an eclectic mix of really good books

Lately, I’ve been reading books from a variety of genres. Some of my recent reads include a non-fiction book about astrophysics, a science fiction book about quantum physics, a spiritual non-fiction selection about the meaning of life, and a collection of other fiction novels that range from YA to serious contemporary literature. These are all 4+ star books — in my opinion, of course, your mileage may vary 🙂 — with only one exception which is noted below in my review.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

This is one of the most interesting and entertaining books I’ve read in quite some time. It’s definitely a science fiction novel, exploring the what-if’s of quantum physics and the multiverse and yet it’s also a mystery novel.

Oh, and this is completely unrelated to the Dark Matter tv series on SyFy.

I listened to the first third the book and then switched back and forth between reading and listening for the rest. The audio narration was very good, and I’m not usually a big fan of listening to books. I was driving for 5 hours the day I started this book, and listening really made that drive a lot more fun.

schrodinger's catQuantum physics is like rocket science – super complicated if you don’t understand it, and even if you do, well, still complicated. Crouch does a great job of explaining the multiverse in a very accessible way. This book is sort of a mind trip and very scary to think about.  At least, I thought so.

Back to the story. Jason Dessen is walking home when he is abducted by a man wearing a geisha mask. When he wakes up, he’s surrounded by strangers in hazmat suits. They all seem to know who he is and have been eagerly awaiting his return.  Jason, however, has no memory of any of these people, or the lab in which he’s being held.

The story follows Jason on his search to return home and solve the mystery of who kidnapped him. Let’s just say this novel reminds me of Schrodinger’s cat, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing, however, I loved this book. 

Each new twist and turn takes Jason beyond where my imagination normally goes, and it was a thrilling ride while it lasted.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, was imprisoned in Nazi death camps (including Auschwitz) during the Holocaust. This book is part memoir and discusses his imprisonment and the conditions of life in the camps, and part psychology text about logotherapy. Logotherapy is founded on Frankl’s belief that the purpose of life is to find meaning.  

“Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as form a clear and precise picture of it”

One of the most interesting things about this book is the way that Frankl has told his story in a very detached manner. His original intention was to publish it anonymously, and he tells the story merely to support his belief that man’s purpose in life is the search for meaning. Frankl recounts the horrors of the concentration camps with little emotion, and even mentions that he was able to disassociate his own emotions from his current conditions by finding meaning in observing human behavior under those conditions.

Frankl believes his meaning of his life is to help others find the meaning of theirs. This is gave rise to Logotherapy, which Frankl refers to as “a meaning-centered psychotherapy.”

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

I don’t care for the title of this book.  I’m not in a hurry, but I don’t have a background in Physics. I would have preferred a title like Astrophysics for Everyday People.

Despite not liking the title, I did like the book. I felt it was very accessible and something that almost any adult could pick up and read to learn about a little bit about Astrophysics. It’s a nice non-fiction companion to Dark Matter.

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Sanderson wrote one of my favorite fantasy series, Mistborn. As such, I had high expectations for this book, and the whole series. 

The Way of Kings got off to a really slow start for me. I think I read about 1/4 and had decided to give up on it. Yet I kept coming back to it, but always moving on to something else. This book/series is all about world building, and it’s a bit chaotic at the start. 

However, it does coalesce into a stunning tale of a world in peril, where hidden dark forces are at work, and men slave in empty battles for a war they cannot win.

If you enjoy epic / high fantasy, and have patience to navigate through the muddled beginning, this is an excellent novel.  I am looking forward to reading the next in the series.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I didn’t know this was going be a TV series on Hulu when I started reading it. If I had known, I probably would have skipped the book and just watched the show.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel about an alternative history, where the United States becomes a monotheocracy, where women are not allowed to have bank accounts, money or own anything, and are basically belong to men. 

The story is told from the point of view of Offred, a young woman who, under the new society’s rules, has been forced to become a Handmaid.  A Handmaid must live with a man and his wife for the sole purpose of bearing them a child. If she does not succeed within a certain timeframe, she will be placed in a new home. After three homes, if the Handmaid hasn’t produced a healthy, living baby, she is declared an Unwoman and sentenced to the Colonies for the remainder of her life.

