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Book Review: Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein

November 22, 2013 1 comment

Man holding mask out away from his face inside a blue porthole against a red planet.Summary:
When out-of-work actor Lorenzo Smythe is approached in a bar by a space pilot with a job offer, he agrees to at least go meet the man’s boss and discuss it.  Quickly, however, Lorenzo finds himself being kidnapped into outer space and impersonating a missing important politician, John Joseph Bonforte, under slight duress.  They must keep the public from knowing the politician has been kidnapped and successfully participate in a Martian adoption ceremony or face interplanetary war.

Review:
I was excited to pick up another Heinlein, and he definitely didn’t disappoint.  Similar to The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein presents a delightful mix of wit, Hollywood glamor, and thought-provoking political speeches all in a well-imagined and engaging future society.

In this version of the future, space exploration has led to the discovery of inhabited other planets and two distinctly different opinions on how to interact with those lifeforms.  Either dominate in a manifest destiny style or come to mutual cultural understanding and trade.  The politician Smythe must impersonate, Bonforte, is the leader of the latter faction.  This novel could easily have turned preachy with such a premise, but Smythe himself isn’t too keen on being friends with the aliens.  As an actor, he is committed to playing his role beautifully.  As a person, he isn’t sure he agrees with Bonforte.  This position allows Heinlein to explore both sides of the question, as well as the gray area in-between.  No easy answers are presented, but slowly what is more just is revealed.

Juxtaposed with the political plot is the whole aspect of Smythe being an actor who believes fully in his craft as an artform.  Smythe takes himself very seriously even when others do not.  At first, others view him as full of himself, but slowly they come to respect him and his talents.  Smythe’s large self-esteem may at first cause the reader to roll their eyes as well, but it gradually becomes apparent that having confidence in yourself and your abilities as a professional is not a bad thing.

I was a professional, retained to do a very difficult professional job, and professional men do not use the back stairs; they are treated with respect. (loc 1660)

Although characters at first seem two-dimensional, the main characters slowly become more fleshed out and well-rounded.  Nothing and no one is quite as simple as it at first seems, and Smythe is a great example of that.

What really makes the book, though, is its unexpected wit.  It’s not so much a laugh out loud book, but it’s very much a snort of amusement style of humor that takes the book from interesting to highly enjoyable.

My vocal cords lived their own life, wild and free. (location 40)

I was as angry as a leading woman with her name in small type. (location 1068)

The romance lacked creativity or sparkle.  It is easy to spot the instant it comes up, but it doesn’t come across as natural or meant to be.  It mostly feels like the woman transferring her affection for Bonforte onto Smythe.  I found it a bit squicky that she fails to ever really see Smythe as Smythe, not even after falling in love with him.  Thankfully, the romance is an incredibly minor part of the book.  The book is also slightly dated by the overwhelming presence of paper and microfilm.  We’re talking the spaceship has a library with print books and microfilm. In general even classic scifi tends to imagine a future with at least slightly different versions of books and information exchange.  I found it a bit odd that Heinlein failed to do that.

The ending is not unexpected entirely but it is satisfying and with enough fun details to entertain.  Of the various options for an ending to this story, the one Heinlein took is enjoyable and makes sense within the world he has created.

Overall, this is a fun piece of classic scifi that tosses together acting and politics in outer space with Martians who look like toadstools and a heavy sprinkling of wit.  The romance leaves something to be desired, and the tech isn’t particularly predictive or imaginative, but these are minor aspects of the story.  Recommended to fans of witty scifi who don’t mind a dash of political intrigue.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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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: Gone by Bryan Alaspa

November 9, 2013 Leave a comment

Image of a yellow tent in blackness.Summary:
A newly formed company’s owners decide that what the small group of employees need is a bonding camping trip.  Bear isn’t a fan of camping, but he agrees to go along anyway.  When the site is more rural than he was anticipating, he starts to question his decision.  When they wake up the first morning and find one member of the party missing, he’s sure he made a mistake coming camping.  On each successive morning, another camper is gone.  Who is taking them and why?

Review:
I picked this up, along with seven other books, during Smashwords’ 2012 Summer/Winter Sale.  I’ve always enjoyed the classic horror trope of we-all-go-to-the-woods-and-shit-gets-real, so I was intrigued to see what Alaspa did with it.  There’s enough different in the plot to keep you reading, in spite of some awkward sentence-level writing.

