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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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Book Review: Something Spectacular: The True Story of One Rockette’s Battle with Bulimia by Greta Gleissner (Audiobook narrated by Dina Pearlman)

January 24, 2014 2 comments

Line of dancers in white papercut against a bronze background.Summary:
Greta Gleissner finally achieved her lifelong dream of making a living just from her professional dancing. She landed the prestigious job of being a Rockette in the New York City show.  She hoped that this newfound stability and prestige would cure her of her bulimia. What was there to binge and purge about when she was living her dream? But her eating disorder she’d had since a young age won’t just disappear because of her newfound success.  Soon, her bulimia is putting her job–and her life–at risk.

Review:
I was immediately intrigued by the elements of this eating disorder memoir that make it different from the, sadly, so many others that exist.  Greta’s eating disorder peaks in her 20s, not her teens.  She was a Rockette, and she’s a lesbian.  An eating disorder memoir about someone in their 20s in the dance industry who is also queer was very appealing to me.  What I found was a memoir that gives insight to having an eating disorder, the impact of homophobia, and an inside look at the professional dance world told in a non-linear, honest, and engaging manner.

Greta tells her memoir in the framework of a play. There are scenes, acts, overtures, etc… This lets her address the story in a non-linear way that still makes sense.  The overture, for instance, shows a dramatic moment when her eating disorder was at full tilt and destroying her life.  Then she backs up to the few months before she became a Rockette.  The time of auditioning then being a Rockette is interspersed with flashbacks to help us better understand her life.  Finally, she enters an inpatient clinic, where we get flashbacks in the context of her therapy.  It’s a creative storytelling technique that brings a freshness to her memoir.

Honesty without cruelty to herself or others is a key part of her narrative voice.  Greta is straightforward, sometimes grotesquely so, about her bulimia and what it does to her.  The eating disorder is not glamorized. Greta takes us down into the nitty-gritty of the illness.  In fact, it’s the first bulimia memoir I’ve read that was so vivid and straightforward in its depictions of what the illness is and what it does.  In some ways, it made me see bulimia as a bit of a mix between an addiction and body image issues.  Greta was able to show both how something that was helping you cope can spiral out of control, as well as how poor self-esteem and body image led her to purging her food.

Greta also is unafraid to tell us about what goes on inside her own mind, and where she sees herself as having mistreated people in the past.  I never doubted her honesty.  Similarly, although Greta’s parents definitely did some things wrong in how they raised her, Greta strives to both acknowledge the wounds and accept her parents as flawed and wounded in their own ways.  You can hear her recovery in how she talks about both them and her childhood.  She has clearly done the work to heal past wounds.

The memoir honestly made me grateful the dancing I did as a child never went the professional route.  It’s disturbing how pervasive body policing and addictions in general are in the dance world, at least as depicted by Greta.  Similarly, it eloquently demonstrates how parents’ issues get passed down to the children, and sometimes even exacerbated.  Greta’s mother was a non-professional dancer who was constantly dieting.  Greta also loved dancing but her mother’s body image issues got passed down to her as well.  Food was never just food in her household.

One shortcoming of the memoir is that Greta never fully addresses her internalized homophobia or how she ultimately overcomes it and marries her wife.  The book stops rather abruptly when Greta is leaving the halfway house she lived in right after her time in the inpatient clinic.  There is an epilogue where she briefly touches on the time after the halfway house, mentions relapse, and states that she ultimately overcame her internalized homophobia and met her now wife.  However, for the duration of her time in the clinic and the halfway house, she herself admits she wasn’t yet ready to address her sexuality or deal with her internalized homophobia.  It was clear to me reading the book that at least part of her self-hatred that led to her bulimia was due to her issues with her sexuality.  Leaving out how she dealt with that and healed felt like leaving out a huge chunk of the story I was very interested in.  Perhaps it’s just too painful of a topic for her to discuss, but it did feel as if the memoir gave glimpses and teasers of it, discussing how she would only make out with women when very drunk for instance, but then the issue is never fully addressed in the memoir.

