Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

When a barnacle covered bag washes ashore on a small island in British Columbia, Ruth is immediately drawn into the narrative of Nao, a 16-year-old from an ocean away in Tokyo, Japan.

Nao lived with her parents in California, where Silicon Valley and the California sun held nothing but hope and happiness for the Japanese family. But her father's job loss returned Nao's family to Japan, where she went from happy well-adjusted teenager, to a bullied outcast. Escaping the constant pinching, stalking, and even fake funeral put on by her entire class, Nao finds solace in her diary, which Ruth finds in a Hello Kitty lunch box in the bag on the shore. She writes as if to an unknown friend, sharing how her own thoughts of suicide are complicated by her father, who when he isn't sulking or making origami insects, is trying to depart his own now. 

Nao also writes extensively about her buddhist nun grandmother, Jiko. The Japanese equivalent of Yoda, Jiko guides Nao through contradictory one-liners and an extended visit to her mountain monastary.  Through the Tao of meditation and scrubbing old ladies' backs, Nao's energy focuses on her family's mythology, which includes a journey to World War II via Nao's great uncle's letters.

Back in boring land, Ruth delves into her own research, trying to locate Nao or anyone from her family. Ruth hopes to help Nao before it's too late. But is she already dead? Was she a tsunami victim? Does she even exist?

In a nutshell, this description from The Guardian does a great job: 

"If a Japanese-American writer who is also a Zen Buddhist priest wrote a post-Japanese tsunami novel, what themes might you imagine she would address? Biculturalism, water, death, memory, the female predicament, conscience, the nature of time and tide? Tick. All there. Throw in the second world war, the reader-writer relationship, depression, ecological collapse, suicide, origami, a 105-year-old anarchist nun and a schoolgirl's soiled knickers, and you have Ruth Ozeki's third novel, A Tale for the Time Being."

If that sounds like a lot, it is. Nao's story is intruiging enough, but Ruth annoyed me. She would internalize Nao's characteristics by talking like Nao and even fighting with her husband, Oliver, due to his inappropriate reaction to one of Nao's diary entries. One particularly grating moment was when Nao's diary essentially catches up with itself, and Ruth and Oliver are reading together by kerosene light (small island issues apparently) when one of them implores, "go on, don't stop." Sigh.

Ruth's part in the story aside, I liked reading about Nao and her family. There is a good mix of philosophy and even the supernatural that raised things a level for me. But Ruth's part in the story canceled that out. So in total, kind of like the bag that washed on Ruth's shore, this book was a mixed bag for me. There's a lot going on with an interesting story, yet it was a book I could put down.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Lost Girls by Caitlin Rother

San Diego is truly a wonderful city to live in. But if you've been here the past 5 years, then you know that San Diego was faced with a tragedy we as a city didn't want to admit could happen. Over the course of a year, two young, beautiful high schoolers went missing. And when one was later found murdered, it appeared there might be a serial killer stalking our most innocent and vulnerable citizens, our children.

Amber Dubios was a ninth grader at Escondido high school. Eager to get to school with a check in hand to buy a lamb through the school's FFA program, Amber set off to school but never made it. Her disappearance became a mystery that the city of Escondido couldn't get past.

Almost one year later, Poway high student Chelsea King went missing during her after school run at Lake Hodges. Her parents immediately reported her missing and an intensive search for Chelsea began. Although it was a missing person's case, the FBI and SD Sheriff's homicide became involved.

The search for Chelsea led to clues being unearthed that pointed the finger at one individual. Within months of Chelsea's disappearance, two of San Diego's most troubling cases were laid bare for not just the city, but the nation to see. Although things happened at lightning speed in those months (in terms of legal proceedings), understanding what really happened started decades before, with the birth of a single man, John Gardner.

This book was a hard one for me. It literally hit close to home for many reasons. I know exactly where these girls went to school and lived. I know many of the people involved in the investigation, particularly that of Chelsea King. In casual conversations with neighbors, someone might mention the King family. Although we are a city of over 1 million, sometimes it can feel like a small town. I also know that one of the last things Amber and Chelsea's parents probably want is for John Gardner to get any type of additional press. And this book is mostly about him. So there's a part of me that feels disloyal to these beautiful girls for reading Lost Girls. But what Rother brings to the table is something that you won't get from all the media and news reports. John's backstory is not well-known. And perhaps something can be learned from it.

Although a fascinating story for anyone to read, Lost Girls is a tough pill to swallow for many San Diegans. This book may or may not help you understand Gardner's actions. But Rother's careful, thorough retelling just might be the most comprehensive look at a side of this story that some people would rather ignore.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Black's Beach Shuffle by Corey Lynn Fayman

I had the opportunity to meet with Corey Fayman one afternoon. We sat at a small cafe in Little Italy and talked about books (duh)  and writing. I was interested in knowing how someone just *decides* to self-publish a book...or two. I was also curious about what, if anything, lay on the horizon for Rolly Waters.

Waters is a private investigator living in San Diego. When he's not searching down runaway teenagers or spying on cheating spouses, he's playing gigs at local events with his band. When his latest gig ends with a body floating in a pool, Waters finds himself involved in a case more far reaching than his usual PI repertoire.

If on its face this book is a whodunnit, at its heart it is a peek into Fayman's love of music and San Diego. It's clear Fayman lives in San Diego, based on details throughout the book, from where Waters drives to what he's eating at two in the morning. Being an SD native myself, I knew exactly who Waters was, his scene, and how he lived. The SD references are so detailed, I wondered at times if it would alienate some readers, but ultimately, it's something that makes Fayman's writing unique.

Fayman also doesn't hold back with the music references. Not only is he a San Diegan, but he's a musician as well, as is clear from his characters' hobbies to their names. If you're a music fan, you'll get a kick finding all the little eggs Fayman has hidden.

While mystery isn't really my genre of choice, the book was a quick read and kept me entertained. Extra bonus points for giving it an SD noir feel. Kinda unexpected. I think I'll give his second book, Border Field Blues, a try.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Smile by Jenny Matula

Okay, this is a tough one for me. Quite simply, I know the author and I'm not sure I can give this book a rave review. Despite this, the book is intriguing and evoked strong emotions in me. I'm just not sure they're the emotions the author was hoping to elicit.

