Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Woman in Cabin 10, Ruth Ware

Unreliable narrator? Check. Unique location? Check. Good guys who might be bad guys, and vice versa? Check. Basically, The Woman in Cabin 10 has all of the elements that made last year's The Woman on the Train so popular.

Lo Blalock is a journalist who writes for a travel magazine. The night before she is set to leave for a super-exclusive preview of a new cruise ship, she is awakened by an intruder in her apartment. The intruder gets away, and Lo is too unsettled by the whole experience to get any sleep. Arriving exhausted at the ship, she prepares herself to enjoy the plush suite and extravagant services available to the exclusive guest list. But then, in the middle of the night, she witnesses (or thinks she does) a woman thrown overboard by an unknown assailant. But when none of the passengers or crew come up missing, Lo is forced to question everything, including her own sanity.

This was a quick, easy, engaging read. I was sucked into the mystery almost immediately, though I feel like there are some loose ends that may have been meant simply as red herrings, but in reality seem like missed opportunities to make the story knottier. I've read so many mystery/thrillers at this point in my life that it's pretty hard to keep me guessing until the end, but this story did. Lo is actually sort of unlikable, which I think makes the fact that the author made me care about what happened to her an impressive feat. Overall, if you are looking for a fun, quick, relaxing-but-exciting read, you can find it here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Small, Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Oh, Jodi Picoult! The author of "women's" fiction that some love to hate. Prolific, issues-driven, and earnest, every Picoult novel is a small exploration of some aspect of society, often with a ripped-from-the-headlines feel. Her emphasis on family, relationships, and feelings has been used by some supposedly "serious" authors to imply that what she writes is not "true literature". I think those literary snobs should take a long walk off a short pier, but it doesn't mean they don't have a point. Picoult makes sincere attempts to represent all sides of a topic, in ways that are thought-provoking and meant to encourage understanding and growth. Often those attempts work (My Sister's Keeper, Salem Falls, Plain Truth), and sometimes, well...

Small, Great Things is Picoult's BOOK ABOUT RACISM.  Just like she has books about SEXUAL ASSAULT and RELIGION and MOTHERHOOD and SCHOOL SHOOTINGS. Small, Great Things is about a black OB nurse who is caring for the newborn of a white supremacist couple, who promptly insist that she not ever touch their son again. When the infant has a medical emergency while she is alone in the room with him, she hesitates to provide the life-saving care, and the boy dies. The white supremacists promptly demand her arrest, and legal mayhem ensues. The book is told from the alternating perspectives of the nurse, her white lawyer, and the white supremacist dad. I found all of them problematic as characters.

I'm going to just come clean now and say I did not finish the book. I got not quite half-way through and had to put it down. I also want to say up front that I appreciate what Picoult was trying to do by offering this story, and I was glad to see from the afterword that the book is well-researched, as are all of her books. But research is not a substitute for actual experiential knowledge and relationships, and it seems like Picoult could have benefitted from both before writing the novel. Her main character, Ruth, is a black woman who has done everything "right" to try to fit into "white" society. She doesn't see it that way, of course. She worked hard, got a good education, is always professional, and tries not to make waves in her predominately white workplace. Her sister, portrayed as the stereotypical "angry black woman", thinks she's a sell-out, and appears to be proven correct when Ruth's white employers and colleagues throw her under the bus once she is charged. But the way both she and her sister are portrayed leads me to believe that maybe Picoult doesn't actually know any black women, at least not well enough to realize how stereotypical her characters really are. Neither one of them felt authentic to me; they felt like shallow caricatures of real people. This is often a problem when an author tries to make one character represent an entire, diverse group of people. The truth is that issues of assimilation, respectability policing, classism, and interracial friendships are way more complex than they appear to be from this narrative.

The white lawyer was also problematic for me. She is clearly the character Picoult herself most identified with, and felt the most true-to-life. But by making the lawyer's transformation to "woke" status so central to the narrative, it felt like once again centering the experiences of white folks in regards to racism, rather than creating a more nuanced representation of the black experience.

What finally caused me to close the book for good, though, were the chapters written from the point of view of the white supremacist. As a white woman married to a black woman, I have a slough of black in-laws, nieces, and nephews. It was just too painful for me to read the chapters describing the man's experiences in the white nationalist movement, knowing that those people exist in the same world as my precious family. I know there is a benefit to us as a society by exploring white hate groups; you can't fight what you don't understand. But to be honest, I was not at all interested in reading the justifications for hatred and racial violence that made up the early chapters of this character's narrative. He seemed to be portrayed as some hapless dupe who fell into the movement due to a troubled past, and while that may be true of some who make up the white nationalist movement, the truth is that the leadership is invested in fomenting racial tension to manipulate their followers for their own enrichment and power. I could not find it in myself to see the man as a sympathetic character. Maybe that's my own character flaw, but there it is.

