Moloka'i, alan Brennert, novel , book review

We All Live – Moloka’i, Alan Brennert

A friend of mine sent me this book about a year ago when I first explained how much I had been reading and how happily distracted it made me.  She sent it to me along with The Book Thief, and hyped up The Book Thief much more.  (With good cause – the use of the grim reaper as a narrator in that book was pulled off flawlessly.  If any of you saw the movie without reading the literary genius that was that book I highly advise you reconsider.  I should probably go back through it and properly review it here.)  Of Moloka’i she only said, “I can’t really remember what it’s about but I remember how much I loved that little girl.”  I threw it on my bookshelf and dusted it off specifically for the purposes of this blog, which only made me feel like an idiot after – knowing this beautiful work had been sitting on my bookshelf for a year.

Each time I read a book that’s for this blog, I mark up my electronic copies endlessly with highlighting and writing.  But in my hard copies I do a slight I dog ear on a page (I just can’t bring myself to write in a book – it’s like something inherent in me) for things I thought were moving, disturbing, things I related to, things I thought were brilliant or horribly written – anything I might want to come back later.  This is what my copy of Moloka’i looked like when I was done with it:

dog-ear, bookmark, Moloka'i, Alan Brennert, book review

My marked copy of Moloka’i

Moloka’i is beautifully written (in literary terms it is flawless and yet the writing never feels pompous or difficult to wade through), and focused on the life of Rachel Kalama, initially a seven-year-old living in Hawaii in the 1890’s who, per the back of the book, “dreams of visiting far-off lands like her father, a merchant seaman.”  One day she starts developing small patches of redness on her leg, and her mother discovers she can’t feel anything over these small patches.  It turns out that these are the days of Hawaii when Hansen’s disease, more commonly known as leprosy, was spreading throughout the isolated communities in Hawaii, and nobody knew the cause or form of transmission.  The Hawaiian population deemed to have irreparably contracted it were sent to an isolated section of the island Moloka’i, to the settlement in Kalaupapa.

Moloka'i, Alan brennert, novelMoloka’i is about a lot of things, with a lot of themes (how we as a society handle illness, how illness affects the spirit as well as the body – and how much of that is connected to social theories of “normal,” what normal actually is, what defines family or childhood, I could go on), but at its core I think that Moloka’i demonstrated that in any circumstance, we all deal with hardships, we all experience joy, and those emotions link humanity.

The book spans the entirety of Rachel’s life and then some, and yet, unlike many books which try to do such an undertaking, never really feels like the author has taken on too much or that the story should have ended more appropriately 50 pages prior.  She is initially separated from her family at such a young age, forced to live in a home with nuns in a foreign town and learn, younger than 10, what it is like to live an entirely new life.  The author notes that while Rachel’s story is entirely fictional her experience is certainly rooted in the experiences of real people.  Those with leprosy were segregated, taken from their family, friends, and forced to live in an isolated area of island.  And that is what became “home.”

The way in which they show Rachel’s family and community dealing with her contracted illness remind me so much of the early stages of the AIDS epidemic.  The community would not eat food cooked in Rachel’s home after they learned of the diagnosis.  Once grown, even though a boy without the disease found Rachel beautiful and may have even loved her, he couldn’t bring himself to kiss her for fear of contracting it – no, couldn’t even bring himself to truly touch her, to hug her.  There is an immense heaviness throughout the book of how difficult it is to have a disease that can’t be explained or understood.

D.C., Capitol Building

Shot of the Capitol Building on my trip to D.C.

I don’t pretend to understand the life of complete ostracism because of my disease, but I know what it’s like to have a friend speed away from me in D.C. because she’s annoyed with how slowly my pain forces me to walk.  I know what it’s like to spend a weekend walking slowly around to see monuments on my own instead.  I know what it’s like to have a man fall out of love with me because I am not spontaneous anymore, I don’t always want to make love and I cry more than I used to.  Having chronic illness is difficult in and of itself.

I imagine it can only be 1000 times harder if people not only negatively react to you but are genuinely scared of your illness –  if the government thinks you are better off far away from everything you know and love.  And, like in the case of the character Rachel, if you have to fear that your own body is now a harmful, contagious force.   I found it interesting that at one point in the book, World War II is occurring and the Japanese internment camps are mentioned.  Brennert describes the way that Japanese Americans were forced to sell everything they owned for a fraction of their worth in a matter of days to enter camps.  And it is very clear the parallel that exists between Japanese Americans and Hawaiians with leprosy: we almost want to chop off EVERYTHING we are afraid of as a society and hide it away in an isolated area, just to make us feel as though maybe it isn’t there.  Pretend like the monster we don’t understand isn’t hiding under the bed.  How cruel we can be when we are scared – and how we can quickly become the type of people who support cruelty.

And while those themes of fear, illness, and cultural norms run deep, so much deeper than I could provide you in a blog post, what I enjoyed just as much about the book were the story lines I found myself thinking about late into the night, when I should be sleeping, that had absolutely nothing to do with illness.  A transgender female comes to live in Kalaupapa, and she is faced with how to date, and how potential suitors may react if they discover her sexual anatomy.  In one case, a male suitor does aggressively react when he finds out.  This transgender character feels a desperation to fit in with the females in the settlement, and identifies deeply with Rachel.  What is gender?  What is sexuality?  What defines it? How much more complicated does gender become when wrapped up with illness and isolation?

There were story lines and questions of wanting to fall in love desperately, and not quite knowing how to do it.  Of when to marry.  Of when to decide to have sex. Of what happens if unexpected consequences of sex appear, like pregnancy.  There is grieving in death. There is the ever-changing of definition of family to include those who are closest to you, and dealing with the sometimes difficult relationships of those blood relatives that feel emotionally furthest from you.  There is the lingering of question of what you do when you know someone is in a violent domestic relationship.  There is question of the effectiveness of the justice system and government in handling the real issues that are affecting the people.  There is the joy in a birthday, surfing, finding a job, a first kiss, and dancing. There are parties and sneaking out at night.  There are politics and bombs.

And while I was reading all of these story lines above, marinading on them in dark, I wasn’t thinking, “this is happening to a person with sores on them.”  Rather, I thought, “this is happening to a person.”  (Person, character…it all gets tangled up in my mind.)

