Tuesday, January 27, 2015

My Sunshine Away

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh (2015)

In 1989, Lindy Simpson was raped and everything in her idyllic neighborhood changed. It was the sort of place where everyone knows each other and kids ride their bikes all over the place and wander freely with minimal supervision. But after the attack, suspicions mount and uncertainty reigns. Our narrator is a teenage boy, slightly younger than Lindy, who has admired her from afar. Some might call him obsessed. He is also one of the suspects.

Our narrator tells the story from later in life, ruminating on his memories of that time. Just a few pages from the end, I suddenly realized I had no idea what his name was. Did I miss it? Did I forget? How I got almost entirely through the book without realizing the author had never revealed this basic piece of information is a testament to how seamlessly this story is woven, and how cunningly it folds you into its dark embrace.

I read it in about a 24 hour period. I was drawn in very early, with the descriptions of the narrator and his friends and family just hanging out in their yards in the summer. I've never even been to Louisiana, but the way he described the neighborhood kids hanging out in the yards, using bark and moss as playthings, with pitchers of Kool-aid sitting on the porch, evoked very strong images from my own rural childhood. The narrative was also infused with events from that time, like the Challenger explosion and the arrest of Jeffrey Dahmer, making it feel that much more immediate.

Contributing to the mystery of who raped Lindy is a very full cast of abrasive and sinister characters, each of whom we get to know only enough to raise a lot of questions. The exception of course is our narrator, who we know much more intimately (but still question). As a teenager who is just figuring things out, he hasn't quite learned boundaries yet, and some reviewers on Goodreads found him downright creepy. I didn't. I thought he was just obsessed in the way many teenagers are obsessed with each other as they first experience sexual attraction. Suspicions about his guilt were raised based on some things he did that maybe crossed lines, but in another context wouldn't have appeared so incriminating. Throughout the novel I preferred to believe he was just misunderstood, but I remained anxious about his guilt or innocence up until the end. Reading this was a pretty tense day for me.

I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in an online chat with the author. He talked a little about how our actions are interpreted:

"I think that there is a very fine line between being considered romantic and being considered creepy or a "stalker". You buy a girl flowers and you're romantic. You buy flowers one too many times and you're a stalker. This type of thing can crush you. The boy wants only for the girl to know of his affection. How people react to his actions can change the course of how people see him and, eventually, how he may see himself...I just think that everything is out of proportion during adolescence since teenagers have no frame of reference. Every love is the biggest, first love. Every rejection feels like the final one. So, negotiating those things is hard enough, but when you feel like the way people interpret your actions will define you forever, that makes it even harder."

This dark coming-of-age novel is a very strong debut from an author I'm sure we'll see much more of. The startling end of childhood experienced by these characters in such an evocative and atmospheric setting really got under my skin. Highly recommended.

My Sunshine Away will be published in February 2015. I received my copy courtesy of Penguin First Flights. I was not compensated for this review.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The One

The One (The Selection #3) by Kiera Cass (2014), narrated by Amy Rubinate 

See my posts on the first two books in this series, The Selection and The Elite. If you haven't read them, proceed at your own risk.

What I thought was the final book in this series* begins with America in a precarious position. The king is extremely displeased with her and she had narrowly avoided being sent home at the end of The Elite. But she's not ready to give up yet. The stakes are getting very high - both inside and outside the palace walls - and in this politically-charged climate America finally feels ready to seal the deal with Maxon and become his princess.

So much happened in this book! America's friendship with the other remaining girls really solidified, tragedy struck her personal life, she grew to really admire Queen Amberly, and stopped waffling about Maxon v. Aspen. When she thought it was over for her and she had lost, she realized that she still wouldn't go back to Aspen, so thank goodness that love triangle was somewhat sorted out.

Of course that doesn't mean that everything was fine with her relationship with Maxon. There was still some neurosis between those two. She and Maxon had a few too many conversations in which they each tried to convince the other to finally proclaim their love, but they were both too scared. I kind of wanted to knock their heads together. But, you know, in a friendly way, because I still really like them both.

America really was too outspoken for her own good and I got a little frustrated with her at times. She had some fairly radical views that, of course, the king disapproved of. When called upon to publicly say or do things that went against her views, she balked. Which I totally get on one level, but still. She couldn't seem to understand that she could do way more good if she was able to actually become princess, than the small amount of good she'd do in these individual little acts of rebellion.

I worried a lot about the ending, especially because the rebel attacks kept getting worse throughout the series and I just knew major characters would die eventually. But I also had other hopes for the ending, and many things went the way I wanted them to. All in all I was satisfied with the outcome.

