Friday, July 31, 2015

The Shore by Sara Taylor


Title: The Shore
Author: Sara Taylor
Publisher: Hogarth
Publication Date: May 26, 2015
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

Welcome to The Shore: a collection of small islands sticking out from the coast of Virginia into the Atlantic Ocean. Where clumps of evergreens meet wild ponies, oyster-shell roads, tumble-down houses, unwanted pregnancies, murder, storm-making and dark magic in the marshes. . . 

Situated off the coast of Virginia's Chesapeake Bay, the group of islands known as the Shore has been home to generations of fierce and resilient women. Sanctuary to some but nightmare to others, it's a place they've inhabited, fled, and returned to for hundreds of years. From a half-Shawnee Indian's bold choice to flee an abusive home only to find herself with a man who will one day try to kill her to a brave young girl's determination to protect her younger sister as methamphetamine ravages their family, to a lesson in summoning storm clouds to help end a drought, these women struggle against domestic violence, savage wilderness, and the corrosive effects of poverty and addiction to secure a sense of well-being for themselves and for those they love.

Together their stories form a deeply affecting legacy of two barrier island families, illuminating 150 years of their many freedoms and constraints, heartbreaks, and pleasures.


My Review:

I fell victim to total book blogger peer pressure here, people!  Err-body was reading The Shore a few weeks ago.  It was all over my blog reader and the Instagram and the Twitters.  So when I saw a copy just hanging out on my library's New Releases shelf, I had to go for it.  Unlike that time when your mom asked if you would jump off a bridge if all your friends did it to, this was actually a GREAT time to do what all my friends were doing.  Because this is a fantastic novel.

The Shore is wonderfully, unapologetically, vigorously unique.  I saw it categorized as a "short story" collection by some Goodreads reviewers, but I don't think that's entirely accurate.  While most of the chapters are narrated by different characters, and in many cases the time period is completely different between them, the overlapping details between all of these stories are essential to your overall impression of the book.  Do yourself a favor and DO NOT read this on an e-reader, because I had to flip back to the (sizable) family tree at the front of the book every 5 pages or so.  It would have driven me crazy to have to do that on a Kindle.

Even though many of the narrators in this novel are (genetically) related, they've often never met each other.  In that way, each chapter does have an exclusivity to it that leaves readers with that "short story" feel.  However, Taylor has woven all of their narratives together in a way that leaves you with a strong ribbon of similar themes: melancholy. Persistence.  Isolation.  Brutality.  And many, many powerful female characters.  This is what gives the book a tight cohesiveness that I find astounding for a piece of literature with so many different stories to tell.

On top of that, a few of the chapters threw in some genre twists that I was not expecting at all, particularly in magical realism and dystopia.  But it worked.  They caught me off guard at first, but in the end, I was appreciative of how they changed the direction of the novel and managed to carry the previously-established themes even deeper into the story.

I'm not sure if this review gives you anything concrete about The Shore to hold on to, but that is the nature of this book.  Don't let the cover and title fool you--this is much more than a walk on the beach.  If you're ready for something completely different, immersive, and impressively well-crafted, The Shore is an excellent pick!

What was the last book you read because "all the cool kids were doing it"??  :)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

5 Star Review! The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman


Title: The Light Between Oceans
Author: M.L. Stedman
Publisher: Scribner
Publication Date: July 31, 2012
Source: received as a gift from Cornelia at Small Hour Books

Summary from Goodreads

After four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day’s journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby’s cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby. 

Tom, whose records as a lighthouse keeper are meticulous and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel has taken the tiny baby to her breast. Against Tom’s judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them.


My Review:

This book is AMAZING.  It is also really, really, really (really really) sad.  If you want to be completely absorbed by a beautifully-written, thought-provoking, thrilling novel, while also crying giant alligator tears, then do I have the book for you!