All of those criticisms aside, I know that Picoult was trying in her slightly inept way to bring light to important societal issues. I will probably read more of her books. I am a believer that a clumsy attempt at doing the right thing is better than no attempt at all. I just hope that Picoult continues to learn about the experiences of people of color in America, preferably by building relationships and listening to black voices, and comes to a more nuanced understanding than is evident here. 

Friday, February 03, 2017

The Passage Trilogy, Justin Cronin

I have a rule about audiobooks. If I am going to spend the money to purchase them, I need to get the most hours for my money. Most of my audiobook purchases are epic fantasy novels like Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series, or long historical fiction, a la Ken Follett's Kingsbridge series. This also allows me to get looooong books read on otherwise "dead" time-when I am driving. This frees up my actual reading time for shorter novels that help me make my Goodreads goal (I know, I know...I might have a problem).

I recently read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (review to come, I promise), and one of the things she shares in the afterword is the title of a novel that she made passing reference to within the context of her story. To be honest, I don't even remember the reference from Station Eleven, but I was so in love with that book that I figured if she liked it, surely I would too.

The book she mentioned was The Passage by Justin Cronin. Now, I had heard of the book before. Anyone who reads as much horror and supernatural fiction as I do can't help but run into the title, and I figured the fact that I even read the afterword of Mandel's book (I'm not so good about reading the forewords and endnotes of the novels I read. Mea culpa), was the universe's way of telling me it was time.

I'm always up for a new take on vampires (and werewolves and zombies and other creatures of the night), and Cronin's vision is at once completely new and utterly familiar. In the world of The Passage, a virus created by the US government (because who else) in an effort to create a super-soldier has been given to twelve convicted murderers living on death row (because expendable). When a mysterious event destroys the compound where the once-human-now-something-else creatures were kept, the "virals", as they came to be known, are unleashed upon an unsuspecting world (because of course), and quickly decimate the population, turning millions of people into blood-sucking monsters who prey on anything with a pulse.

The first book jumps back and forth between the time when the virals were being created, and a time about 100 years later, when what is left of humanity is dealing with the aftermath. Because the virus gives its hosts immortality, some of the characters overlap. There is a mysterious girl who was given a version of the virus that somehow did not turn her into a monster, the man who tries to save her, a nun who's life is unnaturally extended through some mystical force that never really becomes clear, a group of brave souls who strike out across the empty landscape to find help for their dying community, and lots and lots and lots of vampires.

Cronin has woven an intricate story of human connection and intense action. There are themes of love and family and faith and oppression, with sympathetic figures on both sides of the fight. Cronin's writing is full of beautiful, terrifying imagery, to the point that occasionally I want him to stop using so many words already and get on with it. But it's not because the words are unnecessary, like I feel with some authors <cough> Anne Rice <cough>, but because he's created such a compeling story that I can't wait to find out what comes next. I suppose if I was reading rather than listening to the books, I'd probably be skipping those long descriptions in favor of getting to the action, and I would surely be missing out.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Calling Me Home, Julie Kibler

Anyone who hasn't been living under a rock the last couple of years knows that issues of race are on the forefront of our nation's conversations right now. Issues of mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, tensions between police and the communities they serve, and the increasing racial segregation of our society are all being hotly debated throughout all levels of our policial and social institutions. As such, there are been a lot of really remarkable books published that seek to examine the issues of racial justice, and bring us together to combat the continuing systemic racism that plagues our country.

And while there are plenty of really thought-provoking and inspiring non-fiction titles examining these issues (if you haven't already, find The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander or Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates), many times people need to be engaged emotionally before they feel motivated to dive into the complexities of the ways race affects our communal lives. Julie Kibler gives us a glimpse into the ways that race plays into our family and personal relationships in her novel, Calling Me Home. It tells the story of Isabelle McAllister, a wealthy woman in her 90s,  and Dorrie Curtis, Miss Isabelle's hairdresser and confidante. Moving back and forth between the Jim Crow south and the present day, Calling Me Home is both a love story, and a story about the sacrifices we make to protect ourselves and those we love.

Isabelle asks Dorrie to accompany her on a cross-country drive to a funeral. Dorrie, worried about her teenage son and a new romantic relationship, decides that maybe helping Miss Isabelle get where she needs to go will give her enough distance to get clarity on a few things. Miss Isabelle, for her part, uses the drive to unburden herself about a secret she's been keeping for decades. As a young woman in the 1930s, Miss Isabelle had a forbidden love affair with a young black man her worked for her family. Despite the dangers to both of them, but especially to him, they forge a deep bond of love that none of her family's condemnation can erase. Isabelle's youthful enthusiasm, and naivete, lead to tragic consequences that it takes until the end of the novel to truly understand.

