Monthly Archives: July 2020

The Dry

After feeling a little stuck with reading (I know, unbelievable. I should get help), I returned to my love (and hate) of mystery/thrillers. And Jane Harper didn’t disappoint.

The Dry is set in the Australian outback. A small town is in the middle of an awful drought, and every one assumes the hard times led Luke Hadler to kill his family and himself. But Federal Agent Aaron Falk, run out of town decades ago, isn’t so sure. A cryptic note tells him, “Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral.”

Naturally, returning to the town that cast him out brings up a lot of history. Though Falk just wanted to attend the funeral and run back to the city, somehow he finds himself staying and poking around the supposedly open and shut case. Somehow he can’t shake the feeling that it’s all connected to the past, and the town isn’t quite ready to let things lie.

Harper’s story moved along at a fast pace, introducing ideas and allowing the reader’s mind to be anticipating each new reveal. She weaves the drama of small town living together with the drama of the tragedy, creating a layered story that engages readers from the get-go.

I found this book to be the perfect blend of being just lost in the story and occasionally trying to figure out the end. Though my few ideas were ultimately wrong, that was OK because I wasn’t trying so hard to work it all out. I was satisfied to just go along at the author’s pace and enjoy the story.

The book does need a few trigger warnings, though. The deaths at the beginning of the book are pretty gruesome, even though the author leaves a lot to the imagination. It also includes references to abuse and hints at sexual abuse as well.

All in all, it was a good crime thriller with a solid mix of procedural story telling mixed with drama.

Ogre Enchanted

Don’t you ever wish life were like a fairy tale, and even when you get cursed and things go to pot, you know it’ll all work out in the end and love will prevail? Yeah, me too. That’s why I read kids books sometimes.

Ogre Enchanted is a fun, lighthearted fairy tale by Gail Carson Levine (author of Ella Enchanted). Evie is a young healer very dedicated to her work. When her best friend Wormy proposes to her, he throws a wrench in everything because Lucinda, a meddling fairy, just loves to hang around and present gifts (or curses) upon proposals. When Evie declines Wormy’s proposal, Lucinda jumps into action, transforming Evie into an ogre. Now, Evie has only 62 days to get another proposal, or she’ll be an ogre forever.

Evie sets out to find a band of ogres to teach her how to use ogre persuasion, the only way Evie will be able to secure another proposal! But as she traverses the kingdom, desperately trying to preserve both her life and her humanity, she finds it’s going to be even more difficult to secure a proposal than she imagined. As time ticks by, Evie begins to wonder, if she’s stuck as an ogre forever, will she still be able to find a way to heal people?

Ogre Enchanted was a quick little read, as I expected. A tale of love and discovery, the bad guys are bad and the good guys are good. Sometimes it’s just so nice to come back around to a classic fairy tale and enjoy the story, not put all your brain power into the plotting. Levine takes readers on a journey through the kingdom of Kyrria, full of adventures as Evie both seeks a lover to break her curse and also how to accept life if she remains an ogre.

One refreshing thing about this book is how Evie isn’t a damsel in distress (though, neither was Ella, so this may be Levine’s style) but she also wasn’t caught up in her own predicament. She sought a solution, but even as she did, she accepted the reality that she’d likely be stuck as an ogre and made plans to account for that. I can very much relate to the worse-case scenario planner in Evie.

I forgot how much I enjoy Levine’s writing (even though I’ve only read two books). She’s just a fun, easy read. Even if it’s not mental gymnastics to guess the plot, it’s so easy to get caught up in the story. I can’t think of any better way to describe it than just delight in the reading.

So if you’re looking for a delightful book that reminds you to slow down and be a friend to your inner child, read this (or any of her books). It’ll be fun.

 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

After reading some of Maya Angelou’s poetry in February, I decided I needed to move her autobiography up on my TBR list. Now that I’ve finally made time for it, I was not disappointed.

DSC00752I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Angelou’s story in her own words, starting as a young girl being raised by her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. Her life there is often defined in terms of black and white. When Angelou and her brother, Bailey, finally get the chance to live in St. Louis with their mother, an ache in their hearts is filled. Until young Angelou is sexually abused by an older man. The attack throws her young mind into chaos, and it takes many years for her to start to undo some of the damage and learn to live and love in her own skin.