Similarly, leaving out the time after the halfway house was disappointing.  I wanted to see her finish overcoming and succeeding. I wanted to hear the honesty of her relapses that she admits she had and how she overcome that. I wanted to hear about her dating and meeting her wife and embracing her sexuality.  Hearing about the growth and strength past the initial part in the clinic and halfway house is just as interesting and engaging as and more inspiring than her darker times.  I wish she had told that part of the story too.

The audiobook narrator, Dina Pearlman, was a great choice for the memoir. Her voice reads as gritty feminine, which is perfect for the story.  She also handles some of the asides and internal diatribes present in mental illness memoirs with great finesse.

Overall, this is a unique entry in the eating disorder memoir canon.  It gives the nitty gritty details of bulimia from the perspective of a lesbian suffering from homophobia within the framework of the dance world.  Those who might be triggered should be aware that specific height and weight numbers are given, as well as details on binge foods and purging episodes.  It also, unfortunately, doesn’t fully address how the author healed from the wounds of homophobia.  However, her voice as a queer person is definitely present in the memoir.  Recommended to those with an interest in bulimia in adults, in the dance world, or among GLBTQ people.

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: 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: I Don’t Want to Kill You by Dan Wells (Audiobook narrated by Kirby Heyborne) (Series, #3)

March 2, 2013 4 comments

Burnt paper background to book title.Summary:
Teenaged John Cleaver had his sociopathy under control but when his town was plagued with two different demons, he had to let it loose a bit to fight them.  He invited the demon Nobody to come face off with him, but he and those around him are left wondering if Nobody is real or if John’s sociopathy has just gone out of control.  Meanwhile the teenage girls of the town are committing suicide left and right, and John can’t help but wonder why he’s ever tried to save anybody.

Review:
This is one of only a few YA series that I’ve enjoyed reading.  The paranormal/youth aspect are almost like a Dexter lite, which is enjoyable.  I must say, though, that I was disappointed by the ultimate ending to the series.  However, since I write up series review posts every time I finish a series, I’ll leave my analysis of the series as a whole to that post, which will be coming up next.  For right now, let’s look at the final book on its own merit.

The plot this time around was disappointingly full of obvious red herrings.  I knew within the first chapter where Nobody was hiding, and it was kind of ridiculous that talented, intelligent John was missing it.  Similarly, I found the serial killer who John identified as who he could end up being if he made the wrong choices to be a bit heavy-handed.  John was already well aware of the risks of his sociopathy from the very first book.  It felt a bit unnecessary to make this such a strong plot point.  It came across as preachy, which is something that this series had avoided so far.  Similarly, John goes to see a priest at one point in his investigations, and his conversations with him felt a bit too heavy-handed, almost like the (known religious) Wells was preaching at the readers through the priest.  Authors are allowed their opinions and perspectives, but preachiness is never good writing.  Perspective and opinion should be shown eloquently through the plot and characters.

Speaking of characterization, John was still strongly written, but his mother and sister were another story.  They felt less like they were doing what was logical and more like they were doing what needed to be done to move the plot forward.  On the other hand, I really enjoyed John’s new girlfriend.  She was well-rounded and realistic.  Plus she was fit while being curvy, which I think is a great thing to see in a book.

In spite of the slightly obvious plot, I still was engaged to get to the end.  Even though I knew whether or not there was a demon and who the killer was, I still deeply wanted to see how John would handle it.  The audiobook narrator, Kirby Heyborne, helped with this momentum.  His narration was just the right amount of tension while still remaining in a teenager’s voice.  Be warned, though, that there is some yelling in the book, so the volume does spike considerably at a few points in the narration.  You may want to keep the volume a bit lower than usual to accommodate this.

