Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Girl With All the Gifts

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey (2014)

After reading a book about a haunted house (sort of) I moved right on to zombies. I didn't know it was zombies actually, or I probably wouldn't have picked it. But I got sucked in right away and by the time I figured out what it was about, I was too invested in these characters.

At any rate, the story begins with a girl named Melanie. She lives in a cell, and when she is taken out to go to class, it is with a gun pointed at her head while she is strapped into a wheelchair. She remains restrained while in class with other children who are also highly restrained. After class she goes back to her cell. Once a week she's fed a bowl of grubs. She doesn't seem especially upset at her circumstances, as this life is all she's known. She loves one of her teachers a lot, Miss Justineau. The only dark spots are when on occasion another child disappears and is never seen or spoken of again.

But this life is disrupted, and the story changes. I liked the beginning a lot - it reminded me of the early part of A Closed and Common Orbit. Then it became an "on the run" kind of book. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not my kind of thing. I used to watch The Walking Dead and the constant running and state of high alert just made me exhausted. So this book also made me a little exhausted. Still, I had to keep going to find out how it all ended.

I was intrigued by the author's idea of there being different kinds of zombies. Melanie is a special kind: she has the blood thirst and whatnot, but she's also smart and empathetic. She also has a great deal of strength and speed, which come in handy. She's a pretty powerful character all around.

I don't want to say too much about what happens in the story, but I will say that Melanie is on the run with several other characters that include her teacher, Miss Justineau, a research scientists, and a couple of military men. It's an interesting assortment, and one of the strengths of this novel was the way their interests all competed with one another, but that they had to work together as a team to survive.

It was only after I finished that I realized this is the first in a series. My heart sunk a little because, ugh, another series. But the ending was satisfying enough that I don't feel like I need to continue. At the same time, I'm intrigued enough about what happens next that I like knowing I can find out if I want to.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Can't Nothing Bring Me Down

Can't Nothing Bring Me Down: Chasing Myself in the Race Against Time by Ida Keeling (2018), narrated by Lisa Renee Pitts

When Ida Keeling was in her early 60s, both of her sons were murdered within a couple of years of each other. She plunged into depression. One day one of her daughters came to her and explained that she was taking Ida to run a 5k. She didn't know what else to do, but she couldn't let her mother continue to just sit at home in despair. Ida became a successful athlete and still runs today at the age of 103.

As it turns out, the book didn't actually talk a ton about the running. I expected her to really focus on that part of her life and how it helped her deal with grief, but that was really just a couple of chapters at the end. Mostly, though, it was just the story of her long and fascinating life. (Which is just as well since running is kind of boring.)

She was born in New York in 1915, and I really liked hearing about what it was like for a black woman growing up at that time. Interestingly, she had her two sons with a man she wasn't married to, which is something we seem to think was a huge scandal back then, but not the way she tells it. It turns out the reason this guy was dragging his feet on getting married is because he already was. Ouch. She talks about all the jobs she had in factories and what it was like to try and get by as a single mom. She lived through the depression, World War II, and civil rights. She went to hear black leaders like Malcolm X speak often, and was even present when Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous "I have a dream" speech.

Ida Keeling has lived a long time, experienced many things, and learned a lot from her experiences and observations. In many ways, she's pretty old school: she's a religious woman and thinks you should always listen to your parents, who apparently can't possibly ever be wrong. But she's far from stupid. She talks at one point about how men's heads are filled with "crap" that leads to the "good old boys" way of thinking. She also states the importance of not letting people aggravate you. She says, "Like President Barack Obama, I absolutely refuse to tolerate drama." She loves Obama.

This book isn't going to win any literary awards. Keeling is an athlete, not a writer. It wasn't terribly written, but she often used vague phrases like "or something" and "things like that" and listed the specific addresses of all the places she lived and worked. It was just a bit unpolished. Likewise, the narration wasn't of the quality that I'm used to. Again, not terrible, and none of this was enough to turn me off.