People disappearing from their tents and leaving their clothes behind, one per night, is a nice subtle change to what one generally sees in the everyone in the woods story.  Usually people get eaten by zombies or axe murdered or something obvious.  A simple disappearance was different enough that I was genuinely curious as to what was causing these odd disappearances.  Added into this are the methods used by whoever is doing the abducting to keep the campers in their campsite.  They try to paddle away but the currents mysteriously change.  They try to walk away through the woods but the trees attack them, etc…  These methods worked within the context of the supernatural seeming disappearances.  I also liked that their supernatural experimenters make it impossible for them to get hurt, so they are forced to wait their turn.  It all felt a bit like a subtly done allegory for animals in a slaughterhouse, and it kept me reading and engaged.

The only element of the plot that didn’t work for me is that the first person to disappear from the group is also the only person of color in the group.  Having the Latino guy be the first one to disappear is so stereotypical and B-movie that I actually cringed.  Let poor Carlos be at least the second one to disappear. Or, heck, make him be one of the last ones standing.  Getting to play with the regular tropes of whatever genre you write in is one of the benefits of indie writing, so use that to your advantage.

Unfortunately, some of the writing style on the sentence level isn’t up to the same level as the intricate plot.  There is quite a bit of telling instead of showing.  Not enough trusting the reader to get it.  There are some awkward and puzzling sentences in the book as well:

The ground was wet and my hands were damp when I put my hands on it. (loc 616)
The hand turned into fingers and slammed the lids of my eyes closed. (loc 2809)

Additionally, I started counting the number of errors that were clearly not typos, and I got over 30.  I fully expect some errors to get through, they tend to even in traditionally published works, but I find anything over 5 to 10 to be excessive and feel more like a first draft than a fully done, ready to publish work.

On the other hand, there are portions of the sentence-level writing that are eloquent and beautiful to read.  Particularly, any instance where characters are having sex is quite well-written, and I would be interested to read work from Alaspa focused more on romance or erotica.

When she touched the part of me that was hard and eager I nearly exploded. (loc 1828)

Overall, this book contains a strong horror/thriller plot that will keep the reader engaged in spite of some awkward sentence-level writing and a few too many textual errors.  I recommend it to horror readers who are intrigued by the plot and don’t mind these short-comings.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Smashwords

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Book Review: The Shining by Stephen King (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Campbell Scott)

November 6, 2013 1 comment

View of an old wooden door from a low perspective. Summary:
Jack Torrance, a writer and schoolteacher, almost let his temper and alcoholism destroy himself and his family.  But he’s joined AA and is determined to get his life, family, and career back on track.  When he hears through a friend about a hotel in rural Colorado need of a winter caretaker, it seems like the perfect solution.  Spend time in seclusion working on his new play and provide for his family simultaneously.  But what Jack doesn’t know is that The Overlook Hotel has a sinister past, and his son, Danny, has a shine.  Psychic abilities that make him very attractive to the sinister forces of the hotel.

Review:
The new release of Doctor Sleep, the surprise sequel to The Shining, at the end of this September made me realize that while I had seen the movie (review), I had never gotten around to reading to the book.  October seemed like the ideal time to immerse myself into an audiobook version of a Stephen King story, and since I knew I loved the movie, I figured I was bound to enjoy the book.  Surprisingly, this is a rare instance where I enjoyed the movie version better than the book.  While the book version is definitely an enjoyable thrill-ride, it never quite reaches the highest heights of terror.

The characterization is the strongest here that I’ve seen in the King books I’ve read so far.  All the characters are three-dimensional, but the Torrance family in particular are well-explored.  Jack and Wendy (his wife) read so much like real people, because while both make some horrible mistakes, neither are truly bad.  Neither had a good childhood or much help to overcome it, and both want so badly to have a good family and a good life but no clear idea on how to do so.  Danny, a five-year-old, is handled well as well.  He speaks appropriately for his age, not too advanced or childish.  The use of a third person narrator helps the reader get to know Danny and his psychic abilities at a deeper level than his five-year-old vocabulary would otherwise allow for.  This level of character development is true to a certain extent for the rest of the characters as well and is handled with true finesse.

