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Book Review: Bellwether by Connie Willis

Book Review: Bellwether by Connie WillisSummary:
Sandra Foster studies fads and their meanings for the HiTek corporation. Bennet O’Reilly works with monkey group behavior and chaos theory for the same company. When the two are thrust together due to a misdelivered package and a run of seemingly bad luck, they find a joint project in a flock of sheep.

Review:
This was given to me eons ago because of how much I love To Say Nothing of the Dog (review) by Connie Willis. This book has a similar sense of humor that definitely kept me entertained but the plot and backstory that ties it all together didn’t hit quite the same loved it nerve with me.

I loved seeing a book set in the mountain range area of the country (Colorado to be precise). I feel like this doesn’t happen often enough in books. I also found there was a real nostalgia quality to the book because it was first published in 1996 and set in its own time-period, so the whole thing just screamed 90s nostalgia to me. This played in well to Sandra’s fad studies. It gave the book a good reason to notice and talk about the fads, and this held up well over time. What originally was a “oh look at this silly thing people are doing right now” became “hey remember when West Coast coffee was first a thing?” I also really appreciated that a social science was featured at the core of a scifi book. Not just that but a scientist of a science deemed more important and sciencey (chaos theory) ends up working with her and respecting her research and its methods. Super cool.

While I thought the research study was cool, I wasn’t as huge of a fan of the competition to receive the grant of a lifetime plot. I appreciated Sandra working to save her job, but the big grant loomed overhead from the very beginning like a deus ex machina. Sandra’s disdain for her coworkers wanting to ban smoking from the building as a fad really didn’t translate well over time. This wasn’t a fad; it was a public health policy, and it rubbed me wrong every time Sandra implied it was like the whole are eggs good or bad for you debate. Second-hand smoke is just bad for you, and unlike a coworker eating an egg, it can actually impact your health if you’re around it. I’m sure it was funnier in the 90s but it didn’t work so well now, and it honestly made me dislike Sandra a bit.

Overall, scifi fans looking for a humorous plot with a female lead, an unusual focus on the social sciences with a dash of 1990s nostalgia will enjoy this book.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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Book Review: Moonlight in Odessa by Janet Skeslien Charles

February 15, 2016 2 comments

Book Review: Moonlight in Odessa by Janet Skeslien CharlesSummary:
Daria loves the city of Odessa in her home country of the Ukraine. The history of the city, the architecture, and the food. But she’s a highly educated engineer unable to find a job in her field, so she’s stuck working as a secretary for an Israeli import business, dodging the advances of both her own boss and the boss of the local mob. She takes on a second job translating for an online dating agency that matches Ukrainian women with American men. Soon she gets swept up in the idea of escaping to America, where she could actually work as an engineer and get treated like a queen by a man who won’t drink too much or keep mistresses or leave her. But will the reality of America match her dreams? And will living there ever be able to compare to her life in Odessa?

Review:
Confession. I have a thing for mail order bride / arranged marriage stories. I also have a thing for watching reality tv shows about marriages that will inevitably be trainwrecks (I’m looking at you, 90 Day Fiance). I was expecting this book to basically be the equivalent of 90 Day Fiance only on paper. Delightful, yet trashy. What I found was a book that was indeed truly delightful, but that also brought a realistic, humanizing face to modern day marriages that are not for love.

The book lingers in Odessa much longer than I was initially expecting, and I’m so glad it did. This gives a firm basis for who Daria is before she comes to America and really puts the reader in her shoes. The author clearly has a love for and strong knowledge of Odessa, Ukrainian culture, and the Russian language. Within just a few pages, it immediately becomes clear that Daria is whip-smart. Her understanding of the ins and outs of both English and Russian are amazing. She is witty, and it’s easy to see how she would have succeeded in any life circumstance. But it also quickly becomes apparent that although she loves Odessa, it doesn’t let her truly grow into who she wants to be. Every life experience she has had has taught her that Odessan/Ukrainian men will only use her and leave her, and she wants a lifetime partner and commitment. Similarly, she can’t use her engineering degree in Odessa, due to the economy, and she wants to live someplace where she can. The clear and slow unveiling of these conjoining life situations helps the reader to come to understand why she is willing to have a business-style marriage, rather than a love marriage. The American man she meets needs a wife, and she needs a life partner and a ticket to a better life.