The absolute best thing about The Light Between Oceans is the moral ambiguity of each character's actions.  Tom and Isabel make a startling choice when the boat washes up at their home on Janus Rock.  Taken at face value, it's a choice that is illegal and unjust.  But as Tom and Isabel each explain their actions in their own way, readers can't help but see the possible good in what they've done.  Right and wrong are certainly not easily separable in this novel--not just for Tom and Isabel, but for many of the other characters that are brought into their complicated web.  As things begin to spiral out of their control, the couple must constantly re-evaluate their intentions, and what "right" really means.

That said...you're always waiting to see when that other shoe is going to drop, hence the nail-biting suspense.  This is a very emotional, heart-wrenching book, but Stedman writes it in a way that allows you to appreciate the writing, while simultaneously scrambling to get to the next chapter and see what's to come.  I find that many of the books I read with particularly beautiful prose are usually not also page-turners (in terms of plot action), but The Light Between Oceans bridges that gap.

I can't end this review without giving a thumbs-up to Stedman's use of setting, which plays a huge role in the atmosphere of this novel: both post-war Australia in general, and Janus Rock/the lighthouses in particular.  I've read very few books set in Australia, but this one combined the physical location with a rich history that really submerged me into the story.  Plus, the isolation of Tom and Isabel's life on Janus Rock was a key element to many of the major plot points, and that sense of remoteness was palpable in their everyday lives.

Five stars on Goodreads, and going on the favorites list.  I haven't been able to say that in a while!  This book was so much more than I expected, and I'll definitely be picking it up for re-reads in the future.

What was your last 5 star read?  Have you read any other good novels set in Australia?  (This is not a setting that I've visited in my fiction very often!)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Well-Read Runner: The PR That Wasn't

I'm a week late here, but I ran the Shoreline 5K in Hamlin, NY last Saturday (the 18th), and it's about time for a recap!

You may remember that my goal for this race was to beat my 5K PR.  This has been a goal of mine ever since the 10K I did in May, because my Garmin showed that the first 5K of that race was better than my 5K PR time! I knew I had enough training under my belt to smash it.  Shoreline was described as a "fast and flat" course, so I signed up and got ready for race day.  I did some speed work in the weeks leading up to it (intervals, race pace runs, etc) and felt more than ready on race-day-eve.  Plan: run a sub-26 5K (my current PR was 27:02).

Day of the race, I got up early and did my usual bagel-and-banana routine.  Weather was calling for 70's and overcast in the morning, which sounded good to me; however, what I REALLY should have looked at was the humidity, which was hovering around 88% and climbing (eventually reached 94% by race time).  It wasn't until I got out of my car after the 45 minute drive to Hamlin (which is right on Lake Ontario) that I realized how thick the air was going to be.

At this point, I probably should have adjusted my plans a bit, right?  With humidity that high?  But, I didn't.  I was jammin' out to my favorite tunes, getting pumped up, and I was ready to DO THIS THANG, humid or not.

As race time approached, I stretched, had a Honey Stinger waffle, used the bathroom, etc.  Our original start time was supposed to be 8:15, with the Shoreline half marathon starting at 8:00, but they moved our start to 8:30 after some last-minute course changes caused a bit of chaos.  This was kind of nice, because the half marathoners cleared out of the bathrooms/refreshment area by 7:50, giving the 5K'ers ample time to get ready.  The 5K was a much smaller crowd than the enormously-attended half, so I got comfortable at the start line and was ready to roll.
Race map from my Garmin
Before we knew it, BOOM, we were off!  I pushed hard right out of the gate, catching glimpses of 7:45 pace on my Garmin.  My target pace was around 8:15, but I figured if I was comfortable going faster in the beginning, I would roll with it.  At the half-mile mark, we were running down the state park entrance road, and my husband and kiddos were driving in from the other direction.  They rolled down the windows and gave me some enthusiastic cheers, which was an awesome boost!

