The Girl from Everywhere – Heidi Heilig

Review (Amazon): As the daughter of a time traveler, Nix has spent sixteen years sweeping across the globe and through the centuries aboard her father’s ship. Modern-day New York City, nineteenth-century Hawaii, other lands seen only in myth and legend—Nix has been to them all.

But when her father gambles with her very existence, it all may be about to end. Rae Carson meets Outlander in this epic debut fantasy.

If there is a map, Nix’s father can sail his ship, The Temptation, to any place and any time. But now that he’s uncovered the one map he’s always sought—1868 Honolulu, the year before Nix’s mother died in childbirth—Nix’s life, her entire existence, is at stake. No one knows what will happen if her father changes the past. It could erase Nix’s future, her dreams, her adventures . . . her connection with the charming Persian thief, Kash, who’s been part of their crew for two years.

My Review:

Executive Summary: creative

We ended up selecting this book for our October 2017 bestseller (originally listed as TBD), and generally, I thought it was pretty good.

Unfortunately, my review on this is quite a few months late, so it’s going to be a bit limited on details, but if you like time travel and pirates, it’s definitely one to check out.

The ship, the Temptation, is captained by Slate. It isn’t obvious at first that this is the father of the main character, Nix. Nix and her father don’t really see eye to eye, and throughout the story we piece together why. The ship is controlled like the captain in a way similar to a normal ship, however, with the Temptation, if the captain has a map, he can not only find his way to the place, but also to the specific time in which the map was made. It’s not really explained (obviously because it isn’t a real thing), but it’s called Navigation, and only Slate can do it. He’s trying to get back to Hawai’i in 1868 where Nix’s mother died, awaiting Slate’s return.

The crew, including dreamy Kashmir, set off on various quests to acquire various items. Some are things like the bird who can allegedly cure any ailment, to things like tigers for bargaining for new maps. When they first arrive in Hawai’i, it’s 1884. They missed the year by a lot. Nix goes to speak to her mother’s friend Joss who still lives there in the opium den (now an “apothecary”) where Joss gives Nix her mother’s dragon and says she does have a map for them which they will get later. On her way back, she meets a white boy with a fancy family named Blake. He’s an artist and shows her some secret parts of the island and tells her about some of the legends of Hawai’i.

A sketchy sort of man named Mr D turns up to talk to Slate. He has an 1868 map to sell for $900k, and an additional catch is that the money has to be stolen from the Royal Hawaiian Treasury. It’s obvious through the discussion is the intention to replace the king with a new leader. Slate agrees to think about it, and he will give an answer at the upcoming ball where he’ll be able to see the map.

In the meantime, they investigate the treasury. Nix is being wooed by both Kashmir and Blake. She learns that Blake’s father, who is hosting the ball, has many important friends. Blake himself though loves Hawai’i and its history and culture.

Nix learns that the map which got them there was a back-dated map from Joss, so that the Temptation would arrive in the wrong time, and Joss provides Nix with a different map – one of the Qin dynasty of the tomb of the first emperor (the one with the terra cotta warriors)

They attend the ball, see the map, and Slate agrees to the terms. Blake explains later while dancing with Nix that the men are part of the Hawaiian League (the group wanting Hawaii to be annexed by America) and that Nix shouldn’t let her father get involved. Kashmir is found by Nix rolling around with Mrs. Hart and then is caught with the map which Nix stole which is unfortunate because Slate has made an agreement with Mr. Hart alone which is much better than the original plan, but the theft causes him to ever to the original.

Slate is furious, and Nix threatens to go to the police about the plan. He says if she helps him with the plan, he’ll teach her to Navigate…

They meet the Hawaiian League again to discuss the plan, and Nix goes back to visit Joss with this magical bird that they found at the start of the book. It can cure anything, and it cures Joss of her blindness. It is revealed that Joss can Navigate and she and Nix have a very intertwined life. Joss dies in the fire of 1886, but she also came to the exact location after 1886 to get her treasure and then returns to 1841 to live. She introduces Nix’s parents, and reveals that the reasons that none of the maps have worked thus far is that the same person cannot exist in the same place. In every attempt, Nix has been on board the Temptation, and she’s also been alive in the time they are trying to get to.

Blake draws them a map of the exact time they are in Hawai’i so they can return exactly to where they are, and they head off first to ancient China to obtain some terra cotta warriors. Not only did Qin bury the previous emperor with his warriors, but also with the tradesmen and women who made them. This is Nix’s first time to Navigate, and after some work and a few tries, she is successful. Nix and Kashmir use a crude canoe to get into the tomb where they leave the map of Chinatown in 1886 for Joss (she is trapped in the tomb, and apparently somehow escapes using that map) and to awaken some of the warriors to take back to Hawaii with them.

They return to Hawai’i and begin working on the plan. They will use to terra cotta warriors, who Nix has brought to “life” to convince the guards at the treasury that they are the Night Marchers (a legend in Hawai’i). Then they take the bottomless bag and fill it with the money. In a turn of events, Mr. Hart double crosses them and runs off with the money. In the meantime, Blake finds Nix at her post and realizes what is going on. They run to find Slate and Kashmir but no one knows where Mr. Hart is. Slate chased him for a while, and managed to get the bag of money back, but Mr. Hart still has the map. When they are about to bury the bag, they realize that Mr. Hart cleverly has hidden himself in the bag too.

