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Book Review: Waiting For the Galactic Bus by Parke Godwin (Series, #1) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

March 12, 2014 2 comments

An ape sits on a grassy plain with a hand coming down out ofthe clouds pointing at him.Summary:
When two brothers from an incorporeal alien species get left behind on a spring break visit to prehistoric Earth, they decide to put their, as yet uncertified, evolutionary development skills to work by prodding along the the evolutionary process on Earth.  In doing so, they accidentally create a species with a spirit tied to a body for a certain amount of time that then is tied to the idea of an afterlife.  They also manage to turn themselves into Earth’s spiritual mythology.

Review:
An ingenious take on the aliens made humans concept with two overlapping plots, a tongue-in-cheek take on world religions, and a wry wit.

This take on aliens made humans makes humans the result of the bumbling activities of aliens from a species that controls evolution in the universe.  However, these aliens are currently uncertified, unsupervised, and basically the frat boys of outerspace.  At least at first.  Thus, instead of it all being some evil experimental conspiracy, the direction of life on Earth is much more of an accident of floundering fools.  Granted, the fools grow and change over the time that they spend on Earth waiting for their ride back from spring break, but the fact remains that evolution on Earth is a result of the experiments of two aliens who are not yet fully trained.  This is also used to explain the phenomenon of souls in bodies and then souls that have an afterlife.  All other species have souls that can either choose to be in or not in a corporeal body.  This is the result of the two aliens, Barion and Coyul, not staying within the rules of evolution.

We thus get to the other really creative part of the book.  Since the souls are unfotunately tied to bodies that die, when the bodies die, the souls don’t know what to do or where to go, and so humanity creates the idea of the afterlife, with the two aliens serving as the rulers of the two options (again, created by humans).  The aliens thus are kind of forced into the roles of God and Satan.  The way afterlives go, though, is generally more the result of what the various humans think it will be or think they deserve.  The aliens have mostly tried to stay out of the way, but when they hear rumblings that remind them on the beginning of the nightmare that was Nazi Europe in the American midwest, they decide to dive on in and try to fix it.

Clearly the plot and setting are extremely engaging and thought-provoking.  I could truly talk about them for hours.  They are creative and a vision of the world I enjoyed visiting.  The characterization of the two aliens is a bit weak though.  I mixed them up a lot, constantly forgetting who was God and who was Satan.  I honestly can’t remember right now if Barion or Coyul plays Satan.  I wish they had been characterized more clearly, as this would have strengthened the story.

Overall, this is a unique take on aliens creating humans, featuring a rollicking and thought-provoking plot.  The characterization can be a bit weak but the action-packed plot and vibrant setting generally make up for it.  Recommended to scifi or fantasy fans looking for an extraterrestrial take on mythology.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (Series, #2) (Audiobook narrated by Will Patton)

February 13, 2014 2 comments

Red-tinged image of a face with the author's name and title in smoke-like white letters over the top.Summary:
Danny Torrance didn’t die in the Overlook Hotel but what happened there haunts him to this day.  Not as much as the shining does though.  His special mental powers that allow him to see the supernatural and read thoughts lead to him seeing some pretty nasty things, even after escaping the Overlook.  He soon turns to drinking to escape the terror.  But drinking solves nothing and just makes things worse.  When he sees his childhood imaginary friend, Tony, in a small New Hampshire town, he turns to AA to try to turn his life around and learn to live with the shining.

Abra is a middle school girl nearby in New Hampshire with a powerful shine.  She sees the murder of a little boy by a band of folks calling themselves the True Knot.  They travel in campers and mobile homes, seeking out those who have the shine to kill them for it and inhale it.  They call it steam.  They’re not human. And they’re coming after Abra.  Abra calls out to the only person she knows with a shine too, the man she’s talked to before by writing on his blackboard.  Dan.

Review:
A sequel that takes the original entry’s theme on overcoming your family origin and ramps it up a notch, Doctor Sleep eloquently explores how our family origin, genetics, and past make us who we are today.  All set against a gradually ramping up race against the clock to save a little girl from a band of murdering travelers.

The book begins with a brief visit to Danny as a kid who learns that the supernatural creatures exist in places other than the Overlook, and they are attracted to the shine.  This lets the reader first get reacquainted with Danny as a child and also establishes that the supernatural are a potential problem everywhere.  The book then jumps aggressively forward to Danny as a 20-something with a bad drinking problem.  It’s an incredibly gritty series of scenes, and it works perfectly to make Dan a well-rounded character, instead of a perfect hero of the shine.  It also reestablishes the theme from The Shining that someone isn’t a bad person just because they have flaws–whether nature or nurture-based.  That theme would have been undone if Dan had turned out to be an ideal adult.  It would be much easier to demonize his father and grandfather in that case, but with the way King has written Dan, it’s impossible to do that.

