Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sweetness #9

Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark
Little, Brown and Company: 8/19/2014
eBook, 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316278751
stephanclark.com


It's 1973, and David Leveraux has landed his dream job as a Flavorist-in-Training, working in the secretive industry where chemists create the flavors for everything from the cherry in your can of soda to the butter on your popcorn.
While testing a new artificial sweetener—"Sweetness #9"—he notices unusual side-effects in the laboratory rats and monkeys: anxiety, obesity, mutism, and a generalized dissatisfaction with life. David tries to blow the whistle, but he swallows it instead.
Years later, Sweetness #9 is America's most popular sweetener—and David's family is changing. His wife is gaining weight, his son has stopped using verbs, and his daughter suffers from a generalized dissatisfaction with life. Is Sweetness #9 to blame, along with David's failure to stop it? Or are these just symptoms of the American condition?
David's search for an answer unfolds in this expansive novel that is at once a comic satire, a family story, and a profound exploration of our deepest cultural anxieties. Wickedly funny and wildly imaginative, Sweetness #9 questions whether what we eat truly makes us who we are.

My Thoughts:

Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark is a highly recommended fictional novel that is ostensibly about a flavorist, but in reality begs us to question the true safety of the processed and chemically altered foods we eat.

Sweetness #9 begins in 1973 when David Leveraux accepts a job at  a major company which is conducting animal testing on its soon to be released product: an artificial sweetner called Sweetness #9. David is excited about his beginning career, knowing that, hopefully, he will soon advance out of animal testing and move into breakfast cereals. But a kink happens when David notices the results of the consumption of Sweetness #9 on his rats... and a co-worker's primates. It seems that the artificial sweetner is causing a lot of harm for something that is going to be released on the market soon. When David tries to bring his concerns to the boss-men on the fifth floor, he's fired.

After struggling for a while, David is eventually offered another flavorist job at a different company. His life continues on, he has a family, and the story jumps into the nineties.

Clark does an excellent job raising questions about the safety of the manufacture products full of chemical additives we ingest on a regular basis, along with all the dyes, preservatives, etc. Written as a novel, it is at the heart of the matter, a social satire. All of the characters are likely showing signs of being poisoned by Sweetness #9 (or other additives). The prevalence of additives in almost everything we eat and drink (unless you are consuming all whole foods and organic) will certainly touch a nerve with most readers.

Alternately, since this is fiction, you will also wonder how many and exactly what facts have been exaggerated to make a point. He also keeps it humorous, even when tackling a serious question, which makes the novel a pleasure to read.

I found it rather amusing when Clark asked the question "Were we really a country that couldn't even cut its own cantaloupe anymore?" Okay, some people can't or won't take the time to cut their own fruit, but someone is cutting up the produce for them. (And some unnamed reviewer might just have a part time job doing just that, cutting up fruit and vegetables, that pays pretty good. So is it truly a sad commentary on our lives or simply consumerism at work?)

Sweetness #9 is entertaining, but not without a few problems. I guess my main problem was with the end when the plot seems to jump off onto a new tangent and toward a conspiracy theory. My qualms with the novel were nicely offset and balanced with Clark's superior writing ability and sense of the absurd in the juxtaposition of some of the facts and characters.


Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Little, Brown and Company via Netgalley for review purposes.

American Cornball

American Cornball by Christopher Miller
HarperCollins: 9/23/2014
eBook, 544 pages

ISBN-13: 9780062225177



American Cornball is Christopher Miller's irresistibly funny illustrated survey of popular humor—the topics that used to make us laugh, from hiccups and henpecked-husbands to outhouses and old maids—and what it tells us about our country yesterday and today.

Miller revisits nearly 200 comic staples that have been passed down through our culture for generations, many originating from the vaudeville age. He explores the (often unseemly) contexts from which they arose, why they were funny in their time, and why they eventually lost their appeal. The result is a kind of taxonomy of humor during America's golden age that provides a deeper, more profound look at the prejudices, preoccupations, and peculiarities of a nation polarized between urban and rural, black and white, highborn and lowbrow.

As he touches on issues of racism and sexism, cultural stereotypes and violence, Miller reveals how dramatically our moral sensibilities have shifted, most notably in the last few decades. Complete with more than 100 period illustrations, American Cornball is a richly entertaining survey of our shifting comic universe.
My Thoughts:


American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny by Christopher Miller is a very highly recommended. This entertaining and fascinating guide looks at what Americans have found humorous from the start of the 20th century until about 1966.

