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Book Review: Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

July 22, 2015 2 comments

cover_peytonplaceSummary:
Peyton Place appears to be a picturesque small town in New Hampshire. But over the course of the novel, the secret passions, lies, and cruelties of its various inhabitants are revealed.  From a single mother lying both about her daughter’s age and being a widow to the school janitor who drinks to dull the ache of his wife’s cheating to what exactly is buried in the sheep pen in the Cross’s yard.  Small town life is anything but simple and picturesque.

Review:
This book was first recommended to me on either LibraryThing or GoodReads for being similar to The Group (review), another book written in the mid 1900s featuring an ensemble cast.  I wound up ultimately picking it up because I read that it was quite scandalous when it first came out and it was the inspiration behind the first successful nighttime American soap opera of the same name (source).  Additionally, I grew up in Vermont but spent a lot of time in New Hampshire, since I grew up on the Vermont border with New Hampshire.  I even went to high school in New Hampshire (public school, my town in Vermont was too small for a high school so bussed us out to other ones nearby).  I was curious to see if any element of the book would successfully evoke New Hampshire to me.  I often find that books set in New Hampshire just don’t ring true with the New Hampshire I know.  What I found was a book that almost gave me chills at how well it depicted a typical New Hampshire small town, but also was nowhere near what I would in my modern mind describe as scandalous, although I can see why it was at the time.

The story explores the intersecting lives of many town folk in the 1940s and 1950s, but primarily focuses on Constance MacKenzie, her daughter Allison, and her daughter’s friend from the wrong side of the tracks, Selena Cross.  Constance is a frigid woman who has tamped down her sexuality in an attempt to raise her daughter who she conceived out of wedlock while having an affair with a married man in the right way.  She has gone so far as to lie about her daughter’s age and to lie about being a widow to help her daughter seem “acceptable.”  Allison grows up over the course of the novel, first having typical teenage angst, then moving away to NYC to become a writer.  Selena Cross suffers from a good-for-nothing stepfather, living in a shack, and living with a mother who is not all mentally there.  Through their eyes and lives we see snippets of the lives of many others in the town.

Here are the things that were considered scandalous when the book was first published: rape of a stepdaughter by a stepfather (you can probably guess who), abortion (which was illegal at the time), men locking themselves in a basement to go on a bender for weeks at a time.  Things that were probably also considered scandalous but to less of a degree: teenage sex, out of wedlock sex, middle school aged boy spying on a couple having sex, murder in self-defense.  I had to sit here and think for a bit to remember what was possibly deemed scandalous.  It mostly just seemed like a very eventful book to me, and honestly I was just a bit surprised that nothing more scandalous happened.  (Apparently, Metalious originally wrote the book with having a father rape a daughter, but the publisher made her change it because America wasn’t ready yet. Oh my how times have changed. Source).  The only part of the book that really bothered me at all in the way that perhaps people were once scandalized was the depicted of Constance’s relationship with her new boyfriend.  Basically she is frigid and he has to get her to open up and accept her sexuality in order to be her true self.  That’s a fine plot, but the way it’s done often verges on the border of “she said no but ignore it because she really means yes.”  I understand in the 1950s when this was written that it was progressive to have a woman character learning to open up and embrace her sexuality, so I shouldn’t be too harsh with modern critiques.  Certainly the character herself deems what occurred between her and her boyfriend as lovemaking.  But I definitely don’t think this portion aged well, and it soured my enjoyment of that particular chapter, and Constance’s plot as a whole.

I found the two abortion plots to be particularly poignant and important.  Even though abortion is now legal, a lot of the arguments for and against it in the book are still heard today.  I found the two abortions in the book to be an important reminder of why it’s important for abortion to be legal and also why it’s important to educate about safe sex at the same time.

What really made me enjoy the book though was its depiction of small town New Hampshire life.  It just rang as so very true to me, right own to the scandals.  I think too often people get this idealistic picture of small town life, and that is just not the reality for people who actually live there.  People in small towns are just as human as people in cities.  The real difference is that it’s hard to change your reputation in a small town.  Similarly, small towns are more able to be a law in and of themselves.  If the people agree on something, no outsiders can make them change their tune.  That can both be a blessing and a curse.  If you are interested in New Hampshire, this book certainly presents it in an unvarnished way.  From the scenery to the proximity of Vermont to the mills and the problems with the mills to the way the small towns block out those who aren’t from here.  If what the reader is looking for is a real representation of small town New Hampshire, they should certainly look no further.

One side-note: I find the story of the author’s life and how her book was received to be quite fascinating.  For instance, how it was mostly received as chick lit, in spite of the fact that if the same story had been written by a man it would have been considered serious literature.  I also find how the author found the information to inspire the story, as well as how she reacted to fame to be fascinating.  If you want to read more about the former, I recommend picking up this edition of the book, as it has a great foreword talking about the history of the book from a women’s studies perspective.  If you’re interested in the latter, I recommend reading this article from Vanity Fair about her life.

Overall, it is easy to see how this book was scandalous in its time, although it mostly holds no shock value today.  Readers interested in small town New Hampshire life with a side of multiple overlapping juicy plots will not be disappointed.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: Fated by S.G. Browne

July 17, 2015 2 comments

Book Review: Fated by S.G. BrowneSummary:
Fabio is not a fan of his job as Fate.  He never gets to actually influence the idiotic humans in his charge (everyone off the path of Destiny).  He just gets to show up at the moment of their fateful decisions.  Falling in love with a human (who just so happens to be on the path of Destiny) breaks rule #1, and once you break one rule, you may as well break others…. Soon, Fabio is interfering in his charges’ fateful decisions, but just how long can he do this without causing havoc and escaping Jerry’s (God’s) notice?

