Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Book #21: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

I feel a little wary of WWII novels, because I have read so, so many that I wonder how there can possibly be anything else anyone can write that would be interesting to read about WWII. I resist reading WWII books that I hear about until I get a solid recommendation on one, like I finally got about this one. I heard it was so, so good that I didn't want to pass this one up. I downloaded it to my Kindle while I was in the hospital and I've been reading it since we got home. Truly, I loved it. The first half was a little slower for me and harder to get into, but then I couldn't put it down the rest of the time. And there were some truly beautifully written parts that stood out so much to me and made it so meaningful to read.

This book follows three young people through their experiences of the first few years of the war: Mary, Tom, and Alistair. Mary and Tom are in London during the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, and Alistair is a soldier in Malta during the siege there. The thing that stood out to me was the horror and terror of the bombings throughout London, and how those bombings affected the people and their relationships and their lives. The children of London were sent to live in rural towns, thousands of people were killed over every night, everyone had to hide in their bomb shelters every night to survive. I had never pictured or imagined the bombings in their tangible effects as well as Cleave imagines them here. I loved following Mary North in her growth from an idealistic, stubborn, somewhat naive rich girl and her ultimate disillusionment from what she thought was possible with the world. She was determined to do something exciting and world-changing for the war effort, was assigned to be a teacher, lost her class of students in a bombing that she escaped from, drove ambulances for the war effort, almost died in a horrible freak accident, and got addicted to morphine to deal with her fears and horrible PTSD. She doesn't come through it all unscathed, or even necessarily better. But she has survived and is made stronger. Alistair's story about the siege of Malta is similarly crazy.

One thing that was simultaneously awesome and annoying about this book was the style of conversation between the characters. Every character was super quick and sharp and sarcastic and even cynical. They were always witty and came up with a great response to everyone. I didn't feel like it was super realistic, because how can everyone be like that? But it was fun to read, so it was hard to mind too much.

I think one of my favorite parts of this story was the fact that in the afterword, the author talks about how this story is based on the lives of his grandparents who lived through WWII in London. Mary is based on the experiences of his two grandmothers, and his grandfather did a lot of the things that Alistair did as well. I thought that was such an interesting way to honor the experiences of his grandparents and to do family history--I loved that.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Book #20: This Shattered World by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

After reading These Broken Stars a week or two ago, I wanted to check out the companion novels that the authors also wrote. For some reason, I was more interested in reading the other books because they weren't true sequels, following the same characters and continuing the same story from the first one, but a different story within the same world and on the same themes of fighting intergalactic villains. Sometimes I think books that develop into trilogies start with a great concept and then really end up having to stretch it out and add unnecessarily to the drama and storyline in order to make it a trilogy--like they meant it just to be one book, then got a contract to turn it into a trilogy so they had to figure out some way to make it last longer (aka Hunger Games and Divergent books for sure). I liked how these authors avoided that pitfall and didn't force any unnecessary storyline on the original characters, but still had them show up as minor characters in someone else's story.

This book follows Jubilee Chase and Flynn Cormac, a soldier and a rebel on the planet of Avon. They're caught on opposing sides of the war, and are trained to kill each other on sight. But they get caught up in a bigger fight of finding out what mysterious forces are controlling Avon and what's wrong with their planet, and they begin to find the same things that Lilac and Tarver found in the first novel--proof that LaRoux industries is experimenting with different species of creatures and wreaking havoc in multiple worlds, trying to gain mind control over whole groups of people. Of course, Jubilee and Flynn begin to fall for each other and also manage to save the world at the same time.

The first book was much more focused on the romance of Lilac and Tarver (crash-landed on a foreign planet, all alone, going from hatred to love), and while this one had the romance between the two main characters, it was much less of the main storyline. This one had a lot more to do with the world of Avon and the never-ending war between the rebels and the soldiers, and the mystery of what is going on behind the scenes of their planet. I didn't mind that contrast, even though I wasn't totally sold on the romance-y part in this book. Overall, I enjoyed this book, although I could NOT keep my mind on it or really get into it as I was reading this week. I only stuck with it because I also couldn't focus on anything else--but I don't think that was really the fault of this book, but more that I am 39 weeks pregnant and stuck in the mental mind-game of wondering if I am going into labor and can't focus on anything else.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Book #19: Some Girls: My Life in a Harem by Jillian Lauren