Arrange in alphabetical order by the subject of the humor this guide offers a startling look back at what we have found funny in the past that may not be so funny today, as well as a nice overview of what topics are found in humor. In American Cornball, Christopher Miller looks at the comic stripes, cartoons, and movies from our past and sifts out the cultural touchstones of humor that were seemingly shared by a majority of people. 

It is rather eye opening to read about some of the topics that people found humorous early in the 20th century that we would find appalling today (racism, dead baby jokes, rape jokes, spousal abuse). There are also connections to subjects still found in humor today (bananas, ducks, baldness, back seat drivers, spinach). There are things that used to be funny but have lost their humorous context over time (boarding houses, chamber pots, tax payer's/pauper’s barrel, old maids).

Miller provides so many great little tidbits of information. For example, I never would have thought that the early and mid-1960s seems to have been the heyday of funny amnesia. Or that cartoonists have always been kinder to dogs, but they clearly find cats funnier. Did you know that feet are even funnier than noses? Or that all personal-hygiene items are funny—mouthwash, toothpaste, toilet paper, and so on—but soap may be the funniest. Even I can understand that the bigger the musical instrument, the more laughter it provokes. 

Who would have imagined that "mooning” peaked in 1955? Or that the laugh track debuted on the evening of September 9, 1950, on a television comedy called The Hank McCune Show?  And number 23 is the funniest number, but the number 42, with hats off to Douglas Adams, comes in a close second to 23 as the favorite funny number.

Did you know that grawlixes are the name for symbols that stand for unprintable profanities:“!#@!” Or that an "eusystolism" is a euphemistic use of initials for words we’d prefer not to utter or spell out - "B.O.," "B.M.,” “V.D.,” and “W.C.” Or that those little drops of sweat that fly off a cartoon character when he or she is alarmed or dismayed are called "plewds." 

This is an informative and entertaining guide as well as a history and linguistic lesson on humor.



Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of HarperCollins via Edelweiss for review purposes. (read in Febuary 2014)







Monday, August 25, 2014

Lighthouse Island

Lighthouse Island by Paulette Jiles
William Morrow: 9/17/13
hardcover, 400 pages
ISBN13: 9780062232502


In the coming centuries the world's population has exploded and covered the earth with cities, animals are nearly all gone and drought has taken over so that cloudy water is issued by the quart. There are no maps, no borders, no numbered years. On this urban planet the only relief from overcrowding and the harsh rule of the big Agencies is the television in every living space, with its dreams of vanished waterfalls and the promise of virtual vacations in green spaces, won by the lucky few.

It is an unwelcoming world for an orphan like Nadia Stepan. Abandoned by her parents on a crowded street when she was four, the little girl is shuttled from orphanage to orphanage, foster-family to foster-family. Nadia grows up dreaming of the vacation spot called Lighthouse Island, in a place called the Pacific Northwest. She becomes obsessed with it and is determined to somehow find her way there. In the meantime this bright and witty orphan falls into the refuge of old and neglected books; the lost world of the imagination. And beyond the confusion and overcrowding and the relentless television noise, comes a radio voice from an abandoned satellite that patiently reads, over and over, the great classical books of the world-Big Radio, a voice in the night that lifts Nadia out of the dull and perpetual Present.

An opportunity for escape appears and Nadia takes it, abandoning everything to strike out for Lighthouse Island in a dangerous and sometimes comic adventure. She meets every contingency with bottomless inventiveness meets the man who changes the course of her life: James Orotov, mapmaker and demolition expert. Together they evade arrest and head north toward a place of wild beauty that lies beyond the megapolis-Lighthouse Island and its all-seeing eye.


 

 TLC Tour Information

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Don't Look Back

Don't Look Back by Gregg Hurwitz
St. Martin's Press: 8/19/2014
eBook, 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9780312626839
gregghurwitz.net

In Don't Look Back, Eve Hardaway, newly single mother of one, is on a trip she’s long dreamed of—a rafting and hiking tour through the jungles and mountains of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. Eve wanders off the trail, to a house in the distance with a menacing man in the yard beyond it, throwing machetes at a human-shaped target. Disturbed by the sight, Eve moves quickly and quietly back to her group, taking care to avoid being seen. As she creeps along, she finds a broken digital camera, marked with the name Teresa Hamilton. Later that night, in a rarely used tourist cabin, she finds a discarded prescription bottle—also with the name Teresa Hamilton. From the camera’s memory card, Eve discovers Teresa Hamilton took a photo of that same menacing looking man in the woods. Teresa Hamilton has since disappeared.
Now the man in the woods is after whoever was snooping around his house. With a violent past and deadly mission, he will do anything to avoid being discovered.  A major storm wipes out the roads and all communication with the outside world. Now the tour group is trapped in the jungle with a dangerous predator with a secret to protect. With her only resource her determination to live, Eve must fight a dangerous foe and survive against incredible odds—if she's to make it back home alive.

