Thursday, March 23, 2017

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Title:  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Author:  Maya Angelou
Publication Information:  Bantam Books (my edition). 1969 (original). 246 pages.
ISBN:  0553279378 / 978-0553279375

Book Source:  I read this book as a selection for a local book club.

Opening Sentence:  "I hadn't so much forgot as I couldn't bring myself to remember."

Favorite Quote:  "See, you don't have to think about doing the right thing. If you're for the right thing, then you do it without thinking."

I have long been familiar with Maya Angelou's work through her work as a civil rights activist and through the numerous times her work is cited by others. I have long found much of what she wrote inspirational. I have bookmarked, re-read, and shared many of her quotes.

This is the first time, however, that I have read one of her biographies in its entirety. In her life, Maya Angelou wrote seven autobiographies, detailing different aspects of her life. I Know Why the  Caged Bird Sings is the first of the seven. The book was originally published in 1969, when Maya Angelou was forty-one years old. It tells of her life from childhood to the age of seventeen - the years 1928 to 1945.

This is the story of a child growing up from Missouri to Arkansas to California and back again. The book is an episodic story, much like The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and like Another Brooklyn or Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. All the books are the coming of age stories of young women if difficult social and economic circumstances. So it goes with this book.

The story is a harsh and sad one, dealing with poverty, racism, abandonment, rape, sexual abuse, and teenage pregnancy. There are moments of joy and love also, but mostly, the book is a series of sad truths told in an explicit, graphic manner. For that reason, the book has found its way on and off of school curricula. In other words, parents, use your judgment as to the appropriate age for your child to read this book. This is not an easy book to read and an even more difficult one to discuss. Yet, it is an important one for this history is part of the fabric of our nation.

The only other Maya Angleou work I have read in its entirety is Letter to My Daughter. That book is a collection of essays based on her own life that offer advice for a young woman growing up. Now knowing read the biographic background adds a whole new level of understanding to those letters and to her other words I hear quoted. That book seeks to inspire and educate; this one almost seems to want to shock.

That is perhaps the biggest surprise of this book. I expect to find the inspiration I have always found in Maya Angelou's words, and I don't, at least not in the words themselves. This book is more about shaking people's comfort level and forcing a look at the harshness of life that some have to face. The events related are more tragic than inspirational. The writing is dark, matching the tone of the events themselves. The story is told with an emotional detachment that is perhaps necessary for survival in those circumstances. No, the inspiration to be found in this book is not in the writing. However, Maya Angelou had courage to live this life, the courage to move forward from the events described, and the courage to tell the story in such a public way. That is where the inspiration lies.


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Monday, March 20, 2017

Minds of Winter

Title:  Minds of Winter
Author:  Ed O'Loughlin
Publication Information:  Quercus. 2017. 500 pages.
ISBN:  1681442450 / 978-1681442457

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In a mystery worthy of Agatha Christie, a valuable marine chronometer sits on a workbench in London, crudely disguised as a Victorian carriage clock, more than 150 years after it was recorded as lost in the Arctic along with Sir John Franklin and his crew in one of the most famous disasters in the history of polar exploration."

Favorite Quote:  "You mourn your dead but you must go on living:  to do otherwise is impious."

John Franklin was a Naval officer, an explorer, and appointed lieutenant governor. In 1845, he took the helm of one more expedition. The goal was to chart a portion of the Northwest Passage in the arctic. This had never been done before. Two ships, the Erbus and the Terror, sailed forth. Neither returned. The ships became icebound along their journey. Ships and crew were both lost. Stories about the fate of the crew abound and range from succumbing to the elements to cannibalism.

Over the succeeding years, John Franklin's wife orchestrated numerous missions to determine the fate of the expedition and of her husband. Over a hundred years later, an artifact from the expedition thought to be lost turned up. How did it survive? Who did it survive with? How did it come to London? Who hid it in a disguise? The mystery has never been resolved.

The expedition, the mystery surrounding it, and the searches after have been captured in books, movies, and music. This book adds to that legacy.

Presumed lost in the arctic wilds, how did the chronometer end up disguised as a clock in Victorian England? I got lost in these voyages of polar exploration and the riddle of John Franklin's chronometer. The issue I have with the story is that it lacks an anchor. It jumps time periods, locations, and perspectives. At times, it seems more a collection of short stories linked together by the thread of this one expedition. That format indeed may have worked better but as a reader, I don't expect continuity between short stories as I do in a novel.

As short stories go, I enjoy some sections more than other. The opening of the book sets the stage for a story that is part adventure and part love story. The imagery of the ships done up for a dance, the sounds of the music, and the sights of gentleman and ladies conjures a lovely picture. The chapter sets up Sophia as the likely heroine of the story. Then, the chapter ends, and the book shifts. Sophia appears throughout the book, but more as a cameo in the middle of the stories of others. Her story feels unfinished.

