Seeing Red by Lina Meruane

Translated by Megan McDowell

Synopsis:

25330335This powerful, profound autobiographical novel describes a young Chilean writer recently relocated to New York for doctoral work who suffers a stroke, leaving her blind and increasingly dependent on those closest to her. Fiction and autobiography intertwine in an intense, visceral, and caustic novel about the relation between the body, illness, science, and human relationships.

Review:

This book showed no mercy and clawed into my brain. The prose is relentless, the story is haunting, and the fact that Seeing Red is an autobiographical novel makes the main character’s anguish all the more real.

Lina has diabetes and has been told for a long time that one wrong move, one sudden swish of her head could rupture the veins in her retina, rendering her blind. And that’s what happens.

And then a firecracker went off in my head. But no, it was no fire I was seeing, it was blood spilling out inside my eye. The most shockingly beautiful blood I have ever seen. The most outrageous. The most terrifying. The blood gushed, but only I could see it. With absolute clarity I watched as it thickened, I saw the pressure rise, I watched as I got dizzy, I saw my stomach turn, saw that I was starting to retch, and even so. I didn’t straighten up or move an inch, didn’t even try to breathe while I watched the show. Because that was the last thing I would see, that night, through that eye: a deep, black blood.

Her new-ish boyfriend gets thrown into the role of caregiver, making sure that her insulin is drawn up correctly and that she walks down the street in a straight line. Her parents are an ocean away and predictably worried, running up her phone bill. And Lina herself has to connect with the world in a whole new way – packing a suitcase by touch instead of sight, counting steps so she doesn’t trip or smash into walls.

Lina, he sighed, immersed in a sudden sadness or shyness. Lina, now even softer, holding my chin, his slimy eyes everywhere: you’re blind, you’re blind and dangerous. Yes, I replied, slowly. Yes, but I’m only an apprentice blind woman and I have very little ambition in the trade, and yes, almost blind and dangerous.

I absolutely love Meruane’s writing. It’s relentless, not stopping for quotation marks or even paragraph breaks. It is fully from Lina’s blind head, with more references to sound and smell than her remembered sight.

It wasn’t minutes but rather hours, days, months in that waiting room, with its constant crossing and uncrossing of legs, its dragging of shoes toward the bathroom and its plopping into dilapidated chairs.

Lina tore at my heart. I sat with her in too quiet rooms, absorbed diagnoses and endless insurance forms and the horror of it all. It’s not a story I will easily forget.

Beating Back the Devil by Maryn McKenna

Synopsis:

6759134The universal human instinct is to run from an outbreak of disease like Ebola. These doctors run toward it. Their job is to stop epidemics from happening.

They are the disease detective corps of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the federal agency that tracks and tries to prevent disease outbreaks and bioterrorist attacks around the world. They are formally called the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS)—a group founded more than fifty years ago out of fear that the Korean War might bring the use of biological weapons—and, like intelligence operatives in the traditional sense, they perform their work largely in anonymity.

In this riveting narrative, Maryn McKenna—the only journalist ever given full access to the EIS in its fifty-three-year history—follows the first class of disease detectives to come to the CDC after September 11, the first to confront not just naturally occurring outbreaks but the man-made threat of bioterrorism. Urgent, exhilarating, and compelling, Beating Back the Devil takes you inside the world of these medical detectives who are trying to stop the next epidemic—before the epidemics stop us.

Review:

I’m a medical interpreter so this book is right in my sweet spot – disease! International locales! Shoe-leather epidemiology, oh my!  (It doesn’t roll off the tongue but go with me here.)

Continue reading “Beating Back the Devil by Maryn McKenna”

The Siren by Tiffany Reisz (Original Sinners #1)

Synopsis:

9780778313533_smp.inddNotorious Nora Sutherlin is famous for her delicious works of erotica, each one more popular with readers than the last. But her latest manuscript is different—more serious, more personal—and she’s sure it’ll be her breakout book… if it ever sees the light of day.