I hit the 1 mile mark with a 7:54 split.  While that felt great to see, I started to get an inkling that I was in trouble.  I was sweating like I had just gone through a downpour.  (Is there any grosser feeling than trying to wipe the sweat off your sweaty face, only to realize that your hand is equally sweaty, thus just adding hand sweat on top of the face sweat?  Really.)  I figured I could still PR, but maybe just not by as much as I had originally planned.
During mile 1.  Not the most attractive, but looking kind of bad ass, let's be honest.
That was a nice thought, for a while.  But by the time I hit the 2 mile marker, I knew party time was over.  8:37 split, over target pace, and the thought of chugging through one more mile of this humidity was awful.  I felt like I was breathing underwater.  Not long after that marker, we turned onto the path that goes along the lake, which provided some breeze--but not nearly enough to make it bearable.

The last mile was a trudge, and I could tell that I was not alone.  A guy I had chatted with at the start, who said his target pace was over a minute faster than mine, was running right next to me and visibly hurtin'.  No one was looking pretty in this race, that's for sure!

I pushed myself to keep on, but it was a struggle.  Just before the finish, the hubs and my boys were there yelling, "GO MOM!  GOOOOO MOM!!" which was pretty fantastic and brought many laughs from the surrounding crowd.  It was also the only thing to put a smile on my face in that last mile!  Third mile split was a lousy 9:14, final time 27:18.  Over PR by 16 seconds.

While I was, of course, disappointed in my time at first, I didn't remain disappointed for very long.  I quickly realized that it had been foolish to think I would run amazingly well in humidity that high.  I had never really had to adjust my goals for that type of weather situation, but lesson is now learned for sure!  Physically, I still feel like a PR is in my near future, but it will have to be on a drier day.  (I was also very glad to not be one of the half marathoners this day--a LOT of people were getting pulled off course for medical attention during that race.  Scary stuff.)

Given that, to be only 16 seconds above PR, and 9th out of 42 in my age group, is still pretty darn good in that weather!

To add to this positive swing, an hour after my race, Small Fry got to participate in his first 1/4 mile kid's race!  I ran it with him (at his request), and he had such an awesome time.  They didn't time the race, but he ran his little heart out.

When he got a medal after crossing the finish, he started yelling, "I WON!  I WON!!"  Cutest thing ever.  He got some serious bling-bling too!  Heavier than both of my half marathon medals.  Dang.

He is signed up for another 1/4 mile race in September (I am doing the corresponding 5K again), and he is VERY excited.  Perhaps another runner in the family?  We shall see...

And so, the 5K PR dreams will wait for another day.  In the meantime, I've learned yet another lesson in running via this race--as I seem to do from all races!

What lessons did you learn from your last race?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

5 Things I Was Reading 10 Years Ago

Hello, reader friends!  So, ever since I started The Well-Read Runner feature back in March, I've started following a few running blogs in addition to my favorite book blogs.  (Howdy to you as well, running friends!)  A few weeks back, one of the topics I saw flying about with the runners was "5 Things I Was Doing 10 Years Ago" (part of the DC Trifecta Friday Five Linkup hosted by Eat Pray Run DC, You Signed Up For WHAT?!, and Mar on the Run).  I missed out on the running meme that week, but I thought it would be fun to rework this in a book-related way.

Thanks to the magic of Goodreads, I looked back to see what I was reading around this time 10 years ago.  In summer 2005, I was a newly-minted college graduate, and had just started my first big-girl job.  I realized that I no longer had to spend all of my time reading TEXTBOOKS!  I was free to browse the library as I wished!  With that in mind, here are 5 of the books I was enjoying in the dog days of 2005:

1. The Godfather by Mario Puzo

My mom passed down an old copy of this book to me, and I finally had time to read it once I graduated from UConn.  For some reason, back then I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads, but my recollection is that I didn't really like it all that much...?  Ohhhhhh boy, I'm gonna go and say it...I LIKED THE MOVIE BETTER!

