Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Not-So-Beachy Reads

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. It’s beach reads week once again, and once again I wouldn’t touch anything that calls itself a “beach read” with a ten-foot pole. Beach reads just aren’t my thing. However, if I was going to a beach, here are ten books from my TBR shelf that I might bring.

My Not-So-Beachy Reads

The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

In 1886, a mysterious travelling circus becomes an international sensation. Open only at night, constructed entirely in black and white, Le Cirque des Rêves delights all who wander its circular paths and warm themselves at its bonfire.  
Although there are acrobats, fortune-tellers and contortionists, the Circus of Dreams is no conventional spectacle. Some tents contain clouds, some ice. The circus seems almost to cast a spell over its aficionados, who call themselves the rêveurs—the dreamers. At the heart of the story is the tangled relationship between two young magicians, Celia, the enchanter's daughter, and Marco, the sorcerer's apprentice. At the behest of their shadowy masters, they find themselves locked in a deadly contest, forced to test the very limits of the imagination, and of their love . . .

Beautiful You – Chuck Palahniuk

Penny Harrigan is a low-level associate in a big Manhattan law firm with an apartment in Queens and no love life at all. So it comes as a great shock when she finds herself invited to dinner by one C. Linus Maxwell, a software mega-billionaire and lover of the most gorgeous and accomplished women on earth. After dining at Manhattan's most exclusive restaurant, he whisks Penny off to a hotel suite in Paris, where he proceeds, notebook in hand, to bring her to previously undreamed-of heights of gratification for days on end. What's not to like?   
This: Penny discovers that she is a test subject for the final development of a line of feminine products to be marketed in a nationwide chain of boutiques called Beautiful You. So potent and effective are these devices that women by the millions line up outside the stores on opening day and then lock themselves in their room with them and stop coming out. Except for batteries. Maxwell's plan for battery-powered world domination must be stopped. But how?

Make Good Art – Neil Gaiman

In May 2012, bestselling author Neil Gaiman delivered the commencement address at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, in which he shared his thoughts about creativity, bravery, and strength. He encouraged the fledgling painters, musicians, writers, and dreamers to break rules and think outside the box. Most of all, he encouraged them to make good art.  
The book Make Good Art, designed by renowned graphic artist Chip Kidd, contains the full text of Gaiman’s inspiring speech.

She Is Not Invisible – Marcus Sedgwick

Laureth Peak's father has taught her to look for recurring events, patterns, and numbers—a skill at which she's remarkably talented. When he goes missing while researching coincidence for a new book, Laureth and her younger brother fly from London to New York and must unravel a series of cryptic messages to find him. The complication: Laureth is blind. Reliant on her other senses and on her brother to survive, Laureth finds that rescuing her father will take all her skill at spotting the extraordinary, and sometimes dangerous, connections in a world full of darkness.

Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread – Chuck Palahniuk

Representing work that spans several years, Make Something Up is a compilation of 21 stories and one novella (some previously published, some not) that will disturb and delight. The absurdity of both life and death are on full display: in "Zombies," the best and brightest of a high school prep school become tragically addicted to the latest drug craze: electric shocks from cardiac defibrillators. In "Knock, Knock," a son hopes to tell one last off-color joke to a father in his final moments, while in "Tunnel of Love," a massage therapist runs the curious practice of providing 'relief' to dying clients. And in "Expedition," fans will be thrilled to see a side of Tyler Durden never seen before in a precursor story to Fight Club.

There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself: Love Stories – Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

By turns sly and sweet, burlesque and heartbreaking, these realist fables of women looking for love are the stories that Ludmilla Petrushevskaya—who has been compared to Chekhov, Tolstoy, Beckett, Poe, Angela Carter, and even Stephen King—is best known for in Russia. Here are attempts at human connection, both depraved and sublime, by people in all stages of life: one-night stands in communal apartments, poignantly awkward couplings, office trysts, schoolgirl crushes, elopements, tentative courtships, and rampant infidelity, shot through with lurid violence, romantic illusion, and surprising tenderness.

Pygmy – Chuck Palahniuk

“Begins here first account of operative me, agent number 67 on arrival Midwestern American airport greater _____ area. Flight _____. Date _____. Priority mission top success to complete. Code name: Operation Havoc.” 
Thus speaks Pygmy, one of a handful of young adults from a totalitarian state sent to the United States, disguised as exchange students, to live with typical American families and blend in, all the while planning an unspecified act of massive terrorism. Palahniuk depicts Midwestern life through the eyes of this thoroughly indoctrinated little killer, who hates us with a passion, in this cunning double-edged satire of an American xenophobia that might, in fact, be completely justified. For Pygmy and his fellow operatives are cooking up something big, something truly awful, that will bring this big dumb country and its fat dumb inhabitants to their knees. 
It’s a comedy. And a romance.

