Monday, May 25, 2015

Circling the Sun

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain (2015)

Beryl Markham was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic east to west. But before it even occurred her to to fly, she was a successful racehorse trainer. This unconventional woman was British-born but grew up in Kenya, and her early life is the subject of Paula McLain's forthcoming novel.

As a girl, Beryl was at home in Kenya, even as her mother gave up and returned to England with Beryl's brother. Left behind, Beryl and her father worked together training horses as she grew up. Her best friend was a native boy from a local village, with whom she was close even in adulthood. Growing up in a place without the benefits or restraints of society undoubtedly contributed to Beryl's independent, fearless nature.

Thin on plot, the novel is more about this character trying to find herself. This is not to say that it was uneventful - a lot happened! Beryl had many affairs, friendships and changes in her life. But like real life, there's not a strong story arc. This novel is more about this amazing character and her complicated feelings and unconventional life. Beryl struggled to find her place, while breaking barriers that blocked most women from achieving similar successes. She also had many romances, but not a lot of love, marrying too early then spending a great deal of time and energy freeing herself of it. Despite her strong will, I was struck by the times when she had to give in, because sticking to her guns would mean losing what was actually most important to her. It seemed so unfair.

Almost as important as Beryl herself was the setting of 1920s Kenya. I can't imagine what it must be like to leave the place of your birth and grow up in a completely different country that becomes your home more than the country you are from, but it undoubtedly shaped her. Several of Beryl's British-born acquaintances made reference to how everything was different in Kenya. The messy affairs that were somehow ok in this untamed country would never have been tolerated back in Britain. I got the feeling that they liked the freedom of making their own choices, while also acknowledging that they were willing to endure more hurt and disappointment than they would at home.

Having read The Paris Wife, I wasn't sure how this one would compare. It's another historical novel of basically the same time period, also based on the life of a real person. Could it possibly be as good? I shouldn't have worried, because as it turns out I was captivated from the very first page. I'm not sure how much of it is true, though it appears the basic facts of Beryl Markham's life are represented here. I maintain my slight confusion in trying to separate fact from fiction in novels based on actual people, but that didn't stop me from enjoying every bit of this one.

Circling the Sun will be available on July 28. I received my copy courtesy of Random House. I was not compensated for this review.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (2013)

Returning to his childhood home for a funeral, a middle-aged man is drawn to the farm down the road where his childhood friend lived. Memories came flooding back that he hadn't thought of in years, of remarkable and terrible events that occurred when he was just a small boy.

It began when a lodger staying at his house stole the family car and used it to commit suicide. Then a governess came to stay, and though his family was completely seduced by her, the boy found her terrifying. As events escalated, he turned to the Hempstock family down the lane for help.

I don't want to say too much about the story here because it is magical and fantastical, and those are the sorts of stories that come out sounding ridiculous when you try to summarize them.

Nail Gaiman's writing is lovely, so reading this imaginative story was a pleasure. On the sentence level, he's pretty perfect. His visual imagery is powerful, his dialogue just quirky enough.

There's nothing I can criticize about the story, either. It's a pretty solid little fantasy novel. I can definitely appreciate Neil Gaiman's books (I've also read Coraline and The Graveyard Book), but I don't really get super into them the way other people seem to. It may just be that I can never quite believe something so fantastical, but then again I loved the Harry Potter series, so I don't know what to make of that.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is very short, under 200 pages, and even though it didn't totally grab me, it was absolutely worth the enjoyable hours I spent reading it.

Monday, May 18, 2015

None of the Above

None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio (2015)

Kristin Lattimer is a track star, was just voted homecoming queen, and has a hot boyfriend. But when she decides it's time to have sex with aforementioned hot boyfriend, something is not quite right. A doctor's visit reveals that Kristin has an intersex condition called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. She reels at the diagnosis, struggling to understand what it means, but before she can even come to terms with it privately, the entire school knows. Her best friend has betrayed her, her boyfriend wants nothing to do with her, and she doesn't want to lay it all on her father who is still trying to move on after the heartbreak of her mother's death.