Of course, not all is as it seems with the American man. The second half of the book dives into life in America for Daria and depicts the harsh realities of using a business-style marriage to immigrate. Even if her marriage had been perfect (which wow it isn’t), Daria still suffers culture-shock and the realization that America is definitely not perfect. There are pros and cons to living anywhere in the world.

Although her marriage is on the worse side of the arranged marriage bell curve, the author still shows the variety of marriages that can result from this type of arrangement by having Daria naturally seek out other women who came to America in similar ways. She thus meets women in both better and worse marriages than her own, and so the reader sees how, although it can possibly work out, the whole situation is ripe for abuse. For instance, if a marriage that included a K1 visa (bringing a non-US citizen into the US) is dissolved within 3 years then the spouse who was brought over on the K1 visa loses their citizenship. This means that women in these types of marriages are afraid to leave abusive situations because they believe that they will automatically be deported. There are exceptions for cases of abuse, but the women often do not know that, and the men in these situations often threaten the women with deportation. This information is all given within the book with subtlety and within the context of what will Daria do now, which lends a human face to the situation.

Given how interesting and realistic most of the book was, I must admit that I felt the end of the book went a bit soap opera, and the ending in general left me wanting. I can’t put my finger on what exactly about it left me feeling as if the story was incomplete, but it did. I don’t have any regrets about reading the book, though, because I so enjoyed seeing the world through Daria’s eyes.

Overall, anyone who enjoys contemporary fiction and is interested in either the Ukraine or the modern day “mail order bride” as done through online agencies will enjoy this book. The main character is rich and well-rounded and brings a human face to the often underrepresented immigrant side of the K1 visa story.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant

October 30, 2015 2 comments

Book Review: The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy BryantSummary:
Running from his demons, a man crashes his car and wakes up being assisted by a deceptively primitive people–the kin of Ata. He discovers that he’s been mysteriously brought to an island inhabited only by these people.  As time passes, he comes to learn there is much more to them than first appears.

Review:
I can’t recall exactly how this ended up in my tbr but I am certain it had something to do with it being older feminist scifi/fantasy, which I collect and read as much as possible.  What I was expecting, particularly from a book from the 1970s, was a wishful book about an impossible utopia.  What I got instead was a spiritual parable that left me breathless, surprised, and craving more–not out of the book but out of life.

The book starts slowly.  The entire first chapter has the main character driving angrily down a road just after committing a murder during a fit of rage.  He is not a character with which you can particularly empathize at this point, and it is confusing as to just when the titular Kin of Ata will show up.  I admit that the first chapter moved so slowly and was so difficult to relate to that I was expecting the book to be a slog, but I persevered on, and in retrospect I appreciate the first chapter quite a bit.  I’ll discuss why at the end of my review.

The man wakes up to people getting him out of the car and bringing him to a cave.  They then bring him out of the cave to their hut-like homes.  He perceives of them as primitive and judges them harshly.  Gradually over time he comes to better understand them and their ways and to understand that he is not with primitive people hidden in the woods near his home.  He is on an island, and he somehow was spirited there.  I won’t discuss much more of the plot, because it could ruin it, but essentially the man is a stand-in for the reader.  The Kin of Ata have spiritual lessons and teach them to the man, and in turn to the reader.  It comes across much like a parable.

The Kin believe that humans need to remember and respect their dreams (actual dreams we have at night).  They view our sleeping lives as just as important, if not more so, than our waking ones.  They thus design their waking lives to be lived in the right manner so as to elicit the most powerful dreams.  This means things like working but not too hard.  Thus making yourself tired enough to sleep but not so tired that you sleep the sleep of the dead.  It also means discussing your dreams every morning upon awaking.  It means listening to your dreams and choosing daytime activities that suit what they are telling you.  Put another way, the Kin choose daytime activities that fit the callings of their deepest souls.  They essentially live a very mindful life that helps them achieve happiness and a peaceful community.

