which seemed to border on a fetishness for Sunya's cultural differences. It felt like the crush had been added mainly for the benefit of the adult cute factor and removing it could have opened up the book to more young male readers.

Those issue aside there's a lot to like about this book. I always like books that hand the reins to kids in difficult situations and I really value the honesty surrounding this difficult topic. It's also a pretty funny read too. 3/5 stars.
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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

TURNING PRO/Stephen Pressfield

I didn't think Pressfield could get more kick-ass about making art after the WAR OF ART and DO THE WORK, but he did. Like the other two, the book's premise is all about beating that insidious force of Resistance that plagues all of us, sapping our will to compose, write, play, and otherwise make art. 

You may think at first glance that Pressfield is treading familiar water after two other books on resisting Resistance to make art. He is, but each book in his 'making art' canon can be looked at as following the 'hero' journey of the artist. THE WAR OF ART discusses the decision to start, while DO THE WORK takes on the concept of sustaining the discipline it takes to finish a piece of work. TURNING PRO takes things up a notch by insisting the artist must establish a rigid discipline and trust the Muse. But they all rail against Resistance--something Pressfield himself readily admits he still struggles with. 

These are books you can go back to again and again when you have those inevitable 'all is lost' moments. With Pressfield, there are no seminars, no CDs to order, no podcasts to listen to. He's not a guru. He's just like you: sitting there in front of the computer, typing word after word and trusting the Muse. 


This is totally worth the money.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

ONE DAY/David Nicholls

I'm always way behind the curve on fads and trends (usually, in fact, I manage to miss out on them altogether, or deliberately spurn them out of distaste for the sheep mentality). This book became a huge sleeper hit about three years ago, and has already been made into a film. I'd heard quite a bit about it, but never thought I'd bother to read it. However, being on holiday, I have lots of time for reading, and so...



The book's conceit is to chart a relationship between a man and a woman over nearly twenty years by presenting a snapshot of their lives on a single day in each year - the same day, July 15th, year after year. It's an intriguing idea, the kind of thing that helps to sell a book to publishers, and also perhaps to many readers. But it is a gimmick, and gimmicks - unless deployed very skillfully - soon become tiresome. David Nicholls does carry this off pretty well, I think; but over the course of a long-ish novel, the constant repetition of the one-day-per-year device starts to grate. Perhaps the overall span of the book is more the problem than the one-day premise itself: while some of the individual day-chapters are quite short, several of them are fairly substantial, and so the book as a whole ends up being nearly twice as long as you'd expect. I would have been quite happy for him to skip a few years here and there.

Another problem, I found, with sustaining interest in such a lengthy tale, is that neither of the protagonists is really all that sympathetic. Dexter is the more obvious monster, a narcissist and an alcoholic. But Emma - the  smart, principled half of the pair - becomes increasingly alienating as the story wears on: as she assesses herself late in the book, she is "self-pitying, self-righteous, self-important, all the selfs except self-confident..." - and hence rather tiresome company after the first two hundred pages or so.

The book is often very funny, although elements satirizing British class consciousness, London nightlife during the 1990s, and popular television will be largely missed by, and perhaps even alienate non-British readers. Also, I feel it is a structural or stylistic weakness of the book that it is just a bit too funny, or more particularly that its two lead characters are so relentlessly funny. Emma converses almost entirely in barbed one-liners, and Dexter more or less matches her in wry wit, which seems at odds with his supposedly nice-but-dim character. Their voices aren't really distinguished from one another, and they don't come across in their speech as believable characters. And there is an awful lot of dialogue in this book - perhaps a result of Nicholls having cut his teeth as a TV screenwriter. It's diverting and amusing, but it fails the realism test - and there's a bit too much of it. (One of Emma's boyfriends is an aspiring stand-up comedian, who is mocked for trying too hard to be funny all the time, and failing. His humour is lame, and too effortful, but it is the overdoing of it that is the main object of scorn - and this is a vice that Nicholls himself might have done more to guard against, I feel. Moreover, on a related quibble in regard to realism, I do not believe that a struggling, unfunny comedian could ever survive being in a relationship with someone who is effortlessly witty all the time.)

I didn't find the central premise of the story plausible either. Emma and Dexter get off with each other at a student party and wind up in bed together, but - somehow - don't actually have sex. However, they become best friends - though there's clearly an intense sexual chemistry between them (well, Emma is outright infatuated with him; Dexter feels a deep affection for her, but, as he is handsome and wealthy, he gets more sex than he knows what to do with, and so is perpetually distracted from pursuing his apparent "soulmate"). I do not believe such an intense and exclusive friendship is possible between a man and a woman, even without the complication of frustrated mutual attraction. And the will-they?-won't-they? tension between Em and Dex - clearly the main hook for the reader - soon becomes less titillating, more irritating. Fifteen years of coitus interruptus is no fun for anyone.

I had some problems with the one-day structure as well. It's just not plausible that so many significant events in the lives of this pair would happen on this one day. Furthermore, given that the significance of anniversaries is elsewhere prominently noted in the book, it's not plausible that neither of them would ever remark on this being the anniversary of their first getting together. The choice of date is jarringly weird as well: I found myself repeatedly stumbling over some dissonant fact - They're putting on a school play in the middle of July? They're having university graduation ceremonies in the middle of July? Wimbledon is still going on in the middle of July? These are all events that we would normally expect to take place 2-4 weeks earlier. Perhaps Nicholls was trying to subtly signal to us that his story is set in a parallel universe where things are not entirely as we know them? Or perhaps he is just unconcerned about factual accuracy: a lot of the social and political references he throws in are very token attempts to underline the passage of time, and some of these don't seem quite right to me either.

Nicholls writes very well, but could have done with a better editor. There were a few linguistic tics that really started to rankle with me, things that could easily have been removed. I like the word 'woozy', but it is a rare-ish and unduly eyecatching word, not one to be overused; I certainly don't want to be encountering its adverb form 'woozily' every single bloody time anyone's had a drink. Nor, come to that, do I want to be given the excuse every time someone gets 'woozy' that it's only because they've been drinking "on an empty stomach". (There is rather a lot of drinking in this story. Dexter clearly has a major problem with drink, but strangely - and rather unsatisfyingly - this is never directly addressed.) Another example: there are many ways in which you can describe someone repositioning themselves in bed, but Nicholls latched on to 'shuffling' as a placeholder - and so, in the opening scene where young Dexter and Emma are sharing a bed for the first time, one or other of them 'shuffles' a good half a dozen or so times within the space of two or three pages. I find this kind of sloppiness intensely annoying.