The way Dan overcomes both his drinking and his temper, as well as how he learns to deal with his shine, is he joins Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).  In contrast to his father who tried to quit drinking on his own, Dan attempts it in a group with accountability.  This then shows how much easier it is to overcome a mental illness with community support.  I appreciated seeing this.  I will say, however, that some of the AA talk in the book can get a bit heavy-handed.  Some chapter beginnings include quotes from the book of AA, and Dan can sometimes seem a bit obsessed with it when he relates almost everything to something he learned or heard there.  AA definitely plays a vital role in many people’s recovery from addiction, and it’s wonderful to see that in a work of fiction.  However, it would have been better for the reader to see the role of AA more than to hear quotes from AA so often.

The big bad in this book is a band of supernatural creatures who were once human and still look human.  But they change somehow by taking steam and go on to live almost indefinitely.  They can die from stupid accidents and sometimes randomly drop dead.  The steam is acquired by torturing children who have the shine.  The shine comes out of their bodies as steam when they are in pain.  They call themselves The True Knot.  This troop is a cartoonish group of evil people who try to look like a troop of retirees and some of their family traveling in a camper caravan.  The leader of this group is Rose the Hat–a redheaded woman who wears a top hat at an impossibly jaunty angle.  I was pleased to see Rose written quite clearly as a bisexual.  Her sexuality is just an aspect of who she is, just like her red hair.  Seeing a bi person as the big bad was a delight.  Her bisexuality isn’t demonized. Her actions as a child killer and eater of steam are.  She is a monster because of her choices, not because of who she is.   I alternated between finding The True Knot frightening and too ridiculously cartoonish to be scary.  I do think that was partially the point, though.  You can’t discredit people who seem ridiculous as being harmless.

How Abra is found by The True Knot, and how she in turn finds Dan, makes sense within the world King has created.  It doesn’t come until later in the book, though.  There is quite a bit of backstory and build-up to get through first.  The buildup is honestly so entertaining that it really didn’t hit me until after I finished the book how long it actually took to get to the main conflict.  So it definitely works.  Abra is a well-written middle school girl.  King clearly did his research into what it’s like to be a middle schooler in today’s world.  Additionally, the fact that Abra is so much older than Danny was in The Shining means it’s much easier for the reader to understand how the shine works and see a child, who understands at least a bit what it is, grapple with it.  This made Abra, although she is a child with a shine, a different experience for the reader who already met one child with a shine in the previous book.  Abra is also a well-rounded character with just the right amount of flaws and talent.

There is one reveal later in the book in relation to Abra that made me cringe a bit, since it felt a bit cliche.  It takes a bit of a leap of faith to believe, and I must admit it made me roll my eyes a bit.  However, it is minor enough in the context of the overall story that it didn’t ruin my experience with the book.  I just wish a less cliche choice had been made.

The audiobook narrator, Will Patton, does a phenomenal job.  It was truly the best audiobook narration I’ve heard yet.  Every single character in a very large cast has a completely different voice and style.  I never once got lost in who was speaking or what was going on.  More importantly to me, as a New England girl born and raised, is that he perfectly executes the wide range of New England accents present in the book.  Particularly when he narrates the character, Billy, I thought I was hearing one of my older neighbors speak.  I could listen to Will Patton read a grocery list and be entertained.  Absolutely get the audiobook if you can.

Overall, this sequel to The Shining successfully explores both what happened to Danny Torrance when he grew up and a different set of frightening supernatural circumstances for a new child with the shine.  This time a girl.  The themes of nature, nurture, your past, and overcoming them are all eloquently explored.  There is a surprising amount of content about AA in the book.  It could either inspire or annoy the reader, depending on their mind-set.  Any GLBTQ readers looking for a bi big bad should definitely pick it up, as Rose the Hat is all that and more.  Recommended to fans of Stephen King and those that enjoy a fantastical thriller drenched in Americana.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers by Karyl McBride

November 14, 2013 Leave a comment

A green and white book cover with an image of a woman and her reflection.Summary:
A guidebook for adult women raised by a mother with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).  Dr. McBride is a therapist with many years of experience treating daughters of NPD mothers and also with treating people with NPD.  Additionally, she herself is the daughter of a woman with NPD.  The book is divided into three sections to help the daughters of mothers with NPD to heal and take charge of their lives.  The first section “Recognizing the Problem,” explains what maternal NPD looks like.  The second section, “How Narcissistic Mothering Affects Your Entire Life,” explains the impact NPD mothers have on their daughters, both as children and as adults.  The third section, “Ending the Legacy” is all about healing from the NPD mothering and breaking the cycle of Narcissism.  Dr. McBride offers clinical examples from her practice as well as detailed, clearly explained exercises to aid with healing.

