Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Book 67: If I Stay

Most of the YA I read tends to be fantasy/sci-fi or dystopian with the exception of Rainbow Rowell, and she's different because I'd already read her adult novel Attachments when I discovered that she had more novels available in the YA section.  This genre focus in YA is probably one of the reasons I've never gotten around to John Green.  Even though I have seen nothing but favorable reviews for If I Stay, it took the movie preview to convince me to actually read it.  And wow, this was so powerful.  The thing is I even knew how it ended, having read enough reviews of this novel, and the companion novel.  Despite this, I was crying by the end of this book, and I rarely cry.  I figured anything powerful enough to make me that emotional even with previous knowledge deserved a five star rating on Goodreads and CBR.

Mia, the novel's 17 year old narrator, faces a life altering decision in this novel, having to decide whether she wants to stay and live or let go and die.  The story begins with a snow day in Oregon, inspiring an impromptu family trip.  En route to friends, Mia, her little brother Teddy and her parents are involved in a car accident.  Her parents are dead on site, Teddy is taken to a nearby hospital where those exact friends work while Mia is flown to a major hospital in Portland.  Though in a coma, a part of Mia is able to walk around the hospital and observe everything, including her family and friends gathered in the waiting room.  As she faces her current situation, she reflects on her life, her parents, her boyfriend Adam and her love of music.  Shortly before the accident, she even auditioned for Julliard and her boyfriend's band is becoming rather successful.  Music has always been an important part of her life, and her parents are musical as well, though Mia was a bit of a rebel when she developed an interest in classical music and the cello while the rest of her family and loved ones are rockers.  Though she felt the common teenage anxiety about belonging, her family was loving and supportive.  Now Mia's condition is critical but she quickly realizes that whatever happens is her choice, and whether she wants to continue living without such a critical part of her life and whether Adam and the music are enough to keep her.

The premise sounds so simple and could easily become trite, but Forman does a great job of making these characters come alive, and really showing what Mia has lost while also demonstrating what she has to live for.  While Adam plays a big role in that, Forman doesn't simply make it a choice about family vs. boyfriend.  Mia's music and her potential are such important facets of her life which I really appreciated.  I just hope the movie is able to capture the novel, which absolutely earns the emotional reactions readers might have.

Book 66: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

This was one of those novels I stumbled upon while at the bookstore, and even though I had never heard of it before, the cover and the title caught my interest.  Having read Replay and Life After Life, I was definitely interested in the premise of a hero who relives his life.  Harry August, the narrator, relives his life over and over again, making changes and adjustments as he wishes.  However, he is part of a greater community of people with this same ability, people randomly scattered throughout the world and time.  As a result, these people are actually able to communicate with the past, usually by playing a complicated and long game of telephone, where someone asks someone who is older a question, who then asks an older person once he is reborn as a child.  The novel begins when a message comes to Harry August from the future, telling him that the world is ending faster than every before.

The community of kalachakra have set themselves some rules and it mostly involves not changing the world order.  The fact that the end of the world is speeding up means someone is introducing concepts, idea and technology much earlier than originally developed, and Harry may be the key to discovering the culprit behind this.

While the novel starts with a great mission to save the world, the story is actually told at a much more leisurely pace than I expected, exploring Harry's different lives and experiences, the rules that have guided his lives and those similarly afflicted, and certain actions he repeats in all his lives compared to the things that change throughout.  While I was initially surprised by the pace, it actually worked for the novel - after all, who hasn't pondered what they would change or do differently if they could start life over with the knowledge of all that they have done, and how history will turn out?  Harry, additionally, is rather unique because he can remember everything that has happened in all his lives.  Most of the others forget details as repetition and time blurs things together.  There is also a process that allows fellow kalachakra to erase all the memories and begin again, living a first life again after they have either sinned against their kind or become too disillusioned or unhappy to want to continue with their lives.