The story in the current time frame is set around Nelson and Fay, each of whom have their own reasons for seeking the past. The plot, however, is all in the past. Nelson and Fay's story of the present gets lost in the past. It seems more a conduit to the history rather than developing into its own.

Perhaps, the most interesting of the stories was that of Ipiirviq aka Joe Ebierbing aka Eskimo Joe about half way through the book. This is a story of family, love, culture, adaptation, and exploitation. Although told from his perspective, this is as much his wife Taqulittuq's story. The descriptions of his "friends" putting him and his family on display in the Barnum "museum" are just heartbreaking. I could read an entire book based on their story, but this book shifts away on its path through history.

Having read the book and then researched the history, I did learn about the mystery of John Franklin's fatal expedition. Sadly, too many characters, too many plot lines, and a confusing timeline keep this from being the book for me.


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Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Fifth Petal

Title:  The Fifth Petal
Author:  Brunonia Barry
Publication Information:  Crown. 2017. 448 pages.
ISBN:  1101905603 / 978-1101905609

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Isn't it a little late for praying?"

Favorite Quote:  "... once you start demonizing groups of people, when you make them the other, you can justify doing just about anything you want to them, can't you? Look at history if you don't believe me."

Take witchcraft and new age healing practices. Add some mythology. Place it in a historic Salem, Massachusetts setting. Throw in an atmospheric country estate. Write in an eclectic group of strong female characters. Stir in a mystery and a dash of a love story. Orchestrate everything through a police chief with a history and a story of his own. The end result is an entertaining, magical tale.

After reading this book, I realize that it carries on characters introduced in a previous book, which I have not read. Fortunately, this book stands alone well. I can tell that the characters have history, but it adds to the mystique and mystery of the book rather than making me feel like I am missing a piece.

The scene opens on a hospital ER and a terrified little girl holding on to a rosary so hard that it leaves a permanent scar of a perfect five petal rose on her hand. (Think symbolism.) Three women, including the girl's mother, have been murdered.

Fast forward twenty-five years to Halloween night in Salem, Massachusetts. In the middle of the festivities, a young man dies. The conclusion is murder.

The murders so many years apart are related. The accused is a homeless woman, Rose Whelan, who was once a scholar and is now considered mentally ill. She claims it is the work of a banshee, "a mythological female spirit whose mournful cries were considered omens on death."

News of this accusation brings Callie Cahill back to Salem. She still has the scar on her hand, but the little girl is all grown up. She comes back upon discovering that her "aunt" Rose is alive even though Callie has been led to believe that Rose died.

The history of this book goes back to the Salem witch trials in 1692. On July 19, 1692, five women - Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, and Sarah Wildes were hanged in Salem. Their crime was witchcraft.

The fiction goes that Rose Whelan is looking for the place of their death - the hanging tree. She is descended from one of the witches along with Callie Cahill and the women murdered at the beginning of the book. She seeks to consecrate the ground where their ancestors are buried. The mystery proceeds as amongst the women of this book, the police chief identifies descendants of four of the witches. The identify of the fifth - the fifth petal on the rose, if you will - may lead to the solution of all the deaths or yet another victim.

Based on the character descriptions, I guess at the identity of the murderer early on in the book. Based on the description of the setting, I guess where the climax of the book is likely to occur.  However, it does not matter. It is fun following the history in the book, the symbolism (the oak tree, the five petal rose, the role of music in healing), and the intrigues of what ends up being a small town story.

What is even more interesting about the ending is that it leaves an opening for interpretation. The mystery is resolved, but the ending does leave you wondering. Did what I think happened really happen, and does it imply that another book might be coming?


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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life

Title:  Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life
Author:  Yiyun Li
Publication Information:  Random House. 2017. 224 pages.
ISBN:  0399589090 / 978-0399589096

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "My first encounter with before and after was in on the fashion magazines my friends told me to subscribe to when I came to America."

Favorite Quote:  "Memory is a collection of moments rearranged - recollected - to create a narrative. Moments, defined by a tangible space, are like sculptures and paintings. But moments are also individual notes of music; none will hold still forever."

To even try and understand this book, you have to understand the context in which it came to be written. "Writing this book has taken about two years now, as long as the period that led to it, a year of descending into the darkest despair and a year of being confined by that despair. The bleakness, which can be summarized with a few generic words - suicide attempts and hospitalizations - was so absolute that it sheds little light on things. A sensible goad is to avoid it." Oh my.

Yiyun Li's life has taken many turns. Born in China, she grew up in Beijing. She came to the United States as a scientist to study; she received a Master's in degree immunology from the University of Iowa. She walked away from science to explore her writing, becoming part of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. She has won many awards for her writing, including the prestigious McCarthur Fellowship, the so-called "genius grant." She currently lives, teaches, and writes in California. In some ways, she has achieved her American dream. Yet, in 2012, she tried to kill herself. Twice. This memoir is an outcome of that struggle in her life.