Review:
I remember I first acquired this because I really enjoyed Browne’s other novel, Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament (review).  Although this book uses a similar irreverent tune, it just doesn’t work out as well given the content.  Add in a few writing quirks and an ending that made me simultaneously scratch my head and go ewww, this just didn’t work for me.

The first thing that bothered me about the book is a quirk Fabio (our narrator) has to describe each and every character we encounter in the following way: “The thing about [name] is, s/he is [character flaw].”  It’s cutesie the first few times.  By the twentieth time it’s irritating and by the thirtieth you’re kind of wondering what the heck is wrong with Fabio that he’s been alive for this many thousands of years and still can’t seem to come up with a more creative way to talk.

The book’s mythology firmly asserts that Christianity is right.  Although there’s a mysterious aside about how the Greek/Roman mythological gods and goddesses did exist but stopped being important once people stopped believing in them.  So, in spite of Jerry and all of his servants all asserting that Jesus is the Son of God and Christianity is right, there’s also this idea that something else once existed when people believed in it.  There is also an immortal character of Karma, who we are told exists mostly because of the many people in India who believe in him.  You can probably spot the problem with these co-existing ideas.  If immortal ideas/people exist because of belief, why would the only ones in existence be the Christian God and Karma, currently?  There are clearly other religions in the world that people currently believe in, so…….My issue isn’t with the author choosing to assert that the Christian God is the one that is true in this world (although some readers might be bothered by it).  My issue is that the book simultaneously does this and says that other gods/ideas can exist with belief, but then limits these to only ancient Greek/Roman gods and goddesses and modern-day Karma. This doesn’t work within the logic of the world that the author set up.  It really bugged me.

There is also the problem that the immortal characters (well, and the human ones, but let’s focus on the immortal ones) are divided up in a very gender normative way.  Destiny, Lust, and Lady Luck, Secrecy, and Honesty are all women.  Sloth, Gluttony, Death, Fate, Karma, oh yeah and GOD are all men.  Lust is an overwrought caricature of the evil temptress woman.  Honesty is basically the most feminine innocent woman you could meet.  It’s the classic virgin/whore dichotomy (oh and don’t forget the Virgin Mary, who’s also obviously mentioned quite a bit).  It’s not exactly better for the men, being stuck with either being a lazy slob, someone who violently kills everyone, or Fate himself.  Even if the reader is personally ok with gender normativity, this collection of characters is just expected and dull.  There’s nothing that really throws the reader a curveball or strikes as creative.  Right down to God going by the name Jerry and having a bureaucratic office in the sky.

Then we have the human who Fabio falls in love with, who is basically the manic pixie dream girl (a female character who exists only to show up and show a depressed male character the meaning of life.  Full exploration of this trope), which I’ve talked about before in other reviews (not surprisingly in books by men set in fantastical settings and that are supposed to be funny, but I digress).  Just like with gender normativity, this trope is just lazy.  The only motivator to the male character (who is first person and depressed and dull) is for a magical woman to show up and fix his life (often while her own gets ruined).  There’s no real characterization of the female character, and frankly it undersells the male character too.  This book takes it a whole step further.  The spoiler paragraph below goes into more depth about the problematic treatment of women in the book.

*spoilers*
Sara, the manic pixie dream girl, shows up and Fabio falls in love with her.  She falls in love with him too.  Fabio reveals to her who he is.  She loves him anyway.  They’re very happy together.  Fabio finds out that Sara is on the path of Destiny because she’s supposed to be the mother of the second Son of God. So God is going to show up and bang his girlfriend at some point.  He is very upset about this.  God finds out about Fabio both telling a human who he is and interfering with human fates and punishes him by both turning him mortal and wiping him from Sara’s memory.  Sara believes that Fabio was a one-night stand.  Fabio proceeds to stalk her, forcing her to get a restraining order, which he then violates.  It’s unclear if this is supposed to be seen as romantic, exactly, but it is clear that the reader is supposed to empathize with Fabio.  Sara wouldn’t really want him to stay away from her if she just understood, which is problematic because of how it mirrors the logic of many stalkers.  It gets worse though.  Fabio in despair throws himself off a bridge, committing suicide.  He then comes to realizing that he has been reformed as the fetus inside Sara’s uterus–the result of the one-night stand between her and God. He is the second Son of God.  And he’s ok with this because he at least gets to be close to Sara.  So Sara doesn’t just exist purely as a prop for Fabio’s character development, she’s also the woman who is banged once and thrown away by God to be forced to bring his second Son into the world who also just so happens to be the same dude as her ex-lover she has the restraining order against.  It’s just so many levels of denying women any agency or rights or treating women as anything but passive vessels to be used by men and male gods however they want that it just made my head explode with rage when I read it.  Most of this what the fuckery occurs in the last couple of chapters.
*end spoilers*

This is a book whose idea I felt had promise but the directions the author chose to take it just ruined it for me.  Readers who won’t be bothered by a book with logical inconsistencies, gender normative representations of immortals, and the problematic characterizations and plots for women may enjoy the book for its irreverent humor about fate and destiny.  Any readers who would be bothered by those things, though, should steer clear.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet by John W.S. Bradshaw

July 8, 2015 2 comments

Book Review:  Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet by John W.S. Bradshaw Summary:
John W.S. Bradshaw, PhD, has been studying the behavior of cats and dogs and their people for over 25 years.  In this book, he seeks to present the biology behind the modern domestic cat in the hopes of helping their humans understand them better.  He also presents theories about the possible future of cats and suggestions as to how to direct that the best way possible for better human/cat relationships.

