Sunday, September 18, 2016

Recently Read: In-Depth Reviews - September 2016 Edition

What a week! I forgot how exhausting it is to sit in conference rooms for hours. I also forgot how exhausting it is to walk around big cities. I got out early on Wednesday, and, according to Eric's Fitbit, we walked over 8 miles that afternoon/evening! I know that's nothing for some people, but we don't typically walk that much. (And, to be perfectly honest, I've been completely blowing off exercise for the last month or so, so it was rough.)

I'll probably post some pictures from the trip next month for Kristen and Gretchen's link-up. I got really behind on blog stuff and didn't even participate this time around, so I definitely don't want to let the link-up slip by again!

I promise I'll get to the in-depth reviews, but, since I was already talking about link-ups, I wanted to say a couple more things before I dive in.

First, I wanted to say thank you to the person who added me to Steph and Jana's link-up this week! I'm not sure which of you guys did this for me, but it was greatly appreciated!

Secondly, I'll be working my way through the other posts in the link-up and responding to comments throughout this week, so you should be hearing from me soon.

Okay, now it's finally time to get to my in-depth book reviews!

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Child of God by Cormac McCarthy - 197 pages

Completed on 08/09/2016

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Sometimes I'll finish the last page of a book, close it, and then think, "I have no idea how I feel about this." That was the case with Child of God.

If you're reading this, you probably already know that I tend to gravitate toward dark books. It may be surprising, then, that this was my first Cormac McCarthy novel. (I've seen the film versions of both The Road and No Country for Old Men, though.)

I don't really know what I was expecting (other than a dark and possibly disturbing story), but this slim little book really packed a punch. Lester Ballard is one of the creepiest, most fucked up characters I've ever had the pleasure (if you can even use a word like "pleasure" there) of reading about. For me, he made this book.

So why did I only give this book 3 stars?

My biggest issue with Child of God was the style in which it was written. This is kind of hard to explain because I'm not saying that I think Cormac McCarthy is a bad writer. (For the record, I don't think that at all.) What I am saying is that it was very difficult for me to read a book in which the characters from rural Tennessee spoke in very thick accents. Again, this is kind of hard to explain because obviously there are no "accents" when you're reading an actual paper book (as opposed to an audiobook). But when things are written like this: "He went and borry'd Squire Helton's tractor and went back over there and thowed a rope over the old cow's head and took off on the tractor hard as he could go," it makes for difficult reading. (At least for me.) I tried to find a better example than that of a sentence that legitimately caused me to pause and wonder what the fuck he was trying to say, but I know the use of a word like "borry'd" gave me at least a moment's pause ... So that example still gets the job done.

I'll admit that choosing to write the story in this way gave it a more authentic feel ... So clearly McCarthy knew what he was doing when he opted to write things like "borry'd" and "would of done" and so on. But, like I said, it made for difficult reading. This book was just under 200 pages, and it took me 3 days to read it. And while I did have other things to do (like go to work, for instance), I made plenty of time to read during those 3 days. It was the language that really slowed me down.

My other main problem with this book was that I felt like it lacked direction. I've read several books like this, in which the author basically just describes the day to day life of a certain character over a period of time. That's not to say that nothing happens during the book (trust me, a lot of things happen in this book), but when I read a book like this, I always find myself disappointed by the end. I guess I'm just expecting something a little more (or even just different) than what I've actually been given. Like I said, I've read a few books like this so I understand that many writers choose to write this way ... But it's not my favorite type of book. I doubt I'd ever give a book like that more than 3 stars, honestly. There's just nothing gripping me, making me want to pick up the book and find out what happens next.

As I said at the beginning of this review, I really don't know how I feel about Child of God. I didn't love it, but even still I didn't feel like I wasted my time reading it. If nothing else, I was introduced to quite possibly one of the most depraved characters ever. If, like me, you're open to dark and disturbing novels with creepy, horrific characters, this might be worth a read. If that's not your thing, I'd definitely recommend skipping it.

