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Book Review: Loud is How I Love You by Mercy Brown (Series, #1)

December 16, 2016 2 comments

Book Review: Loud is How I Love You by Mercy Brown (Series, #1)Summary:
Twenty-one-year-old front girl Emmylou knows that getting her band noticed in the ‘90s indie rock scene will be no easy task. She definitely knows better than to break the number one rule of the band: Don’t sleep with your bandmates! But after she ends up having the best sex of her life with her guitarist, Travis, she finds following that rule is a lot harder than it sounds.

When the band gets the gig of their dreams, making it big seems just within reach. But Emmy’s inability to keep her hands off Travis threatens everything they’ve worked for. Can Emmy find a way to break the rules and not blow the chance of a lifetime?

Review:
It took me a moment to get past the fact that 90s now count as historic fiction. *pours one out for the 90s* But then again Fresh Off the Boat is set entirely in the 90s, much like That  70s Show, so it appears the time has come. I was not a “new adult” (refers to those post high school but pre having your shit together) in the 90s (I was solidly a kid coveting a tamagotchi) but I vaguely knew about all the fads the older kids were into like….flannel and grunge. This book oozes that, and the characters get to have the problems that arise from not having a cell phone or YouTube to promo your band. That was fun.

For those who don’t know, New Adult means to expect more sex. And oh man. The sex scenes in this book. There are a lot of them. They are explicit. I like that sort of thing, and even though I rolled my eyes occasionally at some of their more interesting bedroom pursuits (like “tattooing” with permanent marker), I still thought they were hot, well-written, within character, and, most importantly, made sense within the plot.

What I think could make people love or hate this book is the main character, Emmy. She narrates it in the first person and she is, well, she’s a 21-year-old. She makes problems where there shouldn’t be any problems. She gets all up in her head. She thinks in black and white. She is, basically, young and acts and talks like a young person. Yeah, sometimes it’s infuriating to see her fucking her own life up, but that’s realistic, especially for a character who’s supposed to be a passionate artistic type in a band. I was able to appreciate her for who she is and have faith that she’d grow and get past her issues, but I do think that not everyone would be able to see past that and enjoy it in the same way.

The series will follow other people involved in the indie rock scene, and so we’ve already met them in this book as secondary characters. I’m excited to see what hot shenanigans they get up to and hear a new voice’s take on everything going on for the various bands.

Recommended to those who want to take a visit to the 90s through the eyes of a passionate new adult.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: Fever by Mary Beth Keane (Audiobook narrated by Candace Thaxton)

Book Review: Fever by Mary Beth Keane (Audiobook narrated by Candace Thaxton)Summary:
Have you ever heard of Typhoid Mary? The Irish-American cook in the early 1900s who was lambasted for spreading typhoid through her cooking. What many don’t know is that she was an asymptomatic carrier. This was the early ages of germ theory, and most didn’t realize you could pass on an illness without any symptoms. Captured and held against her will on North Brother Island, it’s easy to empathize with her plight. Until she’s released and begins cooking again.

Review:
I grew up hearing the cautionary tale of Typhoid Mary, who was mostly mentioned within hearing range in combination with an admonition to wash your hands. But some people (mainly other children) told tales of her purposefully infecting those she served. These sentences were spoken with a combination of fear and awe. On the one hand, how understandable at a time when worker’s rights were nearly completely absent and to be both a woman and Irish in America was not a good combination. On the other hand, how evil to poison people with such a heinous illness in their food. In any case, when this fictionalized account of Mary Mallon came up, I was immediately intrigued. Who was this woman anyway? It turns out, the mixture of awe and fear reflected in myself and other children was actually fairly accurate.

I’m going to speak first about the actual Mary Mallon and then about the writing of the book. If you’re looking for the perfect example of gray area and no easy answers mixed with unfair treatment based on gender and nation of origin, then hoo boy do you find one with Mary Mallon. The early 1900s was early germ theory, and honestly, when you think about it, germ theory sounds nuts if you don’t grow up with it. You can carry invisible creatures on your skin and in your saliva that can make other people but not yourself sick. Remember, people didn’t grow up knowing about germs. It was an entirely new theory. The status quo was don’t cook while you’re sick, and hygiene was abysmally low…basically everywhere. It’s easy to understand how Mary was accidentally spreading sickness and didn’t know it. It’s also easy to understand why she would have fought at being arrested (she did nothing malicious or wrong and was afraid of the police). Much as we may say now that she should have known enough to wash her hands frequently. Wellll, maybe not so much back then.