Review:
I picked this book up because I wanted to understand my adorable talkative tortie fluffball, Ayla, better.  I certainly learned a few things about cats that I found useful in relating to my own, but I also learned a lot about the genetics of cats (not sure I really wanted to learn that), the history of human treatment of them, and theories on their future evolution.

The book is divided into 11 chapters, which could be casually grouped into the following general themes:

  • the genetic and biological history of the cat or just how did we end up with a domesticated tiger anyway
  • how the domestic cat thinks and feels or yes scientists are now proving that cats actually have feelings although maybe not quite to the extent that their most loving owners believe
  • how cats relate to each other or cats hate other cats except for random kittens that are dropped into their nest or possibly other females from their own family
  • how cats relate to people or cats think you are a giant mother cat who is possibly superior (possibly)
  • how cats relate to wildlife or no cats aren’t destroying your precious birds you overly upset cat-haters (um except for possibly the wildlife on small islands but the invasive rats are actually worse and cats hunt them so there)
  • the potential future of the cat or for the love of god stop spaying and neutering the bestest most loving kitties in the world and only allowing the anti-social ferals to breed.

Obviously this is a lot of ground, so I’m only going to touch on each one briefly.  First though, just let me mention that the author is both a renowned expert in this science (the science of cats), and his book also features extensive references.  This is thus a trustworthy source, however, potential readers should be aware that the author (just as every author) has biases, and Bradshaw’s are fairly clear in the book.  The man clearly adores cats, and thus sometimes may sway a bit to the side of positive representations of cats and optimistic beliefs about the extent of their feelings and internal lives.  Now, I love cats too, so that didn’t bother me in the least, but a reader just looking at the science should note this bias.  Additionally, some of the studies he cites for his findings were quite small (under 100 participants, in one case, only 8 cats were tested).  Studies this small show definite room for further research.  Additionally, all of the cat studies he himself has conducted were in Great Britain, so cultural biases and differences in how cats and people interact should be considered when thinking about how he analyzes cat/human interaction and behavior.

The section about the history of the domestication of the cat and the genetics of the cat is, honestly, a bit of a heavy place to start for the average person just looking to get along with their cat better.  There are sentences that go far more in-depth into the genetics of a cat than I really ever cared to know.  Given that this book is marketed toward the average cat owner, it may have been better to dial down the genetic information just a bit to make it easier and also speedier to read in the lead-in into the more modernly relevant information.  The most interesting things I learned in this section were that domestication of the cat happened in multiple different times and places, meaning multiple cultures saw the potential of the cat and domesticated them (loc 267).  There is Egyptian temple art of cats sitting in baskets (loc 634), something I found to be pretty adorable.  The genetics of just how we wind up with torties, which I admit to only being interested in because my own cat is a tortie:

If a cat carries one orange and one brown version of the gene, then both appear in the coat, in random patches: in one part of the skin, the chromosome with the orange version has been switched on, and in another it is it eh brown-black pattern that “wins,” producing a tortoiseshell-tabby (or “torbie”) cat. (loc 772)

If you found that quote a bit tedious to read, just bare in mind that that is the most interesting to me of the genetics information in this section.  The cat is a “hypercarnivore” (loc 1176), meaning that unlike the dog, it has lost the ability to live on plants.  Cats, unlike dogs, must eat meat.  I also finally learned why I shouldn’t worry too much if my cat doesn’t drink very much water:

Cats do have two notable nutritional advantages over humans. First, their kidneys are very efficient, as expected for an animal whose ancestors lived on the edge of deserts, and many cats drink little water, getting all the moisture they need from the meat they eat. Second, cats do not require vitamin C. Taken together, these make cats well suited to shipboard life: they don’t compete with sailors for precious drinking water, getting all they need from the mice they catch, and they are not afflicted by scurvy. (loc 1192)

The next four sections often blurred together, since how a cat thinks and feels directly relates to how cats relate to each other, humans, and wildlife.

Cats can develop a cat form of PTSD if they are abandoned by their mothers early in life:

Kittens that are abandoned by their mothers and are then hand-raised can become excessively attention seeking toward their first owners, though some subsequently seem to “grow out of” this. Based on what we know about other mammals in similar situations, we can assume that after the mother’s departure, the kittens’ brains endure high levels of stress hormones. These consistently high levels cause permanent changes in their developing brains and stress hormone systems, such that they may overreact to unsettling events later in life. (loc 1371)

I found this particularly interesting, since I know my cat was abandoned by her first owners in their apartment when they moved away, and it took weeks for anyone to find her.  I’ve often suspected my cat has some form of kitty PTSD, and I think this scientific information would support that, although the specific type of abandonment was different.