In the end, I came away with a great deal of respect for this lady who has learned and experienced a lot in her 103 years. She's smart and tough, has lived through a lot, and proves you're never too old to change your life.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Slade House

Slade House by David Mitchell (2015)

When I finished Catherine the Great, I wanted nothing more than to move on to a quick page-turning piece of fiction, and now that it's October I'm in the mood for horror.  A quick scroll through my To Read shelf on Goodreads reminded me of Slade House, which just happened to be available at the library. It was the perfect choice!

The story begins with a boy and his mum, Nathan and Rita Bishop, making their way to a party hosted by a Lady Grayer. They have a hard time finding Slade Alley, but finally they do and eventually locate a small iron door that lets them into the garden of the grand Slade House. They're greeted by Norah and her son Jonah. Nathan stays outside with Jonah, while his mother goes inside with the adults, but things in the yard start turning strange and, terrified, Jonah runs inside and as he goes upstairs he passes a series of portraits and sees that one of them is of him. In exactly the clothes he's wearing today. Things get stranger and stranger, and....well, the Bishops are never seen again. Nine years later, yet another person is lured in, and the cycle continues.

I won't say much else about the story, as that's something you should discover for yourself, except to note that there was a witness to the Bishops' disappearance which led to some speculation about what was going on there. But it takes place in the contemporary world so of course people are skeptical about anything supernatural and I kind of love that about stories like this. It makes it all the more realistic and creepy to me.

The book was so atmospheric - perfect for a gray fall day - and the characters are well developed so that you really feel for them and don't want a terrible fate to befall them. (It will though. Sorry.) This is a very short book, and each chapter focuses on a different character so I was impressed at how well we got to know each of them. What they experienced was creepy and scary, and they would finally realize what was happening only when it was too late to stop it. It was just what I was looking for.

I've read only one other book by David Mitchell - Black Swan Green, which I read way back in 2007 and didn't post about here. I remember liking it a lot, but it was a very different kind of book. I'd definitely read this author again!

Do you have any good creepy fall stories to recommend?

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie (2011)

When she was just 14, Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst was summoned to Russia to become the wife of the Grand Duke Peter, heir to the throne. They were married, and Sophia converted to Russian Orthodox Church and her name was changed to Catherine. The marriage was unhappy, but Catherine took advantage of every opportunity to educate herself in hopes of someday becoming Empress.

Peter was the one destined for the throne, of course, and although he was interested in power, he wasn't a skilled leader. Obsessed with toy soldiers into adulthood, he wore a Prussian uniform as he always stayed loyal to his native country rather than to Russia. He was immature, short-sighted, and had a terrible temper. His reign was brief.

Catherine was well suited to being a ruler. Intelligent and even-tempered, she had gained admirers, slowly building support until she needed it to take the throne. She admired Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, with whom she enjoyed a long-distance friendship, and used these ideas to move Russia towards a more European model that embraced the arts and culture. She cultivated relationships in a way her hot-headed husband never would have been able to.

She had many lovers over the years, who helped her produce the heirs she needed. Her marriage to Peter remained unconsummated for nine years, though the book honestly doesn't make it clear if and when it was ever consummated. Whether or not her son Paul was Peter's son has not been determined, but Massie posits that she took her first lover in order to produce a needed heir and that Paul was a result of this liaison.

I found so much to admire in this woman, and was foremost struck by how readily she was accepted as a ruler in the 18th century. Obviously there have been female rulers going far back in history, but I've always gotten the impression they were anomalies. Catherine directly followed Elizabeth, who came not long after Anne, and there was no mention of anyone taking exception to women ruling Russia (though late in the book I learned that after her reign, the rules of succession were changed and the Emperor or Empress could no longer name their own successor; the throne was automatically passed to a male heir.) It just made me think a lot about the way we view female leadership as something new and untried.

Some of Catherine's views would be unpopular today, such as her firm belief in the autocracy and hesitation in abolishing serfdom. As much as she admired certain progressive reforms in Europe, she remained fully committed to a benevolent autocracy. And while she tried some reforms to ameliorate conditions of the many serfs in Russia, she balked at the idea of doing away with the whole system. To some extent she knew what would and would not be possible in the the political climate of the day, but she also remained steadfast in some of her beliefs. She did at one point bring together a large body of representatives from all classes in all parts of Russia in an ambitious attempt to rewrite the entire code of laws, but with limited success. From this experience she learned how much more efficient decision-making is when there's just one person doing it.

