All Posts Tagged “book review”

A Book Review: Invisible Beasts by Sharona Muir

1934137804.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Another month, another Early Reviewer book. This time I won Invisible Beasts by Sharona Muir. I was particularly fortunate this month because 752 folks requested this, but only 20 received a book. Lucky me!

I’ve found that it is quite difficult for me to write a review for this book. I finished it more than a week ago, and I’ve been thinking about it on and off since then, but I’m not sure that I quite know what to say. While marketed as a novel, Invisible Beasts certainly seems more like a collection of short stories/essays that have an ongoing theme. However, as the stories progress, the common thread that ties them all together becomes somewhat tenuous. The main idea in these stories is that the protagonist, Sophie, has the (incredibly rare, inherited) ability to see invisible animals. These critters are not particularly uncommon and she encounters them frequently in her daily life. Each chapter of this “novel” reads kind of like a journal entry written by Sophie and serves (nominally) to describe one specific invisible creature. Sometimes she discusses the habits/behaviors of these animals in detail, sometimes she just mentions them briefly as a passing detail of her life.

There are also some very strong environmental/conservationist themes hinted at in these stories. Muir takes the fact that humans are generally terrible at seeing/understanding so much about the world around us and exaggerates/expands this ignorance to include a host of invisible creatures that are equally threatened. While this might seems purely fantastical at first blush, it’s not actually too far-fetched. After all, up until ~350 years ago (before the existence of microorganims were observed/confirmed with early microscopes), most bacteria/viruses/single cell organisms were essentially “invisible”.  One of Muir’s chief points seems to be that there is so much that we’re obviously missing out on; if we don’t reorganize our priorities to emphasize conservation and stewardship and discovery, chances are incredibly high that we’ll miss out on the opportunity to learn something critically important. Case in point, the WWF estimates that over the past 30 years as many as 275 species have been eradicated from this planet EVERY DAY. (For the sake of completeness, their lowest-end estimate claims that a species goes extinct every other day – still an incredibly high rate.) Many of those species were never studied. And never will be. These numbers are haunting.

Early in this book, Sophie claims that she’s writing these entries in an attempt to help her beloved invisible animals; because they are invisible, they have no advocate. However, this self-proclaimed thesis, while admirable, is never revisited and seems largely ignored throughout the rest of the book. Instead of building towards something, the ensuing individual chapters revert to one-off vignettes that are only loosely connected to the preceding entries. While I really enjoyed a lot of the concepts in these stories, it was difficult for me to get over how disjointed the book felt from beginning to end. From chapter to chapter, the voice/style varies A TON, ranging from silly to lyrical to scientifically technical to deeply philosophical, which makes it challenging to view as a cohesive work. Add this to the fact that the overarching ideas are a little inconsistent and the momentum of the book just seems to fade as time goes on… Individually, some of the stories/essays were quite lovely (I particularly enjoyed The Riddle of Invisible Dogs and The Hypnogator) and the quality of the writing remains quite strong throughout, but it was easy to tell that several of these chapters were initially written and published as separate pieces and then stitched together.

I imagine that if I re-read Invisible Beasts and viewed each section as its own separate thing I would enjoy it a lot more… In any case, I’m certainly not unhappy that I read this, but I was hoping to enjoy it more than I did. I give it 3.5 stars (out of 5).

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Miles run in 2014: 159.6
Books read in 2014: 40

A Book Review: Pepperpot – Best New Stories from the Caribbean (assorted authors)

It’s been awhile since I’ve written a book review. Let’s change that!

Preface: I’m part of the Early Reviewers group over on librarything.com; every month, tens of copies of ~100 new books are listed and given away to potential reviewers. Group members can go through this list and select/apply for a book that they think sounds interesting. Then, publishers go through the applicants, look at a person’s profile to examine their previous reviews and reading habits/tastes, and select the “winners” who they think seem most likely to write a thoughtful review for their book. There are usually 10-20 times as many applicants as there are copies of books, so while the odds of winning aren’t terribly low, it’s still exciting to be chosen as a “winner”. So far, I’ve selected a book 15 times and have won 8! times, suggesting that I’ve been exceedingly lucky. (Either that, or publisher’s must think that I have impeccable book reviewin’ capabilities.) And then, if you win, you’re supposed to write a review for the book.

PepperpotLast week, I received an advanced reader’s copy of Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean. This collection includes 13 shorts and is the first in a new series of planned yearly releases which aim to introduce Caribbean literature to a much broader audience. I really do enjoy reading short stories a lot, and anthologies like this one are a perfect way to experience a bunch of new writers without needing to invest a big chunk of time in any single author (in case you encounter someone who isn’t to your liking). This collection was doubly appealing because I really hadn’t had much/any exposure to Caribbean literature, and I was excited to try reading something different.