Cats can’t focus on anything closer than a foot from their nose.  Your cat is not being stupid when it can’t spot a piece of food on the floor, she really can’t see it.  It helps to move it around or tap the floor next to it, to get the cat to sniff that area. (loc 1644)

This section also addresses why cats are harder to train than dogs:

Cats are much more difficult to train than dogs are for at least three reasons. First, their behavior shows less intrinsic variety than that of dogs, so there is less raw material with which to work….Second, and perhaps most important, cats are less naturally attentive toward people than dogs are….Third, although dogs are powerfully rewarded by simple physical contact from their owner, few cats are. (loc 2086)

It goes on to explain how to do basic training with your cat, adapted to cats’ specific needs, primarily using a clicker (a device that makes a noise).

Feral cats have shown us that cat society is a matriarchy, with the females of the family sticking together and the toms getting booted out to go roam and make more kittens, although there are certain scenarios in which toms are tolerated living in close proximity, generally in a situation where the tom is valuable for protection of the kittens if the space is at a premium. (loc 2426)

In spite of the ability of feral cats to live in matriarchies, cats are not well-suited for a bunch of unrelated and gender-mixed cats living in one small space.  Cats generally don’t like most other cats, and Bradshaw talks some about how forcing cats to live with other cats they are not related to or don’t particularly like can put undue stress on the cats.

Cats appear to be incapable of sustaining a large number of friendly relationships, even when all their neighbors are close relatives. (loc 2438)

However, the bond the cat feels with its immediate family is strong, and scientists believe they extend that bond to their owners, who they perceive of as being a sort of mother cat. (loc 3080)  This section also offers potential reasons for why a cat may purr or lick their owner, but there is no definitive scientific answer yet.  It is also noted that cat personalities are the result of a mix of nature and nurture, and affectionate owners tend to have affectionate cats but whether they pick out affectionate cats or cats become affectionate in response to the owner is uncertain.

Bradshaw then addresses the concern some groups have that domestic cats are hurting native wildlife populations, particularly birds.  It’s clear that Bradshaw believes that this is mostly a bunch of hokum created by cat-haters as a way to get rid of cats.  This is potentially true, and Bradshaw does cite some good studies about the actual impact cats have on wildlife (very small, and in some cases, helpful since they eat the invasive predator of a native species).  However, it is difficult to believe everything he cites, since his bias in favor of cats is so clear, and I am saying this as a cat-lover myself.  I would find it more useful for his evidence to be presented in a more balanced fashion, as I would then feel more confident citing it to people who are concerned about cat impact on wildlife.

Finally, Bradshaw looks at the potential future of the cat.  He is clearly quite concerned that our current method of neutering pet cats will hurt future cats.

Because neutering inevitably targets those cats that are being best cared for, it must logically hand the reproductive advantage to those cats that are least attached to people, many of which are genetically predisposed to remain unsocialized. We must consider the long-term effects of neutering carefully: for example, it might be better for the cats of the future as a whole if neutering programs were targeted more at ferals, which are both the unfriendliest cats and also those most likely to damage wildlife populations. (loc 4039)

I found this argument to be quite moving and logical.  Bradshaw suggests both that owners might let their pet cats breed once before neutering/spaying them and also that breeders could begin to work at breeding pet cats with an eye on personality rather than looks.  He also suggests focusing spay/neuter programs on feral populations.  This is definitely food for thought, and I certainly will consider letting a future pet cat have a litter of kittens.

Bradshaw ends his book with this statement:

Cats need our understanding–both as individual animals that need our help to adjust to our ever-increasing demands, and also as a species that is still in transition between the wild and the truly domestic. If we can agree to support them in both these ways, cats will be assured a future in which they are not only popular and populous, but are also more relaxed, and affectionate, than they are today. (loc 4072)

A good summary of the overall themes of the book.

Overall, this book will definitely teach cat owners and lovers some new things both about the science of cats and cat behaviors.  Sometimes the science can veer a bit too in-depth for the audience of the book, and also sometimes the author’s love of cats can make him seem a bit biased in favor of them.  However, readers who are willing to skim over the science that they are not so into will still be able to gleam lots of information from this book that will be directly helpful to them with their pet cats.  Also, this audience probably won’t mind the love of cats bias in the science. ;-)

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King

June 27, 2015 4 comments

Book Review: Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen KingSummary:
Something evil is haunting the small town of Tarker Mills, Maine. Every month another person is found dead, brutally ripped apart.  Can they solve what is haunting their town before the terror consumes them all?

Review:
I picked this up in a used book basement because I’m generally trying to read most everything Stephen King has written, and this particular print book was beautifully illustrated.  Each chapter (or month…or murder) had at least one full-color illustration, and that just spoke to me.  The story itself wound up being rather ho-hum to me, but part of that may be due to the fact that I’m rather hard to shock these days.

My favorite part of the book is that it opens with a note from King stating that astute readers will notice that the full moon couldn’t possibly have fallen on all of the big holidays he has it fall on, but that he’s taken artistic license to make it do so.  The passage reads like it has a wink at the end, and I like that King assertively addresses what could bother some readers or be a controversy and acknowledges that his facts are wrong, but he did it for artistic reasons.  Personally, I’m not a fan of books that take artistic licenses, but if you’re going to, this is the way to do it.  Acknowledge it (don’t hide from it) and move on.

This feels like an early Stephen King book.  The usual small town New England stock characters are there, but they’re not fully fleshed-out.  There’s even a spunky kid in a wheelchair who reminds me of an earlier version of Susannah from The Dark Tower series (the book about Susannah was first published in 2004).  The stock, rather two-dimensional characters work in this book, since the storytelling approach is basically one of folklore.  We don’t need to know much more about these characters than we see on the surface, and that’s fine.

