Friday, September 30, 2016

Historical Fiction: In the Garden Room by Tanya Eby

I signed up to be a part of the blog tour for Tanya Eby's In the Garden Room because of its intriguing and somewhat dark premise. With only the description on Goodreads to go by, the reader already knows that a little girl is looking at her mother's dead body, but instead of grief she feels relief. 

The Situation: Eleven year-old Lillian March lives in Traverse City, Michigan with her mother Cora, and her father John. Though they aren't rich - in fact, Cora makes what little she can from cleaning for the Milliken's, whose property they live on - Lillian is fairly content with her life and seems to derive most of her joy from reading the biology books that are brought to her by her father. John also seems happy, though he wishes he could provide more for his wife and daughter. The fact that  he comes home everyday smelling of fish is one of the many reasons Cora is unhappy. She resents having to clean house for a wealthier family, and feels that her youth and good looks were stolen from her, with her husband and daughter being the thieves. The cherry orchard she was promised by John before they were married has yet to arrive, and this gives her justification to lie to her daughter and move them both to the big city of Chicago, while John is away on a long fishing voyage with no clue as to where they have gone.

The Problem: Life in Chicago is nothing like Cora dreamt it would be, and the man she followed there is not the knight in shinning armor she thought he was. Almost immediately, the shared savings that she and her husband had accumulated over the years is almost gone, and all Cora has to show for it is a gaudy dress and a shabby rented room. Young Lillian needs food, and soon it becomes clear she'll need a job too, as Cora can't be relied on to work, too busy chasing the life she has always fantasized about. When things go from bad to worse, and Cora sells her daughter while in a drug-induced haze, it seems like things could not possibly get any darker, until they do. Now John must do everything he can to rescue his little girl before she is lost forever.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in 1910. The book first starts out in Traverse City, Michigan, but eventually moves to Chicago, where Cora makes her "escape" with Lillian. While Traverse City is peaceful and serene, if a little boring and uptight, Chicago is depicted as the big dirty city filled with people looking only to take what little you have. Everyone seems to want a little more than what they have, which means Cora fits right in. But because she isn't savvy enough to actually make it in the big city, or willing to work, and can't seem to see people for what they really are, the city quickly swallows her, leaving 11 year-old Lillian on her own, for the most part. Eby explores Chicago's worst areas, from the red light district, to the sights, smells, and horrible sounds emerging from the meatpacking district with its slaughterhouses and brutal foremen. No one can be trusted, and everyone is out for themselves. Even little Lillian isn't spared, with those put in charge over her, Cora included, believing that she has to learn how cruel the world is at some point, and 11 years-old is old enough for them. 

My Verdict: This is a tough book to read, particularly if you are sensitive when it comes to acts of aggression - including sexual acts of aggression - towards women and children. It is apparent fairly early on that Eby is not going to hold back when addressing the vulgarity of some of the citizens in early 20th century Chicago. She also does not hold back when it comes to Cora, who is certainly one of the most selfish mothers I have ever read about in a book...and I have read a lot of books that included selfish or jaded mothers (Scarlett O'Hara anyone?). But Cora's inability to care about anyone besides herself makes Lillian's story all the more tragic and heart-breaking. And ultimately, Eby pulls off the difficult task of having the reader understand how a little girl could be relieved at seeing the dead body of her own mother.

Favorite Moment: When John's German friend, Willem, breaks in the face of a pedophile.

Favorite Character: Chester is a young boy whom Lillian meets at her first job in Chicago. At first he seems like a trickster and a smart ass, and he is both of those things. But ultimately he turns out to be both protective and helpful. He reminded me a lot of Gavroche from Les Miserables

Recommended Reading: I recommend The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan. The book follows three girls who must find a way to keep themselves together after their father dies and their mother drinks away what little money she is able to make as a laundress.  

Friday, September 23, 2016

Contemporary Fiction: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The Vegetarian by Han Kang took home the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. Though a relatively short book at less then 200 pages, it has captivated readers and critics and has to been said to be a truly unique and extraordinary reading experience. It often happens that critically acclaimed books aren't very popular with your everyday reader. So I decided to read The Vegetarian for myself, as the premise does interest me and I was curious to see what got the critics so excited.