Brennert has very cleverly written a book about humanity and history itself then encased it in a story about illness.  He shows us that no matter what separates us, physical space, deep-rooted fear, diagnostics, we are all experiencing the same joys and hardships that make us human.  We all stress, we all relax, and we all live.  And the true importance there is that we see that this humanity has no boundaries – from the quarantined to the “normal.”  We are all tied up together in human nature.  Well done, Brennert.

Alan Brennert, author, Moloka'i

Alan Brennert

I should offer more negative commentary, but on the writing I just don’t have it on this book.  The only thing that caught my attention is more of a wondering, something I can’t even speak to.  When I was reading Hawaiian traditions and language, I took it for granted that I was reading a book that was written by a Hawaiian (actually, I hadn’t really read the author’s name before the end and took it for granted I was reading something written by a Hawaiian female – interesting to me that I made that leap and perhaps a testament to Brennert’s writing).  There is a large interview with the author in the back of my copy, though, and it became very apparent after finishing that this was a book written by a white male who loved Hawaii and had read a lot of history. I wonder how much he got right, and whether he got any of it wrong, and whether anyone feels like he appropriated their culture.

Or maybe it’s just the opposite.  Maybe people are grateful for the culture being brought to light, and for the stories of those affected by Hansen’s in a time of leprosy to finally have a voice.  All I’m sure of is that it was a damn good book – one of the single best I’ve ever read.

The One That Got Away, Simon Wood, Amazon Prime, First Reads

Punishment and Human Nature – The One That Got Away, Simon Wood

I received this book as part of the Amazon Prime Kindle First Books Program.  For those of you who aren’t familiar, Amazon Prime has a program where on the first of the month you can choose a free book from about 4-5 options (books that have been promoted into this program by their authors/editors, I would assume).  Normally the books cost something like $3-$5, is my understanding.

Kindle First, First Reads, Amazon First Reads

Though I’ve been getting these free book notifications for months, this was the first one I actually downloaded.  The description sold it as something of a thriller about a young adult female (Zoe) who had escaped a serial killer (The Tally Man) years ago (though her friend had not been so lucky), only to find herself running from him again now.

Most of the negative reviews of this book on Goodreads focused on the unrealistic elements of the serial killer himself.  I actually disagree with them.  I obsess over real life crime (I can’t help myself, even on the nights when it means I’m going to be checking behind every single crevice in my tiny one-bedroom condo), and given the number of active serial killers assumed to be in the U.S. at any given time, and the pathology that creates potential psychopaths, I think someone like this (with the detailed history included) could quite possibly genuinely exist.

Criminal Minds, BAU, FBI Which didn’t help me much when I was reading it, as it takes place in the Bay Area.  While reading this book, I was constantly checking the nooks of my condo at night and suppressing the urge to google potential active serial killers in the area (these make the news less than they should!).  No, but really – these make the news less than they should.  Thank you, BAU.

In addition, the book was so spot on about the impact on victims and survivors of violence that it almost cut me to the core thinking about women I’ve worked with in the prison system (I previously volunteered as a teacher in a women’s prison system, and more recently wrote my sociological master’s thesis after observing women in prison therapy groups over a period of months).  Most of those women were survivors of serious domestic violence. While dealing with the return of the serial killer and lack of protection by the police, our protagonist Zoe states, “So, the upshot of all this is leave town, lose my job, and start over, while he gets to carry on doing his thing.  That’s just what every victim wants to hear.”  It’s upsetting that it’s true – so often the victim must lose everything to make any attempt to move on or be protected, while the abuser maintains a position of control and normalcy.  It is in the small phrases like these that I felt Wood actually did in some way understand the reality not only of the potential social component connected to psychopaths, but also the victimology that women are so often subject to.  For brief moments, he appears to have sincere insight into the human psyche and societal impacts.

Then you remember what you’re reading and it all goes to shit.

Simon Wood, The One That Got Away, InstagramThis book was a fast read, with the thriller element strong enough to keep me turning pages and finishing it quickly.  That is not to say that the book was necessarily good. In the end, I almost certainly wouldn’t recommend it.

The book would have been an even faster read if not for the repetitive nature of the author’s writing.  “He couldn’t let her escape punishment again” must have been mentioned by the Tally Man about 50 times, along with Zoe, the main character, discussing her guilt over leaving her friend behind during her first kidnapping experience.  Valid points, but points that were seared into the reader’s mind the first or even second mention. Eventually, I started wondering how much shorter the book would be if Wood continually moved the story forward rather than focusing on emotional elements of the characters he had already provided.

I found the writing style providing the killer’s point of view equally frustrating.  The point of view in the story bounces between Zoe and the killer himself (the reader experiences this for the first time 1-2 chapters in), along with the occasional very unnecessary and confusing chapter from the mind of a police officer.  The serial killer perspective really found its way under my skin, and I started wondering why.   The words from the killer felt more like a violent horror porn, and oftentimes this book seemed to follow that genre more than a thriller.

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn, Ben Affleck, Rosamund PikeThen again, I started to wonder, (and a spoiler alert in this paragraph for Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl), didn’t Gone Girl do something similar, just from a female killer’s point of view? Was I being biased, appreciating the detailed descriptions of a female killer but feeling off-put by this male killer’s thought-pattern?  But, no, it wasn’t just the gendered point of view.  Gone Girl gave the impression of calculation and tactics; the narration moved the story forward by providing motive and logical action.  The One That Got Away seemed rather to revel in unnecessarily violent descriptions. “No reply came from the dead woman, but he thought she had learned.  She had said she had while he flogged her, but most of them did.  They were willing to say anything just to make the pain stop.  But there always came a point, usually just before he ended the punishment, when the sinner either confessed to their crimes or remained silent in defiant.”  Rather than reading the logistical calculations to a cold goal, The One That Got Away provides entire chapters dedicated solely to description of the killer’s pleasure in his kills and desires for more.

This writing style doesn’t create a feeling of tension regarding what’s going to happen in the book, but more of a cringe-worthy exploitative description of intense violence that does not help me to understand the characters or story in any stronger a light.  It may have almost been acceptable if each time Wood popped into the killer’s psyche we got a new piece of a puzzle, got a better understanding, but more often the reader gets phrases like those quoted above stated in different ways, repetitively, as a violent indulgence more so than a literary device.  I almost stopped reading halfway through as a result.