I'll say this up front: I would imagine most people would be significantly uncomfortable reading this book. I would definitely not recommend it to anyone who has any qualms about reading things with sexual content--not that this book was overly explicit, but it is about an eighteen-year-old girl who literally is in a harem with the Prince of Brunei and worked as a sex worker before going there. There were definitely parts that made me uncomfortable, but since I was listening to this on an audiobook, I would just skip 3-4 minutes ahead and not have to hear anything else from that section or situation. (It worked so much better than skipping bad stuff while reading. It was great!) I came to this book after reading Lauren's Everything You Ever Wanted, in which she talks about her adoption process with her little boy, which happens at the same time that she was writing this original memoir about her experiences in Brunei. After listening to that book and how she wrote about it and what the fallout was from it (obviously, when you write about being a sex worker, there is going to be fallout in your personal life), I was interested to read this one. And also, I LOVED the other memoir. Lauren's voice in that one was so raw and honest and real that I felt like I knew and loved her and wanted to hear more about her. This one wasn't quite as good as the other one--but maybe that was because of the subject matter and how much more emotional and compelling the story of motherhood is to me.

Anyways, in THIS book, Lauren writes about her experiences going to "work" in Brunei, basically as a part of the prince of Brunei's harem of women he kept around to sleep with. She had already been working as a stripper and as a call girl before going there, so it wasn't too shocking to her to be doing those things. She writes about the infighting and difficulty the women had with each other, and the relationship that Prince Jefri had with the women and how he treated them, and what rewards they got from their time there (she ended up with hundreds of thousands of dollars). She also has a lot of flashbacks to her younger life with her family, and why she basically ran away from home and how she ended up doing what she did. I thought her family relationships were especially interesting, especially since I'd already listened to her other book and found out how they'd reacted when this first memoir came out (her parents disowned her and stopped communicating with her altogether after she wrote this book). She wrote about her father was sometimes abusive (verbally and physically) and why she ran away to college at age 16 before dropping out.

I just couldn't help reading this book thinking how sad Lauren's whole story was. She was so young--only eighteen! And she had been doing stuff like this for a few years already. It is just amazing to consider the difference between me and her and what we were doing at those respective ages. At age 18, I was living the life of a very naive and unaware BYU freshman, who still hadn't ever even kissed anyone. I felt so sad for her and thought how it was like a cautionary tale for parents to not act like her parents had. Once she became a teenager and started acting out, they grew super frustrated with her and pushed her away, and look what happened to her. She later became a serious drug addict (she references it in her second memoir) and eventually puts her life back together, but it took decades. I know she didn't write it to be a cautionary tale (she kind of references that at the beginning of the book) but I couldn't help reading it like that. Obviously I wouldn't want a child working as a sex worker, but more than that, her obviously very conflicted relationship with her parents and her terrible self-esteem as a young woman are truly damaging pitfalls that all parents want to think they're helping their child to avoid.

All in all, I didn't love this book like I did her other one, but it was interesting enough since I'd already learned a lot about her in the other book. I may not have cared too much about finishing this one if I hadn't already connected with her in her other memoir. Overall, I was glad when this ended with a minimum of damage done to her and when she put this whole experience behind her.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Book #18: The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

This book is basically Will and Kate fanfiction, just a little bit twisted. American college student Bex Porter goes to Oxford for a year of college and while there, meets and falls in love with Prince Nicholas. The book goes through their relationship and how they fell in love and then the next eight years of ups and downs for them. It ends in dramatic fashion the night before their wedding, and shows a lot of the struggles of becoming a "royal" and dealing with the press and celebrity status.

It was a fun, totally not-high-brow-literature read. But the main problem was that it was too LONG, considering that it was supposed to be a fun, brainless book. It was almost 500 pages and really should have been edited down. It felt like a Sophie Kinsella book (which I loved as a teenager, and still do), with the rich British social scene and bar-hopping, but it took about five times longer to get through than Kinsella's books and it felt way too long. I think there could have been plenty of things edited down to make it more manageable. The other thing that I couldn't get past with this book was Bex's personality. She was a random American art student, the less-achieving of the twins (between her and her sister), but she absolutely never was at a loss for what to say or felt uncomfortable in any situation or came back with less than the most witty response. I have only ever met one person like that--as adept at conversation as that--and they weren't as self-assured as Bex was in her head (since we get this story from her perspective). I just felt like she wasn't really as believable as a character, or really that relatable to me, but that is because my life is eons away from hers. I was amazed by all the drinking and partying and sex that is in these pages--but I guess maybe that's how college and the early twenties are for lots of people (particularly in Britain?). (Because obviously that's NOT how my college experience was, haha.)