This is a feminist’s nightmare, and the entire premise is very scary. While it’s very though-provoking and interesting, the characters seemed a bit flat to me. The novel reads like a memoir, as though you’ve discovered Offred’s secret diary about her time as a Handmaid. However, it seemed like it was told from a distance, and it was missing the depth and emotional connection that a story like this requires to be truly compelling. For these reasons, this is a 3 star book. 

And now that I know there’s a TV series, my recommendation is watch the show, skip the book. (Note: I’ve only seen the first episode of the show, it started within a few days of when I finished the book. I will go back and watch it at some point though!)

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

I loved this book so much.  Laini Taylor does not disappoint.  Strange the Dreamer presents a marvelous fantasy world, complete with magic, fantastical beasts, ghosts and gods and goddesses. And it’s not only all of that, but also the story of the underdog-turned-hero, and like many others, I’m a sucker for those.

“On the second Sabbat of Twelfthmoon, in the city of Weep, a girl fell from the sky. Her skin was blue, her blood was red.”

Our main character, Strange, is a lonely man, a junior librarian who grew up an orphan. Strange is obsessed with the lost city of Weep. As a child, he, and everyone else, knew the name of the mythical city, but one day that name was stolen. In it’s place, the name Weep was left. Strange spends his life learning and dreaming about The Unseen City, despite teasing from everyone he knows.

One miraculous day, Strange’s life is turned upside down when the Godslayer arrives seeking help. The Godslayer has a unknown mission, and while he will not accept Strange as an official member of the delegation, he takes him on as a sort of assistant.

Crossing the desert with the Godslayer and his band of warriors, Strange strives to be useful to his companions, and to learn as much as he can about his beloved city Weep.

It only gets better once they arrive in The Unseen City!

It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover

This one almost falls into the chic lit genre, but it deals with a very serious topic — domestic violence. I wasn’t sure how I would feel reading about domestic violence and I was hesitant to read this one.

It Ends with Us starts out like a romance novel. Slowly, we learn about Lily’s past, her parents’ relationship, and her unfolding relationship with Ryle. Ryle is handsome and mysterious, and Lily can’t help but fall for him, even though he insists he’s not interested in anything serious.

A tough read, with some graphic scenes, this was a gut wrenching, tear-jerker. This book made me understand why leaving a domestic violence situation us not always easy or as simple as those on the outside would believe. Despite my hesitation, it turns out this was really a great book. 

What’s next?  I’m currently (re-)reading Wizard and Glass, book 4 in Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower saga. The whole series is about 4,000 pages, so this is no small undertaking.

 

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13 Reasons Why

You know, watching a tv show about teen suicide doesn’t sound that fun. And it’s not. What it is is emotional, thought-provoking, and heart-wrenching. Honestly, I was expecting it to be sad, maybe a little disturbing, and I was not expecting to have such a strong reaction. 

13 Reasons Why

I had heard of the novel a long time ago and forgotten about it. After hearing about the Netflix series, I discovered it was already on the “to read” list. I decided not to read the book. I thought maybe I’d enjoy like the TV show better. And initially, I wasn’t sure if I liked the show or not. For those of you that don’t know, the plot device of the show (and novel) is 13 audio tapes left by Hannah, the suicide victim. Each tape explains one of 13 reasons why she killed herself and each is tied to a person. Each person is supposed to listen to the tapes and then pass them on the next person. If not, Hannah has left a second copy with someone who will make them public. This naturally lends itself to 13 episodes of the series, and at first, I thought it was one of those annoying plot things that you end up hating, however, by the end, I felt it worked really well to tell the story. As the audience, we are hearing the tapes (and seeing flashbacks) along with Clay. This is interwoven with current events.

Now, here’s the part where there might be some spoilers so consider yourself warned!

Clay. Clay makes the show for me. Dylan Minnette does an amazing job, and I think it’s his emotional distress, his pain, that caused me so much pain while watching this.