Zachary Easton holds Nora’s fate in his well-manicured hands. The demanding British editor agrees to handle the book on one condition: he wants complete control. Nora must rewrite the entire novel to his exacting standards—in six weeks—or it’s no deal.

Nora’s grueling writing sessions with Zach are draining… and shockingly arousing. And a dangerous former lover has her wondering which is more torturous—staying away from him… or returning to his bed?

Nora thought she knew everything about being pushed to your limits. But in a world where passion is pain, nothing is ever that simple.

Review:

Warning: this is not a romance novel. There is no happy ending and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Continue reading “The Siren by Tiffany Reisz (Original Sinners #1)”

One Hundred Twenty-One Days by Michele Audin

Translated by Christiana Hills

Synopsis:

26196054This debut novel by mathematician and Oulipo member Michèle Audin retraces the lives of French mathematicians over several generations through World Wars I and II. The narrative oscillates stylistically from chapter to chapter—at times a novel, fable, historical research, or a diary—locking and unlocking codes, culminating in a captivating, original reading experience.

Review:

One Hundred Twenty-One Days starts with a bang – a fairy tale introduction followed by an intriguing diary and newspaper articles. It makes the story wonderfully plotty as we follow Christian, an African boy that makes his way to Paris thanks to his mathematical ability.

From there the scope widens and the pace slows. Immediate accounts give way to lists, interview transcripts, and research materials, taking us further away from the story. What felt close and real in the first 50 pages fades away into historical analysis and hearsay. One World War turns into a second while the cast of characters (mostly mathematicians) grows and individual people become less memorable.

The Oulipo constraints, such as starting each chapter with the last words of the previous one, are fun and interesting. Some jokes are aimed at mathematicians but this language major never felt left out. Christiana Hills handily deals with numerous translation puzzles while maintaining different voices and registers for each section. But while the word candy kept my brain happy the diffuse plot kept me from falling in love.

Thanks to Deep Vellum and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Charleston Syllabus edited by Chad Williams, Kidada Williams, and Keisha N. Blain

Synopsis:

27507970On June 17, 2015, a white supremacist entered Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and sat with some of its parishioners during a Wednesday night Bible study session. An hour later, he began expressing his hatred for African Americans, and soon after, he shot nine church members dead, the church’s pastor and South Carolina state senator, Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, among them. The ensuing manhunt for the shooter and investigation of his motives revealed his beliefs in white supremacy and reopened debates about racial conflict, southern identity,systemic racism, civil rights, and the African American church as an institution. In the aftermath of the massacre, Professors Chad Williams, Kidada Williams, and Keisha N. Blain sought a way to put the murder – and the subsequent debates about it in the media – in the context of America’s tumultuous history of race relations and racial violence on a global scale. They created the Charleston Syllabus on June 19, starting it as a hashtag on Twitter linking to scholarly works on the myriad of issues related to the murder. Charleston Syllabus is a reader – a collection of new essays and columns published in the wake of the massacre, along with selected excerpts from key existing scholarly books and general-interest articles. As timely as it is necessary, the book will be a valuable resource for understanding the roots of American systemic racism, white privilege, the uses and abuses of the Confederate flag and its ideals, the black church as a foundation for civil rights activity and state violence against such activity, and critical whiteness studies.

Review:

As an American in Japan there’s literally half a world between me and events in my home country.  Major news gets clipped down by the Japanese media – “Yet another shooting in America.  Somebody shot X people because of historical hatred/current events/being psychologically unstable.  Y people are protesting. Police are investigating.”

After the Charleston shooting, where a white male shot nine black people in a racially motivated crime, I knew I needed more information.  The Japanese news didn’t have it.  The American online media added some background, but not enough.  Luckily #CharlestonSyllabus, a hashtag on Twitter started by the editors of this book, collected all kinds of books, articles, primary source documents, and even songs that related to the shooting and the history that leads up to it.  The list is extensive and deep; you can find it here and at the back of the book.