Review:
It’s not easy to find a book addressing healing from abuse that manages to walk the fine line of understanding for all involved and absolute condemnation of the abusive actions and that simultaneously encourages agency and healing without making the survivor become stuck in a victim’s mentality.  Dr. McBride strikes this balance eloquently.

The three sections of the book work perfectly for guiding the reader through understanding precisely what happened in her childhood, how it impacts her adulthood, and how to regain agency of herself and her life.  NPD is not a mental illness that is well-understood or recognized.  The first section thus must explain NPD and how NPD leads to abusive mothering without demonizing the mother suffering from NPD.  It is incredibly difficult not to demonize people with NPD.  People with NPD tend to be self-centered, manipulative, and resistant to treatment.  McBride manages to simultaneously describe the person with NPD in a sympathetic light and condemn their behavior.  This section also serves to provide an aha moment for the reader.  It will immediately be clear if your mother has/had NPD or not, and if she does/did, it will shine a light on the daughter’s childhood, proving she is not crazy or ungrateful.  Some of the signs of a mother with NPD include: the mother demanding praise for everything she’s ever done for the daughter, a lack of compassion or empathy for the daughter, approval for who the mother wants the daughter to be instead of who she is, the mother perceives of the daughter as a threat, the mother is jealous of the daughter for various reasons, the mother is overly critical or judgmental, the mother uses the daughter as a scapegoat for her bad feelings, the mother treats the daughter like a friend, no boundaries or privacy, the mother involves the daughter prematurely in the adult world, and more.

This section also explains why the book is only about daughters of mothers with NPD and not for her sons as well.

A mother, however, is her daughter’s primary role model for developing as an individual, lover, wife, mother, and friend, and aspects of maternal narcissism tend to damage daughters in particularly insidious ways. Because the mother-daughter dynamic is distinctive, the daughter of a narcissistic mother faces unique struggles that her brothers don’t share….A narcissistic mother sees her daughter, more than her son, as a reflection and extension of herself rather than as a separate person with her own identity. She puts pressure on her daughter to act and react to the world and her surroundings in the exact manner that Mom would, rather than in a way that feels right for the daughter. (6-7)

The next section looks at what impact being raised by a mother with NPD has on the daughter’s adult life.  McBride factually explains where some of the daughter’s less healthy behaviors and thought processes may come from without falling into the trap many childhood healing books fall into of repeatedly directing negative energy toward the parent.  Some of the issues that may be present in an adult daughter raised by a mother with NPD include: high-achieving or self-sabotaging or waffling between the two, difficulty understanding and processing feelings, inappropriate love relationships that are dependent or codependent or giving up on relationships entirely, fear of becoming a mother herself, unconsciously mimicking her mother’s parenting with her own children or doing the exact opposite of what her mother did.

The final section is all about the daughter healing, overcoming, and taking agency for herself.  McBride encourages therapy, but also offers at-home tips and exercises for those who cannot afford it.  An example of one of these is the “internal mother” exercise.  This exercise involves many steps, but it essentially seeks to replace the internal negative messages the daughter has from her own mother with more positive messages that are the type the daughter wanted from her real mother.  The daughter grieves the mother she never got to have and learns to parent herself.  Much of the work in this section involves grieving the mother and childhood the daughter never got to have, accepting it for what it is, giving herself the encouragement and mothering she needs, learning to set boundaries, and the daughter coming to be in charge of her own life.  The exercises are not simple and may seem a bit overwhelming to the reader at first, but they do serve to mimic the real therapy process, encouraging introspection, journaling, grieving, and behavioral changes.

One thing I really appreciate about McBride’s approach is how she handles the adult relationship between daughter and mother.  She 100% encourages the daughter to make the choice that is right for her own emotional health and that simultaneously does not expect miracles from her mother.  Since most people with NPD don’t receive successful treatment, McBride carefully admonishes the daughter to base her decision based on her mother’s proven behavior.  She encourages setting clear boundaries, and individuating oneself from mother.  But she also acknowledges that having a relationship at all with a mother with severe NPD might not be possible.

We have to acknowledge that a narcissistic mother may be too toxic to be around. In many situations, daughters have to make the choice to disconnect completely from their mothers because the toxicity damages their emotional well-being. While others around you may not understand it, this is a decision that you get to make for your own mental health. (184)

Refusing to give one-size-fits-all advice on the relationship between a narcissistic mother and her adult daughter is just one example of the many positives of this book.  McBride offers insight, advice, and isn’t afraid to say what might be painful to hear.  She has done an excellent job putting the therapy process into book format, as much as possible.