The main character starts out as a deep blight on the community.  He keeps trying to force his ways upon them. He comes across as an angry cloud.  In addition to being a murderer he also rapes one of the female Kin early on in the book.  I found the depiction of this rape fascinating.  The man sees people having sex with each other in what appears to him to be whenever one person demands it.  In actuality, the people are choosing each other and subtlely letting each other know whether they want to have sex or not.  The man decides he wants to participate and goes after one of the women.  She indicates to him through cultural body language (these people do not speak much) that it is the wrong time.  He does it anyway and she does not resist but she also does not participate.  The whole community judges him as it being a wrong and a rape in spite of the fact that the woman never said no.  The whole community views sex as only consensual if joyous consent is given, not just if the word “no” is not said.  The man is startled and yet also immediately understands their point.  He felt dirty and wrong after the sex and wasn’t sure why but now he understands and doesn’t know why he never thought of it this way before.  He is utterly ashamed of himself.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I struggle with plots that ask us to empathize with a rapist.  It honestly surprised me that this scene didn’t turn me off the book entirely.  Yet this is also a huge turning point for the main character.  He realizes that his way of doing things leads to him feeling bad and wrong and negatively impacts others.  The woman spends several days in a cavelike place, which is basically where the Kin go to meditate.  When she comes out, she forgives the man, because harboring a grudge against him would hurt her own ability to live the right path.  I found the whole event of how the community confronts the man about his wrongdoing, how he responds to this confrontation, and how the woman handles it to be incredibly thought-provoking.  It made me think about how much culture impacts people’s ability to even recognize when they’ve done something wrong.  Also, much as I had heard many times growing up how harboring hate in your own heart poisons yourself and not the one who harmed you, seeing a character fully embrace this after a traumatic experience made it sink in much more for me than just hearing the saying ever did.

This scene also served another purpose.  It reminded me that we’ve all done things we’re ashamed of and showed a path of redemption.  The man starts to pursue living the right way.  He has set-backs and stumbles.  It sometimes takes years for him to see the results of certain actions that he starts doing the right way.  It takes perseverance, unlike living the easy way, like he used to.  It’s a powerful parable for practices such as meditation, for which you often don’t see results right away.

Similarly, again, I don’t want to spoil it, but the book demonstrates how it takes a community living right for a truly peaceful and happy community to exist.  It also demonstrates, though, how one person who is very strong in their commitment to this right path can impact a whole community that is lost.

I promised to touch back on why I came to appreciate the first chapter.  I appreciate it because it shows us the main character living his life following the wrong path within his own original community.  It shows us where he came from before showing us how he develops into a life so much better through his work with the Kin.  It also makes for a powerful bookend with the final chapter, whose surprise I will not reveal.

This is a powerful parable that demonstrates how much impact living mindfully can have, and also how important developing healthy communities is for the happiness and peace of all.  It shows how wrong cultural ideals can lead people astray and hurt even the perpetrators of violence.  Some may struggle with parts of the book, but that is part of the process of learning the lessons in the parable.  I highly recommend this short book to all seeking a thought-provoking read.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: Smokin’ Six Shooter by B.J. Daniels (Series, #4)

October 27, 2015 Leave a comment

Book Review: Smokin' Six Shooter by B.J. Daniels (Series, #4)Summary:
Dulcie Hughes comes to Montana from the big city of Chicago when she mysteriously inherits property.  She immediately runs into Russell Corbett, a local rancher who isn’t too keen on some city woman sniffing around the old Beaumont property.  Dulcie doesn’t want to be distracted from uncovering the years’ old mystery at the Beaumont property, but Russell just can’t let himself let her investigate on her own.

Review:
I may be an academic librarian, but I also have public librarian friends, and one of them gave this book to me as an extra she had from the publisher.  I kept it around because who isn’t in the mood for some light romance sometimes?  Plus, there are definitely Harlequins that strike my fancy.  This….wasn’t really one of them.

