Thursday, October 1, 2015

Book Review: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Title: A Head Full of Ghosts
Author: Paul Tremblay
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: This one is scary, and it deals with a family suffering from serious mental illness. There's also some swearing.

Merry is seven when life at home starts to fall apart. To tell the truth, it wasn't all that great before then, with her dad's unemployment and her parents fighting all the time, but when Merry is seven, that's when her teenage sister Marjorie starts to go crazy. The family turns first to a psychiatrist, then to the family priest, and finally to a team of producers who turn their family life into a reality show. A Head Full of Ghosts documents not just the events in that fated year, but also Merry's life fifteen years later, when a writer wants to interview her about the events that so marked her childhood.

While A Head Full of Ghosts provides all the bumps in the night that the reader of horror might expect, it's more than simply a horror novel. Instead, it's a book about mental illness, exploitation, sacrifice, wisdom and love. Marjorie's transformation, and the way it plays out in her family, is incredibly painful to watch, and the commentary on predatory reality shows is interesting. The final twist of the novel turns something merely scary into a truly creepy tale that won't be easy to forget.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Book Review: The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North

Title: The Life and Death of Sophie Stark
Author: Anna North
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Sex, swearing, suicide

Filmmaker Sophie Stark let few people truly know her. A relentless, often selfish and abrasive visionary, her modus operandi was to obsess over someone else's life, borrow pieces of it, and present it as a film. This method worked over and over for her-- with the star basketball player of her college team, with the girl in NYC whose yarn about growing up in West Virginia she turned into a feature film, and with the story her husband told her about his mother's life. This unflinching reshaping of reality to conform to her vision has devastating consequences in her relationships, and Sophie ends up attracting and repelling the people who are closest to her.

It's no secret from the title of the book what eventually happens to Sophie Stark. The Life and Death of Sophie Stark just shows how she got there. It's interesting, because at times I thought she was truly genius, and at other times I thought she was simply weird or downright crazy. The mind and motivations of this character don't resonate with my experience, and I think that might be what made this read so compelling. There's a delicious, satisfying twist at the end of the book that makes it entirely worth the read.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Book Review: Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson

Title: Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship
Author: Robert Kurson
Enjoyment Rating:
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: Maybe some swearing. A pretty clean read.

John Chatterton is a world famous diver. John Mattera, a New Jersey tough guy with connections to the mob and a mind for history. Together, they decided to find The Golden Fleece, the famed ship captained by the infamous pirate Joseph Bannister. They narrow their search to a bay off the coast of the Dominican Republic, but can they find the ship before the Dominican government revokes their rights to search? Robert Kurson's Pirate Hunters follows their quest.

I've never been a huge fan of pirates or scuba diving, so this book wasn't a natural fit for me. However, it came highly recommended from a number of sources, so I picked it up. I found it a bit of a struggle at first. The guys went to one place, then another then another, where they dived around a bit. They met some bad guys, they talked to some historians, repeat, repeat, repeat. Then, a little more than halfway through, Kurson spent time giving the reader background on Chatterton and Mattera, and now that I could connect with them as individuals, I was hooked. The story started to pick up quite a bit too, and I found the second half of Pirate Hunters pretty great.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Book Review: Rising Strong by Brene Brown

Title: Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution.
Author: Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: A little bit of swearing

I had never heard of Brene Brown until a few weeks ago, when shout-outs for her new book Rising Strong started showing up in my Instagram feed. Without knowing anything about her or what the book was about, I decided to use my September Audible credits to buy it. I trusted those friends that much. It turns out that Rising Strong is the companion book to Daring Greatly. In Daring Greatly, Brown encourages people to take risks and be vulnerable, and in Rising Strong, Brown talks about how to emerge from the inevitable failures of life.