The key to the book's extraordinary success has usually been identified as its having equal appeal to both male and female readers - the romantic element supposedly appealing more to women, but the unconventional nature of the romance and the associated social commentary making it more acceptable to men. Nicholls is astute in his observations of human foibles, particularly in regard to the failure of romantic relationships. This book is an easy - though slightly overlong - read, extremely funny, and in places quite moving. However, I'm afraid I didn't find the characterization - or much of the background detail - convincing, and I have mixed feelings about the success of the structural gimmick on which the book is based. I am a hopeless romantic slushbucket, a man with a strong 'feminine side' and many close female friends - the ideal reader, you would think, for a book like this. Unfortunately, this tale of thwarted romance failed to charm me: the characters are unlikeable, their relationship unbelievable, their predicament uninvolving.

Monday, July 2, 2012

I AM THE CHEESE/Robert Cormier

It's pretty sad that I never heard of Robert Cormier before his death. I saw a review of a new edition of I Am the Cheese on NPR's website and decided to pick the book up from the library.

Adam Farmer is a 14-year-old boy trying to take a package from Monument, Massachusetts to his father in Rutterburg, Vermont. In order to do so, he must abandon his mother and his best friend, Amy Hertz.

He has a little more than $39—enough for a couple of overnight stays in hotels and some food for the 70+ mile trip. He's anxious to see his father, so one morning he pours all his pills down the bathroom sink, gets the package, and takes off.

The novel flips back and forth between Adam's journey and an ongoing conversation between a patient and a doctor. We learn that Adam's family was in an early version of the Witness Protection Program; as an investigative reporter his father revealed some smarmy secrets of a vast criminal network (what the secrets were was never revealed) and the family had to go into hiding. They're protected by Grey, FBI agent #2222, a character as featureless and vague as his name.

As details from Adam's old life emerge in from the patient, Adam runs into trouble on the road. A strange voice answers at Amy's number and claims to have had that number for three years—a statement that confuses Adam since it hasn't been nearly that long since he's seen her. He also encounters three hoodlums who terrify him on a lonely stretch of road, and his bike is stolen. Additionally, he encounters a man who appears to be a child molester.

Yet it's the conversations that are most disconcerting. They're undated, but slowly we realize the patient is Adam himself. (Or at least, I slowly realized it.) During these conversations we start to gather that he's a patient in a mental hospital, and he doesn't remember very much. As he does remember, we start to see why it's so difficult for him to seize upon his painful past.

As much as I enjoyed this novel, learning the origins of the title was the most fun part for me. I didn't know the entire sequence of the nursery rhyme "The Farmer In the Dell." Nor did I know that not only is it a nursery rhyme, but a game. The last verse is:

The cheese stands alone
The cheese stands alone
Heigh ho the derry-o
The cheese stands alone

the last stage of the game. The goal of the game is to not be the cheese. If you are the cheese, you've lost the game. But there's a dual meaning in that throughout the novel, you can't escape the overwhelming sense that in many ways, Adam was and is the cheese—not only the loser of the game, but the bait of the opponent in order for the game to continue. 

*I actually didn't read the 30th anniversary edition of this book, but I love the cover so much, I added it here. I think it conveys the spirit of the story better than other covers I've seen. I will definitely be reading more by Cormier. I'm only sorry I discovered him so late. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER/Walter Lord

I've been curious to read this for years, having loved the 1958 black & white film version of this riveting account of the last hours of the Titanic when I was a small child (still widely praised as the best cinema treatment of the story; I watched it again just recently, and much prefer its no-frills docudrama approach to James Cameron's histrionic melodrama; with a story this powerful, you really don't want improbable fictions ladled all over it), and having become a bit of an obsessive about the disaster as a result. However, I'd somehow never got around to it... until I was lucky enough to win a copy a couple of weeks ago in a Titanic-themed trivia quiz to mark the centenary of the tragic sinking - in the early hours of the morning on April 15th, 1912.

Walter Lord's book, first published in 1956, immediately won warm reviews for its economical storytelling, although I didn't find his authorial presence as 'invisible' as some of those contemporary critics did: there is wry wit, and occasional judgment here and there, but it's not obtrusive. Overall, Lord's style is refreshingly spare, and he strives always for understanding and forgiveness rather than condemnation of the more questionable conduct which may have contributed to the disaster or which followed from it. On occasions, though, Lord's studied silence can be more damning than overt comment: Captain Stanley Lord, commanding the nearby S.S. Californian, who exhibited an incomprehensible indifference to reports of a ship in possible distress a few miles to the south, does not emerge well from Lord's account - although the only explicit comment on his actions is veiled in a bitter sarcasm.

Subsequently, this book has been honoured as inaugurating the genre of 'oral history', soon to be applied on  a much broader scale to accounts of World War II by Cornelius Ryan, and later by Studs Terkel and others. It's a pity, though, that Lord didn't embark on his great work until some 40 years after the disaster: he only managed to speak to 63 survivors, many of whom were already fairly elderly; Charles Lightoller, the quietly heroic 2nd Officer who would soon be immortalised on film by Kenneth More, had recently passed away at the age of 78. Perhaps half of the book is derived from various memoirs, news reports, and transcripts of the various inquiries into the disaster.

For the Titanic nerd like myself, the major complaint would be that the book isn't detailed enough: it doesn't attempt to analyse the causes of the disaster, or speculate on what alternative actions might have been taken to avert or ameliorate it. But this was not the task that Lord set himself: he just wanted to make the disaster accessible to people, to provide a brisk and vivid portrait of the sinking of the ship from the perspective of those who actually witnessed it. In achieving that limited aim, the book is an exemplary success. Indeed, the one regret for most readers will probably be that it is over so soon. This surprisingly short book - barely 170 pages - can be read in less than three hours. If you read it in one sitting, it provides an eerily 'real-time' experience of the loss of the magnificent ship and more than 1,500 lives aboard her.

Do check out the film version of A Night To Remember as well - like the book that inspired it, an enduring classic.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

ELIZABETH THE QUEEN/Sally Bedell Smith

FTC: I received a free paperback version of this book from Random House for a Goodreads History Book Club discussion.

Prior to reading this, I didn't have a lot of interest in the English royal family. I grew up during their most tumultuous years, when it seemed every week brought fresh "revelations" about the exploits of Princess Diana or Prince Charles. I never thought about it growing up, but all those tabloid covers left me with a distinct negative impression of Queen Elizabeth, and of the royal family as a whole.

This book changes all of that. Bedell Smith is an obvious admirer of the Queen, so this biography is hardly objective. But objectivity is not really the job of the biographer—accuracy is. Given the copious source notes and extensive bibliography, I think Bedell Smith achieved this. It's clear she really did her homework. I don't think she would have been able to create such an engaging, illuminating biography of Elizabeth II if there weren't plenty of evidence to support her view.