The Situation: Yeong-hye is a young wife in South Korea. She lives a fairly ordinary life with nothing particularly exciting going on. Even her husband describes her as "completely unremarkable in every way," though she may have a few small oddities. So together they live an unremarkable existence. But when Yeong-hye has a terrifying nightmare, one which leads her to the decision to become a vegetarian, the little things that only made her slightly strange soon become big problems. It isn't just that Yeong-hye will no longer eat meat, but soon she can barely even look at it, smell it, or watch other people eat it. And while it is certainly possible to eat a healthy amount and maintain a healthy weight without consuming meat, Yeong-hye instead begins to waste away, and eventually she won't eat anything at all.

The Problem: Normally, not eating meat would not be such a big deal; people become vegetarians all of the time. But Yeong-hye's entire family simply cannot understand the change, all being big meat eaters themselves. Her sister and brother are confused, as are their spouses, and her parents simply won't stand for it. After a particularly awful confrontation that leads to a suicide attempt, it becomes clear that eating meat really isn't the issue for Yeong-hye, but no one has any idea what is actually going on with her, and what is to be done about it. And while the decision should be about how to best care for Yeong-hye, for some family members it begins to be about whether they will be able to stand by her and support her as she goes through whatever it is that is causing her to eat so little and waste away before their eyes. It will be her sister, In-hye, who will take on most of the caregiving, but it will cause her to question her own existence and the decisions she has made for her life.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a story of fiction originally written and published in Korean in 2007, and then translated and published in English earlier this year. As I had already mentioned, it has won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, and that is what initially brought it to my attention. Yeong-hye's initial decision to stop eating meat comes after a particularly gruesome dream that makes the act of consuming meat completely repulsive to her. While this will become one of the more mundane decisions she will make throughout the novel, it is still one that is big enough to completely shake her entire family. Broken up into three parts, the novel moves on with not eating meat as a central issue that is always returned back to, but Yeong-hye does other things that are much more strange, shocking, and scary for those that love her and care about her well-being. The book is first told in first-person by her husband; then in third-person from the perspective of her brother-in-law; and then again in third-person, but from the perspective of her older sister. Even when Yeong-hye's only issue seems to be with eating meat, it is clear that something much deeper, more profound, is going on with her. However, she won't communicate, and some of the people around her refuse to even try to understand, and quickly lose patience. While some ultimately dismiss her, others make her issues all about them, and still others take advantage of the situation for their own benefit.

My Verdict: This is one where I am pretty sure there are things that happened or were said that went completely over my head, but I enjoyed it anyway and can see what got critics so excited. Reading the novel is certainly a different experience from the kind of stuff I usually read, one I am glad to have had. And while the three different parts of the book are all told from different viewpoints, I can't say that there was one that was weaker than the others, or that there was one that was stronger and more preferable to me. Sure, two of the characters are more annoying or more frustrating than the other one, but the writing remained strong in all three and they all contributed to the overall success of the novel. While not ever being too gruesome or explicit, the book still manages to be a little scary and incredibly sad, but not so much that it is overwhelming and may make a reader want to put the book down. Kang effectively displays the experience of watching someone spiral downward, and the feeling of helplessness that comes with knowing there really isn't anything you can do.

Favorite Moment: Whenever Yeong-hye manages to laugh, since it is rare for her to even smile.

Favorite Character: Yeong-hye's sister, In-hye, is easily the most likeable and relateable. She is the only one who really continues to care for her sister and stick by her.

Recommended Reading: I recommend  either The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. Both novels include female characters who, on the surface, are distant, difficult to read, and ultimately misunderstood. Also, Shelter by Jung Yun is also about a Korean family dealing with their history of abuse.  

Friday, September 16, 2016

Contemporary Fiction: First Circle Club by Alex Siegel

I signed up to review First Circle Club by Alex Siegel as part of a blog tour for the book. The description made it sound like a fun and not too serious take on the eternal battle between heaven and hell, and with some mystery, action, and suspense thrown in. It also promises to be the first of a series, so those of you who enjoy this type of thing have more to look forward to.