I'm definitely glad I took a chance on this one (although does it really count as a chance when it had a four star rating on Goodreads - still I hadn't seen it on CBR).  It was also nice to read a novel that really dealt with the opportunities and choices - while I liked Life After Life, the character had only vague premonitions not to do things that had previously endangered her, so I enjoyed reading a novel about a man who actively lives his life over and over again, leading to drastically different circumstances from one life to the next.  It also led to a variety of moral and ethical questions and quandaries regarding how much one should try to influence the future for the better, especially when being reborn simply means it would need to be done again and again if it even had the right effect.

Book 65: Etiquette and Espionage

This novel is the first in a YA series that takes place in the same world as the Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger.  I haven't actually read that series yet, so I'm not entirely sure why I chose to try out this spin off first, but it was a cute, fun novel.  It skews a bit younger than most of the YA I've read, which also means that while a few of the girls at boarding schools talk about how cute some guys are, there isn't actually a romance.  Instead, it's about friendships, and girls training to be assassins and spies in what advertises itself as a finishing school.  Also, I think a few things may have had more context if I had already read Carriger's adult series, but her use of Sophronia as the main character works very well for the uninitiated.  There may be things that the new reader and Sophronia don't get because of lack of background but since this whole world is new to Sophronia, the reader finds things out as she does.

Sophronia is the younger daughter in her family and a bit of a trouble maker.  Her older sister is interested in all the proper feminine things but Sophronia is too curious and constantly gets herself into trouble.  As a result, her mom decides to send her to boarding school but much to Sophronia's surprise, the school actually trains its students in espionage as well as traditional etiquette.  Even though Sophronia lives in this steam punk setting, she has been very sheltered and mostly only heard about many of the things she encounters at school, including werewolves and vampires.

While most of the novel focuses on the school and lessons, Sophronia and her new friends are also aware of a plot and a potential attack on the school for the prototype.  The girls don't exactly know what it is, and in many ways it's more of a MacGuffin, simply something to add focus and an action, though I would have been happy just reading about Sophronia's day to day adventures at school.  I expect I'll pick up the rest of Carriger's novel when I'm in the mood for something light and entertaining with some untraditional women.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

2014 Book Bingo Reading Challenge Wrap Up

2014 Bingo Challenge-01
I finished my first challenge for the year!  Technically, I could keep going and see if I could complete another score card, but with all the things coming up in the next few months, I think it's better to just quit while I'm ahead instead of staring at a half completed card in a few months.

I am a bit behind on reviews, so I will add the links as I get around to them.
One Book from TBR Pile (Complete):
In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
Two Books from TBR Pile (Complete):
The Soldier's Song by Alan Monaghan
No One is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel
Three Books from TBR Pile (Complete):
The Golden Hour by Margaret Wurtele
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
What Happened to Anna K. by Irina Reyn
Four Books from TBR Pile (Complete):
Cut to the Quick by Kate Ross
The Disappeared by Kim Echlin
The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Five Books from TBR Pile (Complete):
South of Broad by Pat Conroy
Palisades Park by Alan Brennert
The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

Nonfiction (Complete):
Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan
Classic (Complete):
The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
Reread (Complete):
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
Free Square (Complete):
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Contemporary (Complete):
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

One Book in a Series (Complete):
Splintered by A.G. Howard
Two Books in a Series (Complete):
The Eye in the Door by Pat Barker
The Ghost Road by Pat Barker
Three Books in a Series (Complete):
Waking the Witch by Kelley Armstrong
Spell Bound by Kelley Armstrong
Thirteen by Kelley Armstrong
Four Books in a Series (Complete):
A Conspiracy of Faith by Jussi Adler-Olsen
Dust by Hugh Howey
Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger
The Truth of All Things by Kieran Shields
Five Books in a Series (Complete):
Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison
The Good, the Bad and the Undead by Kim Harrison
Every Which Way But Dead by Kim Harrison
A Fistful of Charms by Kim Harrison
For a Few Demons More by Kim Harrison

