On Edge by Andrea Petersen (Review)

IMG_0001A courageous and engaging mix of personal account, scientific information, and historical background about anxiety and related disorders.

As someone who has experienced an anxiety disorder first hand, I found this book highly accurate, relatable, and encouraging

Although the author’s journey with anxiety is much more extreme than mine has been, it was vindicating to read about this condition from such a reliable and respectable source (The author is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal covering neuroscience and mental health).

This book resonated with me because much of the author’s experience lined up with my own, and because it ultimately has a positive and encouraging message.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has struggled with anxiety or who is close to a person experiencing this struggle.

[I received my copy of this book from bloggingforbooks.com in exchange for an honest review.]

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Tell Me How This Ends Well by David Samuel Levinson (book review)

Image result for tell me how this ends well david samuel levinsonOverview: In 2022, increasing antisemitism threatens American Jews. The disturbingly plausible vision of the near future features dystopian shades while remaining uncomfortably familiar. The book’s descriptions of driving highway 101 in LA, for example, will be recognizable to anyone who has experienced it, except for the addition of the suicide bombings that have become common, and the wet weather brought on by the effects of climate change.

Against this backdrop, the drama of the Jacobson family unfolds. The three Jacobson children – Mo, Edith, and Jacob – have come together to decide what they can do to help their ailing mother, who they fear is being driven to an early grave by their controlling father, who by all accounts is a terrible person. Their solution is patricide.

Complicating the plan to off their dad is the fact that the family has been the subject of a reality TV show, and the family gathering coincides with the filming of a reunion special.

Analysis: This novel fits a lot into its 400 pages. Each of the three younger Jacobson’s stories are intimate and relatable, the world is both familiar and terrifying in its plausibility, and the plot engages the reader to ask questions. For example, is the father truly as bad as he seems, or does he have his own story to tell? In all, an enjoyable, memorable novel that will appeal to fans of family dramas, humorous novels, and light speculative fiction.

Hardcover, published by Hogarth, New York. 2017.

I received a copy of this book from bloggingforbooks.com in exchange for an  honest review.

Speed of Life by Carol Weston (book review)

Brief Summary

Was thirteen the worst possible age to lose your mother? Maybe. Then again, there was no good age.

Speed of Life tells the story of Sophia Wolfe’s fourteenth year. Sophia lives with her dad in New York City, and her typical growing pains are complicated and colored by her mom’s sudden death the previous year.

Image result for speed of life carol westonIt seems like people — her friends, teachers, maybe even her dad — are beginning to expect Sophia to have healed from the pain of loss, but she hasn’t. In fact, she can’t imagine what it would be like to “get over” her mother’s death, or even wanting to do so.

Yet the speed of life slows for no one, and Sophia discovers that really living means being in the moment, whether time seems to be racing by or to be frozen. On top of this, she has to deal with issues like kissing boys, changing schools, and the fact that her dad may be ready to start dating again.

Speed of Life is a bittersweet story of loss, love, and growing up that will appeal to fans of thoughtful realistic fiction with an introspective and likeable female main character.

Thoughts

I enjoyed this book for the most part. I liked the characters and could sympathize with their feelings and struggles. I found the writing to be quite excellent, and the treatment of the subject sensitive and insightful.

Ratings

  • Plot: A- (Made sense; progressed logically; not overly predictable)
  • Characters: A- (Mostly dynamic, complex, and believable)
  • Realism: B (Overall believable characters and events)
  • Cover art: A (Cute and eye-catching)
  • Pace: B+ (Seemed slow at times, but mostly good)
  • Style & Tone: A- (Fit the character’s age and personality)
  • Overall: A-

Details

  • Title: Speed of Life
  • Author: Carol Weston
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky (April 4, 2017)
  • Length: 329 pages

More Info

The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party by Daniel James Brown (Review)

Review

Most people in states along the old emigrant trails across the U.S. have at least heard of The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party by [Brown, Daniel James]the Donner Party and the unfortunate events that befell them. In The Indifferent Stars
Above, 
Daniel James Brown retells the tale with a focus on a particular individual – Sarah Graves – and her family, who threw their lot in with the Donners and Reeds to tragic effect.