Public health officials said that they tried to reason with Mary, and she refused to stop cooking or believe that she was infecting others. This is why they quarantined her on North Brother Island. Some point to others (male, higher social status) who were found to be asymptomatic carriers who were not quarantined. True. But they also acknowledged the risk and agreed to stop doing whatever it was that was spreading the illness. Maybe Mary was more resistant because of the prejudice she was treated with from the beginning. Or maybe she really was too stubborn to be able to understand what a real risk she posed to others. Regardless, it is my opinion that no matter the extraneous social factors (being a laundress is more difficult than being a cook, people were overly harsh with her, etc…) Mary still knowingly cooked and infected people after she was released from North Brother Island. Yes, there were better ways public health officials could have handled the whole situation but that’s still an evil thing to do. So that’s the real story of Mary Mallon. Now, on to the fictional account (and here you’ll see why I bothered discussing the facts first).

At first Keane does a good job humanizing a person who has been extremely demonized in American pop culture. Time and effort is put into establishing Mary’s life and hopes. Effort is made into showing how she may not have noticed typhoid following her wherever she went. She emigrated from Ireland. She, to put it simply, saw a lot of shit. A lot of people got sick and died. That was just life. I also liked how the author showed the ways in which Mallon was contrarian to what was expected of women. She didn’t marry. She was opinionated and sometimes accused of not dressing femininely enough. But, unfortunately, that’s where my appreciation fo the author’s handling of Mallon ends.

The author found it necessary to give Mallon a live-in, alcoholic boyfriend who gets almost as much page time as herself. In a book that should be about Mary, he gets entirely too much time, and that hurts the plot. (There is seriously a whole section about him going to Minnesota that is entirely pointless). A lot of Mary’s decisions are blamed on this boyfriend. While I get it that shitty relationships can cause you to make shitty decisions, at a certain point accountability comes into play. No one held a gun to Mary’s head and made her cook or made her date this man (I couldn’t find any records to support this whole alcoholic boyfriend, btw).

On a similar note, a lot of effort is made into blaming literally everyone but Mary for the situation. It’s society’s fault. It’s culture’s fault. It’s Dr. Soper’s fault. They should have rehabbed her with a new job that was more comparable to cooking than being a laundress. They should have had more empathy. Blah blah blah. Yes. In a perfect world they would have realized how backbreaking being a laundress is and trained her in something else. But, my god, in the early 1900s they released her and found her a job in another career field. That’s a lot for that time period! This is the early days of public health. The fact that anyone even considered finding her a new career is kind of amazing. And while I value and understand the impact society and culture and others have on the individual’s ability to make good and moral decisions, I still believe ultimately the individual is morally responsible. And at some point, Mary, with all of her knowledge of the fact that if she cooked there was a high probability someone would die, decided to go and cook anyway. And she didn’t cook just anywhere. She cooked at a maternity ward in a hospital. So the fact that the book spends a lot of time trying to remove all personal culpability from Mary bothered me a lot.

I’m still glad I read the book, but I sort of wish I’d just read the interesting articles and watched the PBS special about her instead. It would have taken less time and been just as factual.

Source: Audible

3 out of 5 stars

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Book Review: A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

February 22, 2016 2 comments

Book Review: A Spell of Winter by Helen DunmoreSummary:
Cathy and her brother Rob live with their emotionally distant grandfather on family land in England because her mother left, and her father died in a mental institution. Cathy and Rob seek refuge with each other against the world, but World War I won’t let them keep the world at bay forever.

Review:
I generally enjoy controversial books, and I heard that this historical fiction included the always controversial plot point of incest. The short version of my review is: it’s amazing how boring a book about incest and WWI can actually be. For the longer version, read on.

The book is told non-linearly in what appears to be an attempt to build suspense. The constant jumping with very few reveals for quite some time, though, just led to my own frustration.

I was similarly frustrated by the fact that Cathy’s childish interpretation of her father’s mental illness never progresses. She never moves from a child’s understanding to an adult’s understanding. This lack of progress gave a similar stagnant feeling to the book.

Of course, what the book is best-known for is the incest between Cathy and Rob. I found the scenes of incest neither shocking nor eliciting of any emotion. There are scenes where Cathy and Rob discuss how “unfair” it is that they cannot have children and society will judge them. But then again there are scenes that imply that Rob took advantage of Cathy. Well, which is it? It’s not that I demand no gray areas, but the existence of gray areas in such a topic would best be supported by a main character with insight. Cathy remains childlike throughout the book. Indeed, I think the characterization of Cathy is what holds the whole book back. Because the book is Cathy’s perspective, this lack in her characterization impacts the whole thing. What could be either a horrifying or a thought-provoking book instead ends up being simply meh. A lot of time is spent saying essentially nothing.

That said, I did enjoy how the author elicits the setting. I truly felt as if I was there in that cold and often starving rural England. I felt as if I could feel the cold in my bones. That beauty of setting is something that many writers struggle with.