The core problem of the book, however, came down to the thematic element (or lack of development thereof): punishment and what one does or does not deserve.  Some of the deep-rooted theme seemed intentional by the author, and at other moments, I almost had to wonder if Wood was witty or intelligent enough to draw the connections he was making.  The killer’s motive, provided early on in the story, revolved around punishment that he believed his sinners “deserved.”  It seemed to be described by Wood as an unhealthy psychiatric obsession – this need to punish.  Yet he then took what was a killer’s pathology and demonstrated the elements of basic human nature underlying it through his other characters in the book, particularly Zoe, his victim.  Oftentimes she had thoughts along the lines of, “No one who inflicted harm on others got to escape.  Not this guy.  Not Laurie Hernandez’s and Holli’s killer,” or “He couldn’t escape punishment again.”  And the law enforcement figures supported the idea as well: “He couldn’t wait to arrest the bastard.  The unfortunate side of the justice system was that the Tally Man would never experience the same level of pain as his victims had.”

Prison fence, punishment, punitiveThis look at our desire and need to punish as a society, evident by the way we run our justice system as punitive rather than rehabilitative, makes the Tally Man’s motivations seem like second nature, similar to those described by so-called “normal” humans and characters.  And this may have been the most interesting part of the book, this deeper theme of our inherent need to feel punishment has been properly inflicted.  And yet, the author went nowhere with it – what does this mean of the line between Zoe’s need for vengeance and the killer’s need for proper punishment of observed sin?  Whose desire for punishment is correct, and why – who determines what level of punishment is correct and for what crimes?  Are these subjective or objective factors?  And if subjective, why are we so quick to separate the Tally Man from our own humanness?  Because of this inherent fear of violence within us?

I wouldn’t have expected Wood to take the time to answer out each question individually, but even the allusion to some greater meaner to these connections he had woven would have made the book worth the read.

Instead, I feel that what I got left with was the outline for a truly interesting look at human nature in the form of the thriller, executed in repetitive, poor writing and an almost pornographic justification for violent imagery consistently throughout.  While quick, I felt a glad relief once the read was over.  I have two more books waiting for me that I have already downloaded from Amazon Prime’s program, and I can’t help but wonder what quality I should anticipate.

A Brilliant Move and Spectacular Downfall- Choose Your Own Autobiography, Neil Patrick Harris

I originally meant this to be a mid-week mini-comedy-break review; unfortunately, ya can’t pick your moments of pain, and so it’s 2-part Review Weekend.  Perusing my current book reviews and reading list, I am hitting the sad, serious, and wicked pretty hard and heavy.  And sharing a bit of my personal history last weekend, while insanely rewarding, was exhausting and intimidating.  So while I certainly intend to come back to all that you’ve seen from me so far, I thought it might be nice to make Part 1 of the weekend reviews something a little lighter and comedic.  Neil Patrick Harris fits that bill.


Neil Patrick Harris

This book came to me via gift, a present of humor given following a slightly depressive state (I swear I’m not always in a depressive state (or maybe I am and have only now become self-aware)(that was a joke)). I requested it just on the heels of paying actual money for a hot-off-the-press copy of Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please, trying to continue to fill that laughter-starved hole in my heart.  Neil Patrick Harris is quite funny, but he’s no Amy Poehler.  (Are any of us?)

The style of this book, written like an actual Choose Your Own Adventure book, seems to be either loved or hated by its reviewers, and I have to say I see it as both: a brilliant move and Harris’ spectacular downfall.

Dustin Diamond, Neil Patrick Harris, Choose Your Own Autobiography

Illustration by Anthony Hare, Dustin Diamond Ending

On the point of brilliance: This allowed for actual original comedy as I have never seen in autobiographical form. Harris had the opportunity for small hilarious quips and phrases leading you to your next reading choice at the end of each section. The format further allowed Harris the ability to throw in the occasional fictional short story as if it were part of his actual life – for example, a false “ending” (remember those in Choose Your Own Adventure Books?) in which you turn out to be in the dead-end life of Dustin Diamond had me laughing so hard I thought I might fall off of my couch.  (Genuinely had no idea how much Harris hates Diamond.)

You could read this either as an actual Choose Your Own Adventure book or straight through.  I read it cover to cover, and I don’t think it took anything away from the experience.  Harris, knowing this would happen, inserted his own sly page: “Congratulations! You have found the hidden page.  No other section leads to this one and it’s impossible to imagine anyone violating this book’s explicit instructions by casually flipping through it out of sequence.”  The page goes on to congratulate you on being suave enough to find such a a page.  Writing as he did, it seems that whether you were reading cover to cover or flipping through the pages at his request, gave the advantage of not necessarily staying on any one topic too long, and instead bouncing back and forth around Harris’ life (an experience I actually enjoyed, though know yourself well enough to know if you might hate).

The unfortunate spectacular downfall with Harris’ choice of format is that he writes the entire book using “you” rather than “I,” providing some sense of removal from the actual story.  (I suppose I should note that this is not necessarily a Choose Your Own Adventure format issue; Harris could have chosen to alter it.) While I laughed out loud reading his string of Made for TV movies trying to guess which titles were real and which were fake, I had no sense of his actual emotion during this phase of his life.  Did he feel like he was struggling?  Looking for purpose?  Just enjoying the joy of acting?  Not struggling at all and rich and happy off childhood fame? Trying to escape and/or embrace “Doogie”?  Was this combined with the era when he was screwing girls trying to find his sexual self?  The point is that I can’t answer a single one of these questions about an enormous period of Harris’ life after reading a book about him, by him.

