Saturday, February 28, 2015

Big Little Lies

Title:  Big Little Lies
Author:  Liane Moriarty
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's sons, Penguin Group, Penguin Random House. 2014. 460 pages.
ISBN:  0399167064 / 978-0399167065

Book Source:  I read the book based on the description.

Opening Sentence:  "'That doesn't sound like a school trivia night,' said Mrs. Patty Ponder to Marie Antoinette."

Favorite Quote:  "Parents do tend to judge each other. I don't know why. Maybe because none of us really know what we're doing? And I guess that can sometimes lead to conflict. Just not normally on this sort of scale."

Big Little Lies starts off with the revelation that a death has occurred. The reader knows where and when. But not who, how, and why? It takes the rest of the over 450 pages of this book to reveal that.

Even before the opening line of the book, there are hints of the topics inside. The epigraph of the book includes a school yard chant, "You hit me, you hit me, now you have to kiss me" and the Perriwee Public School statement against bullying.

Perriwee Public School is an elementary school. The book centers around the students and parents of its incoming kindergarten class. Madeleine is mother of three and still trying to work through the issues of her divorce, her teenage daughter, and the fact that her ex-husband and his new family are part of the same kindergarten class. Celeste is breathtakingly beautiful. She and her husband Perry are seemingly the ultimate power couple and parents to twin boys. Jane is new to town and single mother to Ziggy. Bonnie is married to Madeleine's ex-husband. Renata is the busy executive, making time for her daughter's school. And so on through the entire class.

From the bombshell beginning of a murder investigation, the book goes back to the beginning of the school year and to kindergarten orientation. Initially, the characters seem shallow and one-sided. Beautiful people in a beautiful place with petty politics and grievances. Jane is the outsider. Then, as the story develops, the cracks in the beauty start to appear, and the serious issues emerge - insecurities, infidelity, violence against women, domestic abuse.

The story covers primarily a period of about six months. It begins with orientation and builds to the night of the murder. It keeps you guessing as to the victim, the perpetrator, and the relationship that leads to this death.

The story is told as a third-person narrative, but almost each chapter has snippets from different people present at the scene. Initially, I tried to keep track of the people, but then decided what was said was more important than who said it. In some ways, it reminds of the typical way gossip travels through a small community like a school - from person to person to person - the original facts getting turned with every transmission.

I appreciate the story for the serious issues it raises - issues that should be discussed and resolved in our society such that they never happen again. My biggest concern with the book is its length. The individual chapters are short, averaging only about 5-6 pages in length (a total of 84 chapter in 460 pages). Each chapter has a similar structure - a little piece of the story and a few snippets of commentary and gossip. The choppy structure seems to add to the length of the book, the content gets a bit repetitive after a while. The beginning sections of the book set up the characters and the plot. The ending specifically highlights the serious issues being addressed and resolves the mystery. The center sections just seem long.

So, a higher rating for the issues addressed, but a lower rating for how long it takes to get to the point. I would have liked it much better had it been about half the length.


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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Then Like the Blind Man: Orbie's Story

Title:  Then Like the Blind Man:  Orbie's Story
Author:  Freddie Owens
Publication Information:  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. 2012. 330 pages.
ISBN:  1475084498 / 978-1475084498

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

Opening Sentence:  "You could say what happened to me happened to all of us."

Favorite Quote:  "Folks is funny down here, Orbie. They say they love the Lord, but then again they won't abide by His people."

Orbie is a little boy. His father is dead. A new man, Victor, is in his mother's life. They have left Detroit and on their way to Florida. Along the way, they stop at Orbie's grandparents' home in Kentucky. Orbie's mother and Victor say goodbye and take off with Orbie's sister, leaving him with his grandparents. Abandoned or temporarily settled in with relatives? As a young child, what would you think?

Just in that little description, this little boy has a lot to deal with. Loss of his father. A mother who seems more concerned with her own affairs than the well being of her children. Loss of his home. Loss of a familiar environment, going from a large city to a small, backwater spot in the country. This sets up the character of a young boy who you want to reach out and protect. His tough guy exterior certainly contributes to that feeling because behind that exterior, he is only nine years old.

Now add to the story the element that Victor is, at best, an unsavory character. The story gradually reveals his reality - his treatment of Orbie and his sister, his treatment of Orbie's mother, his shady business dealings, his prejudices, and his role in Orbie's past. This sets up a conflict for the young protagonist.

Now add to the story the facet that the world of the South in the 1950s is completely new to Orbie. The world view of some of the people he meets is new to him, and he finds himself caught up in the racial prejudices and conflicts that exist. Very clear divides exist, defined by the color of a person's skin. His grandparents do not hold to such prejudice, but the power of the town rests with those who do. Orbie's feelings are conflicted because he believes a black person to be responsible for his father's death and as such wants to believe the prejudices. Yet, his grandfather and other people he meets shows him a different truth. This sets up an even bigger conflict for the story.

The book sets up for a strong, emotional coming of age story with possibly a powerful statement about equality. However, the book gets tripped up in its own telling. In an effort to be authentic, the book loses the story. Two factors contribute to this.