What is Bedell Smith's view? It's certainly at odds with the press, which has presented Elizabeth II as cold, stolid, and out of touch—a prism that couldn't be further from the truth. Turns out the Queen is an excellent diplomat who has skillfully kept the monarchy relevant while maintaining its timeless mystique—and this in a time when the monarchy is no longer wholly constitutionally relevant in England. Her qualities, so derided in the tabloids, are actually worth admiring. We're so used to seeing celebrities and the like emotionally slobber all over everything in their path, the Queen's self discipline, grace under pressure, and emotional control in the public arena actually come off as qualities to which we can all aspire. In private, she is warm and accepting, using the same diplomatic skills to manage the difficult personalities in her private life as in the public sphere.

One of the most surprising revelations was that Princess Diana's emotional problems had an enormous effect on her marriage. Princess Diana was hugely popular with the press and in their eyes could pretty much do no wrong, but in private she was very troubled. The constant press attention contributed to her problems significantly, but that didn't stop her from feeding tidbits of information (and misinformation) to reporters. I was shocked to read that she participated in an "unauthorized" biography that was scathingly critical of the royal family and then lied directly to the Queen about it. In spite of this, Princess Diana and the Queen were closer than the press ever let on, and there is evidence the royal family tried to get Diana help for her personal issues, such as her bulimia. The criticism Elizabeth II received after Princess Diana's death was a little heartbreaking to read, given that she spent a lot of time in private consoling her grandsons.

There were many comments among the History Book Club members regarding the Queen and Prince Philip's lack of skills as parents—which readers picked up on early in the book. Their situation could hardly compare to that of normal parents. Queen Elizabeth really does feel she belongs to the Commonwealth and she put duty above family as her children were growing up, which turned out to be tragic, given some of their exploits. The same traits that have made her such an effective diplomat worked against her somewhat in a family setting. Yet, the book does such an effective job of showing the Queen and her family as real people, it's hard for me to judge.

Overall, I walked away with a much more favorable view of the royal family than I had before reading the book. I'm not sure I believe monarchies are relevant in our world today, but then, I'm an American. Yet the book is fascinating and illuminates not only the Queen, but a good deal about her job, how England works, and how the monarchy can be an effective diplomacy tool. Totally worth the time and effort, especially if you have any interest in England and/or the Commonwealth at all. Five stars. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

THE HAPPINESS ADVANTAGE/Shawn Achor

This book is one of a growing library of research that supports what I've believed for the past few years: that happiness is a skill you can develop. What's great about this book is that it doesn't make the assumption that something is inherently wrong with the reader, and gives readers practical advice about small things they can do to get their brains more tuned in to being happy. It's a state of mind—one that does come more naturally to some than others—but it's also a muscle that can be exercised. And there's no "secret" to it, as many so-called self-help books suggest. It's just doing small things, such as writing three good things down every night, whether it's three good things that happened over the course of a day (no matter how small) or three things you're grateful for. (If you really want to get wild and crazy, you could record both.) Doing this can rewire your brain to see more possibilities, more insights, and help you see and seize upon opportunity when it arises. It's a book geared more toward business people and leaders looking to make their workplaces happier, but I think anyone could benefit from reading this. I certainly did.

Also, Achor is funny.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

THE LITTLE STRANGER/Sarah Waters


Dr. Faraday is a hardworking country doctor who has known The Hundreds Hall and its estate since he was a boy; his mother was a maid there for the Ayres family. Back then, the house was like many other English estates of its class: majestic and full and a bit awe inspiring. By the time Dr. Faraday is grown, however, the Hall and estate have fallen into disrepair, the victim of the new Labour party and its socialist ideas.

As an adult, he strays upon the house quite by accident—or so it seems to him. Because his partner is unavailable, Dr. Faraday goes to treat Mrs. Ayres—one of the last surviving members of the Ayres family—and immediately finds himself enchanted by the house again, just like he was as a boy. Soon, he becomes not only the Ayres family doctor, but a close friend of the family—particularly to Caroline, Mrs. Ayres’s daughter.

His fate becomes entwined with theirs—something he’s only too happy to allow to happen, since it allows him to see the Hall nearly every day. And here Sarah Waters shows us some of her skills, for Dr. Faraday seems completely unaware that he’s mostly motivated by his obsession for the Hundreds estate. As “the little stranger” makes itself known, he explains everything away as only a doctor of that time could.

And here’s more evidence of Waters’s skill: the incidents really can be explained away in rational terms. Even in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, there’s a clear supernatural element. This novel is subtler. Because the story is told in first person from Dr. Faraday’s point of view, we are told of the scary incidents second-hand, so each incident hinges on interpretation. After awhile, you begin to feel that perhaps you’re not getting the whole story from Faraday, that he’s shading the telling ever so subtly in favor of showing each individual of the Ayres family as mad.

This way he doesn’t have to take responsibility for his part. While it’s clear Faraday truly does care immensely about the Ayres family, he’s completely unaware that he cares about Hundreds Hall more. The more disturbing things get, the more he tries to explain everything away—which is actually scarier than the little stranger itself. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

10 MINDFUL MINUTES ~ Goldie Hawn

10 Mindful Minutes: Giving Our Children--and Ourselves--the Social and Emotional Skills to Reduce Stress and Anxiety for Healthier, Happy Lives

I can hear many of your thoughts. What. The. ? Why is she reviewing a self-help? For kids? Parents?

It is so simple. Otherwise, you may end up reducing your stress with a cocktail instead of - I don't know - playing Goth Barbies for the millionth time.

Actually, my sister showed me the book while we were, um, "visiting" at another relative's house (trying to protect the innocent here). With all of my imbibing, I finished reading it during trips to the loo.

I despise stars using ghost writers to push personal agendas, but this seems to have Goldie Hawn's sticky sweetness all over it. Is it the new wave of parenting or psychology? No, but it is a smart way to provide kids with the language to express their feelings. Eventually, it will help both the parent and child develop strategies to deal with those feelings in a zen-Buddhist reminiscent manner.

There are many other books that will help those with teens or to assist in the understanding of human brain development (as in, teenagers do not have functioning pre-frontal cortexes, so they just cannot help text-driving). This book lands on this like a butterfly sipping nectar but prefers to spread its showy wings to spread calm and beauty.

Hey, it might work.

3.5 out of 5.0 Healthy 2% Milks.

Kristin at Books for Breakfast.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS - Vanessa Diffenbaugh


Thorns = Go to hell - who knew?

The Language of Flowers: A Novel

Victoria Jones earned the general last name through the bland child welfare system. She never knew her parents or their circumstances and only remembered disliking touch and her foster families. Until she met Elizabeth, a oak tree against Victoria's hurricanes of hate. Elizabeth began to teach Victoria about the old language of flowers, when gentlemen dared not send red roses to a lady friend.