I also found myself frustrated that he didn’t seem to acknowledge his position of privilege, even on the point of being a gay man in Hollywood, particularly given that some of my close friends consider him a role model in the community.  When describing the fear he felt forced to come out after Perez Hilton’s request for a story from any males that had sex with the star (gross, Perez), he mainly just states he had relief that no one gave a shit.  In one section, he describes an experience at a Katy Perry concert in which someone kicks him in the ass and then says, “I don’t care, you’re a faggot so it doesn’t matter what you say.”  Harris describes his partner’s anger, then getting the individual kicked out of the concert, going backstage with Perry per her apology, and finally hanging out with her and her gaggle of dancers all night at a party.  At the end he states, “So all in all it’s a good weekend, except for the one thing.”  At this point, the acknowledgement of Harris’ privilege or the experience that someone who was NOT him might have had after an incident like this, who would NOT get taken backstage and end up hanging out with Katy Perry’s gaggle of back-up dancers all night, might have been nice.  While I was rooting for him as the guy who could give the finger to the ignorant asshole kicking him in the ass and using the “f” word – not FUCK – I was also feeling like rolling my eyes at his starry gaggle of dancers evening that would not be the average human evening after such an incident.  At that point it actually feels like Harris is removed not only from his book but from the reality of his life in relation to the average reader’s.

bossypantsWhen I was reflecting on Harris’ lack of emotion and/or relation to his story-telling, I had to wonder, do I actually feel like this is a downfall only because so much of my autobiographical comedic reading is by strong women?  Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Mindy Kaling are near-flawless in both their comedic timing and their honesty, and as a result all three books are much more compelling to me than Harris’, no matter how much comedy he infused into his story-telling and unique method of delivery.  I wondered, do women writing these types of books tend to provide more of what I’m looking for – the emotional insight with comedic timing?  Are female comedians truly the only ones capable of this type of writing?  Am I asking too much of what we consider “male comedy?”

And then it came to me like I was an idiot with no memory: Simon Pegg.

Simon Pegg, Nerd Do WellSimon Pegg wrote a brilliant, hilarious autobiography.  Like Harris, he wrote a fictional story between the pages of his actual life, allowing him some removal from his personal story-telling.  Pegg also had some similar stories to Harris: strokes of luck that got him into the business, working with long-time idols, the magic of becoming successful.  (Childhood stories about how the U.S. was desperately in need of the hand job that was Star Wars – I really suggest Pegg’s book for that quote alone.)  The difference between Harris and Pegg is the way in which the story is told.  Pegg acknowledges his good luck and fortune with humility, whereas Harris only causes eye rolls with his grandiose tales like the oh-so-detailed experience of hanging out in Elton John’s magnificent home.  Pegg, a straight white male, has chapters dedicated to reflection upon race and gender in the industry, whereas Harris offers no reflection – actually not even an emotional reaction other than joy.  No, this is certainly not a problem of a comedic autobiography written by a male.

Even letters written throughout Harris’ book from friends (100% famous celebrities) initially appear as if they might have been conceived to offer insight into his life, extra stories, extra pieces of information, emotional realities.  Instead, they tend to sound like self-masturbatory letters just stating repeatedly that Harris is such a great guy, amazing person!  The book has good intentions, but what I can tell you I learned about Harris is this: he has drink recipes, he loves magic, he hates Dustin Diamond, he thinks he’s great at hosting a show (among other things) and he and his partner (and their children) are adorable.  But is this anything I wouldn’t know from a brief perusing of his Instagram account?  Or a broadcast of the most recent Academy Awards for that matter? Ok, maybe not the Dustin Diamond part.

My favorite portion of the book is when Harris writes a story about meeting and falling in love with his partner, David.  David comments in the margins on the entire story, and being a sucker for love, I loved it.  Then again, that is the story that feels most out of place in the context of the rest of the book.

While I truly enjoy humorous autobiographical stylings,  while I truly believe the Choose Your Own Autobiography format to be absolutely nothing short of brilliant, and while Harris has plenty of laughs to offer, he allowed the format to run away with his relation to the stories.  This was a bold choice, a creative move, a cool attempt even, in my nerdy eyes.  But frankly, he could have done it better.  (I’m also glad I got the hard copy.  How does this go over on e-readers or audiotape?)

I’d honestly recommend first going to one of the flawless ladies of comedy (I’m a feminist and those women are brilliant), and if you still need more, head over to Simon Pegg.  When you’re finished with those, come back to Harris if you just want a few more laughs with a different spin – that choose your own autobiographical style really is brilliant (if only it wasn’t such a downfall).

Then again, maybe you don’t like a side of emotional reality with your comedy.  In that case, do it the other way around.

The Grey Area – Me Before You, Jojo Moyes

Blog, Free Read and Write, Me Before You

This book was truly difficult for me to read, and this review is going to be truly difficult for me to write.  I’m sure this review is inevitably going to be more personal than most.  It seems funny now that my mom sent me this book to “cheer me up.”  After my first thoracic epidural, about a month ago now, I couldn’t stop crying.  I was in a sad place, knowing with certainty that epidurals weren’t going to be a solution to my pain, that my doctor was hesitant to try intercostal nerve blocks – the only other block left, but most importantly feeling that I was completely alone in these realizations.  My pain has been peaking recently, and those occasional hermit phases where I lose touch with the people I know – I was, maybe still am, in the middle of one.  I paid money for a cab to take me to the appointment because I had no one to drive me.  After, I was more sore than expected, and laid on ice for 2 days.  I had trouble moving.  And I had no one to call.  Well, no one that lived near me – no one who could come over, no one who could help with food or basic activities, no one who I felt would want to hear from me only to pick up the phone and hear something shitty about my health…again. So instead I cried.

And I had wanted to read this book for a long time, so my mom sent it to me.  She just wanted me to stop crying.  But neither of us knew exactly what we were getting into.  I just knew it was a book I could name that I wanted to read; while it had been recommended by numerous friends, I had never gotten a full plot summary.

Jojo Moyes, Author, Me Before You

Jojo Moyes

Me Before You is a beautifully written novel.  There is some repetitiveness to the dialogue and thematic relationships, but Moyes manages to avoid it actually sounding repetitive.  The book isn’t a thriller or mystery by any means, it is simply a story of a quadriplegic and the caregiver who tries to give him a better quality of life, and yet I stayed up long nights reading it – desperate to know what happened next.  How was their relationship developing?  What was she going to say to him?  How was he going to react?  What were their everyday LIVES going to look like?  In that way, I would say Moyes is a truly brilliant writer.  She took what is at its core a very everyday story, the very believable story of one person’s small little world in a house in a town that has little to do with anything outside their four walls, and she turned it into something that keeps the reader awake at night with anticipation.  Moyes manages to show us the gripping reality in the everyday: the development of relationships is fascinating.

