Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Rachel rides the train every day. And every day she passes the same homes and people going through their same routines. Until one day, something changes. What Rachel sees alters the trajectory of her life that is already complicated with a divorce and alcoholism.

Anna is a stay at home mom. Although her life seems simple, she lives in the shadow of her husband's ex-wife, struggling with raising her two-year old daughter and keeping her sanity while trying to maintain a happy marriage.

Megan shouldn't have a care in the world. She is free to work on her art and has a loving husband. Although she loves him too, for some reason that just isn't enough for her. And when she goes missing, the lives of these three women converge.

Three women, three points of view, all telling the same story. Although I was able to guess the "whodunnit" aspect of the book (and I'm usually not great at that), I felt Hawkins put enough mystery and twists and turns to keep things intriguing and moving. While I didn't particularly like her main characters (probably intentional on her part, though), I felt she made them interesting.

I would be remiss if I didn't address one point. That's the whole Gone Girl comparison. We have multiple narrators, a missing girl, diary-like entries, and unlikeable characters. So how do the two face off? IMHO The Girl on the Train edges out her competition. I didn't have to press the "I want to believe button" like with Gone Girl and, in general, I was more engrossed in the story. While I wouldn't say to skip Gone Girl, if you had a choice between the two, I'd go with The Girl on the Train. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

After much hype and fanfare (and waiting on the library hold list), I finally got my hands on Station Eleven. I purposefully didn't read many reviews on this book so I wouldn't be influenced by others' take on things. All I really knew was what the publisher provides as a preview...that an orchestral and theatric troupe travels around what is left of Michigan after a devastating illness has decimated the world population. I wasn't quite sure what to think of that.

I'm happy to report the whole theatric troupe angle didn't come across as contrived or pretentious. If you're wondering why Mandel frames her story with this concept, it may have something to do with the troupe's mantra, which is "survival is insufficient." Mandel gives us more than a survival tale, focusing her story on her characters, who live their lives in spite of their circumstances. And this means doing more than just surviving. It means providing and finding enjoyment despite what has happened.

Mandel introduces us to many players, who are all somehow tied together, whether through direct relationships or by varying degrees of separation. She jumps from person to person and from time to time. Through their stories, we learn how everything changed once an illness struck the world, killing all but one of every 200-300 people.

Unlike similar story lines, where the future is still somewhat technologically advanced (Hunger Games, Divergent, the Maze Runner), Mandel explores a future where all technology is lost (more like the Forest of Hands and Teeth or the Walking Dead). What happens when the power goes out permanently? When the internet stops? When all the gas is no longer usable and transportation is only accomplished with animals? How does one rebuild?  All the while with a new world population of potentially less than the current population of California. Is it important to teach children who grew up after the pandemic about technology that no longer exists? How do you describe a smartphone? Or how people traveled by airplane? What happens if you were on vacation in a foreign country when the pandemic hit and all air travel was permanently suspended?

Mandel provides you with a varied cast, so there is bound to be someone you can relate to or want to root for. And she shows us how these people evolve and adapt. Not just because of what happened, but because that's what people tend to do in general. Rather than dwell on the why and how of what happened, Mandel deals with the questions that people face afterward. Her story-telling and writing is solid, and you will be drawn into this world that so frighteningly resembles our own. This is what makes Station Eleven memorable...if not a bit scary.

Monday, June 8, 2015

After Awhile You Just Get Used to It: A Tale of Family Clutter by Gwendyolyn Knapp

Gwendolyn Knapp is only in her thirties, but her colorful family and personal relationships have already provided enough fodder for a memoir. After While is the story of Gwendolyn, her sister Molly, her mother Margie, and her stepfather John. Of course, there is a host of other family members and the occasional love interest that pepper her life with stress and shenanigans.

Knapp grew up in Florida where she lived with her packrat mother and overachieving goth sister, as well as her mother's extended family. She begins by introducing us to her stepfather, John, and her grandparents. She hits the ground running with sudden death and a bout of scabies. And things only gets worse from there.

As she regales her teenage years, I experienced a certain nostalgia, since we're about the same age. Reading about her music choices and high school experiences made this time in her life seem, well, normal to me. Her stories seemed filled with an appropriate amount of whimsy and dysfunction that many people (myself included) have experienced in one form or another. I began to wonder where all this was headed, and if I should consider writing my own memoir...

During an eventful Thanksgiving we meet her Aunt Susie and uncle Ricky, a heartbreaking couple with real problems, but let's be honest, they made the holidays memorable. Then she describes plenty of other family gatherings that involve multiple strangulation attempts and lots of squirrels.