This is where I will shoot a test tube of some purply vodka mix to avoid giving away the entire story. It is not happily ever after with Elizabeth. And, I wanted to take a horsewhip from my barn to Victoria. The characters behave how they should, however, based on their experiences.

Kudos to a beautiful debut from Vanessa Diffenbaugh, and I look forward to her next work.

4.25 out 5.0 Captain Morgan Silver Sodas.

Kristin at Books for Breakfast

Monday, October 17, 2011

IN A SUNBURNED COUNTRY/Bill Bryson

Like most avid readers, I have a large TBR pile. Most of this pile is pertinent to what I do in some way (writing and art), and much of it is training and study material I should complete yesterday. Quite by accident I strayed across Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country (a rather morbid story I’ll not relate here), his book about his travels across Australia. It’s a book that’s had me almost completely sidetracked.

This is one of those books that’s best read when it falls into your lap as a break from other books. One day you’re slogging your way through a tome of ungodly proportions, wondering how in God’s name this book ever got published, when a book like IASC falls into your lap and you pounce on it with the enthusiasm of a bobcat devouring a goat. Soon you find you must shirk all of your daily duties until the book is finished. This, people, is not only the mark of a good book, it is the mark of a good travel book. Even better is one that makes you want to visit Australia—which is remarkable when you consider Australia has more weird and horrible ways to kill you than pretty much any other place on earth. It’s the second most inhospitable climate on earth (the first is Antarctica). But all Antartica can do is kill you with its cold. Australia is home to fluffy caterpillars that can kill you, species of spiders that can kill you with just a pinprick of venom, and the world’s deadliest snake: the taipan. (Interesting fact: the taipan is fifty times more venomous than the world’s second deadliest snake, the cobra. You get bit by a taipan and it’s bye bye baby, goodbye.) (Little show tune humor there you’ll (hopefully) appreciate when you read the book.) Not to mention, there are sharks, poisonous jellyfish (“blueys”), and man-eating crocodiles. And desert. Lots and lots of unforgiving desert. While most Australians aren’t bothered by the rest of the lot, the crocodiles even scare them. 

That said, Bryson makes Australia—a country, he notes, to which Americans pay little attention (Russell Crowe notwithstanding)—sound like the world’s friendliest and warmest place on planet Earth. Australians do sound like a very friendly and welcoming folk. That they managed to make a country at all is to their immense credit, though, according to Bryson, they’ll not thank you for mentioning that their country essentially started off as a penal colony. (The “criminals,” by the way, were not at all a bad lot; many were only there because of harsh sentences that were common for the lower classes in England at the time. If you stole five cucumbers, you could choose between your own hanging or … a move to Australia.)

There were many places in the book where Bryson made me burst out laughing. I tried to read a passage to a friend, but I could barely get it out because I was laughing too hard. And he’s not just good as a humorist, either. He’s great at the factual stuff. What otherwise might be dry and sleep-inducing comes alive in Bryson’s writing, and he kept me as riveted as any high-octane novelist. He truly is a delight to read, and I can’t wait to read more of his books. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

All Hallow's Read

This isn't a book review, so if it's not okay to post, I'll take it down. With it being near Halloween, I was wondering: anyone participating in All Hallow's Read this year? Any scary book recommendations? 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Shirley Jackson/THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE

Eleanor Vance, 32, lost eleven years of her life to caring for an invalid, mentally unstable mother. As a result, she is lonely and shy and completely without friends. When she receives an invitation to work as an assistant to Dr. Montague (an academic whose "real" work is the study of the paranormal), she jumps at it.

Dr. Montague is looking for evidence of a true haunting, and in Hill House, he appears to have found it. If buildings have psychologies, Hill House is one of complete insanity. The house has a terrible reputation among the town's locals, so much so that they are hostile to anyone asking for directions to it. But along with two other assistants, Eleanor helps the good doctor collect evidence of paranormal activity.

This novel qualifies as a horror novel (in fact, it's considered one of the very best in the genre)—though there's no gore. The horror is all psychological, and Jackson is so skilled as a writer, all she needed to do was paint us a picture of Eleanor's loneliness to show how easily the house could play on it. The others have their moments, too, but it's clear that among them, Eleanor is the easiest target.

No matter how cliché the haunted house trope may be, I've not read anyone who's done it better than Shirley Jackson (nor anyone who does a better job of painting someone who is lost emotionally and psychologically). She's one of those writers who achieved being both a good storyteller and a good writer. Her writing is a study in economy on par with Hemingway's. And I think that's one of the reasons this novel is considered more "respectable" than most others in the horror genre. You really can't fault the writing, even if it's not your style. It's really too bad she didn't publish more before her death. Makes her work all that more a treasure. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Joseph Mitchell/UP IN THE OLD HOTEL

Some books come along in a person's life and becomes a friend that gets her through hard times. This book has been one such friend to me. My copy is bound with Scotch tape, I've read it so many times. If I were ever a victim of a fire, I think I would mourn losing this book. Sure, I could buy another copy, but it wouldn't be the same. 


Joseph Mitchell wrote for the New Yorker. Up In the Old Hotel is an omnibus of his four previous books, plus never-before-gathered profiles he did in the magazine. Mitchell had a real talent for picking out truly original characters to profile, but for the most part he writes with such empathy no one comes off as a character at all. These are not caricatures.


Mitchell's nonfiction reads like good fiction, and his profiles of the bums, outcasts, and miscreants of New York are poignant and heartbreaking and sometimes exalting. Ironically, his attempts at fiction fall short of his profiles, but they still retain the same graveyard humor. There are profiles I go back to reading over and over and over again. (The profiles about the gypsy women and the plague scare are two of my favorites.) 


I've read this book many times over. In fact, it's in the list of my top ten all-time favorite books. It just never gets old—even though the New York that Mitchell explored is, for the most part, gone. It takes a writer of real skill to make a reader miss the bygone qualities of a city she's never visited. I don't think I'll ever tire of this book. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Orson Scott Card/ENDER'S GAME

Two and a half years ago, when I put together my Fill-in-the-Gaps list, this was one of the first books. For the sci-fi-fantasy community (on whose fringes I skulk) it's a staple; not to have read it is embarrassing. Plus, my dad, who has always greatly informed my reading list, read it a couple years ago and kept nagging me to get to it. I'm very glad to have read it, because I feel like it's become a cultural touchstone and now at least I can be part of the dialogue.

Premise: in a near-ish future Earth, the most promising of child-geniuses are sent to train in the Battle School, where they learn to fly fighter spacecraft in preparation for a coming war with the Buggers, an insectoid alien race who nearly destroyed the earth 80 years ago. Ender Wiggins, a six-year-old boy, has been identified by government agents as special--a genius with the capability to become commander of the fighting fleet when the war comes. He leaves his family forever (no contact at all until a family visit that's allowed once the kids turn 12) to face the rigorous, often merciless training at fight school, where he is stalked and monitored and presented with challenges the other students are not.

