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Book Review: Mindfulness and Grief: With Guided Meditations to Calm Your Mind and Restore Your Spirit by Heather Stang

September 8, 2016 Leave a comment

Book Review: Mindfulness and Grief: With Guided Meditations to Calm Your Mind and Restore Your Spirit by Heather StangSummary:
Mindfulness & Grief is an eight-week guide using meditation, yoga, journaling and expressive arts, plus inspirational stories, to help you reduce suffering and emerge transformed on the other side of loss.

Review:
Most of my readers know that I lost my father suddenly and unexpectedly last November (my eulogy). I reached out for books to help me, as I have my whole life. I reviewed the first one I read here. The first book I reached out to was a more raw experience, and I think that’s reflected in that review. For the second book, I was particularly seeking something to guide me so I didn’t become stuck in any one feeling or place. I’m not religious, but I do consider myself to be both science-minded and spiritual, and I know mindfulness holds a lot of esteem in psychology. So when I saw this book offering basically an 8 week course in mindfulness specifically for grief, I thought it’d be a good match.

It’s obvious that it took me much longer than 8 weeks to complete the book. I think putting 8 weeks on there is a bit unrealistic. I often found at the end of the week in question that I wasn’t yet ready to move on to the next phase or that I hadn’t had time to do the activities in the book yet. I think the book often fails to consider how busy the person who is also grieving might be. There is much more going on in your life than the grief and so it must be compartmentalized and dealt with only periodically. That said, I did find the phases to be appropriate and in the right order, and once I gave myself permission to do them at whatever pace I deemed appropriate, I found working through them helpful.

Each chapter talks about where you might be emotionally at this point and offers stories from others who’ve gone through the grief process to help you feel less alone. Each chapter ends with some activities to do. Some of them are guided meditations, others are prompted journaling and still others are activity suggestions such as specific types of yoga or walking. I found the journaling prompts to be the most helpful. They were straight-forward and often pushed me to encounter an uncomfortable feeling I was trying to avoid in my grief and work through it.

The book said that the guided meditations could be accompanied by recordings on the partner website but at the time I was trying to do them I could not find them. It’s not easy to do a guided meditation that you must repeatedly open your eyes and read. I suppose I could have made my own recordings based on what the book said but my energy level was low at the time (due to the grief) and I instead tried to use them with the book, which wasn’t particularly helpful. I think this book could work really well if it came with a digital download of the meditations and maybe even some guided yoga sessions. There were a few written out yoga sessions as well, which I always find difficult to follow.

In spite of the shortcomings, I still found this book helpful in my grief. It wasn’t exactly the program to follow that I was expecting but it did provide timely journaling prompts and stories from others that helped me feel comforted.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: Try Not to Breathe by Holly Sedon

Book Review: Try Not to Breathe by Holly SeddonSummary:
Amy Stevenson was the biggest news story of 1995. Only fifteen years old, Amy disappeared walking home from school one day and was found in a coma three days later. Her attacker was never identified and her angelic face was plastered across every paper and nightly news segment.

Fifteen years later, Amy lies in the hospital, surrounded by 90’s Britpop posters, forgotten by the world until reporter Alex Dale stumbles across her while researching a routine story on vegetative patients.

Remembering Amy’s story like it was yesterday, she feels compelled to solve the long-cold case.

The only problem is, Alex is just as lost as Amy—her alcoholism has cost her everything including her marriage and her professional reputation.

In the hopes that finding Amy’s attacker will be her own salvation as well, Alex embarks on a dangerous investigation, suspecting someone close to Amy

Review:
I devoured this book so quickly that I forgot to mark it read in GoodReads for a few weeks. It’s a thrilling read on a lot of levels. Amy’s questionably vegetative state would give anyone chills, as would how she wound up there. Even before full details of the attack are known, everyone knows it was pretty gruesome. Alex’s “functional” alcoholism also sends chills down the spine. She’s lost almost everything,  but she still drinks enormous amounts of alcohol every day. The juxtaposition of the two women is what makes the psychological thriller so thrilling. They’re both being held paralyzed in a state by an illness and any one of us could fall to either of those states.

I know the average reader is probably most interested in the mystery aspect of the thriller–the whodunit. I will say in short that it’s a well-done mystery. I had my suspicions but exactly how things ultimately went down was still enough of a surprise that I was delighted, and I thought the resolution was well-done. What I was much more fascinated by though was Alex.