Charm & Strange – Stephanie Kuehn

He’s part Win, the lonely teenager exiled to a remote Vermont boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy. The guy who shuts all his classmates out, no matter the cost.  
He’s part Drew, the angry young boy with violent impulses that control him. The boy who spent a fateful, long-ago summer with his brother and teenage cousins, only to endure a secret so monstrous it led three children to do the unthinkable. Over the course of one night, while stuck at a party deep in the New England woods, Andrew battles both the pain of his past and the isolation of his present.
Before the sun rises, he’ll either surrender his sanity to the wild darkness inside his mind or make peace with the most elemental of truths—that choosing to live can mean so much more than not dying.

All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.  
In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things – Jenny Lawson

In her new book, Furiously Happy, Jenny explores her lifelong battle with mental illness. A hysterical, ridiculous book about crippling depression and anxiety? That sounds like a terrible idea. And terrible ideas are what Jenny does best.  
According to Jenny: "Some people might think that being 'furiously happy' is just an excuse to be stupid and irresponsible and invite a herd of kangaroos over to your house without telling your husband first because you suspect he would say no since he's never particularly liked kangaroos. And that would be ridiculous because no one would invite a herd of kangaroos into their house. Two is the limit. I speak from personal experience. My husband says that none is the new limit. I say he should have been clearer about that before I rented all those kangaroos."  
"Most of my favorite people are dangerously fucked-up but you'd never guess because we've learned to bare it so honestly that it becomes the new normal. Like John Hughes wrote in The Breakfast Club, 'We're all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it.' Except go back and cross out the word 'hiding.'"

Monday, May 30, 2016

Review: The Unwind Dystology Series Wrap-Up

The Unwind Dystology - Neal Shusterman

After the Second Civil War, the Bill of Life states that human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen. However, a loophole allows parents to retroactively get rid of a teenager through a process called “unwinding.” Three teens defy the system and run away from their unwinding: Connor, a rebel whose parents have ordered his unwinding; Risa, a ward of the state who is to be unwound due to cost-cutting; and Lev, his parents’ tenth child whose unwinding has been planned since birth as a religious tithing. As their paths intersect and lives hang in the balance, Connor, Risa, and Lev must work together to survive—and they may change the fate of America in the process.

I recently finished this series and thought I’d put all of my opinions in one place. You can see my reviews of the individual books here: Unwind, UnStrung, UnWholly, UnSouled, UnDivided, UnBound. This wrap-up review is as spoiler-free as I can make it.

The Unwind Dystology Wrap-Up

The Good

Books 1 and 4: The series starts and ends strongly. A lot of series start out well and then fizzle at the end. That isn’t the case with these books. The last book has just as much danger and intensity as the first book. Not all of the characters get a happily ever after.

Thought-provoking: The series asks a lot of questions but leaves the answers up to the reader. The books examine issues surrounding abortion, terrorism, failing schools, the business of medicine, the rights of children, and the ethics of certain scientific advancements.

It keeps getting creepier: Let’s just say that a lot of messed-up stuff can be done with human body parts.

Unpredictable and fast-paced: These books are rarely slow. The reader gets the sense that anything can happen and no character is safe.

Lev: If you’ve spent a lot of time on this blog, you’ll know that I like books about characters who struggle with their religious beliefs. Lev is one of those characters. He undergoes a massive transformation over the course of the series. It’s interesting to see him lose his sense of purpose, flounder, and then find a new purpose. He’s a relatable character because a lot of real people go through a less-extreme version of feeling lost in life.

Cam and the Rewinds: Cam is my favorite character in the series. He’s kinda creepy, kinda snarky, kinda morally gray. His existence raises a lot of interesting ethical questions. It was satisfying for me to watch him take control of his life and go from a piece of property to a leader. I desperately want a spin-off novel about Cam and the Rewinds.

Connor: People on Goodreads seem to be obsessed with him. I’m not a rabid Connor fan, but he does have some hilarious dialogue and is an easy character to root for.

