Thursday, December 8, 2016

#53 [2016/CBR8] "Outer Dark" by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy is an impressive writer, but reading his books often feels like jumping into the middle of a disturbing nightmare. I've been reading through his works, but I don't read any more than one per year for my own sanity. This time it was probably more my state of mind, but Outer Dark (1968) turned out to be one of his more disturbing books. I'm going to take a nice long break before I read another. I think I only have Suttree left now anyway.

Outer Dark focuses on a brother and sister living in abject poverty somewhere in the Appalachians at the turn of the century. The sister gives birth to her brother's baby, and her brother, scared of the consequences, takes the child and leaves it in the woods to die. When the sister finds out, she takes off on a journey to find her child. The brother sets off as well. At the same time, three men rove the hills, evil and indiscriminate in their actions towards others.

McCarthy is intentionally vague about time and place. The brother and sister wander, separately, from town to town. Much like the protagonists, the reader has no notion of where they are, how close they are to the child, or how close they are to each other. Time is also very unclear. I thought the sister had been on the road for a number of days when she said she'd been on the road for months.

Like most of McCarthy's books, he does a wonder with his descriptions and the entire book is infused with the dread that horrible things can and will happen. There is no predictable plot. The book is more about the journey, atmosphere, and feelings he evokes.

***SPOILERS***
I am always impressed by Cormac McCarthy, but this book seriously almost broke me. Sure, McCarthy, just throw in a helpless newborn and have the mother look for it through the entire book, only for her to come upon its burnt-up body at the end. And even before it was killed, the child had lost an eye and been left scarred on half of its body. Wondering what happened to that poor kid made me want to throw up. Now, I know better than to expect a happy ending from McCarthy, but just one positive scene to balance out the unrelenting darkness would have left me with just a little bit of faith in humanity.

To be fair, there were a couple of people who were sometimes nice to the sister as she wandered the countryside. These scenes seemed to happen early on in the book and were still overlaced with dread of the sister's vulnerability and the possibilities of what could happen. I appreciate the ingenious darkness of McCarthy, but this book was no fun to read.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

#52 [2016/CBR8] "Coming in From the Cold" by Sarina Bowen

I've enjoyed Sarina Bowen's romance stories with hockey-playing college students. I was able to get Coming in From the Cold (2014) for free from Amazon, so even though I'd heard it wasn't as good, I knew I still wanted to read it. Also, I was going on a short camping trip in November, and I needed something to pass the time during the cold, dark nights. Although I was already reading a book by Cormac McCarthy, I figured I'd much prefer to read something a little lighter when I'm sleeping in the woods. That was a very good choice.

Willow is our heroine. She followed a man to a farm in Vermont where the man promptly left her. She is now stuck with a debilitating mortgage and a lot of chickens. She's drives into town one blizzardy night and almost runs into Dane Hollister. They both end up stranded on the road in the snow, and they spend some time in his jeep, waiting for the snow plow, and trying to stay warm. They have little interest in denying their immediate sexual attraction, and they act on it.

Dane "Danger" Hollister is a professional downhill skier. He is talented, fast, and skis like there is no tomorrow. His mother died of a horrible disease when he was younger, and now his brother is deathly ill. He thinks it is  just a matter of time until the same, degenerative disease hits him. Because of this, he does not get close to anyone, especially women. He'll have some one-night stands but relationships are off limits.

***SPOILERS***
Willow and Dane's one-night-stand was memorable for both of them, although they both try to forget about it and move on. Unfortunately, that's harder for Willow to do when she finds out she's pregnant. Ugh, you cannot imagine my disappointment with this plot point. Then Dane tears up his knee in a race and has to convalesce in his coach's new apartment on Willow's land. The two have a lot of baggage, both separately and with each other, but in the end it all works out.

Okay, I did find this one much less interesting than the other books I've read by Sarina Bowen. The relationship between the two seems to be based solely on mutual attraction. One thing I liked so much about Bowen's other books is that her relationships were such natural progressions from a well-formed friendship. I also did not like the pregnancy plot line. Being pregnant with a virtual stranger's child is not even remotely romantic. I also wasn't very impressed by the character of Dane. Yes, he was dealt a very bad hand, and his life is tragic. He's also something of an asshole. I had a hard time believing that anyone would isolate themselves as completely as he did. I also had a hard time believing that he would be able to keep any of his life private as he does in this book.

This book wasn't difficult to read, and I finished it quickly. Dane and Willow had good chemistry, but the plot did nothing for me. It felt unrealistic and not very romantic.