Smile is the autobiography of Jenny Matula, who was raised in the Philippines. Because English is not her first language, the book is rife with grammatical errors. For me, it was endearing, because it simply reminded me of her. I think for others, however, it might just come across as poor editing (the book was actually self-published with minimal editing help through WestBow Press). If you're thinking a mistake here or there, like you're reading a self-published kindle book (or my blog), no, it's much worse.

If the grammar issues can be forgiven, well then you have to deal with the Jesus talk. Woah, woah! I'm not opposed to Jesus talk. Hell, I grew up going to church every Sunday. I even went on other days of the week voluntarily! I went on missions trips in other countries, memorized books (yes ENTIRE BOOKS) of the bible FOR FUN, and basically grew up doing churchy stuff all the time. I remember being on my way to Mexico for a week to do a vacation bible school with "Jesus Freak" blaring on the radio. Yes, instead of listening to Coolio, I was rocking to DC Talk because this gangsta's paradise isn't an earthly one. And until I get there, I'm gonna scream my way to Mexico for Jesus because I'm a JESUS FREAK.

So I've settled down since then.

I have retained many of my religious beliefs, but they've evolved since high school. And I don't attend church anymore. I think just by writing this, some of my old church friends might be concerned that I've fallen away, or backslidden (is that a word?  It is in church). Which is why writing this review is difficult. For many reasons.

But back to my point about the Jesus talk. There are portions of Jenny's narrative, especially in the very beginning, that are pretty much just verses from the Bible verbatum. Some people have speaking this way. I think for someone who is seeking comfort in the Bible, this can be beneficial. But I think to people who don't share the same views as she, it will be heavy-handed.  

After some introductory housekeeping points, Jenny goes into her life story, which is tough. Her parents divorced when she was young, which also separated her from two of her siblings. Also when she was young, her mother left her and her brother alone on a farm to work while she went to the city to work and save enough money to bring them with her. I don't know what age came to mind when I said "young" but Jenny was something like 7 and her brother even younger. That's annoyingly, dangerously, irresponsibly, flipping young. The farmer, who was an asshole, would visit them once a week and treated them horribly when he did. Are we surprised by this? I'm not. I'm more surprised that Jenny's mother didn't see this coming.

Eventually her mother came back but sent her and her brother to an orphanage, again, while she worked. It sounds like this was (is?) a somewhat normal thing to do over there. Again, Jenny was eventually reunited with her mother, who had since remarried. Jenny's stepfather abused her, and when she told her mother, the mother sided with the stepfather.  

Jenny's story continues with more trials, but also triumphs. She has a few stories that even gave me goosebumps. Her overall point being that through it all, God was with her and she was able to be strengthened through her adversity. I suppose the fact I am angered by her story means I'm missing the point entirely. Jenny was able to forgive and rise above her past. But there were too many things I read that completely disgusted me. Sure, she forgave her mother, but she also made excuses for her. And although her mother's actions may have been forgivable, they were definitely inexcusable.  

Maybe there are cultural differences at work here, but I also had a major problem with how often children were separated from parents. I don't understand why her parents split up siblings never to see each other again. Then there was the farm, the orphanage, and even Jenny herslef was separated from her own child as well. I just don't understand that.

So call me a heathen, a reprobate, or what you will. But I didn't respond well to Jenny's message. And it's hard for me to admit, because Jenny is such a genuine person. I don't want to take away from what she has to offer and the amazing ways God has worked in her life. Maybe I'm just not ready to hear her message. Maybe my heart has been hardened by the devil. Maybe I'm culturally insensitive. Whatever it is, this book was a pill swallowed with no water. While I'm happy she wrote it, as I'm sure her story will benefit others, it's just not for me, not now.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

I reluctantly put this book on hold at the library more out of a sense of duty as a book blogger, rather than a real desire to read it. Much like my 9 year old niece's attitude to the Harry Potter series, I was reluctant to grab my board and join the wave of popularity that surrounded this book (my niece is totally wrong, by the way, but that doesn't mean I am).

I was something like 116th in line at the library. So I figured I wouldn't get my hands on it for at least 10 years. Since I'd heard so many good things about it, I was prepared to be disappointed by the hype anyway and felt I could afford to wait. But damn it if it didn't come just a few months later. Stupid public libraries with half decent book selections and somewhat plentiful stock.

The story is straightforward. Hazel has cancer and lives her life despite cancer's life interrupting side effects like exhaustion, hospital stays, oh, and death. In addition to the cancer, she deals with things like overly loving parents and support group, which she attends more for her parents' benefit than her own. At support group, she meets Augustus, a cancer survivor, and they soon become friends. Okay, they become more than friends eventually, but somehow the word "boyfriend" seems to cheapen their relationship.

Hazel introduces Augustus to her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, written by Peter van Houten. Hazel obsesses over the ending of the book, which follows a vein similar to The Sopranos' Finale. Hazel writes van Houten seeking answers to the fates of the book's characters. But her letters seem ignored, until Augustus writes van Houten...and gets a response.

I'd say more, but it really isn't the story itself that is the main draw for me with this book. It's the writing.  Green's narrative had me smiling from the first few pages. Hazel and Augustus are both smart, sharp, and funny. I liked seeing the world through Hazel's eyes, especially. I suppose even without the great writing, Hazel and Augustus' search for answers from van Houten was intriguing enough. But what brings this book from three stars to four is Green's fresh and fun writing.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Technology in Action by Evans, Martin, and Poatsy

Ummmmm...this is a textbook.  Wait!  Don't stop reading! Okay, okay, the textbook wasn't SO AWESOME I had to review it.  It was more like, "I'm reading this entire book for a class and damn right I'm gonna get credit on my CBR for it."  It kept me away from other books for EIGHT WEEKS for crying out loud.