The title comes from the work of another author, Katherine Mansfield. Katherine Mansfield lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She is known for her short stories, her journals, and for the fact that she died at the young age of thirty-four from tuberculosis.

The fact that the title comes from another author's work is indicative of the way in which this reflective memoir goes. To a great extent, it is a collection of essays rather than a linear narrative. Many of the "essay" center on or reference passages from works that bring either explanation or inspiration to the author.

I completely relate to the idea of finding ourselves in books and of reading a sentence that says what we are unable to express. "I would like to believe that there are as many alternatives in life as in fiction; that roads not taken, having once been weighed as options, define one as much as the irreversible direction of the chosen path." Even more so, I find myself thinking of the idea that no two readers ever read the same book because we each bring to any book the sum of our experiences. For the author, both reading and writing provide this purpose. "To read oneself into another person's tale is the opposite of how and why I read. To read is to be with people who, unlike those around one, do not notice one's existence."

I struggle with how to rate this book. On the one hand, I have enormous respect for the author's struggle with mental health. I wish her health and joy. I agree with the role books can and do play in our lives. On the other hand, I find the book itself very difficult to engage with. Unfortunately, I don't the see the lesson or wisdom being shared. I do feel a voyeur to an intensely personal battle. The book to me wanders as the battle might, trying thought after thought to see if one might provide the path out. This book reads as a therapeutic outlet for the author rather than a memoir to be shared with others. So, I see the struggle, wish her well, and move on.


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Monday, March 13, 2017

The Forgotten Girls

Title:  The Forgotten Girls
Author:  Owen Laukkanen
Publication Information:  G. P. Putnam's Sons. 2017. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0399174559 / 978-0399174551

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "You don't ever surf the trains on the High Line."

Favorite Quote:  "You're probably going to die, anyway. Do something useful with your life before you go."

The forgotten girls - runaways train hopping their way across the country - are the victims. The perpetrator a serial stalker and murderer. The setting is the cold winter near the Canadian border along the high line railway line. The FBI detectives assigned to the case are Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere.

A man is found with gruesome pictures on his phone. A young woman is found murdered and left on the side of the railway tracks in the cold expanse of Idaho. So begins a modern day police procedural. The good guys chase the clues in the real world and the cyber world. What starts as an isolated murder case becomes a pattern of disappearances that sets off the hunt for a serial killer - "the ghost rider". The objective is to bring justice to the victims and to capture the killer before he claims another victim.

Detectives Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere are partners; as such they bring a history to this book. Note that this is book six featuring Stevens and Windermere, but it stands alone and such "series" are likely to do. For the two, this is another case but one that involves young women at risk. It becomes personal.

Mila Scott, a friend to the latest victim Ash, becomes the face of all the victims. She is young and alone. She is fearless in her life but fearful of authority and society. Above all, she wants justice for her friend. She is the vigilante of the story and could possibly be the next victim. She also is the emotional anchor for the book. Ash is gone, but Mila can be saved. Or can she?

What is fascinating about this book is that in addition to the search for the killer, the book develops the world of the forgotten girls, the train hoppers, the runaways. "The rider jungle was a terrifying place. It was a society all its own, with rules, laws, and customs she could hardly imagine." This world exists on the fringes on society, and yet is a society in itself. There are the powerful and the protected. There are friendships. There are relationships. These "forgotten" of the mainstream world come together in their own community.

What is also intriguing is the dedication of the book. "To the memory of the missing and murdered women of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. You are not forgotten." The reference is to the over 60 women who disappeared from this neighborhood in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2007, Robert Pickton was convicted of the murder of six women. He claimed to have killed forty nine. These are the "forgotten girls" the book vows to remember.

This book follows the police chase both from the perspective of the detectives, the girls, and the killer - "the ghost rider." These interludes from the killer's perspective along with the cold, solitary setting really help sets the eerie atmosphere of the book.

A fiction with a reminder that these things do also happen in real life.


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Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Wanderers

Title:  The Wanderers
Author:  Meg Howrey
Publication Information:  G. P. Putnam's Sons. 2017. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0399574638 / 978-0399574634

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Nothing feels as free as this!"

Favorite Quote:  "This was the thing about miscalculation, errors, mistakes. You admitted them, you used them as teachable moments, and then you moved on. You didn't forget, but you didn't dwell."

The goal - Destination Mars.

The company - Prime Space Systems Laboratory.

The first step - Proving that it's possible.

Well, in actuality, it's possibly the millionth step in a process a billion steps long. The research, design, and development of the science come before. More research, redesign, and redevelopment will come after. This is the step to determine if it's humanly possible; it is a year and a half long experiment unlike any before.