Extensive and deep is good, but it also meant I had no idea where I should start.  I put a couple of titles on my library wish list, where they still linger.

That’s where this one volume Charleston Syllabus comes in.  It’s organized into six chapters covering everything from slavery and religion to Malcolm X and Black Lives Matter.  Each section starts off with a historical overview before turning over to historical documents, scholarly analysis, and articles from the days and weeks after the massacre.  I love how all the different kinds of writing nestle up against each other – a slave’s first person account next to a song they may have sung while working, next to a scholarly article on the events of the period.  The variety and breadth of the sources help you get a deep understanding of the historical context and how it relates to today’s news.

Throughout the book I found myself thinking, how could my education have failed me so badly?  Why haven’t I studied Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a kick butt investigative journalist?  Why wasn’t an annotated Constitution of the Confederate States put before me?  There is so much more history than the cotton gin and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Charleston Syllabus filled in many of those holes in my knowledge.  It opened my eyes to topics and controversies I only heard of in passing.  It gave me a lot to think about and pointed me towards time periods and people I’d like to study more deeply.

If you’re American this book will help you grapple with the complicated mess that is racial relations in our country.  If you’re not American it will show you how current events are related to a long and terrifying history of slavery and oppression.  Charleston Syllabus is a must read for anyone that wants to understand how things went wrong and think about where we can go from here.

Thanks to University of Georgia Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Fake It by Jennifer Chance (Rule Breakers #2)

Synopsis:

51KDpuK+OoL._SX373_BO1,204,203,200_New grad Anna Richardson works hard—so hard that she’s given up having a romantic life. Anna has even convinced her friends that she’s dating an amazing guy—who they’ve simply never met. But now Anna has a wedding to attend and needs to produce the hottie she’s been lying about for the past six months. Enter Jake Flynn, her infuriating, motorcycle-riding, jaw-droppingly gorgeous neighbor, who’s more than willing to fake it for a weekend. In fact, Jake won’t be satisfied until things get real.

Though Jake is only playing the role of adoring boyfriend, he’s starting to feel the heat, and judging by Anna’s sweet blush, so is she. Letting chemistry this intense go to waste would be a real shame. Soon, though, the thin line between fantasy and reality fades. Jake may not be what every buttoned-up fast-tracker wants, but he’s sure as hell what Anna needs. And if she takes a ride with him, their adventure never has to end.

Review:

I love marriages of convenience in historical romances – let’s put these two strangers together and watch sparks fly! The contemporary counterpart is a boyfriend of convenience, the hot guy that you need to have on your arm for an event, usually a wedding, to avoid gossip or discomfort. Continue reading “Fake It by Jennifer Chance (Rule Breakers #2)”

The Wolf in the Attic by Paul Kearney

Synopsis:

23492495Anna Francis lives in a tall old house with her father and her doll Penelope. She is a refugee, a piece of flotsam washed up in England by the tides of the Great War and the chaos that trailed in its wake. Once upon a time, she had a mother and a brother, and they all lived together in the most beautiful city in the world, by the shores of Homer’s wine-dark sea.

But that is all gone now, and only to her doll does she ever speak of it, because her father cannot bear to hear. She sits in the shadows of the tall house and watches the rain on the windows, creating worlds for herself to fill out the loneliness. The house becomes her own little kingdom, an island full of dreams and half-forgotten memories. And then one winter day, she finds an interloper in the topmost, dustiest attic of the house. A boy named Luca with yellow eyes, who is as alone in the world as she is.

That day, she’ll lose everything in her life, and find the only real friend she may ever know.

Review:

This book is not what I was expecting, and sadly not in a good way.

Normally I think of fantasy as a story-driven genre.  The language can be elevated (like in The Last Werewolf) but the plot never stops.