Mr. Hart says he needs to get away from his wife who spends all the money and sleeps around. He wants Nix to take the Temptation and take him far away. Obviously everyone disagrees and are trying to convince Mr. Hart otherwise to no avail. And he has a gun and they do not. A shot rings out and they realize that Blake had been hiding  nearby, and hearing his father confess to shooting Blake’s uncle, the mapmaker of the map they are trying to make, he shoots his father in the arm. Mr. Hart then shoots his own son, and then Kashmir who is luckily wearing a Kevlar vest. Nix jumps on him, digging into his wounded shoulder and he grabs her by the hair, and also the gold all while holding a gun, and then the mystical Hawaiian warriors come and take Mr. Hart never to be seen again, and Blake is healed by the mystical healing spring. He shows them he has the map, and they head to the ship.

Nix approaches her father and tells her she has the map, but he can’t use it if she’s with him. She will have to go her own route if he wants to make it back to her mother. He tells her that Blake has asked to come along on the ship and he has agreed. He tells her that he is no longer going to try going back to Hawai’i because he can’t leave her. The book ends with Slate asking her where they should go.

Verdict: 3 stars

I really liked the idea of this book, but I didn’t like the specific plot. Think of all the various places and things that you could do with maps and time traveling, especially in the age of the Internet, and yet the majority of the book was spent in Hawai’i. I found the ending to be too convoluted and confusing, and I just wanted a bit more.

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Dark Matter – Blake Crouch

Review (Amazon): “Are you happy with your life?”Those are the last words Jason Dessen hears before the masked abductor knocks him unconscious.

Before he awakens to find himself strapped to a gurney, surrounded by strangers in hazmat suits.

Before a man Jason’s never met smiles down at him and says, “Welcome back, my friend.”

In this world he’s woken up to, Jason’s life is not the one he knows. Hiswife is not his wife. His son was never born. And Jason is not an ordinary college physics professor, but a celebrated genius who has achieved something remarkable. Something impossible.

Is it this world or the other that’s the dream? And even if the home he remembers is real, how can Jason possibly make it back to the family he loves? The answers lie in a journey more wondrous and horrifying than anything he could’ve imagined—one that will force him to confront the darkest parts of himself even as he battles a terrifying, seemingly unbeatable foe.

Dark Matter is a brilliantly plotted tale that is at once sweeping and intimate, mind-bendingly strange and profoundly human—a relentlessly surprising science-fiction thriller about choices, paths not taken, and how far we’ll go to claim the lives we dream of.

My Review (SPOILERS!!):

Executive Summary: it puts the sci in sci-fi

This book reminded me a little of a Michael Crichton book or like a less-funny The Martian. It has a lot of science, specifically quantum physics in it and has an interesting plot because of it.

We meet Jason, his beautiful wife Daniela and teenage son Charlie straight away. It’s Thursday which means family night, but tonight is something a little different. Jason’s old roommate and colleague, Ryan Holder just won the Pavia Prize (a multidisciplinary prize for his work in neuroscience), and we get the idea that Jason just might be a little jealous. He could’ve been a world renowned physicist, but instead he decided to become a teacher when Daniela became pregnant with Charlie. She could have become a well known artist herself, but now she just dabbles. Ryan’s having an informal celebration that night to which Jason is invited but he doesn’t want to go. Daniela convinces him to stop by and to pick up ice cream on his way home. Due to some foreboding language right from the start, we know something bad is about to happen.

He goes to the Village Bar, one of his favorites, to meet his friend Ryan and give him some congratulations. Ryan has always sort had a thing for Daniela, and he asks Jason why she didn’t come. Jason in turn asks if Ryan plans to settle down, and he replies that he doesn’t think so. Work is too busy. Normal chit chat from two colleagues whose lives took different paths.

Jason has had enough and heads to the grocery store. On his way out, as he’s marveling at the crisp autumn air, he hears footsteps and suddenly there’s a gun pointed at his head. The man doesn’t want his money. He forces Jason into a car and directs him to drive to the university where Jason works. As he’s driving, Jason is pondering why the guy wants him, and is thinking about why it is that the guy has been following him (addresses of his in the GPS). He tries to ask questions, but doesn’t get the answers he needs. He tries to send a text message, but the kidnapper takes his phone and sends Daniela a message instead.

The kidnapper starts asking him more personal questions – who the man at the happy hour was, what his plans are for tomorrow, etc., as he’s forcing Jason out of his clothes into new ones as he leads him down into a building in the middle of nowhere. Jason is given some sort of drug in the side of his neck. As Jason is fading off, the kidnapper asks him about his life, and whether he regrets his decision to let his ambition “die off”. Jason talks about the research that he was working on pre-Charlie, the quantum superposition of an object visible to the human eye. The attacker mentions that he is not there to kill Jason. As he administers another medication, he tells Jason that “you can make it yours. You can have everything you never had” as Jason drifts to sleep.

***SPOILERS begin here***

Jason awakes to a man and a woman speaking to him. The man is wearing a Hazmat suit, and put him on a gurney to evaluate him. The man asks him some simple questions – Do you know who you are? Yes; Do you know where you are? No; Do you know who I am? No. The man is named Leighton and says that he and Jason are colleagues and friends. Jason is obviously wildly confused. He’s restrained and being given medical tests, and although he has no idea where he is or who he’s around, everyone else seems to know what’s going on.

