Dead Wake

Friday, February 27, 2015

Dead Wake
The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
by Erik Larson

Whoa, what a ride! Larson’s fourth book is a doozy. After reading but not loving his last work, In the Garden of the Beasts, I was nervous about this one. It more than exceeded my expectations! Larson has a talent for pairing his meticulous research with compelling stories and salacious details. The tale of the Lusitania was ripe for the telling and he timed it perfectly with the 100 anniversary of the sinking.

The author made the voyage and disaster come alive by choosing a few individuals to focus on. We followed them through their entire journey. We see them board, learned their background and the reason why they were traveling. We knew who was waiting for them at home and then we watched the inevitable unfold.

We also learned about the Lusitania’s captain (Turner) and the captain of the U-boat that brought their destruction. Larson took us all the way through the sinking and into the aftermath. We learned who lived and died and what happened in the years that followed. Structuring the book this way put a few faces onto the historical event. It gave the book a depth of emotion that would have been missing if he’d only focused on factual details instead of personal details too. By the time we reach the critical moment you are so invested in the characters that you’ve met that the suspense is palpable.

In the opening chapters we’re introduced to Theodate Pope, a female architect and suffragette, Dwight Harris who carried both an engagement ring and custom life belt on board the ship. Then there was a Vanderbilt who had narrowly missed sailing on the Titanic. There was also a bookseller named Lauriat, carrying a priceless copy of A Christmas Carol that Dickens himself had owned!

A few interesting tidbits:
- Georg von Trapp (he of The Sound of Music fame) was an Austrian U-boat commander and torpedoed a French cruiser, killing 684 sailors!
- Captain Turner testified in the Titanic trial to determine who should receive compensation for their losses. 
- There was a Confederate submarine during the Civil War and three crews were killed just trying to get it to work.
- During WWII the Russians managed to get three copies of the German code book and gave one of them to the British

BOTTOM LINE: Just fantastic. Some nonfiction authors have a hard time restraining themselves from telling readers EVERY single detail that they discovered about a subject. But the best ones leave you fascinated with the subject and even wanting to know more about it. Erik Larson is one of the best and this particular book was a great example of his skill combining with an enthralling story. 

"When Death is as close as he was then, the sharp agony of fear is not there; the thing is too overwhelming and stunning for that." – One of the survivors.

*I received a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Image from here.

The Sandman Vol. II & III

Thursday, February 26, 2015

After reading Sandman: Vol. 1, I was put off the series. It was too dark for me. The images were too brutal and I just wasn’t a fan, which is surprising considering how much I love Gaiman’s other work. After a bit of encouragement from others who had read the rest of the series I decided to try another volume. I’m glad I did.

The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll's House
by Neil Gaiman

Volume II begins with a recap of everything that happened in the first volume. There’s a story set in the midst of a barren desert about a queen named Nada. She falls in love at first sight, but she can’t find the man who stole her heart.

Then we move onto Rose the main character in this volume. She discovers her real grandmother is alive and well in England. She returns to America to search for her missing brother Jed. She moves into a boarding house with a collection of strange characters, Gilbert the landlord, Ken and Barbie, and two creepy sisters who collects spiders.

We learn that Rose is actually a dream vortex and her presence is causing problems. While the people in the boarding house all dream very different dreams, but walls begin to break down and Rose's vortex merges their dreams. Meanwhile Morpheus is searching for the missing nightmares who escaped from the dream world while he was imprisoned. We also stop by a horrifying “cereal” convention. Without going into detail I’ll just note that this part was seriously scary.

One of my favorite stories in this volume was about Hobbs, a man who wants to live forever. He meets Morpheus and the two decide to meet up once every hundred years. During that time they run into Shakespeare and other major historical events. I love that Morpheus, who is so lonely and distant, finally has a friend of sorts in Hobbs.

Neil Gaiman always weaves mythology, religion, fables, and pieces of history together in such an interesting way. Nothing is off limits in his writing. I love that he uses all those elements in his stories. It’s the plot, not the illustrations that keep me coming back to these. Although I do love how every character’s thoughts and dialogue has a different font.

BOTTOM LINE: Whenever I read one of the Sandman comics I struggle with how dark some of the content is. But when I get to the end I tend to love the overarching message, depth of character and the well-thought-out plot. I am glad that I got a more balanced taste of the Sandman comics instead of just stopping after the very first one, but I do think they are a bit too dark for me.

"Life as a human contains substance I never dreamed of in the dreaming, Lord. The little victories, and the tiny defeats."

