Thursday, December 18, 2014

#62 [2014/CBR6] "Heroes Are My Weakness" by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

I'm sure I've mentioned before that Susan Elizabeth Phillips is one of my favorite contemporary romance authors. Although I've been a little disappointed in some of her more recent books, I'm still far from giving up on her. So when her latest book, Heroes Are My Weakness, came out in August of this year, I was waiting for it. And months and months later, I finally got off the library's waitlist and downloaded the book. And I read it in a day.

Annie is virtually penniless when she arrives on a tiny island in a blizzard in the middle of winter in northern Maine. Having spent most of her savings taking care of her dying mother, Annie can't afford any lodgings besides the small cottage left to her by her mother. But there's a catch. The cottage sits right below the main house, owned by her mother's ex-husband, and the cottage will revert back to him unless she lives there for at least two consecutive months every year.

It just so happens that Theo (her mother's ex-husband's son [short-term step-brother?]) is currently living up in the main house, working on his latest novel. He is a dark, brooding hero, with unsubtle connections to Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre. Annie and Theo also have some history when they were teenagers when Theo acted like a psychopath and apparently almost killed Annie.

So, we all know where this ends, but there's a lot that happens in the middle--some of it odd, and some of it endearing. Most importantly, Annie is a ventriloquist, and she often talks to herself using the personas of her puppets. I found this disconcerting at first, but Annie has a unique talent, the puppets show her emotional transformation, and Annie uses them as a tool to help heal a wounded little girl. Not only uniquely original, they ended up being one of my favorite parts of the book.

There were also some odd details that get troublesome when you think about them too much, including the weird living requirement of the cottage, the supposed fortune hidden within the cottage, and some crazy old ladies. What was most problematic was that Annie initially believes that Theo was a psychopath teenager who tried to kill her when she was seventeen. And when she first arrives, she continues to believe him capable of attempted murder. The reader, of course, knows that there must be some explanation because he can't be a romance hero and a psychopath killer at the same time. But Annie wouldn't have allowed herself to get close to him, or spend any time with him, if she actually believed him to be as evil as he is presumed to be. She was playing practical jokes on him, snooping, and sneaking into his house at night. It was both stupid and creepy of her.

Yet I can glide past all these problems when I enjoy the read, and I enjoyed this one more than Elizabeth's last novel. It was nice to read about some new characters and a new location, instead of those derived from other books. Also, Phillips has a knack for taking lonely people and building a community around them, creating a little Eden where everyone helps each other in some way and everyone is improved. Maybe someday I will tire of her style, but I don't see that happening anytime soon.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

#61 [2014/CBR5] "Code Name Verity" by Elizabeth Wein

I've had Code Name Verity (2012) by Elizabeth Wein in my library queue for months. I think at least twice it came up, but I either forgot to check it out in time or ran out of time to read it. Part of the problem was I couldn't remember why I'd chosen to read it. I vaguely remembered that it was a young adult novel set during World War II that had something to do with women spies. I was imagining some kind of Disney-fied adventure with caricatured heroines running amok about the countryside. It wasn't a book that I was looking forward to reading. But when I finally began, I realized I could not have been more wrong.

"Verity" has been arrested by the Gestapo in a small town in occupied France. After being tortured, Verity agrees to tell the Commander everything she knows about the British war effort in exchange for her clothes and some time. Her written "confession" makes up the majority of the book and begins with, "I AM A COWARD." Verity goes into great detail about the happenings in jail as well as her time as an officer in the WAAF [Women's Auxiliary Air Force]. Her story centers around a female pilot named Maddie and their relationship. It is through Maddie's story that Verity has knowledge of various airplanes and bases used throughout Britain. The two become great friends and great partners, both excelling at different things and complementing each other when they work together.