A “trouble-making journalist” or a detective who drinks too much is the norm of thrillers and noir but usually that is played up as something slightly dangerous but also sexy. Here there is nothing sexy about Alex’s alcoholism. She wets the bed every night. It at first seems this is because she drinks at least one glass of water per glass of alcohol to stave off hangovers but later it’s clear it’s from her body shutting down from her alcoholism. Alex is a great example of a “functional” alcoholic. She’s holding down a job (sort of, her alcoholism stole her dream career from her), she runs every day, she’s capable of looking into this mystery of Amy. But slowly other things are revealed that makes it ever clearer that no, she’s not homeless, but she is far from functional, unless by functional you simply mean she can sort of exist in human society. She is nowhere near what she could be because of the alcohol, and she’s lost almost everything (career, husband, and more). I really liked that the reader is both compelled to respect Alex’s smarts and tenacity as a reporter but also to feel empathy and horror at how much alcoholism is stealing from her. Even if the reader doesn’t have an interest in addictions, it still makes Alex a well-rounded character. She is more than just that smart journalist. There are whole worlds going on in her own life outside of her investigation.

Overall, if you’re looking for a thriller with a twisting plot that also turns some thriller/noir conventions on their head (not least of which the fact that both leads are women), then you should pick this book up.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Counts For:
Mental Illness Advocacy (MIA) Reading Challenge
Specific illness –> Addictive Disorders

Trigger Warning/Content Note:
Contains discussions of rape and sexual assault.

Book Review: Berried Secrets by Peg Cochran (Series, #1)

August 8, 2016 2 comments

Book Review: Berried Secrets by Peg Cochran (Series, #1)Summary:
When Monica Albertson comes to Cranberry Cove—a charming town on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan—to help her half-brother Jeff on his cranberry farm, the last thing she expects to harvest is a dead body.

It seems that Sam Culbert, who ran the farm while Jeff was deployed overseas, had some juicy secrets that soon prove fatal, and Jeff is ripe for the picking as a prime suspect. Forming an uneasy alliance with her high-maintenance stepmother, Monica has her hands full trying to save the farm while searching for a killer. Culbert made plenty of enemies in the quaint small town…but which one was desperate enough to kill?

Review:
So I just had to pick this up for three reasons:
1) I love me a punny title.
2) I had just harvested cranberries with my husband friend and her wife on a farm in MA.
3) It’s set in Michigan where my husband is from.

That’s a lot going for it, and I don’t have too high of a bar with cozies (I just want to be entertained, for the resolution to the mystery to not be painfully obvious, and for the main character to be likeable OR someone you love to hate). This one didn’t meet the bar, though, which was a bit disappointing.

The plot itself was good. I didn’t fully guess it before the end, and I liked the small town secrets aspect of it. But the main character. Yeesh. What a judgmental woman. Sometimes it seemed like all she did was judge people who had never done anything to her. And not even just the people in the small town who she judges and then comes to love by the end of the book. No, no. She’s judgey of everyone. Even people she’s known for years. The one repeated instance of her being judgey that really rubbed me the wrong way was the main character loathes her stepmother, and the only reason I can decipher is because she doesn’t like the way she dresses. And she makes snarky asides about that a lot. The stepmother is actually a very kind woman who goes out of her way to help the main character, which makes the behavior even more inexcusable. This may not bother some readers, but the main character struck me as an uptight “I know what’s best for everyone” snob, and I didn’t get the impression that readers were supposed to feel that way about her. She felt very much like a character we were supposed to admire and identify with. So. That really spoiled the rest of it for me.

I didn’t regret the read, but I won’t be going back for the rest of the series. Honestly, there’s enough other cozies out there that I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to read this one, but if you’re hurting for one currently and just love any and all cozies then you’ll probably find a way to enjoy this one, in spite of the main character.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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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: It Ain’t Me, Babe by Tillie Cole (Series, #1)

Book Review: It Ain't Me Babe by Tillie Cole (Series, #1)Summary:
River “Styx” Nash was born into the Hades Hangmen motorcycle club. He always knew he was set to inherit running it, in spite of his speech impediment, but he never expected to be running it at the young age of twenty-six. When a young woman shows up at their doorstep, bleeding and unconscious, he’s reminded of a girl he met at a fence in the woods when he was a boy….a girl who has haunted him ever since.