I found this entire series totally captivating and enjoyable from beginning to end. The characters were well-developed - even the secondary ones - and the story kept me just anxious enough about the outcome, while still enjoying the romance and intrigue. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes young adult novels, romance, dystopia, or pretty dresses.

*I just learned there is now going to be a Selection #4 set 20 years in the future. It comes out in May. How can I resist that?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Top Ten 2014 Releases I Meant To Read But Didn't Get To



This was actually last week's topic and I missed it, but this week is a freebie so I'm doing it now.

1. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
I've been anticipating this book for so long that I'm embarrassed I still haven't read it.

2. It Will End With Us by Sam Savage
Granted, this wasn't released until November and I didn't realize until about a week later that it even existed, but Sam Savage is one of my very favorite authors and WHY WASN'T I NOTIFIED? Anyhow, it's only 150 pages and I could probably read it in a day, but I haven't. Again, WHY?

3. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
This just sounds really good and I keep looking at it on my list and thinking about how good it probably is and I've even recommended it to my book group a couple of times.

4. Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix
Honestly this wasn't even on my to read list until I impulsively and inexplicably bought a copy while on vacation in St. Louis. But it looks fun and I enjoy both horror novels and IKEA.

5. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
This was a really hot title of 2014 and it's a post-apocalypse, which I love. I was late even getting on the hold list and then I was stalking the Speed Read copies at my library which were always out, and then my book group picked it for March 2015 so now I have to wait a little longer. But at least it's definitely coming.

6. Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder
I love Laura Ingalls Wilder. I'm a little afraid of the truth of her life though.

7. Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot
I've heard great things about this young adult novel and somehow kept passing it by. So I did what I always do in these situations and bought a copy for my friend for Christmas. That makes no kind of sense but I do it all the time.

8. Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado
I heard this author on an episode of On Point and her book went right on my list. It's short and interests me a lot, but somehow keeps falling by the wayside.

9. Dr. Mütter's Marvels by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz
I was very excited when I heard about this book, having finally visited the Mütter Museum in 2013 after years of wishing to go. I should have read it when I first heard about it because my enthusiasm waned and it has became yet another nonfiction book to potentially struggle through. However, last week I heard that it was recommended for teens, which gives me hope that it will be engaging and easy to read.

10. Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
I keep passing this by and I shouldn't - it has references to Sylvia Plath for crying out loud. But also, magical realism. I think I might be allergic to magical realism. But I won't know for sure until I read this, right?

Making this list has been a great reminder about why I wanted to read all these books in the first place. It has also forced me to learn how to type umlauts.

How did you do with 2014 releases? Are there any that you're surprised you still haven't read?

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Port Chicago 50

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin (2014)

In 1944 a huge explosion rocked the Port Chicago naval base in California, killing over 300 sailors and injuring many more. Afterward, close to 250 men refused to go back to work loading ammunition because they felt it was unsafe. They also noted how unfair it was that only black men were doing this dangerous job. Some were coaxed back to work, but 50 men held their ground and were charged with mutiny. Facing possible execution, these men went to trial to try and defend themselves, but despite their best efforts (and the advocacy of Thurgood Marshall) they were found guilty. However, the case prompted the Navy to review and change their segregationist policies.

Many of these guys were little more than teenagers, and far from being organized rabble-rousers were just scared of being blown up on the job. It seemed like the outcome was  obviously a huge miscarriage of justice. Their concerns weren't taken seriously and they were convicted on pretty flimsy evidence. It seems like everything in the trial was basically ignored in favor of a predetermined outcome.

The worst part is that in many ways, things haven't changed that much. As many of us are aware, the justice system isn't exactly friendly towards non-whites and it's frustrating to know just how long these situations have been happening with little headway towards real equality. I'm glad books like this are being written to remind us how many times this sort of thing has happened. I hadn't even heard about this particular episode in history, which just goes to show you how many stories about racial injustice there are.

This novel is written for teens, and I read it for my Not-So-Young Adult book group at work. It was nominated for a National Book Award, and I can see why. Although I wouldn't exactly call it enjoyable, I found it clear and informative and it held my interest throughout. Recommend if you're interested in learning more about the history of civil rights.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Elite

The Elite (The Selection #2) by Kiera Cass (2013), narrated by Amy Rubinate

For my review of the first book in this series, The Selection, go here.

SO. The group has been narrowed to just six girls, one of which is of course America Singer. One girl is eliminated before we're too far into the book and it is really upsetting, and causes America to have second thoughts about Maxon. But she has other things to worry about, like the assignments the girls must work on now. For one, the girls were divided into two groups and each had to organize a reception for visiting dignitaries. Clearly, now that the girls are narrowed down, they are being tested on how they'd handle being royalty. They need to learn about policy and make decisions and start charitable projects, not unlike the First Lady.