I did really like the story about how Bex and Nick fell in love--so normally, by just hanging out together--and then the details about her transformation after she and Nick got engaged. It seemed very real. I also liked the twist at the end with happens right before their wedding, and I was truly wondering how it was going to play out. I also liked how it was pretty realistic about how Bex's and Nick's relationship evolved and developed through their separations, etc. Overall, I liked the story, but I wish it had moved faster and cut out some of the lesser-important scenes and plotlines to focus on the main story.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Book #17: These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

This is like a fantasy futuristic version of the Titanic--an unsinkable (uncrashable?) luxury spaceship airliner is pulled out of hyperdrive and crashes on an uncharted planet. Everyone dies, except for Lilac LaRoux and Tarver Merendsen--and they have to figure out how to survive and how to be rescued. They come from different worlds: Tarver is a regular kid who's made the big times by being a war hero, and Lilac is the only daughter heiress of the richest man in the universe. They have had a few awkward encounters before they crash together, and they start off as enemies and eventually (spoiler alert!, but not actually unexpected) fall in love.

I actually really enjoyed this book. It has been sitting on my bedside stand for a few weeks now (not to mention the years it's been hanging out in my to-read list on Goodreads) and I was debating just returning it to the library and ignoring it. But the cover was too enticing, so I figured I'd read a few chapters and then chuck it if I didn't like it. But it was enthralling and I couldn't put it down after that. I read it in a few big chunks last night and today and already finished it. I liked how the authors did an alternating perspective, every other chapter from each of the main characters, and how you got a look into their minds, which saved you from thinking they were too obnoxious or too uppity--it just helped to see their true thoughts and insecurities. I thought it seemed pretty believable how they overcame their original prejudices against each other (sometimes it happens so quickly that they go from enemies to lovers that I just can't buy it), particularly since they were in a life-or-death survival situation and lots of chance they would die there with each other. I have to say that I was a little confused by the ending and the whole sci-fi jumping through dimensions/rift in the space-time continuum sort of thing. Maybe I was reading too fast to really understand it (sometimes that happens, when I am anxious to get to the end and see how it all ends happily), but I feel like it was a little confusing and surprising that it all worked out. Oh well.

This shows how much I liked it--I checked out the two sequels from the library today because I wanted to read them too. I especially like the idea of the sequels because they are stories about DIFFERENT PEOPLE and not just a continuation of the same theme, making up new difficulties for Lilac and Tarver to get through once they get back to their normal lives. I thought the writing and the world was interesting enough that I would like to read the sequels--especially once I'm nursing all the time and need something light to read and keep myself entertained.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Book #16: Everything You Ever Wanted by Jillian Lauren

I can't say how much I loved this book. Lauren--who has a crazy background as a drug addict, former harem member and stripper, wife of a rockstar (the bassist for Weezer), and then MFA student--tells the story about their journey through infertility, through adoption, and through learning about and dealing with her son's special needs with astonishing honesty. She goes way, way, way deep into how truly desperate she felt at many stages, and shares the truth about what she really did and thought all along the way. It feels like a more meaningful, redemptive story, since she came from such a desperate background and came so close to losing everything. (She talks about one of her best friends throughout the narrative, who eventually dies of an overdose a few years in and provides a what-if storyline for Lauren herself.) I feel like Lauren's story struck so meaningfully to me because I am about to give birth to my third easily-achieved baby, and I felt almost guilty and unappreciative listening to the extreme lengths she and her husband went to to try and have babies before eventually coming to the idea of adopting. And I also felt almost guilty and unappreciative of my relatively easy children after hearing all the difficulties her young son had after his adoption--not that Lauren is writing this in any sort of complaining way. She talks a lot about how his struggles come from his experience with trauma and his separations he experienced as an infant before he was adopted. But her desperation and frustration she felt while dealing with his violence and rejection at the ages of 2 and 3 sounded so familiar to me--because I have felt a lot of those same feelings just with my normal, easy children. I have felt so out-of-control and wondered what is wrong with me, or how I am messing up my children. But I have so much fewer reasons to feel that way compared to her situation. I loved how she was so honest--she even talked about how she hit her son one time when he bit her (as he did repeatedly), and about all of the therapy and diagnoses they had to go through, but also about how much she loved her son and how much work she was willing to put in to help him.

