We’re All Mad Here

Wow, almost 10 months since my last post, huh? Not to mention over 2 years since publishing a book.

To be unsparingly honest, life has been a bit rocky for me over these past many months.

I’ve been dealing with depression and anxiety since I was 22 years old, and although it was fairly-well controlled for a decade or so, that insidious SOB has been giving me a run for my money lately. It seems to me this struggle has become something of an epidemic in our world, and I feel as though research into the problem has just got to turn up some more answers soon, along with better treatment options. Regardless, hands-down the most important thing you can do in a situation like this is to acknowledge that there is hope, even if your brain chemistry is trying to send you  signals that say otherwise. Do not give up-when you feel able to reach out for help, do it!

That being said, one of the indicators by which I can measure my mood is how often I’ve felt the urge to write. When the depression is in check, let me at that keyboard, baby! Since I’ve been in a downswing for a while now, I have no pages to show for it. With a little help I’m working at getting the situation in hand, however, and hope to feel the bite from the writing bug again in the near(ish) future.

In the meantime, my appetite for reading has survived intact-perhaps even grown, as sometimes sitting up in bed to read is as much as one feels capable of accomplishing on a dark day. With nothing of my own to share with you at the moment, I can at least talk about the work of others that I’ve been enjoying.

Suffice it to say I am well ahead of my goal for this year’s Goodreads 2016 Reading Challenge. Though it may sound silly, I was kind of bummed when last year’s Goodreads Choice Awards rolled around and I had only read 2 of the many nominated books. I aimed to avoid that problem this year, and have focused on reading mostly 2016 releases. I will be voting in several categories this time around, not to worry!

 

NONFICTION

I’m actually just about to start reading nonfiction book titled This is Your Brain on Parasites: How Tiny Creatures Manipulate Our Behavior and Shape Society by Kathleen McAuliffe, but since I can’t comment on that one yet, my favorite nonfiction read so far this year is without a doubt Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air.

2016 Nonfiction

As the blurb says, this book examines the question of what makes life worth living, even in the face of death. Dr. Paul Kalanithi wrote it in between his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer at 36 years of age and his death less than 2 years later. It’s a moving story about an individual, but also eloquently addresses a matter of undeniable importance to us all.

Kalanithi spends the first half of the book describing his path to becoming a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist, as well as what drove him to start on such a trajectory. There are plenty of interesting anecdotes here that shine some light on what it’s like to be a med student and then a neurosurgery resident. Mixed in with those are Kalanithi’s feelings about how literature, another of his loves, reflects that which we feel makes life meaningful, while science helps explain the physiology behind it all. He seeks the crossroads where the brain and the mind, life and death, all intersect.

The second half of the book tells us about how Kalanithi dealt with learning of his diagnosis. Having met patients at similar points in their lives and helping them traverse the unnerving landscape, he is surprised to discover that it’s still completely unrecognizable to him once it has become personal. What do you do with yourself after receiving that kind of news?

Having also obtained an M.A. in English Literature, Kalanithi has a talent with words as well as with surgical tools. His book is well written, as engaging as it is touching. Some of my favorite parts are as follows:

“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”

“That morning I made a decision: I would push myself to return to the OR. Why? Because I could. Because that’s who I was. Because I would have to learn to live in a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.”

“The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out…Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.”

“Grand illnesses are supposed to be life-clarifying. Instead, I knew I was going to die-but I’d known that before. My state of knowledge was the same, but my ability to make lunch plans had been shot to hell. The way forward would seem obvious, if only I know how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with my family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating disease. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day?”

And then, before his wife’s moving epilogue written after Kalanithi’s death in March of 2015, the last of his own words in this book are a message to his baby daughter, a plea:

“There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.

The message is simple:

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

 

FICTION

Dark Fantasy/Urban

One of my other favorite reads of the year so far was The Library at Mount Char, a sort of dark fantasy/cosmic horror story, and the debut novel by author Scott Hawkins.

the-library-at-mount-char

This book is pretty mind-blowing. In many ways it’s unique, but it did slip me up every now and again-I would think I was reading one kind of story, and then things would twist just a bit and I found myself reading something different that I had previously thought. A few of these differing elements I didn’t love. But the vast majority of it was amazing!

Carolyn grew up as a regular American, but when she was about 8 years old the neighborhood suffered a cataclysmic event and she and the other kids from around the block were orphaned. But not to worry, Father will adopt them all and bring them home to live in his library, where he will raise them as he himself was raised. The merits of this are debatable.