What She Knew by Gilly Macmillan - 467 pages

Completed on 08/20/2016

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I was really excited about finally getting around to reading this book. I was on the waiting list at the library for a while, then I paused all of my holds for the Read My Books challenge (though I'd already paused a few previously since I didn't want to get overwhelmed with a bunch of books I couldn't renew and didn't have time to read in the allotted time), and then the stars aligned (or something less dramatic) and I realized I could use this book for a category in Erin's latest book challenge ... So I took advantage and resumed my place in "line" for What She Knew at the library.

As you've probably already guessed from my 3 star rating, this book didn't exactly live up to my expectations. It was most certainly not a bad book, and I definitely don't feel like I wasted my time on it ... But I also didn't love it the way I thought I would.

Before I get into my review any further, I feel like I should say that maybe I just chose the wrong time to try to read this book. I got really caught up in the Olympics this year, and Eric and I spent the majority of our evenings glued to the TV. I tried to read a little on commercials or if they were showing something I didn't care about as much, but a book like this really deserves more undivided attention than I was willing to give. And, as a result, I had a really hard time getting into it.

I don't think my issues with getting into this book were 100% related to the Olympics, though. Yes, that was definitely a factor ... I mean, there were some evenings when I didn't bother picking the book up at all because I was too busy watching the events on TV. However, I do think that if the book had really grabbed me, I could have made reading it more of a priority. (Unless gymnastics was on, of course. That's one of the only sports I genuinely care a lot about!) If I'm desperate to find out what happens next in a story, I'll stay up way too late to finish "just one more chapter" or find a way to sneak a few pages in while I'm cooking dinner or getting ready in the morning. And I didn't do that with this book.

It started off really strong. I read the first couple of chapters and thought, "I think I'm going to love this book." Unfortunately, my excitement sort of died down after that.

While I wouldn't say this book is at all boring, there were a few things that felt unnecessary, some of which dragged the pace of the story down to a slow crawl. And, while I appreciate that Gilly Macmillan didn't create superhuman detectives who could easily solve the crime, I feel like a thriller/suspense novel like this should never be moving at a snail's pace. There were several times when I found myself wondering if anything would ever be resolved, or if the detectives would just keep circling around the same few suspects.

As for the unnecessary additions, one of my biggest pet peeves in a novel is when an author throws in a subplot or even just a small bit of information that's supposed to be shocking or, at the very least, add to the story in some way ... And then it's either not really relevant to the rest of the story, not brought up again (except maybe in passing), and/or just sort of a "whomp whomp" moment. There were at least two instances of this in What She Knew. It's hard to really get into this too much without spoilers, but I'll say this: one of these things was very much a "whomp whomp" moment for me (not to mention really bizarre) and the other had me thinking, "This really isn't going to get more than a brief mention in the rest of the novel?" Both of these things annoyed me at least a little.

I enjoyed the book overall, though. It would fall under what Steph might call the "Passed the Time Just Fine" category. I wouldn't discourage anyone from reading it, I would consider reading more books by this author in the future, and I actually loved the fact that everything didn't just magically fall into place ... But it never truly captivated me.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach - 303 pages

Completed on 08/23/2016

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I don't read a lot of nonfiction. I wouldn't say I really dislike it, but I definitely prefer fiction. That being said, I've previously read and enjoyed two other books by Mary Roach (Stiff and Spook), and I was looking forward to reading her take on the science of sex.

I really like the way Roach approaches her subject matter. She somehow manages to explain things in a way that anyone can understand without completely dumbing it down. That's a rare feat. She also injects humor into her writing, which makes her books enjoyable and fun to read as opposed to dry and dull. (I work in the scientific field, but let's be honest here ... Scientific papers, journals, etc. are usually dry as fuck.)

Bonk isn't straight science, though. Roach discusses the history of sexual discovery as well as some current sex-based research. She even goes as far as volunteering for some of these studies herself! (And, really, how else could she be expected to know what goes on during these studies? Even people willing to volunteer for sex-based studies probably wouldn't want a random stranger in the room, asking invasive questions and jotting down notes that will later be used in a published book.)

