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Book Review: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

December 25, 2012 6 comments

White woman with dreads wrapped up in a snakeSummary:
Jeanette has the dubious distinction of being raised by one of the most vocal women in the fire-brand style Evangelical church in a small British town.  Although she at first is different among her school chums for her beliefs, soon she becomes marked as different in her church for her homosexuality.  Her journey from differently religious to outcast young adult is chronicled here.

Review:
I picked this up when I heard that it’s a lesbian classic that simultaneously addresses being raised fundy.  Having been raised fundy myself (and left to become staunchly atheist), I tend to find these leaving the faith stories highly relatable, and I knew the added GLBTQ element would just make it all the more interesting of a read for me.

One interesting thing to note about this book is that no one can quite agree if it’s a novel or a memoir.  Winterson herself says that while this was inspired by her own childhood, it is the lite version.  Hers was much worse.  Given this statement, I choose to respect the author and view this as a novel, but potential readers may want to be aware of this element of the book.

Jeanette (the character) is immediately immensely likeable.  Whereas her mother is overbearing and negative, Jeanette is highly intelligent and witty.  Her observations on the Bible and religion in the early parts of the book before she realizes she is gay are hilarious, particularly to anyone raised in a fundamentalist faith.

I didn’t know quite what fornicating was, but I had read about it in Deuteronomy, and I knew it was a sin. But why was it so noisy? Most sins you did quietly so as not to get caught. (location 533)

As the book moves from Jeanette’s early life to her adolescence the writing style changes a bit.  Winterson inserts various fantastical fancies of Jeanette’s that are clearly her way of trying to discover who she is and explore her options.  Some readers might be thrown by these, but I found them delightful.  It’s a coping mechanism that I think many people use but few authors put down on paper.

Through these periodic fantastical tales combined with the more traditional narrative, we slowly see Jeanette fall in love with another girl at her church.  We then see the fall-out.  The two girls torn apart. The attempts at exorcisms.  Jeanette is left bereft and confused because, unlike myself, she still wanted her faith. She wanted to believe in God the way she was raised to and to be allowed to love women.  She can’t figure out why she can’t have both and thus is left wandering lost and confused.

The novel never makes it clear if Jeanette comes to terms with her lesbianism by letting go of her religion or by finding a more accepting one.  It kind of ends on an uncertain, agnostic if you will, note.  But that’s really irrelevant.  What matters is how beautifully the novel shows the pain that adolescents are needlessly put through when those around them won’t love them for who they are.

At last she put on her gloves and beret and very lightly kissed me goodbye. I felt nothing. But when she’d gone, I pulled up my knees under my chin, and begged the Lord to set me free. (location 1180)

It’s not a book with a clear ending or easy answers, but neither is life really, is it?  What it does possess though is a great ability to show a reader the life of a child raised Evangelical who later just cannot fit the mold demanded of her.  And that’s a powerful story that needs to be told over and over again until people get it that we can’t do that to children.

Recommended to those with an interest in unique story-telling techniques and coming out stories.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Reading Challenge Wrap-up: Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge 2012

December 24, 2012 2 comments

mia2012badgeAs you all know, the one reading challenge I host is the Mental Illlness Advocacy (MIA) Reading Challenge.  Since we’re into the last week of the year, I’d like to post the 2012 wrap-up.

This year, I read 8 books that count for the challenge, successfully achieving the Aware level.

The books I read and reviewed for the challenge, along with what mental illness they covered, in 2012 were:

  1. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
    PTSD
    4 out of 5 stars
  2. The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon
    Mental Retardation
    4 out of 5 stars
  3. Barefoot Season by Susan Mallery
    PTSD
    4 out of 5 stars
  4. Abject Relations: Everyday Worlds of Anorexia by Megan Warin
    Anorexia
    4 out of 5 stars
  5. A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
    Depression
    4 out of 5 stars
  6. Haunted by Glen Cadigan
    PTSD
    3 out of 5 stars
  7. January First: A Child’s Descent into Madness and Her Father’s Struggle to Save Her by Michael Schofield
    Schizophrenia
    4 out of 5 stars
  8. Germline by T. C. McCarthy
    Addictive Disorders
    4 out of 5 stars