Overall, this book tackles an incredibly difficult topic in an even-handed, clear manner.  Its focus on just daughters of mothers with NPD allows Dr. McBride to give targeted examples and advice to the reader.  It never excuses the mother’s behavior, firmly condemning it, but still exhibits compassion for the mother suffering from NPD.  Any woman who thinks she may have been raised by a woman with NPD should read this book and see if any of it rings true for her.  Additionally recommended to anyone interested in how NPD impacts parenting and the next generation.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (Series, #0.1) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

September 21, 2013 Leave a comment

Image of a see-through robot with red eyes.  Blurred like it is in motion. It is on a black background, and the book's title and author are in white text at the top.Summary:
This collection of short stories tells the history of the invention and gradual improvement of robots.  The robots in this future must follow the 3 Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

But following these laws doesn’t always have quite the outcome the inventors and managers of robots intended.

Review:
I wasn’t aware I, Robot is actually a short story collection.  It’s precisely the type I enjoy though because they all work together to tell one overarching story in order.  Beginning with the earliest robots, they slowly move up through important points in the history of robotics to lead up to the world run by big brain machine robots that Asimov has imagined.  This collection is a prequel of sorts (and of many) to Asimov’s robot series that begins with The Caves of Steel (list of entire series).

One thing I like about the world Asimov sets up is that unlike many scifi books featuring AI, the people in Asimov’s world are highly, intensely cautious of robots.  They’re very concerned about robots taking jobs, killing humans, and even robbing humans of their autonomy.  It sets up a conflict from the beginning and frankly presents the humans as just a bit more intelligent than in some AI scifi universes.

I was under the impression from pop culture that in I, Robot they think they’re protected by the Laws of Robotics but something happens so that the robots aren’t programmed with them any longer.  That’s not what happens at all.  What happens is much more complex.  How the robots interpret the Laws and how the Laws work end up being much more complex and less straight-forward than the humans originally imagined, so much so that they have to have a robopsychologist to help them interpret what’s going on with the robots.  This is really quite brilliant and is one of my favorite aspects of the book.

Unfortunately, the book can read a bit sexist sometimes, in spite of having a female protagonist through quite a bit of the book.  (The robopsychologist is a woman).  The book was first published in 1950, though, so when you think about the time period, the sexism is pretty minor, especially compared to having a female worldwide expert on robopsychology.  The main time sexism comes up is when the leader of Europe is a woman and says some self-deprecating things about difficulty leading because she’s a woman.  Yes, there is older scifi that avoids sexism pretty much entirely, but I am able to give this instance a bit of a pass considering the other strong portrayal of a woman in a leadership role.  But be aware that at least one cringe-inducing sexist conversation does occur.

Overall, this piece of classic scifi stands the test of time extraordinarily well.  Its film adaptations do not do it proper service at all.  Come to this book expecting a collection of short stories exploring robopsychology, not an action flick about killer robots.  Recommended to scifi fans.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Harvard Books

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Book Review: Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States by Andrew Coe (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

August 17, 2013 3 comments

Light blue bakcground image with the picture of a white, Asian-style take-out container on it.  The title of the book "Chop Suey A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States" is printed on it in a mix of red and black letters.Summary:
American Chinese food is different from Chinese Chinese food.  This is a well-known fact.  Coe tells the history of how Chinese food came to America and changed and adapted to the cuisine we know today.  Along the way, some of the stories of Chinese immigrants to America and Chinese-Americans are told as well.

Review:
I love food, and I love history, so a book telling the history of a specific cuisine totally appealed to me.  Unfortunately, this book missed the mark for what could have been an enticing history of American style Chinese food.  Instead, it gets hung up in the early history of both Chinese food in China and Chinese food in America in the 1800s then hops, skips, and jumps over how it changed through the 1900s up to present.  While this information is interesting, it is not the history of American Chinese food it is presented as.