First, the language, especially the abundant dialogue, attempts to create the Southern environment of this book. Unfortunately, the amount of the story told through dialogue and the over the top incorporation of "Southern" as a language becomes an impediment to the story itself. The vocabulary, the grammatical shift, the phonetic spelling, and the colloquial expressions are all Southern in nature, but all together and throughout the book make it hard reading. Possibly, this feature would work better as an audiobook; it is easier to hear an accent than to read one for 300 pages.

Second, I could not get past the words used to refer to people of color. The n*** word comes up a lot. Again, the words are appropriate to the time period of the book, but they are used so abundantly that they get in the way of the story. The same emotion and thoughts could perhaps be expressed without the continual repetition of the disparaging terms themselves.

So, while Orbie is a sympathetic main character, unfortunately the book is is not for me.


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Monday, February 23, 2015

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Title:  The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Author:  Daniel James Brown
Publication Information:  Penguin Books. 2013. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0143125478 / 978-0143125471

Book Source:  I read this book based on a friend's recommendation.

Opening Sentence:  "This book was born on a cold, drizzly, late spring day when I clambered over the split-rail cedar fence that surrounds my pasture and made my way through wet woods to the modest house where Joe Rantz lay dying."

Favorite Quote:  "The boys in the Clipper had been winnowed down by punishing competition, and in the winnowing a kind of common character had issued forth: They were all skilled, they were all tough, they were all fiercely determined, but they were also all good-hearted. Every one of them had come from humble origins or been humbled by the ravages of the hard times in which they had grown up. Each in his own way, they had all learned that nothing could be taken for granted in life, that for all their strength and good looks and youth, forces were at work in the world that were greater than they. The challenges they had faced together had taught them humility - the need to subsume their individual egos for the sake of the boat as a whole - and humility was the common gateway through which they were able now to come together and begin to do what they had not been able to do before."

I know nothing about rowing. I really don't have an interest in the sport. Yet, I chose to read this book  for two reasons. One is the recommendation of a friend, and second is the fact that this team competed in the same Olympic games as Louis Zamperini, the athlete about whom Unbroken was written. I wanted to see how the history intersects. This book, like Unbroken, has also been optioned for a movie.

If you read the cover copy of the book, you know how it ends. One book description reads, "The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the boys defeated elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic games in Berlin, 1936." (from GoodReads)

This description hits upon the two threads of this story - the fact that these athletes came from a lower, middle class background. They struggled financially, the struggle made all the worse by the reality of the Depression. The other thread of the story, of course, is that of the rise of Adolf Hitler and the presentation of the 1936 Olympic games as a way to put forth a non-threatening image of Germany.

This book weaves a story centered around the life of Joe Rantz - one of the boys in the boat. He grows up in a poor household, neglected and even abandoned. He learns to survive, mostly on his own. His experiences leave him sad but not bitter. Once asked why, he replied, "It takes energy to get angry. It eats you up inside. I can't waste my energy like that and expect to get ahead. When they left, it took everything I had in me just to survive. Now I have to stay focused. I've just gotta take care of it myself."

Perhaps, those experiences teach him resilience and perseverance, no matter what the circumstances. He arrives at the University of Washington, needing a scholarship to stay. A spot on the rowing team becomes a way to to stay in school. So, the struggle to survive continues - both in school and on the river. Slowly, the dream of competition starts to take hold. Slowly, the camaraderie of a team begins to build.

Standing with Joe always is Joyce, the love of his life. Surrounding Joe are his teammates, boys like him, determined and competitive. Around them is the circle of coaches and mentors. Around them is the rowing community of fierce but respectful rivals. Around them is the United States, struggling through the Depression but rallying around their athletes of the Olympic Games. Around them is the circle of world events, especially the growing power of Germany, the Olympic hosts in 1936. Through the story of one young man, this book relates the story of the world in the years leading up to World War II. The story is at once intensely personal and global.

This nonfiction book relates history in a beautifully readable narrative. Even though I knew how it ended, I was riveted. Maybe, he wouldn't make the team...maybe, they wouldn't win the Olympic spot...maybe, they wouldn't win the race. Logic gave me the answer, but the writing kept me on the edge of my seat. I never had an interest in rowing, nor do I really have one now; but, for the 400 pages of this book, I turned into an avid fan.


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Friday, February 20, 2015

A Small Indiscretion

Title:  A Small Indiscretion
Author:  Jan Ellison
Publication Information:  Random House. 2015. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0812995449 / 978-0812995442

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

Opening Sentence:  "London, the year I turned twenty."

Favorite Quote:  "I suppose unrequited love is the hardest kind to shed because it is not really love at all. It is a half-love, and we are forever stomping around trying to get hold of the other half."

An indiscretion is defined as "lack of good judgment or care in behavior." Many times in her life, Annie Black exhibits a lack of good judgement, and the indiscretions are not small. The story covers three discrete time periods. The earliest in the chronology is the time Annie spends in London when she is twenty years old and single. The second is a recent trip to London; Annie goes alone, leaving her husband and children home. The final period is the time surrounding an accident, which leaves her son Robbie fighting for her life.

