Thursday, January 22, 2015

I Didn't Want to Know These Things

Title:  Blood of the Tiger Author: J.A. Mills
Title:  Blood of the Tiger
Author: J.A. Mills
Publisher: Beacon Press

I feel like the proverbial ostrich, hiding its head in the sand. On an intellectual level, I knew, of course, that people all over the world kill many of our endangered species for some pitiful reasons. But until I read this, I don't think I truly knew how widespread it is, how 'normal' it is, and how much of it even happens here in the U.S.

J.A. Mills forced my head out of the sand.

Now, I don't want to worry you. The book isn't written like some fire and brimstone religious sermon. It doesn't club you over the head with atrocities and try to make you feel like the lowest form of humanity for not being aware of this before.

In fact, the writing style is engaging, honest, personable, and incredibly readable. Is it a plea for humans to have a little more humanity? Absolutely. But it's done in such a way that you feel energized and hopeful instead of guilty and hopeless.

The author is fully aware of her own prejudices. I appreciated the fact that she tells you that some of what she once thought were ignorant ideas about the health benefits of some animal parts actually have some basis in science. No, it still doesn't excuse cruelty and atrocity, but it was refreshing that she admits her own ignorance. You also witness her journey from the kind of activist who wants to scream injustices to the world, to a true advocate who still wishes to change the world, but does so with education, understanding, and heart.

The book is an adventure story that presents important truths, a ton of hope, and just may light a fire for change.

*ARC Provided by Amazon Vine Program.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

No Bollywood Fairy Tale Here

Title:  A Bad Character  Author:  Deepti Kapoor
Title:  A Bad Character
Author:  Deepti Kapoor
Publisher:  Knopf

I've read books before which have modern day female Indian protagonists, but they all seem like Bollywood meets Chick Lit. This one isn't a Bollywood fairy tale.

This is a challenging and emotional read, the depth of which far surpasses its scant physical length. Our narrator tells her story poetically - short bursts of lyrical writing that sometimes feel almost more like prose poetry than anything else. The storytelling is disjointed, moving between different times, places, and even emotional states. She's isolated and striving for something, anything, that makes her feel wanted and relevant.

A character in and of itself, India is frightening - particularly for a young female. While I saw the beauty and excitement of modern India, I also felt intently its seedy undercurrent. It seems, in the book, a country where some insidious thing sneaks up on you until it devours you.

Frightening as the book makes it seem, India is also presented as thoroughly modern, a place where ambition rules and makes things happen, though almost always for men.

I ended the book feeling drained, uncomfortable, and a little hopeless. I realize this is one person's view of modern India, and I hope it's colored by the perception of our isolated narrator, but this isn't an India I would want to visit - much less live in.

Well written, disturbing, and a window into a world I'm not sure I want to visit. Just note, you may need a palate cleanser of something incredibly innocent after this one.

*ARC Provided via Amazon Vine Program

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"I Can't Read!"

Among the many Monty Python sketches (though it's been used other places, memorably with Marty Feldman in the Graham Chapman Role) that I feel get forgotten is this gem – The Bookshop Sketch.  Yes, I know it is a bit of a risk to use the punchline for the title of the post as if it might give something away, but the whole sketch contains a large kernel of truth as to not only how we relate to books, but how different we all can be in relating to them. It also got me thinking about my own reading process and how I relate to the books I read.  

Slightly different version to get a sense of the sketch:

I recently undertook the task of attempting to read two books as objectively as I could manage.  The first book was one I went into with the expectation of extreme displeasure and near dread; the other gave me a sense of sheer joy just to hold it and expected to love it.  Instead of allowing those feelings to drive the experience of reading each book, though, I tried to experience them with a bit of distance.  The results of the experiment is, well, not entirely surprising.

Pure objectivity is impossible.  We all bring bias into our reading, which is why my results are not wholly surprising.  There are schools of criticism which attempt to remove the reader completely from the process and plenty that bring the reader to the center of the reading process, but neither is what I was aiming for.  I was not reading with an eye to a specific criticism but rather an eye toward not letting my predisposition toward each book completely influence my reading of them.

By not focusing entirely on the parts I loved or hated, I found that each book had problems, one more than the other in my opinion, but the point of the exercise was not about comparison either.  Rather, the exercise was about the experience of being as neutral in my approach to reading each book.  Had I allowed myself to be blinded in the process, driven by whatever expectation I had coming into each, I would have been like the bookseller in the sketch – making assumptions about what the customer.  In fact, the reasons I downgraded or upgraded my assessment of each book were for somewhat unexpected purposes that could best be classified as quirks of each author's writing style.  In the case of book I wanted to hate, I found there were redeeming qualities in characterization from time to time.  Likewise, book I wanted to love required me to get past an overhyped sense of drama in order to be completely in love with it.  I was able to focus on the clever turns of phrases, depth of characterization, and leaps of logic or suspense that worked and didn’t work in each book and came out a bit more, well, neutral.  I wasn't so neutral as to completely change my assessment of either book completely, however.