Overall, this book read as gray and dull to me as the early 20th century English countryside it is set in. Readers with a vested interest in all varieties of WWI historic fiction and those who enjoy a main character with a childlike inability to provide insight are the most likely to enjoy this book. Those looking for a shocking, horrifying, or thought-provoking read should look elsewhere.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: The Veiled Mirror: The Story of Prince Vlad Dracula’s Lost Love by Christine Frost

October 19, 2015 2 comments

Book Review: The Veiled Mirror: The Story of Prince Vlad Dracula's Lost Love by Christine FrostSummary:
Vlad the Impaler, a Wallachian prince, inspired the story of Dracula with his bloodthirsty, iron-handed ruling.  This, though, is the story of his long-time consort, Ecaterina Floari, mother one of his sons and a daughter.  She loves him deeply but is haunted by his ruling style, as well as spirits in a helmet he brings into their home from one of his battles.

Review:
I picked this up during the Smashwords Summer/Winter sale years ago but it took a while for my mood to be just right to read it.  It is a historic piece set in 1400s with splashes of the fantastic, and I tended to be in the mood for one or the other but not both.  Finally in the heat of the summer, I was ready for a dark historic fantasy that would take me away to heavy gowns and ancient rulers.  I was surprised by the level of historic research and detail in the book, as well as the tie-in to the Dracula story, making it a marriage of two genres.

This is a long book with a lot of rich setting detail.  That doesn’t tend to be my style but it works with the feel the book is going for, and many readers will enjoy the pace at which the book moves.  The dark fantasy elements take time to set up, but when they get into motion they really add to the story.  The story strikes a nice balance of Ecaterina working with the culture of her time-period and being bothered by certain things Vlad does.  For instance, it bothers her that he has mistresses, but she comes to accept it as is expected of her in the time-period.  This trajectory acknowledges the feelings the modern reader may have about the situation but also lets the character be true to her time-period.

The author toes a finely-held line of showing Vlad’s cruelty but also keeping him human and not demonizing him.  He was a cruel ruler but he wasn’t a monster.  Similarly, although Ecaterina loves him she is still disturbed by his actions when ruling.  This lends both characters depth they would not have if Ecaterina’s love was blind or Vlad was monstrous.

In spite of appreciating the historic fiction plot covering many decades, I did sometimes feel that the plot meandered a bit too much.  I also felt that sometimes the book told too much instead of showing.  Similarly, there were a few too many typos and grammatical errors for a book that is in its final version.  It was not enough to make me stop reading but it was enough to detract from my overall enjoyment of the story.

I appreciated how much of the book is from women’s perspectives.  Not just Ecaterina’s but her mother’s, servants, and other consorts and even a spy are featured.  The female cast is strong, and that would be easy for a less thoughtful writer to pass over in favor of showcasing the men history chose to record more thoroughly.

Overall, readers seeking to learn something about the 1400s in Romania will be pleased by how much they will learn reading this book.  Those who come to it due to the Dracula connection will enjoy the fantastical elements toward the end in particular.  Recommended to readers of historic fiction and fantasy who do not mind a long book with a slow burn.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Smashwords

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Book Review: Thieves’ Quarry by D.B. Jackson (Series, #2) (Audiobook narrated by Jonathan Davis)

September 22, 2015 Leave a comment

Book Review: Thieves' Quarry by D.B. Jackson (Series, #2) (Audiobook narrated by Jonathan Davis)Summary:
It’s September 1768 in Boston, Massachusetts, and the King’s navy has sailed into Boston Harbor to start an occupation in an attempt to restore order and stop the stewing rebellion.  Conjurer and thieftaker Ethan Kaille isn’t sure how he feels about the occupation but he is sure how he feels about the large spells he’s started feeling in Boston–not good.  He feels even worse he finds out that all the men on board one of the British ships have been killed by a conjuring.  The British navy hires him to investigate, while the mayor of Boston threatens to have all conjurers hanged in mere days if he doesn’t find the culprit.

Review:
I loved the first book in this series. Urban fantasy set in a historical time period in the city I actually live in just appealed to me so much.  (I really do wish there was more historical urban fantasy.  It is awesome).  This book failed to capture my attention the way the first in the series did, and I’m uncertain if it was due to the tone, the plot, or the audiobook narration.

Ethan comes across as a bit more insufferable in this entry than in the first.  Perhaps as an American and a Bostonian I just simply struggle to understand Loyalist leanings, but Ethan siding with the Crown over and over again, in spite of a literal military occupation just rubbed me the wrong way.  It takes him far too long to be irritated by this over-reaction from the Crown, in spite of being on good terms with some of the Patriot leaders.  I suppose what it comes down to is that I could take his waffling in the first book when rebellion was just beginning to brew.  I thought he was closer to being on the Patriots’ side by the time period of this book, and he wasn’t.  This would bother some readers less than it bothered me, I am sure.