As I had hoped, this novel saw more action with the political situation and world events. The situation with the rebels is brought more to the forefront, and we learn a bit about what they want. America even has a startling encounter with a female rebel.

Last time I mentioned that I was curious about the lack of education in this world, and their seemingly limited access to books. In The Elite it was mentioned that there are no newspapers, only the news show that they all watch. But America gains access to a copy of Gregory Illea's diary and learns some pretty interesting things about him and the history of the kingdom in which she lives.

The romance part of the story involves a lot of waffling, and there are some complaints on Goodreads about the love triangle. But I can see how America would be so torn, because I am also very torn! I have softened up a bit towards Aspen since the last book. He's not so insecure because he joined the military and is working as a palace guard, which makes him a 2 instead of a 6. Of course America is now a 3, so things have changed a lot for them. Anyhow, he and Maxon are both really nice guys and America is 17 so I can believe it would be confusing for her.

I listened to this everywhere. I actually got through the audiobook in just a few days, which is completely crazy. Usually my audiobooks are for my bus commute only, but I also listened at the gym and in the car and at home. It was a bit out of control.

I was concerned about this being a middle book in a trilogy. Sometimes that can just feel like a placeholder, but I do feel like a lot happened. Her relationship with Maxon changed as did her relationship with Aspen, and she is really growing and learning what is important to her and it is more obvious now (to me anyhow) that of course she should be the princess, but at the same time she has kind of screwed things up a bit and it will be harder. She has some people to win over. This book is more about being a princess than marrying a prince, and America spent a lot of time thinking about what aspects she could and could not handle.

Just like after The Selection, I immediately downloaded the next one (I even had to renew my Audible subscription early), so I'm sure I'll post about it quite soon!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Dead Wake

Dead Wake: the Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson (2015)

During the First World War, Germany was sending submarines to the waters around Great Britain, but passenger travel continued as nobody thought they'd try to sink a ship full of civilians. The Lusitania set sail from after warnings from the Germans about those particular waters, but even as the ship came closer and other vessels were attacked, nobody contacted the Lusitania to ask them to change their course. Tragedy struck when the ship was within a day of its destination.

The attack might seem inevitable, but Larson also takes us inside U-20, the submarine that torpedoed the Lusitania where we learn that's not so. It turns out that each submarine has very few torpedoes which they use sparingly, but even when they do the weapons frequently miss their mark. Not only was a great deal of luck involved in hitting the ship, but many small decisions determined the moment the Lusitania's path would cross with that of U-20, resulting in the perfect timing for the attack.

Larson pulls from a huge array of sources including archives, journals, and letters to craft his story, creating a narrative that reads seamlessly and is filled with people so well described they are easy to envision. It's almost like reading fiction. One especially poetic line reads, "The music and drinking went on into the night; the sea outside was cold, black, and impenetrable."* Isn't that beautiful? The people aren't all just passengers either - one memorable storyline was about Woodrow Wilson and his love life, a great stressor to him as he struggled to keep the United States out of the war. It took me a little bit to get into, but soon I was captivated and very tense. I was feeling some major stress about the fate of these people I had been introduced to, even though I knew this story would end in disaster and death.

One of my favorite things about the book was how Larson filled it with details about the time. For instance, near the beginning he lists many events going on elsewhere in the world, like the president of France visiting Tsar Nicholas II of Russia at his summer palace. Many English people were caught up in anticipation of Sir Ernest Shackleton's upcoming expedition to Antarctica aboard the Endurance. This sort of context is what I always miss when I learn about history, because each event is usually treated sort of like it took place in a vacuum.

Additionally, Larson mentioned crime being a big concern at the time, proving that things don't change as much as we think they do. In one case a man killed his son and then himself. In another, a man presented his girlfriend with an engagement ring, tied with a ribbon that he urged her to pull. The ribbon disappeared into his pocket and was attached to the trigger of a gun that then went off, killing him. When we hear news about crimes that seem especially cruel, it's tempting to wring our hands and lament about how bad things are these days, but clearly they've always been so. Another thing that hasn't changed is the need to place blame. After the Lusitania was sunk, many families of victims tried to place responsibility on the captain, or the company that owned the boat, when it was clear that the Germans caused the tragedy.

A great deal of research obviously went into this book, evidenced by the extensive notes in the back. My galley copy contained 10 blank pages where the index is to be, which will surely prove useful (I would have liked it a couple of times myself when trying to find some fact I had read earlier.)