The Situation: Virgil was a U.S. Marshall killed in the line of duty in the 1970s, and due to some questionable choices he made while performing his job, it was decided that he would be assigned to hell for all eternity. Fortunately for him (or unfortunately, depending on how you want to look at it), he only had to go as far as limbo, or the first circle. While he avoids things like lakes of fire and endless torture, he must file endless paperwork for all eternity, which of course is a sort of torture in and of itself. Fortunately (or again, unfortunately, depending on your view), something terrible and unheard of has happened, and both heaven and hell need someone with Virgil's past experience on Earth to help sort things out. It isn't a second chance exactly, but it is a break in the monotony of endless filing, and gives Virgil a chance to be back on Earth.

The Problem: The unfathomable thing that has happened is that essentially someone has managed to escape hell, and it is one of the last people anyone would ever want roaming the earth again. Daniel was a serial killer when he was alive, and he has decided to resume his work now that he has returned. To make matters worse, he wasn't simply given his old human body to work with, but a stronger one with more power and a better healing ability. But Virgil was also given such a body, as was Lisa, another soul that was condemned to limbo, and Alfred and Sara, two souls that were recruited from heaven. Together, the four of them are to work together to try to hunt down Daniel and send him back to his punishment, and also find out how he was able to escape in the first place as accomplishing such a feat means he is certainly not working alone. If anything, they need to stop him from killing more innocent people.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel with elements of fantasy, and some light humor. The book doesn't take itself too seriously, but does provide enough back story and description to aid in the suspension of disbelief. Virgil and Lisa are souls recruited from hell, as Virgil is a former U.S. Marshall and Lisa is an ex-cop, so both would have experience hunting down dangerous people. Sara was recruited from heaven because of her experience as a medical examiner, and Alfred was a psychologist. In addition to being given bodies with powerful new abilities, Virgil is able to make people feel incredible amounts of guilt and shame just by speaking to them, while Alfred can allow any human to feel peace and an endless amount of trust. Lisa can cause physical pain simply by touching someone, while Sara was given the power to heal by blowing on a wound with her breath. The team must work together using their new powers to hunt down and overcome Daniel, who can make sharp blades out of his hands to better aid in his killing. But they must do so without telling people who or what they are, or limiting the agent of free will for the still living humans in any way. It seems both heaven and hell have a number of rules regarding conduct on Earth that both sides must follow, and violations have their own consequences, with each side maintaining a "budget" that can only handle so many infractions. It's a complicated issue without a straightforward solution, but even the recruited souls from heaven are pretty happy being active again on Earth.

My Verdict: While the battle between heaven and hell is certainly not a new theme, Siegel takes it in his own direction and plays with it, which makes for a fun rediscovery of an old idea for a novel. There are a few things about it that aren't terribly fresh, like having a serial killer turn out the way he has because of an oppressive and religious father; or giving the undead U.S. Marshall, who died when he was about 50ish, a twenty something year-old love interest. Also, while the main objective is to find Daniel and send him back to hell, there is an entire side story where the team must find the incredibly wealthy benefactor who is clearly aiding the serial-killer. For a good 100 pages or so, there is very little talk of Daniel, and he has all but disappeared from the narrative. Perhaps this is something that will be further dealt with in future books in the series, but for this one I found it odd. Other than that, the book is full of action and interesting tidbits regarding how heaven and hell function, with characters that will carry well throughout an ongoing series.

Favorite Moment: Anytime Alfred used his voice to accomplish what he needed.

Favorite Character: My favorite of the four was certainly Alfred. With his voice, he was able to disarm almost everyone instantly, and given much more time, he would have them sobbing in his arms, telling him about their child and their long hard road to a regrettable life of violence.

Recommended Reading: It won't be nearly as fun as this book, but I still recommend, Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy. The part about hell, or the Inferno, is of course the most interesting, but I recommend reading the whole thing.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Historical Fiction: Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Despite my desire to steer away from historical fiction that deals with World War II, here I am covering a book that does exactly that. Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly follows the lives of three women as Hitler takes over Poland, and then sets his sights on the rest of the world. I suppose what ultimately interested me was the fact that the story doesn't stay in one place, and offers a variety of perspectives.