Angelou’s writing is poignant and plain, told in a straightforward way that doesn’t seek to analyze or explain herself, simply to relay the story of her life. It’s gripping right from the beginning, and readers can easily lose themselves in the book. There are moments of heartbreak and moments of triumph, moments to laugh at and moments to cry at.

Her life story highlights perhaps one of her most powerful thoughts: “we are more alike than we are unalike.” She presents her life as ordinary, in a way. Reading it doesn’t feel like a, “look at all the extraordinary experiences I had and lived through,” but more of a, “here’s my story, what’s yours?” I can tell, it’s the kind of book you return to, after a time, and it feels like coming back to an old friend.

Shuttle, Houston

Surprise, surprise, I’m back with the space books. I think I missed my calling in life (thanks, Saxon Math -_-). img_1876

Sometimes, I just like to look online at upcoming releases, and since I work for a bookstore, I have the ability to request digital advance copies for some books. So when I saw a biography-type book by Paul Dye, a NASA flight director who was around for pretty much the entire shuttle program, I was immediately intrigued, even though I’d never heard of the guy before.

Working his way up through the ranks within NASA, Dye has stories from training for missions to working on Spacelab and various shuttle flights. He also has insight in what it takes to make it in the NASA hierarchy. While everyone in the control room has an important job to do, it’s the flight director who is responsible for both the mission success and the safety of the crew. This is the weight Dye carried, and the weight he discusses in the book.

However, the book is a lot more than that, too. It looks at the 135-mission lifespan of the shuttle program, at what was gained by it, and a glance at what was lost when we retired the program.

I’m not sure if it’s because I was reading digitally, which is challenging for me, but I found this book a little dissatisfying. It wasn’t a series of stories in chronological order, nor was it a collection of topics neatly grouped. It felt a little scattered, a little all over the place, making hard to follow along sometimes.

In the beginning, Dye leads off with an intense story where he had to make the choice to attempt reentry or to leave the crew on the International Space Station to guarantee safety. At the end of the story, when the decision is made, Dye reveals it was a simulation, training for an upcoming mission. But these are the kinds of stories I expected to find sprinkled throughout the book, but they weren’t as frequent as I wanted. Instead, it sometimes got a little bogged down in the science and technicalities, which, while still interesting, makes for a very different kind of book.

All in all, though, it was an interesting book. And while there wasn’t maybe as much mission drama as I would have liked, Dye did include many little stories and comments about life in Mission Control that made the book fun to read.

If you enjoy NASA, space, and/or science, keep an eye out for Shuttle, Houston, released today.

 

Between the World and Me

DSC00595I’m not even sure where to start with this review. As our world explodes with revolution and righteous indignation, I decided the best thing for me to do is start by learning and listening. There’s not really a way to go wrong with that, so I started with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a book I’d heard a lot about, seen all over the place, but had never even read the inside cover (full disclaimer, I didn’t read the cover even before I bought it. I just knew that it was said to be a powerful book, and that was good enough for me).

Coates writes the book as a letter to his teenage son, taking a hard look at the reality of being Black in America. Coates talks about growing up in Baltimore, in a family where love was violent because the real world was even more so. Better a beating from dad and his belt than from a cop. He talks about trying to adapt to the rules of the streets, even though it wasn’t him. When he went away to university he finally began to find himself, only to realize that he was still subject to the rules laid out by white society.

Coates desires a different world and different experience for his son, but the heartbreak of the book is that there’s no neat and tidy ending. No, “do X and you’ll be free from all the troubles.” Essentially what Coates gives his son is his own experiences to try to help his son find his own way to survive as a Black man in America.

Between the World and Me is part biography and part almost philosophical processing of his life. And he writes many poignant thoughts that make readers stop and wonder, consider how they fit into the equation. Whether it’s his assertion that Black boys are ultimately required to shoulder the responsibility for the actions of police officers– “the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements”– or that “‘good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the dream,” Coates writes in a compelling style that cries out for a better world than the one we’ve been given.