It's not like I'm computer illiterate.  I grew up in a house that always had at least one computer.  I remember using DOS at my high school job as a telemarketer (not sure if that helps or hinders my argument here). And I sit at a computer hours a day at my job. But I haven't had any formal instruction on what a computer actually is and how it works.  And I know for a fact that (old lady voice commence) kids these days (end) are programming in elementary school (despite this, I still have a suspicion they couldn't program a remote control like the rest of us).

My tech naivete came to a head at Starbucks one morning.  The conversation somehow prompted me to declare, "hashtag TBT!"  I was really proud of myself for throwing down a popular twitterism, especially since I've tweeted all of zero times.  My friend called me out for using the hashtag incorrectly.  So we decided to ask the young, hip barista what it actually meant.  She settled the disagreement in my friend's favor and served me my short decaf in a tall cup.

Let's just jump into the review.

I took a beginning Computer Science class this summer and this is the textbook.  The book was WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY better than the class.  But don't get me started on that. TIA has chapters devoted entirely to things like computer hardware, the internet, software, programming, and networking.  If your eyes are already glazing over, it's probably fine if you have no interaction with computers, ever.  But you're reading this, so...

Basically, this book will help you understand how computers work, even how to purchase the right one.  You'll know the basic components of a computing system and learn how networks operate.  There is also really practical information on computer and internet safety and security.

So, while you probably won't go out and buy this book (because, duh! The Internet), I'm glad I read it.  It's raised my computer awareness from clueless to I-don't-remember-but-I-know-I-read-about-it-once-in-a-book.  I'll just contact Starbucks tech support for any other questions I might have.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Mama's Boy: The True Story of A Serial Killer and His Mother by Richard Penciak

This is a book from my guilty pleasure genre: true crime.  It was a random pick from my work library (as it usually is).  While there are many things unique to the case of Eric Napoletano, I'm not sure it's the most interesting True Crime I've ever read.

Napoletano had a close relationship with his mother, Carolyn.  By close, I mean strangely close.  Eric and Carolyn spoke several times a day and argued like brother and sister.  When Eric was only 11, he met a 48-year-old man whom Carolyn was content to let Eric visit and eventually live with.  Although Carolyn didn't care for "Uncle Al," they had their unique devotion to Erin in common.

Carolyn never felt any of the women in his life were worthy of him.  Eric had a penchant for minority women, whom Carolyn despised and referred to with racial slurs.  She even refused to attend his weddings.  Eric's pattern with women would begin with infatuation and doting, and progress to isolation, abuse, and even death.  Because of Eric's close but antagonistic relationship with his mother, it's difficult to imagine she had no idea of the toxicity of his relationships.

In 1984, Eric's girlfriend Marilyn Coludro was found dead, having been stabbed several times.  About a year later, Eric had moved on and gotten married.  When things went sour in the marriage and his wife left him, his mother-in-law, Gladys Matos, was shot dead on a street corner.  And in 1990, when police came to Eric looking for his missing wife, Eric and his mother went to the station only to complain about the police harassing him.  Myra Acevedo was later found dead by strangulation.

It wasn't until Acevedo's murder, which fell under the jurisdiction of a New Jersey Detective, that Eric's past began to be scrutinized.  Although Eric lived in New York, which had previously investigated him, those efforts were hindered, in part by Carolyn, who worked for the New York City Police Department.  Her position enabled her access to Eric's investigation in which she abused her position.  Her questionable actions while working were either ignored or avoided by transferring Carolyn to other positions, still within the department.  Carolyn also provided alibis for Eric and even filed a complaint against a detective investigating the Matos murder.

Although seemingly cooperative at times, "Uncle Al" appeared to know more about Eric's relationships than he let on.  FBI wiretaps into Al's, Carolyn's, and Eric's phones was the first federal wiretap used in a serial homicide case.  The wiretaps were crucial in showing that not only was Eric a participant in these crimes, but so were his mother and "Uncle Al."  Although the degree of their involvement was never really made clear.

To make things more complicated, Eric had two sons.  One of whom, Eric Jr., was struggling with behavioral problems.  It seemed the parent-child cycle of dysfunctional behavior was repeating itself.  And based on the circumstances of Acevedo's murder, it was possible Eric's sons were potential witnesses to the events surrounding Myra's disappearance.

The story is interesting, but I think one of the most compelling aspects, Eric's relationship with his mother, wasn't fully realized.  Penciak used excerpts from interviews with Carolyn throughout the book which provided her chilling and infuriating perspective on Eric and his crimes.  But I wanted to know more about their dynamic, perhaps more antecdotes from when he was younger.  The narrative in general was also a bit bland.  But the story itself was interesting enough to keep me reading, although I'm ready to move on to another book.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

If you're not familiar with Allie Brosh, she is a blogger, whose crude drawings and random stories might just make you laugh out loud.  She uses Paintbrush (similar to MSPaint) to draw cartoons about memorable incidents in her life.  Although her drawings are simple, she has a great way of showing a range of emotions in her characters, which are biographical.  Her stories are either funny-because-it's-true, or just completely non-sequitur (which I love too).

Brosh writes a lot about her childhood.  One of my favorite stories is how she and her sister had a toy parrot that would record whatever they would say.  They used it to drive their mother crazy, like any respectable siblings would do.

I also love stories about her dogs.

Despite their simplicity, Brosh has used her illustrations to express some pretty complex emotions.  Specifically depression.  The blend of her silly drawings and at times disturbing narratives of how she has suffered with depression is powerful.  You want to cry, and laugh at the same time.  You realize that this person drawing some of the funniest cartoons you've seen is actually...a person.  It's like realizing your favorite comedian isn't always cracking fart jokes all day.

I remember when a friend of mine first told me about Brosh's blog.  I checked it out.  It was pretty funny, so I periodically checked in on it.  But the posts slowed, and shortly after an excited "I'm writing a book!" post, Brosh posted "Adventures in Depression."  She struggled, and it was apparent.  Not just from the lack of posts on her site, but also from her posts themselves.  But her openness about her struggles just made me love her even more, and hopefully, if you don't already, her book or blog will make you love her too.