Brown’s style is intimate, novelistic, and readable, with an effective mix of historical detail, dramatic narrative, and science-fact analysis. For example, after relaying a captivating scene depicting the seemingly abnormal severity of the Sierran weather in 1846-47, Brown breaks to briefly explain what we know about the weather that year and how we know it.

While the author’s ability to mix a stirring historical account with informative detail is one of the book’s main strengths, the author’s tendency to also interject personal thoughts, conjecture, feelings, and opinions may be counted among its two primary weaknesses. However, these instances are rare enough to be overlooked in most cases, and some readers will recognize them as an effort to further humanize the people and the story, and to make them more immediately relatable. As the author points out, historical figures and events often seem so distant and removed from familiar experience that they are reduced to the names and faded daguerreotypes that have come to represent them, and it takes a special effort of imagination to restore them to full humanity.

The book’s second major weakness is its lack of supplemental materials. Besides a few photos of the primary characters and locations, there are none. Most glaringly,
there are no maps, and no index. Readers interested in photos, maps, and other historical artefacts will need a second source*.

Overall, The Indifferent Stars Above is an example of excellent narrative nonfiction, and is recommended for readers who enjoy this genre. The subject should appeal to a wide audience, but especially to those whose knowledge of the Donner Party is in the “none to moderate” range.

Personal Note

Growing up in Northern California, the Donner Party was always part of the fabric of regional history and folklore. In grade school I went on field trips to the Donner Memorial State Park, and drove over Donner Pass frequently on the way to camping trips near Lake Tahoe. That said, the story was never something I paid particular attention to. I knew the general outline of the history, but few details.

For my current job, I drive over the Sierras at Donner Pass three times a week and, when I think about it, it makes me wonder at the privilege we enjoy in modern technology and travel (especially in winter). Yet even today the Sierras in winter are still formidable. I’ve been stranded by snow storms on the wrong side of the pass on three separate occasions in the past two years, and although I weathered the inconvenience comfortably in a hotel room, the experience instilled a respect for the power of nature and the mountains in me nonetheless.

Reading this book brought home to me the stunning fortitude, effort, energy, faith, and hope it took just to embark on a journey such that undertaken by the emigrants of the 1840s, and the depth of the tragedy that befell the Donner/Reed party in the mountains. It is, as the subtitle declares, a harrowing tale, but well worth the read for anyone with an interest in American history. For me, it was particularly intriguing given my familiarity and acquaintance with so many of the places and regions in which the story unfolds.

Ratings

  • Style: A (narrative; novelistic)
  • Tone: B+ (engaging; interesting; not sensational; somewhat personal)
  • Pace: A (steady; maintains interest; narrative flows nicely)
  • Format: A (very readable; chapters broken into segments and scenes)
  • Supplementals: C (no maps!?)
  • Appeal: A
  • Overall: A-

The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party / by Daniel James Brown; published by Harper Perennial, c2009; paperback, 337 pages.

*For a source of pictures and maps, I recommend The Donner Party chronicles: A day by day account of a doomed wagon train, 1846-47 by Frank Mullen, Jr.

Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard [Review]

Pretty Little Liars by [Shepard, Sara]Details:
Title: Pretty little liars
Series: Pretty little liars, bk 1
Author: Sara Shepard
Published: HarperCollins, 2006
Blurb:
[From the author’s website, saracshepard.com]

“I’M STILL HERE, BITCHES. AND I KNOW EVERYTHING. —A

Everyone has something to hide—especially high school juniors Spencer Hastings, Aria Montgomery, Emily Fields, and Hanna Marin.
Spencer covets her sister’s boyfriend. Aria’s fantasizing about her English teacher. Emily’s crushing on the new girl at school. Hanna uses some ugly tricks to stay beautiful.
But they’ve all kept an even bigger secret since their friend Alison vanished. How do I know? Because I know everything about the bad girls they were, the naughty girls they are, and all the dirty secrets they’ve kept. And guess what? I’m telling.”

