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Book Review: The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth

November 21, 2016 1 comment

Book Review: The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael BoothSummary:
Michael Booth has lived among the Scandinavians, on and off, for over ten years, perplexed by their many strange paradoxes and character traits and equally bemused by the unquestioning enthusiasm for all things Nordic that has engulfed the rest of the world, whether it be for their food, television, social systems or chunky knitwear.

In this timely book he leaves his adopted home of Denmark and embarks on a journey through all five of the Nordic countries to discover who these curious tribes are, the secrets of their success and, most intriguing of all, what they think of each other. Along the way a more nuanced, often darker picture emerges of a region plagued by taboos, characterised by suffocating parochialism and populated by extremists of various shades.

They may very well be almost nearly perfect, but it isn’t easy being Scandinavian

Review:
I could easily sum this book up in one sentence: No society is perfect. But that wouldn’t tell you too much about the actual book as a whole, so let’s get down to it.

Booth is a British man who married a Scandinavian woman and thus has lived Denmark on and off for years. He was surprised and confused by the sudden obsession with Scandinavian “happiness,” so he set out to write a book about what Scandinavia is really like. The book is divided into five sections, one for each Scandinavian country. In each section he explores the culture, economy, history, and politics of each nation. Booth writes in a very tongue-in-cheek way. Don’t read this expecting a dry read.

I’m a pretty pragmatic person, so I didn’t come into it thinking of Scandinavian countries as the utopia the news would often have us believe. I was hoping to have a clearer understanding the differences among them (beyond Iceland, which always stands out). My biggest understanding after reading it is that: Sweden makes the pop stars, Norway is kind of like Scandinavia’s American South, Denmark borders Germany, and Finland is rather cross about being the protecting line between Scandinavia and Russia. Frankly, though, they’re all still kind of mixed up in my brain. I think the nuance of the differences among them are probably like how I as a New Englander understand the difference between all the New England states but ask an outsider, and they’ll just lump us all together. Some things you can only learn by living there.

The book mostly confirmed a few things I suspected about the Scandinavian socialist utopias. There’s high taxes and a lot of people don’t work that much. Here’s a few interesting quotes on both of those topics.

  • More than 754,000 Danes aged between fifteen and sixty-four—over 20 percent of the working population—do no work whatsoever and are supported by generous unemployment or disability benefits. (location 305)
  • Danes are allowed to decide the fate of one-third of the money they earn. Put it yet another way: in Denmark, even if you work in the private sector, you work for the state up until at least Thursday morning. (location 951)
  • Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Norway’s social structure is the fact that about a third of all Norwegians of working age do nothing at all. (location 3055)

I know that sounds fine to some people, but there’s nothing that gets a New England woman riled up quite like the idea of slews of the population not working. (Just look up “Protestant work ethic” if you’re confused).

As someone who works in education, I was interested in the much talked about education systems of these countries. I primarily learned that there’s nothing that special about them except the fact that teaching is a profession that is held in high regard in these countries. In Finland, it can be more difficult to get into teaching school than law or medicine (location 4239). But Booth didn’t go as much into the educational system as I would have liked.

I also learned that “Lapps” is now considered a racist term for the Native population. They should instead be called “Sami” (location 2819). Sweden has the highest per capita rate of rape in Europe (location 5872), and Sweden while being a huge proponent of peace is also the world’s eighth largest arms exporter (location 5411).

What I found most interesting in the book was the discussion of how various surveys and studies decided the Scandinavians are the happiest. If you’re at all interested in flawed survey design, definitely check that out. It’s toward the beginning of the book. Booth’s theory is that it’s not so much that Scandinavians are happier it’s just that they don’t set their expectations very high so they can’t be disappointed. I was amused at the idea that it’s a culture that’s naturally mindful, regardless of what else is going on.

The book ends with a lot of discussion of politics that I honestly found to be dull, compared to the sharp wit and social observations and dissection in the beginning of the book. It almost felt like two books smashed into one, and I really only enjoyed the first one.