Each chapter is a different month in the year, and they sort of feel like connected short stories.  By the last half of the year, the reader starts to know what’s going on, and the “short stories” become even more connected.

Fans of an underdog hero will enjoy who ends up battling the werewolf plaguing the town, as will those who enjoy seeing the trope of a trusted citizen being someone who should not be trusted.  (That’s as much as I can say without being too spoilery).

This all sounds rather positive, so why did I feel ho-hum about it?  The tension building didn’t work for me.  Nothing that happened really scared me.  The character in the wheelchair feels like a less bad-ass version of Susannah, and what I would want would be Susannah.  This is perhaps unfair of me to say, since Susannah came about further down the line, but I do think it points to how King’s writing improved with time (as does everyone’s).  I also just found the villain to be rather expected and cliche, although I’m sure it wasn’t when the book first came out.  In general, this book just doesn’t feel like it aged particularly well, especially when compared to other older King books.

Overall, if a reader is looking for a quick, beautifully illustrated folklore style retelling of a werewolf story, they will enjoy this book.  Those looking for high levels of tension or gore or in-depth character development will want to give it a pass.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Brookline Booksmith, used books basement

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Book Review: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest (Series, #1)

June 4, 2015 9 comments

Book Review: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest (Series, #1)Summary:
“Lizzie Borden took an axe; gave her mother forty whacks….”
Any New Englander knows the nursery rhyme based on the true crime story of Mr. and Mrs. Borden who were murdered with an axe in 1892.  In spite of being tried and acquitted for the murders, their daughter (in the case of Mrs. Borden, step-daughter), was widely believed to actually be responsible for the murders.  In this book, she definitely was, but maybe not for the reasons you might think.
A darkness is trying to take over Fall River, Massachusetts, and Lizzie and her ailing sister Emma are all that might stand between the town and oblivion, with Lizzie’s parents being the first casualties in the battle.

Review:
I grew up chanting the nursery rhyme about Lizzie Borden the first half of which is quoted above (this perhaps says an awful lot about New Englanders, but I digress), and I also love tales from the Lovecraft universe, which also originated in New England.  When I heard about this book that mashed up the two, I put it on my wishlist.  Lo and behold, my future sister-in-law, who had never even seen my wishlist, bought it for me for Christmas last year.  I thought this would be the perfect read for the fantasy challenge, and although it was a bit different than what I was expecting, I still enjoyed the mix of Lovecraft and women’s history that Priest has woven and am eagerly anticipating reading the sequel.

The story is told through a combination of first person accounts from Lizzie, Emma, and Nance, diary-style entries by their neighbor doctor, letters, police and fire reports, and first person ramblings of a professor from Miskatonic University (another Lovecraft element).  Some readers may be put off by the combination of first person perspectives, but I’ve always enjoyed this style, particularly when it includes things like letters and police reports.  I felt that it was one of the strengths of the book, and I also particularly enjoyed getting to see both Emma’s and Lizzie’s perspectives, as well as that of Lizzie’s lover, Nance.

The Lovecraft mash-up basically is that some sort of Dark One in the deep is out to turn everyone on the seacoast either into worshippers or victims or literally turn them into monstrous ones who live in the deep.  Emma and Lizzie’s parents were among the first to begin succumbing to this infection and that is why Lizzie had to kill them.  Lizzie and Emma now are conducting research, trying to figure out how to prevent the Dark One from actually rising up.  This is all extremely Lovecraftian, including the fact that some of these developments don’t make a ton of sense, but things just don’t make sense in the dark fantasy world of Lovecraft, so I was ok with that.  Readers new to the world of Lovecraft might be a bit more frustrated by how inexplicable most things to do with the Dark Ones and the deep are, however.

I particularly enjoyed how Priest explores how societal and cultural norms of 1890s New England affects women’s lives.  Emma could be a scientist now that women are being accepted into colleges, but she chooses to instead write her scientific papers under a male pseudonym because she believes she would never garner respect otherwise.  Lizzie and Nance are in love and must hide it, although Lizzie often feels why should she bother when she is already disgraced after the trial.  The clashes between Lizzie and Emma regarding both her affair with Nance and the fact that Lizzie believes in trying out magical and fantastical defenses against the Dark One whereas Emma believes purely in science are interesting reading.  They are two very different people who are thrust together both by virtue of being siblings and by the fact that as women in the 1890s their lives are limited.

On the other hand, in spite of liking the characters of the neighbor doctor and the Miskatonic professor and enjoying the exploration of Lizzie’s and Emma’s relationship and getting to see some of Emma’s character, I couldn’t help but feel that Lizzie didn’t get a chance to be enough in this book.  Lizzie Borden is such a looming large figure in local history, even on the book cover she presents as a bad-ass in a period skirt holding a bloody axe.  In contrast in the book she spends a lot of time dealing with her annoying sister.  Similarly, I’m not a fan of the fact that Lizzie does very little of rescuing herself in this book, which is, I believe, if the historic Lizzie really did kill her parents, what she actually did in real life.  To me Lizzie has always been a woman who said fucking enough and took an axe and dealt violently and finally with her problems.  Whereas in the book, she starts off off-screen that way (we don’t actually see her kill her parents) and she sort of tapers off.  Much as I enjoyed seeing her messed up relationship with Emma, I couldn’t help but feel it would have ended more powerfully if she’d said fucking enough and whacked Emma through the skull for being such an insufferable bitch and in the way all the time.  This was my main issue with the book.