Click here to view Allie Brosh's blog, Hyperbole and a Half.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

"If there really were vampires, what would they do for a living?"  That is a question that this book became the unexpected answer to, according to the author on her blog.  As for me, although I've read that Harkness hasn't read the popular YA series, I'd dare say this book could be considered a Twilight for adults.  Compliment?  Or criticism?  You decide.  But at its simplest, there are vampires, witches, and daemons.  (If you're not sure what a daemon is...think borderline insane, ADHD, wildly creative person...beyond that, I haven't figured it out in terms of superpowers or anything).

Here's what I like about the book, and it mostly concerns the author.  Harkness is a historian.  She has several degrees and teaches at USC and has extensively studied the history of magic and science in Europe from 1500-1700.  If you, like me, have ever wondered why classes like this exist beyond giving history buffs something random to chew on, maybe this novel is one.  Harkness' love for these things is obvious from reading A Discovery of Witches, which is a historical work of fiction.  There are all kinds of allusions, most of which were lost on me, to scientists, authors, and novels.  The story spans a range of geography and time, and Harkness seems comfortable with it all.  At times, I feel our 1500 year-old, well-learned vampire Matthew can get a bit pretentious, but understanding Harkness' love for history forgives that for me.

The story begins with Diana, an alchemical history professor at Oxford university (if there is such a thing at Oxford, I wasn't able to figure it out from their website).  Diana is descended from a prominent line of witches, but has shunned her magical ability, at least to the degree it's possible (WHY!?!?!).  During her studies, she is able to recall an old, long-thought-lost volume of magic called Ashmole 782, and this draws the attention of not just her fellow witches, but other supernatural creatures as well.  While Diana doesn't realize the significance of her finding, it sets in motion a series of events that make magic an inevitable part of her life.  As she becomes entrenched in the mystery of Ashmole 782 (which you can read about on Harkness' blog), Diana meets Matthew, a geneticist (and also a vampire).  Why would a vampire be interested in an old book of magic?  Is there something extraordinary about Diana that Matthew sees?  How could Diana's find be the catalyst for a war between witches and vampires?

These are the questions A Discovery of Witches begins to answer, BUT...and here's where other reviewers and I agree, the pacing is slow.  In fact, it took me several months (if not a year) to get through this book as it was a between-book-read.  But I felt, by the end, Harkness had really laid out her premise and introduced her characters fully.  It also helped that the book picked up steam near the end and left off on a cliff-hanger that makes me really curious to see how she handles book two (yes, this is a trilogy...and yes, there is a movie in the making).

So, to be honest, this was a book I almost gave up on.  But in desperation for something to read, I finished it and now want to read the second book.  Probably not for everyone, but if I had you at "vampires" or "Twilight," then we already know you'll want to read it.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Here's the next big YA trilogy, the first book of which has already been released to the big screen.  It has all the sexy elements a YA dystopian thriller needs to be teenagers (going off of the movie trailer a bit on this one)...Ok, wait.  Did I just say "hot teenagers"?!?  Creepy.  I'm way too old to be saying things like that. (I was going to put "waaaaaaaay too old" but no, I'm just "way" too old).

Which brings me to my next point, maybe I'm not the target audience for this genre.  Or maybe the genre is being diluted...I don't know.  Whatever it is, I wasn't totally sold on Divergent.

Okay, back to the "hot teenagers" comment.  This is bothering me.  When a book about 16 year olds is made into a movie that is marketed to adults and teens alike, what the hell am I supposed to think when "Four" is played by a chiseled 30 year old?  I guess technically his character is 18 so I'm in the clear.  Okay, glad we hashed that out.

Back to the book.  Basically everyone in...Chicago (from what I can gather) decided that the ills that plagued them could be boiled down to one thing.  What is that thing?  Well, depends on who you ask.  Some people say it's ignorance.  Others say it's selfishness, or dishonesty, or cowardess, or just plain being mean.  So society split into 5 factions, each trying to embody the opposite of what they believed was the root evil of mankind.  When an individual reached the age of 16, he or she could choose which faction they wanted to become a part of.

So Beatrice grew up in Abnegation, which is a fancy term for self-sacrifice.  But she doesn't quite feel like she fits in.  She isn't down with wearing gray clothes, and not having mirrors, and always being stuck at parties cleaning up.  She's intrigued by the Dauntless (or fearless), who don't just ride the train to and from school, they riiiiiide the train to and from school (the extra i's in that word mean the train doesn't ever stop, it just rolls by while all the Dauntless kids jump in and out of the cars, because they're Dauntless.  And they don't need no stinking train stops).  I could see why that might be appealing enough to make me leave my family too.

So before "The Choosing," Beatrice undergoes evaluation to determine which faction best suits her.  Her test results are abnormal...Divergent, if you will.  Which, apparently is a bad thing.  But really, the fact that people fit cleanly into just one category had me scratching my head.  But okay.

Despite the results, Beatrice ultimately has the choice of which faction to join.  She makes her decision, and most of the book deals with the initiation process that entails.  Then there's some evil plot to take over Chicago (I don't think Chicago is ever mentioned but that's what wikipedia says), and hilarity ensues.

Okay, the book is better than I'm letting on, but it's not the greatest YA novel I've read.  I think my biggest problem was that I couldn't sign on with the premise that people fit into just one category.  Not only does Roth create these clean lines and divisions, but she goes overboard with the stereotyping.  Really?  NO ONE besides Abnegation can help out after an event?  ONLY Amity can be caretakers?  How the hell do children survive in the other factions?  "But that's the point!" you're probably screaming at me.  Yeah, well, if it's that glaringly obvious from the get-go, then what the hell am I doing for the next 400 pages?  And I think we already know that being "divergent" really is the rule, not the exception.

So what's the payoff here?  I'm not sure.  Maybe a great story? Maybe a chance to live in another world for a brief period?  Those are the optimistic options.  The realistic one?  For me?  To skip the rest of the series and diverge to something else.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog by Chad Orzel

I'm a bit of a closet physics fan.  It's hard to admit, seeing as the classes I struggled with most in college were my physics courses.  But if you don't force me to work out equations for things like how a ball bounces, and just talk to me about all the weird stuff that physics predicts, I'm an enthusiastic student.  While there are a lot of mysteries to be understood in this world, there is one thing that really bothers me.  I don't get relativity.