Annie's youth in the London is a time of parties, affairs, and an education in life choices. Annie's recent trip to London is triggered by a photograph that brings that past back and leads to indiscretions, betrayals, and, possibly, destruction of her twenty-year long marriage to Jonathon. Robbie's accident becomes the trigger that brings the present full circle back to the past.

This book does not work for me for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the structure. The book jumps between the various time periods, sometimes with no warning or transition. It makes the story somewhat confusing to follow.

Second is the narrator. This story is about Annie Black and told through her eyes. Much of it is told as if being narrated to her son. Warranted, her son is not listening, but still, some details and actions described would not occur naturally between a mother and son, at least not for me. Also, the narration style creates a picture of Annie that is selfish, self-centered, and not likable.

Third is the fact that one major character is never made real. Robbie is central to the story of this book. Yet, he does not really appear in the book except by reference. Even Annie and Jonathon's daughters, who are not really crucial to the story line, appear more often and have a bigger role in the book.

Third is the incorporation of Emme, with her name pronounced "like the letter." The entire portion of the story centered around her seems contrived and forced. It also seems unnecessary to the story. Yes, there is a connection. Yes, it is finally revealed. However, the story of a betrayal within a family and a marriage does not really need that additional element. That story space would be better spent developing the family relationships and the emotions of Annie, Jonathon, and Robbie, the three main characters caught up in the repercussions of this indiscretion.

Fourth, the story itself does not really go anywhere. I expected a climax of some sorts or closure. The supposed big reveal is not really a surprise by the end. So, at the end, I am left with the reaction, "That's it?" The story ends, as it begins, with Annie's perspective. I want to know what Jonathon felt and how he found his way through. I want to know what Robbie thought.

The concept of the book holds promise. The cover art is mysterious. Unfortunately, the structure and narration of the book leave me wanting something different.


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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

He Wanted the Moon: The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird, and His Daughter's Quest to Know Him

Title:  He Wanted the Moon: The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird, and His Daughter's Quest to Know Him
Author:  Mimi Baird, Eve Claxton
Publication Information:  Crown. 2015. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0804137471 / 978-0804137478

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

Opening Sentence:  "It was the spring of 1994 when I returned from work to find the package containing my father's manuscript on my door-step."

Favorite Quote:  "I pray to God that in the future I shall be able to remember that once one has crossed the line from the normal walks of life into a psychopathic hospital, one is separated from friends and relatives by walls thicker than stone; walls of prejudice and superstition. It may be hoped that psychopathic hospitals will someday become a refuge for the mentally ill ... But the modern psychopathic hospitals I have known are direct descendants of ancient jails like Bedlam ... The brutalities that one encounters ... must be the by-product of the fear and superstition with which mentally ill patients are regarded. For the present, the best one can hope to do is to stay out of these places, pity those confined there, and to do what one can to accelerate the slow process of mental hospital reorganization."

Do a search on the name "Perry Baird." Remove all the references to this book. Remove all the references to this author. Remove all the social media references to similar names. Remove all these elements, and you are left with a footnote in history - footnote number 109 in the book Blaming the Brain:  The Truth About Drugs and Mental Health written by Elliot Valenstien and published in 2002. The footnote references the article "Biochemical Component of the Manic-Depressive Psychosis" from the April 1994 issue of The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. This footnote acknowledges Dr. Baird's 1994 article and gives credit that he was one of the first, if not the first, person to research a biochemical cause for mania.

That is Perry Baird's legacy - reduced to a footnote. This memoir is his daughter's attempt to know her father and to bring greater acknowledgement to his legacy. Mimi Baird was six years old when her father "went away." She saw him only once or twice after that time. He died about fifteen years later in 1959 at about age 55. It was not until 1994 that Mimi Baird received some of her father's papers that had survived; in his own words, she learned of his battle with manic depression.

Manic depression, now called bipolar disorder, is characterized by mood episodes going between mania and depression. Mania includes inappropriate social behavior, exaggerated emotions, and marked increases in energy. Depression symptoms can include persistent sadness, fatigue, chronic physical symptoms, and thoughts of suicide.  According to the National Institute of Health, "Symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe ... But bipolar disorder can be treated, and people with this illness can lead full and productive lives." Unfortunately, fifty years ago, this understanding did not exist. Dr. Baird was repeatedly institutionalized because of his illness and gradually stripped of anything resembling a "full and productive" life.

This book is in part excerpts from Dr. Baird's journal. The journals covers a period of time starting in 1944. It describes his state of mind and abilities as he saw them. He also describes the treatment he received at mental institutions - treatments such as deprivation, starvation, straight jackets, confinement in ice-soaked sheets. It describes the heartbreak of losing his medical license. The journal describes also the social stigma of mental illness. His wife divorced him, and he lost contact with his daughters. He rarely had visitors while institutionalized. People who had been his friends and colleagues before turned away. The realities are all the more harsh heard through his own voice. The changes in his voice throughout the journal shows the phases of his disease.

The book includes corresponding excerpts from Dr. Baird's medical records; these records create a completely different picture than the one he depicts. The interjection of these brief notes serves to highlight the tragedy of Dr. Baird's condition and the reality of his disease for his family and friends.