In The Wolf in the Attic, though, the plot doesn’t even start until the 25% mark.  There are some Odd Goings On, the sort that usually build to a crescendo, but each is forgotten for fifty pages or more.  At 25% the story starts at a leisurely stroll and around 50% it finally gathers enough speed to see you through to the end of the book.

If you love pretty language you may not even notice the dragging action.  Kearney does a great job giving Anna some beautiful lines and insights that feel natural despite her young age:

But we cannot choose what we remember and what we forget.  All the lovely bright moments of our lives get forgotten except for remnants here and there, like the leaves blown from a tree in the autumn, and the terrible things, they stick with us forever, as bright and raw as the day they happened.

I noticed, however, that nearly all the pretty parts were quaint Britishisms (“I tramp down the road”) or similes (“The song is… as piercing and beautiful as a sunlit shard of ice”).  Nothing wrong with either, but I would have liked more variety.

One of the most troubling unexpected elements, for me, was the religious tone.  Anna’s journey is set up as a struggle between good people and bad people… I’ll let you guess which side god is on.  I was ready to cheer when one character declared himself an atheist, but he went on to say, “And I pray too, from time to time.  It is a thing I cannot help.  It is a need that is embedded in us all.  That is man’s condition.”  So you, agnostic reader, your lack of faith is unnatural.

Boo, book.  Boo.

The relationship that develops between Anna and Luca is cute but without a strong foundation.  Someone makes a life-changing decision based on it but the choice doesn’t feel earned.

The more central characters are to the story the better they are drawn, which makes sense.  That being said I would have liked some more depth to the secondary characters, as they exist for one purpose each – to guide Anna, or to hate her, or to give her a reassuring smile.  Only the governess kept my interest, as she both rapped Anna’s knuckles and showed her kindness.

One peeve at werewolf books in general – why do they reduce women to a womb?  The issue is dealt with well here, for which I am thankful, but it keeps nosing its way into the genre.

Finally, we have the end which, frankly, gave me whiplash.  The happily ever after is nice if you don’t think about it too long, which may be why things wrap up so quickly.  It’s a deus ex machina, remembering that ‘deus’ means ‘god’.  God is good, so everyone’s happy.  The end.

…right.

Even though The Wolf in the Attic a fantasy/paranormal book it ended up firmly in the “not for me” column. However, if you have a thing for language and don’t mind religion in fiction it may just be your thing.

Thanks to Rebellion Publishing and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Synopsis:

16142053Based on more than two hundred personal interviews with both current and former Scientologists–both famous and less well known–and years of archival research, Lawrence Wright uses his extraordinary investigative skills to uncover for us the inner workings of the Church of Scientology: its origins in the imagination of science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard; its struggles to find acceptance as a legitimate (and legally acknowledged) religion; its vast, secret campaign to infiltrate the U.S. government; and its dramatic efforts to grow and prevail after the death of Hubbard.

At the book’s center, two men whom Wright brings vividly to life, showing how they have made Scientology what it is today: The darkly brilliant L. Ron Hubbard–whose restless, expansive mind invented a new religion tailor-made to prosper in the spiritually troubled post-World War II era. And his successor, David Miscavige–tough and driven, with the unenviable task of preserving the church in the face of ongoing scandals and continual legal assaults.

Review:

This book covers three kinds of crazy:

1. The crazy that is L. Ron Hubbard, his life, and the whys and hows of how he started Scientology
2. The crazy that is the current leadership of the church and their awful, horrific practices
3. The crazy that is Scientology’s harassment of people who leave the church or write anything remotely negative about it

I was worried the book would be a rehash of the New Yorker article but there is a lot more here, especially about the life of LRH. Defining a religion is hard, as the IRS will tell you, but Wright lays out why Scientology is more cult-y than other new religions like Mormonism.

I’m really glad that the New Yorker had such a role in this book because it’s famous fact checking team did an amazing job making it bulletproof. It leads to some repetitive footnotes (“The church categorically denies all charges of Miscavige’s abuse”, “Cruise, through his attorney, denies that he ever retreated from his commitment to Scientology”, “The church denies that blow drills exist”) and a raft-load of source notes but I hope they do their job of keeping Wright and his family safe from harassment.