So, about that sketch.  I’ve always connected to Bookshop Sketch because of the growing absurdity of the customer’s requests and the fact that John Cleese so brilliantly plays the quick to anger bookseller.  What I didn’t quite connect to until I looked at it from the angle of a reference librarian was the fact that it truly is about the customer’s inability to read.  The level of innocence, despite the customer’s occasional use of big words and referenced literary classics, is something that we lose over time because of our reading experiences which is why objective reading, after a time, is near impossible.  It’s a convoluted mess, as difficult as finding '‘Stickwick Stapers’ by Farles Wickens with four M’s and a silent Q' one might even suggest. If we’re reading with an eye to understand a book and not automatically disparage it for whatever reason, well, we might just find a lot more to like.

A Snapshot of Chinese Culture

Title:  China A to Z
Author: May-Lee Chai, Winberg Chai
Publisher: Plume

China A to Z is a great little cultural encyclopedia for those of us who may be a bit intimidated by travel to China. Addressing everything from popular scandals to how the Chinese view interracial relationships (especially interesting to me as my daughter is half Chinese), this is a very worthy snapshot of modern day Chinese Culture.

Separated into categories, it's easy to skip to the categories that most interest you, but each entry is worth reading. Not only do you learn about things like the types of food you may be served, but why they may serve it to you, and how to avoid eating certain things while still remaining sensitive to the needs of your Chinese hosts.
Although the book is honest about some of the negatives about Chinese culture (i.e. the treatment of some of their ethnic minorities), the overall impression is of a country of warm, friendly people who have a real curiosity about non-Chinese.

The book made me want to travel to China and when I eventually do get there, I'll definitely use this as a reference!

*ARC Provided by Netgalley for review purposes.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Parents should read "The Honest Truth" by Dan Gemeinhart along with their middle-grade children

I received a free ARC of this book from the Amazon Vine program in exchange for a review.

This is a middle-grade book that offers something to both the intended audience (ages 8-12) and the adults in their lives. And each group will feel differently about what is happening in the book. For that reason, I think it would be great if parents read this book along with their children and talked about their reactions to what is happening.

My initial reaction to this book was "Ugh, not another sick kid book. It's going to be such a depressing downer." I didn't decide to read it until I read some other reactions and I am glad I didn't let the subject matter turn me away from it. Because it is not so much about a sick kid as it is about love and loyalty and friendship and dealing with unwelcome news. With a big dose of adventure tossed in to keep the kids from getting bored.

The main character is Mark, a tween or young teen boy who starts out the book by running away from home. The reason is not at first apparent to the reader (other than from what is in the book synopsis) but he has a goal and a destination in mind and knows that he probably won't be returning. He takes some money, some supplies and his dog Beau. Back at home are his best friend Jessie and his family. The story unfolds in half chapters -- the full chapter numbers are Mark's first person narrative and the half chapters are about what is going on back home and told in third person, primarily from Jessie's perspective.

I don't want to give away any spoilers yet (see below) but as an adult reader, there were so many times when I wanted to reach through the pages of the book and talk to Mark and Jessie -- to tell him to call his parents and have them come get him and to tell Jessie to tell Mark's parents what she knew. The choices the young characters face and what they decide to do is probably the most important reason for adults to read and talk about this book with their children/students. It would be really interesting to hear what middle-grade readers think of those choices and whether they would make the same choices as the characters.

The strength of this book is that I was emotionally invested in Mark from the very beginning of the book. His personality, his feelings, and most importantly his relationship with his dog and his friend Jessie shine so strongly that you can't help but care what happens to him, to Beau and to Jessie.

For the younger readers for whom this was written, Mark has a lot of adventures -- both good and bad -- on the way to his destination. That action, along with the great character the author has created, keeps this book from turning into the depressing downer I worried it would be. I think it is a must read, both for the target middle grade readers and the adults in their lives.




The elephant in the room with this book, is that Mark has had cancer since he was five and has recently learned that the cancer has returned. This is what sparks his decision to run away. And he isn't just running away. He is running away to climb Mt. Rainier with expectation that he will die on the mountain. This doesn't make it exactly a suicide book because Mark assumes that he is dying already and doesn't want to put himself and his parents through his illness and cancer treatment any more. The interesting thing is that there are several instances along his journey when Mark could have either been killed or chosen to die but at each point he chooses survival and continues trying to reach his goal of reaching the top of Mt. Rainier. And finally one dramatic event makes him affirmatively choose life.