My second, more minor, issue is that I felt the plot takes too long to build up to actual horrifying events and/or murders.  The first murders, as I mentioned before, happened off-screen.  The beginning of the book then is a build-up of a lot of tension with not much actual gore or murder occurring.  I should mention that I was watching “The Lizzie Borden Chronicles” on tv at the same time as I was reading this book.  In that show, Lizzie kills at least one person an episode.  Now, some of that gets over the top, but it does get the idea of the pacing one would expect from this type of story right. More mayhem. More murder. More danger. More often.

On a positive note, the scenes between Lizzie and Nance are beautifully done, and while I was frustrated to see Lizzie turn a bit into a lovesick fool, I was very glad it was happening with Nance.  Their relationship and dynamic jumped off the page and really brightened up the book for me.

The set-up at the end of the book for the sequel is well-done, although I’m uncertain how the series can proceed forward so far removed from the actual historical event, I am excited to read it and see what happens.

Overall, this Lovecraft fantastical take on the Lizzie Borden of history and what led to the murders of her parents hits just the right note for Lovecraft fans.  Readers who are new to the dark fantasy world of Lovecraft may be a bit surprised by the slow burn of the horror and how much of it winds up not making much sense, but those readers who can embrace this style of dark fantasy will enjoy it.  Those looking for a bad-ass Lizzie should be aware that this Lizzie only acts when absolutely necessary and then with restraint, and they should perhaps tune into the made for tv movie Lizzie Borden Took An Ax instead.  Recommended to fans of Lovecraft who are interested in getting some local history woven in to the New England settings they are familiar with from the Lovecraft universe.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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Once Upon a Time IX

Book Review: Drugs For Life: How Pharmaceutical Companies Define Our Health by Joseph Dumit

May 30, 2015 2 comments

Book Review: Drugs For Life: How Pharmaceutical Companies Define Our Health by Joseph Dumit Summary:
Written by a professor of Anthropology, this book explores the interaction of the cultures of medicine, pharmaceuticals, and public health and how they have impacted the modern Western perception of what constitutes health and what makes a person count as healthy.

Review:
Since I work in an academic medical library, I was immediately drawn in by this anthropological exploration of what has impacted the modern perception of health and requested it on NetGalley.  Although the book can sometimes feel a bit long and repetitive, the information it contains is an even-handed look at the reasons behind so many people in the West being put on preventive prescription medication.

Since this is written by an Anthropologist, not a journalist or a doctor or pharmaceutical representative, it has neither an expose feeling to it nor a particular slant.  It’s clear that the author originally was just looking at the culture surrounding healthcare, and the evidence led him down this path.  Anyone who is familiar with Anthropology knows that Anthropologists are trained to attempt to avoid biases and just report what they see.  Of course, everyone is human, and I definitely think that by the time Dumit finished his research he has formed an opinion that the reader can observe, however he does quite a good job of just presenting the facts.

The book is divided into six chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion.  The six chapters are: responding to facts, pharmaceutical witnessing and direct-to-consumer advertising, having to grow medicine, mass health: illness is a line you cross, moving the lines: deciding on thresholds, and knowing your numbers: pharmaceutical lifestyles.  The book thus moves from the culture of facts and how we respond to them, to the business of pharmaceuticals, to how public health has impacted how we treat individual health, to how the individual health care consumer responds to the information they hear from all sides.  Again, all of this is presented from an anthropological perspective.  If a reader has not read an anthropology-research based book before, the way in which Dumit looks at the information may be a bit confusing or surprising at first, since it is more about culture, which may not be expected at first, given the title.  However, the second chapter helps this perspective make sense, so even a reader new to this perspective will most likely be able to get into it.

What inspired Dumit to conduct this cultural investigation is the sheer number of drugs the average American is prescribed.

The average American is prescribed and purchases somewhere between nine and thirteen prescription-only drugs per year, totaling over 4 billion prescriptions in 2011 and growing. The range is wide, however, and many people are prescribed few or no drugs each year. (loc 100)

What Dumit’s investigations revealed was a cultural shift from treating an illness after it negatively impacts a person’s life to attempting to prevent illness.  Whereas individual doctors may prefer prescribing lifestyle changes (work out more, eat differently, stress reduction), some doctors prefer being able to simply prescribe a drug and some groups of patients may prefer to keep their lifestyle and take a preventative drug.  Similarly, the pharmaceutical industry sees preventative drugs that are taken by large groups of people with risk factors as a more monetarily sound investment than generating drugs for an illness that would be taken one-time or simply for the duration of the illness or just from the time of diagnosis to the end of the person’s life.  Preventative drugs are prescribed to people who have risk factors for developing an illness, and they then must be taken every day.  At the same time as these situations have developed, public health, since the 1970s, has started looking at groups of people at risk for developing a disease that would have a negative public health impact and advising that people with these risk factors be treated to prevent the disease from ever occurring.  All of these factors have created the environment in which we now live in the United States where people who are not yet sick are still taking multiple prescription drugs to prevent their getting sick, often in spite of dealing with side effects.

I will now discuss the elements of this overarching concept that I found most interesting.  The book contains many more facts and information than this, and if you find any of this at all intriguing, I highly recommend you pick up and read the whole book.