Fantasy (Complete):
Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
Free Square (Complete):
The House of Lost Souls by F.G. Cottam
Historical Fiction (Complete):
In Falling Snow by Mary-Rose MacColl
Mystery (Complete):
Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus
Romance (Complete):
The King of the Castle by Victoria Holt

One New Release (Complete):
Cress by Marissa Meyer
Two New Release (Complete):
Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan
That Part Was True by Deborah McKinlay
Three New Releases (Complete):
Redeployment by Phil Klay
Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor
I Don't Know What You Know Me From by Judy Greer
Four New Releases (Complete):
Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire Holt
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
Skin Game by Jim Butcher
Five New Releases (Complete):
The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
Murder of Crows by Anne Bishop
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

Book 64: Brain on Fire

I don't feel like I usually read that many memoirs but it seems I was on a bit of streak.  Given all the positive reviews, I had to pick this one up, of course.  In this book, Susannah Cahalan documents are temporary bout of insanity, how it developed, the medical community's reaction, and her eventual path back to herself.

Cahalan doesn't have a history of mental illness in her family, but at some point in her early/mid twenties, she starts acting odd and off.  She becomes paranoid, and very difficult, unable to focus on work, and just generally does not act like herself.  As far as she can tell, it all starts with an odd tingling in her hand and arm, but her first visit to a doctor only leads to a diagnosis of stress as a result of too much work and drinking.  However, her family encourages her to seek other options, especially when she experiences seizures, and soon things have progressed so far that she has to be hospitalized.  As Cahalan points out, she was fortunate enough to be in the neurological department as a result of the seizures rather than the mental health portion, because it meant the doctors kept looking for a cause rather than going with a schizophrenia diagnosis though she exhibited signs of it and was at the right age of its onset.

This is an incredibly informative book about the progression of a disease and how Susannah's brain and body betrayed her, turning on themselves.  While I was reading, I couldn't help but think that in ways she was incredibly privileged, being able to go home to her parents, take the time off from work when she was simply acting off rather than facing the full-fledged illness, and even the fact that she spent a month in a hospital surrounded by a team of professionals.  In fact she even acknowledges this in the last few chapters when she discusses the repercussions of this illness, and the ways she has been able to use her experience to help others.  In ways, it seems like if this disease was going to happen to anyway, Cahalan was the candidate that could most benefit others because with her background as a journalist, she was more able to provide a clear picture of her journey and raise awareness for others that could face this.  As she admits, she also got lucky because in the end, she was able to find out what was wrong with her and put a name to it, while there are surely others who have simply been dismissed as crazy and put away or ignored.  It's a very illuminating book, and absolutely fascinating.  I wouldn't even want to imagine how this situation would have worked for someone with a less supportive family, and Cahalan definitely struggled.  In fact, even after her recuperation, she sometimes wonders about the person she was vs. the person she is, and how much of herself was actually changed or lost as a result of this period in her life.

Book 63: The Prince

I was pleasantly surprised with just how accessible Machiavelli's The Prince was.  So often I feel like philosophers are a bit wordier than I like and with only a hundred or so pages, Machiavelli quickly gets to his point (I realize that part of this long-windedness often is because they are explaining a concept that is new to their contemporaries but has become a given or common sense now exactly because of them).  Not only that, but much of what he says is easily applied to modern day examples.  I actually ended up comparing a few of his situations to Game of Thrones in a class discussion because one can definitely see how Martin (and probably a good portion of Western society) has been influenced by Machiavelli's ideas of power and leadership.  Or perhaps, it's not even that they have been influenced by him but that Machiavelli recognizes human nature so well that even now his words hold true.  In essence, Machiavelli just made sense to me, and displayed a great deal of common sense.