This book reminded me at first of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, both because of the epistolary form of the writing, as well as the tone of the story. This book came across as much more mature than a young adult novel. Verity survives and recounts death, torture, and other tragedies, but her sarcastic wit and lack of self pity are heartening, keeping the story from getting too difficult to read and making us fall in love with her. The fact that Verity begins the story completely helpless and locked in prison ratchets up the tension and kept me reading

Code Name Verity passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. After reading so many young adult Dystopian novels with the cursed love triangle, it was incredibly refreshing to read a book centered on the relationship of two women. There are certainly men in the book, and some are incredible and heroic [such as Verity's Scottish brother, Jamie :) ], but they are not a large part of the story. I also appreciated that Verity and Maddie are brave and courageous, but not in necessarily the same way that men often are. Verity and Maddie first bond while talking about their fears. Verity is afraid of heights and Maddie panics when being fired on, but they push past these fears to accomplish remarkable things. Their relationship is one of the sweetest and most moving I have read in a long time. I could easily call this one the best novels I've read all year.

***SPOILERS***
I'm not sure if I'd really call this a spoiler, but this novel broke me. It tore me from the inside out. I wanted to cry through much of this book and sobbed through the last quarter. I finished it this morning and I tear up just thinking about it.

#60 (2014/CBR6) "Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness" by Susannah Cahalan

I've seen Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness (2013) by Susannah Cahalan around in bookstores and it caught my interest. So I finally picked it up. This was a fast read and a fascinating true story of  a 24-year-old woman who loses her mind, without warning and without explanation.

Susannah Cahalan is a reporter at the New York Post when her life starts slowly unraveling. It starts with a little paranoia, acting odd, and missing deadlines. Susannah's symptoms quickly progress to where she is almost impossible to live with: yelling at people, trying to escape from her parents house, and being completely irrational. Susannah's first noticeable seizure occurs at her boyfriend's apartment. When Susannah goes to see a well-known neurologist, he dismisses her symptoms and says she is most likely suffering from alcohol withdrawal and sends her home. It is only when her parents insist on more that Susannah is admitted into the epilepsy ward at the NYU hospital.

Once at the hospital, Susannah's problems are only beginning. She is a troublesome patient: paranoid, difficult, and constantly trying to run away. This, with her lack of continuing seizures, has the hospital staff ready to transfer her to a psych ward. Again, her good health insurance and protective and involved parents ensure that she gets the best of care. However, it is only as she worsens and becomes almost catatonic that the doctors finally figure out what is going on with her and what might possibly help her.

This section of the book was definitely the most compelling. Part mystery and part horror movie, I could both relate to Susannah as a person, and was incredibly disturbed by how close she came to not getting the medical help she needed. It's terrifying to know that you could lose any connection to the person you thought you were without any warning or control. Also, going into the book knowing Susannah was suffering from a disease, it was infuriating to read how her neurologist dismissed her symptoms and even exaggerated her drinking in her file.

"If it took so long for one of the best hospitals in the world to get to this step, how many other people were going untreated, diagnosed with a mental illness or condemned to a life in a nursing home or a psychiatric ward?" (151)

The rest of the book follows Susannah through her long recovery as she slowly gets back to her normal self. I didn't find this section quite as interesting, but it was still worth reading. Probably the biggest problem with this book is that we learn almost nothing about Susannah's life before her illness. Thus, it isn't really clear exactly what she's lost or what she's trying to get back to, and it's hard to relate to her on any level deeper than hoping she gets better. We know that she's a reporter and that she's worked at the New York Post since she started there as an intern at seventeen. She also mentions that her boyfriend is in a band and she considers herself a hipster, but that's about it. There is no doubt that the point of this story is Susannah's illness, and perhaps it's unfair to expect her to bare her soul in order to tell that story. However, when I compare it to books like Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it felt like something was missing. Her relationship with her both her parents changed dramatically through the course of her illness, but to understand the real impact of this change we need to know more about her relationship with her parents before her illness. For this reason, this book probably could have been more personal and more powerful.

Susannah Cahalan ends her memoir with the knowledge that twenty percent of patients with her condition relapse, and the fear that the madness might come back to her. There were two themes that stuck with me long after finishing this book. The first was Cahalan's unique insight into mental illness with her brief but well-documented plunge into psychosis, and how her personal perspective might change other people's attitudes on the subject. The second was the understanding of how quickly we can lose everything we use to define ourselves.