Here’s the main problem with the book.  The title and the cover are incredibly misleading for what you’re actually going to get, and that’s a pet peeve of mine.  As a friend of mine (who also read it) said to me, “There’s no six shooter in the book.”  It sure sounds like it’s a big plot point doesn’t it?  But….there’s no six shooter.  There are guns, yes. But not six shooters.  The cover and title make it sound like the hearthrob is some sort of sharpshooting cowboy, but he’s…neither.  He’s a modern day rancher. Who drives a combine. Oh and he and his father hire a rainmaker to try to make it rain because the ranchers need rain.  Sorry but none of that strikes my sexy bone the way that a sharpshooter would. WHICH IS WHAT I THOUGHT I WAS GETTING.

Let’s ignore for a moment that I would have self-selected out of this book if the title, cover, and the actual blurb (not the one I wrote above) had been accurate.  What about the actual book?  Well, the mystery is good…ish.  It had lots of twists and turns, and the final chapter just had one too many.  I read the last chapter out loud to my husband, and he said it felt like an episode of “All My Circuits” (the over-the-top robot soap opera on Futurama).  Which is true.  That said, I certainly didn’t figure out the mystery. Because it was so ridiculous.  But there’s an entertainment factor in that that I appreciate.  However, if over-the-top twists and turns are not your style, you’ll be disappointed by the last chapter of the book.

The romance and sex was sorely missing.  Our heroine gets one incredibly quick (and I don’t just mean quick to read, I mean a quickie) sex scene, and that’s it.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t pick up Harlequins for the story.  I do expect a lot out of the sex scenes though, and this one felt like a throwaway. A “oh do I really have to write one? Fine, but it will be ludicrous and quick.”  I kept reading thinking that surely this was just a teaser and there’d be a nice long steamy scene in here somewhere. But no.

So, Harlequin readers who don’t mind the love interest being a combine-driving modern day rancher who does not have a six shooter with most of the focus of the book being on its over-the-top mystery with just a touch of a romance scene will enjoy this book.  The quality of the writing is fine, so long as this is the type of story the reader is after, they won’t be disappointed.  Just don’t be misled by the title….or the cover….or the blurb.  And maybe grab some popcorn for the last chapter.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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Previous Books in Series:
Shotgun Bride
Hunting Down The Horseman
Big Sky Dynasty

Book Review: Remember Me? by Sophie Kinsella

August 25, 2015 4 comments

Book Review: Remember Me? by Sophie KinsellaSummary:
The last thing Lexi remembers she’s a 24 year old in the year 2004 with bad teeth, a bad boyfriend, and at the bottom of the totem pole in a new job where she hasn’t been working long enough to be able to get the annual bonus.  When she wakes up in hospital, though, she’s told that the year is 2007, she’s 28, the boss of her department, and married to a millionaire!  She’s told she was in a car accident that gave her amnesia, and now she has to piece together just how she got to this place in her life, especially when not everything is as rosy as it seems at first.  Her millionaire husband is controlling, her once best friends give her the cold shoulder, and everyone at work seems to think that she’s a bitch.

Review:
True story. I spotted this sitting on top of a neighbor’s recycling bin and snatched it up as soon as I recognized the author’s name.  I was a big fan of Sophie Kinsella’s in high school, and I just couldn’t bear to see a perfectly nice condition hardcover of one of her books get recycled.  I wondered if I would enjoy her contemporary romance as much now as a late 20-something as I did as a teen.  I’m happy to say I certainly enjoyed this one just as much, although in a slightly different way than I used to.

I wonder how much I would have appreciated this book a few years ago.  As a late-20 something myself, I laughed out loud at how the 24 year old version of me would react if she was plunked into my current life.  A lot really does change in 4 years in your 20s, especially with regards to your career and your love life.  The plot kind of reminded me a bit of the plot of one of my favorite romcoms 13 Going On 30.  Someone who is (or perceives of themselves as) much younger and less experienced than the person whose life they are now living.  How that affects them and how they react to it is really interesting.  Both stories show how important actually going through the growing pains really are.  You can’t just suddenly handle a more adult life; you have to grow into it.