He goes for a debrief, and realizes that it’s not a dream or a delusion, but he still doesn’t understand why everyone but him seems to know what’s going on. He’s lucid, and he remembers what it is that he had done previously, so he’s not sure what is going on. He uses the restroom, and tries to think about ways to escape, so when Leighton comes to talk to him, he deadbolts the bathroom and escapes out the window. He heads to his home, but it’s not his home. The pictures of him with his family aren’t there, but the key worked, so it is his home. As he’s walking around in the house that is both his but not his, he spots a certificate awarding the Pavia Prize to Jason Holden.

Freaked, he tries Daniela’s number. It’s not hers. Leighton and some others (obviously) track him down, but he escapes and heads to the hospital for some screenings. The only thing they find from the screenings is that he has high does of ketamine in his system – a surgical anesthetic. The doctor tells him that they can’t find any information about him working at the university, or anyone named Daniela Dessen in the phone book. Jason can tell that they are going to commit him to the psych hold, so he sneaks out of the hospital.

The story cuts to Daniela, who is talking to Jason. She’s wondering what took him so long to get home…she doesn’t know why, but something is different.

Confused Jason leaves the hospital to find Daniela. Hopefully that will sort some things out. When he finds her, she’s a successful single artist, casually dating Ryan Holder. He explains to them what is going on, from what he can piece together, Ryan doesn’t want to believe him. In the end, Ryan ends up going to Leighton, who then captures Jason, killing Daniela in the process.

Back in captivity, still with no real answers, Leighton agrees to show Jason what “they have built together”. Jason has years of notes of what he has done – which is built a “Many-Worlds” box. Basically at any decision point in life, a separate branch splits off for the “yes” and the “no” creating a quantum timeline of every possible scenario. He gets to see a video of himself, who he doesn’t remember, entering the box and then, what he does remember, stumbling back out of the box weeks later.

After Amanda speaks to him some more, they track down Ryan and beat the hell out of him because they realize that this is not their Jason. The Jason who went into the box is not the Jason who returned. It seems a bit dramatic all of this as it isn’t really solving any problems, and certainly you’d think that if they asked him to help, he would have. Instead, they detain him, and eventually, Amanda has a change of heart after learning that Daniela was killed and what they are doing to Ryan and comes to get Jason out of there. As they are being chased, they grab what they can and lock themselves into the “Many-Worlds Box” and begin their adventure.

They travel to a multitude of different “worlds” so to speak – some where things are completely not viable, like one where snow has buried everything and everyone is freezing to death, or with a deadly plague to others that are…close, but not right. They only have a limited amount of options due to how much of the suspension cocktail that they packed. So in the end, Amanda realizes that because in Jason’s life which he is trying to get back to, she didn’t exist, so she has to leave him to allow him to return to his life.

Jason continues forward, slowly, sometimes slipping into deep depressions, particularly in worlds which are close, but aren’t the one he wants to get back to. It starts to get pretty panicky at the end as the number of vials that he has to be able to try again are dwindling away, and then, just to make it more intense, he is mugged and some of the vials are broken, so he’s only down to just 2…then 1.

Once he enters the world that has to be the correct one, he has to figure out what to do with Jason2 (as he’s been called throughout). He decides to get a gun. When he arrives at the store, he’s met with an unusual response from the employee. He had been in there with the exact same request 5 times in the last week. He has to go and figure out what has happened. As it turns out, there are a variety of Jason variants who have split recently, all with the same mission – to return to their original world and to return to Daniela. Not all of the Jasons have the same personality. Some are willing to sacrifice anything to get to Daniela, and one specifically is killing them off one by one. “Original” Jason, if you can call him that, realizes that he has to do something completely outside of the box to be able to thwart his other selves.

He gets himself arrested so that Daniela will come pick him up. He explains to her what has happened, and luckily she believes him. They go pick up Charlie and head to Wisconsin. Daniela struggles with the idea of all of these other Jasons out there, all so close to being the one she knows. And how does she know which one is “the” one. (It doesn’t really matter because the book has been following this one specific version of Jason this whole time so obviously the reader is rooting for him). Jason proposes a lottery system to the other Jasons, and it is agreed upon, however, some of the bad Jasons, including Jason2 who has the most to lose, track him down due to Charlie powering on his phone.  Jason kills Jason2 during a confrontation, and they take his car and leave, but not before he whispers to Jason to look in the glove box. Once inside, he realizes that Jason2 has left some vials for them. This is how they can start anew and move past the threat of the other Jasons. Charlie gets to choose the world in which they live, and presumably they live happily ever after.

Verdict: 4 stars

This book was definitely a thriller and also a thought exercise. There were a few parts where it got a little cheesy and predictable, but it’s easy to look past it as they were needed to keep the story moving forward, but I also think I would have given it a higher review had it not been so predictable. All in all though it is a good story, and I’ll be interested to see the movie which I think comes out later this year!

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A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

Review (Amazon): Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon—the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him “the bitter neighbor from hell.” But must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.

A feel-good story in the spirit of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Fredrik Backman’s novel about the angry old man next door is a thoughtful exploration of the profound impact one life has on countless others. “If there was an award for ‘Most Charming Book of the Year,’ this first novel by a Swedish blogger-turned-overnight-sensation would win hands down” (Booklist, starred review).

My Review:

Executive Summary: slow to start but sweet at the end

This book took a little while to get into, but once you were, it was an easy read. It did remind me quite a bit of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which was on our bookclub list pre-blog, thus it had been a few years since I read it, and it didn’t really make me like this book less.

