Friday, July 26, 2013

Science Fiction: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

I first took notice of Peter Heller's The Dog Stars when it was nominated for Best Science Fiction in the Goodreads Choice Awards for 2012. Heller takes on the time after the apocalypse, but for once, zombies aren't included in the equation, unlike many modern novels today. But even without zombies, Heller paints a world that is pretty grim, and there is still plenty of cause for the survivors to watch their back.

The Situation: Hig resides somewhere in Colorado, after a flu-like disease has taken out most of the population. He lives there with his dog, Jasper, and his trigger-happy neighbor, Bangley. To call what he and Bangley have a "friendship" would be way too generous, since on some level, they each fear the other, but realize the only reason they have stayed alive this long is because they have stuck together. Hig has a plane he can fly to check the perimeter and see if anyone is approaching, and Bangley has enough gun power and weaponry to protect them against almost anything. Hig likes to hunt, fish, and garden, while Bangley barely ever sleeps as he is keeping constant watch for dangerous intruders. It isn't the life they dreamed of, but it's what they have right now.

The Problem: Hig has a suspicion that their way of life is ending. What's more, one day while he's flying, he hears a voice come in from a long-abandoned airport - at least he thought it was abandoned. In order to make the trip, he would have to risk never being able to return, as the plane will only carry enough fuel to get him there. Also, he would have to leave Bangley behind. And what if the new survivors are just as protective of their space as Hig and Bangley have been of their own. Is Hig really willing to risk what little he has left to find out?

Genre, Themes, History: As I said before, this has been categorized as science fiction, but as far as I can tell, the only thing that would really put it in that category is the fact that the story takes place after some sort of apocalypse. A terrible flu came on quickly and wiped out almost everyone, and even of the few who survived, many of them have what is referred to as the blood sickness, which to me seems very close to HIV or AIDS. The main theme seems to be that of survival, and also the complete dissolution of society and love of fellow human beings in the face of a crisis. Hig doesn't really like to kill, even a deer for food when he is out hunting, but he will, because he wants to live. He's even willing to kill another person if it means his dog gets to eat. Anyone that approaches someone else's territory is immediately assumed to be hostile, and Bangley believes in shooting first and asking questions later. I would place the timeline of the book at around 10-25 or so years from now, as Hig mentions seeing the movie Avatar on a first date, and his wife was killed by the flu some time ago.

My Verdict: Honestly, while the premise is promising, I found this book to be pretty boring. There are some parts that are interesting, and the characters are relatable enough, but I just wasn't that interested in Hig's survival. Some of the descriptions of where they lived, and the plane, and all of Bangley's weaponry just seemed unnecessary. Most of the book seems to drag, with small spurts of excitement and action hidden in between.

Favorite Moment: When Hig insists on helping a group that has been quarantined since they have the blood sickness, despite Bangley's protests.

Favorite Character: Hig meets Pops after deciding (*spoiler alert!*) to fly off and see what else is out there. Pops' number one priority is protecting his daughter. He doesn't say much, but he is an excellent shot and no one messes with him and lives to tell about it.

Recommended Reading: If you want to read about the apocalypse, but don't want to deal with the blood and gore of zombies, then I recommend Cormac McCarthy's The Road. For me, The Dog Stars just didn't quite get at the incredible sense of desperation and despair that comes from losing everything you love and now having to watch your back for the rest of your life.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Young Adult Fiction: Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

For this week I am writing about Ruta Sepetys' newest young adult novel, Out of the Easy. Not that long ago I covered her first novel, Between Shades of Grey, and knew I would want to keep up with this writer and see if she would be able to work the same kind of magic with 1950s New Orleans that she did with World War II Europe.

