Thursday, July 28, 2016

#28 [2016/CBR8] "The Host" by Stephenie Meyer

Yeah, I'm not ashamed to admit that I've read all four Twilight books by Stephenie Meyer. I was curious what all the fuss was about--both positive and negative--and they were easy to read. The Host (2008), on the other hand, was a selection by my book club. It wasn't something I would have chosen to read on my own, but I was also curious to see Meyer's take on science fiction. ***Beware of spoilers ahead. I believe that anyone who was actually interested in this book must have read it ages ago.***

The human bodies on Earth have been overcome by alien parasites. They call themselves "souls" as they infiltrate their hosts' brains and bodies. The souls take on the life and habits of their hosts, and the only sign that the humans are not humans anymore is a silvery shine in their eyes when in direct light. Souls are much more cooperative than individualist humans, and once they've taken over, there is no violence, poverty, or hunger. Everyone works for the good of the community and everyone has a place. Defected bodies and minds are either fixed (with unrealistic--even by alien standards--technology) or discarded.

Melanie Stryder is one of the few real humans left on Earth. She and her little brother, Jamie, were on their own before they ran into Jared while breaking into a house for supplies. Jared is, of course, Melanie's true love, even though he is in his twenties and she is seventeen (if I'm remembering correctly). Things are going relatively great for the trio until Melanie sees her cousin on television and decides she has to travel across the country in order to try to find her. What!?! I allowed the coincidence of Jared and Melanie happening to break into the same house at the same time in order for their meet cute, which is ridiculous if you think about it for more than one second. But Melanie is a fugitive, living out in the woods and scavenging for food. How often is she hanging out watching television? And her cousin is hiding on the other side of the country. What is she doing running around in front of news cameras?

However unrealistic, Meyer needed a reason for Melanie to leave Jamie and Jared, so that she can be captured by the souls. But when the aliens insert a new "soul" into Melanie, Melanie is strong and knowledgeable enough to not lose herself entirely. Wanderer, a soul whose lived in a number of drastically different bodies and worlds, without finding a place where she wants to stay, is the new soul in Melanie. And although Wanderer controls Melanie's body, she quickly discovers that Melanie is not gone from her mind. Melanie is able to convince Wanderer through her memories and force of will to look for an enclave of humans out in the desert, where she knows Jamie and Jared were heading.

So, Melanie/Wanderer make it out there, but the humans, not understanding that a part of Melanie has survived are not particularly friendly. Some of them want to kill her and some want to experiment on her. And some are just really angry and beat her up. Eventually, Ian, one of the gang who tried to kill her at first, decides that he likes her. And so begins one of the weirdest love triangles/squares in literature. Melanie loves Jared. Wanderer loves Jared because of Melanie's memories. Melanie cannot stand Jared and Wanderer getting close. Jared is kind of attracted to Wanderer because she's nice and looks like his old girlfriend. Ian begins to love Wanderer. Wanderer cannot fully love Ian because of Melanie's memories, but she does like him. Melanie does not like Ian.

There were a couple of things I liked about this book. First, it was an interesting idea to do an invasion of the body snatcher story from the point of view of the body snatcher. Meyer brought up the idea that two souls would have a human child and love it so much that they would keep it human. I also appreciated how the "souls" justified their occupation and murder of an entire species through their cooperative and enlightened living. In many ways, humans and the Earth were better off with the souls, but you can't ignore what it cost to get them there.

On the other hand, there were many things that irritated me while reading this book:

-When Jared first runs into Melanie at the house he kisses her, a stranger, with no warning. It was a little creepy for a hero.

-Speaking of creepy, Meyer seems to have a thing for sticking her heroines with older guys. So, Jared is a little older than Melanie, which probably isn't that big of a deal in the scheme of things when you're the only two humans left on Earth and you're trying to survive. But Meyer emphasizes the age difference, and Jared makes sure he waits until Melanie is eighteen before they have sex. Then, when Wanderer comes back (spoiler), she is sixteen and the first thing she thinks is that she'll have to lie to Ian about her age, so they can have sex right away. Ewww. Why can't Meyer just make her heroines a little older? What made this even squickier is that Meyer's descriptions always focus on how small Wanderer is, like she's describing a child--how Wanderer's hand disappears inside of Ian's.