Salome grew up under Prophet David’s rule in the commune that’s the only home she’s ever known. When her sister dies, she finds the strength to run and somehow ends up in the arms of the man who was once a boy she met at the fence of the commune.

Review:
I’m being a bit charitable with my rating of this read because the juxtaposition of commune and motorcycle club (gang) is one I haven’t seen before, and I do think it’s interesting. Additionally, I do realize that these types of romances are basically fantasy so I try to cut them some leeway. That said, this book is not executed as well as it could have been for its genre. There are some jarring elements that take the reader out of the read, thus leading it to be less enjoyable.

First, it’s poorly edited. There are many clear mistakes such as saying things like “gotta to.” It reads like a first copy, not a final draft. Better editing would have really helped this book.

Second, you have to imagine that the reader who might pick up a romance featuring motorcycles might know a thing or two about them. While everything else surrounding the motorcycles can be pure fantasy, the motorcycles themselves should function like the real world (unless it’s scifi). Motorcycles, though, are treated in the book as basically cars with two wheels, and anyone who’s ridden one can tell you that’s not so, and a motorcycle gang definitely would know better than to treat them that way. One glaring instance of being unrealistic about bikes is when Salome first rides on one. The book sets it up that she has no idea what a motorcycle is. She’s never seen one before, she has zero idea how they work. In spite of this, the only riding instruction she’s given is to “hold on.” Even someone giving the most bare of instructions to a new passenger will tell them to follow the lead of the rider — to lean when they lean and not to counter-lean against the rider. This is basic safety and even a motorcycle gang would give those basic instructions because a passenger who is startled could easily cause the bike to crash and riders love their bikes. Similarly, in spite of Salome not knowing anything about motorcycles, she puts on the helmet with zero instructions. I have never seen anyone who’s never worn a motorcycle helmet before be able to put it on with zero instructions. The strap is complicated and almost always takes guidance. Additionally, we are to believe Salome is riding with someone who cares about her, yet he doesn’t check on her helmet at all. This is not something a rider who cares about his passenger would ever do.

The final thing I found jarring was descriptions of the abuse in the cult. I fully expected there to be cult abuse, but there are repeated flashbacks to the rape of 8 year olds whose legs are being held apart by bear traps. I personally find it extremely difficult to get into a romance that repeatedly flashes back to the graphic underage and violent rape of the main character. It made the book feel like it was at war with itself. Did it want to be a contemporary book about the horrors of cults or did it want to be a romance? You can be both, but that is a difficult book to write, and it’s important to either put all of the abuse in one area of the book (usually where the heroine informs the hero about it) or to make the abuse more minimal (ie maybe the heroine grew up in a cult that restricted her knowledge and movement but that didn’t rape her physically).

Ultimately, while I appreciate the interesting combination of main characters (leader of a motorcycle club and escapee from a cult), I found the execution to not live up to the unique premise. Primarily recommended to those interested in the fantasy of motorcycles with little personal knowledge of them. They will be more able to get fully into the fantasy.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Bees by Laline Paull (Audiobook narrated by Orlagh Cassidy)

Book Review: The Bees by Laline Paull (Audiobook narrated by Orlagh Cassidy)Summary:
Born into the lowest class of her society, Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, only fit to clean her orchard hive. Living to accept, obey and serve, she is prepared to sacrifice everything for her beloved holy mother, the Queen. Yet Flora has talents that are not typical of her kin. And while mutant bees are usually instantly destroyed, Flora is reassigned to feed the newborns, before becoming a forager, collecting pollen on the wing. Then she finds her way into the Queen’s inner sanctum, where she discovers secrets both sublime and ominous. Enemies roam everywhere, from the fearsome fertility police to the high priestesses who jealously guard the Hive Mind. But Flora cannot help but break the most sacred law of all, and her instinct to serve is overshadowed by a desire, as overwhelming as it is forbidden.

Review:
I like books that mix scientific accuracy with a touch of personification of animals, or in this case, insects. I was expecting it to be weird, because it’s about insects, but oh boy was this book weird.

For some reason, I find the title to be hilarious. I just kept walking around saying to myself, “the bees, The Bees, THE BEES.” You may think that sounds ridiculous (and it does, and I am, indeed, a ridiculous person) but this book really closely matches that experience.