The Situation: To say that Josie Moraine has had a difficult life would be an understatement. To start with, she is the daughter of a prostitute, and everyone knows she is the daughter of a prostitute. But even amongst all of the looks, stares, and whispers, Josie has been able to make her way through school with the highest marks, reads about 150 books a year, can quote random poems and Shakespeare, and has even lived on her own, successfully, since the age of 11. She has graduated high school, held down a job at a local book shop, and earned the favor of her mother's madam, the sharp-tongued Willie Woodley, all while resolving to never become like her mom. Josie has also resolved to get out of New Orleans, and when someone presents her with the idea of applying to an out of state college, a new start in life in a new location doesn't seem like such an unattainable idea.

The Problem: Not only is Josie's mother a prostitute, but her mother also steals from her, tells her she wasted the best years of her life raising her, and also has the worst choice in men. If the guy is obviously trouble, then there is a high chance Josie's mom will become involved with him. And this time, her mother's decisions end up causing Josie to be in trouble as well. Meanwhile, Josie is also negotiating her feelings for two different guys, trying to apply for a college she is almost certain she can't afford, or get into, all while cleaning Willie's house every morning and keeping the customers from thinking that once she's 18, she'll also be entering her mother's line of work. Josie would love nothing more than to leave her life on the French Quarter behind while pursuing a degree at a college on the East Coast. But as more events unfold, it starts to look as if New Orleans doesn't care much for Josie, but it won't let her leave either.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that is also historical fiction. Significant themes include loyalty, class division, segregation, and what it takes to be a real family, whether you're blood related or not. Josie's mother may be absolutely awful to her, but Josie still has a hard time not worrying about her and letting her go completely. Also, while Willie may be trying to keep Josie from leaving New Orleans, she looks out for her in every other way, despite wanting almost nothing to do with her when her mother first arrived with a child in tow. Willie even shares Josie's disapproval of her mother's taste in men and in the way she treats her own daughter. Even so, Josie would love to escape to a college far away from home, preferably in an area that is no longer segregated. But more importantly, Josie wants to go somewhere where she isn't known as the prostitute's daughter.

My Verdict: After reading Between Shades of Grey, I had high hopes for this book, and I wasn't disappointed. This is a fantastic story with wonderful characters. Some you like, some you love, some you don't care for, and others you absolutely hate and can't wait for their exit from the story. Also, the actual story is incredibly well done. This isn't just a story about Josie the prostitute's daughter from the wrong side of the tracks trying to cross over to the other side. There are prostitutes, creepy men, mob bosses, self-righteous social climbers, cute boys, bad boys...I could go on. And books. There is also lots of talk about books, as Josie is a big reader. She can discuss Shakespeare, as I mentioned, Dickens, Keats, Fitzgerald...all of the classics, and even a few modern ones from her time. It is a story that will take you through all of the emotions a few times over, but won't leave you exhausted. Just like with Between Shades of Grey, Sepetys doesn't hold back and it pays off handsomely. 

Favorite Moment: When Josie and Willie decide to do some target practice at Willie's cottage out at Shady Grove, a good two to three hours drive from New Orleans. Turns out Josie is a great shot, and Willie is the one who taught her. 

Favorite Character: Usually I have a hard time with this because I often don't like any characters, but this time I have the opposite problem. There are many great characters in this book and I am having a hard time settling on just one. Even so, I think I will go with Cokie, Willie's driver. Cokie is a quadroon, which means he is 1/4 black. In 1950s New Orleans this is no small thing. And while Cokie may have a bit of a gambling problem, he loves Josie and takes care of her, and not just because Willie tells him to. He is also one of the biggest criers in the book and isn't ashamed of it. 

Recommended Reading: Naturally, I am going to recommend Sepetys' first novel, Between Shades of Grey. It is a completely different sort of book about the mass evacuation of the Baltic States during World War II. It is also told through the voice of a teenage girl, but this story includes a different sort of pain and conflict and suffering. But again, just like Out of the Easy, it is worth it.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See by Juliann Garey

Once again, I was steered toward this week's choice by Goodreads and their Pinterest account. Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See is Juliann Garey's first novel, and it follows the adventure, or rather the misadventures, of a man who decides to sort of submit to the bipolar disorder he has been attempting to manage. After reading the synopsis on the book jacket, I imagined I was going to be in for a challenge. I imagined correctly. 