I gave this book a 3 star rating because, to be honest, it's really tough for me to love a nonfiction book. I enjoy learning, and I enjoy reading about topics that interest me ... But, for me, simply enjoying a book warrants a 3 star rating. If I couldn't put it down or was just completely blown away by the information, it may have been worthy of 4 stars. That wasn't the case here. (Though, as I said, I did enjoy reading it.)

I did know a few of the things she discussed prior to reading this book, but I still felt like I learned a lot. This definitely isn't a book to get you in the mood (seriously, there are discussions of penises being cut off and the artificial insemination of pigs, among other things), but if you've ever been at least a little curious about sexual physiology, sexual disorders, the history of sexual discovery, and/or modern sexual research, Bonk is worth checking out.

Thank You for Smoking by Christopher Buckley - 272 pages

Completed on 08/29/2016

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This is satire at its best.

With Nick Naylor, Christopher Buckley has created the kind of character I love to hate. He's a quick-witted, arrogant tobacco lobbyist with an answer for everything. He's a member of the self-proclaimed MOD (Merchants of Death) Squad, along with his friends Bobby Jay, a spokesperson for the firearms industry, and Polly, a spokesperson for alcohol. He's sleazy. He doesn't mind "lying for a living." And still I was completely captivated by Nick and his story, even cheering for him in the end.

Thank You for Smoking is set in the early 90s. Reading it in 2016, it's almost as though it's set in a completely different world. Remember when cigarettes were regularly advertised? Remember when people could smoke in pretty much any restaurant? I do. But, honestly, that seems like a million years ago. (And thank goodness for that! I'm somewhat allergic to cigarette smoke, so I prefer to avoid it if at all possible.)

The humor in this book is dry and biting. If you like that sort of thing (and I do), you'll probably find it pretty hilarious. It's about as un-PC as you can get, so it's a little surprising that I enjoyed it as much as I did. (Especially since they take more than a few stabs at "bleeding heart liberals.") I wouldn't say that I'm easily offended, but some things do get under my skin. That being said, this style of writing/book sort of lends itself to being offensive ... And somehow it works.

I gave this book 4 stars because while it's not perfect, it was pretty damn enjoyable. It's over-the-top and zany and I loved (almost) every second.

Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life by Roald Dahl - 179 pages

Completed on 08/30/2016

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This was my final book for The Semi-Charmed Summer Book Challenge, and I finished it with one day to spare!

In all honesty, if I hadn't chosen it for one of the categories in the challenge, I would never have picked this book up. While I was a fan of Roald Dahl's books as a child, I wasn't sure how I'd feel about his adult fiction. And since Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life is a book of short stories, I was even less sure that I'd like it. After all, short story collections aren't really my thing.

When I first started this book, I kept thinking, "Oh God. This is terrible." The first story was about breeding cattle. Breeding cattle. Let me tell you, I'm not even remotely interested in reading a short fictional story about breeding cattle. And, since all of the stories involve the same basic group of characters (and are all set in rural England), I was worried that every story would be just as boring and awful.

As you can probably tell from my 3 star rating, that was thankfully not the case. While I wouldn't say I loved this book (or even really liked it), two of the stories in particular, "Parson's Pleasure" and "The Champion of the World," made it worth the short amount of time it took to finish it. These stories were completely absurd, but they made me laugh. (And that's really what I was hoping for from this story collection. Well, that and the satisfaction of officially completing yet another reading challenge.)

I think the best way to describe Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life is to compare it to listening to stories told by a grandparent about their crazy youthful adventures. It brought back memories of my own grandparents sharing stories from their childhoods and from the early years of their marriage. (Both of my grandparents have passed away, so these memories were a little bittersweet ... But I was glad to be reminded of them.) Many of these stories are silly (and sometimes slightly horrific), and, while this definitely won't be making it onto my list of favorites, it was a fine way to pass the time.