The main issue with the book is it spends almost 1/4 of its time exploring the history of Chinese food in China.  While I learned some interesting facts, such as that tofu was invented in the Han Dynasty (page 80), this information is not necessary to convey how Chinese food came to America and changed.  A much briefer introduction to where Chinese food was at before coming to America would have sufficed.  The best part of the book is when it discusses Chinese food in America in the 1800s and explores how US-born Americans’ embracing of Chinese food or not depended on many factors such as the current rates of xenophobia, job markets, and prices.  Viewing the history of the American west coast through the perspective of Chinese immigration and Chinese restaurants was truly fascinating.  One of the more fascinating things that I learned in this section was a detail of the history of the racist perception of Asian men as not masculine.  In that time period, when Chinese immigrants were competing with white Americans and Irish immigrants for railroad and other jobs, the backlash was that since Chinese men “didn’t need” to eat meat to work long hours they could afford to take a lower rate of pay.  Articles attacked the Chinese diet as a sign that Chinese men are less masculine since they “don’t need” meat the way white American and Irish-American men do.  One article title from this time period cited in the book is “Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion. Meat vs. Rice. American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism. Which Shall Survive?” by Samuel Gompers (page 141).  As a vegetarian, I found it fascinating that the sexist perception of a less meat-centric diet (the Chinese did indeed eat meat, just less than American men), has both such a far-reaching history and was used to fuel xenophobia and racism against immigrant workers.  It is clear to me after reading this that a large part of the work for vegetarians is to get rid of the faulty correlation between meat and masculinity.  I could see fixing this having other positive outcomes as well, such as fighting against misperceptions of the masculinity of other cultures.

Unfortunately, the wonderful details found in the chapters on the 1800s gradually cease to exist as the book moves up through time.  While the 1920s get some special attention, such as touching on the fact that Chinese restaurants survived Prohibition well because they had never served alcohol anyway (page 189), slowly these details fall away until we get nothing but the bare bones of how Chinese restaurants functioned and interacted with American history in the rest of the 20th century up to present.  There is even one rather aggravating long aside exploring President Nixon’s visit to China.  While his visit to China definitely gave a resurgence of interest in Chinese food in the US, it was again unnecessary to give such incredible details on Nixon’s visit.  It could have been simply stated, instead, that Nixon visited China, bringing Chinese food to the forefront of American thought again and giving a resurgence of interest in Chinese cuisine.  The book has a tendency to lollygag on topics that are not actually what the book is supposed to be about.  While these topics can be interesting and Coe explores them well, they are not what the book supposedly is about.  It would be better to present the book with a different title or edit the focus back to simply Chinese-American cuisine.

One other factor that made me enjoy the book less is that Coe shows a clear bias toward Chinese culture.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying Chinese culture, but Coe says some things that if he had said them in reverse would be considered completely unacceptable to say.  He frequently presents the Chinese people as more civilized, their way of doing things as more logical and simply better, and even scoffs at the level of advancement of European countries compared to China at one point (page 94).  Lack of bias and simply presenting the facts is the strength of historical nonfiction works.  It would have been nice to see that level of professionalism in this book, regardless of Coe’s personal views.

Overall then, while I learned some new facts about both Chinese-American cuisine and Chinese-American history, the book wanders significantly through Chinese history and Chinese cuisine as well.  Interesting, but not what the title implies the book is about.  Coe also shows some bias that should not be present in a history book.  These are easily skimmed over, however, and thankfully do not come up very often.  Recommended to those with an interest in both Chinese-American and Chinese history in addition to the history of American style Chinese cuisine, as all three are covered rather equally.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: A Room with a View by E. M. Forster (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

August 3, 2013 Leave a comment

Black and white image of Italian countryside as seen through a window with the book's title and author name on it.Summary:
When Lucy Honeychurch goes to Italy, accompanied by her spinster aunt, she doesn’t want or expect much, except perhaps a room with a view.  But she meets George Emerson and his father, two socialist atheists, and they put her world in a bit of a tizzy.  That all gets left behind, though, leaving room for her to meet the man who will become her fiancee, Cecil.  Back in England, her courtship is soon interrupted by the unexpected arrival into their little town of the Emersons.

Review:
I wanted to like this book.  It sounded like an older progressive, feminist romance novel, and that’s something I can definitely get behind.  The romance, though, turned my stomach, and all of the characters left me sour.

This is a slow-moving book.  The scenes it sets are neither rich nor interesting.  I expected to feel more enveloped in Italy, akin to how I felt when reading Adriana Trigiani, but this didn’t happen.  It felt a bit like your cousin who isn’t very good at describing things is trying to tell you all about her vacation to Italy without the help of pictures.  In a book where not very much happens for at least the first 2/3 of it, this is more important of a shortcoming than it might otherwise be.

I cannot name a single character in the book I enjoyed, although Lucy’s brother at least elicited a neutral feeling from me.  They’re all about what you would expect from upper middle class British in the early 1900s.  Lucy is dull and timid. Her aunt is mean and overly concerned about appearances.  One suitor is is an upper-class prick, and the other is a supposed “bad boy,” although only in the sense that if this was a boarding school he might not tie his tie properly.  It all was so predictable and dull.  I was expecting a fiery heroine but instead I got Miss Plane Jane from down the road.