Technically, I suppose this is an "issue" book, but really it's just a great story about being a teenage girl and dealing with high school drama. Having a confusing medical diagnosis is all just part of the story.

One of my favorite things about this novel is that Kristin has sex and drinks alcohol without it being some sort of moral lesson. I have mentioned before how much I dislike every single YA character being such a goody two-shoes. Usually when sex or drinking or anything like that comes up, it's part of some moral struggle. Female characters rarely just want to have sex for the fun of it, and if they're drinking alcohol they will pay. Here, it's just part of her life. Sure, she gets hungover but her drinking isn't really part of the story, it's just something she does. And the sex is just how she comes to find out about her intersex condition. I found it all extremely refreshing.

I also loved that Kristin still had friends after her diagnosis. When everyone at school found out, she was horribly bullied and humiliated, but not by everyone. Usually in this sort of book, the main character will be totally ostracized and then find one magical friend who stands by them. Kristin began the book with two best friends, and one of them stuck with her the whole way. Other school acquaintances also showed sympathy, or at least disgust at the behavior of those who were making fun of her. This seemed way more real to me than everyone in the entire school banding together to torture her. Kristin spent a lot of the story not realizing how many people were sympathetic, but I found her paranoia totally realistic.

The only thing that struck me a bit odd at all was that Kristin and some of her friends volunteered at a health clinic and were involved in patient visits. I was skeptical that student volunteers would have actual patient contact, but Gregorio is a surgeon so she'd certainly know more about that than I would. It was a pretty under-funded clinic in a poor part of town, so maybe they're more open to that sort of thing.

I.W. Gregorio, like Aisha Saeed, is part of We Need Diverse Books. Once again I was happy to read a book that speaks about an under-represented population but that is also just a great story that is well told. I loved Kristin's relationship with her father, and her friendships, and her love of running, and her friend Darren who was always so nice to her, and how much she missed her mother who died of cancer. She was really fleshed out and realistic and I felt like her friends and family were also very easy to picture as I was reading. Kristin's voice was authentic and through her I learned a lot about what it means to be intersex.

Other books I've read about people who are intersex include Middlesex and Annabel, both of which I loved. Do you know of any others to recommend?

I don't know if I.W. Gregorio just wrote this as a one-off and will be concentrating on her medical work, but I certainly hope she'll write some more books.

Friday, May 15, 2015

All Fall Down

All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner (2014)

Allison Weiss has become a successful blogger, but the pressure of deadlines is getting stressful, especially when you add it to her daughter's tantrums, her father's Alzheimer's, and her crumbling marriage. She doesn't see a way out from under her crushing responsibilities, but she has found something that makes it much more bearable: Vicodin. And Percocet. And then Oxycontin. When she runs out of prescription pills she needs to find another source and the money to pay for them, and now that too is added to her stressors. But she's not a drug addict...or is she?

Traditionally, I've read every Jennifer Weiner novel as soon as it's published, but then when I read The Next Best Thing, I was so disappointed that I vowed not to run out and immediately read her next book. When All Fall Down was released last year, I heard from a friend that it was much better than her previous novel and thankfully, she was right.

I found Allison to be a realistic character with problems many women can identify with. Her daughter was extremely sensitive and although she was lovely in many ways, she was a lot of work. Her relationship with her parents was not helped by her father's rapid decline, and Allison had to assume most of the responsibility because of her mother's own set of problems. She became convinced that her husband was having an affair and didn't know how to handle it, but knew she didn't want to lose him.

So when she began refilling prescriptions for pills she no long technically needed, it was easy to see how the situation could escalate. She was careful in her own way, but still began taking pills more and more often. There were times that I thought "Come on, Allison, surely you can see that you have a problem?" but it wasn't bad writing, it's the reality of addiction. She kept justifying her behavior and making excuses and I wanted to slap her sometimes, but I also felt sympathetic. There was a lot going on in her life and while taking pills didn't actually make any of those things better, I could see how it could make her problems a little easier to deal with. But just temporarily, of course. There was a point at which the scales tipped drastically in the direction of harm.