The Merciless by Danielle Vega - 279 pages

Completed on 09/03/2016

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The Merciless is one of those books that I knew I'd have a hard time rating. Writing the review didn't seem too difficult ... It didn't live up to my expectations, and I know I can easily explain the reasons for that. But the rating? I just didn't know how I could (or maybe should) rate this one.

I waivered between 2 and 3 stars (and occasionally even 1 star because some parts of this book were just completely stupid), but, as you can see, I decided to go with the 2 star rating. While the book was a quick read that kept me turning the pages to find out what horrible things these awful girls would do to each other next, it wasn't good.

YA books in general can be kind of hit or miss for me. Some (like The Sea of TranquilityAll the Bright Places, and I'll Give You the Sun) are amazing. Others ... Not so much.

The weird thing about The Merciless is that it's actually kind of dark and twisted, but it's written in a way that suggests it's for a very young audience. Danielle Vega may have been influenced by the works of Stephen King (as it claims in the author blurb in the back of the book), but unfortunately her writing style is more R.L. Stine Goosebumps than The Shining. (And there's really nothing wrong with the Goosebumps books. I loved those as a kid. But ... That's kind of the point. I loved them as a kid. As an adult, I'm pretty sure I'd find them cheesy and silly.)

I was really disappointed in this book. I wasn't expecting it to be a great work of literature or anything, but I was really looking forward to reading it. Instead of thrilling me, though, I found myself rolling my eyes throughout the novel, wondering what ridiculous thing might happen next. While I didn't think this book would be overly realistic, I felt like I was in bad teenage cheesy horror flick territory (with some religious stuff thrown in just for fun). It was what I imagined would happen if you crossed The Secret Life of the American Teenager with Mean GirlsThe Craft, and every exorcism movie ever made. Alone, those things are fine. (Yes, even The Secret Life of the American Teenager. It's a total guilty pleasure, but it's so awful it's almost good. Almost.) Together? Not so much.

My biggest issue with The Merciless, though, was that I can't imagine that any teen girl would behave like the girls in this book. Maybe I'm old and naive (after all, 32 is closer to 40 than 16), but I just can't imagine that even the bitchiest teenager would act like these girls. (Especially Riley, the very popular ringleader of the group.) I believe that teens can be cruel to one another, I believe that teens can (and will) start vicious rumors about one another, and I believe that teen girls can, in fact, be merciless when it comes to their enemies (whether real or imagined). However, I find it hard to believe that any teenage girl would combine religious fanaticism with typical "don't touch my man" bitchiness and kidnap a girl, tie her up in the basement of an abandoned house, and torture her for an entire night in an effort to "exorcise" the demonic forces living inside her.

Yes, I knew the basic premise before I picked up the book, but I was hoping for more of a psychological thriller. (Or, at the very least, horror that was actually scary.) The problem wasn't really the premise, but the execution. The motivations were juvenile at best, and stupid at worst. I think this could have been a really great story about religious fanaticism in a small town or, at the very least, an interesting take on the power of peer pressure. Instead it just felt like a silly B-horror teen slasher flick. And, actually, that's probably not a terrible thing since it's apparently being adapted into a film.

Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield - 219 pages

Completed on 09/05/2016

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Years ago I received this book as a gift from a friend, and, for whatever reason, I never bothered to read it. It could be the fact that this is a memoir (and, as I mentioned before, I'm not always the biggest fan of nonfiction), or it could just be that I've gotten distracted with a bunch of other books over the years (especially once I got my Omaha library card last year!). Either way, it's been sitting on one of my bookshelves for years and, as I said in my summary post earlier this week, Erin's latest challenge inspired me to finally read it.

I shouldn't have waited so long to pick this up! Rob Sheffield writes about love and loss and music in a way that I wish I could. It's heartbreaking and touching and funny. I cried several times while reading, but I also found myself smiling over the musical references and sweet memories he shared.