I will warn that ahead there will be a slight spoiler – only a bit of the plot development, not where it leads or any major developments – still, if you are the type who likes to avoid spoilers of any type, I would stop reading here.

It takes Moyes the better part of 100 pages to get there, but eventually the central portion of the plot really comes to life:  as it turns out, Will Turner, the quadriplegic, has decided to die via assisted suicide in 6 months.  He decided this because his quality of life can never be what it was prior to the loss of use of his limbs.  In fact, it may be a very low quality of life in general given the health issues associated with his condition, and he can never anticipate getting any better.   The caregiver, Louisa Clark, has essentially been hired by his family as a pleasant figure to give him company and joy during those 6 months (he already has an actual medical caregiver), and ultimately – hopefully – show him that though it may not be what it was before, a life without use of limbs can still be a life of love, of adventure, and of happiness.

A friend of mine who read this told me that she read it with her book club, and while all agreed the writing was quite beautiful and moving, the story well-developed and intriguing, the conversation in the club got very heated because the topic of his chosen impending death was so controversial.  Initially, I found this interesting.  I wondered if anyone in her book club had ever had a life threatening illness or been in a great deal of permanent discomfort.  My condition does not threaten my life, and technically, TECHNICALLY, there is the hope that I will wake up one day and it will just have gone away on its own – so there is no one who can medically write down that there is no chance I will ever get better.  But feeling all this pain, day in, day out, thinking about the isolation I was feeling post-epidural when I started reading this novel, all I could think about was how sympathetic I was to Will Turner.

Grey's Anatomy, surgery, death I know, I KNOW.  I’m not suicidal.  But I can more than understand how ceasing to exist sounds so much better than the actual existence your health has forced you into.  There’s an episode of Grey’s Anatomy (it feels cathartic for me to watch medical dramas – don’t hate on my TV choices, hater) where a teenage girl has a severe spinal condition, and it causes her to be bent over at 90 degrees permanently.  They offer her a very experimental surgery to fix it, but it comes with serious risks, including a higher than average chance of death.  Her mother immediately says no.  The teenager then turns to her mother and says, “Mom.  I know you still think death is the worst thing that can happen to a person, but I’m proof that it’s not” or something along those lines. And I think about that episode at least once a week, because medical conditions like mine, like that teenage girl’s, where you aren’t dying, they can so often feel worse than dying.  A world where I can cease to exist with no pain sometimes sounds…magical.  The idea that I might exist as a normal human in this world gets further away with each failed procedure. Even on the highest doses of narcotics I sometimes have crippling pain reaching for the bathroom cabinet.  Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person.

And so I get Will Turner, who has lost use of all 4 of his limbs, whose character was a prior ladies’ man adrenaline junkie, wanting to cease to exist.  Throughout the book while every other character was trying to change his mind, I was silently supporting him.

At one point, Louisa is telling a childhood story about a pair of black and yellow bee tights she used to love with all of her being and how her father threw them away without ever letting her know.  Will was making fun of her.  In retort, Louisa begins (as she narrates the novel), ” ‘Oh, you can mock.  Didn’t you ever love anything that much?’ I could barely see him now, the room shrouded in the near dark.  I could have turned on the overhead light, but something stopped me.  And almost as soon as I realized what I had said, I wished I hadn’t.  ‘Yes,’ he said, quietly.  ‘Yes, I did.’ “ There are more of those moments than not in these pages, where you realize what it must be like to be sick, how difficult, how frustrating, how nostalgic.

And in the same way how difficult it is to be close to someone who is feeling all of these things.  Moyes unapologetically shows us the reality of the difficulties in Louisa’s life, by virtue of being close with this man, with just as much intensity as the difficulties in Will’s.  How much Louisa wants to cheer him up, show him the colors of the wind (or something?) and breathe the life he is letting pass him by straight back into him.  She spends just as much time researching and trying to help him as she actually spends with him.  I think my friends and family must deal with this frustration often, and it is likely tied to my difficulty in keeping new friends around – how hard is it to be close to someone whose life includes daily obstacles?  How selfish is it not to be cheered up by those trying so hard to be cheerful, hopeful for you?

As much as there are those quiet moments in this book which point out the difficulties of illness for those experiencing it and their loved ones, there are moments like Will Turner at a wedding, having as much fun as any other guest.  Dancing with Louisa in his own way, getting drunk and charming anyone who dares talk to him.  Those moments which also make the reader remember – there is still a normal life, a normal relationship, developing here.

At its essence, this book really shows that you can choose what you are going to embrace, whether your issue be health or otherwise: the loss of a life you previously envisioned yourself living, or the completely new life that will hold an undercurrent of sadness but the potential of joyous moments.

And the part that causes uproar amongst book clubs is that Moyes never comments on which choice is better.  She uses the dialogue and narration of her characters to present strong, rock-solid arguments for both sides – the need for suicide because of the loss of envisioned life, and the need for embracing the joy of what life is left.   Allowing each character to be equally convincing on the topic, Moyes leaves us with the idea that there is no right or wrong on not only assisted suicide, but the wider issues at play, like how to handle grief, how to handle loss, how to handle a brand new unexpected life.  Is one justified in refusing to let go of the reality of loss (the wallowing of it), or is one wrong for refusing to embrace the rest of what life is in front of them?  Moyes leaves her readers in the grey area of what feels like a black and white argument.  Readers tend to find themselves relating only to one character’s emotional argument (as I so strongly related to Will), and Moyes leaves them no answer on whether this character was correct – forcing readers to wonder, “Can I truly be universally right about this?” If nothing else, Moyes’ work will quite brilliantly give you pause for continuous reflection on whether there is any correct way to handle the unexpected in life, or loss of life (even if you didn’t want to do so).

I won’t tell you how Louisa and Will progress, or what Will’s choice is in the end (this is coming out as a movie in 2016, you know).  But I will advise that before the movie comes out read this book – it’s a damn well written one, and we both know the movie is never as good as the book.