I'm a little torn on the audio version of Daring Greatly. On the one hand, I think there's so much to be gained to hearing this book in Brown's voice, because her enthusiasm is infectious. On the other hand, I wish I had a hard copy of this book to mark the heck out of. I wanted to underline things so I could come back to them easily. So I would recommend and old-fashioned paper copy of this girl. I love the way that Brown practices what she preaches here and examines her own failures. She looks into the failures in her life (and in the lives of people around her) and shows how we grow when we're willing to admit when we're wrong and take the consequences for it. I've already ordered Rising Strong and I'm eager to immerse myself in that one as well.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Book Review: Days of Awe by Lauren Fox

Title: Days of Awe
Author: Lauren Fox
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: ARC
Content Alert: Some sex and swearing

In the last year, Isabel Moore's life has fallen apart: her best friend died under mysterious circumstances, she and her husband separated, and her only daughter morphed from a lovable child into a preteen she barely recognizes. Isabel is still haunted about all of the babies she lost, and she wonders if she'll ever feel normal again.

Days of Awe is a book about grief, forgiveness and understanding, and I felt that the book was at its strongest when Isabel was trying to figure out her relationship with Josie. Fox does a nice job going back in time to scenes when Josie, who was complicated and fractious and pretty difficult, was alive and juxtaposing those with Isabel's present. I felt that the story of the end of Isabel's marriage was less strong. There didn't seem to be anything cataclysmic that brought the couple to divorce (which I think is realistic) but the possibility of their reconciliation (which they hinted to several times early in the novel) wasn't resolved. Her new budding new relationship wasn't entirely satisfying either, mostly because Isabel hinders herself so much. I think the character development in Days of Awe is realistic and well-done, but that didn't always make it enjoyable.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Review: A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Title: A God in Ruins
Author: Kate Atkinson
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: Wartime violence, sex, swearing

If you loved Kate Atkinson's Life After Life (the story of Ursula Todd, an English girl born in 1910 who gets to live her life over and over again until she gets it right) like I loved Life After Life, then you probably anticipated the companion story, A God in Ruins, as much as I did. While Life After Life was full of sorrow, whimsy, and hijinks (and ended with a fist-pumping cheer from me), A God in Ruins felt wholly different in tone. While Ursula Todd's life had more and more possibilities each time she lived it, Teddy Todd's (Ursula's younger brother) narrative feels very straightforward in contrast. Teddy goes off to war, where he's an RAF bomber (where the average life span was about two weeks after being called into action), who returns home from the war to marry the girl next door, father a child, and life a quiet life in York. There are the usual domestic tragedies, but all in all, it's a good life.

I have a friend who was reading A God in Ruins and asked if I'd read it yet. She then told me that she found the book underwhelming, especially after Life After Life. I was really glad that I talked to her before delving into the story myself, because it tempered my expectations enough that I could appreciate the story for what it was. Yes, this story is long, and at times feels a little mundane (although expertly told). There were times when I almost gave up on it, but I persisted, and I'm glad, because the last few pages are knock your socks off-- they reframed the previous 460 and made the whole read feel worth it.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Book Review: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Title: The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Author: Richard Flanagan
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: War, sex, language-- it's definitely a book for adults

Dorrigo Evans is a fine doctor, although what would have been his crowing achievement as a surgeon, a new cancer surgery, didn't work out. Although he's been married for many years, he's a complete failure as a husband, and a minor failure as a father, a role that seems almost forgotten as he nears the end of his life. He's been a serial adulterer forever. He once knew true love. And a long, long time ago, he led a group of POWs in Burma during World War II. For that, the people of Australia consider him one of their greatest heroes.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a complicated book. The narration, which goes back from the 1910s and forward to the 1990s with many stops in between, isn't always easy to follow. Dorrigo's motivations are often unclear as well. Why does he act so nobly on behalf of his men, dying by the dozens as they work to build a train line, but so ignobly at home? Does the loss of one love kill all other opportunities for love? What purpose does sex serve when it doesn't bring two people together? The Narrow Road to the Deep North is beautifully written and very thought-provoking. There's a scene toward the end of the novel when he sees a woman he hasn't seen in years which is possibly the loveliest and most painful thing I've read in my life. It's not an easy read, but it as a rewarding one.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Book Review: The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

Title: The Light of the World
Author: Elizabeth Alexander
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: This book digs deeply into grief and loss

Poet and Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander expected April 4, 2012 to be a regular evening, juggling work and child care of her two boys, Solomon and Simon, with her husband, Ficre. Then, the bottom dropped out of their lives when Ficre, so healthy and full of life, suddenly died of a heart attack while exercising on the treadmill. The Light of the World is an elegy in prose, in which Alexander shows how Ficre, an Ethiopian painter and chef, brought color and spice to her life, and how she and her boys mourned and lived in the time just after his death.