It's always difficult to write reviews for memoirs. I mean, who am I to judge whether or not someone's life is worth reading about? I guess I always assume that if someone felt compelled to write a book about their life experiences, it's probably not going to read: "Every Friday night I put on my yoga pants, grab a pint of Ben & Jerry's, and have a Netflix movie marathon with my dog." (Or something similar.) There's nothing wrong with a Friday night like that (actually that's pretty close to my typical Friday nights, minus the dog), but I doubt many people would buy a book filled with anecdotes like that. It just wouldn't make sense. For a blog, yes. For a book, no.

That being said, I really enjoyed this book. (Though you may have guessed that from my 4 star rating.) There's something lovely about reading someone's love story, even if it has a sad, tragic ending.

And then there's the music. If you've spent any time at all on my blog, you've probably noticed that I really love music. Rob Sheffield gets music. (And he should, considering he's a music journalist.) I especially love that he has a soft spot for 90's music. (And again, he should. Everyone should! Well, I think so, anyway.)

Everything in his life was coupled with music, and that's something I could really relate to. I can't hear certain songs without instantly being transported back to a different time, a different place. For me, good memories, bad memories, and even the most mundane events are all forever intertwined with music. If I ever write a memoir (and I seriously doubt I will because my life isn't exactly that thrilling, but if I did), it would be filled with musical references. Just like Love is a Mix Tape.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

From the Bookshelf: Recently Read - September 2016 Edition

I know this is probably a really lame thing to say, but I seriously feel like I blinked and half of September had flown by. This is my first post this month, and it's the 13th. The 13th. Where did the time go?

To be perfectly honest, things have been a little hectic in my life lately. And it seems that any time things get kind of crazy, blogging takes a major backseat. I love blogging, and I love connecting with other bloggers ... But sometimes I just don't have the time (or the energy).

But anyway, I don't want this post to be all about my failures as a blogger. So, in an effort to at least sort of get back on the blogging train, I'm linking up with Steph and Jana for Show Us Your Books!

I will say, though, that I won't really be very active with the link-up until this upcoming weekend. I'm in DC for a work conference for the entire week, so I'll be tied up most of the time. It's true that I won't be doing conference stuff all day and all night, but Eric is flying in to spend part of the week with me so we'll be out doing touristy things and eating tons of food when I'm not busy. I'm hoping to learn a lot and enjoy my free time, so that means I probably won't be doing much (if any) blog stuff while I'm away. I'm planning to get caught up when I return, though, so expect lots of comments! (Even if I haven't been commenting, I've been reading ... So I'll probably go back and respond to at least a few of the posts I really enjoyed along with the posts in this link-up.)

Until then, here are my shorter reviews for the books I've read since the last link-up. I finished the Semi-Charmed Summer Book Challenge and started Book Challenge by Erin 5.0, so this month's installment is filled with a wide variety of genres. Something for everyone, I guess! (Maybe.)

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Child of God by Cormac McCarthy - 197 pages - 3 stars

Lester Ballard spends his days and nights roaming the hills of his rural Tennessee home, engaging in violent and depraved acts. In Child of God, readers are given a front row seat to his strange and disturbing lifestyle.

It's so difficult to rate and review a book like this. On the one hand, McCarthy is clearly a talented writer. He managed to create one of the creepiest characters I've ever encountered and make me feel completely disgusted multiple times within a mere 197 pages. However, I also felt like this book was lacking in some ways and had some trouble with the language of the rural South. (I'll talk a little more about both of these things in my more in-depth review on Sunday.)

I would most definitely not recommend this book to just anyone. Make no mistake: Lester Ballard is one fucked up dude. If reading about murder and necrophilia isn't your thing, please do yourself a favor and don't bother with Child of God. If, however, you enjoy disturbing stories that focus on the darker aspects of mankind, it might be worth checking out. Just know that, as Erin said in her review of this book, you might feel like you need a shower after reading this.

What She Knew by Gilly Macmillan - 467 pages - 3 stars

It's a mother's worst nightmare: while out walking in the woods with her young son, Rachel allows him to run ahead of her. It's a simple decision she will forever be haunted by because in the couple of minutes it takes her to catch up, Ben has suddenly vanished. As the days go on with no hope in sight, everyone in Ben's life becomes a suspect ... Including Rachel.