Clay was friends with Hannah, they worked together at the local movie theater, and he likes/liked her. But he’s awkward around girls, and he doesn’t/didn’t know how to tell her he likes her. This is clear throughout the show.

It takes him a long time to make his way through all the tapes, the other kids all listened in one or two days. So why wouldn’t he do the same? There are several points where he has to stop. It’s too much for him. It’s painful, and he misses Hannah, and it hurts him to listen to these things that happened to her, things that cannot be changed, events that are out of his control.

This seems like an honest reaction, and given the content of some of the tapes, taking an emotional breather seems like a reasonable thing to do. As Clay is listening to the tapes, he envisions Hannah, and those visions then start to go beyond just imagining her as she describes past events, and turn into nightmares and hallucinations. I don’t think I could draw it out like that, but they give him creditable reasons and an emotional state for doing so.

As I mentioned earlier, a show about teen suicide — not fun? Well the trigger warnings for this don’t stop with suicide. The list also includes bullying, abuse, drugs, rape, violence, stalking and probably more.

There is criticism of the show (and the book) for not portraying Hannah as a realistic suicidal person. I agree that she doesn’t come across as what I would typically think of as suicidal, but I’m not an expert (and I’m sure many with this opinion are not either).  However — I think the portrayal of Hannah is “as seen through Clay’s eyes”, since we are hearing the tapes along with him. A lot of it feels like his memories of Hannah, and, remember, he didn’t know she was suicidal until she killed herself. And also, part of the point is that it’s often not obvious when someone is suicidal. 

“You don’t know what goes on in anyone’s life but your own.”

The other kids are messed up too. I think this is a strong reminder that everyone has their own life, and you don’t know what another person is living through or living with. That doesn’t make it ok to be a bully, a stalker, or a rapist though! Have compassion for other people, and remember, they don’t know what you’re going through unless you tell them, and you don’t know about their life either.

Hannah’s 13 reasons span a broad-range of “wrongs” committed against her. Some are seriously criminal things, and some are just high-school bullying. I read one article that said it was unrealistic that Hannah would be upset by being listed as “best ass” on best/worst list that was passed around the school. Saying there’s nothing wrong with this is saying it’s ok to objectify women. She gets hit on, called easy and a slut because of it. Seems justifiable to be upset to me.

I still don’t understand Tony’s character, and why he didn’t immediately take the tapes to Hannah’s parents or the police. I know he says he was trying to honor her wishes, but clearly — at some point there’s a line between honoring a dead girl’s wishes and being complicit in covering up serious crimes (like rape). Instead, he dutifully follows the tapes from person to person.  There are moments when you think maybe some of them (any of them, it just takes one) will see reason and come clean, and of course, it wouldn’t be a tv show if these things all happened at the beginning. There’d be no show!

“Life is unpredictable and control is just an illusion. And it makes us feel small and powerless.”

Hannah was a bit of a bully and very selfish. She caused a lot of pain by making those tapes and asking them to passed around. She could have left a note (or a tape) that was more to the point for her parents. I think she wanted to give her suicide meaning and to feel like she had control in the end, even though it’s not reasonable to assume she’d have any control once she was dead.

There’s a lot of hard things to watch in this show. I wasn’t expecting the rape scenes, or the graphic suicide scene. It was not easy to watch, it was painful, and that’s probably the point. I can’t imagine what watching this would be like for someone who’s been through those things. Sure, I was bullied when I was a kid, but I have never been suicidal and I have never been raped. I can only imagine, and honestly, I’d rather not.

The last few episodes (starting around tape 11) is where the emotions really started to hit me. I was mad at Hannah for all the mess she created with the tapes, and for what she was putting Clay through. The poor kid really cared for her, and he was doing the best he could. She even says on his tape “Clay, Helmet, your name does not belong on this list.”

I’m not usually one to cry at the movies (or commercials, I’ve heard some people do that!) … Occasionally, I’ll get a little teary-eyed, but unless there’s a dog dying, you’re probably not going to see me cry while watching a movie (or tv show). And yet….. somehow this show had me bawling like a baby, time and time again.