Given that his name has become a word, I figured I would find him too cynical.  After all this is the man we think of when we think of the idea that it is better to be feared than loved.  However, while reading him and considering his background, much of what he says makes sense.  He spends a lot of time on the idea of power, but to me, power seemed more like a means to end rather than the end itself.  Machiavelli advised men on how they could protect their power and achieve it, but more so, he seemed concerned with the stability of the state.  He didn't want princes to have power for themselves but rather because it would ensure that they could make good decisions for the kingdoms or states, and prevent others from seeing them as vulnerable or weak.  Italy and its states had seen a reduction in their importance and power in the past decades as well as warfare.  As a result, one can see where Machiavelli might be more focused on maintaining a stable state as an important key to prosperity and the well being of the people rather than having a kind and progressive ruler who could easily be overthrown.

Machiavelli also lists a variety of characteristics, many of them good, that a leader should appear to be.  Since a leader had to be able to make tough decisions and possibly do things that would not be considered "good," Machiavelli notes that it is only necessary to appear to have these qualities because it also means that a ruler can act in different manners as the situation requires without going against his nature.  I think a lot of the things he said made a lot of sense.  While people have probably used Machiavelli to justify actions that he would not agree with or believe besides the point, his ideas on leadership are quite interesting, very accessible and definitely worth the read - especially if you want to start thinking about Game of Thrones while you're reading it.

Book 62: This Boy's Life

I first became aware of this memoir several years ago after seeing Titanic and Romeo and Juliet inspired me to search Leonardo DiCaprio's back catalog (I was thirteen when Titanic came out, I was in the target demographic).  Over seventeen years later, I still haven't seen the film, but I've finally read the book that I've had for a few years.  I actually read Son of a Gun only a few weeks before this one, and though these two memoirs' events are separated by almost half a century, it was easy to see parallels between the lives of the authors and their mothers.  Tobias Wolff and his mother move west in search of opportunities, and his mother ends up in a series of relationships with abusive men while his actual father is disconnected from his son's life.  That could just as well describe Justin St. Germain's life.  However, the end results are very different for the two women and their sons though one could easily see how if certain things had been just a bit different, Wolff's mother could have faced a similar tragedy as Germain's.

Though Wolff generally comes off as a sweet kid, it is also clear that he easily falls in with the wrong crowds and makes bad decisions, something that is repeated in Utah, Seattle (where his mother temporarily lives as a single mother) and the small rural town in Washington where Wolff and his mother settle after her marriage to Dwight.  Toby, or Jack as he calls himself, drinks, lies and cheats, and he and his stepfather quickly become bitter opponents.  Despite all of Toby's failings, it is hard not to root for him to not only get away from his stepfather but also turn his life around and stop screwing up.  Toby does make it rather clear early on that part of the reason his mother remarries may very well have been to introduce some discipline in his life.

Wolff also clearly feels abandoned.  His older brother stayed with their father after the divorce, and there is a big split in the family, probably one of the reasons he rejects his given name for Jack.  In fact, he doesn't speak to his older brother for almost six years until Toby finally reaches for help.  While this is not the first time he has reached out to someone about his situation, Wolff also makes clear that he had a gift for dramatization and exaggeration, writing very embellished versions of the truth to stir pity.

I enjoyed this one more than Son of a Gun, though I think they compliment each other well.  However, this focuses much more on the stepfather-stepson relationship while Son of a Gun was about the mother-son and mother-stepfather relationships.  This one also ends on a note of hope because as much as Toby keeps screwing up his chances, in the end, the reader knows that he has gone on to become a successful author.  As a result, I think Wolff is willing to also show his bad sides, and even let the reader occasionally see where Dwight has a point, though more often than not, Dwight is a petty, small minded man.  Though I haven't seen the film, I was naturally DiCaprio as Toby/Jack and DeNiro as Dwight.  I am a bit more curious to see the film now, especially since was before DeNiro started doing Meet the Parents kind of movies all the time.