Themes: The book's biggest questions have to do with the nature of humanity (do the aliens have less right to life?), goodness (is Ender a bad person, because he's been hardened by his teachers into taking life opportunistically? is his brother Peter a "bad seed" type?), and education (is it right to design children through such rigorous training? what about if that's the only way to save the world?).

My personal reaction: like I said, I'm really glad I read this book, because not I can be part of the conversations that include it. I hear it referred to pretty frequently. I can't say I loved it, although I enjoyed the story and found myself caught up in it. Certain elements feel dated. For example, outside of the Bugger-Earth conflict, humans are divided in violent political factions that probably felt more plausible during the height of the Cold War than they do now. I also liked Card's writing of the battle training sequences and student interactions better than I liked the more allegorical and discursive parts of the story (long "telling" passages about his sister back home and her clandestine political campaigns, or the highly metaphorical and, in my opinion, not always interesting video games Ender plays to decompress). I also wish the story hadn't been so forcefully gendered. The reader only meets one female student in the Battle School, and she ends up cracking under pressure at one point. The narrative blithely explains that women have evolved differently and aren't as likely to be suited to the Battle Academy way of life. I find that to be another element of the story that seems falsely anachronistic (like the Iron Curtain feeling). But anyway.

Overall take-home: glad I can say I've read it. Didn't love it. Would like to talk more about it.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Love Wins by Rob Bell


Where I got the book: from the library.

I'm going to try to keep away from discussing the theological points in this book, mostly because I barely know what I'm talking about. Love Wins has been making waves in some sections of the Christian community because of Bell's notion (some say heretical) that there is no such thing as a literal Hell. I prefer to see this book not as an attempt to preach a new truth, but as asking questions there's no harm debating. Bell says at the outset that he's entitled to his opinion, and I'd back him up on that.

I enjoyed reading this book. It's an easy read,
although Bell's habit
of making points
by using lots
and lots
of short lines

can be a little irritating at times, but it sure makes the pages zip by. Bell makes some really interesting points that are worth considering, calling, for example, for more action here on earth to make the world a better place. I can't really fault that.

On the whole, I'd call this wishful-thinking theology; if you've read the Bible enough times, you'll know that Bell's claims just don't really line up with all the uncomfortable stuff that's in there. It's a shame, because Bell's version of Christianity would pretty much reconcile the rest of the world to the Christian religion, and wipe out the you're-going-to-Hell-I'm-not attitude adopted by all too many believers. Humility, anyone?

Anyway, NOT getting into the theology, this is a nicely-written addition to some debates that have been going on for the last two thousand years. Nothing to get overly excited about, in my opinion, but I'm glad I read it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL BEGAN AFTER by Simon Van Booy

Literary Fiction
Harper Perennial, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-166148-8
Source: review copy provided by publisher (this in no way affected my opinion of the material)

It isn't often that literary fiction can sweep me away so briskly. So completely. Transport me from my reading chair, from the ordinary detail of my ordinary life, into another place and time--as if I was really there. Simon Van Booy's debut novel, Everything Beautiful Began After, did just that. And more.

The prologue relays the thoughts of an unnamed little girl who is remembering the story she'd been told of how her parents met, how they fell in love, and in wondering about this, she recognizes that there was a world that lived before her time and her parents were in it. There was a world that spun before her parents met, even. And that is the story that unfolds for us--the love that existed before the love that brought her into the world.

We don't know exactly how this little girl relates to the characters until the very end, though. Which personally I thought was brilliant. After reading the final page, I went back and reread the prologue, and it pretty much rendered me speechless. I had to give myself a few days before I could compose a review without it looking like a bunch of gibberish.

This is one of the most powerful stories I've ever read.

It begins by following three people who all happen to be in Athens, Greece at the same time, but none of them are Greek. Rebecca is a French artist. George is an American linguist. Henry is a British archeologist. How they all become inextricably tangled with each other in friendships and romance is fascinating. There is laughter, heartache, and adventure.

Then a major earthquake hits Athens, reducing large portions of it to rubble, and all three of their lives are permanently changed. What they do from that point on is where the real gut-wrenching emotion of the story takes place. Life is questioned. Love is shattered. Death is illuminated. Some of my favorite lines in the novel are reflections on life, love, or death (or any combination of those), such as this one:

But the dead don't come back to life. They sit frozen in our minds, finally free, capable of everything and nothing in a paradise where they can do no wrong.

Part of what made this novel abundantly swoon-worthy for me was the use of language. The poetic prose. But this didn't slow things down. The pacing was kept at a good, energetic clip with concise writing and short scenes. Seem contradictory? Read it and you'll see what I mean. I've never read such a snappy yet flowing style before. It's genius.

Everything Beautiful Began After is a strong contender for my "Best Read of 2011" in the adult fiction category. I highly recommend it for everyone, but especially for those who are reluctant to read literary fiction as anything more than a sleep aid. This story did just the opposite for me. Once I started it, I couldn't put it down, even if it meant reading into the wee hours of the morning. 5 of 5 stars.

~Lydia

Add Everything Beautiful Began After to your goodreads shelf and enter to win one of 10 free copies! Click HERE for details.


Extras:




"Love Is Like Life But Longer", short film written by Simon Van Booy, directed by Poppy de Villeneuve

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Land of Painted Caves by Jean M. Auel


A quick investigation of Jean M. Auel tells me that she began publishing her Earth's Children series in 1980, and I must have been introduced to the series in about 1985 when The Mammoth Hunters was published. So my impression that I've been reading this series since the dawn of time has some foundation.

The Land of Painted Caves is the sixth and, apparently, the final book in the series. For those of you who don't know, these novels are set in the Ice Age and centered around Ayla, who is orphaned at an early age, lives with Neanderthals who call themselves the Clan, is banished, lives on her own and tames various animals, meets hunka hunka burnin' love Jondalar and returns with him (and some horses and a wolf) to his own people, the Zelandonii.

Having worked through the last two books, I was already beginning to tire of this particular epic, but I'm loyal and wanted to see how the whole thing ended.

I am SO disappointed.

For one thing, have I just grown out of this kind of novel, or did these books always read like an animated textbook? It is pretty interesting to learn about how Ice Age people may have lived, but the author is way too evident in this book, stopping the action every so often to give us a little lecture so that you end up feeling the characters are those models in a museum diorama, spears brandished and hair all over the place.

Then there's the repetition. Seriously. EVERY time someone new meets Ayla (and there is a cast of thousands, most of whose names confusingly begin with J) they HAVE to be awed by the tame horses, scared of the wolf and aware of Ayla's strange accent. And I was starting to yell every time the Song Of The Great Earth Mother was sung.