Unfortunately, where the plot ultimately ended up was deeply disappointing to me.  It was not at all a satisfying ending, and from a mental illness advocacy perspective, I actually found it distressing.  Whereas John’s sociopathy previously was handled with a lot of scientific understanding, I found the ending of this book to be completely out of touch with real sociopathy.  While it wasn’t offensive per se, it drastically oversimplifies sociopathy, both its treatment and its causes, which is just as bad as demonizing it.  I will address this issue more fully in the series review, but suffice to say that I found the ending to this book’s individual mystery and the series as a whole to be disappointing, particularly given the potential of the book.

Overall, then, this is an average book that wraps up an above average series.  If you are someone who is fine with stopping things partway through, I’d recommend just stopping with the previous book in the series, Mr. Monster.  But if you are interested in the overall perspective, this book is still an engaging read that doesn’t drag.  It just might disappoint you.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Previous Books in Series
I Am Not A Serial Killer, review
Mr. Monster, review

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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!

Book Review: Germline by T. C. McCarthy (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Donald Corren)

August 23, 2012 2 comments

Silhouette of a man standing in a tunnel holding a gun.Summary:
Oscar is a reporter and lands an assignment with Stars and Stripes to go over to Kazakhstan and report on the new war between the US and Russia over resources needed for technology.  This is a new kind of warfare. One fought mostly underground, and with the soldiers permanently wearing suits. Plus they’re fighting side-by-side with Genetics–human-looking robots who are all female and all look alike.  Oscar started out just wanting a Pulitzer in between his drug addiction, which is easily fueled in Kaz. But Kaz changes people.

Review:
It’s been a while since I ventured in military scifi. I usually stick with the more sociological/psych experiment or cyberpunk areas of the genre, but this one just stuck out to me.  I think its combination of aspects is just intriguing–a drug addicted journalist, a future war on earth, underground warfare, and robots.  It certainly held my attention and flamed my interest in military scifi, plus it wound up counting for the MIA Reading Challenge, which was an added bonus.

Oscar is a well-rounded character. At first he seems flat and frankly like a total douchebag, but that’s because he’s a depressed drug addict. We learn gradually what landed him there and how he grows out of it with time.  It’s an interesting character development arc because although many arcs show how war leads to alcoholism or drug addiction, in Oscar’s case although it at first makes his addiction worse, it ultimately helps him beat it.  Because he ultimately snaps and realizes that the drugs are not helping the problems. They’re just making them worse. This is so key for anyone struggling with an addiction to realize. Pain in the present to feel better in the future. And McCarthy does an excellent job showing this progression without getting preachy.  Sometimes you want to throttle Oscar, but you ultimately come to at least respect him if not like him.  I wasn’t expecting such strong characterization in a military scifi, and I really enjoyed it.

The world McCarthy has built is interesting. The war itself is fairly typical–first world countries butting heads over resources in third world countries. But the content of the battles and the fighting methods are futuristic enough to maintain the scifi feel.  There are the Genetics of course, and they are used by both sides. It’s interesting that the Americans use only female Genetics, and that is explained later on.  There are also different vehicles and weapons that are scary but still seem plausible. Of course there’s also the suits the soldiers permanently wear, the front-line tunnels (the “subterrene”).  It all adds up to a plausible future war.

Now, I will say, some of the battle scenes and near misses that Oscar has seem a bit of a stretch. I know odd things happen in war, and anyone can get lucky, but. Everyone’s luck runs out eventually.  It seemed sometimes as if McCarthy wrote himself into a corner then had to figure out a way to make his main character survive.  Escaping danger is fine, and necessary for the book to continue. But it should seem like a plausible escape. And if you have one that seems miraculous, it seems a bit excessive to me to have more than one.

The audiobook narrator did a fine job, in my opinion. He didn’t add anything to the story but he also didn’t detract from my enjoyment.  I will note, however, that he pronounced “corpsman” wrong, saying the “s,” which is supposed to be silent.  This only came up a few times and didn’t really bother me, but some readers, particularly ones who have been in the military themselves, might be bothered.  Nothing else was mispronounced, and the voices used fit the characters nicely.