2. Funny--He Doesn't Look Like A Murderer by Shirley Bostrom

I actually obtained this book during the Family Violence course that I took during my senior year at UConn.  The book is a nonfiction account of the author's tragic experience with domestic violence, as her daughter Margie was murdered by her (Margie's) husband.  Bostrom came and discussed the incident with our class, as well as her work as a victim's advocate in the wake of this tragedy.  A very sad book, but one that is important to the conversation on domestic violence and its consequences.

3. The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea

This is a nonfiction account of what happened when a group of Mexican men attempted to cross the US border via the Arizona desert in 2001.  As you can imagine, this book speaks to much more than  this individual journey, as it examines US border policy and brings the physical and emotional toils of the migrants to life.  This book still sticks with me 10 years later--a must-read!

4. The Runaway Jury by John Grisham

Honestly, I have no idea what this book is about.  That is pretty much the case for every John Grisham I've ever read.  I highly enjoyable at the time that I am reading them, but then I quickly forget which one is which because they are just SO DARN SIMILAR.  I once started reading a Grisham novel and made it a third of the way through before I realized that I'd already read it once before.  I guess that's a long way of saying that this book did not make much of an impression on me. :)

5. The 9/11 Commission Report

Yes, I actually did read this brick of a book.  It took me ages (I remember reading it between other novels throughout the summer), but it brought 9/11 (the actual day, as well as it's lead-up and consequences) to life in a way that I couldn't get from CNN or the New York Times.  Very comprehensive, though very very dense.

Apparently not much light reading for me in summer 2005, eh?  I suppose all that college book-learnin' was still rubbing off on me.  ;-)

What were you reading 10 years ago??

Friday, July 17, 2015

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven


Title: All the Bright Places
Author: Jennifer Niven
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: January 6, 2015
Source: borrowed from Jennifer at The Relentless Reader

Summary from Goodreads

Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him.
 
Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death.
 
When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries: It’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself—a weird, funny, live-out-loud guy who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink.


My Review:

I was all over the place with this book.  In the end, it did get a thumbs-up from me, but I had quite the journey getting there.

My initial impression of All the Bright Places was that it's a perfect fit for John Green fans.  It's hard not to be reminded of The Fault in Our Stars, as Violet and Finch (both depressed and "damaged" in their own ways) meet at the top of a bell tower, contemplating suicide for different reasons.  They manage to get off the ledge, and so starts a quirky romance between the two.  It's that careful mix of sad-but-funny that made me want to compare it to TFIOS right off the bat.

After that first reaction, though, I started to have a bit of trouble with Finch.  I just couldn't understand his character's MO.  His suicidal ideations seemed almost flippant, almost as if he was trying out the whole suicide idea just to see if he could add to the odd reputation he had at school.  (I would like to stress that I am not implying that real-life suicide victims take that action as an attention-seeking behavior.  Just that Finch, in the way his character was written, seemed to have no solid reasoning behind/basis for his suicidal thoughts, which made it hard for me to make sense of him, as the reader.)  Finch started to come off as over-the-top for over-the-top's sake, which made me lose interest a bit.

However, the novel takes quite a turn in the last third.  The mental health and family issues that Finch is dealing with become much clearer, putting his past actions into a more focused context.  Many of the funny/humorous elements of the text begin to fade, as Violet starts to realize what Finch is really all about.  In the end, I was left with a conclusion that was far more poignant and emotional than I ever expected at the book's beginning.

In hindsight, I know that Niven's treatment of Finch's character early in the novel was intentional.  By the end of the book, I felt bad about my initial impression of Finch as cheeky or superficial, as he was clearly behaving in such a way to keep his family and friends in the dark about his problems.  This, combined with the maddening lack of attention from his immediate family, creates a perfect storm--and herein lies your biggest lesson from this book.  Niven manages to fool the reader about Finch's true nature, just as Finch is fooling all of his closest contacts.