Oh Yes, The Capitals. They Abound. The novel is larded with titles, the one that really got to me being She Who Is First Among Those Who Serve The Great Earth Mother, and its many variations. This 700+ page chunkster is ponderous enough without slowing things down by putting Capital Letters on almost every line.

And the whole Zelandonii thing is like some vast New Age commune who take their religion with deadly seriousness. I could never have imagined that sex rites, orgies and drug-taking could seem like so little fun or be surrounded by so many rules and rituals. I'm sure it's quite accurate from a research viewpoint, but hoo boy, I think I'd rather take today's stresses and idiocies over this depiction of a natural idyll.

And I could go on. And I'm really not trying to be unkind to Auel, who has obviously taken huge pains to research and write these books. As I said, I've read my way through the series and, taken as a whole, find it memorable. It's been hugely successful and Auel has legions of fans (don't shoot! Please!)

But what really disappointed me was the ending. No spoilers, but there were so many interesting directions Auel's epic plotlines could have gone, and yet I feel that the whole thing sort of fizzled out, as though she, too, had had quite enough of the Zelandonii (who remind me, bizarrely, of the Federation in Star Trek. Perhaps this is the effect of trying to imagine a simpler world.)

I guess I was looking for a bang (no pun intended, and while we're on that subject the honeymoon is definitely over) at the end - it came, in a sense, as a discovery/observation that would profoundly shake the Zelandonii's worldview, but even that could have been more fully explored in the plot. There's an interesting parallel to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden there, and I'd like to have seen it taken farther. If this had been my book, I'd have cut out all the middle bit about the caves (endless descriptions of cave paintings and lots of repetition of That Song) and finished the series off with a bit more brio rather than repeating a prior plotline.

As a writer, I found myself wondering - would I take on a series that would take me 30 years to finish? I love to read series, but I think it's better for all concerned if the books are written over a shorter period, even if that means the research has to be shallower. The problem of the research eventually dominating the story is all too evident here.

Friday, June 24, 2011

THE ONE THAT I WANT by Allison Winn Scotch



The One That I Want by Allison Winn Scotch
Women's Fiction
Shaye Areheart Books, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-307-46450-7
First edition, hardcover
Source: library


This is the second of Allison's novels I've read (click HERE for my review of Time of My Life), and of the two, I think I enjoyed this one a tad bit more. I loved TOML, but TOTIW had more depth to it. More depth to the characters and more depth to the story.

When we meet Tilly Farmer she is living in a bubble of self-denial. She thinks her life is perfect. She thinks her life plan is perfect. She is married to her high school sweetheart. She works as a guidance counselor for the local high school. She is helping to put together this year's prom and the musical-- fun fun fun! And she is trying for her first baby.

It was clear to me from the start that all of these things she considered "perfect" were no doubt going to blow up in her face at some point. And I was right. Plus a few other things along the way.

In the title, The One That I Want, "one" refers to "life." Tilly's journey makes her question what life she truly wants to live. The one she thinks is already perfect (but clearly not, as she soon discovers)? Or the one she's been too afraid to try?

And who of us hasn't questioned that at some point, in some manner or another?

This story is mainly about relationships. We focus on Tilly and her high-school-sweetheart-husband, Tilly and her alcoholic father, Tilly and her dead mother, Tilly and her two (very different) sisters, Tilly and the baby she wants to have, Tilly and the charming new art teacher, Tilly and her best friend, Tilly and her ex-best-friend-turned-fortune-teller....

It's that final one that pushes Tilly into the events that change her life. After unintentionally finding Ashley in a fortune-teller's tent, Tilly is blessed/cursed with "clarity." She starts having weird visions of the future, visions that portray events involving the people closest to her. Sometimes these are clearly bad things, and sometimes she isn't sure whether it's bad or good.

Although these visions are crucial to the plot, this is not a fantasy story. This is magic realism at it's finest. The story is not about her seeing things in the future. There is no scary voodoo or incantations or anything like that. She simply sees glimpses of things that force her into decision-making.

The thing that kept me turning pages at an accelerated rate was the mystery of what these visions meant, how they all tied together, and ultimately, what Tilly was going to do once she figured it all out. I also really enjoyed her reflections on life and the parallels made between Tilly and the other characters, such as CJ, one of the senior students who frequents her office.

As with Time of My Life, Allison's signature writing style in The One That I Want is pleasantly fluid, easy to digest, and the cover art is equally awesome (so much so that the two almost look like companion novels, but don't be fooled-- these are completely different stories about completely different characters). Highly recommended for adults, especially women. 5 of 5 stars.


Extras:

Author blog - Ask Allison


Preview of Allison's upcoming novel, The Song Remains the Same

The One That I Want will be available in paperback on June 28.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Ellis Island by Kate Kerrigan


Where I got the book: ARC from LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program. Its publication date is 6/28/11 according to Amazon.

In 1920s Ireland, Ellie's husband has been injured fighting for his country's freedom. Ellie makes the tough decision to take a job in New York in order to send back enough money for his operation. The new life she makes for herself in the US changes her, and puts her future life in Ireland in doubt.

I'm trying very hard here not to put in any spoilers, as I think it's pretty unfair to do that for an as-yet-to-be-published novel, so you'll excuse the brief description. The cover suggests that Kate Kerrigan is a new author on the American scene, and she was also new to me.

Ellis Island was a most enjoyable read. Kerrigan is very skilled at describing place and time with a light touch that hides her research, and there are several lyrical moments in this novel that definitely place it a cut above the average.

We see the story from Ellie's point of view, and what struck me was that her voice is Irish, but not overly so. None of the Frank McCourt street Irish here: we're talking about a girl from a good family with a superior education, and I thought Kerrigan got this exactly right in Ellie's voice. The American parts of the story were pretty convincing too, although the idea that Ellie would fall so quickly into such high society strained my imagination just a little. But--again, trying to avoid spoilers here--the resolution of the story was credibly underplayed. I really wasn't too sure which decision Ellie would take, which is unusual as I generally see plot twists coming a mile off.

I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys historical fiction with a dose of romance but a good grounding in reality. Kerrigan is a fine writer, and I'll be looking out for subsequent books.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Lisa Brackman/ ROCK PAPER TIGER

First off, at The Book Book I usually write my review very soon (often immediately) after reading the book, so you get my knee-jerk reaction. This time, a couple weeks have passed, so you'll be getting my impression over time, what stuck with me and what didn't.

Second, Moonrat previously reviewed ROCK PAPER TIGER for this blog, thereby saving me the need to write an in-depth plot summary. You can read that and her thoughts here.

Now, let's begin.