You know, Einstein?  E=mc2, and all that?  Of course, if I can't even figure out how to superscript the squared in this equation, what hope do I really have?

Einstein's theories of special and general relativity are elegant and straighforward, as far as these things go (at least I've been told).  It's the ramifications of these theories that will blow your mind.  Things like black holes, time travel, and spaghettification (not a pleasant thing) become topics of discussion.

Orzel frames his book as a series of discussions with his clever dog.  While in theory, the premise is cute, it comes across as contrived.  Orzel's dog listens intently to each argument and then asks highly intelligent questions that my little mind didn't have the capacity to form.  And while I get the impression Orzel is a really nice guy, his jokes fell flat.  But he tried.

I also had a hard time with the diagrams.  I am a very visual learner and the diagrams just didn't do it for me.  I found them confusing and difficult to follow.  I guess I'm a sucker for Hawking's books (something I think Orzel wouldn't be thrilled to hear).  Is it possible I just wasn't Orzel's target audience, and this book was geared toward a more learned audience?  While that might be the case, in a book that's supposed to be understandable to a dog, it's not what I would expect.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

There is a haunted house and ghosts, but this isn't a ghost story.  There is a lake monster, but this isn't a horror story.  And there is an illicit affair, but this isn't a love story.  The Monsters of Templeton is Lauren's Groff's freshman novel, a story about cause and effect.  It is about actions and reactions, and the constants in our lives we think we have, and others we don't even realize are there.

The Monsters of Templeton begins with Willie, a post-grad who has left an archaeology trip in Alaska in disgrace.  She takes refuge in her small New York town of Templeton, which is having its own dramatic crisis.  A strange sea creature has turned up dead in the lake, bringing media, lookyloos, and lots of speculation to Willie's usually quiet town.  Upon arriving home, Willie's mother, Vi, also unloads a family secret on Willie that occupies her time and thoughts as she delves into her family tree, which is also entrenched in Templeton's history.

If this sounds like a lot, Groff handles it all pretty cleanly.  She brings up things in the right places at the right time.  Her storytelling is complete, but requires patience.  And it might be here that I disagree with other readers who would give this book a solid 5 stars.  But perhaps it's more a fault of my own impatience rather than Groff's. 

Groff alternates chapter voices.  One chapter might be a distant relative of Willie's, while the next takes us back to the present.  Her writing wasn't immediately fulfilling for me.  I'd read nearly an entire chapter not understanding what it is about and then the last few pages would begin to make sense in the grander scheme of the book. A few times I actually went back to the beginning of a chapter to reread, armed with the knowledge of the relevance of that particular character.  While I found this frustrating, the way Groff slowly unfolds the story makes it fulfilling in an entirely different way.  It's one of those books that you might want to reread.  Because you slowly learn who is who and how everyone is related, you might get more out of a second reading.

I feel like a high school English teacher would love this book for its symbolism and themes.  It just *felt* like one of those books that could elicit a lot of discussion and thought.  Maybe I wasn't in the right mindframe for this book, but I would give it three stars out of five.  While I "only" liked it, I can see how others might love it.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

If you live under a rock, Orange is the New Black is the memoir of a Smith College grad who spent her post-college days experimenting with lesbianism and drug trafficking.  Okay, to be fair, she might have been more grounded in the former than the latter, but it's not really clear from the book.  Watch the Netfiix series, though, and you'll get waaaaaaay more lesbionic love scenes than the source material proffers.

But that's not to say you should skip the book!  OITNB (get with it) is part cautionary tale, part WTF, and part commentary against the U.S. federal prison system.

Imagine you are young, spontaneous, not sure of the next step in life.  You come from a good family, you have a great education, and your girlfriend lives a life that takes her to exotic locations and pays well.  Okay, better than well.  Turns out her sister's boyfriend is a major player in the drug trade.  Eventually simply accompanying her on business trips becomes traveling with a suitcase full of drug money.  Slope slipped.  But before Kerman gets too far down, she breaks free, cuts her ties, and moves across the country.  Crisis averted.

Until five years later, when the feds come knocking at her door.  Shiznit.

This book is less about Kerman, however, and more about the federal women's prison in Danbury, CT and its other inhabitants.  Through Kerman's experience, we glimpse the daily routine, the programs (or lack thereof), the food, and the ad-hoc families that make up day to day life at Danbury.  She details the tragedy that is a part of everyday life in prison, as well as the triumphs.  Perhaps most surprising to me was the lack of sheer terror and violence I guess I was expecting Kerman to experience.  Again, that's not to say you should skip the book!

I was amazed at how people made do with their circumstances and each other.  Somewhat parodoxically, my eyes were opened to the great equalizer that prison could be.  Kerman was able to show how women from so many walks of life could coexist and foster meaningful relationships.  And you'll learn a lot of really random things, like how to make cheesecake with a microwave and laughing cow cheese, and how to clean a ceiling with tampons.  Sign me up!

I've already mentioned that the Netflix series is different from the book, but in a lot of ways, it is remarkably similar too.  Yeah, Crazy Eyes doesn't pee on Kerman's floor in the book, but she does mention a woman she calls Crazy Eyes, another who tried wooing her, and a peeing incident.  And there might not be a whole backstory on a guard and an inmate who have an affair, but Kerman describes how one guard, suspecting impropriety, caused an inmate to go to solitary, and the guard in question quitting.

But you should do more than just read this book and watch the series.  And that's one way I know I've read an intriguing book, when I want to google the author and learn more.  Because Orange is the New Black is more than *just* a memoir.  It's a commentary, and hopefully by reading it, you'll be more than just entertained.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

I saw a neurologist once.  I was feeling increasingly confused, forgetful, and mentally disheveled.  I would find myself driving on the freeway and suddenly not know where I was or where I was going.  I would walk into a co-worker's office only to forget why I was there.  I'd read a book or watch a movie and not remember what it was about.  The neurologist gave me a handful of tests, during which I quickly realized, I'm definintely not crazy.  I knew my name, what year it was, and could easily draw the face of a clock on a sheet of paper.  Given the timing of my symptoms with the recent birth of my son, I was diagnosed with nothing more than mommy brain.