#51 [2016/CBR8] "Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol" by Ann Dowsett Johnston

I have been slowly and surely working my way through this list of 21 Books From The Last Five Years That Every Woman Should Read. The latest book I picked up was Drink (2013) by Ann Dowsett Johnston. Drink is part memoir and part hard look at drinking, alcoholism, and women. Johnston describes her own battle with alcoholism: how it developed; how it affected her life and family; and how she was able to eventually stop drinking. At the same time, she describes recently-occurring trends regarding women and alcohol, the costs of alcohol, and the stories of other women alcoholics--many of whom fell much father before they began their recovery.

I found this book something of a game changer in my perspective of alcohol. In my job, I see many of the costs of alcohol, including health problems and car crashes, so I didn't start out with a particularly high opinion of alcohol. Yet I was still surprised by some of what I read. My history with drinking is nothing exceptional, although it might help to see where I'm coming from. Almost all the drinking in my life occurred in college and law school, and that was primarily binge drinking. More recently, I've pretty much given up alcohol altogether. I detest feeling sick, so voluntarily making myself feel hungover was simply not worth it. At this point, even one beer will make me feel tipsy and kind of gross, so I don't go out of my way to have any.

Anyway, Dowsett does a very good job at showing how alcohol has pervaded almost every part of our society. One of her main points is that women have increased their drinking along with their increased equality. Alcohol companies see the potential of this previously untapped market and are making the most of it. Drinking is billed as both empowering and a convenient way to de-stress. There's "mommy juice" and the relaxing glass of wine after a hard day's work. Binge drinking is the accepted norm at college campuses, and there are conflicting studies on whether drinking, and how much, while pregnant will harm the fetus. If everyone drank alcohol responsibly, alcohol companies would lose fifty percent of their profits. They can be seen as the new tobacco companies when it comes to advertising focused towards teens and young people. Alcohol companies use the free market as best they can to increase drinking while many of the costs are simply accepted or covered over.

The costs are prohibitive. Dowsett throws a number of statistics around in the book, many of them based in Canada, but they tell a chilling story. Forty percent of car accident deaths are alcohol related. Alcohol is the second leading cause of preventable deaths after smoking. (I'm almost positive I'm remembering these correctly, but I had to return the book before I wrote this review and can't double check.) Then there's the violence and neglect that often goes along with families and alcohol abuse, as well as rape on college campuses. What makes this problem more complicated is that people can drink responsibly, have a glass of wine or a beer once in awhile and be perfectly healthy. I don't think we have the answer to this question, but how much does our alcohol-soaked culture contribute to people's relationship with alcohol turning toxic?

Dowsett's description of binge drinking on college campuses had me rethinking my college years. Everyone drank in college, and the only way to drink was to get drunk. It never occurred to me that it was causing harm, and it never occurred to me that there was any other way to drink. I was going to say I didn't have any particularly negative experiences with alcohol in college, but I did have a friend who ended up in the emergency room with alcohol poisoning, and another friend who was so drunk she passed out in the bathroom. Is binge drinking the only way to get through college?

Another topic Dowsett touches upon that had never really occurred to me was how hard it was for alcoholic mothers to get help. The stigma surrounding alcoholic mothers is so strong that most women in that position whom Dowsett talked to were terrified. They were scared of being judged and, most of all, of losing their children. Also, most AA groups and rehab centers simply do not have child care, which makes it impossible for some mothers to participate. But the costs of drinking while pregnant and giving your child the permanent effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is tragic.

I found this book eye-opening and very relevant to our culture today. I appreciated that Johnston put her own story out there. She described the allure of her alcoholism so well that she made me want to drink myself. However, I sometimes found her story a little disjointed and vague. She's already taking a big risk by talking about her alcoholism, so I understand why she would not want to bare too much of her soul, but I sometimes felt like I wasn't getting her full story. In addition, I had a hard time keeping track of some of the statistics. Many were used and they weren't always consistent. And I think the issues of too much alcohol in society in general and alcoholism specifically were sometimes muddled together. However, I admire that Johnston was able to shine a spotlight on the subject of women and alcohol and use her own personal story to make it more meaningful.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

#50 [2016/CBR8] "Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi

"How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it--not apart from it, but inside of it."

Homegoing (2016) is a far-reaching and impressive first novel by Yaa Gyasi. The book begins in the late 1700's on the coast of Western Africa with two teenage half-sisters. Both sisters are beautiful. Effia is "married" to the British, Gold Palace Governor while her half-sister Esi (unknown to Effia) is captured and sold off to the British and shipped off to become a slave in America. The book follows the progeny of each of these women through hundreds of years. One family line is caught in the horrific reality of slavery in America, while the other family line is, for a while, instrumental in the slave trade on the African side. Each chapter follows one child from each generation, switching between Effia's and Esi's offspring.