-Wanderer is an incredibly frustrating character whose primary/only traits are fear and selflessness. She spends a large portion of the book cowering and being attacked. She never does anything to defend herself and only acts heroically when she is protecting Jared or Jamie. A number of male characters in the book beat her, and she immediately forgives them and/or tries to protect them. Even in the end, her final decision is that she should just die. It's the humans who create the happy ending for her. She never goes after anything for herself.

-The male characters in this book have an amazing urge and capacity for running along dark tunnels carrying women in their arms. (I'm very glad they did not try to replicate these scenes in the movie).

Okay, that's all I can come up with right now. I did read this book quickly, wanting to figure out how this narrative could possibly resolve itself, and there were those couple of things I found interesting. On the whole, however, (and I'm not sure if it's just because I read it so long ago) I think I prefer Twilight.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

#27 [2016/CBR8] "Everything I Never Told You" by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You (2014) by Celeste Ng is a remarkable novel. I picked it up because it was on my list of 21 Books From The Last 5 Years That Every Woman Should Read. I didn't have any expectations, but I ended up being very impressed with Ng's quiet characterization and intricate family drama.

At first glance, this novel could be a murder mystery. Sixteen-year-old Lydia Lee doesn't show up for breakfast, and her bed hasn't been slept in. When her body is later dragged from the nearby lake, her parents start looking for a murderer, while officials suspect suicide. The rest of the book is the exploration of what led to the death of Lydia Lee. Ng goes back and delves deeply into each member of her family and their dynamics with each other and the rest of the world.

Race plays a pretty large role in this book. James Lee is the son of Chinese immigrants who grew up isolated and alone, obtaining free tuition at the elite, private boarding school where his parents worked. As a professor, he ends up meeting and marrying Marilyn, one of his students. "It was 1958; in Virginia, in half the country, their wedding would break the law." (51) Marilyn, a white woman, once dreamed of becoming a doctor but was stifled by both her mother and society. Marilyn and James are both defined and limited by their race and gender in clear ways that affect them and their children forever.

Their three children: Nathan, Lydia, and Hannah have their own struggles. One of these is growing up half-Chinese in their all-white, suburban Ohio neighborhood in 1977. Quite often, their other struggles involve meeting the expectations of their parents or dealing with their disappointment.

It is the relationships that are the most well drawn and memorable parts of this book. The relationship Marilyn Lee had with her mother was both achingly sad and clearly showed how Marilyn had become who she was. "[Marilyn] thought with sharp and painful pity of her mother, who had planned on a golden, vanilla-scented life but ended up alone, trapped like a fly in this small and sad and empty house, this small and sad and empty life." (83) In addition, the unspoken thoughts and misunderstandings that drive James and Marilyn's relationship were both realistic and haunting. It's amazing how much we don't say in relationships, and how much the other party assumes based on their own ghosts. "It has been so long since he thought of his wife as a creature of want." (251) Ng gets inside every character's head, so the reader can see where everyone is coming from in this intricate story.

Perhaps most relevant to Lydia's death and the central part of the story are the relationships of the three kids to each other and to their parents. Lydia is the golden child, burdened with the expectations of both parents. "And Lydia herself--the reluctant center of their universe--every day, she held the world together. She absorbed her parents' dreams, quieting the reluctance that bubbled up within." (160) Nathan is too much like his father for his father to be proud of him. "James would think back to this day in the swimming pool, this first disappointment in his son, this first and most painful puncture in his fatherly dreams." (92) But Nathan has become relatively comfortable with his role in the family, and he is very excited to be leaving the next year for college. Hannah, the third, unexpected child, is a quiet observer and mostly forgotten by both her parents and siblings.

My short explanations do not do justice to what Ng achieved in creating this family. It's like watching a detailed documentary that manages to honestly interview everyone about their entire lives and leave no secrets unturned. The relationships feel real, and you can see the insecurities passed down through generations--all in different ways. I found this book remarkably sad--and not necessarily because of the death of Lydia--but because of the many, quiet moments between characters who are trying their best but end up hurting one of their loved ones in the process. Definitely recommended.