Sandman Vol. III: Dream Country
by Neil Gaiman

The third volume contains four stories. The first is the darkest, containing a tale of Calliope, a kidnapped muse who is kept prisoner by two authors. She is exploited by them so that they can further their own careers. It’s a sad tale, but it has a point. The next tale is about the ambitions and dreams of cats. They dream of a world ruled by their kind who reign over humans. Again it was interesting and not too dark.

My favorite of the four is a Shakespearean inspired bit about Midsummer Night’s Dream. A traveling troupe is performing the comedy in the 16th century and without their knowledge it’s being watched by the real Queen Titania and King Oberon. The real Puck joins in the fun as well, donning a mask and acting in the play.

The final piece is about a woman who has been transformed by the sun god Ra. She is left in a disturbing physical state, but she can’t die. She wears a mask and lives a horrible life, longing for an escape she can’t have. The best part about this story was the appearance of Death, the punk rocker sister of Morpheus.

BOTTOM LINE: There’s no denying that the stories are still incredibly dark, but for me each story had a real message this time. They weren’t dark for the sake of shocking the reader. Gaiman’s talent as a writer came through a bit more and I’m curious about the characters of Death and Morpheus.

I read these as part of Comics February, which is hosted by Debi at Talking to Myself and Chris at Stuff As Dreams Are Made On.

Wordless Wednesday: Koalas and Kangaroos

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Sleepy koalas and kangaroos at the 
wildlife park in Australia.
More Wordless Wednesday here.
Photo by moi.

Orphan Train

Monday, February 23, 2015

Orphan Train
by Christina Baker Kline

Molly is a teenager caught in the foster care system. She’s currently with a family, but their strict rules and refusal to accept her for who she is makes life difficult. After a few bad choices she gets a position helping an elderly woman clean out her attic. As she learns more about Vivian and her past she uncovers her incredible story. She was a young Irish immigrant sent out west on an orphan train to find a new family.  

This book quickly fell into the same category as Sarah's Key for me. Both books flip back-and-forth between the past and the present tracing two separate lives and intersecting where history meets with a current issue. My problem with both books was that I couldn't stand the current day narrator. In Sarah's Key it was a woman who couldn't stop whining about her French husband and her indecisiveness drove me nuts.  

In Orphan Train it’s Molly, a 17-year-old foster child who came across as obnoxious and self-righteous. I do think the audiobook narrator had something to do with it. She upped the irritation level by adding sarcastic tones to every comment, but it was the character herself that was so hard to stomach.

I loved the historical elements in the story. Learning about depression era New York and the real trains that took orphans out west was just fascinating. Unfortunately the present day narrator was insufferable and took me completely out of the story every time we returned to her. 

I do understand the structure of these novels. The author uses real pieces of history and a heartbreaking situation to allow the current day character to put their own situation in perspective. The problem is the modern-day character usually comes across as annoying just to make their realization of how good they have it a bit more powerful. Because of this I always end up feeling like I'd rather just read a book about that specific historical event (fiction or nonfiction) then have to flip back-and-forth in time.  

I had a hard time figuring out who this book’s target audience was. It felt a bit like YA, but then Molly would drop an unnecessary F bomb and I thought that might not be appropriate for that age group. I also felt like the author was trying too hard to make me identify with Molly and like her. “Oh gee, she stole Jane Eyre instead of lipstick; well we would be best friends if we met.” 

I also just have to say that I had a real problem with Vivian putting her baby up for adoption. After caring for her little sister and then the boy on the train, we know she was comfortable with babies. And then you think about the fact that she was bounced around to some truly awful foster homes and we are supposed to believe she would put her child in the same situation? I don’t think so. She had no idea who might adopt her and at that point she had the means and support (from her foster parents) to care for the child. I understand that she was grieving, but I don’t think anyone who went through that would willingly put their own child in the same position. 

BOTTOM LINE: The story has so much potential, but in execution it didn’t work for me. I wish this hadn’t jumped back and forth between the present and past. The modern day story was so much weaker and it took away from my overall enjoyment of the novel. I loved the historical side, but switching between the two just didn’t work.

Women NOT in Love

Friday, February 20, 2015

The other day I saw a great post that made me stop and think. It was a call for books about women that have absolutely nothing to do with romance. I was absolutely shocked by how long it took me to come up with a only handful of books. 

Think about it, how many can you think of off the top of your head? No young crush, no heartbreak leading to self-discovery, no casual dating, try to think of books that have no love in them at all. It's way tougher than it should be. 