Similarly, I had a hard time caring about the plot.  I cared about Ethan solving the mystery in time to save the conjurers, but I simply didn’t care who had killed the men on the occupation ship.  Everyone in the book, even the Patriots leaders, seemed to think it was this huge evil thing, and I just didn’t care much one way or the other.  Part of this could be because I don’t see the difference between casting a spell and murder in other ways, whereas the characters in the book do.  Part of it is that the reader never gets a chance to get to know anyone on the ship in a way that would make them sympathize.  It felt for a lot of the book like Ethan was investigating a calamity of war, rather than a crime, and that just made it a bit dull to me.

All of that said, this book is a poor fit for an audiobook.  I am certain I would have enjoyed it better if I was reading it myself, in retrospect.  The pacing just isn’t suited to an audiobook’s speed.  I wanted it to go faster, and I did speed up the narration speed, but I couldn’t speed it up too much or I’d miss important things.  It was a bit frustrating, in spite of the narrator’s talents at creating unique voices for each character, which is something I always appreciate.

The ending of the book does speed up its pace, and the solution to the mystery is fascinating.  This saved the book for me, although I am uncertain if I will continue along in the series.  I may need to poke around and see if Ethan goes fully Patriot in the next book before I venture to pick it up.

Overall, this entry in the series fails to live up to the first, although an interesting ending will still spur the reader on to the next entry in the series.  Readers who will be turned off by Loyalist leanings in a Revolutionary War book may wish to look elsewhere.  But those who simply enjoy seeing urban fantasy in a historic era will not be disappointed.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Garlic, an Edible Biography: The History, Politics, and Mythology Behind the World’s Most Pungent Food — With Over 100 Recipes by Robin Cherry

August 27, 2015 5 comments

Book Review: Garlic, an Edible Biography: The History, Politics, and Mythology behind the World's Most Pungent Food--with over 100 Recipes by Robin CherrySummary:
A history of the world and medicine as seen through the eyes of garlic, plus a lesson on the many varieties of garlic, how to grow it, and where to find other garlic lovers.  Topped off with a collection of over 100 recipes from all over the world featuring garlic, both historic and new.

Review:
When I saw this book on NetGalley, I knew I needed a review copy.  I’m a passionate home chef with a love of garlic and a never-ending interest on the history of food.  This book’s title indicated it would hit all three of those interests, and its content did not let me down.

The book is divided into two parts.  Part One focuses on everything but the recipes. Part Two is the recipes.  Part One’s chapters cover the history of using garlic for health and for food, garlic in legends and lore, and how to grow your own.  This is the section that most entertained my friends and fiancé, as they found themselves the recipients of random facts about garlic.  One friend received an email of all of the types of garlic that originated in the country of Georgia; another a tip that growing some near her fruit tree might be beneficial for the tree.  Here are a few of my favorite facts that I learned in Part One:

  • The world’s first-known medical text also mentions medical uses of garlic (loc 129)
  • Garlic is designated as a drug in Japan (loc 222)
  • Spanish immigrants were the most likely to survive during the colonization of the Western hemisphere, thanks to their consumption of garlic.  Carrying the cloves protected them from disease-carrying mosquitoes.  (loc 309-313)
  • Garlic vodka is used as an antiflu remedy in Russia (Bonus: the book has the recipe for making this for yourself). (loc 392)
  • “In addition to preventing colds, garlic is effective in killing viral meningitis, viral pneumonia, influenza, and herpes.” (loc 423)
  • “Garlic also kills bacteria directly, by invading its cells and causing them to explode, thus bacteria has not opportunity to develop a resistance to it.” (loc 427)
  • “Green-colored garlic is stronger than white garlic because it contains more of the aromatic sulfuric compounds.” (loc 922)
  • The earliest bridal bouquets incorporated garlic to ward off the evil spirits. (loc 1067)
  • There are over 200 varieties of garlic. (loc 1203)

Part One ends with tips on how to cultivate garlic and a selection of the various types of garlic, including notes on where they grow best, how they look, and how they taste.  Garlic may be broadly divided into hardnecks and softnecks, but there are subvarieties within these two main ones.  (Softnecks are the ones that you can braid).  My one criticism of Part One is that I wish it had gone more in-depth into the history of garlic all over the world.  It left me wanting more.  Perhaps there isn’t more, but I certainly wish there was.  I would additionally note that, although I personally enjoyed reading about the many varieties of garlic and took copious notes, some readers might find the listing of the types a bit tedious to read and may not be expecting it in a book of this nature.