Years ago I read Devil and the White City and loved it, so despite the fact I haven't read anything else by Erik Larson I was very excited when I heard about this forthcoming book. I was surprised to come home from work just a couple of days later to to find a copy of the galley on my doorstep. It was a little creepy. I am not one of those well-known bloggers who gets unsolicited advanced copies of books. I don't know who at Random House is reading my mind, but I'm very grateful to them.

Dead Wake is a meticulously detailed piece of history that will captivate anyone who is interested in history or just enjoys a good story. Full of rich detail and fraught with tension, it is hard not to get caught up in it. I'm inspired to go back and read more of Erik Larson's books.

I received my copy of Dead Wake courtesy of Random House. It will be published in March 2015. I was not compensated for this review. 

*Note: this is an uncorrected proof; the final edition may have changes from my version.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Selection

The Selection (The Selection #1) by Kiera Cass (2012), narrated by Amy Rubinate

When America receives a letter inviting her to take part in the Selection, her family is overjoyed. This chance to possibly marry a prince means that her family will no longer be scraping by on their meager incomes. But America doesn't care about being raised to a higher caste, marrying a prince, or becoming a princess. She cares about her one true love, Aspen. She's a Five and he's a Six so their love is forbidden, but she's sure they will find a way to make it. So she is extremely surprised when even Aspen encourages her to enter the Selection. And just like that, her life changes.

The Selection is like a kindler, gentler Hunger Games. A Hunger Games meets The Bachelor, if you will. Thirty-five young women were chosen to come to the palace and meet Prince Maxon, who is seeking a wife. As he gets to know the girls, their pool will slowly be whittled down until he chooses the lucky woman who will marry him. The stakes aren't as high as in the Hunger Games - nobody has to die - but winning does mean a great improvement in the life circumstances, especially those girls from the lower castes.

America goes into this thinking she's only there for the food, and the checks her family will receive while she's away, but it turns out there are more compelling reasons to stay after all. Prince Maxon, who she assumed was shallow for holding such a contest in the first place, actually turns out to be a pretty good guy and America finds herself striking up a friendship with him, despite her devotion to Aspen. Of course there is also a horrible girl who wants to sabotage everyone else's chances. Isn't there always? This one is named Celeste and I really wanted her to get what she deserved and be eliminated early on, but that's not how these things work. I'm sure she'll remain until the bitter end. Someone has to be the jerk, right?

The romance is full of swoon. America is torn between two potential love interests and I really do feel unsure of where this will go. Will something happen to Aspen to take him out of the picture? Will the whole system break down so America can be free to marry a Six? I just don't know. I do know, however, that as of now I'm rooting for her to be with Maxon. I kind of agree with the character (I can't remember who) who said that poverty is a huge strain on a relationship and that love fades, and over time she may not feel like a poor man is worth the sacrifice. Also, I think Aspen is kind of a jerk. He waffles, and I do not like a man who waffles. He goes between saying they can't be together to saying he wants them to be together forever. He also gets upset at the thought that he can't be a good provider and totally takes this out on America, and I have no patience for that kind of macho bullshit.

I found the world of Illea fascinating. From what I gather, the US, Canada, and Mexico became one huge kingdom ruled over by a monarchy. It was after the Fourth World War and China took over the US, but then Russia started being threatening and all the North American countries banded together and formed this new kingdom. Throughout the book are references to the war in New Asia, as well as rebel attacks upon the palace. These attacks added a great bit of excitement to America's time there, but I also think the political situation might become more prominent as the series goes on. There's a bit of mystery about what the rebels want, and I am extremely intrigued by this! I'm also curious about how little the girls know of the country's history. It sounds like the knowledge isn't forbidden exactly, but just that nobody bothers to teach it. It was kind of strange and I'm hoping we'll find out more about this as the series progresses.

The audio narration was not outstanding, but still good. Rubinate did an especially good job with the male voices, particularly Maxon's. There were some spots where the gears seemed to shift too quickly. I suspect there was a break in the text, but the narration just went from one sentence to another, confusing me a for a few seconds until I realized the story had shifted scenes.

It is entirely possible that a couple months from now I won't remember what was so great about this book, and that it won't have stuck with me. It isn't especially original or unpredictable so far, but it's incredibly satisfying and I had such fun listening to it! I actually listened for an hour or two at my desk at work, that was how desperate I was to keep going. (And I was doing work at the same time, for any of my coworkers who might be reading this.) Immediately upon finishing I downloaded the second book and have already begun listening. Stay tuned for my post about The Elite - I'm sure you won't have long to wait!