I was very impressed by this book. The scope of seven generations, two continents, slavery, war, and about fourteen different protagonists is a lot to keep track of when writing a novel. With very little time, Gyasi hit some important historical milestones and gave glimpses into reality for her protagonists across centuries. It almost read like a book of linear short stories that were tied together by kinship. Many of the characters and their stories were heartbreaking and memorable. A young child born into slavery is able to make it to freedom because of the sacrifice of his mother, only to have his free-born wife kidnapped and dragged back to the South many years later. Many of the characters highlighted aspects of American and African culture that developed because of the slave trade.

My one concern about this novel is that it covers so much ground that it was sometimes hard for me to feel connected to the characters. The first couple of chapters involving Effia and Esi worked very well for me. They both felt fully developed and I was emotionally engaged with them. However, the farther we got away from these characters, the harder time I had connecting. The beginning of each chapter was always an abrupt break from the one before: a different continent and a stranger brought new to the page. It always took some time to get my bearings, and the later characters did not feel as whole as Effia and Esi. In addition, there was relatively little description of the places and contexts of things. I had fewer problems with this in the American chapters because I am already more familiar with American history. However, many of the later African chapters were harder for me to imagine because I didn't already have a picture of the place in my head.

I'm not sure if it would even be possible to create such a sweeping novel and include the kind of detail that I wanted. But this was an impressive, sweeping novel, and I'm glad I read it.

"How could he explain to Marjorie that he wasn't supposed to be here? Alive. Free. That the fact that he had been born, that he wasn't in a jail cell somewhere, was not by dint of his pulling himself up by the bootstraps, not by hard work or belief in the American Dream, but by mere chance."

Thursday, October 20, 2016

#49 [2016/CBR8] "Carry On" by Rainbow Rowell

If someone had told me to read some Harry Potter fan fiction, I would have politely declined. It goes to show how much I like Rainbow Rowell that as soon as I learned of Carry On (2015), I put it on my to-read list. I will give anything by Rainbow Rowell a chance.

I've never heard of Rowell specifically stating that Carry On is based on Harry Potter, but the similarities are undeniable. Simon Snow is an orphan who grew up in various group homes and foster homes throughout England. It also turns out that he is the most powerful wizard of his time. He discovers this at the age of eleven or twelve when he is invited to go to the exclusive wizarding school. At school he becomes best friends with Penelope, and they have many dangerous adventures together. Simon's nemesis is Basilton or Baz (Draco). Unfortunately for both of them, they were chosen to be roommates and must suffer the other's company their entire tenure at school.

The book begins as Simon travels to school for his last year. The wizarding world is not in a good place. Holes--places that are void of any magic--are appearing throughout England and slowly growing. The mage (the headmaster as well as the leader of the wizarding world) is fighting with the older wizarding families and war is about to break out. Finally, there is an insidious "bad guy" who people call the humdrum that constantly attacks Simon.

At first I had a hard time with this book. I'd only recently read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, another Harry Potter book that didn't quite feel like the originals. Now I was reading another book that felt like Harry Potter, but there were enough significant differences in the worlds, that you can't merge the worlds. I kept catching myself giving Simon Harry's backstory. I also really prefer original characters and stories, especially when written by a different author.

If you read Fangirl, then it shouldn't be a surprise that there is a serious love/hate relationship going on between Simon and Baz. And once Baz got back into the picture and Baz, Simon, and Penelope started working together, the book picked up dramatically.

By the time I'd finished, I'd bought into Rowell's new creation of Harry Potter and his world. In some ways, I almost prefer it. I really liked Rowell's description of Simon's magical powers, and how they affected him and others around him. In addition, J.K. Rowling likes to kill all my favorite characters and then tie everything up into a nice little bow. Rowell definitely went in a different direction. In the end, I don't really understand Rowell's decision to tread upon such familiar ground, but once I got into it, her book was easy to read and made me think.

"(Just when you think you're having a scene without Simon, he drops in to remind you that everyone else is a supporting character in his catastrophe.)" (197)

#48 [2016/CBR8] "Soulless" by Gail Carriger

Werewolves and vampires generally don't do much for me, so I don't pick up paranormal romances on a whim. However, my book club chose Soulless (2014) by Gail Carriger, and they said it was fun. It also happens to be a steampunk comedy of manners, so I found that there was a lot more to it than Twilight and the Charlaine Harris books I've read.

I had a good time reading this book. The tone is fun, the writing is fun, and I loved all the names of the characters. There were a number of lines that had me smiling or laughing, and Alexia's preoccupation with clothing was entertaining.

The book takes place in 19th-century London in an alternate history. In this world, supernatural characters have been, for the most part, accepted and incorporated into society in England. Werewolves, vampires, and ghosts interact with regular people and work in the government.