You know, I hope I never have to go to rehab, because I would not be able to stand the patronizing attitudes of the counselors who Allison had to deal with, never mind how God-centric the program is. Although I know that Allison did have a problem and needed help, this rehab did not sound especially helpful or fair. It did, however, sound realistic. She described the drab furnishings and the bland food, and the under-qualified staff who were being pulled in too many directions at once. (Don't even get me started on how awful the library was.) That has all got to make it harder to stay and get better.

Weiner seems to be in top form again with this tale of suburban middle-class addiction.  I kept thinking about Ann Leary's The Good House - there are so few books about addiction, especially in professional women, and I suspect it's more common than many of us think. It was also nice to again read Weiner's familiar, funny voice, and now that I've heard her speak a few times, I do sort of hear her voice in my head when I'm reading her books. All in all, I really enjoyed this story!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Heir

The Heir (The Selection #4) by Kiera Cass, narrated by Brittany Pressley

Twenty years after the events of the last Selection book, the castes have been abolished, but unrest remains. America and Maxon need something to raise morale, and decide it's time for another Selection. This time, it's their daughter, Eadlyn, who will be selecting a mate. Eadlyn is not at all happy about this idea, but finally resigns herself to it (with some important conditions) as just one more thing she is required to do as the future Queen. Soon, the palace is filled with eligible young men trying to win her hand, but Eadlyn is determined to retain her independence and freedom.

What I found most interesting about this is that the tables have turned gender-wise, and we're also getting the story from the view of the person doing the selecting. You know how everyone treats female political candidates differently from male candidates? Well, here, Eadlyn has to be incredibly careful about how she is seen by the public. Showing strength can be a double-edge sword, though I'll admit her behavior isn't always ideal. But I do wish it had highlighted the gender differences a bit more, because even in Ilya, it makes a difference.

However, Eadlyn is certainly not perfect. She pushes everyone away, like the boys who are trying to get to know her. She didn't want the Selection to happen in the first place and it takes a long time for her to be willing to get to know any of the boys. Plus, she sometimes acts impulsively without considering the consequences. She's a teenaged girl though, so I suppose it's to be expected. It's also clear that her parents have protected her from the realities of the outside world and sometimes this is to her detriment. Eadlyn is fairly uppity and spoiled. But, so was Maxon in the first book of the series. Perhaps that just comes with being royalty.

I think I was about halfway through the book when I learned there's going to be another one. For some reason, I was under the impression that this one was a stand-alone (or the final book in the series, depending on how you look at it.) At any rate, it didn't end where I thought it would, though there was a pretty big event that happened right at the end (as I've come to expect from these books) so now I'm sort of left hanging. For probably a year, until the next book comes out.

This series has been enjoyable all the way through and I was just as happy with this installment. I completely credit Kiera Cass (and narrators Amy Rubinate and Brittany Pressley) for my newfound ability to run two miles on a treadmill without stopping. Running is seriously boring, but these audiobooks suck me in so much I don't want to stop.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (Discworld #28) by Terry Pratchett (2001)

A cat, some rats, and a "stupid-looking boy" named Keith have a great money-making scheme. They go to unsuspecting villages where Keith plays the part of a pied piper, offering to lead their rats away. The rats he leads away, of course, are his allies. Keith shares his pay with them, and they move on to the next village. Maurice, who came up with this idea, is no ordinary cat, and these are no ordinary rats. They can talk and read and do all sorts of things regular animals can't do, and they've been profiting quite well so far. But when they arrive at the town of Bad Blintz, they find there's already something shady going on with the town's rat problem.

I have not read any of the other Discworld books, so I can't speak to how this compares, or how it fits into the world Pratchett created, but I found a lot that appealed to me. I love rats (see name of blog) and of course cats, so it had that going for it to start with. Pratchett's style is rather light-hearted and the story was fun to read, quite entertaining, and poignant in parts.