The Situation: Greyson Todd is an incredibly successful Hollywood studio executive with a beautiful wife and daughter. He has managed to overcome a difficult childhood that included his incredibly loyal and devoted mother, his younger sister and two younger brothers, and his less than stellar father. Greyson believes his father's inability to hold a job, his abusive tendencies towards both his wife and his children, and his penchant for spending every bit of the little money the family has, and then some they don't, is what drove his mother to an early grave. His main goal in life is to not become like his old man, and of the surface it would appear he has succeeded. So why is Greyson suddenly having fits of extreme paranoia? Why does he keep disappearing? Why does he suspect his loving wife is trying to kill him? And possibly most important of all, why is he angry at her for hiding all of the sharp objects in the house, and why does he insist on searching for them? 

The Problem: Greyson is bipolar. And after 20 years of hiding it and keeping a tight lid on his illness in order to keep his colleagues in Hollywood from finding out, Greyson gives in completely, leaving his wife and daughter behind in an attempt to spare them from anymore pain. His illness takes him around the world, literally. After ten years of wandering, Greyson finds himself remembering his adventures and misadventures in Rome, Israel, Santiago, Thailand, Uganda, and New York City, in between electroshock treatments in a psychiatric ward. And very few of the memories are happy ones. For the most part, they are despicable, violent, ugly, angry, and full of self-pity and self-loathing. Greyson has already lost everything, including his family. And if this last attempt at regaining some sanity goes wrong, he may lose the memories as well. 

Genre, Themes, History: I'd be willing to call this a psychological thriller. It is a wild ride that takes the reader all over then world with one crazy adventure after another. Garey let's you crawl into the mind of someone whose daily reality is an intense struggle. Some days are much better than others, but Greyson knows that his good days have an expiration date, and it is only a matter of time before he starts acting irrationally again and harming himself as well as those he loves. And even though most of Greyson's family life, both past and present, is extremely fractured, family is an important theme as Garey shows what it is like for those closest to someone who suffers from bipolar disorder. The novel is almost like a case study told from the patient's point of view. Which brings in the issue of the unreliable if him being unlikeable didn't make things hard enough. If Greyson's memory is spotty, by his own admission, then how can the reader trust what he is saying? Also, it would make sense that this would be the subject of Garey's first novel as she is the editor of Voices of Bipolar Disorder: The Healing Companion.

My Verdict: I mentioned that this book was challenging, and here is why: without knowing he is bipolar, Greyson Todd is the world's biggest jerk. The stuff he does and says are just  awful. And because of his money and reputation, he is able to get away with a great deal of it. But even with power and influence on his side, Greyson's illness still leaves him miserable and near death. Garey presents that all important question: what is the role of family and friends when a person's illness causes them to act in a matter that is extremely alienating? By the end, despite everything Greyson had and hadn't done, I was rooting for him and hoping he would be able to pull his life back together. There were some parts where his adventures seemed a little far-fetched, even for a man with seemingly unlimited amounts of money and charm. There is only so much I am willing to believe this guy can get away with before he kills himself or someone else. Even so, while 90% of the book was a struggle to get through, I can say that I did enjoy it and highly recommend it. But fair warning, there is some difficult stuff in here. And if you have any actual experience dealing with mental illness, that may make reading this book even more difficult.

Favorite Moment: When Greyson tells the story of his first date with his wife, Ellen. They were supposed to have gone out on an actual date, but because of something his father does, Greyson has to cancel in order to help the family. Much to his surprise, Ellen isn't upset, but instead she shows up at his house and helps him out.

Favorite Character: Greyson's wife Ellen is incredibly supportive and patient. She manages to stand by him through some seriously scary times, and it is pretty impressive how she is able to deal with his wild mood swings and erratic behavior. 

Recommended Reading: I honestly cannot come up with a good recommendation for this one. At least not one that is fiction. One book that I recently read, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan, kept coming to mind. While Cahalan was not bipolar or manic depressive, doctors had to search frantically for an explanation for her increasingly erratic and scary behavior. It is a true account of a descent into madness that some feared she would never come out of. I think if you enjoy Garey's novel, Cahalan's story would be a great follow-up. 

