Sunday, December 22, 2019

The best and worst of 2019

Another year is coming to a close. I haven't been as active on my blog like years past. Sometimes posting feels like a chore, and I never want to do something that feels like a chore. Honestly, I'm not sure how much longer I will continue posting. When I first started, it was to break out of a personal slump. I had something to look forward to other than work or school. Now, I'm not so sure what the next step is? Monthly recaps? Bi-monthly recaps? Mini reviews? I don't know yet, so bare with me.

I am trying some new things. I've started using a TBR jar. I'm such a moody reader sometimes, that I thought a TBR jar would be a fun idea. I cut up approximately 50 pieces of paper and inserted the book titles that I really, really, really want to get to. Most of them are books I've owned for years but never read. I don't accept as many review titles because it's time to tackle the books I own. I'm also going to give bullet journaling a try. I see so many vloggers on YouTube having fun creating vibrant reading journals, and I think it could be fun for me too. I've got stencils, colored pencils, and highlighters!! So we'll see where that takes me.

Now something that isn't a chore, recapping the best and worst books I read. I enjoy looking back on reading journey for the year. Sooooooooo let's get to it.

Best books of 2019
(Please note, not all of these books were published in 2019. I just happened to read them in 2019.)

1. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah: Engrossing family drama, I enjoyed it from end to end.

2. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid: I didn't review this on my blog, but this is a book that deserves the hype. Evelyn Hugo has the life everyone thinks they want, but is it worth it if you have to hide who you are?

3. The Stand by Stephen King: Again, another one I didn't post a review for. Getting through 1,000-plus
pages was its own reward. If it's not already happening, this is a book that should be taught in college. This book had everything: sci-fi, horror, allegory, sarcasm, romance, and drama. There were also so many parallels to our current political world. I highly recommend reading this.

4. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai: Didn't review this one either, sensing a pattern? But this one was great, too. A story of friendship, set against the AIDS epidemic in 1980s Chicago.

5. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: Sorry, no review of this one either. Keeping secrets doesn't
always end well for the characters in this book, making for an engaging read.

6. Sleeping Beauties by Stephen and Owen King: Never has 600 pages gone by so quickly. All the women of the world are falling asleep, as they do their bodies are covered in thick cocoons. The men are left to fend for themselves. What could go wrong?

7. A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena: No review, but this was an exercise in learning about other cultures. Everyone wants to believe the worst about one girl, but what if everyone was wrong?

8. The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan: My lone non-fiction read of the year felt almost like fiction. How could seemingly sane people be convinced to go undercover in a mental hospital?

9. Uprooted by Naomi Novik: This one was a book club pick at my job. It's a fantasy novel, and I never would have read it without book club. I'm glad I read it. This one was inventive, and best of all easy to follow!

10: The Quintland Sisters by Shelley Wood: It's a fictional take on a real story. Five sisters were made into a spectacle instead of a having a normal life.

11. Dumplin by Julie Murphy: I did review this one, but sad to say I still haven't watched the movie. This one was refreshing, finally a heroine who isn't a skinny mini.

The not so good books of 2019
(Please note, not all of these books were published in 2019. I just happened to read them in 2019.)

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult: It pains me to say this because she's one of my favorite authors. I think she was aiming for a nuanced portrayal of race, but I think it just came across as pandering and full of stereotypes. I fully believe she meant well, but I don't think writing about racism is in Jodi Picoult's wheelhouse.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton: I don't believe the hype. This had an inventive take on a murder mystery, but the execution just wasn't there for me.

Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor: To me, the sequel to Strange the Dreamer, was worse than the first book. The timeline was just too confusing.

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas: This was uneven and was at times not believable to me. Her previous book, The Hate U Give, was better.

The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan: A grieving teenage girl thinks her mother is contacting her from beyond the grave. Her mother has turned into a bird. The premise sounded good, but again execution is everything.

Looking ahead!
I read 36 books in 2019. As always, I'm aiming for 50 books in 2020. You people who read 100-plus books a year, I don't know how you do it!

Sunday, December 8, 2019

My take on: The Great Pretender

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Susannah Cahalan speak about the inspiration for her latest book, The Great Pretender. To hear her speak about this book felt like a bit of a detective story, one that I wanted to read. 

Her own experience of being misdiagnosed with a mental illness left Susannah with a keen sense of empathy and understanding for those who are actually mentally ill. Upon hearing about a famous study, On Being Sane in Insane Places, she felt the need to investigate further. In 1973, Stanford psychologist David Rosenhan and seven other people sought to understand or expose the mental health system, by pretending to be insane. With just a few symptoms, hearing voices that said “thud, empty, hollow” led to varying stays in mental hospitals and overwhelming diagnoses of schizophrenia. How could seemingly “sane” people be labelled as “insane”? What does it say about doctors and the entire mental health system if they could be so easily fooled by “sane” people? Plus, why would anyone subject themselves to this kind of study? At the start of this journey, Susannah had a deep respect and admiration for Dr. Rosenhan. In his own way, he was trying to help. But did he help? That’s the big mystery Susannah was trying to solve.

It’s been sooooooooooo long since I read a non-fiction book cover-to-cover. Full disclosure, I work at a book publisher (not the one that published this book) on non-fiction books. Because I work on non-fiction five days a week, I rarely read it for pleasure. But I was fascinated by this book. I had never heard of this study. I understand the point of doing a study like this, but what about the long-term impact on the participants? Many of the people, a.k.a. pseudopatients, were put on heavy-duty medication – not everyone was able to fake swallowing the pills. How does that effect there psyche going forward? I’m not entirely clear if it was an ethical breech for Dr. Rosenhan to be an actual pseudopatient, but it sure looks that way. How could he be objective when might have had a predetermined outcome?