Knapp eventually ends up in New Orleans. Although she's a bit farther from the influence of her family, her adult life is full of one dimensional characters with little redeeming value. At this point in the book, I began to notice Knapp's negativity in how she views people. Take her boyfriend Robin, for instance. She describes him as an artist who doesn't bathe, take her anywhere, and has bean bag furniture. But her description is more matter of fact, as opposed to critical. She goes on to describe a doctor's appointment where the doctor only wants to talk about an upcoming vacation. Even after the doctor compliments her boots, Knapp reveals they are atrocious, as if to say the doctor was being disingenuous. She describes another encounter where someone compliments her dress and she explains it's a two dollar thrift store atrocity.  At this point, Knapp's knack for turning even nice gestures into something negative begins to grate on me. 

Even her description of where she and her family traveled for vacation (at the mid-point between the world's crapiness and despair) depressed me. And to make matters worse, her mother and stepfather eventually join her in New Orleans. After a family reunion and another failed relationship, it seemed not a lot had changed and Knapp's negativity was still a big part of her life. She was still struggling to make ends meet and keep herself sane. 

So a mixed review. I felt her struggles weren't any bigger than most people's, although perhaps she has more patience and creativity to get them on paper. I was a bit exhausted and left wondering where Knapp's life was headed. I guess I was hoping for some great revelation on her part, or a success story. A moral, perhaps? Some tidbit to leave me with? When she didn't offer any, well, I suppose it was fitting, and by that time, I had just gotten used to it. 

Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for a review.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

Did you ever wonder how an astronaut goes to the bathroom in space? Mary Roach will make you question why you've never pondered this before. With lines from her book like, "give me a napkin quick, there's a turd floating in the air," she'll also give you the greatest appreciation of gravity you never anticipated...

Roach is a master of taking a topic (like cadavers, sex, and in this case, space travel) and deconstructing it, showing its many facets...whether interesting, surprising, or even a bit awkward. Packing for Mars is the tell all for space travel. Besides providing somewhat of a history of the international space program, Roach gives the nitty gritty of space logistics: how NASA obsesses over a mission, the research associated with space travel, the personality testing, the mission simulations, how astronauts eat, drink, poop, and maneuver in a tin can in clunky suits in zero gravity. Besides participating in interviews with those involved, Roach also participates herself, when possible.

Take parabolic flights, for example. Besides being a novel way to spend your time, they are used for research and training for the space program. Imagine flying in a jet that goes high enough into the atmosphere to reach zero gravity for twenty seconds before hurtling back down to earth for ten seconds, only to repeat this endeavor 29 more times. Under the auspices of research, Roach participates in such a flight to give a first hand account of what it's like (spoiler - depends on your propensity for motion sickness).

Of course, I call bullshit on Roach not participating in some other studies, like the ones where you lay in a bed at a -6 degree decline for weeks to see the effect on one's body (in a pseudo simulation of zero gravity). Or the "all cube diet" or "forty-two days of milkshakes" diet (not as enticing as it sounds). Honestly, the chapter on space food depressed me, which was kinda her point. Food from tubes really should be relegated to those in a vegetative state. I hear the meals up there have vastly improved...but that still leaves lots of room for hijinks.

Roach also reveals tidbits here and there that you just can't anticipate until you send people up in space. Things like how plants used for experiments in space cannot be edible. Otherwise astronauts nostalgic for something besides toothpaste to eat will end up eating the science experiments as well.

Or there's the scary prospect of losing an astronaut to space euphoria, the phenomenom whereby an astronaut on a spacewalk achieves such a feeling of awe that it threatens to overtake good sense and prevents him from returning to the spaceship.

There are also chapters on animals in space, simulated space missions on earth, and the little-known science behind keeping floating vomit out of your space helmet. The chapter on space hygiene was rife with unwelcome terms like "underarm sweat supplies," "restricted-bathing experiment," and "odor plateau."

If none of this interests you, perhaps you enjoy reading technical papers and users manuals for furniture assembly. Otherwise, you'll probably enjoy this book, or find it eye opening, to say the least.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Reboot by Amy Tintera

If you're in the mood for another YA dystopian novel, this might quench your thirst. With so many to choose from, what Reboot offers is a quick, easy read with a twist on the zombie genre...but zombie novel it is not.

Wren one-seventy-eight died five years ago. But, as is common with children who contract the mysterious KDH virus, she revived, or rebooted. As her name suggests, she didn't reboot until 178 minutes after her death, a long time compared with other reboots. As a reboot, Wren is separated from her family and sent to live as a recruit for HARC, a government organization that is responsible for keeping KDH, and the population in general, controlled.

Having taken so long to revive, Wren is less human than other reboots. And as a trainer to new reboots, she takes her job seriously. With first pick of the litter, she usually selects high numbered reboots, ensuring less emotional, more easily trained, and always successful recruits. Wren breaks from her usual routine, however, when she meets Callum, a measly 22.

Taking Callum on as a trainee challenges Wren's perspective about herself, as well as HARC. A possible conspiracy pertaining to the "under-sixty" reboots that affects Wren's friend and roommate also makes her question her role in the organization.