I was reminded throughout the book of the real life story of Brittany Maynard, the young woman with terminal brain cancer, and her decision to end her own life on her own schedule. Again, there is so much in this book for both adults and tweens/young teens.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Martian: In the voice of a snarky scientist

Note: I received a free copy of this book from Blogging for Books, in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve been hearing lots of good things about this book, so I was happy to accept a review copy. Until I realized that there were already more than 5000 reviews on Amazon, and I needed to think of something new to add to the conversation.

Let me start by saying that I wasn’t at all surprised when this book won a GoodReads Choice Award. It offers a compelling story of an astronaut left for dead on Mars, and his struggles for survival. The Martian includes some of the most exciting passages that I’ve read in a long time. It’s not all perfect—especially at the beginning, when I thought the whole book might be from the perspective of one character with no human interaction, I was a little bit worried, but that worry dissipated when we did eventually get to see the reaction of people back on Earth. No matter how compelling the protagonist is, other characters are important. 

But rather than giving a detailed survey of the book’s pros and cons, I want to focus on one aspect that I found particularly striking: the language. The vast majority of the book consists of log entries from the stranded astronaut, and their tone and style are unlike any I’ve encountered in a book before. The writing is much more casual and contemporary, basically what I would expect to find in a blog or livejournal, or in regular conversations with my friends. I actually think this is a very good thing; it fits the character perfectly, and his constant snarky remarks made in a normal tone of voice make it much easier to relate to this brilliant scientist.

Some examples, beginning with the first line of the book:

“I’m pretty much fucked.”

“I’ll lose half a liter of water per day to breathing until the humidity in the Hab reaches its maximum and water starts condensing on every surface. Then I’ll be licking the walls. Yay.”

“The guy just plain owned that landing.”

“There’ll be a lot of H20 at the end, but I’ll be too dead to appreciate it.”

“Once I got home, I sulked for a while. All my brilliant plans foiled by thermodynamics. Damn you, Entropy!”

I’ve seen other reviews complaining about the tone, describing it as childish or otherwise unliterary.
And maybe it is childish, but it actually seems perfectly natural to me, and I’m almost 30. This is the way people actually communicate, and it was somehow both surprising and satisfying to see it reflected so well in a book. I want to emphasize that this isn’t text-speak, just a slightly less formal register of English. You would not find expressions like “pretty much”, “fucked”, “yay”, “owned” (in that sense), “too dead”, or “Damn you, [inanimate noun]!” in formal writing.

It’s not that I’ve never seen casual language in a book before, but I’ve never found that the language was so familiar. I guess this is the casual language of educated nerds in their 20s or 30s. It’s not the casual language of valley girls, or the uneducated, or whatever other non-standard language normally appears in books. It’s non-standard in a smart, self-conscious way.

I also think the light tone was absolutely necessary in a book that otherwise includes a lot of logistical calculations and science. I don’t normally read hard science fiction, and in some ways this was harder than I’d like. The casual snarkiness is what made the book readable, and even then I was happy when we sometimes moved away from Mark Watney’s perspective to see the responses of people back on Earth.

Andy Weir has done a lot of interesting things with this book. I realized it’s been a long time since I read a “classic” science fiction novel about space travel, possibly because NASA abandoned its space program a few years ago, so it felt fresh enough just to see a modern take on the issue. Then there’s the matter of language, which again made the book feel very fresh and unique, while also seeming completely natural. Readers who are very opposed to hard science may want to look elsewhere, but if you have a science background yourself, even one that you’ve since abandoned, you’ll probably find a lot to like here. This is a contemporary novel with a very relatable protagonist, who may be a brilliant scientist but also feels completely like one of us. I’ll be happy to read anything else that Weir writes in the future.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

$pread - When Sex Workers Speak

Title:  $pread
Author:  Rachel Aimee, Eliyanna Kaiser & Audacia Ray (and others)
Publisher:  The Feminist Press at CUNY   3/17/15

I had never heard of $pread, but I was interested in this book, simply because it promised first person essays from people I don't know much about - those working in the sex industry.

Now, because of my unfamiliarity with $pread, I have to admit that I found the initial introduction and history to be just a little tedious.  I really didn't care about what lead them to create their magazine or how it transformed.  I just wanted to hear the voices of the people in the industry.

But you need to keep reading past the introduction because the essays are amazing.  They come from everyone from strippers to prostitutes to adult film actors.  They talk about race, age, and taboos.  They are heartfelt and hopeless and every last one of them comes from someone who is smart, savvy, and has something important to say to the world.