Part Two is the recipes.  It starts with notes on how to handle and prepare garlic.  The recipes are then divided into: dips, sauces, and condiments; bread, pizza, and pasta; soups; salads and salad dressings; appetizers; poultry; lamb; beef; seafood; vegetarian; side dishes; dessert; and historical recipes.    I marked off a total of 19 recipes that I definitely want to try, which is quite a lot for me.  Often I’ll read a cookbook and only be interested in one or two of the recipes.  The recipes cover a nice variety of cuisines, and the historic recipes are fascinating, although most readers will probably not try them as they require things such as fresh blood.  Besides the historic recipes, the dessert ones are probably the most surprising.  I actually did mark one off as one I’d like to try–Roasted Garlic Creme Brulee.

I have managed to make one of the recipes so far: Garlic Scape Pesto (loc 1649).  For those who don’t know, garlic scapes are the green stalks that grow out of the bulbs.  They must be trimmed (on most varieties).  They taste a bit like a cross between garlic and leeks.  Our local produce box happened to give us a bunch of them right around when I read the book, and I’m a big pesto fan, so I decided to try the recipe.

Garlic Scape Pesto on top of my pizza crust, before the rest of the toppings were added.

Garlic Scape Pesto on top of my pizza crust, before the rest of the toppings were added.

The recipe is supposed to make 2 cups.  I halved it, and somehow still wound up with 2 cups of pesto.  The recipe suggests storing the leftovers under a layer of olive oil.  I found that unnecessary.  My extra kept in the fridge in a tupperware container for a week without adding a layer of protective oil.  The pesto was truly delicious though.  I partially chose it since I have made garlic scape pesto before, and I must say I found this one much more delicious than the other recipe that I tried.  I am looking forward to trying the others I am interested in, although I will probably continue to halve the recipes, as I am only cooking for two.

Overall, foodies with a love of garlic will find this book both fascinating and a source of new recipes to try.  Some readers may wish for more information, while others may find themselves a bit more informed on the varieties of garlic than they were really looking for.  All will find themselves chock full of new information and eager to try new ways to use garlic…and perhaps even to start growing some heirloom varieties for themselves.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

August 20, 2015 6 comments

Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara KingsolverSummary:
In 1959 Nathan Price took his wife and four young daughters on a mission to the Congo to spread the Evangelical Baptist message.  Nathan, abusive and stubborn, refuses to listen to anyone around him–not the chief of the village he’s living in, not their Congolese maid, not the organizers of the mission, and certainly not his wife or daughters.  When the Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium arrives, Nathan refuses to return to the United States with lasting consequences on all of the Prices.

Review:
I was told by several people that as a deconvert from the Evangelical Baptist faith I was raised in, I would enjoy this secularly published take on an Evangelical mission to Africa.  While I did enjoy the beginning of the book for its honest look at what missions are actually like, the character development becomes increasingly more lackluster and flat throughout the book, working in direct contrast with an increasingly complex plot and souring the whole book.  Additionally, although the book avoids having a Christian slanted take to missions, it certainly does not manage to tell the neutral story I was hoping for.  The author’s slant is more and more apparent as the book goes on, and it ends up being quite heavy-handed by the end.

The beginning of the book is excellent.  Rather than giving Nathan the voice, all of the story telling is from the point of view of one of the women in his life whom he silences–Orleanna (his wife), Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May.  It is so powerful to see him through their eyes.  To see him striving so hard to maintain control over everyone and simultaneously hear from their thoughts that he can never truly control them.  It’s empowering and simultaneously heartbreaking.

It’s also interesting to see how Nathan’s stubbornness and know-it-all nature prevents him from ever truly connecting to or even helping the people in the village he’s working in.  He thinks his way is always the best, completely missing that he and the villagers could actually trade knowledge and information and all end up better.  Because they are, in his mind, backwards and unsaved, he refuses to ever listen to them.  His refusal to ever bend causes the mission to break.  For instance, he insists on baptism in the river, even though the villagers are afraid to go in the river because of crocodiles.  He could have made a compromise, perhaps a tub of water in the church, but he continues to insist on the river, leading the villagers to believe he is out to get their children killed by crocodiles.  It’s a gentle and subtle message, unlike others in the book, that could be applied to many aspects of many lives.  Be willing to listen, grow, and learn.

Once the Congo rebellion starts though, the book begins a slow slide off the rails.  The voices of the women change from developing toward a well-rounded presentation of their characters to flat cardboard cut-out versions of their original selves.  For instance, Rachel goes from being a femme teenager frustrated with being stuck in the jungle to a cardboard cut-out racist white supremacist.  While being a white supremacist is obviously wrong, Rachel isn’t well-rounded enough to let her still be human.  She is instead a monster, which is a disservice to us all.  It is only by seeing how those who seem monstrous are just humans gone wrong can we learn something.  The same is true of the rest of the women, although they are all taken in different directions toward different stereotypes.  One loses her mental health, another becomes a scholar, etc… But they all become stereotypes rather than older versions of their well-rounded younger selves.