I listened to The Light of the World in less than a day, and I would have listened to Alexander talk about Ficre and her love for him for ten times as long if she had written more. This isn't a whitewashed love story-- she's open and honest and raw about the imperfections of their life together, but that doesn't diminish the story-- it endeared me to them. I loved the inside view Alexander gave us into her life-- it takes a brave author to be willing to expose the private aspects of life, especially and love and grief and raising teenagers, and Alexander shows herself both wise and brave in The Light of the World.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Book Review: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Title: The One and Only Ivan
Author: Katherine Applegate
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: A clean read, perfect for family road trips

Ivan the gorilla lives at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall, where he's the star attraction. Or at least he once was, back when he was little and cute. These days, the mall is struggling, and Ivan, along with Stella, an elephant with a painful foot infection, and Bob, a dog, are sort of neglected by day, then trotted out several times a day for a show. When Ruby, a baby elephant, shows up at the mall, the trio soon discover that she was poached, separated from her family and secretly shipped out of Africa. This scenario reminds Ivan of his own childhood, and he becomes determined to find a better future for Ruby, doing his best to communicate with the sympathetic humans around him. The One and Only Ivan shows that big dreams are sometimes rewarded with big payoffs, especially when they're motivated by love.

Honestly, it's a little bit difficult to get comfortable in the mind of Ivan the gorilla. Part of the reason is because he's depressed and unhappy after spending many years subject to the whims of Mack, the man who raised Ivan after he was separated from his family and treated him as part of the family until he grew too big. But I persevered with this story, and found it sweet and heartwarming. Ivan does what we would all do for our families-- he sacrifices and tries to make their lives the best they can be. Although I really enjoyed listening to the story, apparently the paper version of the book includes illustrations (Ivan's big dream to save Ruby is an art project) and I think that having them would have been beneficial to the story.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Book Review: Malice at the Palace by Rhys Bowen

Title: Malice at the Palace (Her Royal Spyness #9)
Author: Rhys Bowen
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Although the book opens with a sex scene, it's actually a pretty clean read

If you've been reading my blog for any length of time, you know that I'm a sucker for Rhys Bowen's Her Royal Spyness books. The series focuses on Georgie, a lesser royal, trying to scrape by in London with no man and no means of support in the 1930s, and usually ending up solving some kind of major crime, sometimes despite herself. The nine books in the series have ranged from delightful and refreshing to rushed and sloppy, and Malice at the Palace is one of the better books in the series. The queen (Georgie's great-aunt) asks her to live at Kensington Palace to act as a companion to Princess Marina of Greece during the weeks before her marriage to Prince George (George and Marina's were actual people whose wedding took place in November 1934). When Georgie discovers a body on the palace grounds her first night there, and learns that the dead woman was one of many who had relationships with the prince, her loyalties are torn-- does she want to know who killed this woman?

I don't know if I've ever stated this on the blog, but in my mind, I've equated the Her Royal Spyness and the Maisie Dobbs series. Right now, they take place at a similar place and time in history (London in the 1930s), and both involve female sleuths. I've always thought as Her Royal Spyness as Maisie Dobbs lite. And while this may be true, maybe now it's only because Maisie Dobbs has taken such a dour turn. While Georgie was pretty silly in the early books, she has matured, as have many of the characters (with the exception of the infuriating Queenie, her maid), and this book in particular feels on point historically, especially as it takes on the issue of unwed mothers during the period. Malice at the Palace is a pretty fun read, with a little more gravitas than some of its predecessors.