“It has to get better. The way we treat each other and look out for each other. It has to get better somehow.”

Hopefully, more people are talking about suicide (and rape and all the other horrible things in this show) and what can be done to prevent them. I’d love to tell you that I have some great ideas, and while I don’t, you can bet that I’ll be thinking about it, and that I’ll be looking for ways to help. 

How can it get better if it doesn’t start with us?


If you are thinking about suicide, or need help, please talk to someone. 

Suicide Prevention Resource Center

1-800-273-TALK

 

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fall / winter reading update

A Darker Shade of Magic

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

I highly enjoyed this novel and am looking forward to reading the next in the series.

Kell is one of the last of his kind, a magician able to travel between the parallel universes. Red London, Grey London, and White London co-exist side by side, with very few aware of the existence of anything but their own city.

The story follows Kell on his adventures, as he tries to protect the magic, and the cities, from the evil that has escaped from what remains of Black London.

A Man Called Ove by Fredik Backman

This one is hard to write about. Ove is a man who is hard to love, and certainly easy to dislike (if not hate) at the start of the novel. He is cantankerous, ornery, and quite rigid in his ways.

The novel paints a picture of a lonely, sad man. He’s just lost his job, and he appears to have no family or friends. Throughout the story, we learn more of Ove, his life, how he lived, and his neighbors.

Ultimately, this is a moving story about community and showing the reader that not everyone is what they seem at first glance. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but my friends have said it’s very good as well.

A Shade of Vampire by Bella Forrest

A Shade of Vampire is the first of many in an ongoing saga. I didn’t realize how many there were until after reading the first (39 and still coming??!)

The series is fun, and a great way to take a break from reality. The first 7 novels tell the story of Sophia and Derek, and after that the series introduces a new set of main characters. I’ve only read the first 7, and may continue in the future. I’m holding off for now, because I don’t want to be sucked in for another 7 books!

The main story is about Sophia, a moderately normal 17-year-old girl, who’s kidnapped and held hostage by vampires. The vampire coven is living in secret, hiding from humans. Sophia and Derek (a leader of the coven) fall in love, and the series follows what happens.

YearYear of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes

I loved this book. Shonda writes openly about her insecurities, weight issues, and shyness. She transformed her life by setting a goal to say yes for one year. The goal was to say yes to things that were outside of her comfort zone and that she would normally avoid.

This is a motivating look at how simple decisions can drastically change your life.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Inheritance, #1) by N.K. Jemisin

This was one of the best books I read in 2016. Jemisin takes a unique approach to writing fantasy, and it’s refreshing to read a book that’s different and creative.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms centers around Yeine Darr, and what happens when she is mysteriously summoned to the ruling city of Sky by her estranged grandfather after her mother dies unexpectedly.

When Yeine arrives, she is pitted against her cousins in a battle for the throne. Having grown up far way from Sky, in large part due to being biracial and considered beneath or less than the “pure” Amari, she is out of her element.

Sky is a bright, shiny, ethereal place, full of light (and worship of Itempas, the Bright Skyfather). And yet, the ruling class is malicious, racist, and quite evil. It’s a great juxtaposition, and there’s many other things that follow along with this within the series.

There’s lots of mythology, intrigue, and plot twists in this novel and the 2 other books in the trilogy. There’s a plethora of gods and godlings, and between them and the humans, it’s a wonder anyone is alive.

Love Warrior: A Memoir by Glennon Doyle Melton

Glennon Doyle Melton has written an emotional, riveting, and raw look into her life and struggles. She touches on many sensitive subjects like eating disorders, alcoholism, drug abuse, and marital issues.

This is a story about finding oneself, rediscovery, and ultimately acceptance and forgiveness. I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading, but I was soon captivated by her story and her willingness to reveal such intimate details of her life. Melton has received a lot of criticism about just how much of her life she shared, and about events that happened in her life after the book was written. However, in my opinion, none of that detracts from the book.

This is a memoir that you read and you think “huh, this could have been fiction and it would be have been interesting, but it’s REAL and it’s fascinating.”

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