Review:
I was completely prejudiced against this book before I started reading it. I thought it was a trashy novel, a waste of time, vacuous, vapid, stupid, trivial, and probably a bad influence. After reading it, my prejudices were both challenged and confirmed, and I discovered something else. While the book was all the things listed above, it was also at least one other thing. Fun.

Sure, the characters are all horrible examples of people — or perhaps good examples of horrible people — but as messed up, amoral, and unlikeable as they are, they are also fascinating and human. Also, I was relieved to see at least one character exhibit signs of emotional maturity by the end of the book, which shows that the characters can learn and grow. The thing that really redeemed the story in my eyes, though, and helped to explain the series’ continuing popularity (not to mention adaptation into a tv show), was the writing.

Critically the writing is not especially good; but then neither is James Patterson’s in my opinion, yet that does nothing to dampen his enormous popularity. Like JP, Shepard writes well because her writing suits her purpose well, which is to tell an entertaining story. The language is simply a bare-bones structure designed to give the story a place to exist and to move the action along, and as such it works very well. I was not distracted by glaring errors or by bad composition. In effect, the writing was good.

It took a while for my opinion about this book to change. At a quarter of the way through I noted that my impressions were largely negative, mostly because I disliked the characters as people. Even at the end of the book, the thing I find most troubling is that there is very little to admire in any of the characters – the same problem I have with adult literature of the same type (Gone Girl, for example). However, I also noted that the story was quite evocative of a certain type of tween/teen girl experience. Although my own experience was vastly different from anything in the book, the story still brought up old memories and feelings from middle school and high school, which I wondered at and appreciated.

Verdict
Yes, it’s trashy, and yes, it’s stupid, and yes, it showcases the worst of teenage girl behavior. But it’s also fun and entertaining and escapist. I don’t see any problem with indulging in reading something like this from time to time. After all, just because you read National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, and the NEJM, doesn’t mean you can’t sneak a peek at the National Enquirer or Vogue once in awhile. So here’s the breakdown of my ratings:

Intellectual value: F
Entertainment value: A
Characters: C+
Plot: B
Writing: A
Overall: B

For more info:
Author website: saracshepard.com
Series info: wikipedia.org/wiki/Pretty_Little_Liars_(book_series)
Amazon page: Pretty Little Liars

Originally published by me on http://yablrb.blogspot.com/

Skin Trade by George R. R. Martin (Review)

Summary

“Skin Trade” is a graphic novel adapted from a short story by George R. R. Martin.

Willie Flambeaux is an asthmatic repo man, a nice guy, and also a werewolf. When a friend of his is killed and appears to have been mangled by an animal, Willie asks another friend, P. I. Randi Wade, for help. Randi’s father was a policeman, and died under similar mysterious circumstances. Together, Randi and Willie seek answers and search for the killer, and in the process uncover dangerous secrets.

Thoughts

At 104 pages long, Skin Trade is brief enough to read in one sitting yet long enough to tell a detailed and complete story. The reader is dropped into the tale in media res. The action is well under way, and the world and characters come into being fully formed.

The characters are complex, and the story pays respect to the old folklore staples (silver bullets, etc) while still achieving a high level of originality.

The art, by the ironically named Mike Wolfer, is top quality. It captures the gothic / noir atmosphere of the setting and brings the action to life with bold lines and violent color.

I would place this graphic novel in the same category as Stephen King’s “Silver Bullet,” and the classically campy “Howling” films.

I enjoyed reading this graphic novel, although I would not place it in my list of all time favorites. It was entertaining, but not particularly exceptional.

It took a while to become acquainted with the characters and the setting, and felt a bit like watching a mid-season episode of an established TV series – you can kind of catch on and get a sense of who’s who and what’s what, but you don’t have the same invested understanding as someone who has watched the show from the beginning. For a short, stand-alone story this can be a drawback, especially for readers who are not already inclined to like the story based on its author or subject.

Recommendations

I would recommend this title to fans of werewolf stories (especially the aforementioned “Silver Bullet” and “The Howling”), and to fans of horror graphic literature.