A bit embarrased, but definitely relieved, I laugh about my bought of hypochondria.  At the time though, I thought I was losing it.  And that's what happened to Susannah Cahalan.  She slowly started noticing little things that were unlike her...a jealous thought, a migraine, sensitivity to lights.  She even went to the doctor and had an MRI and blood tests.  Everything came back normal.  Maybe she was stressed.  Maybe she was about to have a breakdown.  Maybe, as one doctor believed, she just partied too much.

But when her symptoms went from bad to worse and she had a series of seizures, Cahalan had the doctors' attention.  Still, all the tests came back negative.  Her symptoms, which appeared similar to schizophrenia, took her down a month-long rabbit hole of madness, most of which, she has no memory.

Brain on Fire is Cahalan's descent into madness and her climb back out.  As it turns out, it was a simple test, in fact one of the same ones I was given on my panicked visit to the doctor, that led to Cahalan's diagnosis.  Cahalan relied on interviews with her family, doctors, and her own fragmented memory to reconstruct the events during her illness.

If this doesn't sound compelling enough, Cahalan takes you deeper.  You'll learn about monstrous tumors complete with hair and teeth that inhabit otherwise normal people, and even delve into the supernatural to see how her symptoms are eerily similar to people believed to be possessed with evil spirits.

Given Cahalan's occupation as a journalist and the fascinating subject matter, this is a book you won't want to put down.  And given that it's a true story, you won't soon take your sanity for granted. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

This book was a CBR recommendation and I wasn't disappointed.  In fact, I'm calling it now as one of my top five books for the year.

Nothing to Envy is based on the lives of North Korean defectors, whom Demick reported on extensively during her time working as the Los Angeles Times Bureau chief in Korea.  Her book focuses on six individuals, all from Chongjin.  It is beautifully written, at times reading like a fictional novel rather than a journalistic work of non-fiction.  Sadly, but intriguingly, the book also read like a YA dystopian drama when Demick described the facts of life that are socialism in North Korea.

From her descriptions of the rationing of food and electricity to the requirement that citizens must apply for travel permits even to travel within the county, I realized how truly naive I was about other parts of the world, for I couldn't fathom a society quite like she described.  Demick describes buildings with elevator shafts build into them, but no elevators; cities outfitted for electricity that went unused all but a few hours of the day; sporadically run railroad lines; empty factories; and employees who worked unpaid, but for the promise of additional rations, when they became available.

NASA image of the Korean peninsula.
Reading about the capital city, Pyongyang, was reminiscent of reading about the Capitol City of Panem in the Hunger Games.  Only the elite were allowed to live and study in Pyongyang.  They received more food and electricity than others elsewhere.  This is also where foreigners visited, so the regime went to "great length to ensure that its inhabitants make a good impression with their appearance and are ideologically sound."  Demick herself felt that when she visited as a journalist, people would be placed in certain areas and in certain outfits to create a false idealistic image of the country.

Demick gives antecdotes here and there that are at times hilarious and disturbing.  One of my favorites is her description of typical math word problems.  "Three soldiers from the Korean People's Army killed thirty American soldiers.  How many American soldiers were killed by each of them if they all killed an equal number of enemy soldiers?"  Or one of the songs taught in music class...

"Our enemies are the American bastards
Who are trying to take over our beautiful fatherland
With guns that I make with my own hands
I will shoot them.  BANG, BANG, BANG."

And the propoganda.  Oh the propoganda.  The posters throughout the country with the smiling face of Kim Il-Sung, the public address systems installed in buildings for government announcements, the people hired to drive through the streets announcing how well companies were doing and how hard everyone should work.  Citizens not only worked for the state at day jobs, they also attended ideological training before and after work.  It was exhausting just to read about.

Then there were the community groups and meetings...each person was a member of their neighborhood inminban.  This was basically a system whereby neighbors looked out for criminal activity or political disobedience.  Even a quick, sarcastic comment could sentence a person to a prison labor camp.  No one dared speak ill of the government for fear that an overly zealous neighbor would report them.  This bred a culture in which people would say and do things for no reason other than to give the impression that they are law abiding, loyal citizens.  Demick writes about people who would add things to letters to show how much they loved their country and the "Supreme Leader" for the sake of the government censors.

Demick also details the mass hysteria that gripped the country when Kim Il-sung died.  Some people were truly hysterical.  But for those who had doubts, they knew that if they didn't show the "appropriate" response to his death, it could mean time in a prison camp.  So even those who defected, who were disullusioned with the country's politics, found themselves crying tears for a man they didn't respect.

Of course, Demick covers the famine of the 90's, where hundreds of thousands of North Korean citizens (if not millions) died of starvation.  The country's leaders had campaigns like the "Let's eat two meals a day" campaign early in the food shortage.  Enrollment in school dropped precipitously as children died of starvation.  By 1995 the frog population of North Korea was wiped out due to overhunting.  Families took to fields and forests to gather weeds and moss and learned to cook indigestible food longer to make it more palatable.

Demick chronicles the lives of six individuals, all from the same city, but with a spectrum of background stories.  There is Mrs. Song, a true believer of the Juche self-reliance ideology and occasional leader of her inminban.  Mrs. Song religiously polished her state-issued pictures of Kim Il-Sung and his son, Kim Jong-il with the state-issued polishing cloth (not making this up).  We also learn about Oak Hee, Mrs. Song's rebellious daughter.  Perhaps my favorite story line was that of Mi-ran and Jun-sang, secret sweethearts who could never get married because of the "sins" of Mi-ran's father's past.  His role in the South Korean army during the Korean war gave his family bad songbun, or social status, that lasted three generations.  There is also Kim Hyuck, an orphan whose actions were motivated by hunger, rather than state loyalty, and Dr. Kim, who learned after defecting that dogs in china ate better than doctors in North Korea.  Through Dr. Kim, Demick describes the effects the food shortage of the 90's on the North Korean citizens.  Pellagra, acute constipation, and stunted growth, among other ailments afflicted her patients.  The hospital also suffered, no longer offering heat or even IV bags to its patients, who would bring empty bottles of beer in which to put the fluid.

