Friday, July 6, 2012

Kindle Reviews: Relentless, How to Hepburn, Anna Dressed in Blood, A Monster Calls, and the Doomsday Book

My husband got me a Kindle for Mother's Day. I fight technology and the acquisition of new "stuff" pretty vociferously, but he just knew me better than I know myself and went right ahead and made the purchase.

And it's AWESOME. I love reading and never seem to have the time. Which I know isn't true. I know I have time to read if I have time to blog, surf, veg, or chat. Yet somehow reading doesn't happen. The book I want is downstairs, or I left it at home when I went to my daughter's art class and it turns out the baby is asleep and I have 20 minutes, or I think of bringing the book when I leave for the park but it's really heavy and I don't want to carry it, or I can't handle it with one hand while nursing the baby, etc etc. My Kindle is tiny, light, easy to carry, and holds everything.

Plus, my Kindle has my blog reading list on it, so now when I'm online I just click the articles I want to read later (Reabability is a great program I use for this purpose) and it sends them to my Kindle. I could spend two hours surfing and reading online and when it's over I remember very little of what I read and still feel like I wasted my time even though I was spending it reading. So now I spend less time online and feel like I am accomplishing more.

A few summers ago, I had read a great book about what the internet does to our brains (The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, which I give my highest recommendation: it is a MUST READ) and his main premise is that the presence of so many options available to us when we are online keeps the "choice" part of our brains activated, and when this short-term part is active we lose the capacity for deep, long-term thinking. My Kindle does not have pop ups, and once I make the choice to read an article, I read through it without the ability to click on any hyperlinks, even those that reference a related article. I have to sit there and read what I am reading, and that's it. (When I put articles into Readability, I scroll down to see if the author hyperlinks a reference article, and often open that up and put it in my reader, too. The best part is that it fits them into my Kindle from newest to oldest, so I can read in chronological order the argument as it proceeds from the original idea. Super awesomeness abounds!)

At any rate, this has resulted in my being able to read books again. Here are my reviews of several books I've read on my Kindle since Mother's Day:

Relentless, the Search for Typhoid Mary by Joan Meijer
Equal parts history, epidemiology, tragedy, and romance, this book reads like a mystery detective novel complete with thrilling chase scenes, near misses, and fist-pounding frustration. It is written in the POV of both the title character (Mary Mallon, an asymptomatic carrier of the typhoid virus who was employed for many years as a cook in the homes of wealthy upstate New Yorkers at the turn of the last century) and the "relentless" Department of Health inspector (George Soper) who tracks her down as the cause of various typhoid outbreaks and then has to continue to chase her as she stubbornly refuses to stop working as a cook. The heart of the story, though, is the character of Mary, who is presented as a whole person with dreams and struggles. Knowing her, as we come to do over the course of the book, the reader is left with a strong sympathy for her plight and a deep sense of injustice as to how she was treated.

How to Hepburn: Life Lessons from Kate the Great by Karen Karbo
I came to this book knowing nothing about Katherine Hepburn aside from the fact that she was a beautiful movie star who liked to wear pants. The author did a great job putting together a humorous portrait of this unique woman under the guise of dispensing advice on how to emulate her. After about three pages I knew there was no way I would ever be able "to Hepburn." I don't have the self-assurance that is the lynchpin of brashness! Still, I can't deny that Hepburn is a compelling subject and I enjoyed the book immensely. Ms. Karbo writes with panache and had me laughing out loud in several places. She manages to explain some of Kate's more outlandish behaviors in a way that makes her seem a very real person -- no small feat when you consider how many conflicting stories surround this legendary woman. I was glad to learn more about her.

Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake
This is a young adult novel that came recommended on one of the writing blogs I frequent. I started reading it late at night, and that was a mistake. It is decidedly gruesome and creepy, and there is a body count. The main character, Cas Lowood, is a ghost "killer." With the help of his trusty athame, he sends dangerous ghosts (for these specters actually kill innocent people who stray into their paths) to the beyond. He gets more than he bargains for when he tracks a lead to a small town where Anna, the ghost of a 15 year old girl, is haunting her old family home. Anna is much more difficult to kill than the other ghosts he's encountered, not least because he finds himself sympathizing with her more than her victims. The paranormal romance serves as a backdrop to the main plot, which revolves around Cas' attempt to fulfill his destiny. The side characters are mostly two dimensional, and I didn't like the twist towards the end. However, it resolved in an organic and mostly satisfying way. I don't usually enjoy ghost stories, but this was a page turner.

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness
This was another YA book, but it deals with a very mature subject. Connor O'Malley has a bunch of problems. His mother is very ill, battling cancer that doesn't seem to be going away. His fussy, bossy grandmother is forcing him to live with her while his mom is in the hospital, since his dad is too busy with his new wife and baby. He's being bullied at school by a gang of boys, but even that's better than the pitying looks he gets from everyone else. Oh, and there's an enormous Tree Monster telling him stories that make no sense and leaving yew berries all over his room every night. This is a magical book, poignant and historic, with beauty on every page. The stories are morally problematic (infected with the modern disease of relativistic pointlessness), but they fit the situation and lead to an important emotional truth that Connor needs to learn. This is the sort of SF I love: a book about real issues that uses magic to reveal the truth of the human condition. Very well done.

The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
Winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, this book is a magnificent piece of historical fiction. Kivrin, a history student of the future, time travels back to the fourteenth century to do research on the middle ages. She feels she has been well prepared by her professors and her mentor, Mr. Dunworthy, but nothing can prepare her for what happens when she finally arrives at her destination. Meanwhile, the modern (2048) world she has left behind finds itself facing a crisis that prevents help from reaching Kivrin when she most needs it. I found myself entirely caught up in the fates of both centuries, and must warn you that this is not a book to be read without a packet of tissues at hand. I cannot recommend it enough; it is in every way perfection.