The second part of the book is Mimi Baird's journey of discovery. She recounts how she manages to reconnect with her father's family and how his journal found its way to her. She remembered her father from her childhood and questions her mother's decision in excising him out of their lives. Did her mother choose the expedient path or do what was necessary to protect her young children?

Mimi Baird's story has a somewhat detached tone; that is not surprising in that while she is looking for her father, her research is also about a man she barely knew and who was barely part of her life. This becomes yet another heartbreaking reality of his disease. In Dr. Baird's own words, "The accumulated superstitions of our civilization in regard to insanity are very much still with us all and they can breed a devastating effect on friendships, love and all relationships influenced by mental illness."

A heartbreaking story of bipolar disorder and its potentially devastating effect on a patient and a family. Thanks to his daughter, perhaps a better understanding of mentally ill patient will be Dr. Perry Baird's lasting legacy. The understanding comes more than 50 years too late for him, but hopefully it can benefit others.


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Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Room

Title:  The Room
Author:  Jonas Karlsson
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2014 (original publication in Swedish). 192 pages.
ISBN:  0804139989 / 978-0804139984

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

Opening Sentence:  "The first time I walked into the room I turned back almost at once."

Favorite Quote:  "You don't turn a river by abruptly trying to get it to change direction. You don't have that much power ... On the contrary, you have to start by flowing with it. You have to capture its own force and then slowly but surely lead it in the desired direction. The river won't notice it's being led if the curve is gentle enough. On the contrary, it will think it's flowing just the same as usual, seeing as nothing seems to have changed."

Bjorn works at the Authority, which is clearly a bureaucratic government organization even though the book does not define it beyond its name. He has recently been transferred, perhaps demoted, to a new department. The setup of this office is that of a typical office environment - room offices around the periphery with doors and windows and cubicles clustered in the middle and a manager with several people reporting to him.

Bjorn's desk sits back to back with Håkan's. Thus, their space is share, with Håkan's files often ending up on Bjorn's desk. The work that they do is rather nebulous. They are given investigation files and must distill them down to a decision document. The cases are ranked by importance, with cases of different importance going to different departments. Bjorn's department does not get the high-end or the low-end cases; they are somewhere in the middle.

Bjorn's transition to the department is not a smooth one. He is the odd one out, the new kid on the block, and the "weird" one. The book is written entirely from Bjorn's perspective. So, we don't really know what his co-workers are thinking. From Bjorn's perspective, they are ganging up on him, bullying him, and conspiring against him.

For, you see, Bjorn discovers the room. The room no one else can see. The one that does not exist between the lift (elevator) and the toilets (restrooms). For Bjorn, it is quite real. The room itself is quite ordinary; it looks like and contains all the things you would find in an office. Yet, for Bjorn, it is quite extraordinary. Inside the room, everything seems clearer, brighter, and better, including Bjorn himself and his work.

The most fun part of this book is that you don't know what the reality is. You can choose to interpret it the way you like. Is Bjorn delusional? Are his skills so beyond his co-workers that he stands alone and his co-workers are threatened? Is his reality the correct one or is it his co-workers'? What idiosyncrasy is acceptable in a professional environment if you are successful at what you do? Does the end of a successful project result justify or excuse the erratic behavior that leads to it?

Of course, all those questions are the ones you can pose just taking Bjorn's story literally. A whole new set open up if the story is interpreted as a metaphor. Anyone who is new to an organization and/or who looks to change the way things have always been done faces challenges and often antagonism. Because of all the questions possible, this book would make a great book club selection.

The book is very short at under 200 pages in a 5x7 pocket size paperback. It is told from only Bjorn's perspective, and he is likely an unreliable narrator. The book relates nothing of Bjorn's life before this position or outside of work. The remaining characters are given names and one primary characteristic; they are not developed beyond that at all. The environment is only outlined to be identifiable as a bureaucratic office. Yet, in this sketch-like approach, the book evokes a professional and social set-up that many of us have found ourselves in at some point in our life. Most of us have faced both sides of the story - being new and being the one led into change. As such, the book strikes a chord and is laugh out loud funny in parts - as much for how the story is told as for the memories and connections it triggers.


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Friday, February 13, 2015

The Secrets of Midwives

Title:  The Secrets of Midwives
Author:  Sally Hepworth
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2015. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1250051894 / 978-1250051899

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

Opening Sentence:  "I suppose you could say I was born to be a midwife."

Favorite Quote:  "When something is forced upon you, you have no choice but to deal with it. The uncertainty - the not knowing - was much worse."

Three generations of women - Floss, Grace, and Neva. All midwives. Each with their own story. Each with their own secrets.

Floss is the matriarch. Hers is the story of the past. Hers is the story of friendship and what you would do for friendship. Hers is the story of escape, leaving behind all that is known to a country where you can be anonymous and you can start over a new life. Hers is the story of being ready and able to do what is needed at the time. Hers is the story of being able to keep a secret. Hers is the most interesting story of the three women; I wish more of the book had been about this story.