Recommended, nonetheless, to readers interested in a better understanding of the Scandinavian countries. Provided they have a sense of humor of course.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

November 13, 2016 Leave a comment

Book Review: The Grownup by Gillian FlynnSummary:
A canny young woman is struggling to survive by perpetrating various levels of mostly harmless fraud. On a rainy April morning, she is reading auras at Spiritual Palms when Susan Burke walks in. A keen observer of human behavior, our unnamed narrator immediately diagnoses beautiful, rich Susan as an unhappy woman eager to give her lovely life a drama injection. However, when the “psychic” visits the eerie Victorian home that has been the source of Susan’s terror and grief, she realizes she may not have to pretend to believe in ghosts anymore. Miles, Susan’s teenage stepson, doesn’t help matters with his disturbing manner and grisly imagination. The three are soon locked in a chilling battle to discover where the evil truly lurks and what, if anything, can be done to escape it.

Review:
I’m not a huge short story person but I generally really enjoy Flynn’s writing so I decided to pick this up anyway. Flynn surprised me by excelling at the short story. I think part of why I struggle with wanting to read short fiction is because so much of it is done poorly. This isn’t. It’s the perfect tale for the length, tightly told, with surprisingly real characters drawn in such a short amount of time.

The first paragraph struck me like a female Palahniuk (that’s a complement) and drew me in immediately. Every time I thought the story was taking a turn for the cliche, Flynn surprised me by twisting it away in another direction. It’s not easy to take a style you usually write in full novel length and transform it into short fiction, but she does it well. I would gladly read more Flynn short fiction, although I admit to selfishly hoping for more full-length novels so I get to spend more time in the story she creates next.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

October 23, 2016 Leave a comment

Book Review: The Kind Worth Killing by Peter SwansonSummary:
On a night flight from London to Boston, Ted Severson meets the mysterious Lily Kintner. Sharing one too many martinis, the strangers begin to play a game of truth, revealing intimate details about themselves. Ted talks about his marriage and his wife Miranda, who he’s sure is cheating on him. But their game turns dark when Ted jokes that he could kill Miranda for what she’s done. Lily, without missing a beat, says calmly, “I’d like to help.”

Review:
You know from that description that this is going to be a thriller. I was fairly certain it would be in the vein of Gone Girl, and it certainly was.

This book takes you on a delightful rollercoaster of emotions. It’s hard to determine precisely who to root for because they’re all just so darn despicable. In a way, you’re kind of glad that they’re taking things into their own hands amongst themselves because then society won’t be burdened by dealing with it ourselves. On the other hand, there’s certainly an aspect of “look how off the rails things get when we let just any individual decide who deserves what.” That said it’s never heavy-handed. It has more of a delightful sneaky glance into disastrous lives ala a murdery Lifetime movie.

The plot is kept moving forward and twisty and full of surprises partially through alternate viewpoints (more than two). This is a technique I really enjoy when done well, and it was done quite well here. The transitions felt smooth and natural. Never cheap.

I also must say as a New England local that the author got both the logistics and the vibe of multiple New England locations right, everywhere from the ritziest Boston neighborhoods to central Massachusetts towns to rural Maine. If you want a true sense of the area and can handle some murder, definitely pick this up.

I’m not sure how I feel about how the book ended, which is what kept me from loving it. I knew where it was going by about two-thirds of the way through, and I just don’t think it was as smooth as the rest of the book. That said, I do think it ended at the right point in time (with the particular plot it was telling). It left me perfectly satisfied, unlike quite a few thrillers lately.

If you’re still looking for a quick Halloween read, pick this one up. It’ll keep you up and on the edge of your seat waiting to see who comes out on top.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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A Second Trio of Disappointing Reads Reviewed in Haiku

October 13, 2016 4 comments

A Second Trio of Disappointing Reads Reviewed in Haiku

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On the Beach
By: Nevil Shute

Summary:
After a nuclear World War III has destroyed most of the globe, the few remaining survivors in southern Australia await the radioactive cloud that is heading their way and bringing certain death to everyone in its path.

Haiku Review:

Surely someone in
The last surviving nation
Would have kinky sex?

3 out of 5 stars
Source: Paperbackswap
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Finny
By: Justin Kramon

Summary:
Finny’s relationships with Earl and Judith open her up to dizzying possibilities of love and loss and propel her into a remarkable adventure spanning twenty years and two continents.

Haiku Review:

Attention ladies!
Selfish male artists are top!
Unlike all things femme.