Father can do pretty much anything-stop time, call down lightning, resurrect the dead. The children become his apprentices, each assigned to one of the twelve catalogues of Father’s secret knowledge. No one is allowed to study outside of their catalogue. One wonders if this is perhaps because that might make them as powerful as him, and therefore a potential threat…?

As the children grow up learning and mastering their own crafts, the training at times can be cruel beyond your wildest imagination. Not even your thoughts are private in Father’s world, and so objecting to his methods even in your mind can bring about unspeakable punishment. And so if Carolyn wants to do anything to change her circumstances, she must makes plans without consciously thinking about her desire for retribution.

But time is different in the Library, and Carolyn has been planning for a long time.

There is fantasy here, and horror, but also a brand of black comedy. Children get roasted alive inside a bronze grill shaped like a bull. But even death is not an escape, because Jennifer’s catalogue is healing and she will always be tasked with resurrecting you. Margaret’s catalogue is death, and you can only imagine what her training entails. Carolyn learns thousands of languages, including those of the animal kingdom, and Rachel’s ghost children can tell her about all possible futures.

David’s catalogue is war and murder. When visiting our world, he is told to pick out some “American” (normal human) clothes to blend in. Having an imperfect understanding of this, he chooses to wear a purple tutu, because it most closely resembles the loincloth he is accustomed to wearing. Reading the scene where he breaks into a jail and slaughters almost everyone inside while wearing his Israeli flak jacket and a tutu is as hilarious as it is grisly.

Another moment that had me laughing out loud: two lions have made a pledge to the librarians to keep Steve (a normal American) safe, but one sustains grievous wounds while protecting him. On the phone, Steve asks Carolyn if the suppositories for treating blood loss that she gave him would work on a lion. After she tells him yes, there is silence on the phone for a moment. She asks if he’s still there, and his response is along the lines of, “Yeah, I’m just thinking I’m not quite at the point where I’m ready to stick anything up a lion’s ass.”

One of the things that didn’t impress me much was the attempts at humor that didn’t quite hit home. Like the rapport between Erwin and the president. I felt like I was watching two versions of the Fonz giving each other thumbs up and saying, “Ayyyy!” and it just didn’t seem to fit with the tone of the story at that time (a tone which, admittedly, switches between one of cosmic horror and one of humor from time to time-it just didn’t work here). As a side note, though, Erwin is a great character!

There are deeper messages here, too, like just what qualities we might want in the individual who “controls reality.” How can you foster power while avoiding corruption? Is there a way to maintain what makes us human while still being honed into the kind of being who can make the choices necessary to keep the world turning?

A wild and fantastical ride, The Library at Mount Char not quite like anything else I’ve read. I was left with some questions regarding plot issues, but overall I found this to be a really enjoyable read.

Science Fiction/Fantasy

Morningstar by Pierce Brown is an amazing example of how to finish out a trilogy! (If you’ve not read the first two books in this series, you may want to avoid this review, although it’s fairly spoiler-free.)

morningstar

I admit, I did spend some few portions of this installment just plodding along to get through it, but by the end I was seriously impressed with how Brown managed to wrap things up so satisfactorily. I don’t know that the conclusion of any thread of this story could have been handled any better.

Revolution may be a necessary thing, but it can often be an ugly thing. Darrow realizes that he has to make some sacrifices if he wants any chance of winning the war against the hierarchy maintained by Gold society. The bonds he’s forged with other characters over the course of the books is a carrying force as he maneuvers through the battle for his people’s freedom.

There were two characters Darrow had had a…let’s say “falling out” with in the previous books, and at least one of them I very much wished to see a reconciliation with here. Brown did not disappoint. Darrow’s relationship with one of these is mended in a most splendid manner. But you can’t win all the time, even when you’re the protagonist of a trilogy, and so the other friendship is not to be salvaged, but even that was handled in a satisfying manner. That particular story line did not have a happy ending, but a fair and poignant one.

And then there’s Mustang, who has managed to become more and more epic as the series progressed.

Overall, a gratifying conclusion to the Red Rising story. Bravo!

New Adult Fantasy

As long as I’m discussing later books in a series, I’d like to mention A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas (again, if you haven’t read its predecessor, A Court of Thorns and Roses, you may wish to skip this part-this one is definitely spoiler territory). I thought the first book was “just” alright for the most part, until it took us Under the Mountain, when things started getting really good! And I’ll classify this one as “new adult fantasy” because I have a YA fantasy book in mind as well, and also because the hotness factor of the romance in this installment was a big part of what I enjoyed about it.

a-court-of-mist-and-fury

Much like with the first book in this series I was underwhelmed for a good chunk of the beginning of ACoMaF, but then partway through things got pretty darn good and I was hooked.