I was really hoping for more from this book. While What She Knew isn't a bad book, it didn't deliver the way I'd hoped. When I finally reached the last page of an epilogue that felt painfully long, I just kind of felt "meh" about the whole thing.

There were a few suspenseful moments, but there were also plenty of times that the story just dragged. This is Gilly Macmillan's debut novel, and, while I mostly liked her writing style and the story she created, it sometimes felt a little clunky or fell a little flat. That being said, I didn't feel like I completely wasted my time on it and I'd be open to reading more Gilly Macmillan books in the future.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach - 303 pages - 3 stars

Mary Roach spent two years devoting herself to the study of sexual physiology, the history of sexual discovery, and modern sexual research. The result is Bonk, an often hilarious and always interesting look at what's really going on down there.

If you've never read Mary Roach, I recommend checking out her work ... And I say this as someone who doesn't read a lot of nonfiction. (I've previously read both Stiff and Spook and both were enjoyable, though Stiff was much better than Spook.) She writes about science, but she does it in a way that's humorous and engaging. She also writes for the masses: you don't need to have a degree in a scientific field in order to understand or enjoy her books. (Though as someone who does, I appreciate that she manages to do this without completely dumbing it down.)

Thank You for Smoking by Christopher Buckley - 272 pages - 4 stars

Nick Naylor is the face of the tobacco industry. After numerous appearances on talk shows (during which he lies through his teeth about the "health benefits" of smoking), he finally may have met his match: a direct threat from a caller during his latest appearance on Larry King Live. As Nick becomes the target of both anti-tobacco terrorists and the FBI, he struggles to hold on to his job and the often crazy life that goes along with it.

Thank You for Smoking is filled with absurd situations, wacky (and often unlikable) characters, and dry, dark humor (my favorite kind). Occasionally offensive and often hilarious, this is satire at its best.

Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life by Roald Dahl - 179 pages - 3 stars

Roald Dahl, best known for children's classics like Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, wrote a collection of oddball, sometimes funny, sometimes horrific tales set in a rural English community (and loosely based on some of his own youthful misadventures), publishing it under the title Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.

The stories vary from the horribly boring (like the title story, which is about breeding cattle, of all things) to the disgusting (like "The Ratcatcher," which is definitely not the kind of story you will enjoy if you can't stomach reading about cruelty to animals) to over-the-top silly (like one of my personal favorites, "The Champion of the World"). It's a strange little collection that I didn't love but liked a little more than I thought I would.

The Merciless by Danielle Vega - 279 pages - 2 stars

Sofia just wants to fit in at her new school, so when popular girl Riley takes her under her wing, she feels like she just might be able to handle being the new girl (again). But when Riley and her friends involve Sofia in "saving" Brooklyn, a girl they believe to be possessed, she begins to wonder how far she's willing to go to be part of their group.

The Merciless is an odd mix of teen drama, mean girls, religious fanaticism, and B-horror slasher flicks. And, honestly, it really didn't work. The only thing saving it from a 1 star rating was the fact that I was interested enough to keep reading (even if it was only to see what kind of crazy shit might happen next).

I was really excited to read this book, but I was so disappointed once I actually picked it up. Instead of being scared, I found myself rolling my eyes ... A lot. It was ridiculous and over-the-top, and I mostly just felt like I was watching a really bad teen horror movie.

Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield - 219 pages - 4 stars

In this memoir, Rob Sheffield uses music as the backdrop for the love story that changed his life. He and his wife were brought together through music, and it was music that helped him survive her sudden, tragic death. Heartbreaking, funny, and sweet, Love is a Mix Tape is perfect for anyone who understands the power of music.

This book brought me to tears several times, and I absolutely loved all of the musical references (even if I didn't always agree with his choices). It's been sitting on one of my bookshelves for years, but Erin's latest book challenge finally got me to pick it up. I just wish I hadn't waited so long to read it!

Unless something awful and crazy happens (like the last time I flew back to Omaha), I'll be back this weekend to comment, respond to comments, and post my more detailed reviews on Sunday.