All in all Going Clear is a gripping, informative read.

The Earl Takes All by Lorraine Heath (Hellions of Havisham #2)

Synopsis:

26029545One summer night, Edward Alcott gives in to temptation and kisses Lady Julia Kenney in a dark garden. However, the passion she stirs within him is best left in the shadows as she weds his twin, the Earl of Greyling. But when tragedy strikes, to honor the vow he makes to his dying brother, Edward must pretend to be Greyling until the countess delivers her babe.

After her husband returns from a two-month sojourn, Julia finds him changed. Bolder, more daring, and more wicked—even if he does limit their encounters to kisses. With each passing day, she falls more deeply in love.

For Edward the embers of desire sparked on that long-ago night are quickly rekindled. He yearns to be her husband in truth. But if she discovers his ruse, she will despise him—and English law prevents him from marrying his brother’s widow. Yet he must dare to risk everything and reveal his secrets if he is to truly take all.

Review:

First things first: as hard as it is to do, this is going to be a spoiler-free review. All of the events I mention are either in the jacket copy or the first few pages of chapter one. I’ll still refer to later events, of course, but give nothing away while still getting most of my thoughts out.

Because oh, the thoughts.

The Earl Takes All is a tightrope walk of the highest order. Earl Albert and identical twin Edward have gone off to Africa for one last adventure but tragedy strikes. With his last breaths Albert asks Edward to take his place, to make sure pregnant Julia delivers their baby safely. He agrees out of honor, even though he isn’t sure if he can pull the stunt off.

There is so much that can go wrong, adding a healthy dose of angst – will Edward be found out? By whom? How? If yes, how would he recover? And if no, how would he live with the guilt? More than that, there are many places where weak characterization or a rushed scene would have pulled apart the underpinnings of the entire book. Heath manages everything masterfully, making sure the plot moves along while characters have all the human feelings you’d expect them to have.

You know how sometimes there’s a jump in time and it’s used to solve everything? “A month later and they’re friends again! Of course!” That doesn’t happen here. While the action is moved ahead now and then the relationships stay basically the same. It allows the characters to say, “I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few weeks and while I’m still not comfortable with xyz, I feel like I can talk about it now.” All of Heath’s characters are people, and only give you whiplash when it makes total sense (like that one time when… ~zips lips~).

Heath trusts the reader. Many authors nudge you about Whatever Thing endlessly but Heath knows we won’t forget. She’ll mention it early on and let it sit in a corner of your brain for 100, 200, 300 pages before drawing the thread back in. I love that.

The first half of this book is amazing. Everything feels real, without a stray emotion or action in sight. At the midpoint there’s a Big Happening and then things slow down. A lot. To a crawl. Here’s the thing – looking back it was totally necessary. If the action wasn’t allowed to drop I would have been questioning people’s sanity.

It still affected my reading experience, though. By 60% I was thinking, “What the heck is left to drive the rest of this book?”. Then there’s another Happening with two chapters left and I thought, “How will she wrap this up in time?!” It’s a roller coaster I wasn’t expecting.

If I were grading purely on difficulty and execution of an idea The Earl Takes All would be five stars, easily. I’m incredibly impressed that she took this thing on and did it so well. I want to read more romance like this, stories that push boundaries while staying true to their historical periods and human emotion.

That being said… the drop in action nearly killed the experience for me. I’m not a big lover of angst and while it’s delicious, you’re up to your eyeballs in it. One misunderstanding in particular left me skimming pages because I couldn’t take it any more.

So even though I will gush about this book and push it on friends I only feel comfortable giving it three and a half stars. If you like angst it will be a four star read for you, and it’s an easy recommend to anyone that likes romances that stray from the usual. Heath is one of my favorite authors and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.