All the Bright Places is a young adult novel, but one with a message.  It has much to say, and Niven has found an impactful way to say it.  This isn't exactly a feel-good novel, but the way it approaches suicide and mental health makes it worth any reader's time.

What's the last book you read that had, not a plot twist, but a good character twist thrown in?  Someone who turned out to be not at all what they originally seemed?

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Missoula by Jon Krakauer


Title: Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
Author: Jon Krakauer
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication Date: April 21, 2015
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

Missoula, Montana, is a typical college town, with a highly regarded state university, bucolic surroundings, a lively social scene, and an excellent football team  the Grizzlies  with a rabid fan base. 
 
The Department of Justice investigated 350 sexual assaults reported to the Missoula police between January 2008 and May 2012. Few of these assaults were properly handled by either the university or local authorities. In this, Missoula is also typical. 
 
A DOJ report released in December of 2014 estimates 110,000 women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four are raped each year. Krakauer’s devastating narrative of what happened in Missoula makes clear why rape is so prevalent on American campuses, and why rape victims are so reluctant to report assault. 


In Missoula, Krakauer chronicles the searing experiences of several women in Missoula — the nights when they were raped; their fear and self-doubt in the aftermath; the way they were treated by the police, prosecutors, defense attorneys; the public vilification and private anguish; their bravery in pushing forward and what it cost them.
 
Some of them went to the police. Some declined to go to the police, or to press charges, but sought redress from the university, which has its own, noncriminal judicial process when a student is accused of rape. In two cases the police agreed to press charges and the district attorney agreed to prosecute. One case led to a conviction; one to an acquittal. Those women courageous enough to press charges or to speak publicly about their experiences were attacked in the media, on Grizzly football fan sites, and/or to their faces. The university expelled three of the accused rapists, but one was reinstated by state officials in a secret proceeding. One district attorney testified for an alleged rapist at his university hearing. She later left the prosecutor’s office and successfully defended the Grizzlies’ star quarterback in his rape trial. The horror of being raped, in each woman’s case, was magnified by the mechanics of the justice system and the reaction of the community.
 
Krakauer’s dispassionate, carefully documented account of what these women endured cuts through the abstract ideological debate about campus rape. College-age women are not raped because they are promiscuous, or drunk, or send mixed signals, or feel guilty about casual sex, or seek attention. They are the victims of a terrible crime and deserving of compassion from society and fairness from a justice system that is clearly broken.


My Review:

If reading this book doesn't make you angry, you're reading it wrong.

I don't normally include such a long description before my reviews (and I even abridged this one from the full text on Goodreads' site), but I think it's important for readers to understand the full scope of what Krakauer has undertaken in this book.

The basic premise of Missoula, and the statistics it presents regarding the frequency of sexual assault (especially on college campuses), did not surprise me.  I took a class on Family Violence in my last year at UConn (with an outstanding professor who really gave the topic the weight it deserved), and while I obviously had heard of rape and sexual assault before that, the course was my eye-opening experience into the world of rape victims and their attackers.  At the same time that I was taking the course, I was also a Resident Assistant in my dorm, and I had two different residents come to me during that semester to report that they had been sexually assaulted.  It was enough to make my head spin.  Suddenly, the fact that we lived on campus with a path jokingly named "the Rape Trail" (real thing in Storrs, any alumni will tell you), a bar fondly nicknamed "Slutskies", a rumor mill rife with stories about the sexual exploits of various student-athletes/fraternities/etc...it didn't seem so humorous anymore.  Just because I was fortunate enough to not become a victim of these crimes didn't mean that it wasn't going on all around me--often under my nose, as sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes.

This experience was brought back to the forefront of my consciousness in Missoula.  Krakauer admits at the end of the book that he was largely ignorant of the problems surrounding sexual assault (the act itself, as well as the way it is handled by the justice system/media/etc), especially for college-age women, before discovering that a close family friend had been a victim of it not once, but twice.  This compelled him to begin researching the subject more thoroughly, and we all know what happens when Jon Krakauer researches something more thoroughly.