As I’m writing this review, I just scrolled back to page 1 of the book, and I realize that the first sentence of the book is “Ove is fifty-nine.” Interestingly, I had forgotten this throughout the book, as Ove seems well into his seventies. He’s grouchy, stuck in his ways, and basically hates everyone and everything. He’s the neighbor you don’t want who does daily inspections around the neighborhood, ensuring that not a hair is out of line, even when it’s not a rule for the hair to be in line.

Ove used to be happily married to a teacher, Sonja, a ray of sunshine in Ove’s dark life. And when she died of cancer six months prior, Ove regressed into his darkness. The underlying plot of the book is Ove trying to commit suicide, in a dignified way, because he can’t go on living without his wife. However, each and every time, something bamboozles his attempt. He lives next door to another couple, Anita and Rune, who have been friends and frenemies over the course of their lives, and now that Rune has had a stroke, city officials are coming into the neighborhood to investigate whether Rune should be taken away from his home for his safety. Rune and Ove moved into the neighborhood at the same time and are two of the original members of the neighborhood. With Rune getting sick, Sonja dying, and the additions of various new neighbors, Ove sees his familiar, regimented old life slipping out of his grasp.

On his first neighborhood round of the book, we get introduced to most of the main players of the story. Ove meets a cat who he tells to scram. We meet Anders, who has a lot working against him. He’s divorced, self-employed, drives an Audi, goes jogging, and has a wife nicknamed “The Blonde Weed”. She has a little obnoxious dog, and Ove especially hates them both. Ove also finds a bicycle parked outside the bicycle shed, so he angrily puts it inside and continues on his route. And as he finishes inspecting unauthorized cars parked overnight in the guest parking or trash being properly sorted, we meet the new neighbor family as the husband backs their trailer into Ove’s house.

The Lanky One gets out of the Japanese car, and both Ove and The Lanky One’s pregnant Arabic wife begin to shout at him for being a moron. Ove thinks he may get along with her. The Lanky One tries again, and then runs over Ove’s mailbox, so Ove orders him out of the car so that he can maneuver the car into the driveway for them. Once finished, he shouts at them for driving where cars are not supposed to be and then stomps to his house! Shortly thereafter, the two daughters–a 7-year old and a 3-year old appear with food for Ove because their mom said he was probably hungry.

This begins a begrudging relationship with Parvaneh and her family. Parvaneh encourages Ove to take in the stray cat when it’s near death from being outside in the Swedish cold. Through this, he also reintroduces himself to Jimmy, as he uses his big body and its heat to help warm up the cat…and then realizes he’s allergic and Ove and Parvaneh take him to the hospital.

Parvaneh convinces Ove to teach her how to drive, and in the meantime, imposes herself and her children on him, always at crucial times during his suicide plots, to drive here various places.

But Ove isn’t only making friends with her family. He also helps the teen, Adrian, who owns the bicycle which was not in the shed like it was supposed to be. He’d agreed to help fix it it up for a girl who he likes.  Ove, with Parvaneh, deliver the bicycle to his place of employment, a cafe, where Ove learns that Adrian knows nothing about fixing bicycles, and his dad is in prison. So Ove shows him how to fix up the bicycle. Upon returning into the cafe, Ove meets one of Adrian’s coworkers, another adolescent named Mirsad, who is “bent”, and his father Amel. He also saves a man who has fallen onto the train tracks, as he is there planning to jump in front of them to take his own life. Through this, he makes the acquaintance of a journalist who he continues to shrug off for her story about his heroic deeds

Later in the story, Mirsad comes out to his father, who doesn’t take it well, and Ove ends up taking Mirsad into his home. Mirsad asks if he can accompany Ove and the cat on the daily neighborhood round. Upon this route, they stumble upon Jimmy who informs Ove that social services is coming to get Rune. Anita has been appealing it for two years, but the decision has been made. Ove is furious that he and Sonja didn’t know anything about this, but Jimmy says that they had specifically made the decision to not tell Ove and Sonja because they had had enough troubles of their own after the accident. Ove is furious. He’s had his share of run-ins with the “white shirts” over the years–first when he was younger and his house burned to the ground, and later after Sonja’s accident when the driver was drunk. In both cases, the bureaucracy did not work in Ove’s favor, and he was bound and determined that it wouldn’t happen again.

With the help of all the neighbors, Anders, who works with a towing company, manages to tow the white shirt’s car, illegally parked in the neighborhood of course, while he’s in getting Rune ready to move out. When he comes out and finds his car missing, he of course assumes Ove, who has been badgering him about the illegally parked cars for years and calls the police. When the white shirt returns, with two other white shirts, the neighborhood is ready. Jimmy, Anders, Mirsad, Parvaneh and co., and of course Ove are all there to back her up. So is Lena, the journalist. They show the white shirts a bunch of information about themselves, and basically suggest that the white shirts leave Rune and Anita alone or the information will be published. (This was a bit of a stretch in the plot, but OK.)

They all go on to live their happy lives. We learn that Ove has a heart condition–his heart is too big! Oh the irony is a little ham fisted here. The book technically ends when Parvaneh has her third child, a boy. But of course there is an epilogue to give everyone closure on the story. Four months later, Ove dies in his sleep. He gifts many things to all his recent friends, and over 300 people come to his funeral.