Coates reminds that “hate gives identity… we name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.” But building identity and community on hate cannot lead to the better future he wants. But to struggle forward is worth it.

Between the World and Me is the kind of book that when I read it again, I’m sure new things will stand out. Coates doesn’t spew hate or try to dodge responsibility for his choices and actions (even if they were more limited). Instead, he simply leaves his son with a final thought: than those who oppress–actively or tacitly– must learn to struggle for a new word on their own. Black people and other people of color cannot pin the hope of their struggle on  white people or other oppressors having a sudden change of heart (that’s not to say it won’t happen or shouldn’t be encouraged, but that it’s the responsibility of those people to struggle to that conclusion for themselves). Whether the rest of the world accepts it or not, supports it or not, struggle forward anyway.

To the Greatest Heights

I love outdoor adventures, but where I’m at in life, I have to live vicariously through the biographies of others. So I downloaded an advance copy of Vanessa O’Brien’s biography.

img_1908To the Greatest Heights is truly a representative name for O’Brien’s journey, as she lays out climbing the world’s tallest mountains, as well as hitting both poles. O’Brien’s adventures began as something to fill her time after being laid off. A friend suggested climbing Mount Everest and she thought, “why not?”

In the process of training for Everest, O’Brien found she had a taste for the mountains. Though she didn’t set out to make any records or even climb the Seven Summits, nor bag the Adventurer’s Grand Slam, things just started falling into place.

O’Brien writes a very raw and honest memoir of climbing, weaving in the details of her life and childhood trauma, as well. Her story is one that highlights resilience and the search to build a family, that family is sometimes, maybe even often, more than blood. Be warned that this kind of writing usually includes a lot of swearing, and O’Brien’s memoir is no exclusion.

I’m sure I can’t be the only person who reads this book and suddenly wants to climb a few mountains or make a trek to the South Pole. It’s not even that O’Brien makes it sound like a picnic— she’s very honest about the challenges and brutality of these feats. It’s simply the draw of being out in nature, pushing your personal limits and simply answering some primal call that’s felt deep in the soul.

1984

I realize I’m late to the party with this book, but better late than never, right?

George Orwell’s 1984 is known as a sort of prophetic look at the future, and if you’ve read it you know how scarily relevant it is to our time.

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Winston Smith is a Party man. He follows the rules and performs the mental gymnastics required to accept contradictions without staying conscious of them and accepts that the Party is looking out for the greater good. But then he makes an impulsive purchase–a blank journal from a shop in the slums–and Winston’s once-easy life becomes complicated. Winston starts remembering and questioning, the first steps that lead him down a path of rebellion against the Party and all it stands for. Winston knows that he will be caught and killed, it’s just a question of when. But what he didn’t count on was the Party’s commitment to absolutely breaking him first, to eradicating everything individual and contrary from his very soul.

This book is intense, there’s no way around it. It contains some triggering scenes, like when Winston imagines raping and killing a young Party woman. And while it’s easy to sit back and scoff at the idea of “doublethink”–accepting contradictory information and not allowing yourself to consciously recognize the contradiction and in fact believing there is no contradiction–a glance at the world today shows that this is something our society is quite good at.

Reading through the processes of Orwell’s Party and how they control their population is eerily similar to the kinds of manipulations one can see seeping into society (but then, there’s nothing new under the sun, right? I’m sure Orwell saw plenty of it in his time, as well).

Though it was occasionally a slog to get through, for the most part the story moved quickly toward it’s inevitable conclusion. It also seems to be a kind of commentary on revolutionary action. Winston and Julia think they are being so rebellious fighting against the Party and breaking the rules. Yet their actions have little to no affect outside their own lives. At the same time, they recognize that true change will only come when a fire is lit within the people as a whole, and they know even if they work toward true change, it won’t be seen in their lifetime (and not just because they know they are doomed from the start).

All in all, a thought-provoking book that makes you really think about the things you’re being told and the motives behind the people in charge. In America, we say the government is for the people by the people, and yet the Party in Orwell’s world would make those same claims. It’s not enough to say it, it must be acted upon.