Intensely readable: There are some books that you want to read and some that you have to force yourself to read. This series definitely fell into the “want to read” category for me. I spent a lot of time thinking about these books and neglected life in order to marathon them.

The Not-So-Good

“Middle book syndrome” and bridge books: The books in the middle of the series aren’t quite as good as the first and last books. The middle ones are slightly less intense.

Unwinding is tough to swallow: I had a very hard time buying unwinding in the first book. In the Unwind universe, unwinding is seen as a solution to the abortion debate. This didn’t make sense to me. How does depriving a teenager of his/her body satisfy a pro-life or pro-choice person? Luckily, the Unwind world becomes more developed as the series progresses. Unwinding becomes easier to believe.

UnStrung: This #1.5 novelette disappointed me. The synopsis makes it sound like it will explain how a thirteen-year-old got involved with a terrorist organization. It doesn’t explain that. Actually, it doesn’t explain anything. It mostly just got me irritated at the illogical behavior of some of the characters.

The covers and lack of editing: After I posted my reviews, I discovered that I’m not the only one who thinks that the original covers are hideous. The new covers (the ones at the top of the post) aren't wonderful, but I like them more than the originals. Also, my editions of the books (all hardcover) aren’t published very well. I found many typos. The binding of the books made a lot of crackly noises while I was reading. I was worried that the pages would fall out.

Head-hopping and murky perspectives: These books are written in third-person limited perspective with alternating points-of-view. The author occasionally breaks out of the limited perspective in order to build suspense. This isn’t confusing, but it did distract me.

Risa: Sorry Risa lovers, I don’t like her. She barely does anything in the series. She serves as motivation for Connor and Cam, and that’s about it. I don’t know how she can motivate them because I honestly don’t know what they see in her. To me, she’s a generic YA love interest character.

The thing that happens to Connor on the plane in book #4: In book #4, Connor is trapped in a room on a plane with a bunch of sleeping kids. He’s awake because he pulled out his IV. Instead of trying to escape from the room, he just sits there until he’s re-captured. Why didn’t he yank the IVs out of the other kids? They could have helped him escape, or he could have created enough chaos to maybe get away. He still would have been trapped on a plane, but he would have had more options (plane hijacking?) to potentially save himself. I think the author really wanted a certain thing to happen, but I think Connor would have fought harder to avoid that thing.

The abortion stuff: Okay, I promised I’d talk about this, so here we go.

A lot of readers seem to love or hate book #1 in the series because it discusses abortion. I’ve heard that book #1 is often sold in Christian bookstores because readers believe that it has a pro-life message. I can totally see a pro-life slant in Unwind, but I honestly don’t care about the message or whether I agree with it. My issue is that the message isn’t argued logically. The book sets up a strawman argument (unwinding = abortion) that completely ignores the majority of the issues surrounding abortion. The book then relies on emotional manipulation to back up its pro-life stance. The reader is made to feel bad for these poor teenagers who are running from their evil parents and retroactive abortions.

I actually like books that confront controversial topics. I want those topics to be discussed logically, though. I have no idea if the author intended for Unwind to be pro-life or if people just read it that way.

It was pretty easy for me to roll my eyes at the illogical/manipulative bits and enjoy the story. The next books in the series take the focus off abortion and examine other topics that are less hot-button but just as interesting. I only found the abortion stuff mildly irritating.

The Verdict

Overall, I liked this series a lot. It asks interesting questions and has all of the creepiness, action, death, and destruction that I want in a dystopia. For what it’s worth, I rated all of the books between 3 and 5 stars on Goodreads. Supposedly Unwind is becoming a movie, so I’m interested to see how the movie compares to the book.   

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Bookish Questions Tag

I’ve been seeing this tag around and thought it looked like fun. If you’ve done it, leave a link in the comments so I can see your answers.

Bookish Questions Tag

1. What book is on your nightstand now?

Reality Boy – A.S. King

Gerald Faust knows exactly when he started feeling angry: the day his mother invited a reality television crew into his five-year-old life. Twelve years later, he’s still haunted by his rage-filled youth—which the entire world got to watch from every imaginable angle—and his anger issues have resulted in violent outbursts, zero friends, and clueless adults dumping him in the special education room at school. 
Nothing is ever going to change. No one cares that he’s tried to learn to control himself, and the girl he likes has no idea who he really is. Everyone’s just waiting for him to snap . . . and he’s starting to feel dangerously close to doing just that.

