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Book Review: The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Audiobook narrated by Suzy Jackson)

June 7, 2014 2 comments

A woman submerged in water with her eyes closed. The image has a blue tint.Summary:
India Morgan Phelps, Imp to her friends, is sure that there were two different Eva Cannings who came into her life and changed her world.  And one of them was a mermaid (or perhaps a siren?) and the other was a werewolf.  But Imp’s ex-girlfriend, Abalyn, insists that no, there was only ever one Eva Canning, and she definitely wasn’t a mermaid or a werewolf.  Dr. Ogilvy wants Imp to figure out for herself what actually happened. But that’s awfully hard when you have schizophrenia.

Review:
I’d heard that this book was a chilling mystery featuring GLBTQ characters and mental illness.  When I discovered it on Audible with an appealing-sounding narrator, I knew what I was listening to next.  This book is an engaging mystery that also eloquently captures the experience of having a mental illness that makes you question yourself and what you know while simultaneously giving a realistic glance into the queer community.

Imp is an unreliable first person narrator, and she fully admits this from the beginning.  She calls herself a madwoman who was the daughter of a madwoman who was a daughter of a madwoman too.  Mental illness runs in her family.  She states that she will try not to lie, but it’s hard to know for sure when she’s lying.  This is due to her schizophrenia.  Imp is writing down the story of what she remembers happening in journal style on her typewriter because she is trying to figure out the mystery of what exactly happened for herself.  The reader is just along for this ride.  And it’s a haunting, terrifying ride.  Not because of what Imp remembers happening with Eva Canning but because of being inside the mind of a person suffering from such a difficult mental illness.  Experiencing what it is to not be able to trust your own memories, to not be sure what is real and is not real, is simultaneously terrifying and heart-breaking.

Imp’s schizophrenia, plus some comorbid anxiety and OCD, and how she experiences and deals with them, lead to some stunningly beautiful passages.  This is particularly well seen in one portion of the book where she is more symptomatic than usual (for reasons which are spoilers, so I will leave them out):

All our thoughts are mustard seeds. Oh many days now. Many days. Many days of mustard seeds, India Phelps, daughter of madwomen, granddaughter, who doesn’t want to say a word and ergo can’t stop talking.  Here is a sad sad tale, woebegone story of the girl who stopped for the two strangers who would not could not could not would not stop for me. She. She who is me. And I creep around the edges of my own life. Afraid to screw off the mayonnaise lid and spill the mustard seeds. (Part 2, loc 55:35)

The thing that’s great about the writing in the book is that it shows both the beauty and pain of mental illness.  Imp’s brain is simultaneously beautiful for its artistic abilities and insight and a horrible burden in the ways that her mental illness tortures her and makes it difficult for her to live a “normal” life.  This is something many people with mental illness experience but find it hard to express.  It’s why many people with mental illness struggle with drug adherence.  They like the ability to function in day-to-day society and pass as normal but they miss being who they are in their own minds.  Kiernan eloquently demonstrates this struggle and shows the beauty and pain of mental illness.

Dr. Ogilvy and the pills she prescribes are my beeswax and the ropes that hold me fast to the main mast, just as my insanity has always been my siren. (Part 1, loc 4:08:48)

There is a lot of GLBTQ representation in the book, largely because Kiernan is clearly not just writing in a token queer character.  Imp is a lesbian, and her world is the world of a real-to-life lesbian.  She is not the only lesbian surrounded by straight people.  People who are part of the queer community, in multiple different aspects, are a part of Imp’s life.  Her girlfriend for part of the book is Abalyn, who is transwoman and has slept with both men and women both before and after her transition.  She never identifies her sexuality in the book, but she states she now prefers women because the men tend to not be as interested in her now that she has had bottom surgery.  The conversation where she talks about this with Imp is so realistic that I was stunned.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a conversation about both transitioning and the complicated aspects of dating for trans people that was this realistic outside of a memoir.  Eva Canning is bisexual.  It’s difficult to talk about Eva Canning in-depth without spoilers, so, suffice to say, Eva is out as bisexual and she is also promiscuous.  However, her promiscuity is not presented in a biphobic way.  Bisexual people exist on the full spectrum from abstinent to monogamous to poly to promiscuous.  What makes writing a bisexual character as promiscuous biphobic is whether the promiscuity is presented as the direct result of being bi, and Kiernan definitely does not write Eva this way.  Kiernan handles all of the queer characters in a realistic way that supports their three-dimensionality, as well as prevents any GLBTQphobia.