This book follows Ellie Cooper, a 26-year-old American Iraqi war vet, as she grows up. Yes, grows up. Ellie may be smart (she's learning Chinese quickly) and tough (or is it numb?) from her time in the military, but when we meet her she's a woman who rarely takes action in her life--she merely reacts, if she does anything at all.

This inertia contrasts with her wry observations and likable personality. She's fun to be around, when she's not struggling with her PTSD. And while she may not realize it, she's a strong person. When she tells one character he's "an asshole" you will want to reach through the book and give her a high five.

Ellie finds herself stumbling and limping through China, pursued by various guys in dark suits. Some are from the government while others work for independent organizations and those are often scarier. Despite her best efforts to disappear, she's suddenly getting a lot of attention. The pace quickens, and everything builds towards what I expected to be a crazy, government-conspiracy type climax.

But that is not quite what you get. And, honestly, it was disappointing. I think as long as you go in knowing that, however, then you can still really enjoy this book. Just remember that (in my opinion, anyway), this book is about Ellie's internal journey, more so than it's about her external journey through China. She is not a badass heroinne in this book. She's got potential, but she's also got PTSD and a tendency to mix beer with percocet. The end of this book is only the beginning for Ellie. In fact, I would welcome a sequel!

Bonus factor: China. You've heard it before, I'm sure: China China China. But, it's true. As corny as it sounds, I really felt like I'd been to China for days after I read this book. A tough, sometimes fragile China that's a work in progress.

Much like Ellie.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

BUT I LOVE HIM by Amanda Grace

 But I Love Him by Amanda Grace
Young Adult Contemporary
Flux, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-7387-2594-9
Source: library


This book surprised me. In a good way.

From the back cover:

Sometimes at night, I wake up and stare at the heart for hours. I think of how I collected each piece from the beach, how I glued it all together into one big sculpture. I wonder if Connor realizes what it means, that he'll always have a piece of me no matter what happens. Each piece of glass is another piece of myself that I gave to him.


It's too bad I didn't keep any pieces for myself.

This is not your typical "abusive relationship" story, although it very well could have been, had the author not decided to tell it backwards.

That's right. Backwards. The entire novel is a string of flashbacks. Unfortunately, this is the very same reason why I struggled through the first 50 or so pages. The timeline takes some getting used to. But I'm so glad I stuck with it.

We start with Ann in a very bad place, made clear by the very first sentence: I lie in pieces on the floor. Then we are shown the events that led up to this pivotal moment. Every so often, the story jumps back (ahead?) to the opening scene.

Which, in my opinion, is crucial. If we hadn't kept going back/forward to that moment, the character arc would have collapsed by the end. Because the end is really the beginning, so by that point we already know everything that happened/is going to happen. In any good story, the main character has to make a tough decision at the end. Ann does just that in the final flash forward.

And that was the scene in which I completely lost all my composure, followed quickly after by the final-final scene, the day Ann and Connor meet, and, being already in a state of sobbery from the scene before it, it was just too much to take--all the innocence of that first meeting coupled with the knowledge of the downward spiral that follows...

I pretty much died at the end of this book. It's that good.

But let's go back to the heart of glass in the blurb and on the cover for a minute. I love when stories have an object of value (to the main character) tying everything together. Every time this heart was mentioned in a scene I felt a little closer to Ann, understood her a little more. It starts out broken, as does her figurative heart, and then as we travel backwards through time we see how she put it all together while Connor progressively crushed her heart.

It's an amazing parallel to the story of Ann and Connor's relationship. So fragile, yet sharp-edged like broken glass. And at one time, it was beautiful. But now it's shattered.

The thing I liked even more than the parallel of the glass heart and the brilliance of telling the story backwards, however, was the presentation of the characters. In a book like this it's easy to make the abuser flat. One dimensional. But Connor isn't, and that's one of the main things that kept me turning pages. It's also easy to make the victim unsympathetic. You get to a certain point in a story like this, and you just want to shake her, saying, "Get away from him! Why don't you just leave already?!"

Ann gives the simply-stated-yet-not-simply-understood answer in the title: But I Love Him. A situation like this is never black and white.

If this is subject matter you normally shy away from because you feel the story has already been told in every possible way, then I highly recommend reading this book. It might just surprise you in the good way it did me. 5 of 5 stars, and a contender for my Best Read of 2011.

~Lydia

Sunday, May 29, 2011

INVINCIBLE SUMMER by Hannah Moskowitz

A brief, yet necessary, preamble:

So. My bad. I totally thought I wrote a review here for BREAK, Hannah's debut, which I was going to link in this review... aaaand I didn't. If you follow my blog, though, or follow me on goodreads, you already know I loved BREAK. It was a (well-deserved) 2010 ALA Popular Paperback for Teens, and I highly recommend it for reluctant readers. Easy to read and get sucked into. Quick pace and a brilliant concept. Get on it.

Now for the actual review of said novel in the post title.



Invincible Summer by Hannah Moskowitz
Young Adult Contemporary
Simon Pulse, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4424-0751-0
First edition, paperback
Source: own

First, a word from Hannah. Because she highlights some things in this video that I think are important. One: this novel is difficult to summarize. And two: it's about family. No, really. It's about FAMILY. Just with some sex and the occasional F-word sprinkled in for good measure.





This is probably one of the most difficult reviews I've ever had to write. There is so much about this novel that I want to talk about, but a good majority of it will come off as spoiler-y if I get into it. Yet, at the same time, if I don't, there isn't much to say without coming off as rambly and disinteresting. (I'm getting red squiggly lines under both of those words. Whatever. You know what I mean.)

Let's start with the viewpoint character, Chase. At the beginning of the story he is 14 going on 15. At the end he is nearing his 18th birthday. So that's four years. Or rather, four summers. The presentation of the story solely through the summers spent at the family's beach house is just... amazing. The stuff that happens elsewhere really doesn't matter, and that's a difficult thing to pull off. It includes all of Chase's high school experiences, which in most YA lit is a defining quality, but not so with this novel. The definement (another red squiggly line, wtf? I swear I'm using real words) of Chase's self-perception comes through his summer experiences.

Hence the title, Invincible Summer. It's perfect. Also perfect? Is the cover. This story is told through summers, and I believe the cover presents summer in all its wondrous glory. It's clean and bright. It gets up close and personal with a hot chick in a bikini. That's summer, yes? But for some reason it has been the source of much debate among book bloggers and readers. So there's a girl in a bikini on the cover. Everyone assumes, then, that the love interest (or rather, the sex interest) is the main plot. It SO isn't. The disaster that is Melinda certainly has influence on the events of the story and the realizations of the MC about life--his life--but she, herself, is not the plot. The fact that Chase and his older brother Noah are both "involved" with her is NOT the plot. It's just one element of a much bigger concept.