What really swayed me against the book, though, was one of the scenes we are clearly supposed to find very romantic, but which I found problematic at its most basic level.

Lucy was playing tennis with a bunch of people, and she winds up walking through the garden back toward the house with George.  George knows she is engaged to Cecil, and Lucy has expressed to him a few times that she is not interested in pursuing a relationship with him.  He grabs her, at which point the following happens:

“No–” she gasped, and, for the second time, was kissed by him. (page 174)

This is the second time, because the first kiss was a mutual one that happened in Italy many months prior.  So what happens is that George grabs her without asking, knowing she is uninterested and engaged to another man, she tells him no, and he proceeds to kiss her anyway.  This sexual assault is supposed to endear George to us!!! It is incredibly offensive, and I was so turned off I wanted to stop reading.  I didn’t so I could write an honest review for you all, but honestly the entire rest of the book was soured for me because we are expected to root for Lucy to estrange herself from her friends and family to marry a man who clearly shows zero respect for her as a person, a man who has sexually assaulted her.  How is that a romance? Putting forward stories like this as the desired norm, as a couple who are deeply in love and should be looked up to and aspired for, isn’t good for anyone reading these books.  Relationships and romance should be based on mutual trust and respect.  It’s ok for a person to make a mistake.  We’re all human.  But these mistakes should be acknowledged as mistakes and apologized for, never to be done again.  Not held up as the romantic actions of a person in love.

This reads as a mid-range, late 1800s style British romance, in spite of being published in the early 1900s.  I could see this being for someone else who enjoys that style more than I do, but I cannot in good faith recommend it when the romantic hero of the book sexually assaults the heroine, and we are supposed to root for him to win her heart.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: won from a book blog

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Book Review: Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

July 18, 2013 Leave a comment

Purple and white face with large eyes and open mouth that looks frightened. Book title and author's name are written over it.Summary:
A bunch of people sign up, individually, for a writer’s retreat. Telling no one where they’re going, they vow to write the next great American novel. They wind up locked away in the opposite of the lap of luxury, however. Trapped in a dusty old theater, they quickly become focused on an entirely different type of story.  What happens to these writers is interspersed with poetry about each person and short stories written by each of them while locked in the retreat.

Review:
I am a huge Palahniuk fan. Fight Club spoke to me when I was at my late teens most intense angst that is indescribable.  To this day, I view the book (and the movie) as exemplary artforms that demonstrate how genre literature can say something incredibly serious and deep.  I also point to Palahniuk as a way to say that vulgarity and horror do not equate to bad writing.  All of which is to say, I’m pretty biased toward being a fan of anything Palahniuk does.  Just so you’re aware.

I struggle with short story collections. I like them to be all connected somehow, even if it’s just by theme, so at first I really liked the idea of a collection of short stories written by people at a writer’s retreat.  It’s a good idea, but it’s not executed very well.  The short stories are awesome! The connecting bits of narrative aren’t so much.  Basically, the writers decide that they should spin what happens at the retreat to be as horrible as possible to help get a movie deal out of it after the fact. So they focus on twisting the facts and committing atrocities against themselves and each other to make for a better story.  I totally got what is being said about writers procrastinating by making drama in their own lives instead of actually writing.  I liked that part. But there also wasn’t enough realness in the connecting bits to keep me interested.  I found myself dreading them whereas I really enjoyed the short stories, which made for an uneven reading experience.

One of the short stories contained in this collection is Palahniuk’s famous “Guts.” The one that makes people faint.  (Palahniuk has made it available online for free here).  This was definitely the best short story in the collection, and I can see why it became so famous.  It also sets the tone for a lot of the stories in the collection. There’s one with people randomly getting smashed in a city. There’s also one about the possible origins of the Sasquatch myth.  My second favorite after “Guts” was actually about an inn near a hot springs in the mountains.  That one grossed me out *almost* as much as “Guts,” and also had something deeper to say, I think.  All of this is to say that if you read and enjoyed “Guts,” you’ll like the short stories in this collection.  They’re gross, horrifying, and stick with you.

Overall, it’s an interesting idea for unifying a short story collection.  Ultimately, though, I would have liked it better as a straight-up short story collection, maybe even including the writer’s retreat as a short story by itself.  This fact might make me rate the book lower, but the inclusion of so many high quality short stories keeps the book itself rating highly.  Grab this if you’ve read and enjoyed “Guts.”