Alexia Tarabotti, our heroine, is the only "soulless" woman in Britain, The general public is not even aware of the existence of the soulless. Alexi lives with her mother, stepfather, and two stepsisters. Because Alexi is half Italian, and does not conform to the current standards of beauty in England, she's been "put on the shelf" by her mother. Being seen as an old maid, as well as not caring what others think of her, allow Alexi a remarkable amount of freedom in a time and place that is otherwise be pretty confining for young, unmarried women.

The book begins with Alexia hiding out in a library at a ball. She left the merriment in search of food, and has rather rudely asked the servants for tea when she is interrupted by a vampire. The greatest advantage of being soulless is that as soon as she touches a supernatural creature, that creature loses his powers. After accidentally killing the vampire, she fakes a faint to avoid answering any questions from intruding party goers. And that's when Lord Conall Maccon, the Earl of Woolsey, alpha werewolf of the London wolf pack, and a high-ranking official of the BUR shows up to take control of the situation. The two obviously have a history and their banter is entertaining.

Many odd things are happening in the supernatural realm of London. A half-starved (and badly dressed) vampire attacked a woman at a ball. Lone vampires and werewolves are disappearing. And Alexia is being stalked by a scary wax-like man. As Alexia has become something of a target, Maccon takes it upon himself to protect her. It's obvious that two such strong-willed and argumentative people were meant for each other, and the more time they spend together, the more obvious it is.

Alexia Tarabotti was a fun protagonist. In many ways she reminded me of Amelia Peabody from Elizabeth Banks' books. Alexia is smart, independent, and strong-willed. She is also not afraid of exploring her sexuality..."but in the interest of scientific curiosity, she shifted her lower body away from him a handbreadth and peeked downward." (297)

I definitely enjoyed reading this book. The fun writing and the romance kept it going and easy to read. There may have not been much to the mystery or some of the other characters, but original and entertaining was more than enough for me. I will most likely get into the rest of the series, although I'm a little nervous that they will not live up to this first book.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

#47 [2016/CBR8] "Truly Madly Guilty" by Liane Moriarty

I think this is my fourth book by Liane Moriarty. I started with Big Little Lies, which I loved. It was one of my favorite books of the year. I was really looking forward to reading Truly Madly Guilty (2016), and I was very excited when I was finally able to get my hands on a copy. There were many things that I really liked about this book: I continue to be impressed with Moriarty's characters and lives. However, her concept was frustrating and is beginning to feel repetitive.

The story centers around three couples. Two of the women have been "best friends" since childhood, although their relationship is much more complex than the simple label would suggest. The small power plays and slights that often occur in their interactions stem primarily from dynamics formed in childhood. Clementine is a cellist. She is married to Sam, and they have two young girls. From the outside, they appear to have a perfect life. Erika had a much more difficult childhood and used Clementine's family as something of an escape. She is married to Oliver, a man with a troubled enough past of his own to truly understand Erika.

All we know at the beginning of the book is that an important "incident" occurred at a barbecue. It was something dramatic because it seemed to affect all of the characters that were there, and they're having a hard time forgetting about it. The book begins about six weeks or so after the barbecue and switches between events leading up to the barbecue and present time as we get to know what is going on with the characters.

Over halfway through the book, we finally get to the barbecue and find out what happens. When Erika and Oliver invite Clementine and her family over for an afternoon, they end up at the extravagant home next door owned by Vid and Tiffany--for a barbecue.

The biggest problem I had with this book is that I felt like Moriarty was not playing fair in telling this story, and I got frustrated. In order to not give us too good of an idea of what had occurred at the barbecue, Moriarty had to tweak things pretty hard. How many conversations can the characters have about the "incident" without just saying what happened? Also, ***possible spoiler*** as soon as the reader finally finds out what happens, the characters start calling it an "accident" instead of an "incident" which makes much more sense. Also, she started so many chapters with a teasing line: a character screamed, etc. that made you think you might have finally gotten to the "incident," but, no, there was just more backstory. ***end possible spoiler***

I cared about the characters, and I was interested in their lives, so when I thought I might have guessed what was coming, I was concerned and I was irritated by her playing around with me. Moriarty has used this technique in all of the books I've read by her, and it has never bothered me to this degree. I'm not sure if I'm just getting tired of it, or if the way she told the story, her plot was too reliant on this device. I sometimes wished Moriarty had told the story with a straight timeline and I wonder how that would have worked. Her characters are definitely well-defined and complex. Would it work, for the most part, without the built in tension?

Despite my frustration with some of the storytelling, this was an undeniably interesting read. The characters, their motivations, and their reactions are all deftly and believably written. I will be reading more of Moriarty's books, but I wish she would play straight with her readers.