The plot starts out strong and frightening on a true-to-life visceral level.  The Torrance home life is not good, and that’s putting it lightly.  Wendy feels she has nowhere to be but with her husband, due to her only relative being her abusive mother.  Jack is terrified of turning into his father, who abused his wife and children, and yet he has broken Danny’s arm while drunk.  And in the midst of this is Danny, a child with special needs.  This was where I was the most engrossed in the story.  Before the hotel is even a real factor.

The Overlook is the supernatural element of the story that is supposed to kick it up a notch into horror territory.  It is never made entirely clear exactly what is up with the hotel but we do know: 1) there is a sinister force at work here 2) that sinister force is out to have people kill others or commit suicide and join their haunting party 3) for some reason, people with a shine are more attractive to this sinister force as someone to have on board 4) the sinister force extorts whatever weaknesses are present in the people in the hotel to get what it wants.  So the sinister force very much wants Danny to be dead, as well as his father and mother, although they are sort of more like side dishes to the whole thing.  The sinister force figures out the family dynamics and extorts them by kicking Jack’s anger and Wendy’s mistrust up a notch.  It also gets Danny to wander off where he’s not supposed to go.  But things don’t really get going until the sinister force possesses Jack.  I get why this might freak some people out.  The sinister force gets the people to do something they normally would never do.  However, personally I found the parts where Jack’s own real shortcomings cause him to do something sinister, like breaking Danny’s arm, to be so much more frightening.  Jack’s regret over his actions and fear of himself are much more frightening because what if you did something like that? Whereas a sinister force is easier to distance oneself from mentally.  It’s gory and thrilling but it’s not terror-inducing evil.  Perhaps if the things Jack does at the hotel were just things inside himself that the hotel allows to come out, it would still be truly terrorizing.  But it is clearly established in the book that the sinister things Jack does in the hotel are due to his being possessed by the hotel.  They are not him.  This removes a certain amount of the terror from the book.

The audiobook narrator, Campbell Scott, did a good job bringing a unique voice to each character.  His pacing and reading of the book was spot-on.  However, the production quality of the reading didn’t match his acting.  The entire recording was too quiet.  I had to crank my headphones up all the way, and I still had trouble hearing the book when walking around the city, which is not normally a problem for me.  In contrast, whenever Jack yells, it blew out my eardrums.  Some better sound balance was definitely needed.

Overall, this is a thrilling read that begins with a terrifying focus on overcoming flaws and bad dynamics from the family you were raised in then switches to a less frightening focus on a sinister force within a hotel.  It thus ends up being a thrilling read but not a terror-inducing one.  Those seeking a thrilling tale with well-rounded main characters being threatened by the supernatural in the form of ghosts and/or possession will certainly enjoy it.  Those who are less frightened by the supernatural might enjoy it less.  I recommend picking up the print or ebook over the audiobook, due to sound quality.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Announcement: I Am Open to Review Requests Now Through December 31st for Review in 2014

November 1, 2013 Leave a comment

Image of confetti
Hooray!!

I am happy to announce that as of now I am open to review requests for books to be reviewed in 2014!!!

Now through December 31st, feel free to email in your review requests if you are interested in being reviewed right here on Opinions of a Wolf at some point during 2014.

Here’s how it’s going to work:

  1. You lovely authors and publishers submit your requests between now and December 31st, following the guidelines and tips listed on my Review Policies/Contact page.  Indie authors/publishers are strongly encouraged to submit!
  2. I select the ones I will read and review in 2014.  I will select no more than 12 so as not to overload myself.
  3. Between January 1st and January 10th, I will send out email notifications to those who have been accepted.  I will not email those who have not been accepted.  If you have not heard back from me by January 10th, then I’m sorry but you were not selected.
  4. Accepted authors/publishers will email me back and let me know if they are interested in a giveaway in conjunction with the review.
  5. Before January 10th, I will write a post right here announcing the books I have accepted for review.  This means that if you are accepted for review, you have the potential for three instances of publicity: 1) the announcement 2) the review 3) a giveaway (at your discretion).

If you are interested in being one of the (possibly 12) ARC/review copy books read and reviewed here on Opinions of a Wolf in 2014, please click through to my Review Policies/Contact page for more information on review policies (not to mention my submissions email), and follow the instructions there carefully when submitting.

I’m looking forward to reading through all of the submissions! I can’t wait to see what review copies I’ll be reading in 2014. 😀