Neva is the granddaughter. A young woman forging her own path and looking for love and relationships. Hers is the most modern story. She is a young woman, living in an apartment with a roommate. She is pursuing a medical career, on her own terms as a midwife. She feels the pull of family and, at the same time, the conflict that often exists between mothers and daughters. She has friendships and affairs. Now, she stands on the brink of a new direction in life, with her own secret. Neva's story is a typical one of standing alone and then finding romance that may or may not survive the curves life throws at you.

Floss and Neva's stories have certain parallels; Grace's story is the bridge between Floss and Neva. She is a wife, a mother, a daughter, and a midwife. She seems very needy, and her character reads much younger than her suggested age. An attempt is made to link that need to Floss's story; in other words, the parent's actions affect the child's life. True enough, but in this case, the link seems tenuous.   The story of her marriage and her husband's job trouble also seems out of place with the rest of the book. Primarily, her story functions as the anchor for the descriptions of the role of midwives and commentary on the medical profession.

The two themes running throughout the book are the relationship between mothers and daughters and the the role of midwives in the birthing process. The story of mothers and daughters - their conflicts, their ability to share and support, the underlying love - is one that has been done many times over, in many different ways. This book brings nothing really new or surprising, but it is an easy, quickly read story of family.

The context of their profession and its interplay with the medical world is more interesting. The book does include descriptions of births and has a definite midwives vs. doctors undercurrent running throughout. The books describes the options of home births, birthing centers, and the perceived role and necessity of the medicine in this process that should be natural. This is probably the most memorable aspect of the book, more so than the story of the three women.

Overall, the story is a quick, light chick-lit read. Not bad but not memorable.


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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Title:  The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Author:  Douglas Adams
Publication Information:  Crown. 1979 (original). 224 pages.
ISBN:  1400052920 / 978-1400052929

Book Source:  I read this book as this month's selection for my local book club.

Opening Sentence:  "The house stood on a slight rise just on the edge of the village."

Favorite Quote:  "Look ... would it save you a lot of time if I just gave up and went mad now?"

The answer is 42. The problem is no one remembers what the question is.

The story goes as follows. Ford Prefect is an alien on Earth. He was traveling the galaxy as a researcher to update the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Arthur Dent is an "Earthman" with no concept of space travel or aliens. Shortly before Earth is destroyed to build a space expressway, Ford escapes the planet with Arthur Dent in tow. Adventures upon adventures follow - including a stolen space ship, the most intelligent species on Earth, mind experiments, and the President of the Galaxy with two heads and three arms. The expression "out of the frying pan into the fire" comes to mind to describe the situations Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent get themselves into.

This story, in all its variations, has a fascinating history. The story began as a radio comedy series on BBC Radio in 1978. The tale goes that the idea for the series came to Douglas Adams as he lay at night in a field staring up at the sky and thinking that someone should write a guide for the galaxy. Whether or not that's true, that is the tale now told of how it all began.

Since that time, the story has been adapted and expanded upon in many ways:
  • This book, which is part of a "trilogy in five books (yes, five) all written by Douglas Adams
  • A sixth book written by Eoin Colfer
  • Stage shows (several adaptations)
  • TV series
  • Computer game
  • Comic book adaptation by DC comics
  • Movie
  • Radio broadcasts of extensions of the story.
Interestingly, Douglas Noel Adams (making his initial DNA!) was first and foremost a script writer. In addition to the Hitchhiker's Guide, his credits include episodes of Monty Python and Doctor Who. He is, in fact, recognized in the UK Radio Academy's Hall of Fame. He did not consider himself a novelist, and his biographers note that he found writing to be an arduous task. Yet, he penned five books in the Hitchhiker's Guide. These can now be found in one compiled edition with the title The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Douglas Adams unfortunately died in 2001 at the young age of 49.

How to really describe this book? It is a book about nothing and yet everything. Completely over-the-top absurd and at time laugh out loud funny. However, as the book itself says, "It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem." So, underlying the absurd plot are hints of seriousness and of Adams' views as an atheist, an environmental activist, and a proponent of technology.

However, mostly, the absurdity and humor win out. This book is definitely a reminder not to take oneself too seriously. In our house, we had a lengthy discussion comparing the characters to the characters of Winnie the Pooh. Ridiculous, right? However, think about it. Arthur Dent looks for his tea, no matter what the situation and always seems confused - Winnie the Pooh. Zaphod Beeblebrox bounces around from thing to thing, not always stopping to think why - Tigger. Marvin the Paranoid Android is forever depressed - Eyeore. Trillian keeps a lookout for everyone - Kanga. Ford Prefect keeps on updating the Hitchhiker's Guide - Rabbit. A ridiculous but very engaging discussion for a ridiculous and fun book.

At its end, this book is a difficult one to describe; it simply must be experienced. I am glad that I now better understand the phenomenon, and I now better understand why the answer is 42. I am not sure I will follow Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent on their adventures beyond this first part, but I am glad I was introduced to them. Happy hitchhiking and don't forget your towel!


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Seeker

Title:  Seeker
Author:  Arwen Elys Dayton
Publication Information:  Delacorte Books for Young Readers. 2015. 448 pages.
ISBN:  0385744072 / 978-0385744072

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

Opening Sentence:  "It would be nice to make it through alive, Quin thought."