Me Before You, movie, IMDB

I was e-mailing this same friend after I read the book. I told her how much I sobbed throughout it, what a terrible choice it was to read this in an effort to cheer myself up, and she told me how much she stayed up through the night reading and cried throughout it as well – proving it isn’t just those of us who are unhealthy that it strikes a chord with.  If you are going to read it, some of my best advice would be to be prepared for a compelling read and a lot of tears.  Oh – and that it’s worth it.

As for my mom, she dealt with it by buying me another book to make up for all the crying I did while I was reading Me Before You.  Look out for a review of The Cuckoo’s Calling, on her.  (She really hates all the crying.)

Stockholm Syndrome – A New Day at Midnight, Michelle Hiscox

I received a free e-ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) of this book in exchange for an honest review.  The offer came in an e-mail through Goodreads.  I’m not sure if this was just a general e-mail that went out to all Goodreads members, if this was because I’d tried to win an advance copy of a book I wanted about a year ago, or if I got specifically selected to review something supernatural because I’ve read the entire series of The Dresden Files (more on that to come later).  I accepted it because I had never read an ARC of any kind before and it seemed like a neat concept.  In fact, it was actually this particular book that was the inspiration for this blog – thinking, “I’m getting all kinds of free books, even this odd indie supernatural e-reader – why not write about my experiences with them?”

And then I read it.  And I thought, maaaaaybe I shouldn’t actually review this.  Maybe I should just accept that when I get an ARC, I should do the author a solid and pretend I never read it if I feel like I can’t say something nice.  But as this is my first ARC, as it was the very inspiration for my writing, and as the premise of this blog is to give you the lowdown on the truly awful as well as the truly awesome, I’m here to provide what I promised.

A New Day at Midnight, Michelle HiscoxThis is one of the single worst books I’ve ever read.  I would describe it as completely derivative work that is essentially a hybrid of Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey (although, despite thinking those were also some of the single worst books I’ve ever read, they are wildly popular – so you might like this!).   Essentially, this is a story about a girl (Hannah) who feels like she fell in love with a gypsy (Merick) one night in her youth, but the gypsy is actually a grandchild of the devil. She thought her town slaughtered him that night, but as it turns out death isn’t possible (at least by manner of slaughtering) for kin of the devil.  Years later Merick buys Hannah from her father under the premise that he will marry her, but he actually intends to keep her as a slave as revenge for her town’s attempted murder.  As you could likely guess by my literary comparisons, Merik and Hannah eventually fall in love much to the chagrin of those around them.

What bothers me most about this (and the 2 works that clearly inspired it) is the combination of abuse and Stockholm Syndrome portrayed as true love.  It makes me uncomfortable that Hannah is depicted as a slave carrying out Merik’s tasks day after day, observing his unpredictable anger and seeing his in-deep-need-of-real-therapy emotional wounds, yet she finds him beautiful and perfect. In what case other than imprisonment would a woman find such erratic and terrifying behavior ‘beautiful”? It equally bothers me that buying a girl as a slave to keep her near him is viewed as an act of long underlying love for Merik, and that when he manages to prevent himself from truly harming her when he flies into a rage he is portrayed as heroic and kind.

I think these continuous stories of abuse/control as love are dangerous for young women. Especially written in this style, which is essentially ¼ story and ¾ sexual longing.  An act of anger quickly turns into a 20-page sexual encounter, and it becomes so difficult to separate out dangerous violent urges and true sexual attraction that the two become nearly equated for the couple.  After a sexual encounter, Merik often flies into a violent rage or kicks Hannah out as if she had meant nothing to him (to PROTECT her you guys), and because it is “protection” this is seen as an act of true love.  What does this do to the many, many women reading this (then giving it 5 stars on Goodreads) as a fantasy?  That the fantasy means to be controlled is “sexual”, to have someone be cruel is “protection”, to have someone be so intense and angry that when violence isn’t carried out it is “romantic” – that seems even more distorted to me than my generation’s Disney Princess Complex.

111 pages in, Hannah was saying to Merik, as a slave, “I wish you would tell me what really am to you.  What is is you want to be.”  113 pages in, he was thinking, “the whispers of the Vetala grew.  Take her, she is yours.  Yours to punish.  Yours to keep.”  That’s where the two of them were, halfway into this love story – her a slave, wanting to know where she stands, wondering if she means anything because of his ambiguous violent/loving actions – him fighting urges to keep as her as HIS to punish.

By page 131, 20 pages letter, she had officially referred to him as the man she loved.  And on 133, she was intentionally harming herself to give him what he needed – cutting into herself, providing blood flow as some act of sacrifice to him.  DESPITE the fact that only 10 pages prior he was fantasizing about controlling her as property while she wondered how he felt.

Twilight, Edward, BellaIn Twilight, a man is so strong that when he attempts any sexual intercourse or loving act he harms the female lead, bruises her entire body, and she says it’s ok – that she knows he loves her and doesn’t mean it.  He watches her sleep and threatens anyone else who might have emotion for her.  He tells her what she should and should not do, where she should and should not go, at age 17, because he is her protector.  And for teenagers everywhere, this was – maybe still is – the ultimate love story.

Fifty Shades of Grey, Christian Grey, Ana Steele50 Shades of Grey, made popular because of the following it gained back when it was Twilight fan fiction (50 Shades of Grey was written by a Twilight fan fiction blogger who changed the character names after receiving a book deal), has understandably similar manipulation given its origins.  It is about a man who contractually binds a woman to intercourse.  Who, when he punishes her for stepping out of line, is seen as understandable and even sexy.  Who, when he controls her waking life, is seen as pleasing or loving or even – what a theme here – protecting.  For grown women everywhere, THIS was the ultimate sexual love story.

And A New Day at Midnight combines these elements.  It takes the controlling and physically dangerous portions of a vampire in Twilight, wraps them up with graphic sexually violent manipulative scenes from 50 Shades, and it throws them together in a poorly written book.  As such, with ANY amount of good PR (though I’m not sure Bookkus is prepared to offer that), given the success of the two above books I see NO REASON why this book couldn’t be a smash hit, #1 best seller amongst teens and grown women.  And I find that scary.