First, there’s the fact that clinical trials are extremely expensive to produce.  Pharmaceutical companies thus are most invested in clinical trials whose results would indicate treating the largest number of people for the longest amount of time and, perhaps most importantly, only for those people who are able and willing to pay for these drugs.  (loc 145)  What this means is that illnesses that only a small percentage of people have are not getting clinical trials for drugs.  Similarly, illnesses that a lot of people have but most of those people cannot afford to pay for the drugs, such as tropical diseases prevalent in African countries, also are not getting clinical trials for drugs to treat them.  The pharmaceutical companies are businesses that are interested in making money, not in improving the quality of life for everyone on the planet.

Marketers want to maximize the number of prescriptions in order to maximize profits. They see clinical trials as investments whose purpose is to increase sales of medicines. (loc 1415)

I also found the question of what constitutes health and how that has changed over the years fascinating.  Originally, people generally only came to the doctor if they felt sick or as if something was off.  We are now encouraged to engage in preventative care.  How this impacts how we perceive of health is summed up well here:

We have a new mass health model in which you often have no experience of being ill and no symptoms your doctor can detect, but you or your doctor often discover that you are at risk via a screening test based on clinical trials that show some efficacy of a treatment in reducing that risk; you may therefore be prescribed a drug for life that will have no discernible effect on you, and by taking it you neither return to health nor are officially ill, only at risk. (loc 195)

Tied into this idea of risk factors being treated as illnesses and thus healthy people being treated as not healthy is the idea that outliers, variations, and things that are simply socially undesirable can often be reclassified as illness, particularly if doing so means that the pharmaceutical companies will make more money. (loc 1079)

Third, I was intrigued by the discussion on the public health model.  Public health seeks to reduce illness in the population as a whole by treating those with risk factors, but also by treating however many it takes to reduce the occurrence of illness.  An example of a community-wide public health intervention is adding fluoride to the public drinking water.  This is done to everyone in the hopes that it will help prevent cavities, regardless of the actual individual risk factor for developing cavities.  A public health intervention that is done only to those with a risk factor is taking statins to lower cholesterol.  This is recommended for individuals whose cholesterol falls in a certain range, but there is no exact science in creating that range.  In fact, the cholesterol range is frequently lowered, putting more and more people on statins, even if only a small percent (less than 10%) of people are actually helped by being on these statins.  The question Dumit raises in this discussion is:

At what point are public health officials justified in intervening on a community-wide basis to protect a group of people who are not all equally at risk and who might not want to be protected? The push and pull of paternalism versus autonomy is a constant refrain in the field. (loc 1667)

Of course, the pharmaceutical companies want more and more people included in the risk factor, they even would probably be fine with everyone being on statins as a community-wide public health intervention, since this increases their sales.

Finally, I was also interested in how the book examines how the average patient population responds to all of this information about risk factors and preventative drugs and medicine and constant flow of health information.  Dumit divides the response to this into three general groups: “expert patienthood, fearful subject of duties, and better living through chemistry.” (loc 2842)  The expert patient is like the teacher’s pet.  They know all their health numbers and risk factors, listen to their doctors, take anything prescribed, and advise others to do the same.  These guys are the health seekers.  The second category, fearful subject of duties, is motivated by avoiding illness, not by seeking health.  The final category of patient is the one I alluded to earlier.  These folks won’t change their lifestyle in response to risk factors, but will instead request a pill so that they can continue living how they prefer.  Which category do you think you fall into?

I think the book in general could be a bit better organized.  My notes, although taken linearly, read as a bit disjointed, with some jumping around among different ideas.  The overarching concepts are not laid out as clearly and succinctly in the book as they are in my review.  Similarly, some concepts can be repeated a bit too often, leaving the reader feeling like they’ve read this before.  Also, sometimes the book delves a bit too deeply into anthropological concepts and methods, given the fact that it is presented as a book for a layman.  Finally, I feel the title of the book is a bit too click-baity.  It reads as if it was written to sound much more controversial and attacking of the pharmaceutical industry than the book itself actually is.  The title reads like the book will be a heavy-hitting expose, when really it is an even-handed piece of anthropology work.

Overall, this book will appeal to anyone interested in how the United States health care culture has evolved to the point it is currently at in regards to prescribing so many drugs.  The reader does not have to be a scientist or involved in medicine to understand the book, although portions of it may feel a bit repetitive or overly technical at times.  Although the book could be a bit better organized, overall it presents a clear look into the culture of drug prescription in the United States, and I recommend it to anyone interested in that topic.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Todd McLaren)

May 15, 2015 3 comments

Book Review: Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Todd McLaren)Summary:
In the future, people’s memories are backed up on sticks like external hard-drives, and when someone dies, they can just be put into a new body or resleeved.  Criminals are put into the brain bank for a set period of time to serve their “prison” sentence before being resleeved.  Kovacs is an ex-UN envoy but he’s also a criminal, and he wakes up one day in a new sleeve on Earth, not his home planet, before his sentence is up.  A rich myth–someone who has been alive for centuries in the same body, due to their wealth–has been killed.  After being resleeved, the local police told him it was suicide, but he doesn’t believe them.  So he’s hired Kovacs to figure it out for him.  If he solves the mystery, he’ll get sent back to his home planet and get a sleeve of his choice without serving any further sentence.  If he doesn’t, he’ll serve out the rest of his sentence and get resleeved on Earth, far from home.  Kovacs has no choice but to try to figure out who would waste their time killing a man who has endless sleeves to burn?

Review:
I love a good noir, and I liked the futuristic scifi sound of this one (the most famous futuristic scifi noir is Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, in case you were wondering).  Unfortunately, in spite of the very cool resleeving concept, I was left quite bored by the plot.