The books I read covered genres from scifi to thriller to memoir to academic nonfiction to historic fiction.  I’m also a bit surprised to note in retrospect that all but one of these books received four stars from me.  Clearly the books I chose to read for the challenge were almost entirely a good match for me.  It’s no surprise to me that I enjoy running this challenge so much then. :-)

The most unique book for the challenge was The Sparrow.  The scifi plot of first contact with aliens was a very unique wrapping for a book dealing so strongly with mental illness.  Most challenging was Abject Relations: Everyday Worlds of Anorexia, which was my first foray into university-level Anthropology.  Something I’d like to see more of is more memoirs by parents of children with a mental illness, like January First: A Child’s Descent into Madness and Her Father’s Struggle to Save Her.  That was an interesting, new perspective for me.  I think I’d also like to read more schizophrenia books next year, as well as books that challenge the gender norms perceived of in certain mental illnesses, such as the idea that eating disorders are female or that alcoholism is male.

If you participated in the challenge this year, please feel free to either comment with your list of reads or a link to a wrap-up post.  I’d love to see what we all successfully read this year!

And if the MIA Reading Challenge sounds like a good match for you, head on over to the challenge’s main page to sign up for the 2013 iteration!

Finishing the Series Reading Challenge 2013

December 23, 2012 2 comments

Finishing the Series Reading Challenge 2013 BadgeHello my lovely readers!

Because life is so incredibly busy, I hadn’t been planning on participating in any of the many wonderful reading challenges in existence around the book blogosphere.  (Beyond hosting my own, the Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge, of course.)  But when I received a GoodReads invitation to Socrates’ Finishing the Series Reading Challenge, I couldn’t resist because it fits in so well with my already established (in my head) reading goals for 2013.  It’s incredibly simple. Choose a single (or multiple) book series you’ve previously started to finally finish reading during 2013.  I already have a GoogleDoc of all the series I’m reading and was saying to myself, “Amanda, finish at least a few of these in 2013,” and doing that in the context of the fun that is a book blog reading challenge just makes me happy.

I’m currently reading 26 series. I know, I know.  I’m not going to challenge myself to all of those, because then I’d only be reading series books all year. :-P  But I am signing up for the highest level of the challenge: Level 3: 3 or more series.

So what am I pledging to finish?

  1. Georgina Kincaid series by Richelle Mead
    #3 Succubus Dreams review 1/31/13, 5 stars
    #4 Succubus Heat review 12/25/13, 4 stars
    #5 Succubus Shadows
    #6 Succubus Revealed
  2. Y: The Last Man series by Brian K. Vaughan
    #8 Kimono Dragons
    #9 Motherland
    #10 Whys and Wherefores
  3. Riders of the Apocalypse series by Jackie Morse Kessler
    #3 Loss
    #4 Breath
  4. John Cleaver series by Dan Wells
    #3 I Don’t Want to Kill You review , 3/2/13 3.5 stars
  5. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
    #2 Children of God
  6. Katherine “Kitty” Katt series by Gini Koch I will not be finishing this series, due to severe dislike of the third book. It’s a permanent dnf.
    #3 Alien in the Family review, 10/3/13 2 stars
    #4 Alien Proliferation
    #5 Alien Diplomacy
    #6 Alien vs. Alien
    #7 Alien in the House
    #8 Alien Research

For the Katherine “Kitty” Katt series, it is not yet finished, so I’m only pledging to books that are projected to be published before the end of 2013.

I also reserve the right to give up on a series if it starts nose-diving before the end. ;-)

Phew! That’s a lot of books…but it would also make a serious dent into my series list.  So fingers crossed that I have good luck with it.

If the challenge sounds like a good match for you, be sure to check out the official challenge page!

Cross-Stitch #1: Pixel People Wedding Present

December 22, 2012 4 comments

I took up cross-stitching again this summer after giving up on knitting (or crocheting for that matter).  I’m pleased to say that in just a few short months, I’ve finished my first project!  Because this was a wedding present, I needed to put aside my other project for a bit to work on it, so this stitch actually only took me about two weeks to complete.  Impressive, yes?