The comparison between the past and present in the novel makes it clear that while the openly racist practices of things like "sundown towns" are no longer socially acceptable, the underlying "othering" of blacks, and the unwritten, unspoken boundaries between the white and black communities are in many ways still present. Dorrie spends a good part of the beginning of the novel questioing whether she can really trust a white woman like Isabelle, a sentiment that I am sad to say I have seen expressed by many women of color I love and respect in the wake of the recent presidential election. The story does veer a little bit into the sappy side from time to time, and it is hard to believe that the young Isabelle was really as naive as she appeared to be about the way her relationship would be perceived, but overall this story highlighted how poisonous racism can be, and the way it destroys relationships. And for those readers who like a twist, there is a surprise towards the end that heightens the emotional impact even more. Maybe after reading this story, and realizing that many of the same issues are still present, the reader will decide to pay attention to the ways that race and racism affect their relationships, their community, and the country as a whole. Because until you acknowledge a problem, you can't solve it.

Friday, August 19, 2016

My Favorite New Fantasy Series

I am a big fan of high fantasy. I got my first taste from the Narnia books, and was gifted the Shannara series as a middle schooler. Give me a series with elves and dwarves and trolls and chances are pretty good I will love it.

Not so sure I would have said the same about a fantasy series that revolves around necromancy, but that was before I discovered Sabriel, the first book in the Abhorsen series by Garth Nix. There are no elves or dwarves to be found, but there is a strong, female main character. Sabriel is the daughter of the Abhorsen, the good necromancer whose job it is to send the dead back into death, thereby undoing the work of the bad necromancers, who bring the dead back into life. When her father disappears, Sabriel is forced to leave the relative safety of her boarding school and venture into the Old Kingdom, where magic rules and technology is useless. She begins a quest to free her father and defeat an evil greater than she imagined.

One of the things I've loved about this series so far is the strong female leads. Sabriel portrays the titular young woman as someone who loves firecely, who thinks on her feet, who is more than willing to venture into the land of the dead to save people she loves. The setting is interesting-the Old Kingdom is full of magic, but it is bordered by a world that has what seemed to be mid-20th century-type technology. It gives the whole thing a bit of a steampunk vibe. I'm about a third of the way through the second book, and the strong female thing continues through that book as well. The mythology that underlies the action is different than other series I have read, which makes the story feel fresh. An added benefit is that I've been listening to it on audiobook, and Tim Robbins is the narrator. I discovered this series on a list of young adult books, but I really think that adult readers of fantasy novels will also enjoy it.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Old Records Never Die, by Eric Spitznagel

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to start this review with the admission that the author is a friend of mine. And, I'm sort of in the book. Which means I probably shouldn't even be reviewing it at all. And if I worked at an actual magazine writing official journalisty book reviews they would never in a million years let me be the one to review this book. But I don't. This is MY blog, and I DO WHAT I WANT.

Of course, I read the book in April when it was published, and I have gone back and forth with myself ever since about whether I can actually give it a fair review, or at least, if anyone else will believe I can give it a fair review. Plus, it feels a bit like an exercise in self-aggrandizement. "Look at me world, I know someone who wrote a book that was named one of Amazon's "must read" books. I am literary fame adjacent!" But here's the thing-I didn't just love this book because my friend wrote it. I love it because it is funny and tender and nostalgic and insightful (and funny, did I mention it's funny?).

Old Records Never Die is the true tale of a hero's quest. Spitznagel, our middle-aged protagonist, is driving down Lakeshore Drive one day, thinking about an interview he recently did with Questlove. Questlove is famous for being a prodigious vinyl record collector. He still has the very first 45 he ever bought. Suddenly, the growly rasp of a young Jon Bon Jovi comes on the satellite radio station, and Eric is struck by a bolt of lightning in the form of a sudden compulsion. He wants his records back. The records he collected in the 80s and 90s that he sold to pay rent. Not just records with the same titles as back in the 80s and 90s, but the ACTUAL records he owned. Records he had listened to over and over in his childhood home, his teenage bedroom, his college dorm, his first apartment. Records that he listened to with his dad, fought over with his brother, bought as bait for a certain girl in high school, or smoked weed to. Thus begins the epic journey, fraught with danger(ous, moldy piles of old records), which would lead Eric through the land of record conventions and other middle-aged dudes' basements, where he would meet fellow vinyl obsessives, and a few strange and perhaps slightly unhinged characters.