2 out of 5 stars
Source: Paperbackswap
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The List
By: Siobahn Vivian

Summary:
It happens every year. A list is posted, and one girl from each grade is chosen as the prettiest, and another is chosen as the ugliest. Nobody knows who makes the list. It almost doesn’t matter. The damage is done the minute it goes up.

Haiku Review:

Could’ve been a series,
Instead squished eight tales in one.
Outline with no depth.

3 out of 5 stars
Source: Library
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See Also: A Trio of Disappointing Reads Reviewed in Haiku

Book Review: The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer

October 9, 2016 4 comments

Book Review: The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate HamerSummary:
Carmel Wakeford becomes separated from her mother at a local children’s festival, and is found by a man who claims to be her estranged grandfather. He tells her that her mother has had an accident and that she is to live with him for now. As days become weeks with her new family, 8-year-old Carmel realises that this man believes she has a special gift…

While her mother desperately tries to find her, Carmel embarks on an extraordinary journey, one that will make her question who she is – and who she might become.

Review:
I picked this book up after seeing the title for kind of a ridiculous reason. I’m a big fan of the tv show Pretty Little Liars, and at the time I was in the season where the Big Bad is known as “Red Coat.” I was so stoked to see another mystery surrounding a woman/girl in a red coat that I just had to investigate it. Of course I discovered that it was also a missing/abducted child mystery/thriller (one of my favorite mystery/thriller subgenres), so it quickly ran up my tbr list.

This book tells the missing/abducted child story from both the grieving parent’s and the child’s point of view simultaneously. This is interesting because we can see how they are both changing as time passes, and the mystery becomes not “what is happening to so-and-so” but more “will these two ever find each other again and will they be able to salvage their relationship if they do?”

The mother’s storyline deals with parenting, guilt, and complicated grief. It acknowledges her faults without demonizing her for them. I truly found reading about her struggle to accept and move on without losing hope to be heart-wrenching.

The daughter’s storyline deals with a small girl feeling angry at her mother, grief at her supposed injury and death, and then dealing with having everyone around her believe she has the power to heal through laying on hands. Laying on hands in Evangelical Protestantism is the belief that God can work miracles through you if you lay your hands on a sick person and pray for them. What’s interesting here is that the book takes the position that Carmel does have some sort of mystical healing power, it’s just that it’s not directly related to Jesus and shouldn’t be used to get money from people, the way the man who abducted Carmel uses her to get money out of people. It’s an interesting position to take — that some people can just heal others. I’d say this might be the first magical realism book that worked for me. Because I was really ok with Carmel having this ability just randomly in our world. I also thought that the book manages to not demonize religion. It’s not that religion is bad per se it’s that bad people can twist it to harm others (ain’t that the truth though).

What I found most interesting was the underlying question throughout the book. Carmel and her mother were just not getting along before she was abducted. They didn’t get each other. Is that something they would have been able to get past? Is it something they could get past now if they find each other again?

I think the book answers the most straight-forward questions but it stopped too soon to answer my questions about particular relationships. I think the book either needs a sequel or needed to continue along longer. The point isn’t will this child return physically but rather is this a relationship that could ever be healed.

Recommended to those looking for a child abduction story told from both the parent and the child’s point of view.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: Grass by Sheri S. Tepper (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Dina Pearlman)


Book Review: Grass by Sheri S. Tepper (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Dina Pearlman)Summary:

Generations ago, humans fled to the cosmic anomaly known as Grass. But before humanity arrived, another species had already claimed Grass for its own. It too had developed a culture……

Now a deadly plague is spreading across the stars, leaving no planet untouched, save for Grass. But the secret of the planet’s immunity hides a truth so shattering it could mean the end of life itself.

Review:
I wanted to say “I’m sure this was super progressive when it was first published” but actually it was first published in 1989 so….actually not so much. I think if I read this in print I might have flown through it faster and not noticed how kind of all-over-the-place it was but actually…it’s kind of all-over-the-place.

First there’s the weird backwards planet that for some reason has decided to revert to medieval European ways of being in spite of being settled at some point in the future when people figured out how to travel through space and colonize planets. Then we jump back to planet Earth which has been taken over by both Catholicism and some weird new religion that I still haven’t figured out but that seems to believe in saving the soul to computers? But also has forced monk servitude?