The rats all have names they got from product labels, like Dangerous Beans, Big Savings, Hamnpork, and Peaches. Everywhere they go, they drag with them a book called Mr. Bunnsy Has an Adventure, which is quoted at the beginning of every chapter, and which they grasp onto because it makes them feel less alone as talking animals. Maurice is rather sly, and not completely trustworthy, but he's smart and he works pretty well with the rats.

It's not all fun and lightheartedness though. There's a pretty dark underbelly to this new village they've arrived at, and the story contains some pretty horrifying imagery. There are crowded cages of rats who are treated horribly, and also a rat king, which is something I have a hard time believing could exist, but apparently does. Still, the personalities of the characters, and Pratchett's engaging and witty style counterbalance these aspects so the story doesn't get too dark overall.

I read this for my Not-So-Young Adult book group, who chose it just after Terry Pratchett's death. It's a great change of pace after reading three downers in a row! I'm not sure whether or not I'll try more of Pratchett's books in the future (do any of the others have talking rats?) but I greatly enjoyed the time I spent with this one.

Friday, May 8, 2015

It's over, To Read List

Yes, you heard me correctly: I'm breaking up with my To Read list. This list has become dominating and controlling and our relationship has been unhealthy for some time now. It needs to end. I need to be able to feel ok about reading books outside of the list, and not feel compelled to read what's on the list when I'm no longer as interested in them as I once was.

This is how my To Read list makes me feel.
Recently I went through and deleted most of my To Read shelf on Goodreads, which is what I use for my list (and I have been careful not to replace it with a list in another form!) I've kept everything on my TBR Pile Challenge list, and a few others that are high priorities, but once those are off they're off and I'm not adding anything else.

What I'm hoping for is that I will actually just read what I want to read at the time. It seems like I should be able to do that even with a list because presumably those are books I want to read and there are enough that I can pick something that fits my mood. But what I've found is that when I have a list, I tend to look through it all the time and sort of reject books based on the fact that I just keep seeing the titles and covers on the list and I'm sick of seeing them. I want to pick something new and fresh and exciting. So without a list, maybe I'll forget about a particular book for a while, but then when I come across it somewhere it will be new and exciting and I'll read it right away. I have a feeling I'll be making more requests through the library system and getting on hold for more books because I don't want to forget about them, but this is ok. And it's ok to end up with several books out and renew them. I have a Tana French book right now that I've had out for about two months and haven't even begun reading. I've made my peace with it.

Aside from reading based on my mood, my other hope is that not having a list will free me up for new and different things. Maybe I will participate in fun reading challenges that will broaden my horizons or catch me up on authors I like but haven't read in a while. As it is, I've only been doing the TBR Pile Challenge rather than anything topical. I think the only topical one I've done was the R.I.P. Challenge, but even with that one I just tried fitting in things that were on my list, which may have made it less fun. There are author-specific challenges that intrigue me, and genre-specific ones and perhaps these are totally setting me up for another sort of list, but at least they are finite - it's a certain number of books over a certain period of time. Maybe I'll also be more likely to read galleys of forthcoming books and recommend them through Library Reads. Anything is possible!

So far it feels quite freeing, though already there have been times when I've wanted to put something on my list, or write it on a scrap of paper. But I've held off, either by getting the book right away or just letting it go. I'm not really sure how this will work. Is it the worst thing in the world if I forget something interesting I wanted to read?

I think I may still use my To Read shelf in a very limited way. For instance, I may add books that I definitely have to read for book groups or the community read committee (we had 10 contenders last year, which is enough to require a list to remember them all.) I also may still use it for romance novels, because there are so few that sound good enough to read and I have a really hard time remembering their titles because they all sound the same.

This is sort of like getting rid of clutter, I think. I know a lot of my friends on Goodreads have literally hundreds of books on their To Read shelf and maybe it just doesn't feel oppressive to them, but I can't stand it anymore. What about you? What is your relationship with your To Read list? Do you even have one? Am I just crazy for being so angsty about this issue? Tell me in the comments!