Of course, along the way he also rediscovers some of the younger self he left behind when he sold those records in the first place. I suppose it's natural when one gets to a certain point in one's life to reflect on the person you were in your teens and early 20s. Sometimes I think about my younger self and have trouble imagining that person eventually became me. There are things that happened that I wish I had paid more attention to at the time, and things that I spent way more emotional time and energy on than I should have. At the same time, I realize that impossible as it may seem from my lofty middle-aged perch, the me of today is the sum total of all of the things that younger self said and thought and did. This is something that Spitznagel explores throughout the book.

But this is not just a sappy trip down Memory Lane. There is little in the way of rank sentimentality in Old Records Never Die. Because Eric doesn't just stop at reliving his glory days (which he admits, with self-deprecating humor, weren't necessarily all that glorious). He isn't the musical equivalent of that old jock who never left home regaling everyone with stories of the time he threw the winning touchdown in the big game against Nowheresville. Spitznagel also examines how objects we owned at certain times in our lives become totems, tangible reminders of who were were when we got them. I am not a vinyl collector myself (though I do own a copy of Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet, given to me by my brother a few Christmases ago), but what Eric feels for records, I feel for books. I still have my original copies of the Little House books, and the Narnia books, and the copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that I read at least once a year for a decade or more. When I look at them, I see my 10 year old self reading in my bedroom surrounded by unicorn posters, or my 15 year old self trying desperately to get lost in the world of turn-of-the-century Brooklyn in a effort to forget that I was home alone on a Friday night. The Handmaid's Tale makes me remember myself as the college student who's world was turned upside down when she discovered feminism. Those books each hold a piece of who I would become, and I love them as unreasonably as Eric might love a warped old Replacements album.

There's also great stuff in Old Records Never Die about parenting and marriage and family and grief. Things that folks who aren't music collectors (or book collectors, or collectors of Doctor Who memorabilia, or whatever) can totally relate to, even if they don't really get why a 40-something man would spend a year of his life and a not inconsiderable amount of money tracking down pieces of black plastic. I especially recommend the last chapter, if you are looking for the feels. Because when you get right down to it, this book about music isn't just a book about music.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah

Kristin Hannah's books are hit or miss for me. Sometimes I am completely swept away by the very human worlds she creates, and sometimes they feel a little bit too much like a Lifetime movie for me (I realize I use "Lifetime movie" as a pejorative a lot, but if sappy sentimentalism is your jam, good on ya!). Since The Nightingale was all over lists of book club picks this year, I figured eventually my book club would get around to it.
When we did, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

The Nightingale tells the story of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle. Set against the backdrop of World War II, the story follows the sisters through the German occupation of France. Vianne, whose husband Antoine has left to join the fighting, tries desperately to keep her small family together. She struggles to provide shelter and comfort to her children, all while staying under the radar of the Germans occupying her small rural village. Fiery Isabelle, on the other hand, joins the resistance, and undertakes the dangerous mission of shepherding downed  Allied pilots out of France. She saves dozens of people through her work, but she soon becomes a wanted fugitive, known only as The Nightingale. The sisters experience love and loss and betrayal and, ultimately, triumph, though in very different ways.

While it is important to tell and tell again stories of the Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and dissidents who were sent to the camps, I find that I have developed an appreciation for books that focus on how the average citizen of Germany or France coped with the war. History books give us the major players, and the most important events, but I think that there is much to be learned from hearing about the way that war affects not just those who have been targeted, but those who are forced to live, day after day, under such oppressive conditions. While nothing compares to the horror of the camps, Hannah does an excellent job showing just how treacherous it was just to try and live your life during the occupation. While Isabelle was portrayed as outwardly heroic through her deeds, Vianne's quieter acts say just as much about the human spirit as Isabelle's grand ones. Much like Zusak did in The Book Thief, Hannah shows in The Nightingale that even when things seem the darkest, if you can hold on to even a spark of the light that is in each of us, there is cause for hope.

I think that the most intriguing character, though, is not Vianne or Isabelle. It is the Nazi officer, Capt. Beck, who ends up billeted with Vianne for a time. Hannah creates a character that is clearly struggling with what he is being asked to do. A devoted family man, Capt. Beck is a loyal German, who is also extremely uncomfortable with the way the Nazis treat the occupied French, and with being seen as a monster by the outside world. He ends up being a sympathetic character, even though he doesn't renounce Nazi-ism or help Vianne escape, etc...But he does show another side of the evils of war-forcing basically good men to go against their own nature in the service of an ideal or political goal they may or may not share.

Overall, I enjoyed this read, and it was good for some tear-jerk moments. I'd say even if you haven't been too impressed by Hannah's other work, I'd give this one a try.