Verdict: 3 stars

Generally pretty good. It’s drily funny, and I always love a good curmudgeon. The ending was a bit overdone in my opinion (a bit too Hollywood ending), but generally the story moved nicely and was a decent “feel good” tale.

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What Got You Here Won’t Get You There – Marshall Goldsmith

Review (Amazon): Whether you are near the top of the ladder or still have a ways to climb, this book serves as an essential guide to help you eliminate your dysfunctions and move to where you want to go.

Marshall Goldsmith is an expert at helping global leaders overcome their sometimes unconscious annoying habits and attain a higher level of success. His one-on-one coaching comes with a six-figure price tag. But, in this book, you get Marshall’s great advice without the hefty fee!

My Review:

Executive Summary: Skip all the chapters and just read the last one

This was my book for the year as part of my development plan at work. It was suggested to me by another book club member to choose as she had found it to be one of the best self-improvement sort of books. Unfortunately, I didn’t really feel the same. Last year I read How to Win Friends and Influence People which I thought was pretty good, and really simple, but this book seemed to reiterate a lot of the stuff from the much older Carnegie book, and I didn’t feel like I was at a point in my career where I really was at the point of needing this book. For instance, the intro page says “To all successful leaders who want to ‘take it to the next level’ and get even better”. Maybe I’m being cynical, but I don’t think that anyone at work considers me a “successful leader”, so I just felt like the book was meant for people at a different stage in their career.

The book is divided into four sections:

Section One – The Trouble with Success – which discusses where you are in your career, why the author is qualified to help you, and why psychologically we as humans are opposed to change. Pretty basic.

Section Two – The Twenty Habits That Hold You Back from the Top – so this section lists out not twenty, but twenty-one bad habits you have that are holding you back. These are things like “passing judgment” or “speaking when angry”. All incredibly basic, and very similar to my previous read. The twenty-first habit is “goal obsession”. Unfortunately this is the chapter that hit me that this book wasn’t really for me. I’m not goal obsessed. In fact, I don’t actually have any goals at work because I have a corporate job and setting goals, to me, is just a way to be disappointed. I used to have goals, but I stopped setting them pretty early in my career after a shitty manager who never gave me a performance review…three years in a row.

Section Three – How We Can Change for the Better – discusses seven different ways of how you can improve. Again, it’s incredibly basic stuff. Like the stuff you leaned in kindergarten but somehow becoming a CEO makes you forget how to do the basics like apologizing, thanking, and listening. Seriously, those are three of the chapters. I mean, I get it. Sometimes people need to be reminded of those sort of things, but I don’t think that the people who are awful at listening realize that they are awful at listening. There are a few better sections in here which relate to feedback, follow up, and what he calls “feedforward”. This chapter actually could have some use if you are honest with yourself about what it is that you would want to change, and then have a good team of people in your life to help you stick with it.

Section Four – Pulling Out the Stops – these last thirty pages are really all you need. They go over how to maximize how to make any change in your life. A lot of the examples are compared to losing weight – something relatable that requires diligence and attention – and explains how a behavioral change is similar. There are a lot of good and relevant examples in this section, but not enough to make the book great overall.

Verdict: 3 stars

I’m assuming I’m going to have to pick another book for next year for my development plan, and I’m going to have to do a better job. Maybe if I had read this book without previously having read the Carnegie book, I would have liked it more. I just felt like it wasn’t telling me much that was new. I have a couple options already for books for next year. I’d love for anyone to weigh in on good ones.

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The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan

Review (Amazon): Four mothers, four daughters, four families whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s “saying” the stories. In 1949 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. United in shared unspeakable loss and hope, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Rather than sink into tragedy, they choose to gather to raise their spirits and money. “To despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable.” Forty years later the stories and history continue.

With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters. As each woman reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. Mothers boast or despair over daughters, and daughters roll their eyes even as they feel the inextricable tightening of their matriarchal ties. Tan is an astute storyteller, enticing readers to immerse themselves into these lives of complexity and mystery.

My Review (spoilers):

Executive Summary: Interesting but challenging

This was actually my book for book club this year. I chose historical fiction as my category, and while I wouldn’t really consider this to be hard historical fiction, it is in the past and is referencing a culture which is unfamiliar to me. So I think it counts.

I’ve been procrastinating on writing this review for over a month because I’ve been busy partly, but also, I don’t really know how to write a review for this book. It’s short stories of 4 Chinese women (one is written about her as she has just passed) who immigrated to America during a not-great period of relationships between China and America and their 4 Chinese American daughters. It’s sort of an auto-biographical account from what I can tell as Amy was born in 1952 to Chinese parents who were living in America.

The story shows in many different facets the dichotomy between the Chinese (mothers) and the Americans (daughters) and the rift that fluxes depending on the situations. All of the daughters had the option to be more free and more American than their mothers, but in differing ways, they realize their connections to the old country and cultures.

Most of the daughters (like most daughters in general) know very little about their mothers. The big reveal in the book is that Suyuan (the mother who has died) has two daughters who she had to leave behind in China that her daughter Jing-Mei didn’t know about. During the day of the Japanese invasion, Suyuan left her house with thousands of others, with nothing but a few staples and her 2 daughters. She eventually decides that because she is going to die (and that finding children with a dead mother would be a bad omen for someone who might take them), she leaves them with all the valuables she has and a note. However, she doesn’t die and is rescued and eventually goes on to move to America and have a new family.