Similarly, although the multiple different perspectives work well for a bunch of different sets of eyes seeing the same situations play out in the same village, when the daughters grow up, the multiple perspectives become instead individual perspectives of their own individual lives with some periodic judgment from one sister to another on how she’s choosing to live her life.  Instead of giving a richly varied representation of one situation, the reader instead gets a slanted viewpoint of several different situations.  It again renders the story flat instead of well-rounded.  I found myself thinking many times that the book would have been better if it had just ended at the end of the section that takes part in the daughters’ childhoods.

The plot and character shifts both line up with a tone shift that goes from neutrally presenting what occurs in the village to having a decided political slant.  It feels as if the point goes from telling a good story to convincing the reader to feel a certain way.  I think it’s interesting that this slant and the weaker writing go hand-in-hand.  It’s a good reminder that if you focus on telling a good story, a message may come across on its own anyway, but don’t try to force a story to fit a message you want to tell.  That hurts the story.

Overall, the beginning of the book is quite strong, featuring an interesting plot and characters but about 2/3 of the way through, it loses its strength, falling into caricature and message pushing that hurt the story as a whole.  Recommended to readers who are quite interested in the beginning and wouldn’t mind skimming the end.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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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: The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

Book Review: The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley RobinsonSummary:
Imagine a world where the Black Death of the 14th century wiped out the majority of the European population, rather than one-third of it.  This is the world Robinson imagines, one where Buddhism and Islam rise as the two major religions of the world (with no religion a close third).  See the history of the world through the eyes of two souls who keep reincarnating in different cultures, struggling to better both themselves and their world that could easily have been ours.

Review:
I originally picked this book up because I have long held a fascination with the various religions of the world (I was actually a Religious Studies minor in undergrad).  The “what if” at the center of the book seemed like a great starting place to me.  Indeed, what if most of the followers of currently largest faith (Christianity, source) had died off?  What things would change and what would have stayed the same?  Robinson chooses to tell this tale through reincarnating souls, which sometimes gives us a lot of access to these changes but other times leaves the reader feeling like they got just a passing breath of a culture and a century.

I didn’t realize going into this that Robinson had chosen to tell this story through the eyes of the same souls reincarnating over and over again.  It’s an interesting choice that I am uncertain about as it lends a sort of “this much we know” to the spiritual side of the story.  We, the readers, know that the souls of people in this world definitely exist, they go to the bardo to await judgment and reincarnation.  The bardo they go to appears to reflect whatever faith they had (Muslims have their own, Buddhists have their own, etc…)  The idea is also put out there that each of the faiths is a different path to the same end (enlightenment).  Much as I may personally believe this idea, I’m not sure how I feel about this particular story being so mythology heavy.  The History BA in me very much wanted to see a more analytical power-structure play-out, which we do get some of, but not as much as we get of the how to better our souls question.  I suppose what I am trying to say is that, although I was anticipating a book that was scholarly with a dash of spiritual, what I got instead was the reverse.  That’s not a bad thing, and I still enjoyed it, but it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting, and I do wonder how the story may have played out differently if Robinson wasn’t so tied to the same souls over and over again.

One aspect of the same souls reincarnating that niggled at me a bit was that throughout history, no matter where they were born (or what gender or species), their names always started with the same letters.  So a character whose first name in the first incarnation started with the letter K always had a name that started with the letter K.  It got so I could predict who was who and, to a certain extent, how they would act in each incarnation.  On the one hand, it was a cool idea, although highly unlikely someone’s name would start with the same letter throughout time and cultures and languages.  On the other hand, it distracted me from the more interesting story of the different world developing with the rise of different cultures than actually appeared in our own history.

Similarly, I think there is far too much story and richness in this idea and timeline to limit it to one book.  There were multiple incarnations that I really wanted to know more of.  I wanted to know the whole story of these lives and this place.  Instead, the reader gets a quick glimpse into one time in their lives, and then we are left jumping ahead to the bardo to find out how they died and oh here comes the next incarnation.  Perhaps the point was to make the reader feel as if each life is only a blink, but the scholar in me was left wanting to know so much more about every area and life the book briefly visited.  It was like getting only a small morsel of each chocolate in a box of delicious chocolates, instead of getting to savor them all over a long period of time.