In addition, Callum's training doesn't go well. After a few missions in which he defies orders, he faces extermination. Wren finds herself trying to save him in any way possible. And with a mysterious sickness overcoming the under 60 recruits, she doesn't have much time.

So there you have the basic set up. It's a quick read; I felt like not much actually happened in terms of a time line. But there was enough to keep me entertained in this new world - which is actually Texas. I'm not sure how proactively I'll seek out the next book, but if it falls in my lap, I'd read it.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

This is a life-is-stranger-than-fiction book from the same author who wrote Seabiscuit. In this World War II era biography, Hillenbrand explores the life of Louis Zamperini. Once the trouble-maker of his neighborhood, in high school Zamperini focuses his talents on running, even making the Olympics for the 5000 meter race in 1936. His experience in Berlin was an adventure for the 19 year old, with memories of eating to excess, meeting people from around the world, and placing 8th in his race. But there were also signs of unrest that hid beneath the surface of the gaiety of the Olympics. As the games came to a close, signs of civil inequality between Jews and non-Jews became more prominent, and Zamperini caught small glimpses of a storm brewing in Germany that would spread throughout the world in the years to come.

After the games, Zamperini's focus was on the 1940 Olympics, but they were never to be, having been canceled due to war. Zamperini joined the war effort soon after. Serving as a bombardier on bomber airplanes, Zamperini became an all too common statistic - one of the missing or war dead. Hillenbrand does a great job of explaining the difficulties and dangers of our military personnel in World War II, specifically dangers not directly related to combat. And Zamperini's position as a bombardier was primed for disaster. Fatefully, in 1943, his plane went down over the Pacific Ocean.

Hillenbrand describes Zamperini's 43 days at sea as a harrowing, gut-wrenching experience. Sadly, it was probably the easiest part of his misadventures to come, enduring prison camp after prison camp at the hands of the Japanese. Reading about his experiences was difficult, at best, but eye-opening too. I didn't realize how naive I was about Japan's role in World War II. Sure, they were a part of the Axis Powers and devastatingly brought the U.S. into the war, but this book really gives you plentiful and specific examples of their treachery.

Zamperini makes it out of the war and, like many veterans and especially prisoners of war, continues to suffer. His post-traumatic stress, not as well understood (or even recognized) as it is today is a realistic reminder that although Zamperini eventually triumphs over his demons, his road to redemption is a long, slow one.

While some of the subject matter is hard to take in, Zamperini's story is, in a word, amazing. Hillenbrand connects seemingly random topics like juvenile delinquency, the Olympics, World War II, POW camps, and survival at sea in a fascinating way through the life of this one man.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl, of the so-called domestic noir genre (check wikipedia for more details), is a voyeuristic journey into disaster. While you might find Flynn's characters unbecoming, there's enough drama and intrigue to keep you reading.

We begin with Nick Dunne, our Girl's husband, who has just reported her missing to the police. Of course, being the husband, Nick is suspect number one. As he tries to search for his wife, work with the police, and deal with his wife Amy's parents, Nick's every move is scrutinized and criticized by the media. You see events unfold from Nick's perspective, which gives you insight into his actions and reactions. And quite honestly, sometimes his perspective doesn't make you like him much. But that's the problem with being privy to one's private thoughts, I suppose. Some things are better left unsaid, and for good reason.

And Nick isn't the only suspect. Amy has a short list of potential stalkers, thanks to being the inspiration behind her parent's successful series of children's books, the Amazing Amy series. Although she is the inspiration, our Gone Girl is really the antithesis of Amazing Amy, whose triumphs underscore the real Amy's least in Amy's mind.

Which brings us to Amy's side of the story. For every Nick chapter, there is an Amy chapter. While Nick's story begins with the present and moves forward, Amy's begins a few years before. Her voice (as told through diary entries) gives context to Nick's chapters...albeit in a slow unraveling way. Besides the problem at hand, Amy's chapters address the usual course of many relationships in a painful way. She regales the excitement of new love, the comfort of a stable relationship, and the rut of familiarity. We are privy to the small deeds, or rather misdeeds, that sow seeds of resentment, miscommunication, and estrangement in this ill-fated couple.

Gillian Flynn weaves not only a murder mystery, but a sort-of psychological study of relationships. She doesn't stop there, though. When you think you've figured out what the book is about, Flynn changes things up. When Amy's diary entries catch up to the present day, you have a much clearer picture of the situation, the mystery of Amy's disappearance is already revealed, and there is still about half of the book left to read.

Gone Girl is definitely interesting, if a bit unrealistic. It has enough themes and mystery in it to keep you reading. While you might not find yourself loving the characters (at least I didn't), you'll be interested enough to press on, much as a person can't turn away from a traffic accident. There are some tragedies we find terrifying, yet comforting, knowing they're not ours. And Gone Girl just might be one of them.