A lot of the things that are weird and interesting to me in the book are the superstitions and customs. The horoscopes (whether you are born in the year of the Horse and are strong-willed), the fear of ghosts coming back to haunt people, general karma of behaviors, the jade stones that none of the younger people understand…

And I think that’s really what the book’s point comes to. The younger people are more like me (or just generally a person who doesn’t have a lot of family heritage and/or culture) and the mothers assume that they have inherited this. But the gap is that the mothers learned it because everyone around them when they were growing up believed the same culture and superstitions. So now the mothers are at a loss for why their daughters don’t believe what they believe, and the daughters are old enough to try to connect with their mothers but find that they don’t have the background to fully understand them.

Verdict: 3.5 Stars

Good book, and thought provoking. Really challenging to follow at times due to the way that it was written (broken up into little sections). At book club, we had to pull up the wikipedia article to be able to fully go back and place daughter with mother because it just is too disjointed to really remember who goes with whom.

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The Book of Lost Things – John Connolly

Review (Amazon):

High in his attic bedroom, twelve-year-old David mourns the death of his mother. He is angry and alone, with only the books on his shelf for company. But those books have begun to whisper to him in the darkness, and as he takes refuge in his imagination, he finds that reality and fantasy have begun to meld. While his family falls apart around him, David is violently propelled into a land that is a strange reflection of his own world, populated by heroes and monsters, and ruled over by a faded king who keeps his secrets in a mysterious book… The Book of Lost Things.

An imaginative tale about navigating the journey into adulthood, while doing your best to hang on to your childhood.

My Review (Spoilers):

Executive Summary: Mediocre

I really wanted to like this book, but I just could not get into it. It felt overdone and slow, and I really started to dislike how all the good people were men and all the evil people were women, which is really odd for a boy who is missing his mother.

We are introduced in the most cliche “Once upon a time” way to the main character, David, who had lost his mother. She had been slowly dying for a while, and David thought that his OCD activities could keep her alive. When she died, he took it as a personal failure, and in his bad dreams, the Crooked Man started appearing to him in his dreams.

Five months, three weeks and four days after his mother died, a new woman named Rose started joining David and his dad for things. Once David put 2 and 2 together, he started having panic attacks and was sent to a psychiatrist. Things get even worse when he finds out that Rose is pregnant. She has the baby, a boy, and the combined family moves out to the country (it’s WW2 time in England). The house is a family home of Rose’s and while he hates the whole situation, he loves the old fairy tale books in his room.

He eventually finds out that they were the books of Jonathan Tulvey, who was Rose’s uncle. He disappeared at age 14 with another little girl Anna, who Rose’s grandparents had taken in when her parents had died in an unfortunate fire. They were never found.

The tension between David and Rose continues to grow, and there’s a big fight at dinner which David takes that it’s his fault. He storms off, and walks out of his house. When he looks back at the house from the edge of the yard, he sees a figure in his room–the Crooked Man. He races back inside, gets his father, and they investigate–to find a magpie in there instead. That night, he dreams of his mother’s voice calling him from the sunken garden in the back of the yard.

The next day, David and Rose have a huge fight which causes David’s father to be very upset with David too. Because of this, he goes back to the sunken garden and enters a different world. When he gets inside, he encounters the Woodsman. The Woodsman helps David tie a string to the tree which he came in from so he can find it again. The Woodsman tells David that the king has a book of lost things so they must find the king so that he can help David return home. But to do so, they must escape the wolves and the Loups (wolves who have evolved into more human-like form) who are very hungry. They make it to the Woodsman’s house where David wonders why his mother is luring him here with the voices that he’s hearing in his dreams, and what the role of the Crooked Man (who the Woodsman tells him is a very bad man who steals children) is.

The Woodsman tries to help David with his OCD. He explains that he has rules too. Every day he cleans his ax. He checks the house is secure, etc. etc. David begins to think this over as the Woodsman tells him that they must go back and try to get the hole in the tree to reappear because he fears he can’t keep David safe. When they return, every tree has a string on it. So the Woodsman decides to continue the original thought of taking David to the king. When they get to the bridge, with the wolves and Loups hot on their trail, there are trolls guarding the bridges. One of the bridges is fake, but they have to determine which by solving the riddle. He solves it correctly, but the wolves are right there. They chase after David, some falling on the fake bridge, but the Woodsman stays to fight them off so that David can get away.

Next David meets the dwarves who then introduce him to Snow White, who they tried to poison with an apple because she’s so unbearable. She’s morbidly obese and bosses the dwarves around making them cook and clean for her. They lead him on his way.

As he’s walking, he sees an unusual sight–a centaur of sorts. Half human girl, and half deer. She’s panicking and he realizes why. She’s being hunted, and is killed in front of him. The hunter threatens him and then hog ties him and takes him back with her. She’s a maniac who uses a special magic salve to reattach and reanimate animals together, including human children. Then she releases them and hunts them for sport. Obviously she’s saving David for an experiment, but he manages to outsmart her by convincing her to become a centaur and then killing her and then managing to get out of there.

Next he meets the soldier Roland, who is nice to him like the Woodsman. Roland keeps him company and helps him get along more quickly on horseback. They come upon a terrible scene where many have died. David meets the Crooked Man there who shows him an image of his dad, Rose, and Georgie happy and not missing him one bit. David is furious and Roland calms him, teaching him strength and how to defend himself. Roland is on a mission to find out what happened to his “friend” (it’s the 40s) Raphael. In the process, he saves a village from a Beast, but then the Crooked Man catches up to David. He shows David the snout of the wolf that had been sent to track him. He tells David more in detail what he is doing. He will make David a deal that his father will love him alone. David suspects there is more to the story. The Crooked Man wants to know what David’s brother’s name is, but David won’t tell him. The Crooked Man is furious and David goes back to Roland and they continue their quest.