Prime Space System Laboratory creates what is perhaps the most extensive simulation ever imagined.  Three astronauts - Helen Kane, Yoshihiro Tanaka, and Sergei Kuznetsov - are chosen for the simulation. All of them are experienced; all of them have been to space before and perhaps dream of going again. At the moment, this simulation is the closest they can come.

This time they are not actually going to space, but they are the test for the real thing. In the deserts of Utah exists the experimental world that mirrors the experience of travel to and existence on Mars. The Prime Space crew attempts to create every possible scenario from personal crises to technical disasters to test the endurance of the crew. It's not real, but at the same time, the astronauts experience the reality of the test - the isolation, the perceived distance from their world, the threat of imminent disaster, the close quarters living with two other strangers not to mention the technical challenges and pursuits such a mission entails.

This intriguing premise, the cover, and the marketing are what lead me to read this book. Unfortunately, the book suffers from two things.

First is the number of characters and perspectives the book captures. Of course, the book captures the three astronauts. In addition, it depicts the view of one of the Prime Space development team tasked with monitoring the experiment 24/7. Further, the book encompasses the stories of family members - Helen's daughter, Sergei's teenage son, and Yoshi's wife. They are the ones left behind with their own issues and problems that don't necessarily relate to the adventure their loved ones are on. In some ways, this book about space exploration is also about individuals exploring within their own selves, their paradigms, and their priorities. Unfortunately, it becomes difficult to track all the different perspectives. It is even a bigger challenge to fully vest in any of the characters because the book offers a glimpse and then moves away to someone else.

Second, this book suffers from its own marketing. The book is described as Station Eleven meets The Martian. I loved both those books; that is a main reason why I chose to read this book. Mind you, those two books are entirely different from each other in plot and story telling. However, both completely drew me in. This book unfortunately reminds me of neither. Perhaps, that accentuates my reaction to this book because I was expecting something that was not delivered. Hence, the marketing does the book a disservice.

Sadly, I end up not the right reader for this book.


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Thursday, March 9, 2017

Say Nothing

Title:  Say Nothing
Author:  Brad Parks
Publication Information:  Dutton. 2017. 448 pages.
ISBN:  1101985593 / 978-1101985595

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Their first move against us was so small, such an infinitesimal blip against the blaring background noise of life, I didn't register it as anything significant."

Favorite Quote:  "A good lawmaker has to be forever willing to change his viewpoint, to consider someone else's needs, to compromise. A judge has to learn to make a decision and stick with it."

Say Nothing is a fun read, but... Say Nothing is a quick read, but... Say Nothing is an entertaining read, but... The big "but" in all of this is that Say Nothing as a story is also implausible to the point that reality interferes with the enjoyment of the story. Reading throughout, in the back of my mind is the idea that this does not sound as if it could happen. Towards the end, as the drama picks up, that feeling is reinforced. The ending pushes it even further. So, while I enjoy the book, throughout is the reactionary thought, "Really?" So, why does this story seem implausible?

First is the background of the main character. Scott Sampson is a federal judge in Virginia. His career has been in politics and the judiciary. He is well versed in situations in which people try and influence his opinions. He has been in many situations in which he has literally and figuratively been in the line of fire. This book begins as his two young children are kidnapped, and he is told to follow directions and, as the title states, say nothing to anyone. Judge Sampson does exactly that. As a parent, I can completely relate. There is nothing I would not do to protect my children. However, the analytical side of me questions his choices. He is a federal judge connected with law enforcement and the judiciary. This may not be the first time he or his family have been threatened. Isn't there another way? Are there not protocols in place to assist in this situation?

Second is the fact that no one knows. Two children disappear. No one notices. Judge Sampson and his wife do tell her family, but other than that no one notices. The children are six year old twins and almost always together. No one questions seeing one without the other. The Sampson tell the school suddenly that the children will now be homeschool. No notice is given. No conversation is had. No red flags go up at the school. A long term employee is let go. No questions are asked. Really?

Third is the children themselves. They are precocious and surprisingly mature given their very young age. Two children are kidnapped, threatened, and possibly physically abused. Yet, these very young people maintain an equanimity that could not be found in adults in that situation. Surprising, to say the least.

Finally, there is the buildup to the dramatic ending. The buildup is long, making the central portion of the book drag somewhat. No spoilers here, but the end when it finally arrives a little over the top. One story line I find completely unnecessary. Leave the focus on the kidnapping and the court case; why introduce this complete separate side story? The ending can be achieved without it. The identity of some of those involved in the crime comes as a surprise, which is usually a good thing in a mystery. This one though leaves me wondering really? Given the setup, it seems unbelievable.

All that being said, I do have fun reading the book, suspending disbelief, and just going along. What more can I say?


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