Favorite Quote:  "Great minds are not what's wanted. Only good hearts, Good hearts choose wisely."

The major theme of this book is power. What will someone do to get power? What controls can an outside party exert over those who hold the power? How does power corrupt? What happens when those who hold the power to do good use it for evil instead? What would you do if you had the power?

In this case, the power is held in objects called athame. Several athame exist, and, at one time, belonged to a set of families and were passed down generation to generation. The reader knows that more existed in the past than do now, and and that they have changed hands and been stolen in feuds between families. However, the back story on how these objects came to be and on the relationships between the families is never fully explored although it forms the basis of the conflict in this story.

The three main characters in the book, Quin, Shinobu, and John, are from three families, each of whom once had custody of an athame. The three are looking to become seekers. The book never clearly explains what a "seeker" is, but two things do become clear. The role of a seeker has to do with wielding the power of the athame, and that the reality of being a seeker now is not what these young people imagined. Again, the difference between their vision of a seeker's role and the reality is not clearly explained but implied throughout the book. The history of what seekers once were is also never explained.

In addition to the human characters, the book has characters called the Dreads. They appear to be the control in the system. Their role is to observe the humans, their interactions, and their use of the power of the athame. Even with the Dread, the question of power comes up. What happens when those who are supposed to be the regulators bend the rules to achieve their own goals? What happens when rules are not fairly applied? What happens when the observers become participants?

This book takes place in three major settings - a Scotland estate which appears almost medieval, Hong Kong which appears more modern day, and a futuristic London. The time placement of the book is not clear, but the differences between the locations create a clear divide in the action. In addition, the route between these settings in the book is only described as "There." It is unclear if "there" is a place, a jump in the time/space continuum, or another dimension. In this book, characters lose time "there," but their only realization of that is when they emerge into one of the locations. So, information on the time setting of the book and on "There" is lacking.

The book leaves a lot unexplained. It moves between locations and moves between the perspectives of the main characters. This book is the first in a planned series. Perhaps, subsequent books will fill in some of the gaps. Even if they don't, the gaps do not appear incongruous in the story. It is as if the book creates an outline, leaving a reader's imagination to fill in some of the details. The book moves quickly and is action filled, making it a fun read. I look forward to the next book in the series, both to follow along in the story and to see if more of an explanation is forthcoming.

The marketing for the book may do this book a disservice. Some of the publicity draws comparisons to The Hunger Games and Divergent. I don't find either comparison accurate. This book is more fantasy than dystopian in nature and more centered on family dynamics and a clash of clans than either of the other two. The medieval feel of the Scotland setting also gives this book a different flavor than the other two. So, my suggestion is to not compare, to suspend disbelief, and to spend an enjoyable few hours with a fun, fast-paced story.


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Saturday, February 7, 2015

If I Fall, If I Die

Title:  If I Fall, If I Die
Author:  Michael Christie
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2015. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0804140804 / 978-0804140805

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

Opening Sentence:  "The boy stepped Outside, and he did not die."

Favorite Quote:  "What was the difference between making something and making it come apart? Painting a masterpiece was also destroying a canvas, sculpting was wrecking a good rock, drawing dulling a good pencil forever."

If I Fall, If I Die, the debut novel by Michael Christie, is part coming of age story and part action adventure story. Will is a young boy who does not go outside. His entire world consists of his mother and their home, with room named for major cities of the world.

Will's mother Diane suffers from agoraphobia. The Mayo Clinic defines agoraphobia as "a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and often avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed." The situation may be actual, or the fear may stem from the anticipation of a situation. Diane's fear is so extreme that she does not ever leave her home. She home schools Will and orders all the necessities of life online. Will accepts the deliveries.

Diane's fears extend even to things within the house. For example, simply to change a light bulb, Will wears a rubber wet suit. All their food is cooked in a slow cooker so that nothing has the texture that may cause choking. Diane describes her fears in these words, "She'd succumbed to this law only after years of struggle and had been obeying it dutifully ever since. Because when something not only can't be beaten but can't even be fought without strengthening it, when something is so absolute and baseless and mechanical, like death, it can only be avoided, feared, ignored, sunk, buried, deliberately erased."

Even through the fear, Diane's love for her son is clear. In her limited confines, she creates an entire world for him. Room to room, they travel from city to city - Paris, London, and beyond. She encourages Will's creativity, allowing him to paint masterpieces on the walls.

The background is set, and you can see the direction the story will go, even though it seems to be a slow process getting there. Will, through his curiosity, is drawn outside or Outside. The conflict between Diane's fears and Will's curiosity develops. Diane herself is conflicted between wanting Will to stay Inside and safe and understanding his need to go beyond. Will's forays into the Outside start with bumbling through in a world he's never seen and encountering other kids who find him strange. Then, Will finds a passion and friends, which taken him even further from his controlled home environment.

Along the way, the story shows glimpses of Diane's past and what may have led to her fears getting worse and worse. An accident, a death, and the loss of a loved one are all experiences Diane survived in her past.