The mishandling of sexual assault cases in Missoula and on the University of Montana came into the spotlight in 2012, when several women came forward to report that they had been raped by UM football players.  As these cases were being investigated, it quickly became evident that there was a larger problem at hand in Missoula, one that extended well off campus.  Krakauer was able to interview many of the victims of these high-profile cases, as well as their families and friends, and even one of the assailants.

Krakauer highlights two legal cases in particular: those of Beau Donaldson and Jordan Johnson, both members of the UM football team.  One of them was found guilty, and the other was acquitted, of sexual assault against fellow UM students.  Krakauer's research breaks down the differences in how these cases were handled, bringing to light many of the biases and problems that the victims had to face in their attempts to find justice.

I had to read this book in bursts, because I was so often angered by what I read.  The actual acts of sexual assault were very difficult to read (definite trigger warning here), though I expected that going in.  What I didn't expect was the anger I would feel in regards to how each case was mishandled, as the police and prosecutors often overlooked important evidence, dismissed victims' statements and concerns, and provided incompetent counsel on legal issues.

While Krakauer's outrage at the rapes themselves is obvious, this book is most impressive in how it illustrates the problems of how the justice system handles sexual assault cases.  The issues begin from the moment a rape is reported--in how the police question victims and make them feel safe (or not).  The problems snowball from there, all the way to the courtroom (if the case even makes it there--it often does not), where victims are made to relive their experiences by vicious defense lawyers who will do anything to make the victims look untrustworthy and promiscuous.

While I expected Krakauer to take particular issue with Jordan Johnson's case (as he was acquitted of rape), I was compelled by the fact that his book does not attack the verdict itself, but rather the way in which it was reached.  Krakauer does not attempt to play judge-and-jury, suggesting that Johnson should be in jail.  What he does do is dismantle the appalling tactics used by the defense throughout the trial, as well as the many problems with how the prosecution moved forward with the victim's case.  The only people who know if Johnson is truly innocent are Johnson and his accuser, but either way, the victim's case was not given fair showing that it deserved.

If you're a fan of Jon Krakauer and/or solid investigative nonfiction, you must read Missoula.  Sexual assault--both the act itself, and the way it is approached in the justice system--is a problem that extends well beyond Missoula and the University of Montana.  Read this, get angry, and get informed.  This is likely one of Krakauer's most controversial books (I hear he's not so welcome in Missoula anymore), but also one of the most significant.

What was the last nonfiction book you read that opened your eyes to a particularly distressing or provocative topic?

Monday, July 6, 2015

It's Monday, what are YOU reading?


Happy Monday, readers!  I hope all my American friends had a great July 4th weekend.  My husband got a long weekend out of it (July 3rd was when the holiday was observed for state employees), and we had a wonderful 3 days of barbecuing, parade-watching, and playing outside with the kiddos.  Also, apparently my neighbors are really into setting off their own fireworks (something I am not used to!), so we got our very own backyard show on Saturday night, which was both entertaining and terrifying.  'MERICA.

It has also been a great week for reading.  I finished Missoula by Jon Krakauer (review coming this week), which made my blood pressure spike every time I picked it up, but was a truly excellent read (as I fully expected it to be).

Now I'm reading:

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Jen from The Relentless Reader gave me this ARC ages ago, and I'm just now getting to it, because I am a delinquent reader.  I'm sorry that I waited so long though, because I'm 50 pages in and thoroughly enjoying myself.  John Green readers will love this one.

Upcoming reads:

Hard to say!  I don't have any required reading on my plate right now, and summer is the very best time for wandering the stacks at the library.  However, three possibilities right now are The Interrogator by Glenn L. Carle (the latest book I picked from my TBR jar), Summerlong by Dean Bakopoulos (a recent release that is getting awesome reviews in the blogosphere...just can't resist), and/or The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (because there's just something about reading long books in the dog days of summer).

What are you reading this week?
 
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