My good friends, Lynn Marie and Josh, were getting married, and I spotted a custom pattern on Etsy at the shop, Wee Little Stitches, that will turn the happy couple (and their pets if you like) into pixel people.  It seemed like the perfect gift for the happy, geeky couple, so I went for it!

It was a very exciting project because it was my first time assembling the pieces myself instead of buying a kit.  It was so much fun to go gather everything at Michael’s!  It was also the first stitch project I’ve ever actually completed. As a child I learned a lot of stitches on a challenging pattern, but never actually finished it.  So lots of firsts here!

Lynn Marie and Josh as pixel people, cross-stitch

 

Up next, I plan on finishing up my wolves in the snow kit, then on to a pattern designed for me by my bf (for Christmas).  Yay!

Book Review: Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig (Series, #1)

December 21, 2012 2 comments

Woman with hair made of bird silhouettes.Summary:
Miriam Black is an early 20-something drifter with bleach blonde hair and a surprising ability to hold her own in a fight. She also knows when and precisely how you’re going to die. Only if you touch her skin-on-skin though.  And it’s because of this skill that Miriam became a drifter.  You try dealing with seeing that every time you touch someone.  But when a kind trucker gives her a lift and in her vision of his death she hears him speak her name, her entire crazy life takes an even crazier turn.

Review:
This is one of those books that is very difficult to categorize.  I want to call it urban fantasy, but it doesn’t have much supernatural about it, except for the ability to see deaths.  The world isn’t swimming in vampires or werewolves of goblins.  I also want to call it a thriller what with the whole try to stop the trucker from dying bit but it’s so much more than chills and whodunit (or in this case, who will do it).  Its dark, gritty style reminds me of Palahniuk, so I suppose what might come the closest would be a Palahniuk-esque urban fantasy lite thriller.  What I think sums it up best, though, is a quote from Miriam herself:

It starts with my mother….Boys get fucked up by their fathers, right? That’s why so many tales are really Daddy Issue stories at their core, because men run the world, and men get to tell their stories first. If women told most of the stories, though, then all the best stories would be about Mommy Problems. (location 1656)

So, yes, it is all of those things, but it’s also a Mommy Problems story, and that is just a really nice change of pace.  Mommy Problems wrapped in violence and questioning of fate.

The tone of the entire book is spot on for the type of story it’s telling. Dark and raw with a definite dead-pan, tongue-in-cheek style sense of humor.  For instance, each chapter has an actual title, and these give you a hint of what is to come within that chapter, yet you will still somehow manage to be surprised.  The story is broken up by an interview with Miriam at some other point in time, and how this comes into play with the rest of the storyline is incredibly well-handled.  It’s some of the best story structuring I’ve seen in a while, and it’s also a breath of fresh air.

Miriam is also delightful because she is unapologetically ribald and violent.  This is so rare to find in heroines.

We’re not talking zombie sex; he didn’t come lurching out of the grave dirt to fill my living body with his undead baby batter. (location 2195)

As a female reader who loves this style, it was just delightful to read something featuring a character of this style who is also a woman.  It’s hard to find them, and I like that Wendig went there.

While I enjoyed the plot structure, tone, and characters, the extreme focus on fate was a bit iffy to me.  There were passages discussing fate that just fell flat for me.  I’m also not sure of how I feel about the resolution.  However, I’m also well aware that this is the beginning of a series, so perhaps it’s just that the overarching world rules are still a bit too unclear for me to really appreciate precisely what it is that Miriam is dealing with.  This is definitely the first book in the series in that while some plot lines are resolved, the main one is not.  If I’d had the second book to jump right into I would have.  I certainly hope that the series ultimately addresses the fate question in a satisfactory way, but at this point it is still unclear if it will.