"For the rest of the summer, and for years after that, they will grope for the words that say what they mean: to Nath, to Hannah, to each other. There is so much they need to say. (282)

Monday, July 25, 2016

#26 [2016/CBR8] "Lies We Tell Ourselves" by Robin Talley

When we learned about the Civil Rights movement in grade school, we watched videos of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speeches and some of the protests. I remember being horrified at the racist, white people screaming with all the righteous indignation their stupidity could muster. I figured they must  be so ashamed of themselves now--having been caught on the wrong side of history with their violent ignorance. As much as those videos affected me, I still did not understand the reality of living in the South as a person of color in the 1960's. And I'm sure I still don't, but after reading Robin Talley's Lies We Tell Ourselves (2014), I have a much more personal, visceral idea of the fear that comes when the people in power, the ones in charge of the laws and rules of civilization, are more than willing to hurt you for your perceived differences.

Robin Talley begins her book with Sarah Dunbar, her sister, and a small group of Black high school children on their first day integrating the local, white high school after a prolonged legal battle. The parking lot is full of angry, white people screaming at them and Sarah is legitimately afraid that they will be attacked and possibly killed before they even make it into the school. The all-white police force is standing by, but there is no doubt where their loyalties lie. The small group sticks together with the older kids trying to protect the younger ones as they make their way through a gauntlet of screaming insults, taunts, and petty assaults.

It doesn't get any better once they get inside the school. The physical danger is always there, and the isolation and demeaning insults continue. Most of the teachers contribute to--rather than help diffuse--the hostile environment. Sarah Dunbar, an honors student at her old school, finds herself in remedial classes for no reason, and she cannot participate in any extracurricular activities. The Black students are under a tremendous amount of pressure to make this integration "experiment" work. The civil rights leaders and their parents are counting on them to be the beginning of meaningful change.

The constant threat of physical harm combined with the knowledge that they have no recourse for harm done to them reminded me of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and how Black people have communicated terror down to their children. "Nothing is mine anymore. Even my own body isn't mine." (Talley 85) I kept thinking of the long-term damage this continued fear would wreak on Sarah. I don't know how she could have lived through those experiences without developing PTSD. This book clearly paints a picture of where some of that terror Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about came from. I would definitely recommend reading both.

If Sarah Dunbar's personal story of integration were the entire novel, this would be a fascinating story, but Sarah has even more to deal with. She has discovered that she is attracted to women. Not even knowing what that means, she instinctively knows she should be ashamed. But she can't help her attraction to Linda Hairston, the daughter of one of the town's most influential and vocal opponents of integration. Forced together on a school project, Linda comes to know and sometimes understand Sarah in a believable way.

This book came highly recommended from a Cannonball review, and it lived up to the hype. Perhaps my only complaint is that Talley tied things up a little too neatly in the end, especially considering the challenges Sarah was facing.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

#25 [2016/CBR8] "Darkness" by Karen Robards

I generally really enjoy Karen Robards' novels, so I was excited to get her latest, Darkness (2016), when it finally came in at the library. I can usually count on her for some romantic adventure and excitement. Her books can be a little too violent sometimes, but I'll overlook it if she sucks me into the story. Unfortunately, this one just didn't do it for me. I did listen to it on CD instead of reading it, but I'm pretty sure reading it wouldn't have made too much of a difference in this case.

Gina is a professor and bird biologist on a research trip on the remote island of Attu with a small group of like-minded people. While speeding along the ocean in a motor boat, intent on tracking a bird before the approaching storm, a small plane crashes directly over her head and into the sea. Gina follows the boat and pulls a wounded man out of the ocean. The two barely make it back to shore before the worst of the storm hits. With the rest of her team back at the base or spread out on the island, Gina finds herself isolated and alone with this stranger.