Friday, July 5, 2013

Nonfiction: Drop Dead Healthy by A.J. Jacobs

Once again, I am finally coming through on one of my promises from 2012. Years ago, I read A.J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, and not only was it funny, but it was also incredibly informative. So naturally, I decided to pick up Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection. I once again expected to be both informed and entertained as Jacobs chronicled his experiences.

The Situation: Jacobs has been moderately interested and intrigued by the subject of health and fitness for years, but the real interest came after becoming incredibly ill on a recent vacation. Jacobs found himself in a Caribbean hospital with sever pneumonia, pretty much wishing for the death he was sure would come. This illness served as the ultimate catalyst to do what his wife had been urging him to do for years: get in shape. But Jacobs, true to stunt journalist form, decides to take it many steps further. What resulted is a two year process in a quest to become the healthiest man alive.

The Problem: Jacobs is fat, by his own admission. Not obese, but still fat. And he is incredibly out of shape. So he has his work cut out for him. At the beginning of the book, Jacobs is 5'11", weighs 172 pounds, and has 18% body fat. At 41 years old, his main motivation to get healthy comes from his fear of leaving behind a wife and three small sons should something happen to him, so despite the uphill battle he is sure to face, he is determined to improve his health. His focuses are longevity, freedom from disease and pain, and a sense of emotional, mental and physical well-being.

However, another problem that pops up again and again is the mass amount of conflicting information about pretty much everything Jacobs looks into. Nothing is straightforward, and there are often so many factors to take into consideration that even in this day and age of modern science and medicine, Jacobs just isn't going to get some of the answers in his lifetime. Turns out, being the healthiest man alive is going to a real challenge.

Genre, Themes, History: This book, as well as Jacob's previous books, falls into the category of stunt journalism. This isn't the first time Jacobs has taken on a seemingly impossible task and written a book about it. And Drop Dead Healthy is the third in a sort of trinity of books that have focused on Jacobs' mind, body, and soul. I have already mentioned The Year of Living Biblically, which focused on the soul, but before that, Jacobs wrote The Know-It-All, where he read the entire Encyclopaedia Brittannica. So after tackling the soul and the mind, Jacob addresses his body. The 24 chapters are an immersion into conflicting information, with a fair amount of it actually being pretty helpful. And Jacobs doesn't focus solely on exercising and eating right. He also devotes entire chapters to the teeth, nose, eyes, hands, etc. Like the title says, Jacobs goes for bodily perfection.

My Verdict: I may actually like this one better than The Year of Living Biblically. It's just as funny, just as informative, but I think the extra year of working on the subject matter may have made a difference. Though by the end, Jacobs admitted that he still didn't get to do everything he wanted, but the experiment had to end at some point. Jacobs is honest (about as much as his wife would allow), and is able to poke fun at himself, even during some fairly serious situations. And he doesn't constantly pat himself on the back, as some stunt journalist are prone to do, but instead, frequently calls himself out when he finds himself becoming too self-righteous. It is a fascinating study in health and exercise today, as well as how much maintenance the human body requires.

Favorite Moment: Pretty much anytime a specialist or a fanatic that is just a little too into their own cause has their claims refuted, either by a doctor, scientist, or just another fanatic from the opposite side. Usually, Jacobs' findings came to same middle ground or gray area...except with sugar...sugar is most definitely bad for you.

Favorite Character: Okay, most nonfiction books don't get a favorite character with me, but this one does. I really like Jacobs' wife, Julie. I am fairly certain she is the reason he is still alive. She keeps him grounded and doesn't let him get too carried away. She'll even join him on some adventures, while maintaining a certain amount of healthy caution.

Recommended Reading: The Year of Living Biblically is also an excellent read. Jacobs even mentions quite a few habits that he has kept from that experiment, making me curious to see which habits from this book he'll continue to hold onto.