The results of the study showed there was an emphasis on medication versus actual treatments, like therapy. Shove a pill down someone’s throat and hope they’re cured of depression or of hearing voices. Looking into the benefits of alternative therapies seems to be a modern-day technology. Some good came out of On Being Sane in Insane Places, the criteria for mental diagnoses became more stringent. But as Susannah delved deeper into Rosenhan’s records, she found his research was lacking. He took liberties, stretching the truth into outright lies. There were lots of holes/inconsistencies in his methodology. It’s quite possible that not all of the pseudopatients even exist. Did he just make things up? Who knows, but he definitely twisted things to fit a narrative rather than just reporting the facts. Would such a shoddy study be published in a medical journal today? I’d like to think it couldn’t happen, but anything is possible. 

This book was compulsively readable but sad at the same time. In modern society, the mental health system isn’t much better than it was in 1973. Instead of being treated in hospitals, the mentally ill are more often to be found in prisons or homeless. It’s hard to get into a hospital, due to the lack of beds, doctors, and treatment. The book ends where it began, “If. . .sanity and insanity exist. . .how shall we know them?” (Pg. 298). I'm not sure.

Rating: Superb

Sunday, November 24, 2019

My take on: The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

I tried, I really tried to understand The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, but I just don’t get it.

The concept behind this book – murder mystery meets Groundhog Day – is certainly inventive but I thought the execution was overly completed and convoluted.

There’s a big party at Blackheath mansion. The party is hosted by the Hardcastle family. But this party will end in murder. Evelyn Hardcastle will die at 11 p.m. It’s up to Aiden Bishop not to stop her murder but to solve her murder. He has eight days and eight different hosts to work with. Each day is the same, except each day he will wake up in a different host. Their memories are a bit of a jumble for Aiden. He doesn’t know which ones he can trust and which ones he can’t. Solving the murder will not come easy, as there is a person or persons working to sabotage Aiden’s quest. Aiden makes some allies, and is determined to not only solve the murder but to prevent it.

That’s the book in a nutshell.

Numerous glowing newspaper articles and YouTube reviews convinced me that this book was worth reading. So I bought it months and finally finished reading it recently. The book reminded me of some Agatha Christie books, Evil Under the Sun and Death on the Nile. Guests are sequestered at a remote location, a murder happens, and it’s up to one astute person to solve it. Only with this book, solving the murder involves soooooooooooooooo much plotting it was hard to follow. Most of the time I take notes on the books I read, but just so I can recall some details when it comes time to write reviews. With The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle I felt like I was studying for test I was bound to fail.

The story is not linear, which isn’t always a bad thing for a book. With this story, when Aiden wakes up in a different host he’s not waking up at the time of day every time. The day doesn’t automatically start from the beginning when the host falls asleep. Aiden re-emerges inside his hosts at random parts of the day. At times, there are long gaps between hosts and the reader is left trying to remember what happened earlier. When the mystery is finally solved, I was not impressed. The ending seemed to come out of left field, and relied on a lot of things going right (which of course they don’t).

The concept of this novel is great, but the end result, in my opinion, fell flat. 

Rating: Meh

Friday, November 8, 2019

My take on: Escaping Exodus

As much as I like to think I’m not a book snob, I really am a book snob. Contemporary and historical fiction tends to be the sweet spot for me. The occasional horror or mystery isn’t bad either. But sci-if and fantasy are often a struggle for me. I tend to give up on sci-if and fantasy quickly, more so than any other genre.

I almost gave up on Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden. Just 20 pages in, I thought I can’t do this. I don’t understand! However....I pressed on because I realized I was being shortsighted. I’m so glad I kept going because I would have missed out on a smart, inventive, and engaging book.

Earth is long gone. Habitable planets don’t exist. Instead societies survive inside the cavernous bodies of space beasts. Yes large animals, that I have to assume are the size of large cities. “Beastworkers” aka laborers, are tasked with excavating the bodies of the beasts, all at the behest of the upper class. Seske is next in line to lead one of these colonies. Seske is reluctant to take on that kind of power because it means she will have to get married. Betrothal to a man or a woman is allowed. Although in this matriarchal society, marriage to a woman is preferable. Women in this society have the power, and men are seen as the weaker sex. Oh the irony! Imagine a world where it’s not safe for men to be out after dark! Seske would love to court her best friend, Adalla, but that’s a pipe dream. Although Adalla is woman, she is also a beastworker and therefore not a suitable mate for Seske.

Hopes of true love dashed, Seske and Adalla have to learn to live without the other. Meeting together in secret won’t work. Plus Seske has to watch her back, as someone close to her is plotting to take her place as leader. Seske instead chooses a male, Doka, as her husband. Adalla tried to move on but as she learns more about beast work and the rules of society the more she rebels, vowing to change some of the more barbaric and violent ways of their world. Seske rebels in her own ways, too. Defying her mother, Matris’s, more totalitarian ways, Seske wants to embrace more modern ways, like new technologies and listening to the will of the people instead of trying to snuff it out.

I ended up liking this much more than I thought I would. Getting past my early brain block, I could see all the parallels to modern-day society. When people want change, there will always be someone or something that tries to block it. There’s racism, sexism, and classism throughout this book. All of which bring down this world. New ideas are crushed. People don’t feel free to be themselves or free to be with the one they love. The ending is a little bit out there, overall I found this book to be very relatable and enjoyable.

Rating: Superb

Notes: I received a copy of the book from the publisher (HarperCollins) as part of a blog tour with TLC Book Tours