The opposite doesn't seem to be true at all. I can think of a dozen books about men that don't involve romance. There are coming-of-age stories, thrillers, mysteries, and classics like Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness. There are so many! But when you hold up the same criteria for books with a woman protagonist, the options are scarce. 

I understand that love: having it, losing it, trying to find it, etc. can make a great story. But women are complex and there are a lot of stories to tell about them that don't include love. 

Here are the books that I finally came up with and honestly there's a couple that I think are questionable.

The Whale Rider, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Flavia de Luce series, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Kinsey Milhone series, The Handmaid’s Tale, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, Still Alice, Wild, The Eyre Affair, Emily of New Moon, The Optimist's Daughter, The Thirteenth Tale, The Likeness, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, True Grit, Little Bee

What books could you add to the list? 

Added suggestions from you guys:  Nervous Conditions, Code Name Verity, Dolores Claiborne, The Gathering, The Year of the Flood, The Invention of Wings, We Were Liar,  Silver Sparrow, Matilda, Vanessa Michael Monroe series, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Nightingale, Alice in Wonderland, Room, A Little Princess, Station Eleven, The Just City, and Gray Mountain.

Lovely painting by Jacquelyn Bischak from here.

Wordless Wednesday: 30 Rock

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

30 Rockefeller Center
More Wordless Wednesday here.
Photo by moi.

The Silent Land

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Silent Land 
by Graham Joyce 

A British couple in their 30s is on a ski trip in the Pyrenees when they are caught off-guard by an avalanche. Zoe and Jake's harrowing experience leaves them stunned and they return to the small village where they are staying shaken but grateful to have survived. When they arrive they find the whole place deserted. 

Their reactions follow a predictable pattern at first. They make excuses as to where everyone is, explore the area, act like kids in a candy shop as they try food and wine in different restaurants, etc. But soon their unease mounts with each passing hour and they start to notice odd details about their surroundings. The novel seems tame at first, but the tension builds beautifully. 

There were moments that reminded me of the eerie solitude in “The Shining”. Other times their sweet playfulness felt like a romantic comedy gone horribly wrong. I was completely sucked into the story. I’m glad I read it in the midst of January snow storms. The mood was already set for the chilling story. 

Occasionally the writing felt forced and overly descriptive and took me out of the story…  “The mist hung in the air like a prancing unicorn.” 

Those eye-rolling moments gave me pause, but the overall impact of the book more than made up for it. 

Without getting into any spoilers, the book had more depth than I was expecting. It was bittersweet and balanced reflection, fear and love in equal parts. 

BOTTOM LINE: Hard to put down. At times the writing felt overly melodramatic but that was my only complaint. A great choice to curl up with when it’s cold outside and you want something a bit unnerving. 

*I also just have to say that the hardcover is gorgeous! It has a vellum dust jacket and a stark cover. 

"What are we if we're not the sum of our memories? 
You're forgetting about what we might become. Isn't that more important?" 

"Nurses and soldiers, thought Jake. They see it all, and pretend they've seen nothing." 

"Their conversations were all the time shrinking in length but expanding in implication." 

"Old habits were falling away. There was no need for privacy and the light now had become a property of value, a thing that traded in the currency of life rather than death. It seemed an affront to want to keep it out, so the curtains stayed open."

A Quiet Storm

Monday, February 16, 2015

A Quiet Storm 
by Rachel Howzell Hall 

Stacy has been taking care of her sister Rikki for as long as she can remember. The only kids of a religious and troubled family, the two try to keep up a semblance of normalcy despite Rikki’s mental illness. After a suicide attempt in her youth, it’s clear that Rikki’s issues are serious. 

As they grow up, Stacy begins to lose herself and her personal life in the drama that her sister creates. Bright and beautiful, most people don’t see Rikki’s struggle at first glance. Her loving husband Matt even minimizes its severity. 

Hall’s unflinching look at one family's struggle with mental illness is a powerful one. The reason it seems to work well is that you're seeing the situation through the eyes of the sister. She is not the one with the illness, but we are able to see the havoc it wreaks in everyone’s life through her experiences. It colors every single day of her life. The overwhelming responsibility she feels to protect and care for her sister puts a strain on her relationship with her husband, friends and family members. 

Some of the plot feels melodramatic, but I think that’s intentional. Everything with Rikki’s disease is either high or low and so there’s not a lot of room for thoughtful consideration in the mix. Her moods are driven by guilt, rage, jealousy, remorse, etc. The most disturbing aspect of the disease is that some people around her, like her mother, would prefer to pretend there’s no real problem. 