As I made my way through this collection, I noticed that there were a few themes that many of the stories seemed to share. 1) Warm, humid weather pervades most aspects of the characters’ lives and largely influences their habits and behaviors; 2) the idea that islands, even larger islands like Jamaica, are essentially small communities where secrets are scarce and it is difficult to distance yourself from your past; 3) the fact that a large portion of the population is highly marginalized and subsists on very little; and 4) individuals who deviate from socially accepted behavior are generally swiftly/harshly punished. These similarities between stories really helped to tie things together and made the collection feel very cohesive. I also felt like these shared themes did a wonderful job of highlighting some of the issues/conflicts that are likely central to life in the Caribbean.

Unfortunately, I ended up finding parts of this collection to be fairly underwhelming. I do not mean to suggest that any of the writing was bad, but many of these stories seemed a little underdeveloped. Or overly straightforward? Depending or your tastes, this isn’t even necessarily a bad thing; sometimes a nice, simple story is what you’re in the mood for. However, I was unable to get into/connect with a lot of these stories. That being said, I did enjoy some of them a lot. Below, I’ve mentioned three of my favorites.

Waywardness by Ezekel Alan – This was easily my favorite story of the bunch. Like many of the other stories in this collection, it recounts (in graphic detail) the daily lives of people who are forced to live on the margins of society. It is not a nice story (regularly trivializing rape and equating homosexuality to sexual abuse/bestiality), but I really loved the writing style and the method of storytelling that was used. So much grit! After looking up the author, I noticed that he has written a novel as well… I think I might have to check that out.

Mango Summer by Janice Lynn Mather- Another tragic story, this recounts the disappearance of a young girl (Theresa) from the viewpoint of her older sister (Brenda). Over the course of a summer, several children in a close-knit community slowly begin to disappear. Although many of the adults are wracked with grief and worry, Brenda and Theresa remain largely untouched and naively continue with their summertime activities. And then Theresa disappears. While Brenda recognizes that her sister is almost certainly dead and gone, she prefers to think of her as away on an epic boat journey with all of the other missing girls. “It’s a shame to think of them any other way. It would waste them. And why waste little girls? They are, they can be, such nice things.” This story was very poignant, providing a strikingly sharp contrast between the innocence of childhood and the sometimes horrible harshness of reality.

All the Secret Things No One Ever Knows by Sharon Leach – “Ten years ago, I found out that I wasn’t my father’s only girlfriend.” This is the opening sentence, quickly setting the tone for a very heavy, traumatic story that details the continued sexual and psychological abuse of a daughter by her father. Again, this is an awful, terrible story (I don’t think there is a single story in this collection that is remotely happy…), but it is written in such an artful, compelling fashion. It was not easy to read, but I am glad that I read it.

I also liked Amelia at Devil’s Bridge and The Monkey Trap. If you really enjoy short story collections, or are interested in checkin’ out writing from a new region/area, I don’t think you’d regret perusing these stories. This was a quick read and some of the writing is quite remarkable. However, I would not classify this collection as a “must read”. Overall, I’d give it 3.5 stars (out of 5).

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Miles run in 2014: 132.7
Books read in 2014: 30

A Book Review: Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

Birds of AmericaThis collection is… powerful.

I don’t know that it’s necessarily one of my all-time favorites (a lot of the stories seemed quite similar which makes it a bit harder for individuals stories to stand out) but I am very glad that I read it. Moore writes with strength and beauty and humor about a multitude of difficult circumstances. Most of the characters in these stories are young/middle-aged women who find themselves confronted by hardship (sickness, death, infidelity, depression) and find ways to manage/survive/resign themselves to the difficulties that they face.

Below is a rating for each story in this collection and some brief, non-spoilery words about my favorites.

5 stars:

People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk – Oh man. This story. It is easily one of the best ten short stories I’ve ever read.  I find it hard to believe that I’m saying this about something that focuses on the diagnosis/treatment of an infant with kidney cancer, but this story is just wonderful. Her ability to convey a sense of complete rage and disbelief, without dredging up massive amounts of melodrama, is beyond impressive. I can only imagine how difficult it would be to write about something like this (apparently it’s strongly based on actual events from Moore’s life), but she does such a good job. This story alone makes this collection something worth reading/having.

4.5 stars:

Dance in America – My second favorite story in this collection. It’s short, but very moving. It also discusses the effects that a sick child can have on the adults that he comes in contact with. But it manages to avoid being overly depressive. It’s almost a little… cheerful? In a punch-you-in-the-stomach-every-once-in-a-while kind of way.

Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens – This seems like it would be a really good story for anyone who has ever lost a pet that they were particularly attached to. Even though they’re “just an animal”, losing your special buddy can alter your mood and shape your outlook on life in surprisingly dramatic ways.

Terrific Mother – Imagine that you’ve accidentally dropped and killed a baby that they you were forced to hold? How much might this tragedy shatter your whole person and change/influence everything that you feel? Is there a way to recover/move on from such an accident? It turns out that Moore does not shy away from even the darkest of topics.