From these individuals, we see orphanages, black markets, schools, hospitals, and the day to day lives of a varied cross section of North Koreans.  Demick gives us a general history of the politics and demography of Korea, she describes the indoctination of the Juche ideology so well that we, in a small way, understand the motivations of the individuals when they eat while children around them starve.  Or when they fear for their futures when they can't shed a tear over Kim Il-sung's death.  Or when they make the life-changing decision to leave North Korea forever.

Nothing to Envy is about more than you think.  It's not just a retelling of the strange and infuriating things about North Korea that make us glad to be Americans.  It's also about the pride of the North Korean people, many who truly believe they have nothing to envy from the rest of the world.  It's this second thing that is harder to grasp, but perhaps by reading this book, you'll be a step closer to understanding it.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Dark Moonlighting by Scott Haworth

Hmmm....everything about this book makes me want to like it.  The premise, the satire, the author, and a lot of reviews I skimmed on Goodreads.  But I just can't bring myself to the level of enthusiasm of these other reviewers.

Dark Moonlighting is the first of a four novel series.  It's about Nick, a 600 year old vampire doctor-lawyer-police officer (needing only 2 hours of sleep a night, Nick has plenty of time to work) .  No, Nick isn't sexy, he doesn't glow in the sunlight, and he doesn't live on synthetic blood.  He has a virus that drives him to kill about one person a week, drinking their blood and then urinating profusely after each kill.  If you calculate the "Urinator's" body count, this comes to around 30,000 souls.  But don't fret, Nick doesn't kill innocent people.  A vampiric Dexter of sorts, he rids society of its scum, which, in this day and age, includes dreaded spammers and door to door evangelists.

Some of the reviews I've read have hailed the book for its departure from the popular vampire genre.  Reviewers are thrilled with a vampire who doesn't take himself too seriously.  While these things may be true, it doesn't automatically mean the book is good.  Are we so disullusioned with Twilight and True Blood that we'll bed the first ugly vampire to wink at us?

The problem I have is with the writing.  Yes, Dark Moonlighting is tongue in cheek and bleeding with satire and pop culture references, but despite this, the jokes flatlined for me.  I kept getting the feeling I was reading something a junior high schooler wrote.  There was no subletly to the humor, instead, the jokes were obvious and overexplained.  Who knows, maybe that's part of what makes it funny and I'm just not getting it, but I couldn't get over the amateur feel the writing had.  Haworth has a lot of good ideas, he just didn't execute them to my liking.

I can't completely write the book off, as it had its moments and was a quick, easy read.  But I won't be rushing to complete this tetralogy any time soon.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Wool by Hugh Howey

Wool is one of those futuristic, dystopian, post-apocolytpic, insert your own buzzword here, type books that I'm sure is packaged as a three-book series...(checking internets)...yep, it's called the Silo Series and also includes the novels Shift and Dust.  Despite my sarcasm, this was a book I couldn't set down many times.

The novel started as a short story that was released by Amazon for the Kindle in 2011.  Due to its popularity, Howey continued writing and amassed a three book collection in two years.  Basically society exists in an underground silo because the air outside is too toxic to breathe.  The chapters are written almost in a Game of Thrones style where a grouping of chapters is from the perspective of a different character.  The first few chapters were so intriguing to me that I feared I wouldn't like the format because I didn't want to move on to another person's story....much like you don't want to break up with someone you are comfortable with, I guess.  However, Howey is the best friend who helps you realize it's for the better.  I found myself happy to move on each time because his different characters are equally compelling.

Which brings me to my next point, it kinda sucks when he kills the ones you like.  But as we learned from G.R.R. Martin, that can be quite a beneficial plot device.

Of course the story isn't confined to the silos and its inhabitants.  There is, of course, a great conspiracy involved and the question of life outside of the silo is explored.

And, like any popular book, there is a movie in the making.  Ridley Scott is on board for this one.  I am cautiously optimistic.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

My motivation for reading this book was to get it off my shelf and back on my neighbor's, who had lent it to me months before.  Coupled with the fact that she also brought me a plate of pure sex for Christmas (no one makes better cookies than her), I was beginning to feel like a really lousy neighbor.  "But my dog ocassionally tears into your yard, screaming for Kiki the Poodle to come out" I want to scream (let's ignore the fact that he probably doesn't want to play with her).  That's neighborly, right?  Okay, maybe I have some work to do.  Well, at least I can return her book now.

The Secret Life of Bees is the story of Lily, a 14 year old girl, growing up in the South in the 60's.  She finds herself in Tiburon, South Carolina, after having run away with her nanny Rosaleen from an unloving father.  Lily believes that Tiburon holds the clues to her mother's past, something Lily's memories and her father have revealed little about.  In Tiburon, Lily and Rosaleen are taken in by the Boatwright sisters, a beekeeping trio with an eclectic lifestyle.

Oh, and Rosaleen and the Boatwrights are all black.  Why does this matter?  Well, the setting is 1964 and President Johnson has just signed the Civil Rights Act.  Lily isn't the only one running away, Rosaleen is also escaping some trouble she got into on her way to register to vote.  If the fact that Lily is living with four Aftican American women isn't enough to turn heads (and it is), Rosaleen's legal trouble is.

What I like about this book is that there is a lot of potential for drama, given the year, the location, and the character's themselves.  It was this potential that made me uneasy about a lot of things while I was reading.  But Kidd has a nice balance of good and bad.  She doesn't capitalize on all the possible (and sometimes obvious) storylines.

Her characters, although I felt not fully fleshed out, were memorable.  She created a unique world that existed in the Boatwright's pink house, complete with their own livelihood and religion.  Her descriptions of life at their home, the daily work, the church services, the celebrations, and the trials, made me want to be right there while everything happened.