The Situation: It's 1939, and Caroline Ferriday is volunteering for the French Consulate in New York City. As a woman who is officially considered a spinster, she occupies her time garnering support and donations for French orphans across the pond, especially as it looks like Hitler won't be stopped anytime soon, and in fact seems to be gaining power by the day. In Poland, a young teenage girl named Kasia has come face to face with German occupation, and her family must think fast if they want to stay alive and not have everything taken from them. And then there is Herta Oberheuser, a young German female doctor who wants little more than to be recognized for her medical and surgical ability in a male-dominated field.

The Problem: Once WWII officially starts and Hitler lays claim to both Poland and France, getting donations to French orphans becomes near impossible, but Caroline and her mother press on, even using their own resources when necessary. But in Poland, Kasia must fight for her own survival as she, her mother, and her sister Zuzanna are taken prisoner and placed in Ravensbrück, a concentration camp for women. Here is where they will cross paths with Herta, who gets her chance to advance her career by performing awful and horrifying experiments on the prisoners, all in the name of serving Germany and giving punishment to people the Nazis view as good as dead anyway. Eventually the war will end, but will Caroline's orphans get what they need to survive? And will Kasia survive the daily horror she is put through for the cause of the Nazis? And when things do finally end, will Herta be held responsible for her part in that horror?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in various locations during and after World War II. Caroline's story remains mostly in New York City and Connecticut, while Kasia remains in Poland and at Ravensbrück, later making a trip to the states. Herta is staunchly loyal to Germany and the Nazi cause, but what she really wants more than anything is to practise medicine and be recognized for it. She actually has no desire to stay at the concentration camp when she first arrives, but the opportunities for advancement and recognition become too good for her to pass up, a decision that makes her a target once the war ends and people are arrested for war crimes. In Herta that reader is given a look into how easily people can justify their actions in the name of loyalty to their country. Both she and Caroline Ferriday were real people in history, while Kasia and her sister were based off of a different pair of sisters that ended up at Ravensbrück. Naturally, Kelly took some liberties with the story, but what happened at Ravensbrück is real. And while Caroline may not have had first-hand experience with the war and could never really know the suffering that was endured by Kasia and administered by Herta, even her life is effected as friends back in France become victims of Hitler's occupation. The events of WWII were not confined by either geography or time, as many of the horrors didn't end with Hitler's death, especially for Kasia. Most books about WWII end once the war does, but Kelly continues telling Caroline, Kasia, and Herta's stories well into the 1950s.

My Verdict: Even though for me this is yet another book about WWII, I have to say that it is a good one and I am glad I picked it up. It certainly helps that Kelly chose to tell the story through three different women in three very different situations in life. Even though Kasia's story in particular was hard to read at times, due to her imprisonment at a concentration camp, the book still managed to not be a difficult read. Herta's story could also be hard to face, but mostly because of her unfeeling, calloused, almost uninterested view of the prisoners she was in charge of. While she was completely sold on what Hitler was trying to do, it was still clear that she was out to advance her own career, and would have had zero interest in serving the Reich if it didn't involve making her a better or more well-known doctor. The nuances of her character made her more than just the evil Nazi doctor whose demise the reader looks forward too. Just like Kasia is more than just a Polish prisoner, and Caroline is more than a bleeding heart from New York. Lilac Girls is a WWII story that isn't ever set on the battlefield or in the air, but lives are often still at stake and the damage just as real.

Favorite Moment: *spoiler alert* When Herta is found guilty for her crimes against humanity.

Favorite Character: Zuzanna is Kasia's older sister who manages to remain hopeful and full of joy, while also remaining practical and realistic, even in the most tragic of circumstance. Her and her sister support each other through their imprisonment, but somehow Zuzanna manages to come out the less bitter of the two, even though she physically suffered the most. 

Recommended Reading: For another novel about WWII, told from the point of view of different women who live through it, I recommend The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Science Fiction: The Long Cosmos by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

At last we finally reach the much anticipated conclusion of Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Earth series. Starting in 2012, a new book in the series was published every year, making The Long Cosmos the fifth and final installment. Readers will get to see where Joshua and Lobsang end up, as well as how the discovery of the Long Worlds ultimately effects every type of being across the universe.