2. What was the last truly great book you read?

This Side of Providence – Rachel M. Harper

Arcelia Perez fled Puerto Rico to escape a failed marriage and a history of abuse, but instead of finding her piece of the American dream, she ends up on the wrong side of Providence. With three young children, Arcelia follows a rocky path that ultimately leads to prison and an agonizing drug withdrawal. But her real challenge comes when she’s released and must figure out how to stay clean and reunite the family that has unraveled in her absence.  
Through rotating narrators, we hear from the characters whose lives and futures are inextricably linked with Arcelia’s own uncertain fate: her charming, street-savvy son, Cristo, and brilliant daughter Luz; their idealistic teacher, Miss Valentín, who battles her own demons; and the enigmatic Snowman, her landlord and confidante.

3. If you could meet any writer—dead or alive—who would it be? What would you want to know?

I honestly don’t think I ever want to meet any of my favorite writers. I’d probably panic and go silent and make myself look like an idiot. If I somehow acquired the magic ability to act like a normal human, I’d want to meet Stephen King. I’d tell him that his books changed my life. (I wrote about that in this post.) I’d ask him how he handles the pressure of being a successful author. Readers have certain expectations for his books, and I wonder if he feels any pressure to meet those expectations.

4. What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

I’m not sure. My reading tastes are pretty diverse, and I’m currently working on my third literature degree. I have a massive assortment of books. Maybe you’d be surprised that I own the whole Twilight series? I don’t like the books because Edward is an abusive, creepy, reanimated corpse, but I own them, and I’ve read them.

5. How do you organize your personal library?

Personal libraries are supposed to be organized? “Organized” is not a word that can be used to describe my shelves. I cram books wherever I can because I’m in denial that I need more shelves.

My cult books have their own shelves. My unread books have a shelf. Some of my shelves are organized by color or size. All of the shelves have random books stuck wherever they fit.

6. What book have you always meant to read and haven’t gotten around to yet? Anything you feel embarrassed never to have read?

My knowledge of mythology and fairytales is embarrassingly terrible. I somehow missed out on a bunch of stories that everybody seems to know. I need to correct this. Any book recommendations?

7. What book did you feel you were supposed to like but didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher sounds like my kind of book, but I absolutely loathed it. I’ve never hated a book as much as I hate that one. One of the narrators is a psychopath, and I felt like the author was trying really hard to manipulate me into feeling sorry for her. It didn’t work.

The last book I put down without finishing was Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson. The writing style felt amateurish, and I couldn’t get interested in the story.

8. What kinds of stories are you drawn to? Any you stay clear of?

I’m drawn to YA “problem novels,” literary fiction, experimental, classics, horror, dystopian, historical fiction/nonfiction, short story collections, magical realism, wilderness survival, and anything about non-mainstream religions.

I stay clear of romance, erotica, “fluffy” books, chick-lit, spiritual, and most types of fantasy.

Basically, I like my books dark. If it’s twisted, I want to read it. If a book sounds like everybody will get a happy ending, I run the opposite direction.  

9. If you could require the president to read one particular book, what would it be?

Wow, this is hard. I feel like most politicians are so set in their ways that a book won’t change anything. I think all American leaders should read the Harry Potter series because it embodies the values of a lot of the younger people in this country. American leaders also need to read the Quran. There seems to be a lot of misinformation about what that book says and doesn’t say.

10. What do you plan to read next?

The Stepford Wives – Ira Levin

For Joanna, her husband, Walter, and their children, the move to beautiful Stepford seems almost too good to be true. It is. For behind the town's idyllic facade lies a terrible secret—a secret so shattering that no one who encounters it will ever be the same.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Review: Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

As children, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were. Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life, and for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special—and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together.

Review: It took me a week to read the first 100 pages of this book. Then I finished the rest of it in a day. It takes a while to get going, but when it’s good, it’s really good.

This is a difficult novel to review because the synopsis is misleading and doesn’t give enough information, but giving too much information will ruin the surprises. I think the book would have been easier for me to get into if I had known more about what was coming. The narrator has a very slow, meandering storytelling style. I kept wondering why I should care about her and her strange childhood. I think the book would have held my attention better if I had some idea about what was going on.

Basically, Never Let Me Go is set in an alternate-history 1970s – 1990s England. Human cloning is an accepted part of life. The narrator, Kathy, is working for hospitals when she reconnects with two of her old school friends, Ruth and Tommy. Her old friends are now patients who she is assigned to care for. Kathy starts reminiscing about Hailsham, the odd, secluded boarding school where she and her friends grew up.