I also appreciated that, although Lexi’s husband is drop-dead gorgeous, both she and he believe she should not sleep with him until she is comfortable with him again.  She may be married to him, but she doesn’t remember who he is, and she shouldn’t do anything until she’s ready.  If she ever is.  Her husband is definitely controlling of her when it comes to how their household is run and how they spend money, but he is very respectful of her sexually.  He doesn’t touch her unless invited to, and he stops when she says to.  I was really happy to see this focus on positive, enthusiastic consent portrayed in the book.

The exploration of Lexi’s career path from lower level to high-powered boss is fascinating.  Lexi is torn up that now that she’s a boss those under her think she’s a bitch.  There’s a nuanced exploration of how women in power are often perceived of as bitches, even if they’re just being assertive.  However, there’s also a nice exploration of how to still be true to yourself when in power.  You don’t necessarily have to lead in the traditional “masculine” way if you don’t want to.  This combined with the exploration of aging gave a depth to the romance that kicked it up a notch for me.

It says a lot for how much the book made me like Lexi that I was able to get past one plot point that usually spoils romances for me.  However, that plot point did knock the book down from 5 to 4 stars for me.

*spoilers*
It turns out that 28 year old Lexi is cheating on her husband.  24 year old Lexi is just as horrified by this as I always am by cheating.  The exploration of how she wound up cheating on him didn’t make it ok to me, but I did appreciate that 24 year old Lexi took agency and addressed the situation, rather than lingering in married but cheating land.  I appreciated that Lexi was able to acknowledge her mistakes, forgive herself for them, and grow and change.
*end spoilers*

Overall, fans of contemporary romance will enjoy this fun take on the amnesia plot.  The plot doesn’t just cover a romance, it also covers the growing pains of being in your 20s, the challenges women face when they become the boss, and how to learn from your mistakes.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Rescued from a recycling bin

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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: Cowboys and Aliens by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg (Graphic Novel)

Book Review: Cowboys and Aliens by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg (Grahic Novel)Summary:
In the American Wild West, invading aliens show up, intent to colonize the planet and enslave or destroy the humans.  The warring white settlers and Native Americans must put aside their own battle for control of the land and defend it from offworlders.

Review:
This was given as a gift to me, because when the movie Cowboys and Aliens came out in 2011, I was super into the idea of two of my favorite things being combined–a western and scifi.  A friend gifted this to me, and it languished on my TBR Pile for years.  I finally picked it up, and while I enjoyed the read and the art, I did not enjoy it as much as the movie, finding it to be too heavy-handed and obvious in its message, as well as a bit too stereotypical in how it handled its Native American characters.

The art is bright and colorful with easy-to-follow panels.  The book opens with a clearly laid out parallel between the colonizing alien species and the white settlers in America.  It’s clever to make a group actively colonizing another group suddenly the victim of colonizers themselves.  However, the direct juxtaposition jumping back and forth between the two visually is too heavy-handed.  Readers know about colonization on our own planet.  Just tell the story of the aliens and let us see the white settler characters slowly realize that they’re doing the same thing to others.  Instead, the readers are shown several times both the parallels between the two and one of the white settlers suddenly dramatically realizing the similarities in the situations.

The Native American characters aren’t horribly handed, however they are treated a bit too much magically for my taste.  Thankfully, how they help fight the aliens mostly comes from ingenuity, not magic.

Both of those things said, the aliens in the story are diverse and interestingly drawn.  Seeing Native Americans and white settlers battle the aliens with a combination of their own gear and stolen alien items was really fun to read.  Just not as much fun or as well-developed of a plot as it was in the movie.

Overall, this is a quick graphic novel that would be a fun read for either hardcore fans of the movie or those interested in the basic idea but who prefer graphic novels to movies.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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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

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Book Review: Fated by S.G. Browne

July 17, 2015 3 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

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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

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