Contains nudity and graphic violence.

My Rating

  • Story: 3/5
  • Art: 4/5

Details

  • Title: Skin Trade
  • Author: George R. R. Martin; Daniel Abraham
  • Artist: Mike Wolfer
  • Publisher: Avatar Press, July 2014
  • Length: 104 pages
  • Description: 6.5 x 0.4 x 9.9 inches; color illustrations

 

 

February Reading Recap

It’s already March 4! I fell behind on my blogging last month; however, I did stick to my reading goal (exciting stuff, I know).

My February selections were:

  • Fiction – Human Acts by Han Kang
  • Nonfiction – Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia by David Greene
  • Book from the Past – The Story of My Boyhood and Youth – by John Muir
  • Other Format or Genre – Death of a Maid: A Hamish Macbeth Mystery – M. C. Beaton

Brief Reviews:

Image result for human acts han kangHuman Acts by South Korean author Han Kang is a novel of the Gwangju Uprising (Wikipedia).  In 1980, South Korean troops clashed with civilians protesting the government of Chun Doo-hwan. Although exact figures are disputed, some estimates put the death toll over 600, while over 3,500 were injured in the violence. Many of the casualties were young university students.

The novel is told through the perspectives of multiple characters who witnessed or took part in the uprising. Some chapters are written in the second person, which I found interesting. The tone of the writing is deceptively quiet in contrast to the violence of the content. I found myself wishing the title was Inhuman Acts, but maybe that’s the point, as the following quote from the book illustrates. In this scene, one of the witnesses is being interviewed by a professor for a book:

I heard a story about one of the Korean army platoons that fought in Vietnam. How they forced the women, children, and elderly of one particular village into the main hall, and then burned it to the ground. Some of those who came to slaughter us did so with the memory of those previous times, when committing such actions in wartime had won them a handsome reward. It happened in Gwangju just as it did on Jeju Island, in Kwantung and Nanjing, in Bosnia, and all across the American continent when it was still known as the New World, with such a uniform brutality it’s as though it is imprinted in our genetic code.

I never let myself forget that every single person I meet is a member of this human race. And that includes you, professor, listening to this testimony. As it includes myself.” – Han Kang, Human Acts, page 97.

This was the first book I’ve read by a Korean author, and I enjoyed the experience of learning a little bit about South Korea’s history, a topic on which I’m largely ignorant. I spent some time on Wikipedia researching the events portrayed in the book, and that helped alot with giving the story context and helping me understand it better. (I received a copy of this book from bloggingforbooks.com in exchange for an honest review).

Image result for midnight in siberiaMidnight In Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia is David Greene’s account of a trip he took on the Trans-Siberian express from Moscow to the Pacific port of Vladivostok. Not knowing much about Russia beyond what I read in the news and books, or see in films and games, it was interesting to get a closer perspective on the lives of everyday people across this vast and intriguing country. The author is a host of NPR’s Morning Edition, of which I am a frequent listener, and so it perhaps natural that the book had a journalistic tone and style. The book was interesting, although I did skim over some parts. It did not inspire me to travel to Russia.

Image result for john muirThe Story of My Boyhood and Youth is John Muir’s account of his early years growing up on his Scottish immigrant family’s Wisconsin farm, and was my favorite book this month. It’s relatively short (about 140 pages), and full of Muir’s beautiful prose and descriptions. After finishing it, I was astonished to discover that no major motion picture has yet been adapted from this story – it seems like it is ready-made for the big screen. Some of the highlights include the many formidable tasks his father expected him to complete on the farm, such as digging a 90 foot well through sandstone by hand with a chisel and hammer, and the many wonderful contraptions Muir invented, such as a clock that could light a fire in the stove. Muir’s deep passion for learning and for nature, and his empathy with living creatures is endearing and inspiring. I would recommend Muir’s writings to anyone who enjoys nature, but you do have to adapt to the somewhat old-timey language and slow pace. Reading a bit of it aloud in a slow, meditative way can help you get a feel for the language. If you do, you will enjoy Muir’s quiet humor, descriptive prowess, and charming storytelling.