Some of the rules of Maas’s fantasy world here can be kind of silly, but I didn’t find that too difficult to overlook. My main gripe with this installment pertains to Tamlin, High Lord of the Spring Court, Feyre’s great love in the previous book.

Maas puts a lot of effort into giving a reasonable and acceptable explanation as to why it’s okay for Feyre to fall right out of love with Tamlin, and then soon after fall head over heels for someone else. And yeah, it is a reasonable explanation, and it certainly happens in real life, but it just really didn’t sit well with me here seeing as the ENTIRE POINT of the first book is this fated love between Feyre and Tamlin, how their love for one another broke a decades-old curse, and how they prove wrong those who argue that humans have inconstant hearts…so, yeah.

In order to make it more acceptable to readers that Feyre falls out of love with Tamlin, in these pages he is a completely different person than he was in the first book. Yes, both he and Feyre were suffering some PTSD after what happened Under the Mountain, but the total 180 in Tamlin’s character was just not believable.

That being said, once the little nuisance of her grand fated love affair with Tamlin is handily dealt with, we are treated to one heck of a fun and thrilling romance between Feyre and Rhys. Here is the swooning the first book was missing! As annoying as it was that the relationship with Tamlin we read about in the first book was just summarily negated, the romance in this book is SO MUCH BETTER!

Feyre’s character in book 2 is feminism made incarnate. She insists on being the master of her own destiny, will settle for nothing less than an equal partnership in her love life, and she kicks ass to boot.

I kind of agree with another reviewer that in this book Rhys proved to actually be a bit too perfect; in book 1 he seems a conflicted character, an antihero who plays both sides for reasons of his own. Here, it turns out his hidden agenda has to do with the fact that he is the ultimately self-sacrificing hero to end them all. This makes him somehwhat less compelling than originally thought. But that’s alright, he’s still pretty amazing.

And, oh, the sexy times in A Court of Mist and Fury-suffice it to say I’m still fanning myself over here!

Maas introduces plenty of fun and exciting adventures for our heroes in this installment. The Weaver was captivating and perfectly creepy, the defense of the hidden city of Velaris was pretty epic, and the final outcome of the confrontation with the king of Hybern and his various associates promises a lot more great story to tell in book 3.

I’ll definitely be reading on in this series, and am looking forward to more of Rhys and Feyre in their new relationship. As we wait for book 3’s release I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that Maas will find a way to redeem Tamlin as well as Lucien, having them BOTH realize the mistakes they made despite good intentions. And now there will be a new dynamic with Elain and Nesta, and the members of the Night Court-May 2017 can’t come soon enough!

Young Adult Fantasy

Now for YA fantasy. I REALLY enjoyed Cruel Beauty  by Rosamund Hodge. Her second novel, Crimson Bound, was less of a winner for me. Her new release, Bright Smoke, Cold Fire, lies somewhere in between. There are some really great story elements here, but you’ll see in my review why I’m a bit conflicted.

bright-smoke-cold-fire

This is something of a Romeo and Juliet retelling, but really Hodge just pulls bit and pieces from the familiar to masterfully weave her own mythos. The fact that a Romeo and a Juliet from two different houses fall in love with each other is such a small part of this story, and it happens before the reader even joins in.

The world in these pages is anything but dull: evocative, intricate, captivating-but, yes, a bit convoluted. I admit to having some trouble for a time following which of the 3 main families held which beliefs and why. There is great depth to Hodge’s world-building here, but things do get a tad confused in the telling.

But the essence of it all was quite wonderful: a white fog dubbed the Ruining has killed everyone in the world except for those who ran to the island of Viyara, where they were able to hide within the protective dome of magic they managed to throw up at the last minute. The price of maintaining that protection, however, must be paid in blood.

Or is that a lie? If so, who benefits from it? Can Death truly be bargained with? Is necromancy the answer to stopping the Ruining, or is it what caused it to begin with?

We have a whole troupe of main characters to lead us through the search for answers: Runajo has joined the Sisterhood of Thorn in an effort to prove to herself that she can pay any price to try to save her world. As an infant, the Juliet had spellwork laid upon her that renders her the sword her family wields against those who would offer them harm – except that a certain Romeo has managed to see that, duty or no, she is still a person and not just a weapon. Paris wants nothing more than to make his family proud, but spends these pages learning painfully that to some, justice is no more than a pretty word.