The plot is a difficult one to follow, largely due to Imp’s schizophrenia and her attempts at figuring out exactly what happened.  The convoluted plot works to both develop Imp’s character and bring out the mystery in the first two-thirds of the book.  The final third, though, takes an odd turn.  Imp is trying to figure out what she herself believes actually happened, and it becomes clear that what she ultimately believes happened will be a mix of reality and her schizophrenic visions.  That’s not just acceptable, it’s beautiful.  However, it’s hard to follow what exactly Imp chooses to believe.  I started to lose the thread of what Imp believes happens right around the chapter where multiple long siren songs are recounted.  It doesn’t feel like Imp is slowly figuring things out for herself and has made a story that gives her some stability in her life.  Instead it feels like she is still too symptomatic to truly function.  I never expected clear answers to the mystery but I did at least expect that it would be clear what Imp herself believes happened.  The lack of this removed the gut-wrenching power found in the first two-thirds of the book.

The audiobook narration by Suzy Jackson is truly stellar.  There are parts of Imp’s journal that must truly have been exceedingly difficult to turn into audio form, but Jackson makes them easy to understand in audio form and also keeps the flow of the story going.  Her voice is perfect for Imp.  She is not infantilized nor aged beyond her years.  She sounds like the 20-something woman she is.  I’m honestly not sure the story would have the same power reading it in print.  Hearing Imp’s voice through Jackson was so incredibly moving.

Overall, this book takes the traditional mystery and changes it from something external to something internal.  The mystery of what really happened exists due to Imp’s schizophrenia, which makes it a unique read for any mystery fan.  Further, Imp’s mental illness is presented eloquently through her beautiful first-person narration, and multiple GLBTQ characters are present and written realistically.  Recommended to mystery fans looking for something different, those seeking to understand what it is like to have a mental illness, and those looking to read a powerful book featuring GLBTQ characters whose queerness is just an aspect of who they are and not the entire point of the story.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood (Bottom of the TBR Pile Challenge)

May 30, 2014 4 comments

A bowl of fruit on a black background. A purple stripe across the bottom contains the book's title written in white.Summary:
It’s the 1960s in Canada, and Marian McAlpin is working writing and analyzing surveys for a marketing research firm.  She has a feminist roommate she doesn’t quite understand, and hangs out with the three office virgins for lunch.  Her boyfriend is comfortable and familiar. When he proposes to her, the office virgins think she’s hit the jackpot, her roommate questions why she’s following the norm, and her married and very pregnant friend seems hesitant about her fiancee.  None of this really bothers Marian, though.  What does bother her is that, ever since her engagement, there are more and more things she simply can’t eat.  First meat then eggs then even vegetables! She thinks of herself causing them suffering, and she just can’t stomach them.  What will happen to her if there’s eventually nothing left for her to eat?

Review:
I’m a fan of a few Margaret Atwood books, and the concept of this book intrigued me.  Since I run the Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge, I was also wondering if this might actually be a new take on anorexia.  Unfortunately, Marian is not really anorexic, it’s more of an elaborate, overdone metaphor.  Perhaps the plot is simply dated, but the interesting concept, when fleshed-out, comes out rather ho-hum.

The novel is divided into three parts, with Marian using first-person narration for the first and third parts, with third person narration taking over for the second.  This is meant to demonstrate how Marian is losing herself and not feeling her own identity.  It’s an interesting writing device, and one of the things I enjoyed more in the book.  It certainly is jarring to suddenly go from first to third person when talking about the main character, and it sets the tone quite well.