Overall, this is a dark, gritty tale that literally takes urban fantasy on a hitchhiking trip down the American highway.  Readers who enjoy a ribald sense of humor and violence will quickly latch on to this new series.  Particularly recommended to readers looking for strong, realistic female leads.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

December 14, 2012 Leave a comment

Man standing in what appears to be fog.Summary:
When the aliens landed, they ignored humanity. Stopping briefly on their way somewhere else. Leaving behind mysterious random detritus, much like the remains left behind a roadside picnic.  Redrick happened to live in one of the towns visited, and as a result has become a stalker.  He sneaks into the Zone to gather alien artifacts to sell on the black market.  Soon his whole life–and those of everyone in the town–becomes dominated by the Zone.

Review:
When I saw that this was Russian scifi from the Soviet era, I knew that I needed to pick it up, if for no other reason than that I’d never seen any before.  This new print has been returned to the authors’ original vision, with the heavy edits (really, censorship) removed.  It also starts with an introduction by Ursula K. LeGuin.  I want to highlight one thing she says about scifi that I think truly illuminates its power.

Soviet writers had been using science fiction for years to write with at least relative freedom from Party ideology about politics, society, and the future of mankind. (location 22)

Scifi provides an opportunity for writers and readers to remove the shackles of whatever society they are currently living in and imagine the other.  I think that’s a very powerful tool, and I commend the Strugatsky brothers for utilizing it in such a way from behind the Iron Curtain.  They had to fight for years to get some version of this book published, in spite of being well-known and respected authors.  That is a commitment to their art that is truly admirable.  Now, on to the review of the actual book.

The germ of the idea is truly brilliant and is immediately clear.  This idea of an alien race stopping by for a picnic, essentially, and ignoring humanity like so many ants.  It’s so different from the more egotistical interpretation of alien visitations that we usually see.  The book was worth the read for that alone.  The early scenes are vivid and clearly establish this post-visitation situation where the Zone the aliens landed in is uninhabitable, and the government and scientists are trying to study it while stalkers sneak in (at great risk to their lives) to extract artifacts for the black market.  Similarly, the artifacts that the stalkers (and government) find and bring out of the Zone are wonderfully imagined.  It is easy to see that the authors probably knew exactly what the aliens used the items for whereas the characters in the book are clueless. Trying to find any use they can for them.

The book though is truly about Redrick.  It uses the scifi setting to explore this man who really just wants to escape the rat race and have a comfortable life with his family.  He chooses to attempt to be his own boss by being a stalker in the Zone and is repeatedly thrown in prison for it.  We never really see him as a whole man, since we only saw him after the Zone.  It is as if the presence of the Zone gave him hope, and the repeated failures slowly rob him of his life energy.

My whole life I’ve been dragged by the nose, I kept bragging like an idiot that I do as I like, and you bastards would just nod, then you’d wink at each other and lead me by the nose, dragging me, hauling, me, through shit, through jails, through bars…Enough!  (location 2295)

In spite of this excellent set-up and interesting character arc, the book didn’t fully satisfy me.  I found Redrick difficult to sympathize with.  He thinks he is a slave to the system, but really he is choosing to be a slave to money.  He could have left the town and the Zone behind multiple times to go live a life with his family, but he doesn’t.  I understand others might interpret his freedom of movement differently from me, but that is how I saw his situation.  It seems most of his problems come from a love of not just money but a love of wealth.  So although I periodically sympathized with what he was saying, I didn’t ultimately sympathize with him.

What I truly found disappointing though was the ending.  Without giving too much away, suffice to say that while the rest of the book was realistic scifi, couched in darkness and despair, the ending was surprisingly positive in a deus ex machina manner.  It felt like a real cop-out, particularly compared to the rest of the book.  Whereas most everything else was innovative, this was generic, ho-hum, and disappointing.  While I was still glad to have experienced Redrick’s world, the ending kept the book from truly grasping me or blowing my mind.

Overall, then, this book is an important piece of both Russian and scifi literature.  It has enough uniqueness of setting to it to keep the well-versed reader of both genres interested but beware that the main character might not be entirely sympathetic, and the ending is a bit disappointing.  Recommended to fans of Russian or scifi literature.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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