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Brookline Booksmith

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Book Review: A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today by Kate Bornstein (Audiobook narrated by Alice Rosengard)

June 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Red lettering on a yellow background stating "A Queer and Pleasant Danger" black lettering around the edge says the subtitle of the novel, "The true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology, and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today"Summary:
Kate Bornstein is a playwright, gender theorist, and queer activist.  She chose to write a memoir as a way to reach out to her daughter, Jessica, who is still in the Church of Scientology, and thus, must not speak to her.  Her memoir talks about growing up Jewish in the 1950s, feeling like a girl inside a boy’s body.  It then talks about why and how she joined Scientology (still identifying as a man, Al), climbing Scientology’s ladder, marrying, fathering Jessica, and finally getting kicked out of Scientology and becoming disillusioned.  From there the memoir explains to Jessica how and why Al decided to become Kate and talks about the person behind the queer theory, trying to explain who the incredibly unique parent she has truly is.

Review:
I was feeling bad about how far behind I’ve fallen in writing up reviews for the books I’ve finished reading, but with the historic DOMA ruling in the US yesterday (giving official federal support to marriage equality), I’m really glad I had a GLBTQ book in the queue ready to be reviewed.  And not just any GLBTQ book. An amazing one!  You can’t read that title and not be intrigued. It’s impossible.  I spotted it on tumblr and instantly knew I had to read it.  A memoir about a transwoman who was a member of Scientology?! It’s the intersection of three topics I find fascinating.

Kate is unabashedly honest about the fact that this book exists as a letter to her daughter, Jessica.  The prologue explains that this memoir came about as a way for Kate to reach out to Jessica and her children, even after Kate has passed away.  This lends a tone to the book of an elderly neighbor sitting down to tell you their life story, and you finding out gradually that your elderly neighbor is, in fact, a bad ass, and age has nothing to do with how cool a person still is to this day.  And Kate doesn’t hold back because of this perspective.  If anything, she is more brutally honest than she might otherwise be.  She wants Jessica to have a whole, clear picture of who she is.  Flaws and all.  One technique that I thought was brilliant for a memoir and helped establish trust in truth between the reader and the author was the fact that Kate would tell a family story she heard growing up and then say, well, that was a lie.  I thought it was true, but it turns out what people told me was a lie.  Given that, how can we ever know what really is true? Just because we think something is true doesn’t mean it is.  It’s an excellent grain of salt to be given in a memoir.

After the prologue, Kate tells her story chronologically.  Her story can be roughly summarized as the following sections: growing up a gender queer person, joining Scientology, break-down after getting kicked out of Scientology and coming to terms with her queerness, transitioning, life as a lesbian trans activist, finding BDSM, and overcoming depression and suicidal thoughts.  It’s an emotional rollercoaster ride, and one cannot help but feel empathy for this person just struggling to find a place in the world.  Personally, I think Kate’s life story is an excellent argument for breaking down the binary gender divide.  A lot of Kate’s struggles come from the rigid gender norms and expectations placed upon her by others.  It would have been much simpler for people to have let her be gender fluid, and indeed, Kate in more recent years has come to be an activist for gender fluidity and queerness (as is evidenced by her book Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us).  This memoir of course explores trans issues, but it also is an amazing gender queer memoir.

The Scientology section was surprisingly mundane compared to what I thought actually happens in Scientology.  Yes, there was abuse and lies and many other things going on that demonstrate the fallacies of L. Ron Hubbard, but honestly none of it was that much worse than religious extremists of any religion.  Scientology expects its followers to cut themselves off from people deemed poisonous and to proselytize non-stop.  It takes over the lives of the people in the upper-echelons, controlling every aspect of their lives.  We can see all of this in Kate’s years in Scientology, and while it was interesting, none of it is shocking to anyone moderately informed on Scientology.  I actually was more interested in how Kate wound up joining Scientology.  Scientology teaches the the soul is genderless, and you also reincarnate.  Everyone has been in both male and female bodies.  Kate (then Al) found this incredibly comforting.  It’s possible that his soul was just more frequently in female bodies, and so that’s why he felt like a girl inside.  What an appealing concept to a confused, unsupported trans or gender queer young adult.  I think this part of the book demonstrates clearly why it’s important for families and loved ones to be supportive of their glbtq teens and young people.  You don’t want a harmful group of people snapping them up with promises of understanding and caring and information that sounds more supportive than the people they live with.

Interestingly, the much more shocking section was the one in which Kate discusses discovering BDSM and getting pleasure from pain.  Kate was part of a BDSM triad for quite some time, and this is addressed.  It does, however, come with a warning for Jessica and readers who might not want to hear the details so they can easily skip over it and still get the most important information without getting all the details.  I thought that was a nice touch from Kate, showing her maturity and openness.  Of course, I read that section, and I will say that Kate had a more intense BDSM relationship than you tend to see in literature, and it was interesting to read about.