BOTTOM LINE: I found the meat of the story to work a bit better than the ending. I felt like it turned a bit into a cautionary tale with a melodramatic tone, but I still got a lot out of it. 

"It's difficult to accept that invisible, indestructible things can haunt a person."  

"I didn't believe what I had just said, but I couldn't resist the argument. College does that, you know."

Pairing Books with Movies: The Night Watch

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Night Watch 
by Sarah Waters 

This is my fourth Waters novel, but it deviated in a lot of ways from what I've come to expect from her books. There's no vibe of gothic mystery, instead it's more historical fiction. Set in London during World War II, the story follows four main characters, Kay, Helen, Viv and Duncan. Like the other three Waters novels that I’ve read, it’s extremely well written. The setting is beautifully described; the characters are well-drawn, etc., but my problem with this book lay in the plotting and structure. 

We start after the war is done and everyone settled back into their lives in 1947. We meet our main characters and they constantly make vague references to things that happened during the war. Later we travel back to 1944 when the city was being bombed to bits by the Germans. Kay is an ambulance driver and rescues people after their homes are bombed. These scenes were some of my favorite in the book. You could feel the fear and smell the smoke as London fell into ruin around its loyal citizens. 

Kay’s girlfriend Helen is a less interesting character and one that seems indecisive about what she wants from life. Then there’s Viv, a bright young woman who has gotten caught up in a relationship with a married man named Reggie. The final character is Duncan, a young man serving time in prison. We rotate between the lives of each character, learning tiny bits about how they got where they are, but there are always unanswered questions. 

The story moves slowly at first and it took me a while to get into it. The author leaves us intentionally in the dark on quite a few things that she mentions in the first portion of the book. As the novel progresses things are slowly revealed. You supposed to hang in there and trust that it will all be explained, but in the end I never felt like I got the whole story. 

By structuring the book in reverse chronological order you remove a huge amount of suspense. When we move back to 1944 and then to 1941 at the very end, we already know who lives and dies and who ends up together. There are obviously pros and cons to this unique method or storytelling, but it does take the suspense out of certain events. 

A few of my issues with the book… 

At the end we find out that Helen was already almost killed in a bomb blast. If that’s true, why on earth would she refuse to go to the shelter during future bombings? I would think that she would be the first one in the shelter the second the alarm sounded! 

Also, Duncan and his friend took suicide ridiculously nonchalantly. It really bothered me that only one of the boys wanted to kill himself it took him about 30 seconds to convince Duncan to join his suicide pact. It was like a big game to them and I can't imagine two teenage boys saying, “What do you want to do this today? I don't know let's kill ourselves. Ok, sounds great!” Also, did I miss something, where it’s explained why Duncan decided to move in with Mr. Mundy? 

Viv’s story made a little bit more sense when you see how she met Reggie, except she knew from the get-go that he was on leave to go see his wife and their new baby. My real problem with her wasn't even how they met. What I didn’t get was their ending. He abandons her when she’s in the middle of a medical emergency and about to die. And yet we see in their 1947 section that they are still together with no explanation. That made no sense to me. 

BOTTOM LINE: I think the story really lost something in the structure. The writing is gorgeous and I particularly love learning more about this time period, but it was almost like reading the ending of a book and then trying to go back and start from the beginning. Not my favorite Waters novel. 

** I do want to say that the audiobook version was fantastic. It was read by Juanita McMahon and she was just excellent! 

Pairing Books With Movies: I saw “The Imitation Game” the day after I finished The Night Watch and I couldn’t believe how perfectly the two aligned. Both focus on London during World War II. Both deal with how homosexuality was viewed during the 1940s. I absolutely LOVED the movie and can’t say enough about it. It was wonderfully done and I would highly recommend it. 

A bonus recommendation, if you aren’t already watching The Bletchley Circle you should be! The first two seasons of the BBC show is available on Netflix. It’s about a group of women who were code breakers during WWII in London.

The Swiss Family Robinson

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Swiss Family Robinson
by Johann David Wyss

I must have watched the 1960 Disney movie of this book dozens of times when I was growing up. Obviously that colored my reading and when I came across some major differences between the book and movie I was a little surprised. They left out one of the sons, there is no showdown with pirates, and the character of Roberta was completely created for the film. Regardless, The book is a lot of fun, but it’s a very different story from the one I was expecting.

The Robinson family is shipwrecked on their way to Australia. They survive and begin to build a life for themselves on the island that they christen “New Switzerland”. Over the course of a few years the family builds a home and learns how to make do in their new world. In addition to the parents, there are four boys: Sons: Fritz, Ernest, Jack, and Franz.