"The girl in the video is a reminder about how fragile our hold on sanity and health is and how much we are at the utter whim of our Brutus bodies, which will inevitably, one day, turn on us for good. I am a prisoner, as we all are. And with that realization comes an aching sense of vulnerability." (227)

#59 "The Sisterhood" by Helen Bryan

The Sisterhood (2013) by Helen Bryan was the latest selection of my local book club. I didn't choose this one and hadn't heard of it, but it looked interesting so I began it willingly enough. The Sisterhood is an ambitious novel that travels jumps almost 500 years and across continents: from Spain, to South America, to southern United States.

Menina Walker was found as a toddler, alone in a boat after a terrible hurricane in South America. There was no sign of her family, but she had an old medallion wrapped around her neck. She is brought to a convent orphanage and from there adopted by an American couple. The nuns at the convent send an old book that matches the medal along with Menina's new parents to give to her when she's sixteen.

Menina grows up as a good child and a people-pleaser. She does well in school and finds an interest in art. By the time she's nineteen, she's engaged to the rich, young bachelor of the town who is all about old money and politics. When the engagement falls through because her fiance is the worst fiance in the world, Menina runs off to Spain to work on her college thesis. Following a large number of very improbable coincidences that can only be explained through the work of fate or god, Menina ends up at the convent where her and her medal originated from. She spends time there, learning about five women who came to the convent seeking safety almost five hundred years before from some pretty horrible, violent men in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition.

On the whole, I enjoyed this book. The brutality and hypocrisy of the Inquisition were on sharp display as we learned about the women fleeing to the convent for safety. It also had a feel of women empowerment as we could see what a great difference the nuns were making in people's lives. The mystery of where Menina came from and the stories hidden in her book kept me intrigued. Bryan also managed to intertwine the theme of violence against women throughout history, which was moving. Unfortunately, I did feel that by the end, Bryan bit off more than she could chew. The stories of the women grow shorter and more stunted as the book continues, and the end of the book felt rushed. I think to be really satisfying, this book would have to be much longer, or Bryan should have kept her focus in Spain. I also felt that she tied up some loose ends with happily ever after relationships that were unnecessary and undermined what she'd been building throughout the book.

Monday, December 1, 2014

#58 (2014/CBR6) "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" by Karen Joy Fowler

I've read, and didn't particularly like, The Jane Austen Book Club, so I wasn't especially interested in reading another book by Karen Joy Fowler. However, what happens so often these days occurred again: I saw a number of positive reviews of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2014) on Cannonball Read, and they convinced me that I should give it a try.

The story revolves around Rosemary Cook, a rather aimless college student at UC Davis with little to no friends. We know almost immediately that Rosemary's had some traumatic childhood experiences that she buries with confusion and denial. Rosemary mysteriously explains that both her brother and sister left when she was a child, and that she hasn't seen them in years. As the story unfolds, jumping around from her childhood, to present day, and even to the future, we finally learn about Rosemary's secrets and how they continue to affect her and her family.

I guess you could say that there's a "twist" in this novel. I knew the basics before I picked up the book, but I kind of wish I didn't, so I won't discuss it until later in the review. However, I have to admit that it wasn't until I knew the twist that I was intrigued enough to give this book a try, so the spoiler might be worth it.

I'm having some trouble diluting the complexity of this book into a clear, concise review. There was a lot going on, with a lot to think about, and the mystery of the past to keep it going. This book could not be more different from The Jane Austen Book Club. Instead of cookie-cutter caricatures, these characters were unique, uniquely formed by their circumstances, and sometimes unlikable. It was tragic, philosophical, thought-provoking and definitely worth reading.

***SPOILERS***
In case you've already read the book or are interested in the mysterious twist, once the reader has some idea of the closeness between Rosemary and her sister, Fern, they learn that Fern is actually a chimpanzee. Her psychologist father decided to raise a chimpanzee along with his own child to study their development. Rosemary has a fascinating relationship with Fern, including jealousy of her abilities and a closeness that is unmatched. But like how most of these studies ended in real life, Fern is too large, destructive, and dangerous to stay with the family forever. When Rosemary is five years old, the family moves, and Fern disappears. Rosemary is left with no explanation but the guilt of feeling that it is her fault.

One of the fascinating aspects of this book is that Rosemary is recounting her five-year-old memories. Fowler does a very good job of getting inside the pysche of a young child and her understanding of the world; and even more impressively, the psyche of a five-year-old child who grew up with a chimp as part of a psych experiment. But this story isn't just about Rosemary, and this experiment affects the entire family in different ways. Lowell, Rosemary's brother, is older and more reactive. Instead of burying himself in denial like Rosemary, he rebels. In addition, Rosemary's mother breaks under the sorrow and the pressure while Rosemary's father is forced to shoulder all of the blame.

Finally, growing up with an animal as part of your family changes your relationship with animals. It would be impossible to write this book without taking a look at how humans treat animals in this world. Fowler brings up the issues of animal testing and cruelty to animals as a question without a good answer. "The world runs," Lowell said, "on the fuel of this endless, fathomless misery. People know it, but they don't mind what they don't see. Make them look and they mind, but you're the one they hate." (232)

I don't think there were any characters that I really liked in this book, which sometimes made it challenging, but the mystery of Rosemary's life kept it fast-paced. I'm also very impressed by Fowler's ability to juggle so many different things and make it work. I've now read the book weeks ago, and I'm still thinking about it.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

#57 (2014/CBR6) "Longbourn" by Jo Baker

"The room was dull now, and meaningless, with the young ladies gone from it. They were both lovely, almost luminous. And Sarah was, she knew, as she slipped along the servants' corridor, and then up the stairs to the attic to hang her new dress on the rail, just one of the many shadows that ebbed and tugged at the edges of the light." (53)

It's one thing to tell a new story with the basic plot of Austen's novels, such as Bridget Jones's Diary or Clueless, but I am immediately skeptical of anyone who attempts to take Austen's characters and add to them. One of my favorite novels is Pride and Prejudice, and I don't appreciate lesser authors bastardizing the world that Austen created. So it wasn't until I read a number of positive reviews here on Cannonball that I finally decided to read Longbourn (2014) by Jo Baker. And I am so glad that I did.

Baker managed to create an entirely new world and new perspective while sticking strictly to the upstairs script that Austen had already set out. Mr. and Mrs. Hill, Sarah, and Polly make up the household staff at Longbourn. Mrs. Hill is the long-term housekeeper, and Sarah is our main protagonist. Taken into Longbourn from the poorhouse as a child after her parents died, Sarah lives a life with shelter and dependable food but also consistently difficult manual labor and a limited, bleak future. The four have created a family of sorts, a definite comfort in their uncertain world.

"But the whole thing left Sarah feeling very ill at ease. It was all as arbitrary and as far beyond their control as the weather. To live so entirely at the  mercy of other people's whims and fancies was, she thought, no way to live at all." (167)

"And this was what money could do--it was a sort of magic. It turned thoughts into things, desire in to effect." (297)

A young, mysterious man, James, is soon added to the downstairs staff, and Sarah is immediately intrigued. Just becoming an age where she begins to question her situation and limits, James is a symbol of a world bigger than the kitchens at Longbourn. Baker continues the story, weaving love, class differences, and mystery all together in a book that has probably forever altered my perspective of Pride and Prejudice.

What struck me most about Longbourn was that Baker was able to take a story and people that I felt I knew really well and widen my perspective of their lives. Jane and Lizzie are still beautiful and thoughtful and they treat their staff well, but they are unaware of how their lives and their demands affect those downstairs. One could blame the Bennett girls for being so unmindful, but did you ever think of the servants while reading Pride and Prejudice? I would venture no. I would venture that the wonderful Mr. Bingley and the incomparable Mr. Darcy were far more interesting than the people in the shadows keeping everything running.

Baker also brings a much darker view of this time in England. With more historical detail, including how Mr. Bingley's fortune stems from slave plantations to the war in Spain, this world feels more violent, dangerous, and dark. "Wherever you are, Mrs. Hill thought, God watches over you. He just looks on at you, with a strange eye and an uncaring heart." (263) In addition, the well-known events that occur upstairs have very different consequences for those upstairs and down. When the Bennett girls begin to marry, a joyous occasion upstairs, it means less work and the inevitable split of the close knit family downstairs. In addition, Mr. Collins is not a usurper throwing the family out of their house, but a possible new boss who must be impressed.