It’s also interesting to note that from the prologue Kate is honest with the reader about being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder years ago.  This is not something I knew coming into the book, and I don’t think Kate’s mental illness played very much into the book.  I certainly think she would have had a better time coping with her mental health issues if she had had a supportive environment for her queerness.  Even within the GLBTQ community, she was ostracized for some of her less mainstream beliefs within that community.  It’s sad that even a community of people ostracized by the larger society, people can still be unaccepting and unloving.  In spite of the fact that the book talks a lot about depression, self-injury, and other mental health issues, I am hesitant to label it as counting for my Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge.  I don’t want the casual reader to think that I’m equating being queer with having a mental illness.  However, the fact remains that Kate herself states she was diagnosed with BPD, and trans and queer people certainly can have mental illnesses.  One does not cause the other, although certainly I think lack of acceptance and loving increases symptoms of mental illnesses.  In any case, for this reason, I am counting this read for the challenge, but I want to be crystal clear that this is due to Kate’s BPD and NOT her queer/trans orientation.

The narration of the audiobook was perfect.  Thankfully, they chose to use a female narrator throughout, which fits perfectly with the image of an older Kate Bornstein telling her life story to her daughter.  Alice Rosengard was a perfect narrator.  She became Kate in my mind, and there’s not a better complement you can pay a narrator than that.

I feel like I’ve rambled a lot about this book.  It’s hard to succinctly discuss a memoir as unique as this one, let alone a book you love as much as I loved this one.  It’s amazing. It’s unique.  It does exactly what a memoir should do. It tells a unique life story in an engaging way that forces the reader to put herself into someone else’s shoes and feel empathy and maybe even come out of it with a changed worldview, however slightly.  I strongly recommend this book to everyone, really, but especially anyone with an interest in GLBTQ history/theory/studies or an interest in the first few decades of Scientology.  I will definitely be reading more of Kate’s works, myself, and want to thank her for being a pioneer, in spite of everything.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Deeper than the Dead by Tami Hoag (Series, #1) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

June 5, 2013 2 comments

Images of fall leaves with the title of the book written over them.Summary:
When four children stumble upon the displayed body of a dead woman, they and their teacher are pulled into the investigation.  But when this murder is connected to others, that makes it a potential serial killer, and that means the FBI wants to get involved. Quietly.  Of course, it’s only 1985, the edge of modern forensics, so they must pursue their murderer with a combination of science and old-fashioned detective work.

Review:
I wish I could remember how this thriller made it into my TBR Pile.  It’s a unique entry into the serial killer/forensics sector of the genre due to the time period Hoag chose to set it in.  She states in her author’s introduction that she wanted to set her thriller in the 80s due to a personal nostalgia for the time but only after starting her research did she realize what an important time period it was for forensics.  I think it’s yet another example of an author following her interests and getting a unique work out of it.

The plot alternates perspectives between the four children, their teacher, the older FBI agent on the case, and the killer (without revealing who the killer is), all in the third person.  The changing perspectives help keep the plot complex and moving, as well as give us multiple plausible theories on who the killer is.  That said.  I was still able to predict the killer, and I honestly felt the killer to be a bit stereotypical.

The serial killings themselves  are all of young women who either are currently at or have recently left the local halfway house.  The murder/torture methods are sufficiently grotesque without going over the top.  Fans of the genre will be satisfied.

The characters are a bit two-dimensional, particularly the older FBI agent, the young cop on the force, and all of the murder suspects.  I also, frankly, didn’t appreciate the fact that an expert in the field calls one of the mothers a crazy borderline.  She was presented as entirely the flat, evil representation of people with BPD that we problematically see in the media.  This is why writing two-dimensional characters can be problematic.  We only see the woman being overly dramatic and demanding.  We never see her softer or redeeming qualities.  I’d have less of a problem with this presentation of this woman with BPD in the book if it was a first person narration or a third person narration that maintained one perspective.  Then it could be argued that this is that one character’s perception of the woman.  But given that multiple perspectives are offered, presenting so many people in a two-dimensional way is rather inexcusable, and it’s irresponsible to write mental illness in this way.  I’m not saying every character with a mental illness needs to be written in a positive light, but they should be written as three-dimensional human beings, not monsters (with, perhaps, the exception of sociopathy).

This is a book, then, with an interesting idea and fairly good plot but shaky characterization.  Some people don’t mind that in their thrillers.  I admit I speed-read, eager to find out who the killer was.  But I also was bothered by the flatness of the characters.  If you think this won’t bother you, then you will probably enjoy this book.  Those with a mental illness should be warned that the representation of mental illness in the book could be upsetting or triggering.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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