Roland and David eventually find the Enchantress who has lured so many men, including Raphael, to their deaths. Roland goes in ahead, and he, like the others does not make it out alive. The Crooked Man tries to keep David from going in after him using his mom’s voice, but David persists. He doesn’t get lured by the temptations, and when he sees Roland impaled, he becomes enraged and lures out the Enchantress and impales her.

David continues alone to find the King, and when he gets there, he finds the King is expecting him. He has a luxurious room, and eats well and goes to sleep. He awakes suddenly for no reason, and finds that the guards have left his room. He sneaks out and overhears the Crooked Man speaking to the King. The King is dying. The Crooked Man says that the book of lost things has no value, but the King says that it has value to him. David opens it and realizes that it’s all from “his” world and is a book of mementos and diary entries. The king as a younger boy had a young girl arrive in his life, and he was enraged. David can relate to the story, and then at the end realizes that the King is Jonathan Tulvey.

David finds a secret passageway to where the Crooked Man goes, and finds all sorts of horrors. In one of the last rooms, he finds a large hourglass nearing its end as well as a little girl in a jar. Her name is Anna. David realizes that Jonathan brought Anna there as part of the bargain. In return, Jonathan became king and the old Queen was allowed to die. Anna was killed and the Crooked Man ate her heart. She’s been trapped in the jar since. The Crooked Man grows weaker by the day, and David realizes that the hourglass is the Crooked Man’s life. He’s waiting for David to make the deal with him for Georgie so that he can continue to live.

This is where the book should have ended. It doesn’t. It goes on for another quarter to a third of the book with a wolf/Loup attack on the castle. The main Loup kills the King. The Crooked Man dies as he runs out of time, and the King’s death causes the disappearance of the Loups as they were created by the King’s nightmares. And then, just for good measure, the Woodsman, who wasn’t dead, reappears to take David home. -_-

David returns home. It turns out he’s in the Wizard of Oz and this whole thing was a dream while he was in a coma after being hit with some debris from the downed German bomber which crashed near him just as he entered the woods. When he awakes, he goes on to be a model citizen, but nothing ever fully goes right for him. His eventual wife and son die, so he becomes a writer. He writes beloved children stories until he’s old and gray, and eventually he goes back to where he first entered the forest and the Woodsman is waiting for him.

Verdict: 3 stars

Too cliché for my tastes. I’m not sure if it was supposed to be a young adult book, but it felt like one for very young adults if anything. As someone who solidly counts as an adult these days (sigh), I found it too overdone, too dramatic (I have a new brother, woe is me), and just not fun or enchanting in any way.

 

 

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The Girl with All the Gifts – M.R. Carey

Review (Amazon): 

Melanie is a very special girl. Dr Caldwell calls her “our little genius.”

Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they don’t laugh.
The Girl With All the Gifts is a groundbreaking thriller, emotionally charged and gripping from beginning to end.

My Review (spoilers):

Executive Summary: slow to get going but worth it in the end

We get introduced to ten-year-old Melanie on page 1. She is in a classroom, different than we are used to, but we only slowly get introduced to what exactly is different. Her favorite teacher is Miss Justineau, although they do have other teachers from time to time. They live in a compound to keep away from the hungries (aka zombies). The children live in cells and get wheeled into the classroom Hannibal Lector style each day, all strapped in and ready to learn. Occasionally the students leave by the hand of Doctor Caldwell and never come back, and they haven’t gotten any new students in a while.

One day the Sergeant comes in and has an issue with Miss Justineau getting “too attached” to the children, and he suggests that they aren’t even children. To demonstrate, he spits on his arm and holds it near one of the children who starts chomping and biting at him (still restrained) and so do the children near him. Melanie is very confused about what is happening.

We cut to Dr. Caldwell for a bit to determine that the children are not actually children (after she has dissected her latest two). They have a fungal parasite of some sort that Dr. Caldwell is crudely investigating. After the Breakdown, most high tech equipment is incredibly difficult to come by.

Miss Justineau and Dr. Caldwell are have very different ideas on how to interact with the children. Miss Justineau treats the children like normal children (at least as much as she can) whereas Dr. Caldwell and the Sergeant treat them worse than animals. But they all ended up in the compound under the same circumstances. They are trying to determine why some of the children that they have been finding are not mindless zombies like the other hungries, but instead can learn and reason and generally go beyond the mindless behaviors of the others. Miss Justineau and the other teachers are there to teach and observe. Dr. Caldwell is there to help create scientific revelations about the parasite to hopefully protect the other humans, and the Sergeant is there to protect all the humans in the compound both from the children, but also from the packs of hungries as well as the Junkers (bands of humans who sort of “Mad Max” about in the outside) who could attack at any time.

Dr. Caldwell requests that Miss Justineau provide a list of 1/2 the class to be dissected, and Miss Justineau is understandably having a hard time with it. Not just because she has become close to the students but she also understands how losing half the class will affect the dynamics. So she holds off on providing the list. In response, Dr. Caldwell decides to start with Melanie. Sergeant Parks gets her, and takes her in to Dr. Selkirk and Dr. Caldwell.