So far, so good although a little slow. The story has been set up - the difference between mother and son, the conflict between wanting to protect and wanting to explore, and the gap between fear and courage. Then, somewhere along the way, the story veers completely in another direction. From a coming of age story, it transforms into a action adventure mystery. A boy - Will's friend - disappears. Diane's past comes rushing into the present. Illegal activities enter the picture. Will goes from being a recluse to chasing down criminals.

As a result, by the end, neither the coming of age story nor the mystery satisfies. Standing alone, the story of Will's going Outside beyond his mother's fears could have developed into a strong, emotional story. Unfortunately, combined with what comes after, it seems an incomplete thought.


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Thursday, February 5, 2015

It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War

Title:  It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War
Author:  Lynsey Addario
Publication Information:  The Penguin Press HC. 2015. 368 pages.
ISBN:  159420537X / 978-1594205378

Book Source:  I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Shelf Awareness.

Opening Sentence:  "In the perfect light of a crystal-clear morning, I stood outside a putty-colored cement hospital near Ajdabiya, a small city on Libya's northern coast, more than five hundred miles east of Tripoli."

Favorite Quote:  "I became fascinated by the notion of dispelling stereotypes or misconceptions through photographs, of presenting the counter intuitive ... I learned quickly to tuck away my own political beliefs while I worked and to act as a messenger and conduit of ideas for the people I photographed."

Lynsey Addario is an award winning photojournalist. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Times, Newsweek, National Geographic, and other publications. Her achievements and awards include the MacCarthur Fellowship Grant, inclusion in the National Geographic Women of Vision exhibition, a Getty Images grant for editorial photography, the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting as part of New York Times team, and many others.

Her vision of her life is summarized in the title of her book - It's what I do. In a 2011 New York Times article, Addario expressed her philosophy about photography. "People think photography is about photographing. To me, it’s about relationships. And it’s about doing your homework and making people comfortable enough where they open their lives to you."

This book continues on that theme. "I was still trying to figure out how to take pictures of them without compromising their dignity ... my role was always the same:  Tread lightly, be respectful, get into the story as deeply as I could without making the subject feel uncomfortable or objectified."

Traveling and photographing news in so many different parts of the world - Cuba, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Darfur, Afghanistan, India, and more, the philosophy broadens into one of using photographs to go behind the politics and capture people, perhaps helping to dispel stereotypes along the way.

Lynsey Addario brings us into her life and what it takes to be a photojournalist - the tradeoffs between personal and professional life, the sacrifices in personal relationships, the courage, the willingness to take risks, the constant search for the next story, and the physical and emotional toll of witnessing the atrocities and injuries of war.

The book also brings us into the business of photojournalism - the struggle to break into the business, the relationship between reporter and photographer, the importance of the local on-site team, the competition and the camaraderie between journalists, and the control exerted over the media by political and government influences. Lynsey Addario does not shy away from sharing the positive - the high of being part of a Pulitzer Prize winning teams - and the negative - the dismay over images and stories being kept out of the press for non-journalistic reasons due to politics and pressure. "When I risked my life to ultimately be censored by someone sitting in a cushy office in New York who was deciding on behalf of regular Americans what was too harsh for their eyes..., I was furious."

Finally, Lynsey Addario, with her words and her images, brings us into the dichotomy of travelling to regions rife with struggle. On the one hand are detailed descriptions of living through the harrowing experiences of accidents, bombings, shooting, and kidnappings. On the other hand are the experiences of the welcome and hospitality received in the very same places. On the one hand are those who hate and seek to destroy and on the other hand are those who offer friendship and who lay down their lives because they believe in the work of the photojournalists. Same place, different outlooks. Behind the stereotypes are individuals, each one unique.

The book covers a wide scope of time and geography. As such, it skims over some experiences while describing others in greater details. However, detailed or not, the descriptions pull the reader in the world being described and into Lynsey Addario's journey.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Tutor

Title:  The Tutor
Author:  Andrea Chapin
Publication Information:  Riverhead. 2015. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1594632545 / 978-1594632549

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

Opening Sentence:  "Flies were at him, but the larger animals hadn't gotten there yet."

Favorite Quote:  "I have a million reasons but no good answer."

Two period of time in William Shakespeare's life are hidden in mystery. Very little is known about the time between his leaving school in 1578 to his marriage in 1582 and then again from 1585 to 1592. In 1592, Shakespeare became part of London society and gain recognition as an actor, playwright, and poet.

This book creates a fiction for the year 1590. For its inspiration, it uses Shakespeare's narrative poem Venus and Adonis, which appeared in print in 1593. That narrative itself is based on passages from Ovid's epic Metamorphoses. Venus and Adonis picks up on the myth of a goddess who falls in love with a mortal and delves into the different aspects of love.

The fiction of The Tutor places William Shakespeare at a countryside estate in the position of tutor to the boys of the household. There, he meets Katherine, a family relative in residence, a young widow dependent on the care of the household. She came to the family at a young age, when her own family perished in a fire. She left upon her marriage, but returned shortly thereafter, widowed. Katherine is well read and well educated, finding a fulfillment in books that has eluded her in the rest of her life. She is captured by Will's words and helps him develop his poetry - the poem Venus and Adonis.