The people who do love these stories seem to enjoy being swept up in the S&M nature of it all.  But there is a distinct difference between S&M (if done the right way, a healthy sexual relationship between two consenting adults) and abuse or control over one’s entire essence and being. These books unknowingly and dangerously portray the latter.  And I do mean it when I say dangerously, because with the popularity of these stories – demonstrated by this display of the 50 Shades of Grey release at Target – these are likely fantasies quickly internalized by females in the U.S.

50 Shades of Grey, Target, Release Date

The 50 Shades of Grey Release End Cap at Target This Week

The women I know who love books like 50 Shades seem entrenched by the descriptions of sexual encounters.  But I could never find myself entrenched, in 50 Shades or A New Day at Midnight (in fact, I often quickly flipped through Hiscox’s sexual episodes) because I don’t know how you separate the sexual encounter and the unhealthiness of the relationship that precedes and follows the encounter.  In truth, I don’t think you can – I’m not sure any of these readers could, meaning that I believe there is a good chance this unhealthy relationship is somewhere in any reader’s subconscious as they absorb a sexual fantasy.  In many cases, given the popularity of these books and movies, repeatedly absorb them.  And in what ways can that affect your real life relationships with love and sex?  If we are virtually all willing to agree that the Disney Princess Complex is real, why aren’t we having more honest conversations about the influence of Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey (and now, books like A New Day at Midnight deriving their core themes)?

There was a halfway interesting back-story in Hiscox’ book, about the devils’ child escaping hell carrying a book of curses that would be the only way to re-open the portal to hell.  There is another demon chasing them trying to obtain the book to bring his own wife back from the dead.  The problem is this paranormal story takes up about 20 pages of the 262 in the book.  Even at the end (I can’t believe I read this book through to the end), when it seems like it’s going to get really exciting – 2 armies clashing together over this fight for the curse that could bring hell to Earth – it’s over in less than 10 pages! Gathering up the armies and fighting it out took less than 10 pages.  Where was the climax? Where was the action? Then I got 2 pages of flat-out answers to any questions that might have been raised throughout the book, trying to quickly tie up any loose ends, just before the happily every after with the gypsy who imprisoned a girl and her permanent Stockholm Syndrome.

Bottom line: this book is full of the essence of an unhealthy relationship; but then, so was Twilight.  If you want some Twilight with an extra large dose of sex intertwined with your violence, I’d recommend it.  But please read with caution.

Louise Penny, The Cruelest Month, A Rule Against Murder

Murder Mystery Double Feature – The Cruelest Month and A Rule Against Murder, Louise Penny

I checked out both of these free books from the local library.  I was so excited, after placing a hold on them a week prior, to get them in time for being home on my couch all weekend recovering from a thoracic epidural.  (Which I was – “you’ll be a little sore” my ass.)

Louise Penny, A Rule Against Murder, The Cruelest Month, Chai Latte, Library

Sitting happily with my books and coffee in the library’s rose garden

Louise Penny is a beautiful writer.  She writes a series of mystery novels starring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache.  Her stories aren’t meant to be thrillers or riddled with suspense, and they don’t read as if they are.  In fact her first book, Still Life, moved deliberately slowly and beautifully.  The end was a little overdone compared to the pace of the rest of the book, but I was already taken with her nonetheless. I decided to try out the 2nd book and decide whether I would move forward with the series.  A Fatal Grace was similar, but introduced a story arc involving the main character and themes of betrayal and that thin line between right and wrong (or if such a thing like right and wrong can exist in a world of grey) that was intriguing enough to check out the next 2 books simultaneously.

Louise Penny

Louise Penny

Most of Penny’s books take place in a small town near Quebec called Three Pines, and while a Rule Against Murder takes place nearby, it still includes Three Pines elements and characters.  In The Cruelest Months, Penny writes, “Three Pines was never forgotten.  But it was only ever found by people lost.”  I feel this way about finding her books – sick and tired, reading Penny’s books feels like coming up for fresh air.  Finding a decent murder mystery is not an easy task.  For every Louise Penny, there are 5…well, I’m sure we’ll get to those eventually.

One of the things I enjoy most (and which interestingly appears to be controversial amongst her reader’s reviews) is that Louise Penny doesn’t necessarily choose a narrator.  While the central figure is definitely the Chief Inspector, you get a look at each character’s history, thought process, emotional responses – and the true brilliance is that Penny accomplishes that without making the story feel convoluted, over-done or confusing at any turn.  She writes as if it were effortless to devote just the right amount of time to each character appearing in her books.

In The Cruelest Month, Penny uses the Chief Inspector to explain the tactic employed to hunt murderers in each of her books: “He gathered feelings.  He collected emotions. Because murder was deeply human.  It wasn’t about what people did.  No, it was about how they felt, because that’s where it all started.  Some feeling that had once been human and natural had twisted. Become grotesque.  Had turned sour and corrosive until its very container had been eaten away. Until the human barely existed.”  This theme isn’t one that Penny needs to so blatantly spell out for the reader the way that she does in the quote above, as it is evident in the way her stories unfold.  But I appreciate this main theme because for me it feels as though Penny is coming down on the side of nurture in the nature/nurture debate of murder.   Rather than attempt to achieve the spectacular or outlandish in her mysteries, Penny takes a journey into the motives that could push anyone, in the right social circumstances, to a commit such a human act as murder. (Likewise, a biologist could argue that Penny’s fixation on emotions actually brings her down on the nature side – still, I like to think if it came down to a heated debate, Penny and I would be on the same side here.)

Although formulaic in the hunting tactic and writing style, Penny provides new running social themes in each book.  These themes are what consume much of her longer narratives and conversations throughout each separate story.

Cruelest Month, Louise Penny, Book Cover

In the Cruelest Month, a central topic was not only how our core beliefs (religious and likewise) impact our relationships with one another, but also how our relationships with one another shake our core beliefs.  And perhaps the greatest pleasure of that particular mystery was watching these characters’ convictions unfold and develop throughout the tale.  While knowing the human nature beneath the developing belief systems was what made them beautiful and intriguing, you simultaneously know that it is that very human nature in one such system that sparked the end of someone’s life.

A Rule Against Murder, Louise Penny, Book ReviewIn A Rule Against Murder, Penny explores family dynamics and the secrets that we keep from one another. Most importantly, she explores the ways in which our secrets actually make us more human – so often they are the very essence of our motivations and choices.  And yet because we keep them as secrets, those deeply human portions of ourselves can also change our exterior, the part we allow others to see, into someone we don’t recognize – someone who may even be at deep odds with our true emotional selves.  The secrets we keep both enrich and destroy us.