When Melanie doesn’t come to class, Miss Justineau realizes that something is up. She confronts Sergeant Parks who tells her where Melanie has been taken. Luckily Miss Justineau arrives just in time. She confronts Dr. Caldwell and the two break into an argument followed by a physical fight. In the midst of it, the evacuation siren goes off, and hungries break into the window. Dr. Caldwell and Miss Justineau make it out, but Dr. Selkirk does not. No one knows in the chaos what happened to Melanie so Miss Justineau goes out to find her. Instead she runs into a pack of Junkers. Luckily Melanie reappears and attacks them with full force.

Melanie, Miss Justineau and Dr. Caldwell find Sergeant Parks and one of his soldiers, Kieran Gallagher. They get into a Hummer and leave Beacon. Melanie is faced with existential challenges after killing the Junker. Justineau and Caldwell are at complete odds except that they both want Melanie to live (for different reasons) so they are able to keep Parks from killing her. Off they go to an unknown location. They stave off a few groups of hungries, and then they eventually find the Rosalind Franklin. It’s a huge armored mobile laboratory that Dr Caldwell is very familiar with. As we learn, she was fully trained on the unit, but didn’t end up making the final cut for the mission (and she’s been holding a grudge for the last twenty years). There are no humans or food inside, but all the scientific equipment is intact.

Melanie asks to speak to Parks alone, and when they reconvene after assessing what Rosalind Franklin does and doesn’t have, Melanie is gone. The generator needs to be fixed, so Parks starts on that while Justineau and Gallagher look for food. Before they leave, Justineau asks Parks where Melanie went. She was going crazy inside in close quarters with all the humans. All their e-blocker had worn off, so Parks let her go outside. He figures she can take care of herself. Justineau and Gallagher take off. They only see a few hungries. Most of them have died and have sprouted seeds for the fungus. Eventually they find a storage unit beside a convenience store that hasn’t been looted, and they take all they can back to the RF.

While everyone else is out, we learn that Dr. Caldwell has blood poisoning from the injuries she sustained during the original hungry attack. She’s trying to do what she can in terms of research before she dies. She tells Parks that it doesn’t really matter anyway. When the fungus took over the planet, it was in a juvenile form. Now it’s sprouting into an adult form and pollinating. And when it does, she doesn’t think there will be anything left.

When Justineau and Gallagher return, it’s late but Melanie hasn’t returned. So despite Parks’ arguments, Justineau decides to set off a flare. Melanie knows where the RF is; she just hasn’t wanted to return. She has spent the day looping around bigger and bigger circles until she finds something interesting–some others like her. When she returns to RF, she tells the adults that there are others out there–junkers, she says. Parks doesn’t believe her story. He believes she saw something which scared her, but it wasn’t Junkers. Justineau talks to Melanie who finally gives up the true story. She didn’t want to tell everyone because she was worried that Caldwell and Parks would round all the children up and dissect them. When everyone reconvenes, they realize that Gallagher is missing.

Unfortunately by the time Melanie, Justineau and Parks find Gallagher, the hungry children have already gotten to him, and tricked him to his death. Melanie insists that he should be honored, and as they are lighting his funeral pyre, they hear the engines of RF in the distance. Caldwell has left without them. She doesn’t get far before the hungry children encircle her. She’s trying to figure out how to capture one to dissect it before she dies. She opens the door locks and manages to close the door quickly enough to squash one. She doesn’t hurt his head though, but she needs to get the airlock fully shut because she is being shot at through the gap by the other children. She manages to get as far away as she can until she is stopped by a 40 ft high tower of the fungus for as long as she can see. She decides to dissect the head, and when Parks, Justineau, and Melanie finally find her, she won’t let them in. She’s too close to a breakthrough.

Parks sends Melanie on an exhibition to determine whether there’s a way around the fungus. There’s not. The 2 humans find a place to stay for the night. Dr. Caldwell is able to dissect the brain in peace and finds the answer she’s looking for. Once she’s done, she sees someone outside–a search party, she thinks. She goes out of RF and when she returns, Melanie is inside and wants to know the truth. The original hungries are because the fungus completely took over the bodies and then utilized them to hatch seed pods. Melanie and others like her are second generation hungries where the fungus doesn’t attack and feed on the brains.

Parks and Justineau are attacked where they are sleeping. Melanie hears shots fired on the walkie talkies and arrives to help as much as she can. Unfortunately Parks is bitten by the hungries, but she and Miss Justineau make it out unscathed. The 3 return to RF where Melanie decides to blast the fungus wall with the flame throwers. She’s outside with Parks as little bits of ash begin floating to the ground. Parks asks Melanie to shoot him before he becomes a hungry, and she agrees. But first she explains to him that it’s not ash, it’s fungus seeds. The flame thrower has opened all of the seed pods. She now knows that the original people will become hungries, but the second generation will be like her. They can end the war between the humans, the hungries, and the junkers, and create a new species. When Melanie returns to Miss Justineau, she explains again what has happened, and the book ends with Melanie introducing the hungry kids to their new teacher!

Verdict: 4 Stars

I thought the book was really creative. I am not typically super interested in zombie stories, and I’ve found that a lot of the post-apocalyptic ones are a bit overplayed at this point. So this was a breath of fresh air for me. It’s a bit slow at points, but it pays off in the end.

 

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