The Situation: It is the year 2070, almost sixty years after the initial Step Day, the day that changed humanity forever. Joshua Valienté is now 70 years old, but refuses to believe he is too old to continue with his old ways and habits. Maybe it is because his ex-wife has died, or because his relationship with his son is more strained than ever, or even because Sally Lindsay is long gone, but Joshua is planning yet another sabbatical on some largely undiscovered world out in the Long Earth. He is well aware of the dangers of going off alone at his age, but he does so anyway, hoping to learn even more about the Long Earth, but ultimately, to just get some time by himself. Meanwhile, something - no one is sure what - has issued an invitation to every living being across the Long Earth that is capable of listening. It is a simple message, made all the more straight-forward in its simplicity: "Join Us."

The Problem: It isn't long that Joshua runs into trouble while out on his own, far away from home, with no one really knowing where he is. A band of helpful trolls are able to offer him some assistance, but their lack of western medicine and food more suited to Joshua's stomach make their attempts at being helpful much appreciated, though largely fruitless. And while Joshua struggles to survive, the rest of humanity grapples with what to do with the strange invitation from the sky. Naturally, the incredibly smart Next population has a plan, although they are just as split on the next course of action as other humans. The military insists on being included in any plans for making contact with whoever issued the invitation, no matter what world in the Long Earth is used to do it. And then of course, as always, there is Lobsang, who naturally comes with his own ideas.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction novel, and the fifth and final installment in The Long Earth series. What initially started out as a bunch of children almost accidentally "stepping" into an alternate earth, has now lead to whole civilizations spreading out and settling in other worlds, coming into contact with other humanoid species they would have never imagined even existed, and ultimately mining the resources now available to them through this seemingly infinite multitude of other earths. And since The Long Cosmos deals specifically with an invitation from yet another unknown life form, there are many references to the Jodie Foster movie Contact. The message of "Join Us" is straightforward enough, but still lacks the practical details. Who is inviting us? And how are we supposed to join them? These are the questions that bring together groups of people and other beings who normally don't play well together, while also fracturing groups like the Next from within. Some worry that this invitation may prove harmful to humanity, while others are sure it can only be useful, or at the very least, educational. The military insists on overseeing the whole matter as a means of security and protection, while others are only interested from a business and financial standpoint. It is another complication to be dealt with now that humanity has discovered the ability to step from one world to another. Even after 70 years, there is still much the human race has to figure out concerning the Long Earth.

My Verdict: While the book is good, it is far from being my favorite among the series (that honor still goes to The Long Mars, the third book in the series). And it is only somewhat satisfying as a conclusion to the entire series. It felt as if a few of the issues that had persisted throughout the previous four books were dealt with and dismissed a little too quickly early in the book, only to make room for new plot points that would not amount to much before the series ended for good. There are also some loose ends, although I can understand why many of them would be left that way. The constant conflict and tension between the Next and regular humans will always be there for as long as the two groups exist, so it does make sense to have the series end with them working together on one massive project, and with both sides admitting their own flaws and setbacks. Even so, I felt more could have been said regarding not only the future of the Next, but also the trolls, kobolds, and even Lobsang. Granted, any storyline involving something as massive and complex as the Long Earth could literally go in a million different directions, so it would be impossible to explore all of them. The books had to end somewhere. And as for Joshua, his son, Lobsang, Nelson, and Maggie Kaufman, there is some semblance of closure, however obvious it may be that new adventures will always await.

Favorite Moment: When Sancho, Joshua's troll friend, carries him up a massive tree that stands miles high in the air of some distant world. The tree is large enough for beings like the trolls to live comfortable among its branches, as long as they are used to breathing in the thin air.

Favorite Character: Sancho the troll manages to save Joshua's life, and is then invited on the ultimate mission of exploring the Long Earth in a direction that no one had gone before. Though a troll, he is intelligent, and incredibly useful. He even holds the title of "librarian" at one of the universities in the Long Earth.

Recommended Reading: The Long Earth series is certainly one worth picking up. Only five books long, it is what I refer to as 'accessible' science fiction, as in it isn't too over the heads of the less science-minded life myself, and is incredibly imaginative and entertaining.