I applaud the author all the research she clearly must have done. I think it only makes logical sense that she invented a religion for the bees to follow that revolves around worshiping the queen. The horrifying dystopianesque rigid structure of bee life also makes sense based on what we scientifically know about them. All of that said, it was still deeply odd to read. Priestesses and chanting and drones and evil invading wasps. It struck me as a cartoon that took itself very very seriously. I would have preferred if it perhaps took itself a bit less seriously. Like (I’m aging myself here) SimAnt.

In any case, the book does take itself very seriously, most likely due to the very real and serious fact that bees are dying out, and reasons for this are reflected in the story, as the colony faces many challenges to staying alive. While I was able to take some of these threats quite seriously, like flowers not blooming at the right time, others were written in such a ridiculous way that I just couldn’t. For example, a giant evil cell phone tower that makes the bees lose their way when they’re out flying. It’s practically personified as a giant evil ominous entity, and I found myself laughing when I knew actually this is really a problem for bees. The book is basically caught in this uncanny valley that both prevented me from being moved by it and from finding it completely humorous. It’s a book that I think needed to sway a bit more in one direction or the other.

I was still at least 4 star enjoying it though until the end. I found the end just so deeply depressing and unnecessarily so (the point was made, no need to go so extreme) that I was left frustrated. I think, having read the ending, that perhaps the author didn’t realize that she was at times veering into ludicrous humor, and she maybe intended the whole book to be a Very Serious Read, when it simply was not.

Overall, then, if you’re a reader who is able to take some ludicrousness seriously, you will most likely enjoy the book more and get more emotional depth out of it than I did.

Now, if only there was a SimBees…..

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans by Eve LaPlante

Book Review: American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans by Eve LaPlanteSummary:
Anne Hutchinson, a forty-six- year-old midwife who was pregnant with her sixteenth child, stood before forty male judges of the Massachusetts General Court, charged with heresy and sedition. In a time when women could not vote, hold public office, or teach outside the home, the charismatic Hutchinson wielded remarkable political power. Her unconventional ideas had attracted a following of prominent citizens eager for social reform. Hutchinson defended herself brilliantly, but the judges, faced with a perceived threat to public order, banished her for behaving in a manner “not comely for [her] sex.”

Review:
I love US History. I have a degree in it, and I particularly enjoy reading about women in US History. I remembered studying a bit about Anne Hutchinson in some of my coursework, so when I saw this book going more in-depth into her life in a used book basement, I picked it up. I ultimately was disappointed to find a book that somehow managed to make reading about a woman with such an interesting life boring.

Anne Hutchinson was what I like to think of as a quiet rebel. She did things like hide the birth of a grotesquely malformed stillborn so that the mother wouldn’t be judged by the community as somehow entangled with Satan or being punished by God. She led Bible studies/prayer meetings in her home, and these groups she led didn’t consist of just women. Men sought her out for advice and knowledge in these groups in a culture where women were only supposed to advise other women. Most fascinating to me was the dynamic between her and her husband. He clearly loved her and gave her basically the reins over their lives. He was known as a quiet person and happily stepped back and let her make the noise. When she was banished, instead of complaining, he just packed up and moved with her to Rhode Island. It’s not that I think that’s the ideal marriage but I do think it went directly against the gender norms of the time, and they were both brave for being true to themselves and what worked best for their own relationship.

However, the writing in this book somehow managed to take such an interesting woman and bore me to tears. I dreaded picking up this book. I eagerly anticipated when the author would quote primary texts because they were exponentially more interesting than her own. The other issue I had with the book was that the author is a descendant of Hutchinson and clearly lets this bias her own perception of Hutchinson the historic situation. On top of this, there’s a lot of talk about genealogy (far too much for my taste), and sections read like someone writing a family history for their own family, not for public consumption. I understand being interested in someone you are descended from, but who you are descended from doesn’t automatically make you a cooler person. People who are proud of themselves because of who they happen to be descended from infuriate me to no end. Do something worthy of being proud of yourself. Don’t rest on your ancestor’s laurels.

Overall, while the historic facts are accurate and Anne Hutchinson herself is an interesting historical figure who deserves to be talked about, the writing of this book is boring and it is colored by the author’s obsession with being descended from Hutchinson. Readers interested in Hutchinson should consider looking elsewhere, perhaps starting with Unafraid: A Life of Anne Hutchinson, which is available in its entirety thanks to Hathi Trust Digital Library.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Brookline Booksmith

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Counts For:
Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge