Sunday, February 22, 2015

#9 [2015/CBR7] "Voyager" by Diana Gabaldon

Voyager (1994) is Diana Gabaldon's third book in her Outlander series with Claire and Jamie. I flew through Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber even as I realized they had some problems, but this one finally slowed me down. I started reading it back in December and skipped around to many other books while I was pushing through it. Like all of Gabaldon's books, a lot happens in this one. For all intents and purposes, it is impossible to review Voyager without spoilers to the first two books. And while I'm at it, I may as well spoil the hell out of Voyager as well.

So, we find out that Jamie barely survived Culloden. After making it home, he hides out in a cave in Lallybroch for seven [?] years. And then he gives himself up for the reward money and goes to prison where he meets Lord John Grey. John Grey falls in love with Jamie because Jamie is irresistible and saves him from transport to America when the prison is closed. Jamie is sent to work as a servant at a rich home in England where he fathers a son with the daughter of the house. Eventually he makes it home, marries Laoghaire [what!?!], and becomes a printer and smuggler in Edinburgh.

Jump two hundred years into the future and Claire's been busy herself. She gave birth to Jamie's daughter, struggled to live with Frank, and became a doctor. When Frank dies and her daughter, Bree, graduates from high school, Claire heads back to Scotland where she discovers with Roger's help that Jamie is still alive and probably living in Edinburgh. At this point, she leaves her life--this time by choice--and goes to find Jamie.

I really enjoyed this part of the book--for the  most part. The trick was that I jumped ahead and read Jamie and Claire's reunion. When I knew when and how they found each other again, I could relax and read the build up with more patience. And it was fascinating to finally find out what had happened in those missing twenty years. The only thing that bothered me was Claire's leaving Bree. Claire kept saying, "Oh, she's an adult now and she has Roger." Of course she doesn't want to leave her, but seriously? Bree is a teenager who just lost her dad and found out she has a different father living in the past. Sure, she has Roger, who the reader can guess will be important to her, but this is a guy she's known for a week or two. At the very least, I needed more acknowledgment of what she was doing. I also didn't see how Bree, Roger, and Claire--all living in the same house--could sneak out to the stones without hearing each other.

After Claire and Jamie meet up, it is nonstop adventure with smuggling, prostitutes, slavery, cross-atlantic travel, deadly illness, and shipwrecks. Jamie's nephew, Ian, is kidnapped by ship and Jamie and Claire take after him, afraid of the wrath of Jenny. The search for Ian spurs the book to its conclusion.

I think I've figured out what I like and dislike about Gabaldon's books. I really enjoy her writing, her word choice, and her descriptions. I am never bored while reading about the day-to-day lives of Jamie and Claire. However, I often have a problem with her big picture plotting. Recalling the larger plot points make me groan. Of all the women in Scotland, Jamie marries Laoghaire? What are the chances that Laoghaire would even end up near Lallybroch after Culloden? And why wouldn't Claire mention at some point that the reason she was disobeying Jamie again and visiting Geillis was because Laighaire sent her that note? I think there could have been better and more realistic drama if Jamie had married that woman he slept with in the cave. We don't need all the characters to follow us through the entire series.

The coincidences quickly became too much. Jamie and Claire jumped off two different ships into the ocean and ended up in the same place. The first person Claire meets in a deserted part of Haiti [?--Sometimes I don't pay too close attention to locations] is the naturalist that Jamie had happened to meet in Edinburgh. Later, it appears that Claire's only real friend from the future just happened to be descended from slaves on a plantation that Geillis had taken over. I felt like there were approximately ten people in the entire world and they all kept running into each other. I also felt some of the depictions of Mr. Willoughby and some of the slaves felt a little dated and uncomfortable. Even all of Gabaldon's gay men seemed to have "long lashes that fell across their face."

Finally, that whole thing with Geillis? Geillis was a good, creepy character, but I was kind of happy to be finished with her in the second book. But now she's moved to Hispaniola and is kidnapping young Scottish virgin lads to rape them and kill them? Wouldn't it be easier to rape young lads who lived a little closer? And she's planning something with Bree? Claire seems to think she's gone crazy from all her STD's, but does that really explain anything? I have one last question. Jamie is a wanted man and is trying to avoid British territories, but he's okay with being in Georgia, another British colony?

I have heard that these books are just going to get longer, but I'll keep reading them, eventually, even if I am sometimes frustrated.

#8 [2015/CBR7] "A Lady by Midnight" by Tessa Dare

I enjoyed my first Tessa Dare novel, A Week to be Wicked, so I figured I'd give Dare's next novel in the series a try: A Lady by Midnight (2012). I'd already been introduced to the main characters in the previous novel. Kate Taylor is an orphan of unknown origins, raised in a strict school for ladies. Having been educated in the art of music at school, Kate earns a respectable living teaching music to students at Spindle Cove. Corporal Thorne has had more than a tough childhood himself as well as some time spent in jail, but he's turned himself into a respectable and courageous military officer stationed at Spindle Cove.

Kate is very alone in the world with little prospects for marriage. Although she lives a comfortable life and likes teaching music, she yearns for a family. She's noticed Corporal Thorne since he moved to Spindle Cove the year before, but he is always standoffish and rude to her. However, when she is stranded in town and Corporal Thorne comes to her aid--with a puppy!--things heat up.

At the same time, the Grammercy's, an eccentric, but very rich family come to town and claim that Kate is her family. Kate is excited but Corporal Thorne is suspicious and they enter into an engagement in order for him to be in a better position to protect her.(?) I guess there is a little mystery surrounding Kate's past, but it is not a large part of the story. What follows primarily is a push and pull between Kate and Corporal Thorne. She likes him. Yet even though he makes out with her every chance he gets, he's decided that he's incapable of love and unworthy of loving Kate.

Unfortunately, this is not one of my favorites. I much preferred A Week to be Wicked, which also had a ludicrous plot but was more fun to read. I liked Kate and thought she was a fun heroine, and I was a great fan of the puppy. However, Corporal Thorne is not my go-to hero. He's so dark and brooding and he never acts like he actually likes Kate--except maybe for giving her the puppy, but that felt more like passive aggressive acquiescence than a well-meaning gift. I think I've figured out with this book that reluctant heroes are not my thing. It is just not sexy or romantic to be rebuffed and denied. Kate put her heart out there time and again and got nothing in return. When he finally gives in, I couldn't understand what was different.

Usually I start reading a romance novel and I don't put it down, but this one held very little urgency for me. It took me forever to read the last fifty pages. And instead of finding Thorne's ***spoiler, not really*** "lock me up in jail" idea romantic, I was just irritated. Once again, Thorne runs away, blatantly ignoring Kate's feelings, arrogantly ordering her to marry a man she doesn't love, and making her do all the work to get them together! I'm not giving up on Dare, but I may pick more carefully in the future.

Friday, February 20, 2015

#7 [2015/CBR7] "The Gift of Fear" by Gavin De Becker

It's not every day that I hear about an almost twenty-year-old book from both Mrs. Julien and Amy Poehler. Yet that's how I came to learn about The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker. I'm pretty sure Mrs. Julien mentioned it in an offhand manner in a comment at some point. And then Amy Poehler cited it as her most-quoted reading material in Yes, Please. I didn't realize it was written way back in 1997 until I went and found the book at the library. I was afraid I was going to find some out-dated, fearmongering tome urging women to not go out at night and hide away in gated communities because of the dangerous world we live in.

Instead, Gavin De Becker wrote a very practical book about the danger and violence we face in American society today. In fact, I kept looking back at the copyright page because The Gift of Fear felt so progressive and up-to-date. I couldn't believe it was written in 1997. He addresses situations like Columbine and other mass shootings before they even happened, and his understanding of the aggressors, what makes them violent, and how to see it coming was incredibly insightful.

Gavin De Becker grew up in a violent household, but instead of falling into the cycle of violence, he became "the world's leading expert on the prediction and management of violence." [Wikipedia] His security company helps celebrities, governments, and corporations deal with disgruntled employees, crazy stalkers, and potential assassins. Because of his many years of experience, De Becker's book is littered with examples and anecdotes of real-life stories that underscore many of his lessons and keep his book fascinating, if a little disturbing. Although every once in a while, The Gift of Fear felt like an advertisement for his company, it was effective. If I had a stalker and some money, I'd definitely hire De Becker.

Gavin De Becker focuses on a number of different topics that affect our safety. He discusses attacks by strangers, domestic violence, children who murder their parents, stalkers, employee violence, and assassins. He is clear about the frequency of these attacks and which ones are most likely to affect us. He notes how the media worsens violent situations in a couple of ways. First, the media almost always gets reports from neighbors saying the perp seemed like a nice, quiet guy and the violence "came from nowhere." Yet he points out that the violence almost never comes from nowhere. Perpetrators usually have a violent childhood as well as previous violent offenses. Second, in the case of assassins, the media should stop glorifying killers--putting them on the cover of magazines and delving into their lives like they're some kind of misunderstood hero because it just encourages other assassins.

De Becker also tries to persuade the reader to let go of worry that doesn't help you. "This is fairly simple since, as I noted above, real fear occurs in the presence of danger and will always easily link to pain or death." (285) For instance, if you are a woman walking alone, it is a waste of energy to be afraid of every man you run into. It can even distract you from real dangers. If you are in an elevator and a man gets on at a different floor (which means he wasn't following you) and he doesn't engage with you, then he is an unlikely threat. On the other hand, if a man approaches you, insisting he help you with something, and doesn't take no for an answer, he's more likely to be a danger to you. De Becker discusses how women are taught to not be rude, but he encourages women to be aggressive about their safety and not care what others think--again, refreshingly progressive.

"It is understandable that the perspectives of men and women on safety are so different--men and women live in different worlds. I don't remember where I first heard this simple description of one dramatic contrast between the genders, but it is strikingly accurate: At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them." (65)

The Gift of Fear was a fascinating and exacting look into violence in our society. It was refreshing to read a more realistic view--one supported by evidence and statistics, rather than the hysteria that surrounds much of the news reports on this kind of thing. Definitely recommended.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

#6 [2015/CBR7] "Orange is the New Black" by Piper Kerman

I watched only a bit of Orange is the New Black on television before I lost interest. I couldn't connect with the main character, and I found the storyline a little troubling. I couldn't understand why we needed a rich, white woman to tell us about prison, and the humor of it hit me the wrong way. But the show continued to grow in popularity, and I continued hearing about it. And then I noticed the book, Orange is the New Black (2010) by Piper Kerman on the bookshelves. I hadn't realized that the book--and the show--were based on a true story. I was suddenly intrigued.

I think most people know the basic plot by now, but Piper Kerman is a graduate of Smith College. She's looking for something different and exciting and falls into a relationship with a woman who organizes international drug transactions. Primarily a hanger-on, Piper carries a suitcase full of drug money on a flight to Europe before giving up on her girlfriend and moving to San Francisco. In San Francisco, Piper settles down in a career and finds the man of her life, and they eventually move to New York. Six years after her illegal activity, when she is living her life in New York, Piper is indicted for money laundering and drug trafficking. It takes another six years before Piper serves thirteen months at a federal penitentiary in Danbury, Connecticut.

Piper Kerman finds herself, at thirty-four years old, losing absolute control of her life for a year in order to atone for crimes she committed twelve years before. On the one hand, Kerman knowingly broke the law, and she was certainly in a position where she could have made a great number of better choices. On the other hand, this was a short episode of her life that was long past. Besides maybe fulfilling some sense of duty and justice, incarcerating her at this point was not doing anyone any good.

I am thirty-five years old right now, and unlike while watching the show, I could wholly relate to Kerman's fears about prison. She goes into some detail about the shame of telling her fiance, her parents, her grandmother, her fiance's parents, and her friends about what she's done. Kerman's first day of prison had me crying and flying through the pages with anxiety. I've heard people complain that prison is too easy on the incarcerated: that they can sit around watch television, and have three meals a day. But I don't think they really comprehend the loss of freedom and the loss of dignity that accompanies all that. Not to mention that it's almost impossible to find purpose or meaning in your life when you have no control. And the food sucks. Kerman, in an all women's, minimum-security prison was in a much better situation than what exists in many other prisons, which we get a glimpse of near the end of the book. She was not a victim of violence and only occasional harassment from the guards and prison employees. She also had a relatively short sentence, frequent visitors, and a large support network of friends and family who sent her letters and books. Yet, think how crazy it could make you if you couldn't visit with your loved one because a prison bureaucrat didn't push through the correct paperwork in time.

As the book settles in, Kerman focuses on her day-to-day life while she was incarcerated as well as her relationships with many of the women living beside her. She chooses to focus on the more positive aspects of women supporting each other and working together to make their situation better. Kerman cannot avoid the discussion that many women are there for non-violent drug offenses that are tearing their lives, families, and neighborhoods apart. There is also a disturbing lack of preparation for the outside world. Kerman was leaving prison to go to the arms of her loving fiance, a waiting job, and her new home. Many women were facing unemployment, a violent family, and possibly homelessness.

I found this book fascinating, poignant, and relatable. It's almost convinced me to give the show another try, but that will have to wait until I finish re-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

#5 [2015/CBR7] "Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America" by Linda Tirado

"Here is how I have felt, as me: as a relatively young person who is perceived as white, who is naturally sociable, who is intelligent and well-spoken, who was taught well and as a result loves learning things, who is able to lift objects up to fifty pounds repeatedly. And many times, with all that going for me, I still saw no hope. I cannot begin to imagine how much harder it is for someone who faces more discrimination than I have or grew up without these basic tools that I am lucky enough to have."

I've gotten a number of book recommendations from Facebook these days. So when a friend posted Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America (2014) by Linda Tirado, I was interested enough to hunt down a copy. Hand to Mouth is an informative, unapologetic, and sometimes angry, explanation of what it's really like to be poor in America. This book is a fast read at a relatively short 224 pages. Tirado is a compelling writer, and the book stayed interesting and through-provoking until the end. However, I already had a healthy respect for some of the challenges of being poor, I wonder how someone who is not already sympathetic would view this book: someone who is so sure their innate abilities and strong work ethic made them so successful. Would this change their mind to a degree? Or would they continue to be unable to empathize with the plight of those not as well off? I'm not sure.

Tirado clarifies early on that she is writing about her personal experience, and she is not speaking for an entire socioeconomic class of people. She understands that being white and educated gave her advantages, even as she struggled. And it is her education and writing ability that gives her an advantage when telling her story. I would assume that there aren't too many young women with children and struggling in poverty who have the education, time, and will to write a book about their experiences. Barbara Ehrenreich tried to illustrate the challenges of surviving pay check to pay check on low wage jobs in Nickel and Dimed, but she was just visiting the "common people" (Pulp music lyrics. Please note that I am not denigrating Ehrenreich's book here, which I admired, just pointing out differences.). Although Ehrenreich endured hardships, it was for a limited time and she always had an out. On the other hand, Tirado's experiences are not manufactured but her own life story. "Working your balls off, begging for more hours, hustling every penny you can, and still not being able to cover your electric bill with any regularity is soul-killing." (8)

Hand to Mouth is a mix of descriptions and explanations of what it is really like to struggle for the basics with no safety net, as well as an explicit response to some prevailing negative stereotypes of poor people. She explains that it is almost impossible to save money when you are making so little, and that a precious five dollars a week saved only amounts to $60 after a whole year. She describes how something as simple as a flat tire,that would be a small annoyance to someone with money, can be devastating for those living on the edge. If you don't immediately have the money to fix it, you might lose your transportation to work and even your job. Tirado also explains that she had kids because she wanted a family and didn't feel that her family was complete and not that she was looking for welfare money.

"It's not like mental health clinics are thick on the ground, like the people who need their services." (46) Even though Tirado discusses her struggles with depression, she does not speak much to how mental illness and addiction affect and contribute to those living in poverty. The topic of mental illness and addiction and poverty and homelessness is something that I'd like to see addressed, and I wouldn't have minded seeing more of it in Hand to Mouth, but I appreciated how Tirado described her experiences. This is definitely a book worth reading.

Monday, January 26, 2015

#4 [2015/CBR7] "A Week to be Wicked" by Tessa Dare

All it took was Cannonballer Beth Ellen to say "fun banter" and I was typing in A Week to be Wicked (2012) by Tessa Dare into my library's catalog search. This is my first Tessa Dare novel, and even though it's not quite up there with my favorites, it was fun and enjoyable. I'm planning on reading at least one more book in the series, maybe even more.

A Week to be Wicked is actually the second book of what I think is a four-book series, so I think I may have missed a little set up in the first book between our heroine, Minerva Highwood, and hero, Lord Payne--Colin Sandhurst. The book begins with Minerva knocking on Lord Payne's door in the middle of the night, asking him to run away with her to Edinburgh, faking an engagement, in order to get to the Royal Geological Society meeting and win a prize of 500 guineas. Minerva's primary motivation seems to be to protect her beautiful, older sister from marrying Lord Payne--the well known rake.

Lord Payne refuses, but we must have a story and eventually they set out on their journey and many adventures. There is danger, lies, and sexual awakening on the road and everything ends as expected. At the same time, Dare sets up the romance for her next book.

Minerva is a fun character, smart, brave, and witty, as well as an amateur geologist. I did find her glasses distracting, though. I have horrible eyesight and have glasses when my contacts are out, and they are so not sexy. If you're trying to connect with someone, there are thick panes of glass in the way. When you're making out with someone, they get bumped all over the place, and if you take them off, the entire love making experience is a big blur. I appreciate that they added something to her character, but I don't need the reminder of what a bother they are.

The plot of this book was absolutely ridiculous. I felt like I was reading comical erotica more than anything remotely historical. The plot jumped from highway robbers to an orgy house in the country, but its saving grace was that it didn't take itself seriously and it was fun. I did love the banter between the two main characters. Although I got a little frustrated by Minerva and Colin's constant, "Oh, I'm not good enough for him/her" drama, the characters were likable and their relationship was sweet. I'm glad I read it and I'm looking forward to the next one.

P.S. I am not a fan of the cover. Those models are nothing like I imagined the characters, and are they supposed to be having sex? Also, they they resemble each other a little too closely for comfort.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

#3 [2015/CBR7] "The Wild Truth" by Carine McCandless

For whatever reason, I have been incredibly moved and impressed by everything regarding the story of the life of Chris McCandless. It started with Into The Wild (1997) by Jon Krakauer. I am a huge fan of Krakauer and how he digs so far into the details to get a fair and honest picture of his subject without losing the emotional empathy that makes us connect in the first place. I will read anything by him. When I heard they were making a movie, I was afraid they were going to butcher it, but I was surprised. I also fell in love with Eddie Vedder's soundtrack. So, when a friend pasted a link to The Wild Truth (2014) by Carine McCandless on Facebook, I figured I'd have to read it.

Carine McCandless is the younger sister of Chris McCandless, and she has a unique and personal view of the young man who left his family without a word and tragically died in the wilds of Alaska. She spoke with Jon Krakauer about her brother and parents when he wrote Into the Wild (1997), but she asked Krakauer to keep the details of their childhood from the book. Krakauer kept his promise. As far as I can remember (I read Into the Wild a long time ago), the reader understands that Chris is unhappy with his parents, but there's not a lot of detail regarding why. With The Wild Truth, Carine McCandless finally tells the whole story of her and Chris's childhood (as well as her father's other wife and kids). It is a revealing look into an already familiar figure, as well as a disturbing glimpse into a deeply dysfunctional relationship and family.

Chris McCandless is compelling, charismatic and tragic, so it wasn't surprising that I wanted to learn more about him. I was a little surprised, however, by how quickly I found myself relating to Carine McCandless. When I picked up the book, I wasn't expecting too much. It's hard to follow Krakauer, and McCandless is not a professional writer. But her writing was clear, descriptive and emotionally aware. I had a hard time putting the book down. I still sometimes yearned to learn these new details from Krakauer's objective perspective, but overall I was impressed by McCandless.

The violence disturbed me but what shocked me the most was the emotional abuse and manipulation by both parents towards each other and towards their children. I cannot imagine how difficult and traumatizing it would be to grow up in that household. The hypocrisy between the face they showed to the world and the life inside the home was striking.

The story seemed to focus on how Carine and her siblings were moving past their childhood, but I wonder if Carine has thought about how her parents still influence her. Carine's first marriage was to an abusive man, one who hid the violence until after the marriage. Yet the story of the abused child marrying an abuser is such a common story it's almost expected. She was young and she got out of it, but growing up in that house had to have affected her adult relationships, which she doesn't really explore.

Reading this story reminded me how much Krakauer made me care about Chris McCandless. It's very easy to imagine that Chris had gone to the woods and figured everything out. But this book reminded me that he was a troubled young kid who was dealing with a lot of heavy stuff. If he had made it out, he still would have been struggling with the baggage of his childhood. This hit me hardest when Carine described going to meet a man Chris had met on his journey and who he greatly admired. This man ended up beating on his wife in front of Carine.

I learned of this book from a friend who grew up in difficult and similar circumstances. At the very least, this book fights against the secrecy and shame that surrounds abusive households. I hope that those people reading this can find some comfort and understanding.

Now I need to go back and read Into the Wild again.