It’s impossible to read this book and not feel the 1960s in it.  Marian is in a culture where women work but only until marriage, where women attending college is still seen as a waste by some, and where there is a small counter-cultural movement that seems odd to the mainstream characters and feels a bit like a caricature to the modern reader.  However, the fact that Marian feels so trapped in her engagement, which could certainly still be the case in the 1960s, doesn’t ring as true, given the people surrounding Marian.  Her roommate is counter-cultural, her three office friends claim to want a man but clearly aren’t afraid of aging alone and won’t settle.  Her married friend shares household and child rearing with her husband, at least 50/50.  It’s hard to empathize with Marian, when it seems that her trap is all of her own making in her own mind.  She kind of careens around like aimless, violent, driftwood, refusing to take any agency for herself, her situation, or how she lets her fiancee treat her.  It’s all puzzling and difficult to relate to.

The Marian-cannot-eat-plot is definitely not developed as anorexia.  Marian at first stops eating certain meats because she empathizes with the animals the meat came from.  As a vegetarian, I had trouble seeing this as a real problem and fully understood where Marian was coming from.  Eventually, she starts to perceive herself as causing pain when eating a dead plant, bread, etc… The book presents both empathizing with animals and plants as equally pathologic, which is certainly not true.  Marian’s affliction actually reminded me a bit of orthorexia nervosa (becoming unhealthily obsessed with healthy eating, source) but the book itself presents eliminating any food from your diet as pathologic.  Either Marian eats like everyone else or she is going off the deep-end.  There is no moderate in-between.

What the Marian-cannot-eat-plot is actually used for is as a metaphor for how Marian’s fiancee (or her relationship with him) is supposedly consuming her.  The more entwined with her fiancee she becomes in society’s eyes, the closer the wedding comes, the less Marian is able to consume, because she herself is being consumed.  This would be quite eloquent if Marian’s fiancee or her relationship with him was actually harmful or consuming, but it certainly does not come across that way in what we see of it in the book.

Marian presents herself to her boyfriend then fiancee as a mainstream person, and he treats her that way.  He does one thing that’s kind of off-the-rocker (crashes his car into a hedge) but so does she on the same night (runs away in the middle of dinner, across people’s backyards, for no apparent reason and hides under a bed while having drinks with three other people at a friend’s house).  The only thing that he does that could possibly be read as a bit cruel is when she dresses up for a party he states that he wishes she would dress that way more often.  It’s not a partner’s place to tell the other how they should dress, but it’s also ok to express when you like something your partner is wearing.  Personally I thought the fiancee really meant the latter but just struggled with appropriately expressing it, and Marian herself never expresses any wants or desires directly to him on how they interact, what they wear, what they eat, how they decorate, etc…, so how could he possibly know?  In addition to never expressing herself to her fiancee, Marian also cheats on him, so how exactly the fiancee ends up the one being demonized in the conclusion of the book is a bit beyond me.  He’s bad because he wanted to marry her? Okay…… The whole thing reads as a bit heavy-handed second-wave feminism to me, honestly.  Marriage seems to be presented in the book as something that consumes women, no matter if they choose it or are forced into it by society.  It is not presented as a valid choice if a woman is able, within her society and culture, to make her own choices.

In spite of these plot and character issues, the book is still an engaging read with an interesting writing style.  I was caught up in the story, even if I didn’t really like the ideas within it.

Overall, this is a well-written book with some interesting narrative voice choices that did not age well.  It is definitely a work of the 1960s with some second-wave feminism ideas that might not sit well with modern readers.  Recommended to those interested in in a literary take on second-wave feminism’s perception of marriage.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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Book Review: Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

May 8, 2014 2 comments

Blue cover with four diplomas on it.  The cover contains the title and author's name in purple.Summary:
Celia, Bree, Sally, and April wound up on the same small hall their first year at Smith College.  Celia is from a traditional Irish Catholic Massachusetts family, although she doesn’t consider herself to be Catholic.  Bree arrives at college from the south with an engagement ring on her hand.  Sally arrives full of mourning and despair over the recent loss of her mother to breast cancer, and April arrives as the only work-study student on their floor.  Paying her own way through school and with a whole slew of issues and causes to fight for.  Their friendship is traced from the first weeks at Smith through their late 20s.

Review:
I picked this book up because it was compared favorably to Mary McCarthy’s The Group (review), calling it a modern version of that story telling the tale of a group of friends from a women’s college.  It certainly revisits the concept, however, The Group was actually more progressive both in its writing and presentation of the issues.  Commencement is a fun piece of chick lit but it misses the mark in offering any real insight or commentary on the world through the eyes of four women.

What the book does well is evoking the feeling of both being in undergrad and the years immediately after graduation.  Sullivan tells the story non-linearly, having the women getting back together for a wedding a few years after college.  This lets them reminisce to early years of college and also present current life situations and hopes for the future.  After the wedding, the story moves forward to cover the next year.  The plot structure was good and kept the story moving at a good pace.  It feels homey and familiar to read a book about four women going through the early stages of adulthood.  It was hard to put down, and the storytelling and dialogue, particularly for the first half of the book, read like a fun beach read.  However, there are a few issues that prevent the book from being the intelligent women’s literature it set out to be.

First, given that the premise of the book is that four very different women become unlikely friends thanks to being on the same hall of a progressive women’s college, the group of women isn’t actually that diverse.  They are all white, three of the four are from wealthy or upper-middle-class backgrounds (only one must take out loans and work to pay for school), none are differently abled (no physical disabilities or mental illnesses), and not a single one is a happy GLBTQ person.  Given that The Group (published in 1963) managed to have an out (eventually) lesbian, a happy plus-sized woman, and a socialist, one would expect a drastic increase in diversity in a book considered to be an update on a similar idea.  Women’s colleges in the 1930s when The Group is set were extremely white and abled, but the same cannot be said for them now.  Creating a group of women so similar to each other that at least two of them periodically blur together when reading the book is a let-down to the modern reader.

The book has a real GLBTQ problem.  One of the characters has two relationships.  One is with a man and one with a woman.  She is happy in both and attracted to both.  She takes issue with being called a lesbian, since she states she definitely fantasizes about men and enjoys thinking about them as well.  Yet, in spite of the character clearly having both physical and romantic attractions to both men and women, the word bisexual is not used once in the entire book.  The character herself never ventures to think she might be bi, and no one else suggests it to her.  She struggles with “being a lesbian” and “being out as a lesbian” because she doesn’t think she is a lesbian.  The other characters either say she’s in denial in the closet due to homophobia or that she really is straight and she needs to leave her girlfriend.  It is clear reading the book that the character struggles with having the label of lesbian forced upon her when she is clearly actually bisexual.  This is why she is uncomfortable with the label.  But this huge GLBTQ issue is never properly addressed, swept under the rug under the idea that she’s “really a lesbian” and is just suffering from internalized homophobia.  The bi erasure in this book is huge and feels purposeful since the character’s bisexual feelings are routinely discussed but the option of being non-monosexual never is.  It’s disappointing in a book that is supposed to be progressive and talking about modern young women’s issues to have the opportunity to discuss the issues of being bisexual and instead have the character’s bisexuality erased.

The second half of the book makes some really odd plot choices, showing a highly abusive relationship between one of the characters and her boss.  It probably is meant to show the clash between second and third wave feminism, but it feels awkward and a bit unrealistic.  Similarly, the book ends abruptly, leaving the reader hanging and wondering what is going to happen to these characters and their friendship.  Abrupt endings are good when they are appropriate to the book and mean something, but this ending feels out of place in the book, jarring, and like a disservice to the reader.

Overall, this is a fast-paced book that is a quick, candy-like read.  However, it is held back by having the group of women in the core friendship be too similar.  Opportunities to explore diverse, interesting characters are missed and bisexual erasure is a steady presence in the book.  The ending’s abruptness and lack of closure may disappoint some readers.  Recommended to those looking for a quick beach read who won’t mind a lack of depth or abrupt ending.  For those looking for the stronger, original story of a group of friends from a women’s college, pick up The Group instead.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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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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Previous Books in Series:
The Shining, review

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