The setting and ideas for this future scifi world are fantastic.  Earth has colonized various planets, and each planet was colonized by different mixes of cultures.  Kovacs’ planet was colonized by the Japanese and Nordic cultures.  When he was a UN envoy he fought on one colonized by Middle East cultures.  So each planet has its own distinct culture, and, Kovacs at least, clearly feels that Earth is quite backwards.  For instance, Earth has a cadre of people who believe that resleeving is unethical and sign documents saying they are ethically opposed to being resleeved.  It sounds as if no other planets have that faction.  Similarly, it sounds as if only Earth has people wealthy enough to become myths–people who can afford to be resleeved in new clones of their own bodies they grow and keep safe, as well as back up their brains at frequent intervals into a cloud.  So Kovacs has some immediate culture shock, which is interesting to see.

Also, obviously, the idea of people’s brains being kept on usb sticks (basically) that you can just stick into the brain stem of another body and what implications that would have is just brilliant.  It’s cool to read about, and it’s an interesting take on longevity.  I also particularly appreciated that people *can* still die in various ways.  For instance, if you shoot someone where this brain stick goes in, you ruin their stick and they therefore can’t be downloaded into a new body.  This whole setting gives both a cool futuristic vibe and a complex environment for solving murders in.  It’s hard to solve for murders when people can just be rebooted, basically.

There is a lot of realistic diversity in the book.  The lead cop on the assignment is a Latina woman. Takeshi Kovacs is clearly intended to be biracial (white and Japanese).  There is a big bad (who I won’t reveal) who is an Asian woman.  The only other major characters are the myth and his wife, both of whom are white.  However, the surrounding and minor characters all demonstrate a clear melting pot of race and creed.  I appreciate it when futuristic scifi is realistic about the fact that all races and cultures and creeds would most likely be present.

One thing I do want to note, although I do think the book tries to address the obvious issue of what if a person gets resleeved into a race or gender different from their own, I’m not sure it was successful.  Takeshi immediately notes that he is in a Caucasian sleeve, and that irritates him some.  He continues to act like his own culture and exhibits a preference for the food of his home world but he doesn’t seem to be too bothered by being in someone else’s body.  (Criminals get resleeved into other criminals at random.  That is part of the punishment…not getting your own body back and knowing yours is out there being used by someone else).  It is explained that Takeshi is able to deal with the dysphoria because he was trained for it in the UN Envoy but I do wish a bit more explanation was given to this issue.  For instance, is being resleeved into a different race usually ok for the person? Or is it difficult just like every aspect of being resleeved into a new body is difficult?  Does it vary person to person? This was unclear, largely because Takeshi’s Envoy training makes it a bit of a non-issue.

Similary, at one point a male character is resleeved into a female body, specifically because sleeving across genders is perceived of as an act of torture in this world (it is a bit unclear to me if this actually happened or if it’s virtual reality, but it is made very clear that virtual reality feels exactly the same as reality to the person in question, so the fact remains).  I thought this was interesting and a nice send-up to trans issues.  However, in the next breath, the character mentions that he can tell he’s in a woman’s body because he FEELS THINGS MORE EMOTIONALLY.  *sighs*  (I would provide you with a direct quote, but I don’t always manage to successfully bookmark passages in audiobooks, and this was one of those times).  I get it that this passage is supposed to be a complement to women.  The man in question talks at length about how women feel things so much more and isn’t that nice and what a burden it must be and men should understand it more.  Yes, ok, fine, the character is being nice about it, but it’s still sexist.  The character could have had the same experience and limited to just this sleeve without making it about all women, but no. He mentions that he’s been sleeved in women’s bodies before and this is how it always is.

On a related note, I just want to mention for anyone who might be triggered by such things that there is a rather graphic scene in which the same character inside a woman’s body is raped by torturers with a rod of hot iron.  Just once I would like to get through a noir book without someone being raped, just saying.  (If you appreciate warnings for this type of content, see my dedicated page here).

So the characters are interesting and diverse, and the scifi world is creative, but the plot is a bit ho-hum.  Part of the problem is that I just honestly cannot make myself care about the rich myth and his problem.  The second issue comes up though when Takeshi ends up having a problem that intertwines with the myth’s, and I just can’t care about his either, largely because it revolves around protecting someone who the reader meets for about two minutes of audiobook, so I’m imagining that’s only a few pages of the book.  It’s basically big money all coming up against each other, and that’s a plot I personally struggle to really be interested in unless there’s at least one character I can really root for, and I just couldn’t root for any of these.  I also think that it didn’t help that compared to how creative the world-building was, the plot is very average.  So I was given high expectations with the world-building in the first few pages only to have a been there, seen that, reaction to the plot.

What lifted the book up from 3 stars to 4 for me was actually the audiobook narration.  Todd McLaren does an awesome job of producing many different voices and accents for all the different characters, helping to keep complex scenes straight.  He also has a great noir detective vibe to his voice when he speaks for Takeshi.  I will note, though, that I did have to speed the audiobook up to 1.25x to match my listening speed.  But I tend to listen fast, so other readers would probably prefer the slower speed.

Overall, scifi readers who also enjoy noir will most likely still enjoy the read, in spite of a seen it before plot, because the world-building is unique and creative.  I would recommend that readers who enjoy both print and audiobook check out the audiobook, as I feel it elevates the story.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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