You'll never look at sex work the same again.

One of the most fascinating essays is 'Stripping While Brown' by Mona Salim, as she lets the reader know her experience as one of the few Indian women stripping in New York.  The reactions of clients and employers was eye-opening, as was her unique experience of many of the stereotypes that exist in the industry.  

In fact, race is a large part of quite a few of the essays as they explore how white adult actors are treated (and paid) in comparison with black or Asian actors.

Other essays deal with reactions of family and friends, once the truth of their jobs is revealed.

Every essay has merit, though some few can be hard to read.  These woman meet with prejudice, violence, and social disdain on a regular basis.

Sex workers become the buyer's sexual fantasy.  They are walking, talking dolls and it can be incredibly hard for people to think of the human who lives behind the lingerie, cameras, and sex toys.  $pread reminds you that not only are these women human, but they are smart and funny mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends.

A worthwhile book that deserves a wide audience!

*ARC Provided by Publisher for review purposes.

Monday, January 5, 2015

"The Stolen Ones" by Owen Laukkanen is my favorite in the Stevens and Windermere series so far!

"The Stolen Ones" is the 4th book in the Stevens and Windermere series of thrillers written by Owen Laukkanen. I have been reading them since the first one ("The Professionals") and this one is my favorite so far, but I have enjoyed them all. 

Even though the stories of each book stand alone, I recommend reading at least the first book in the series before reading this one so you get some background on how the main characters started working together.  And really, because this book doesn't come out until March, you have plenty of time to read the first three books before reading this one.

I started reading this series because I thought they were Minnesota-based thrillers and this is my home state.  But although they generally start in Minnesota, I wouldn't call them Minnesota mysteries because the characters end up traveling across the country to solve their cases.  In this book, for instance, the action starts in Minnesota, then goes to Montana, Nevada, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York.

I continued reading this series because Stevens and Windermere are such an engaging pair of crime fighters.  Kirk Stevens is a middle-aged Minnesota white guy with a wife and two kids.  He works at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.  Carla Windermere is his complete opposite:  she is a beautiful young single black woman from Miami who has been assigned to the Minneapolis office of the FBI.  In the first couple books they end up working together by chance on cases that intersect but in later they work together on purpose.

In this book, Stevens is on vacation in northern Minnesota with his family and gets called in to check out what should be an open-and-shut case of a local deputy shot by a young woman.  But he discovers things are not as easy as they first appear and calls in Windermere and the FBI when he realizes the young woman is a victim of sex trafficking.

One of the other reasons I enjoy this series so much is that the author gives the criminals as much personality -- and time in the book -- as the main characters.  The book isn't all about the main characters trying to solve a crime, it is also about the criminals and what they are thinking and doing.  The author creates criminal characters who are fully fleshed out, not just villainous caricatures. 

The reason I like this book the best so far is that there are two more characters in this book whose points of view are followed -- the Romanian sisters Irina and Catalina who are part of a shipment of Eastern European girls brought to the U.S. to be sold into the sex trade.  They are young but feisty and courageous.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a fast-paced exciting and interesting police procedural thriller.

I received a free ARC of this book through the Amazon Vine program in exchange for a review.

The Hunger of the Wolf

Author:   Stephen Marche
Publisher:  Simon & Schuster (February 3, 2015)
(Book provided via Amazon Vine program)

The editor of this book has compared the author to both Neil Gaiman and to Colson Whitehead. The Gaiman reference is not at all accurate and I fear that Gaiman fans will be left scratching their heads at the comparison. The Whitehead comparison is apt.

In The Hunger of the Wolf, Marche turns a horror sub-genre into a literary novel. How successful it is, will depend, I think, on your own literary preferences.

While the horror trope that defines the underlying 'illness' of the brothers Wylie is presented as real in the story, in truth, it's just a metaphor for the wildness within. One brother learns to wield that wildness, turning it into a blessing that results in untold wealth. Another brother can't tame it, and the beast within causes horrors.

For those of you who love a literary family saga, I think you'll really enjoy this. The writing manages to be lyrical, while still somewhat scornful of the practices of the world's richest men. And since the horror trope in question is more a metaphor, you'll find there's nothing genre - or popular fiction - about this.

For those of you who love horror lit, you'll likely find this lacking. You may find yourself bored with the intergenerational saga of riches lost and earned, and of strong men and stronger women who hold a family together through terrible things. This is definitely not horror, though there are horrible things that happen.

As for me, I can appreciate the beauty of the writing and the scope of the saga presented, however I did miss the horror. Just my preference.

This is not a quick read. It's more the meandering book that you read while sipping a cup of tea and appreciating a well turned phrase.

I just wanted a little more popcorn.