I found the beginning of the book to be really slow, but I was hugely impressed with the author’s ability to write realistic child character. The characters have distinctive personalities. Ruth is a manipulative leader who’ll do whatever it takes to fit in. Tommy is mentally slower than the other kids and has a fiery temper, but he can also be innocent and sweet. Kathy doesn’t put up with crap from either of them. They spend a lot of time arguing and storming away from one another in a huff, but like real children, they forgive each other quickly. The characters are so lifelike that it was easy to see myself and my childhood friends reflected in them. Just like real children, the characters drift apart as they get older and meet new (and less volatile) people.

If you’re a writer who wants to create believable young characters, you need to read this book immediately.

 “It never occurred to me that our lives, until then so closely interwoven, could unravel and separate over a thing like that. But the fact was, I suppose, there were powerful tides tugging us apart by then, and it only needed something like that to finish the task. If we'd understood that back then—who knows?—maybe we'd have kept a tighter hold of one another.” - Never Let Me Go

The plot isn’t super unique. If you’ve read other books that involve cloned characters, you can probably guess what happens. However, the way that the author handles the clone plot is unlike any other book about clones I’ve read. Never Let Me Go is probably the most thematically interesting book I’ve come across so far in 2016.

This book is about culture and how we can be so sheltered by our own culture that we don’t question the things that happen to us. We accept cultural oddities because everyone around us does. Sometimes, an event or idea has been around for so long that we just go along with it without thinking. It can be difficult to spot strange ideas in your own world.

At the end of the book, the characters get a chance to talk to people outside of their boarding school culture. They are surprised to find out that the cultural norms that they never questioned are seen as controversial by the outside world. People were fighting to change the characters’ way of life, and the characters never knew that their lives were contentious. Everything that happened was normal to them.

 “You have to accept that sometimes that's how things happen in this world. People's opinions, their feelings, they go one way, then the other. It just so happens you grew up at a certain point in this process.” - Never Let Me Go
 “The problem, as I see it, is that you've been told and not told. You've been told, but none of you really understand, and I dare say, some people are quite happy to leave it that way.” - Never Let Me Go

I think this book is about the danger of being blinded by your own culture. The alternate-history setting helps drive home that point. The setting is comfortingly familiar—it’s our world—but there are strange things happening in it. This book encourages you to look at your world from a different perspective. By the time you notice that something is wrong, it could be too late to change it. Ask questions and pay attention to life outside of your own boarding school.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’ve Changed My Mind About

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s topic is books I’ve changed my mind about. Are you ready for some controversy? I think I’m going to get some serious hate for this one. Can I suggest that you throw brownies at me instead of rotten fruit and vegetables?

I sometimes change my mind about books after I read and review them. Some books I like less as time passes, and some I like more. I’m going to list a few books from each of those categories.

Books That I Like More As Time Passes

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Other than the parental over-involvement at the end, I loved everything about this book when I first read it. I love it even more as time passes because it’s one of those books that have unexpectedly stuck with me. I actually think about it fairly often.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. This book has a saggy middle, but it’s wildly creative, and the end is devastating. This is another book that I often think about.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I felt very “Meh” about this book when I first read it as a teenager. Holden Caulfield is a whiny brat. I couldn’t see past that as a teenager, but now that I’ve read this book several times as an adult, I can appreciate everything else that is going on in this story.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling. I actually didn’t like this book when I was a kid because it was below my reading level when I first read it. It’s still not my favorite book in the series, but now that I’m past my reading level snobbery, I can see that it’s an entertaining story with a good message.  

Books That I Like Less As Time Passes

The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare. According to Goodreads, I gave these books 2-3 stars each when I read them. Back then, I was afraid of giving 1-star reviews. I struggled with the amateurish writing style and the tropes in this series. I didn’t even finish the series.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan. Nobody panic, I still really like these books. I’ve just read a lot more middlegrade since I read these, and my tastes have changed. I now prefer more realistic middlegrade that deals with real-world issues.

Divergent by Veronica Roth. I gave these books 3-4 stars when I first read them. I didn’t like the character development or believability issues. Now that I’ve read a lot of YA dystopias, these books aren’t original enough for me.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. Again, nobody panic. I’m obsessed with this series. I just think the third book was too short to wrap up all the stuff that happens in the first two books.

I’m ducking the rotten fruit now . . .