4 stars:

Which is More Than I Can Say About Some People – A poignant examination about how parent:child relationships can change when the child finally sees their parent as a real, complicated person with their own problems and shortcomings.

And below are the stories that I didn’t like quite as much and don’t feel like writin’ about. I thought that these were all fine and well-written (with the exception of Beautiful Grade which I thought was just kinda boring); they just didn’t strongly resonate with me.

3.5 stars: Willing, Agnes of Iowa, What You Want to Do Fine, Real Estate

3 stars: Community Life, Charades

2.5 stars: Beautiful Grade

This is definitely a book worth checking out. Overall, based largely on the strength of People Like That Are the Only People Here, I’m gonna give this collection a rating of 4.5 stars.

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Miles run in 2014: 68.9
Books read in 2014: 15

A Book Review: Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett

0393316009.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_This is a very lovely, well written group of stories. I enjoyed them a great deal. Each story in this collection shares a theme in that each gives a glimpse into the life of a scientist, focusing more on their humanity than on their scientific discoveries. Barrett’s stories touch on Mendel, Wallace, Linnaeus, Darwin, and others. Most times, when we learn about the famous scientists of the past, all we are taught is an equation. Or a theory. Or a law. Maybe some dates for context. This always bothered me a little bit when I was in class. Sometimes I’d wonder about these people and the conditions that they lived in that allowed/forced them to come up with their great ideas. Barrett seems to have had similar feelings. By extensively researching these scientists and the times/surroundings that they were immersed in, and mixing in her prodigious writin’ skills, she was able to produce stories that had both a very high degree of authenticity/realism and were a delight to read. These are certainly works of historical fiction, with fabricated relationships and conversations and other details, but nothing feels forced or phoney. I don’t know that Barrett’s primary goal was necessarily to humanize these men and women (mostly men, sadly, because sexism) and make them a bit more relatable/understandable, but that’s certainly what I took away from this collection.

Also, in some of these stories, she opts to write about fictional men and women of science instead. By sharing their (made up) stories, and comparing/contrasting these more humble figures with notable scientists, Barrett strips away a lot of the fantasy that surrounds many of the historical thinkers of the past. We are reminded that these historically important figures weren’t demigods… they were just people. Intelligent and charismatic, certainly, but just people. She even takes the time to remind us that just because these folks were brilliant, they were far from omniscient. For example, in one of her stories about Carl Linnaeus (the man considered to be “the father of modern taxonomy and ecology”), she highlights Linnaeus’s belief that instead of migrating, migratory birds hibernated underwater during the winter months, returning to the surface once ponds and lakes thawed.

Anyway, my favorite stories in this collection are The Behavior of the Hawkweeds (which touches on the discoveries of Gregor Mendel) and the titular story/novella Ship Fever (which looks at the Typhus epidemic of 1847 on Grosse Isle, Quebec from the viewpoints of both a doctor and a patient). If you like science or scientists or historical fiction or short stories or quality writing, this collection is almost certainly something that you’d enjoy.

4.5 stars! (out of 5)

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Miles run in 2014: 34.3
Books read in 2014: 10

A Book Review: The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian

0802143334.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_I did not particularly enjoy this book. While parts of it felt very well written, the overall pacing was pretty dreadful and the writing style was inconsistent. It was the kind of novel where you’re just reading along and everything seems okay (or maybe even good), and then all of a sudden there are some sections that don’t really make any sense, but they include some interesting/strange/emotive phrases, so you just go with it and trust that things will be tied into the rest of the story somehow later, but then you finish the book and look back and you’re just like Why???

Maybe I just haven’t thought about it enough yet to “get it”, but some of those rough sections felt almost like patchwork writing exercises that were roughly inserted into the novel because they either sounded cool or encouraged a particular emotion or something. But they weren’t really related to anything that was going on. So I guess maybe my issue with this book is that it didn’t feel polished?

Also, something that didn’t reallllly take away from the quality of the work, but was still fairly irksome, was the fact that the novel was littered with medical jargon to the point that it was distracting and encouraged skimming/skipping. The inclusion of so many ~obscure technical terms seemed like a dubious choice as this is not a novel that relies on scientific/medical accuracy for ANYTHING. I understand that the author completed a pediatric residency at Cal; I do not understand why he felt it necessary to copy so much of the vocabulary out of his medical textbooks into this story. Maybe he just wanted to lend authenticity to the hospital setting or something?

Overall, this was somewhat of a chore to read. However, it did have its nice bits, and I did read all 600+ pages in about four days, so it was at least somewhat compelling… I won’t say that I regret finishing it, but I don’t know that I would recommend it to anyone else.

2.5 stars! (out of 5)

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Miles run in 2014: 30.1
Books read in 2014: 9