So some Catholics go to Grass (the medieval planet) because some evil flesh-eating plague is spreading all over the galaxy and Grass is the only place that doesn’t have it. Somehow Grass is blissfully unaware of the impending plague. The Catholic family consists of the mom who used to work helping people who didn’t obey the two child mandate, the father and his mistress, and their two teenagers (one boy and one girl and the girl is of course super sullen).

Then we have a long diatribe about this weird Fox Hunt the Grassians do using entirely alien species. Riding the aliens gives the women orgasms, and this is dangerous. I couldn’t help but feel like the author had some huge problem with horseback riding, and what is with that in scifi? HORSES ARE GREAT, SCIFI WRITERS. STOP WRITING THIS PLOT. Anyway so then somehow this plot of maybe the alien Fox Hunt is saving the Grassians from the plague takes a super weird religious turn involving morals and ethics and what are the aliens actually and the Catholic lady has some weird religious dream after she whacks her head and the aliens start attacking the humans and somehow they find a scientist/doctor person in the midst of all this who can help them with the cure yadda yadda. See? All over the place.

Ultimately it’s realized that this whole thing was basically Catholic lady’s mid-life crisis, and she finally comes into her own as a result of the whole thing and wow. I just kept thinking….who is so out-of-touch with themselves that it takes this whole huge interplanetary incident to sort your shit out? In the end I sort of felt like this is the book version of that random old lady you meet on the bus who talks to you through your headphones to tell you her “tragic” life story and you sit there nodding because you think she might be just a bit coo-coo and well her story is all-over-the-place but at least it’s moderately interesting and then at the end you realize her life has been awful because she is awful.

So…..if you’re a person who didn’t sort your shit out until mid-life and you have a lot of empathy for people who claim to be trapped by their own damn choices then you’ll probably enjoy this book. Also if you have some weird problem with horseback riding you’ll probably enjoy this book.

Why three stars? Because while I found it annoying and disappointing the plot was at least interesting, it was well-written on the readability level, and it was an audiobook but I read the whole thing, so I think that’s saying something.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes

Book Review: Girl Against the UniverseSummary:
Maguire is bad luck.
No matter how many charms she buys off the internet or good luck rituals she performs each morning, horrible things happen when Maguire is around. Like that time the rollercoaster jumped off its tracks. Or the time the house next door caught on fire. Or that time her brother, father, and uncle were all killed in a car crash—and Maguire walked away with barely a scratch.
It’s safest for Maguire to hide out in her room, where she can cause less damage and avoid meeting new people who she could hurt. But then she meets Jordy, an aspiring tennis star. Jordy is confident, talented, and lucky, and he’s convinced he can help Maguire break her unlucky streak. Maguire knows that the best thing she can do for Jordy is to stay away. But it turns out staying away is harder than she thought.

Review:
I picked this up because I heard it featured mental illness in a realistic manner, and I think that’s something that’s important, particularly in YA. I was not disappointed.

Maguire has a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) that developed in response to trauma. She’s been around when some very bad things happened, and her survivor’s guilt has kind of gotten out of control. The reader meets Maguire initially through her therapy session, where she is definitely a sullen teenager. Maguire’s approach to her mental illness is one of the more realistic parts of the book. She at first very firmly believes that everyone else is crazy in refusing to acknowledge her “bad luck.” But slowly with the help of her therapist she comes to see that maybe it’s all in how she’s perceiving the random universe, and that her magical thinking won’t really fix anything.

While I didn’t think having a love interest was necessary (why couldn’t it be a friend for once), I get why Jordy was included and I liked him beyond the love interest part. Jordy’s existence shows that therapy can be useful for things beyond more serious mental illnesses, such as relearning coping mechanisms or dealing with issues in your family. I also appreciated that for once there wasn’t a love triangle.

I did think the writing was a little bit too simplistic for the audience, and I also thought that sometimes the descriptions were rocky. Some sentences read early first draft with the list of descriptors that are then repeated every time characters show up again. But I also think that YA readers who aren’t used to seeing themselves (or their loved ones) in literature will be so enthralled by Maguire and her realistic therapy assignments and issues that they will quickly gloss over that.

Recommended to fans to contemporary YA lit looking for a realistic mental illness depiction.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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