Overall, this piece of futuristic military scifi showcases both war and addiction in an engaging manner.  Some readers may be off-put by Oscar at first, but stick it out. It takes many interesting turns. Recommended to scifi fans, whether they generally like military scifi or not.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: January First: A Child’s Descent into Madness and Her Father’s Struggle to Save Her by Michael Schofield

August 8, 2012 2 comments

Blonde girl running with the words "January First" imposed over her.Summary:
Michael and Susan thought their daughter, January’s, high energy levels and vivid imagination were the result of her high IQ, but when she turned five her imaginary friends started to tell her to do bad things like hit her baby brother or throw herself out of windows.  Soon it became apparent that her imaginary friends were actually hallucinations.  What followed was a harrowing struggle to get their daughter diagnosed and treated.

Review:
It’s rare to see a memoir by a father.  There are a ton of memoirs by mothers but not a lot by fathers, particularly not by fathers of daughters.  Put this together with the fact that Jani (her parents’ nickname for her) has childhood-onset schizophrenia, and you have one unique book.

This is an excellently told memoir.  It opens with Michael speaking about having his daughter’s diagnosis now and struggling with all the barriers toward a normal life presented not just by her illness but by the world we live in.  He talks about how some people argue that it’s impossible to diagnose a child with a mental illness, let alone schizophrenia, and of course some people even suggest that Jani is possessed by demons.  He gets the denial.  It’s scary to see a child consumed by an illness that is completely arbitrary in choosing its victims.  But he says,

Denial is not going to help Jani or any of the other mentally ill and schizophrenic children I have come to know. What they need is acceptance. What they need is for us to be telling them “your illness does not define you.” We cannot go inside their minds and “fix” them. But we can fix the world so they can live in it.  (location 90)

That speaks very strongly toward the whole reason I created the Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge, and I knew then that this was going to be not just a unique read, but a challenging and good one.

After the introduction, Michael tells the story in a linear fashion.  He does a good job remembering how he felt in the early days.  His immense pride at his daughter’s high IQ and creative mind coupled with a determination to help her succeed and be herself.  It’s fascinating to see, as an outsider, how early there were warning signs that something was not quite right with Jani but that Michael and Susan (her mother) attributed to a positive cause.  I think that’s typical of parents and indeed of anyone who loves someone.  They were looking for the best.  Believing in the best for their daughter.  They may be that moderately annoying couple on the play date who just insist their daughter with inappropriate behavior is gifted, but seeing it from Michael’s perspective makes that make sense.  Most people (with the exception of parents with Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome) don’t want to believe that their child is sick.  So of course you exhaust every other option first.

This of course makes Jani’s move toward violent behavior at the age of five that much more heart-breaking to read.  I’ve heard and read stories and documentaries of how difficult it is for parents of young adults who become schizophrenic but at least they are adults.  To have this happening to your five year old is completely terrifying.  How do you control a child for whom no punishments seem to work?  Who is more concerned with appeasing her hallucinations than with obeying her parents?

I certainly don’t agree with all the parenting choices the Schofields made in the first five years of her life (and for the record, neither do all of the psychiatrists), but none of their choices would create schizophrenia.  Being overly lenient with your kids won’t make them hallucinate and become this violent at the age of five.  This is one of those occasions where you don’t always agree with the choices the memoirist made, but you’re also not right in the heat of the battle.  It’s far easier to say, “oh, you should have done this,” when it’s not your child who’s being lost to a mental illness right before your eyes.

That’s the thing about this memoir.  Michael is so obviously completely honest.  He tells things that happened that don’t present him in the best light.  He is completely forthcoming in his own shortcomings, but he reiterates over and over how much he loves his daughter and wants to keep his family together.  This combination does for this memoir what a lot of memoirs don’t have: it lends a complete sense of validity to the story as a whole.  Michael is so honest about the emotional struggle of it all that even though you may not like him as a person, you respect him as a father.