Cal used to be military and is now something of a private contractor, delivering an Edward Snowden-like character and some valuable information back to the United States. When he is betrayed and the plane is shot down, he is the only survivor. Cal knows they will come after him and is deeply suspicious of Gina, even though she just risked her life to save his and is obviously exactly what she says she is. The rest of the book involves Cal and Gina running around the island, trying to stay safe from the murderers on their tail.

I had a number of problems with this book. First, the plot felt convoluted, unfocused, and unfinished. We had the Edward Snowden character, who promptly disappears, the betrayal by Cal's friend, a number of other shady bad guys, Gina's traumatized back story, and Cal's relationship with his father. Each strand could have been interesting, but they all felt unfinished. Secondly, the descriptions of camping in the snow felt like they were written by someone who has never been in a tent. It was jarring and kept taking me out of the moment. Tents do not muffle the noise of a storm, the noise is amplified by all the nylon billowing about. You can't sleep in a cold tent without a sleeping pad, you will lose all your heat through the ground. I can't imagine anyone hiking and camping in the middle of a snowstorm in jeans. Also, it seemed to take one hundred pages for Gina to get Cal out of the water. He would have died of hypothermia--even without the gun shot. I know our heroes are supposed to be larger than life, but I couldn't buy it.

However, my main problem falls once again to the relationship between Cal and Gina. They are alone on a snowy island, being hunted by a band of heartless murderers, and all they do is bicker. The first time Cal kisses Gina, she's mad at him because he's just patted her down for weapons against her will. He tells her he kissed her to thank her for saving his life. Ugh. I don't even remember much of the rest of the love scenes. It didn't help that sweaty snowsuits are the least sexy of clothes. Finally, near the end, the two actually work together, but by then I'd already lost interest in them and the book.

Monday, May 23, 2016

#24 [2016/CBR8] "Displacement" by Lucy Knisley

I first heard of Displacement (2015) by Lucy Knisley from another Cannonball review. Knisley is a twenty-something writer who volunteers to chaperone her aging grandparents when they unexpectedly sign up for a cruise. I'd never read a graphic novel [or travelogue] before, but this one called to me for a number of reasons. First, the review was very positive and persuasive. Second, I have never been on a cruise, and I'm pretty sure that's been a good decision. Right now, most of my knowledge of cruises comes from David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. However, cruises are often on the table when it comes time to planning vacations, and I always like to hear more about them. Finally, one of the themes in this book is Knisley facing and dealing with the decline of her beloved grandparents. I have recently found myself in a similar situation with my father, and it was cathartic and moving to learn how Knisley dealt with these challenges.

This was a good, fast read that I would definitely recommend. The art is well done, Knisley is very relatable, and the story is engaging. From discussing the stress of flying with her grandparents, to her frustrations with caring for them, to the despair she feels when she realizes she is losing them, this book feels very honest  and real. The details are sometimes hilarious and sometimes sad, but they were always interesting.

Interspersed between descriptions of the trip are excerpts from her grandfather's recollections of when he fought in WWII. These are very different but equally fascinating little snippets. They are not only absorbing first-hand accounts of a different era, but the dichotomy between the handsome young soldier and the incontinent, old man are striking. It serves to remind us just how much he's experienced in his life, as well as how much he's changed. It also reminds us that no matter how young and healthy we are now, we will find ourselves in need of help.

Near the end of the book, Knisley includes a real picture of her with her grandparents on the cruise ship. I had so wholeheartedly swallowed Knisley's drawings, that I remember being startled by the photographic proof of the reality of this trip and these people. On the surface, this book is simple, fast, and easy to read. Even when I think back on it, I don't have much to say because it's pretty easy to sum up. Yet it has a knack for sticking with you emotionally. I'm glad I read it.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

#23 [2016/CBR8] "The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins

When a random woman at Costco goes out of her way to recommend a book to you, then you listen--especially when that book is already on your to-read list. I had to wait forever for The Girl on the Train (2015) by Paula Hawkins to become available at my library. I guess I wasn't the only one who had heard good things.