Turns out, a movie was made in 2008 with Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, and Alicia Keys.  I would never have been interested in this movie if I hadn't first read the book.  Now, I think I'll actually see it.  I'd love to see Kidd's characters come to life on the screen.

So in all, a strong book.  A bit of a girl power vibe, but I'm a girl and don't mind that kind of thing (every now and then).  It wasn't a life-changing book, but a well-told story.  Something I might recommend to, say a neighbor, for a *quick* summer read.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

We all know that once you see something, it's not only burned into your retina, but also your mind.  And by trying to not imagine a pink elephant, what the first thing is that comes to mind.  Is it also possible then, that once I know a book is written by J. K. Rowling, I will always compare it to Harry Potter?

The answer is fuck yes.  EVERYTHING gets compared to Harry Potter.  All other YA books I've read?  Not as good as Harry Potter.  The coffee I had this morning?  Not as good as Harry Potter.  That dress I want to buy?  Won't make my hips look as good as Harry Potter.  You get the point.  That series has been burned into my mind, heart, and soul.  I cannot and will not unremember it.  Does Rowling even stand a chance against herself?

Maybe she knew the answer...maybe she anticipated this inevitable proclivity which we all have.  And maybe that's why she wrote The Cuckoo's Calling under a pseudonym.  Because she knew assholes like me would never forgive her for writing *just* another novel.  I think her prologue says it all, "Unhappy is he whose fame makes his misfortunes famous."  Freudian slip of the pen much?

So how to proceed now that I've compromised any semblance of neutrality?  I'll just get on with it.  I didn't find the story compelling,  I didn't like the characters, and I didn't buy the ending.  This was a book I read for the sake of finishing, so I could move on to another book.

My first complaint, her characters.  Mean, selfish, or boooooring.  Sure, some people are pricks, but really?  THAT many people?  Everyone we meet, even our protagonist, is a prick.  His sister?  A prick.  His client?  A prick.  Everyone else in the book?  Pricks.  Every one.  I wanted to avada kedavra all their asses.  The only character I wouldn't call a prick is Robin, our detective's wingman secretary (her fiance though?  You guessed it).  The problem with Robin was she's as interesting as a Kardashian sex tape.

Another complaint is the ending.  I felt like Rowling left some loose ends unaddressed.  And the only reason I was surprised by the ending is because it just didn't make sense.  Sure, she offered a one sentence explanation, but I don't buy it.  I also don't feel her trail of bread crumbs would have led many readers to the right conclusion without a lot of blind speculation.  But then again, I'm not a detective like Cormoran Strike.  And then again, Rowling's only an author, (sniff).

To be fair, murder mysteries aren't my genre of choice.  True, I went into it with high expectations, which can be a buzzkill for even above average performances.  But really, I think a great story can rise above its genre, or age group, or expectations.  Isn't that what we loved about...well, you know.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Maze Runner Series (books 1-3) by James Dashner

**No more spoilers given than what is published to advertise each book**

Thomas wakes up one day to find himself in a field with other boys surrounding him.  He has no memory of who he is or how he got there.  Same as the others before him.  He soon learns he is trapped in a maze and joins their quest to find a way out.

This series starts as many YA series do.  Strong, compelling, slightly twisted.  But by book three, I find myself back to 2006, watching the third season of LOST - frusterated, confused, and less willing to believe.

The maze runner was good, if not a bit strange.  Thomas becomes a "runner," or one of the boys whose role is to map out the constantly changing maze and try to find a way to solve it.  The entire first book is consumed by the maze itself and the boys' lives therein.  My questions are the same as the boys'.  Why?  Where?  What caused this?  What is going on in the rest of the world?  But because they have no memory and I don't really know when this takes place or in what kind of world, I am along for the ride.  Dashner ends the book strongly - with a promise of answers to many, if not all, of my questions.  Ok, I say, I can continue down this rabbit hole with you.

So I pick up book two.  Here's where we get into season two of LOST.  I'm invested in these characters, I understand the premise, and I like it.  Yeah, there are some strange things that happen, but I'm willing to trust Dashner and see how he'll tie everything together in the end.  Ok, maybe this book isn't quite as good as the first...but we're building to something here.  I can feel it.

Without giving too much away, book two places Thomas and the other boys, or "The Gladers" as they've called themselves, into the "Scorch," which is basically the desert.  And here's where the series evolves into basically a zombie tale (no complaints yet).  The Gladers have learned they are a part of a special group undergoing trials in order to hopefully effect a cure for the condition of the world today.  Just as a drug undergoes trials in testing, the Gladers, quite literally, are enduring their course of trials.

This second book has a bit more teenage angst and drama, which I feel just meh about.  Thankfully Dashner keeps things platonic and the drama more on an emotional level, which I think is fair.  I'm more interested in how jacked up everything has become and why.  But do I get many answers?  No.  Just more questions.  Well, I'm already invested.  Might as well pick up book three.

Book three picks up the pace.  Answers begin to come.  But the more I understand what is going on, the more I realize how everything in the previous two books was kinda meaningless, subplots within the grand scheme of things,  I guess.  Are the Gladers really accomplishing anything?  Or are they literally just running around for no good?  Dashner puts in details that seem so important at the time but become forgotten as the series evolves.  Is it poor planning?  Did he abandon those ideas?  I start to get ambivalent.  I start to think Dashner has made more happen than he's going to explain.  I can't decide if I like the series or feel jilted by it.  I look at the book like an old lover.  Do I keep you in bed with me?  Or throw you across the room?

After much frustration and some eye rolling, I've finished.  (In case you're wondering, I'm not still using the jilted lover parallel here.)  I like the ending, in all, an interesting series.  There is a fourth book, a prequel.  Will I read it?  Probably.

So it's a mixed recommend.  Definitely something different with its ups and downs, but Dashner has managed to keep me interested and feeling...something...while I read.  I suppose that's the point.

And for you lazies who like the on screen version, I hear this book has a movie in post production, scheduled to be released this fall.  Should make for a great movie.