And that concept is -- family relationships. In my goodreads review I mentioned that this novel is just as much Noah's story as it is Chase's. The perception of Noah through Chase's eyes is yet another item that goes under the "reasons why this book is brilliant" column. Chase calls him "my brother the flight risk", and if that isn't enough to get you interested in the relationship between these two brothers, then maybe this will be: they're both doing the girl next door, and they both know they're both doing the girl next door, and they both continue doing the girl next door in light of this knowledge. It's all very weird and gritty and makes you want to powerwash your brain. Or dry heave. Sorry, but I had a hard time stomaching the idea of so obviously sharing a girl. This didn't stop me from reading, though, and I still love the book enough to recommend it.

But again, that is just one element of the big picture.

Noah is a huge part of the story. He has real issues. Issues I can relate to, and I think that's why I fell for him so hard while reading this. We also have Chase's younger brother, Gideon. Oh God... where do I even start with Gideon. Well, he's only six years old at the beginning. And he's deaf. And stinking adorable. And wildly intelligent. I can't even... seriously, I can't even talk about Gideon without getting teary-eyed. How Hannah managed to portray such a deeply layered character through the eyes of someone else still has me reeling.

Then there's Claudia, Chase's younger sister, who is eleven years old at the beginning. She is, in a word, adventurous. Totally love her. The parents? Mom is pregnant during the first summer. So, another kid is added to this already large family. You'd think the parents just can't get enough of each other, right? Wrong. Hannah added huge parental issues to the mix. Again, brilliant.

The story is just one dynamite layer after another after another after another... until it all explodes.

I can't get into the minor issue I had with the ending without giving anything away, so I'll add one final remark on the Melinda thing. She was raped when she went to college -- I don't think saying that here will ruin your enjoyment of the book. It's made pretty obvious early on in the story.

The thing I want to comment on is that even though she was raped, and subsequently fell into a depression (which is expected), she didn't shy away from sex after that horrible experience. To me, this came across as REALISTIC. Yes, many girls who are raped can't stand the thought of going near a guy for a long, long time, after much, much therapy. But. That isn't always the case. Some girls then use sex as a way of staying in control. They had an "out of control" sexual experience, so they put themselves in situations where they are "in control of" the sexual experience. And that's exactly what Melinda does with Noah and Chase.

And I just want to personally thank Hannah for going that route, when most novels that include this touchy subject go the obvious route of the girl completely withdrawing from all forms of sex. It was refreshing to see something different, yet still real.

Okay, I think I've blabbered on long enough (no red squiggly line under "blabbered"? I give up). All that's left to say is READ THIS BOOK. 4 out of 5 stars.

~Lydia

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson


Where I got the book: from the library. It's been on my TBR list for a while, but when Holly Tucker started a history and science readalong on Goodreads, I knew its moment had come.

The Ghost Map is, in part, an account of a cholera epidemic that took place in London in 1854. I say in part, because the epidemic is really a springboard for a series of discussions. In a sense, this book is the history of an idea: that a disease could be waterborne.

Back in 1854, this idea was startling, and unacceptable to most of the medical and administrative establishment. Johnson does a good job of highlighting the work of two men, John Snow (who did a lot of the thinking that led to the understanding of how the epidemic grew) and Henry Whitehead, who confronted the disease at street level, talking to the survivors and collecting much of the informal data that helped Snow test his theories.

I found it very interesting to read about the struggle that Snow had with the proponents of the "miasma theory," the prevailing wisdom of the time. Back then, people believed that diseases were spread by smells traveling through the air; I've read a lot of Dickens, so I'm well acquainted with the notion of pestilential or noxious air. The fact that this belief seems so ridiculous to us now is evidence of the inroads science has made into our lives.

I had never really thought about the seismic shift that occurred when science began to understand nature at the microscopic level. And I had never given much thought to the correlation between clean water and the expansion of cities to the multi-million-headcount levels that are normal to us today. So on the whole, The Ghost Map was a pretty enlightening book. It's written in an easy to read style, and is a page-turner in its way.

The book ends with an extensive consideration of urbanization and what it means to mankind. I'm not sure whether this enhances the central story, or detracts from it. It's interesting, in its way, but in the end it's only speculation--and speculation is endless. So the end of the book seemed, well, endless. I probably could have stopped reading at around page 217.

Still, on the whole this was an interesting book, and I'm glad I finally read it.

GUANTANAMO BOY by Anna Perera

"Welcome to Guantanamo Bay Prison. You're now the property of the US Marine Corps. Heads down!"


"It's not often that Khalid can look at his life from a distance. But, instantly, he can see himself clearly for once. He's another meaningless bent orange shape dropped into some weird world game, the sun fixing him here on this lump of tarmac like a dart in his back. He's nothing but an orange heap for soldiers to toss around because they think he's a terrorist who wants to blow up cites. Think he hates the West, even though he lives there and doesn't know anything about weapons of mass destruction or bombs or buildings crashing to the ground in New York."

There’s nothing unusual about 15 year old Khalid. He’d much rather be playing a computer game than polishing his school shoes. He hasn’t got a clue how to flirt with girls, and there is no way he’s leaving England to visit his father’s boring family in Pakistan. Especially when his football team is so close to being promoted.

Unfortunately for him Khalid’s parents disagree, and they soon arrive in the bustling Pakistani city of Karachi. What Khalid finds there is far from boring. The streets are filled with whispers of U.S troops and terrorist informers, and Khalid’s worst fears are horribly realised when he’s kidnapped and detained for questioning by U.S troops.

Surely they’ll quickly realise he’s innocent and release him? They can’t possibly send a 15 year old to Guantanamo Bay. Can they?

This book combines that chilling mixture of everyday normality and unimaginable horror. It’s the kind of story that really haunts you because it depicts a horribe situation that could so easily be true. As the author notes, ‘although Guantanamo Boy is a work of fiction, it is inspired by real events. It remains a fact that children have been abducted and abused and held without charge in the name of justice in Guantanamo Bay and many other secret prisons around the world.’

I certainly couldn’t put this down. I can’t say it was always an enjoyable read, but it was definitely immersive and thought provoking. Whilst this book carries a strong and valuable political message, the overriding sentiments are that of love and the support of family and friends. Khalid is well drawn and Anna Perera does a brilliant job of persuading even the most indifferent of readers to truly care about his wellbeing. She does this subtly over the course of the story, and I found my affection for him building slowly whilst my full attention remained centred on his inhumane treatment.

Unlike many other novels dealing with similar stories of abuse, the narrative of Guantanamo Boy is lightened by lifelike humour and small acts of kindness. This contrast allows the darker moments to retain their sharpness, and it allowed me to keep reading for long periods of time without feeling emotionally drained.

Anna Perera has highlighted the importance of human kindness in a truly remarkable setting. This book needs to be in every school library.