I have often thought how amazing it would be to adopt or foster a child, but I have been afraid of it because of reasons like Lauren's experience--how absolutely hard it must be. Even though Lauren's experience with her son is just proof that yes, it is really hard, mind-numbingly hard--it actually made me want to do it even more. Because they survive, and they end up not "happily ever after" but heading in the right direction and stronger than they were before. I think this book would be a great, great read for anyone remotely interested in adoption, but also just for anyone who likes things that are well-written and inspiring in the best way. I am sure that I will re-read this someday. It was that good.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Book #15: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Okay, so I read this for my book club (knowing that I won't be going for a little while after the baby comes, so I wanted to go now). I really liked it, and I really didn't like it. This book is a novelization of the story of Dinah from the Bible--the one daughter of Jacob who is named in the book of Genesis. In the Bible, we learn that she was taken and raped by a prince, and Simeon and Levi go and kill an entire city of men and kidnap her back. That's basically all you know about her. But this book covers her whole life, and the lives of her mothers before her, and gives voice to this woman who doesn't say a word in the Bible. She tells her story and that of her family, and tells what "really" happened to her as she was growing up and then what happened to her after that one small (and traumatic) episode that is described in the Bible. I'm going to get somewhat specific (spoiler alert!) so I remember stuff for our book club discussion next week.

The thing that I really liked in this book was the sense of community and closeness among the women in the story. The best part, I thought, was the beginning chapters, describing the four wives of Jacob (Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah), and how they became his wives and how they interacted with each other. The book is called The Red Tent because that was the women's tent where they all spent their periods together--and Dinah makes it seem like this immeasurable time of bonding and caring for one another. It seemed almost magical, the way that she talked about it--all the women in there together, taking a break from their usual labors, resting and gossiping and worshipping their (pagan) gods together. I really liked that image and I thought Diamant did a wonderful job of creating that world for me. (Interesting to note: this menstrual tent idea for these women in the Bible is not actually historically accurate... there's no evidence that they did that. But Diamant says that other cultures had it so she thought it could have applied here with these women too.) I also liked the strength and power that the women depicted in their birthing scenes--I am NOT a birth story person (they usually gross me out and hit too close to home) but since Dinah grew up around so many births, and grew up to be a midwife, it was a natural theme and it really made me feel like women are powerful and strong. I also feel like the ending was somewhat satisfying to return for a short while to her father's family and see how her story lived on; it fit with the strong themes of the women keeping their own stories alive and the oral histories that played a huge role in their lives.

I didn't love some things about the book too. I didn't love her depictions of Jacob or Joseph. Jacob was a totally inattentive father (except to his beloved eldest sons) who couldn't even picture what his daughter looked like after she was taken away. Joseph grew up to be an insufferable arrogant jerk who Diamant projects as being gay and actually sleeping with Potiphar's wife instead of the story we all know and love from the Bible. And also, her depiction of Rebecca as this psycho, stonewalling crazy grandma-prophetess just struck me as wrong. (But I mean, maybe there's something mentioned in the Bible that makes sense of that?) I was pretty bored of the story after she cursed her father and brothers and left after the bloodbath. She goes to Egypt, bears a son of her husband who was killed, and basically sits around for years, eventually becoming a midwife and gets married again. I felt like she displayed pretty much no emotions about being taken away from her home that she'd lived in for her whole life and leaving her mothers who she adored. She literally knew her husband for like one week when she was 15 years old, and they basically just had sex the whole time, and she spent the rest of her life pining for him and not missing her family who she'd been with for forever. I mean, come on. I hated how her son drifts away from her and she becomes nothing more than a servant who happened to bear him in her womb (which, I get may be realistic to the times, but I still hated). I also hated how she accidentally runs into Joseph again as the grand vizier in Egypt. I mean, come on. That's super likely.

Overall, I thought the book was worth reading. I felt like I read the whole beginning with a sense of foreboding, waiting for things to get really bad, and it kind of ruined my enjoyment of the beginning (which was definitely the strongest part of the story, with the themes of feminine strength and connection). I liked how it fleshed out (fictionally) this story from a woman's perspective, which helps to give new ideas about how things may or may not have been for these people, who really did live one day a long time ago, even if I don't personally agree that they would have been that way.