Surrounding them is the history of the times. The estate and the family is a Catholic one. The Protestant Queen seeks to hunt down what she views as rebellion. Within the family, too, there is discord - marital issues, quarrels between family members, questions of inheritance, and differences of religion. Katherine is part of the family but also serves the role of observer of family and history.

The first half of this book is a period piece, drawing a carefully researched picture of the times. It describes the politics, the conflict between Protestants and Catholics, and the customs of the time including dress, language, and dance. The story of Will and Katherine is there, but it seems secondary to the historical setup. I found myself looking up terms like Gramercy (thank you), bone farthingale (a hoop to hold the shape of a dress), virginals (a musical instrument), volta (a dance), cordwainer (a shoemaker), and others. The book does come across as quite well researched. However, simpler words would not have taken away from the story and made it considerably easier to read. If complete historical accuracy was the goal, a glossary would have helped.

The second half of this book reads like a romance. The history is left by the wayside as the book jumps into the depths of emotion - love, lust, jealousy, and anger. Katherine's characterization seems completely different from the first half to the second. In the first, she seems measured, thoughtful, and learned. In the second, she comes across as a school girl with a wild, uncontrollable crush - and a modern one at that. The dichotomy is quite dramatic and striking.

The book presents two characters from history - William Shakespeare, of course, and master mason, Robert Smythson. Each man seems presented as the antithesis for the other. Robert Smythson is shown as quiet, honorable, and strong - a gentleman and a gentle man. I wonder if he was indeed as noble and good as he is portrayed.

William Shakespeare, by contrast, is depicted as a selfish, lecherous man who uses anyone and anything to forward his own ambition. He is cast in a negative light, which gets more and more negative as the book goes on. It does not leave an image of genius burning (which is sometimes offered as an excuse for bad behavior) but rather of an unsavory character best left behind. The depiction of both Smythson and Shakespeare is one dimensional - giving vs. self-centered, calm vs. impulsive, and gentleman vs. rogue. Life and people are rarely that simple. Given the characterizations, the ending of the book was predictable.

The book is a very quick read for its almost 400 pages. Unfortunately, I just could not get beyond the simplified characterization.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Nightingale

Title:  The Nightingale
Author:  Kristin Hannah
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2015. 448 pages.
ISBN:  0312577222 / 978-0312577223

Book Source:  I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Shelf Awareness.

Opening Sentence:  "If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this:  In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are."

Favorite Quote:  "If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this:  In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are." (The opening sentence is indeed my favorite quote from the book.)

Viann Mauriac and Isabelle Rossignol are sisters. They lost their mother at a young age and were abandoned by their father. Viann married young and is now a mother to young Sophie. Isabelle is still searching for where she belongs in life. Is it with her father who seems not to want her? Is it with her sister, who seems to have left Isabelle behind in creating her new life with husband and child? Is Isabelle alone?

War has come to France. Officially, the government of France has surrendered to German forces. What does the surrender bring? Peace or subjugation? Should the French people resist? What is the cost of surrendering, and what is the cost of resistance?

Viann and Isabelle take different paths through the war, both seeking to preserve what they hold dear. Viann's husband is a soldier at war, and she has a young child to think of. The Germans have invaded her village and her very home. What is the price she is willing to pay to keep her daughter safe? Can she stay removed from the rest of the conflict and keep her focus on her daughter? At what point are the atrocities she sees become too much and come too close to home for her to take a stand? In her own way, with quiet strength, Viann becomes a hero.

In the French resistance, Isabelle finds a place to belong and a purpose to channel the love and energy that has not found a place since the death of her mother. She is willing to go further and take greater risks for what she believes. She becomes not only a hero but a symbol of the Resistance.

Two women with different paths, but each leading to acts of heroism at a great cost to their own lives.

Kristin Hannah's note to reader states that a goal for this book is to remember the stories of the women in the war for they are "all too often forgotten or overlooked." This book captures a story of World War II and the French resistance - the very different but equally important roles of two women.

The book begins decades later, in 1995, with the reflections back of one unnamed woman. The book deliberately does not state whether it is Viann and Isabelle reflecting back. Do both survive or just one? If just one, then which one? You have to wait until the end to find out.

The premise of this book is a strong one, as is the setting and the history from which it draws.  However, reading it, I had the feeling throughout that I have read this story before. If not exactly this story, then many like it.

Given the horrific experiences of the sisters during the war, I expected the book to grab my attention and emotion and hold it throughout. It does not. The events seem predictable - love found during the war, a secret hiding place in a barn, a reconciliation, a sacrifice, etc. The book at times is also overly melodramatic; everything seems to happen to these sisters - rape, betrayal, love, loss, capture, torture, and more. The history of this time period is strong enough for an emotional story. Every negative experience of a war scenario does not need to be included; sometimes less is more.

The book is readable as are most of Kristin Hannah's books. The characters are sympathetic as are most of her characters. The story depicts an aspect of history that should be remembered. It's just not as strong an addition to this genre as have come before.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.