"Sarah peered closer at her sewing, her lips pressed tight: Mr. Collins could not help his awkwardness. He could not help where he had come from, or what chances nature and upbringing had given, or failed to give, him. And if he did not know the by-laws of the household, it was because nobody  had told him; he was expected to intuit them, and then was blamed for his failure." (115)

With James, the mysterious footman, and the intricate relationships, both upstairs and down, this book often reminded me of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey. I really enjoyed reading Longbourn, and I look forward to re-reading Pride and Prejudice soon with a different perspective.

#56 (2014/CBR6) "The Silkworm" by Robert Galbraith a/k/a J.K. Rowling

I read the first Cormoran Strike novel for book club. I picked up the second Cormoran Strike novel because I'd already become attached to the characters, and I needed to find out what J.K. Rowling was going to do to with them. The Silkworm (2014) by "Robert Galbraith" follows the continuing story of Cormoran Strike, London private detective, and his assistant Robin.

When a dowdy, desperate woman walks into Cormoran's office looking for her missing, semi-famous, author husband, Cormoran takes her case despite his concerns about her ability to pay him. Almost immediately, he is thrown into a world of famous authors and their publishers. When the author comes up murdered in a grisly fashion that follows a disturbing scene from his latest manuscript, even more questions follow. Cormoran is sure that the author's wife is not the murderer, but the police are eager to find a killer, and the unsophisticated woman isn't adept at looking innocent.

With a great number of fascinating suspects and motives and a number of unraveling questions, I was impressed by what Rowling cooked up. My only complaint regarding the mystery of this novel is that Cormoran figures everything out way before the rest of us. And even though we are privy to his thoughts and conversations throughout the book, suddenly Rowling blacks out parts or whole conversations to keep us in the dark. It was manipulative and irritating, and I wish that Rowling could figure out a way for us to know what Cormoran knows without losing the tension of the mystery.

One fascinating aspect of this novel is that Rowling chose to place it in a world of authors and publishers. "If you want lifelong friendship and selfless camaraderie, join the army and learn to kill. If you want a lifetime of temporary alliances with peers who will glory in your every failure, write novels." (397) The egos, games, and intricate relationships between the authors and publishers, as well as their disdain for amateurs, was a large part of the mystery. I couldn't help but think of Rowling's personal experiences in this world and how she might fit in.

In addition, Rowling had one of her writers say, "...that the greatest female writers, with almost no exceptions, have been childless. A fact. And I have said that women generally, by virtue of their desire to mother, are incapable of the necessarily single-minded focus anyone must bring to the creation of literature, true literature." (298) I certainly don't think this is true, but it did make me wonder how many famous women authors are mothers. And it also made me wonder what J.K. Rowling thought of this statement, why she included it, and whether someone had ever said it to her.

Even with an intriguing mystery, what keeps me reading these books are the developing characters of Cormoran Strike and Robin. Cormoran is an injured war hero, tough and independent, but after losing his leg, sometimes completely helpless. He can be thoughtless, rude, and sexist, and he's still messed up from a long-term dysfunctional relationship. Being overweight and a smoker, he doesn't really appeal to me, and I have a hard time understanding how he ends up with all of these gorgeous women. However, I could read about him all day, and being imperfect makes him much more realistic.

Robin, for her part, continues to grow more useful and confident as Cormoran's assistant, and her character is probably my favorite in the book. In a lot of ways, Robin has the most room for growth, depending on what choices she makes in the near future. There is definitely some sexual tension between Robin and Cormoran, and part of the appeal of the books is to see how their relationship develops. Right now, I don't want to see Robin with Cormoran. He appreciates Robin, but the way he treats women as throwaway objects without feelings is disturbing. "He did not much like the reflection of himself he saw in her large mouse-like eyes. There was no denying that he had used her repeatedly. It had become cheap, shameful, and she deserved better." (431) At least he seems to becoming more aware of his actions, but she can still do better.

To sum up, I like these novels. They are entertaining, they are well-written, and the characters are unforgettable. I will be reading all the Cormoran Strike novels that J.K. Rowling chooses to write.