During her reign she faced and overcame some major challenges. In one instance, that became known as Pugachev's Rebellion, a man claimed to be Catherine's deceased husband, rightful heir to the throne, and despite the fact that he was obviously not Peter, gained enough support that Catherine had to devote energy and resources to quashing the movement. She also had to contend with a deadly outbreak of smallpox, which she faced with the then-bold solution of vaccinations. And of course there were the various wars she had to oversee and contend with, and these were the parts I most struggled with. I always have a tough time reading about political situations, because it's all names and dates and abstract concepts that are difficult to picture. Luckily most of the descriptions were detailed enough that I could grasp what was happening.

Most of it, though, was surprisingly easy to read and understand. This is a dense book - almost 600 pages of rather small print that took me close to a month to read - but it never felt like a chore. Massie brought Catherine and her contemporaries to life in his prose, and provided enough context to really understand why everyone believed and acted as they did. It's a compelling story, written in a beautiful and engaging style. I honestly can't believe it hasn't been made into a mini-series. I only touched on the story here, but it's chock full of drama and twists and the setting alone would really lend itself to television. I will absolutely check out more of Massie's writing, probably starting with Nicholas and Alexandra, when I'm ready to take on another huge book.

I read this for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge, bringing my total to twelve completed. This includes my two alternates, but I still have two unread on my main list. Will I finish them in the last three months of the year? We'll have to wait and see.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Arrangement

The Arrangement (The Survivor's Club #2) by Mary Balogh (2013)

Sophia Fry is a young woman who lives with her aunt, uncle, and cousin and is mostly ignored by them. She thinks of herself as the Mouse, and draws herself that way, in a corner just observing what goes on around her. But one day she takes it upon herself to dress up and go to a ball. Everyone in town is attending but her family doesn't invite her and are surprised when they see her there. Her cousin Henrietta is trying to throw herself in the path of Viscount Darleigh a wealthy man she wants to marry, despite the fact that he is blind. But Sophia sees what is going on and rescues the Viscount, consequently getting thrown out of her house. The Viscount, Vincent, is incredibly grateful and proposes a marriage of convenience: his family will stop harassing him to get married, she won't be living on the streets, and after producing an heir they can live independently, which is what they both want.

Predictably, they fall for each other. Less predictably....there's not much else to it, really. I expected some sort of conflict, but there isn't really one. Technically, the thing getting in their way is their arrangement because they've agreed to part ways and then both realize they don't actually want to. Well, just go ahead and say so.

Don't get me wrong - it's a pleasant enough story and I liked both of the characters. I liked reading about Sophia and the reasons why she has been more of an observer than a participator, and I liked reading about Vincent and how he was blinded in the war and the horrible time he had getting used to it afterward. Together, they work to make the grounds of his estate more conducive to his independence so he doesn't always have to rely on another person helping him around.

The only thing I actually didn't like was near the end when Vincent confronts a guy who damaged Sophie's self-esteem when she was very young. Vincent takes it upon himself to beat the guy up, which is a stupid display of manliness that doesn't to anything to remedy the situation (the damage was done long ago.) But he does this without Sophie's permission, which I think is shitty. Especially since during the confrontation he tells the guy how much his words and actions had hurt Sophie. So, okay, you're revealing her innermost hurt to someone she dislikes and mistrusts in order to justify beating him up so you'll feel better. Got it. I really, really can't stand when men feel a need to defend women as though we are weak and need defending, and without being asked, or even consulting us. However, Sophie wasn't terribly upset and in fact I think she was touched that Vincent cared enough about her to face this guy. So I guess I'm okay with it on her behalf even though I personally find it icky.

I liked the first book in this series much better, though the writing and characters were just as compelling. It was just the plot (and that one annoying bit that got my feminist hackles up) that I wasn't terribly impressed by. And I do really like the whole conception of this series - a group of close-knit friends who all survived a war but with disabilities - so I may revisit it someday and try out the next book.