The family’s father teaches survival lessons, like hunting and gathering, but he also teaches his children how to live well. He has a ridiculously diverse knowledge of plants and animals, which at times seemed a bit unlikely. I love that even though they are stranded on a desert island, they work so hard to continue to learn. They are all practicing different languages, studying new sciences, exploring, getting exercise. Their priorities didn’t change. Their father still has the whole family work together and treat each other with civility and respect. He instructs them in everything and they support and encourage one another.

I kept wondering what would happen to a family today if they were stranded and couldn’t use their cell phones. Would they even know how to open a coconut? I kept thinking of Lost, the modern day equivalent of this adventure in some ways. I think a lot of people wouldn’t know how to survive for more than a few days.

There’s one terrifying scene that will stay with me for a long time, it includes a donkey and boa constrictor and that’s all I’ll say. A few of the other scenes where animals are killed aren’t pleasant to read, but they certainly aren’t gratuitous. Each one takes place because they need to survive, not for sport.

BOTTOM LINE: I think this one would be perfect to read aloud to boys. It’s all adventure and learning how to hunt and survive, but the moral lessons about treating animals fairly and hard work give it an added weight.

Wordless Wednesday: Garrison Keillor's Bookstore

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Common Good Books 
Garrison Keillor's bookstore in St.Paul, Minn.
More Wordless Wednesday here.
Photo by moi.

Tiny Beautiful Things

Monday, February 9, 2015

Tiny Beautiful Things 
Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar 
by Cheryl Strayed  

I was a bit wary of this book when I first heard about it. It’s a collection of advice columns about life and love, and I couldn’t think of why I needed to read someone else's advice about someone else's problems. But as I began to dig in to each letter I quickly realized that you don't read the book for Sugar’s advice. You read it because she manages to share intimate parts of her own life in a way that makes you feel connected to the entire human race in all its beautiful fallible glory.  

She is so honest and vulnerable in these columns. She uses examples from your own life to advise people on each of their issues. You don't have to be able to relate to her experience for these letters to touch you. They reach beyond the boundaries of what small sliver of the world each of us have seen. They get at the center of things, the piece of our hearts that drives us and scares us. She writes about losing love, being lonely, being brave, and being willing to do the right thing in the right moment even if it terrifies you. Often the thing she talks about our painful to read. There are people all over this world experiencing heartbreak in different ways and she never shies away from tough issues. 

I was completely blown away by her ability to expose herself to these strangers. By letting herself be so vulnerable even her harshest advice has a tender feel. I admired her ability to speak truth to people. Even if the answer isn’t what they might want to hear, she still told it like she saw it. 

Honestly, I wish I’d read this book before reading Wild. I was turned off at first in that book because it felt like she was using her mother’s death as an excuse for her bad behavior. It won me over in the end, but I think if I’d gotten to this one first I would have understood her better. She’s very honest and open about her failings and struggles and that’s incredibly rare. 

BOTTOM LINE: Loved it. You don’t have to agree with all or any of her advice, just treat the whole book as a unique memoir. Strayed personal history is woven into every single reply to a letter. She bares her soul to her readers to help them deal with their own issues and the result is beautiful.  

A Few Notes:
There are a couple times where she reads more than one letter in a row and then answers all of them at one time. The first time she did this I thought I missed something because I was listening, not reading a hard copy. I was worried that the chapter had skipped ahead of something, so just a heads up. 

In her review, Trish mentioned that you shouldn't try to plow through them quickly and I agree. I listened to an audio version and tried to just listen to a few at a time. I do think they have a bigger impact that way and they are pretty intense.

Classics Club Meme Question

Friday, February 6, 2015

What about modern classics? Pick a book published since 2000 and say why you think it will be considered as a “classic” in the future. 

I didn’t even have to pause with this one. The Book Thief immediately popped into my mind. The book, published in Australia in 2005 and worldwide in 2006, is one of my favorites. It’s unique because it’s narrated by Death, but it deals with universal themes. 

It’s set during World War II and tells the story of a young orphaned girl, her foster family, and their small German town. I think it’s one that will stand the test of time because at this point I’ve seen it presented in so many different ways. Though the book is the absolute best, I’ve now seen it as both a movie and a play as well. I’ve read it, re-read it, listened to the audio version and each time it gets better and I notice something new. 

I think the thing that truly makes a classic a "classic" is that it's relevant to new generations and has something new to say to them. There’s no way to know for sure, but I think that in 50 years people will still be discovering this one for the first time and falling in love with the story.

Join in the fun here.