All of this said, let me now discuss the parts of the book I really enjoyed (and would have liked to have seen more of).  My favorite is how Robinson reimagined the Americas.  The same essential problem of real history still exists for the Native Americans even with the change of the Christians mostly dying off.  Mainly, they lacked easily sourced heavy metals to make higher-tech weapons and they were susceptible to all of the germs European explorers brought with them.  (I learned about this in my classes in US History for my BA, but my professors told me this whole idea is also presented in the book Guns, Germs, and Steel, written at a level for those who are not history scholars, if you are interested in the topic).  Robinson figures out a creative way for select tribes in North America to avoid entirely succumbing to this fate, thus allowing them to band together and become the nation Hodenosaunee.  This means that one matriarchal, communal culture survives into the 20th and 21st centuries.  (Also of note, the West Coast is colonized successfully by the Chinese, so it is also vastly different in this imagining).  I was so intrigued by the idea of a Native culture surviving and holding on to their land against invaders.  But, on the other hand, I do feel that the author cherry-picked those tribes whose values most closely aligned with his own to “save” in this imagining.  (For instance, all human sacrificing tribes still die out/are enslaved, the Plains tribes are all presented as extremely violent and thus not eligible for inclusion in this forward-thinking group).  To a certain extent, the Hodenosaunee save the rest of the world with their communal and matriarchal ideas, and that verges a bit close to the stereotype/idea that select Native American tribes were/are just simply more spiritual than the rest of us, and we could all be saved if we would just listen.  (Think of the old commercial about littering and the Native man in traditional dress crying over our hurting “Mother Earth.”)  This stereotype removes humanity from Native Americans.  Native Americans consist of diverse nations with pluses and minuses, just like every nation in the world.  If Native Americans hadn’t been decimated by invasion, persecution, and disease, their existence as a power in the world would have been much more nuanced than presented in this book simply because Native Americans are humans, and humans are flawed. Just as no culture is all bad, no culture is all good.

Robinson does a much better job painting Islam and Buddhism with a nuanced brush.  Since their cultures dominate the book, this means most of the book is much more gray area, rather than presenting everything as black and white.  One element that demonstrates this, is how Robinson handles Islam and women.  All sides of the arguments about Islam and women are presented here.  There are incarnations of the souls that are Muslim women who argue strongly that the men are misinterpreting the Quran, what Mohammed said, etc… There are of course other incarnations that say no, the extreme fundamentalism is the right interpretation.  Through showing Islam through many different lenses in a world that is different from our own, Robinson demonstrates how religion is so incredibly open to interpretation, and good and bad people can shape it to their own agendas.  One passage that I think demonstrates how well Robinson walks this line is a conversation some characters have about the women wearing the veil or not:

The veil has a kind of power, in certain situations.  All such signs stand for other things; they are sentences spoken in matter.  The hijab can say to strangers, ‘I am Islamic and in solidarity with my men, against you and all the world.’ To Islamic men it can say, ‘I will play this foolish game, this fantasy of yours, but only if in return you do everything I tell you to.’ For some men this trade, this capitulation to love, is a kind of release from the craziness of being a man.  So the veil can be like putting on a magician queen’s cape…. Or it can be like putting on a slave’s collar, certainly. (page 592)

If this passage appeals to you in how it presents the various nuances and gray areas of religion and culture, then a lot of this book will appeal to you.

One final issue with the book I will note that may turn off some readers is that out of all the many incarnations, only two are in Native American bodies (and then, they are both Native Americans in North America.  South America is completely left out for incarnations, although incarnations visit there).  Similarly, there are no incarnations to Australia, New Zealand, Central America, or any island nation anywhere (Caribbean, Pacific Islands, United Kingdom, Iceland).  There is only one incarnation where one of the souls is in an African, and that African is a slave on a Chinese slave ship who then goes to China (we thus spend very little time in Africa, just at the beginning on the slave ship).  One character in an incarnation mentions that in the past she went to Africa but the reader does not see her time there.  I definitely think that it’s a weakness that so many areas of the world are left out.  For instance, I have zero idea what happened in Australia now that it clearly was never a penal colony of the UK (since the UK never existed).  Similarly, it seems Africa would be very different with all the changes in global power, and yet the only passing mention we get of modern Africa in the later incarnations is that one of the characters visits there to fight against Female Genital Mutliation (FGM).  If so much else changed, why not in Africa?

I know it may seem like I listed out a lot of issues, but it is a very long book that tackles a huge task.  My review is almost as if I was reviewing an entire series in one fell swoop.  Each individual part had issues, as did some of the overarching ideas, but I mostly really did enjoy reading it.  It’s a fascinating thought experiment that wasn’t as well executed as it could have been, but parts of it were brilliant.  I also enjoyed the feminist themes throughout.  Men and women are both just souls, reincarnating into a woman is not a punishment.  In fact, neither gender nor race is a punishment for previous incarnations, just species.  Similarly, the more a society advances the more equal their genders and races are.  There is a lot of thought given to what it means to be a woman in various areas of the world, which could easily have been passed over or not handled well.