The Girl on the Train is a murder mystery. In many ways it reminded me of Gone Girl and other books by Gillian Flynn--primarily because both Flynn and Hawkins excel at writing unlikable characters. This story centers around Rachel, one of the most pathetic protagonists I've ever seen. She is an alcoholic whose husband left her for another woman. Her drinking caused her to lose her job, and she's living with a friend who is too nice to kick her out. She spends her time on the train, pretending to go into the city for work, chasing after her ex-husband, and drinking. I can't remember another book where I was cringing so hard and so often at the protagonist's actions.

The train always slows down at the same point in the tracks, and Rachel always watches out the window to get a glimpse of the image of her "perfect" couple. They look so beautiful and loving as they drink coffee on their rooftop deck, and Rachel has invented a romantic backstory for both of them. What makes this semi-obsession with strangers even more disturbing is that their house is just down the street, and even the same design, as the one she used to share with her ex-husband. When Rachel's perfect woman ends up murdered, Rachel's unhealthy interest in the case has her recklessly throwing herself into the middle of things. To make matters even more difficult, Rachel blacks out when she gets drunk and can't trust her memories.

Besides Rachel, the story circles around two couples: Rachel's ex-husband Tom and his new wife Anna as well as Scott and Megan--the perfect couple from the train until Megan is killed. The characters in this book are, on the whole, disturbing, and I would rather not know any of them. It did make for a fascinating story, though.

On the whole, this was a well-written book with believable characters, a nice, twisted mystery, and plenty of suspense. The nature of the story and the characters' poor choices had me cringing throughout the book, and I felt like I needed a hot shower once I finished. However, I would recommend it to anyone interested in dark, gritty, psychological mysteries.

If I had any complaints, it would be that the male characters had less nuance than the female characters. We get chapters from the point of view of Rachel, Anna, and Megan, so it is easier to know their feelings and sympathize with them. The men, on the other hand, remain mysterious through most of the novel. And although they range in degree of awfulness, their awfulness seems to come more naturally and unexplained than the women.

Monday, May 16, 2016

#22 [2016/CBR8] "The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child (2012) by Eowyn Ivey is a book I had never heard of and wouldn't have chosen to read if it weren't for my book club. In fact, after reading the description, I was dreading it:

Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart--he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season's first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone--but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees.

Ugh, four hundred pages of a snowgirl/fairy tale book. My plan was to read the first twenty pages or so, get frustrated with it, and stop. Since my book club is more about meeting up with old friends than critical discussion, it's better to show up than to read the book. But once I picked it up, it was much more realistic than I was expecting, and I found myself getting into it. The book sucks you immediately into Mabel's isolated, sad, and lonely life. Jack, her husband, is the only human being for miles, but he is outside almost all day trying to farm and they barely talk to each other. Ivey paints a very realistic portrait of a despairing couple in a cold, dark place. I became so relieved to see glimpses of a potentially happier life for the two: a moment when they connect, or becoming friends with their closest "neighbors."

There is still a fairy tale snowchild--the part of the book's description that turned me off so much in the beginning. Faina is the young girl who begins to appear around Jack and Mabel's cabin. This aspect of the story did not bother me nearly as much as I was expecting. Faina balances a thin line between real child and fairy tale, and there are times when you wonder what she really is. I was fascinated that from Mabel's perspective, Faina was a fairy tale, but Jack saw her only as a little girl. If they had talked more often and earlier to each other, they would not have had such disparate views. Either way, she is a strong, independent character, and her presence allows Jack and Mabel to have a kind of family they were never expecting.

I spent most of the book immersed in Jack and Mabel's growing relationships: with each other, with the land, with their neighbors, and with Faina. I had some interest in finding out what Faina would turn out to be and what would happen to her. Without getting into spoilers, there is what you could call a lack of closure in the end, which bothered some of my book club friends. I don't think it bothered me as much, but the ending was probably my least favorite part of the book.

In the end, this was a happy surprise. I do like being forced to read books I would not have otherwise read--especially when they're better than expected.

***SPOILERS***
There were many points throughout the book where I thought Faina would disappear or die. Her fox is killed, she sleeps with a boy, she stays in the summer after the snow melts. Yet Faina only loses herself once she gives birth to a child. I don't know if the author was trying to say anything with this, but it brought to me the sacrifices women often make to have children.