This level of honesty combined with his writing ability make this memoir a strong call.  A call to parents of children who are other-abled (whether mentally or physically) that they are not alone.  It’s also a call to the rest of us who are not one of these parents to take a moment to think how difficult it must be and go easier on the parents and the child.  I know I for one might think the next time I see a kid throwing an epic tantrum, “Maybe that child has an illness” instead of “Sheesh, do a better job, parents.”

Overall, this is a well-written memoir presenting the unique perspective of a father caring for a daughter with a mental illness.  It also provides one of the few accounts of childhood-onset schizophrenia.  Highly recommended to parents with special needs children, as well as to anyone who enjoys memoirs and the different perspectives reading them can bring.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon

February 23, 2012 2 comments

A woman in silhouetteSummary:
Martha, a retired, widowed schoolteacher, thought her life was pretty much over until one night when a young intellectually disabled white woman and a deaf black man show up on her doorstop in the rain holding a newborn baby.  Soon people from a nearby mental institution show up to take them back away.  The young woman, Linny, seems terrified and asks Martha to hide the baby.  The man, Homan, escapes.  Martha goes on the lam to keep the baby girl out of the institution, and Linny and Homan fight against all odds attempting to reunite their family.

Review:
I received the audiobook version of this as a gift for one of the holiday swaps I participated in in December.  It was my first time reading the audiobook version of a modern story, as I’m a cheapskate and usually just get ones for free that are out of copyright.  It was thus an entirely different experience to be forced to slow down when reading this piece of historic fiction about a very dark secret in American history–mental institutions.  The amount of time that Linny and Homan are forced to spend simply waiting for their lives to get better.  Waiting for people to recognize their humanity.  It hit me much harder than if I had been able to read this in a couple of hours.  (Each disc is about 1 hour long, and there are 10 discs).  The wrongness of it all.  The amount of time and lives wasted simply because the able-minded and able-bodied didn’t seek to understand or to grant these people the basic human right of self-direction.

The story itself is told from multiple viewpoints–Linny, Homan, Martha, Kate (a caregiver at the institution), and later Julia (the baby daughter when she grows up).  Mostly Simon does a great job switching among the different voices, particularly representing Linny.  She does not overinflate her internal dialogue to be that of a person with an average IQ, but she still clearly represents Linny’s humanity.  I am a bit skeptical of the voice given to Homan though, mostly his tendency to give people bizarre nicknames like “roof giver.”  I know that neither
Simon nor I know a deaf person who is unable to communicate with those around him, so really it is all guess-work as to what his internal dialogue would be like.  But I can’t help but feel like it’s not quite there.  On the other hand, his confusion and frustration at people talking around him, over him, and treating him like he’s stupid just because he’s deaf is very well done.

In retrospect, I’m not quite sure why so much time was devoted to Martha and Julia when Julia was a baby.  Her story doesn’t end up being nearly as important as the Homan/Linny romance, so this focus feels a bit like a red herring.  I would definitely shorten those chapters.

The use of artwork and items of visual significance to the characters is gorgeous though.  Lighthouses are a central feature, and I don’t even like lighthouses myself, but I still found myself moved by how important the visual arts can be to people.  This is a book that, surprisingly, winds up being almost a battle cry for the arts.  For their value in helping us connect with each other and hold on to our humanity.  I think any artist or someone who is a fan of the arts would appreciate this book for that reason.

On the other hand, Simon is clearly a person of some sort of faith, with a belief in god and the tendency for things to all work out right in the end.  I’m…not that type of person.  So when characters wax eloquent about god or an overall plan or the ability of evil people to repent and turn good, well, it all feels a bit more like fantasy than historic fiction to me.  I probably would have been irritated by this less if I had had the ability to skim over those parts though.

In the end, though, I came away from this book appreciating its uniqueness and all the good qualities it had to offer.  It demonstrates through a beautiful story why it’s so important not to institutionalize the mentally ill or mentally challenged.  It shows the power of love to overcome race and disabilities.  It is the story of the power and beauty of resiliency.

Overall, I recommend this work of historic fiction to fans of historic and contemporary fiction, advocates of the mentally ill or mentally challenged, and those just simply looking for a unique love story.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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