Overall, this is a book that tackles a huge philosophical question in a fantastical way.  It is a large task that probably would have been better suited to a series to fully flesh-out the world, the lives, and the nuances in both.  Readers interested in spiritual questions with a tendency to view all religions as different paths to the same enlightenment and a curiosity about how the world might be different with different religions in the lead will be most suited to the book.  Readers interested in a more thorough exploration of an alternate history will most likely be disappointed by the reincarnation aspect and the brief time spent in each time period and culture.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Once Upon a Time IX

Book Review: The Keep by F. Paul Wilson (Series, #1) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

December 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Book Review: The Keep by F. Paulu Wilson (Series, #1)Summary:
Captain Klaus Woermann isn’t a fan of the Nazis or the SS and doesn’t exactly keep this a secret.  But he’s also a hero from the First World War, so the Nazi regime deals with him by sending he and a small troop to Romania to guard a pass the Russians could possibly use.  They set up to guard the place in a building known as the keep.  It should be a quiet assignment, but when the German soldiers start being killed one a night by having their throats ripped out, the SS is sent to investigate.

SS Major Kaempffer wishes to solve this mystery as soon as possible so he may start his new promotion of running the extermination camp for Romania.  He is sure he can solve this mystery quickly.

Professor Cuza and his daughter Magda are Romanian Jews who have already been pushed out of their work in academia.  They also just so happen to be the only experts on the keep.  When the SS sends for them, they are sure it is the beginning of the end.  But what is more evil? The mysterious entity killing the Germans or the Nazis?

Review:
It’s hard not to pick up a book that basically advertises itself as a vampire killing Nazis and the only ones who can stop the vampires are a Jewish professor and his daughter.  I mean, really, what an idea!  Most of the book executes this idea with intrigue and finesse, although the end leaves a bit to be desired.

The characterization of the Germans is handled well.  They are a good mix of morally ethical people who are caught up in a regime following orders and see no way out (the army men) and evil men who enjoy inflicting pain upon others and are taking advantage of the regime to be governmentally sanctioned bullies, rapists, and murderers.  Having both present keeps the book from simply demonizing all Germans and yet recognizes the evil of Nazism and those who used it to their advantage.

Similarly, Magda and her father Professor Cuza are well-rounded.  Professor Cuza is a man of his time, using his daughter’s help academically but not giving her any credit for it.  He also is in chronic pain and acts like it, rather than acting like a saint.  Magda is torn between loyalty to her sickly father and desires to live out her own life as she so chooses.  They are people with fully developed lives prior to the rise of the Nazis, and they are presented as just people, not saints.

In contrast, the man who arrives to fight the evil entity, Glaeken, is a bit of a two-dimensional deus ex machina, although he is a sexy deus ex machina.  Very little is known of him or his motivations.  He comes across as doing what is needed for the plot in the moment rather than as a fully developed person.  The same could easily be said of the villagers who live near the keep.

The basic conflict of the plot is whether or not to side with the supernatural power that seems to be willing to work against the Nazis.  Thus, what is worse? The manmade evil of the Nazis or a supernatural evil?  Can you ever use a supernatural evil for good?  It’s an interesting conflict right up until the end where a reveal is made that makes everything about the question far too simple.  Up until that point it is quite thought-provoking, however.

The plot smoothly places all of these diverse people in the same space.  The supernatural entity is frightening, as are the Nazis.  These are all well-done.

One thing that was frustrating to me as a modern woman reader was the sheer number of times Magda is almost raped or threatened with rape, and how she only escapes from rape thanks to anything but herself.  In one instance, the Nazi simply runs out of time because the train is about to move out.  In another, she is saved by a man.  In a third, she is saved by supernatural devices.  While it is true that rape is a danger in war zones, it would be nice if this was not such a frequently used conflict/plot point for this character.  Once would have been sufficient to get the point across.  As it is, the situation starts to lose its power as a plot point.

The ending is a combination of a deus ex machina and a plot twist that is a bit unsatisfying.  There also isn’t enough resolution, and it appears that the next books in the series do not pick up again with these same characters, so it is doubtful there is more resolution down the road.  It is a disappointing ending that takes a turn that is nowhere near as powerful and interesting as the rest of the book.

Overall, this is an interesting fantastical take on a historic time period.  The ending could possibly be disappointing and not resolve enough for the reader and some readers will be frustrated with the depiction of the sole female character.  However, it is still a unique read that is recommended to historic fiction fans and WWII buffs that don’t mind having some supernatural aspects added to their history.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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