A hidden secret that warped one character’s exterior into something completely oppositional to her emotional life  involved severe neuralgia, and I couldn’t help but feel pangs of familiarity – how often is my anger or happiness masking pain? How often is yours, even if it isn’t neuralgia?

Penny’s books only really hold one major flaw for me, and unfortunately, it is the last thing that I take away from the book – how the ending is presented.  Her endings are often so out of proportion with the slow pace and thematic elements of her books, taking outrageous steps to reach the end.  In the Cruelest Months, the killer gives a long monologue describing in great detail transgressions and motive for murder to a room full of towns people, including the Chief Inspector.  This not only seems unrealistic for books so focused on genuine human character, but it also gives the reader no credit; every explanation to the last t is crossed, despite the fact that so many of those connections could have been inferred by the reader after developing hundreds of pages of deep relationships with the characters.  If Penny worried that the reader may infer incorrectly, she might have tried to draw the brief line from point A to point B, rather than provide a description of both points and every inch of the line in between.

Similarly, at the end of A Rule Against Murder Penny spends an entire chapter referencing actions of “the murderer” after the Chief Inspector has figured it out, not yet wanting the reader to have confirmation – to the point where I thought aha!  Once the name is provided the rest will fill in.  But no, despite keeping the name dangling back for a full chapter, Penny still spends the entirety of the chapter following with a long narrative from said murderer, making sure there are no connections drawn by the reader yet again.  I believe that readers of murder mysteries want to feel like we have come upon our “aha!” moment, and Penny strips the reader of that with her detailed who-dunnit descriptions.  And what’s more, with a writer like Penny who has such depth, I would imagine (though could never know for sure) that her readers even more so have the desire and ability to draw connections than those looking for a suspenseful edge of their seat mystery with no ends left untied.

My other annoyance in this particular case came from reading the books back-to-back: the story arc mentioned above that began with greater detail in Penny’s second Armand Gamache book comes to a semi-climax in the end of The Cruelest Month. And, while yet unresolved, it is virtually unmentioned in A Rule Against Murder.  Being an intriguing insight into the life and motivations of the Chief Inspector, as well as a story line holding one of the most interesting underlying themes of her books, I can only hope that Penny revives her story arc in the next installment.

Library, stacks Despite the overdone endings, Penny has a way of writing that draws you in to both the story and the world she creates.  It is for writing like that, transformative, true, beautiful, and filled with social, human themes, that despite her endings I will delight in the day that the library has Louise Penny’s next book available.

Lidocaine Patches

Neuralgia and Free Books – Why Blog?

I guess in this first one I’m here to explain why I’m writing a blog about reviewing free books.

I’m sick. It’s so random.  It can be hilarious, the randomness of it all. Usually. Sometimes it’s sad in the way that wallowing is required for any truly fucked up, weird thing that happens in your late 20s.  (Or any age?) But mostly it’s just this odd thing.

Lidocaine Patches Lidocaine Patches, 7 P.M. Daily

I have postherpetic neuralgia. It is extreme pain/damage in your nerves that occurs after shingles to a small group of people, who are almost exclusively elderly. I’m the random inclusion.  The rare and the random and the curious. I was the epitome of health, until I wasn’t – the same way you were whoever you used to be, until you weren’t.

I have been in pain for 24 hours/day for 2 years and 5 months, on my upper right side, in my sternum, around 3 ribs and hooking into my spine. It is in.fucking.sane to actually see that in writing. That is insane!

I cringe at the thought of my chest being touched and I haven’t worn a real bra in at least a year. It would be depressing, it SHOULD be depressing, (sometimes I let it get depressing), but it can’t be. Or I’ll lose the essence of myself.  My mother gave me the cheesiest hope figurine I’ve ever seen and it has become one of my most cherished possessions. I look at it everyday. It’s almost like having shingles transported me to the mindset of someone old enough to love hope figurines.

Hope Figurine Hope Figurine

There are 500 things about me that are so much more interesting than a chronic pain condition (you should hear the one about how I ended up in California not quite of my own accord – I’m from Ohio), but it’s the thing that gets final say at the end of the day. It decides if we are going out or staying in, if we can have a drink, if we will be bold and meet new people or if we need to hermit for months on end and lose touch with all the people we have already met. Pain is quite pushy in this relationship.

But one thing it never seems to get the best of me on is reading. No matter how much my right arm ceases to function in a day (frequently), I can still read a book. Not only that, but I can also find pain relief in a book – in the briefest of moments when my mind is consumed in a story that doesn’t revolve around my connection to pain.

I don’t spend money on many frivolous things (I hate shopping and I don’t have ENOUGH shoes because of it), but from far before I ever had a pain condition I have had a ridiculously large book and movie collection. Except here’s the thing about devouring books when you are in pain: pain is expensive! In exact numbers, pain is approximately $9,000 in 2013, $7,800 in 2014, and a surpassed mark of $2,000 so far in 2015. Those are my out of pocket portions, not the insurance totals.  I didn’t necessarily seek out free books when I noticed those numbers, but I did sort of wake up and realize one day I had no need to pay for these wonderful pain relieving things anymore. Amazon Prime was giving them away with my account, Good Reads was hooking me into ARCs, those who love and care for me were sending me what they believed I would enjoy (in the only efforts they knew they could contribute to assisting with my illness), and the library was just down the street.

Books, bed, book headboard One of my first adult purchases – a bed with a headboard that can hold books

I’m a sociologist by training, and ask any of us – we can’t even watch an episode of TV anymore without thinking about the implication of the gender dynamics involved. And it’s with that mind that I take a spin at analysis of books (and life) and give thinking about pain a rest. A much, much needed rest.

This blog contains reviews of the many free books I now find myself surrounded with : the good, the amazing, and the truly, truly terrible. It’s the connection of these books to society and my current condition, and in truth how wound up together all 3 eventually become. Maybe I’ll stay focused. Maybe I’ll end up telling you that rambling tale of how I ended up in California. Either way, I’m glad you’re along for the ride to my (maybe) sanity.