Romance takes a backseat as the relationships examined most closely in this book are the complicated ones forged between Runajo and Juliet, as well as Paris and Romeo.

Other familiar names include Tybalt and the King of Cats. Add a dash (or more) of the living dead, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for one exciting tale!

BUT THEN IT JUST STOPPED.

Sure, on the goodreads page it says “Untitled, #1” after Bright Smoke, Cold Fire (which I find kind of strange to begin with, it remaining “untitled” even after this book has been published), but I took that to mean that perhaps it was the first story in a series all based in the same universe, or some such. I did not realize it meant that this book has no real ending – no resolution whatsoever, it leaves off right when you expect things to come to a head. In a panicked state, I flew to the computer to search the author’s personal website and heaved a sigh of relief to see it described there as “part one of a duology”. But nowhere on the book itself does it say this – no “part one” or “first in a series”, not even a “to be continued”. Which is just plain cruel.

I’m really questioning the publisher’s move to not indicate anywhere on or in the book itself that this is a part one, not a complete story. That just seems odd. Finding myself at the end of the book like that without any answers or satisfaction whatsoever and no indication that there would be a sequel was quite off-putting. I’m still kind of upset about it. But still, I was enjoying this story quite a bit and so will definitely be checking out the next book, whenever that gets released. I guess there’s nothing for it but to wait.

Le sigh.

 

I’m noticing a serious lack of hard science fiction in my list, which is odd since I do love the genre. It seems all of the sci-fi I’ve read this year have been earlier releases. Of those, the one that left the biggest impression would have to be Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, and although it won’t qualify for this year’s Choice Awards, I’ll go ahead and discuss it here. Because it’s my blog and I can do what I want with it :p

seveneves

There is a really compelling story at the bottom of Seveneves. A cosmic event allows astronomers to predict the destruction of Earth as we know it in approximately 2 years. Nations the world over pool their resources in a desperate attempt to send what and who they can up to the International Space Station, so that even though the majority of seven billion people will die, there is at least a chance that humanity’s legacy can be preserved off-planet.

We get a lot of very detailed descriptions of the missions that must be undertaken, the problems that arise and the solutions devised by some of the world’s brightest minds. We see that, even though the people elected to escape to the space station were hand-selected as those best suited to the overall mission, human nature can defy the best-laid plans. And then we’re shown how 5,000 years later the descendants of the drastically reduced human race, who were left with the task of repopulating their species with some rather harsh environmental restrictions, have managed to get along until such a time when they can return to humanity’s original home in an attempt to “re”-terraform it.

There is a lot of hard science here, and some of it is utterly fascinating. But Seveneves’ main problem, in my opinion, is that only about 30% of it is devoted to actual storytelling, while the rest is preposterous amounts of mind-numbing info dumps regarding such topics as orbital mechanics and astrophysics.

The last third feels like a different book, which is perhaps unavoidable as 5,000 years have passed and everything has changed. It was interesting in the possibilities it presented, but I actually found that I enjoyed the first two-thirds more (which might seem odd, as the last third includes a good deal more of the storytelling.) And then the ending felt kind of abrupt, not offering much satisfaction in the way of conclusion.

So obviously I experienced mixed feelings throughout this book – overall I quite liked it, but am extremely glad to have finally finished it so I can move on to something else.

 

Hmm, I see there’s a lack of literary fiction as well, another genre I typically enjoy. Looking back, it seems I didn’t read much of it this year, and wasn’t all that impressed with that which I did. I suppose I’ll have to try to fit in some more of this type before the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards officially roll around. Challenge accepted!

 

Lastly, because I think you’ll agree this post has gone on long enough, there’s one other 2015 release I’d like to mention because it was exactly what I needed when I needed it the most. Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy is marketed as “a funny book about horrible things”.

furiously-happy

Lawson acknowledges the dark moments in the lives of those with mental illness, but stresses the importance of recognizing that those moments never last forever. You will feel better again, and when you do, she urges you to make up for time lost by making sure your good days are damn good. This is what being Furiously Happy is all about.

And while receiving such sound advice, you’ll likely also find yourself laughing out loud when reading the stories in this book. I know I did on more than a few occasions. Funny stuff! Never before have I found myself this (or at all) amused by taxidermy.

I will definitely be checking out Lawson’s previous book and following her blog. Consider me a fan.

 

In conclusion, I can’t help but feel that me even writing this blog post is a sign that things are starting to look up. I sincerely hope to get back to writing and actually have something to show for it someday soon!

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