My Thoughts:

Don't Look Back by Gregg Hurwitz is a highly recommended action/adventure thrill ride of terror.

When Eve Hardaway's husband dumps her for a younger woman and moves to Europe, leaving her and their son behind, she decides to push beyond her comfort zone. Instead of canceling the surprise trip she booked for their anniversary,  Eve decides to go ahead and take the vacation to the  Días Felices Ecolodge, an eco-tourism camp in the mountainous jungles of Oaxaca, Mexico. While out on a day excursion with the group, Eve discovers a camera lost by a woman who was a previous guest, on a ridge overlooking a house where she sees the disturbing sight of a man practicing throwing a machete at a human target. Later, when unpacking in her cabin, she discovers other items left behind by this same woman. When Eve asks about the woman, she is told that she decided to suddenly pack up and leave for Mexico City. With further research, Eve discovers that this woman was reported missing and never found.

As more clues and questions surface, suspicions begin to rise in the group and it becomes abundantly clear that they are likely all in danger from the sinister-looking man with the machete she saw in the jungle. Eve must rely on hidden resources she didn't even realize she had in order to survive this threat and not leave her son without a mother.

With their isolation in the jungle and threatening weather looming, Hurwitz does an excellent job ratcheting up the tension and making the threat to everyone feel more and more palpable and ominous. While careful readers are going to notice a few holes in the plot, most of us will likely just race through trying to read as fast as possible to see what on earth happens next. Hurwitz does an excellent job with the character of Eve. Although action/adventure books are not usually known for a depth of character development,  Eve felt like a real person to me and I was cheering her on.

This is a perfect airplane book. It will keep you entertained and the time will pass quickly.


Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of St. Martin's Press via Netgalley for review purposes.

Excerpt


The Story Hour

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar
HarperCollins: 8/19/2014
eBook, 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062259301
www.umrigar.com
An experienced psychologist, Maggie carefully maintains emotional distance from her patients. But when she agrees to treat a young Indian woman who tried to kill herself, her professional detachment disintegrates. Cut off from her family in India, and trapped in a loveless marriage to a domineering man who limits her world to their small restaurant and grocery store, Lakshmi is desperately lonely.
Moved by Lakshmi's plight, Maggie offers to see her as an outpatient for free. In the course of their first sessions in Maggie's home office, she quickly realizes that what Lakshmi really needs is not a shrink but a friend. Determined to empower Lakshmi as a woman who feels valued in her own right, Maggie abandons protocol, and soon doctor and patient become close. Even though they seemingly have nothing in common, both women are haunted by loss and truths that they are afraid to reveal.
However, crossing professional boundaries has its price. As Maggie and Lakshmi's relationship deepens, long-buried secrets come to light that shake their faith in each other and force them to confront painful choices in their own lives.
With Thrity Umrigar's remarkable sensitivity and singular gift for an absorbing narrative, The Story Hour explores the bonds of friendship and the margins of forgiveness.

My Thoughts:

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar is a recommended novel that explores the evolution and the boundaries of an unconventional friendship.


Dr. Maggie Bose, a black psychologist, first meets Lakshmi, a young Indian immigrant, after her suicide attempt. Maggie assumes that this cry for help is due to cultural separation and isolation and perhaps an abusive husband. Maggie, who is married to an Indian man, manages to establish communication with Lakshmi. While trying to insure Lakshmi continues treatment, Maggie offers to see her for therapy at her home office for free. While Maggie tries to help, the arrangement soon morphs into something different as Lakshmi needs a friend. Maggie is quickly cast in that role and reinforces this when she tries to help Lakshmi. Soon the boundaries between patient and Dr. are breached.

While I enjoyed The Story Hour, there are a couple little details that prevented me from giving it my highest rating.
 

I absolutely had to force myself to continue reading after the first page. The chapters alternate between Lakshmi and Maggie. Maggie's chapters are in third person while Lakshmi's are written in first person. Therein lies my problem. In Lakshmi's chapters she is talking in an Indian/English patois, which I found extremely distracting and awkward to read. It did get easier as the novel progressed, but that initial impression lingered. I know other people have noticed this but it didn't bother them, so this is definitely a personal quirk. If you think you might be bothered by this, take note. Additionally, I am not so keen on Maggie's personal and professional choices. She showed a great lack of judgment in having an affair (and seemingly with little forethought) and her inability to keep professional boundaries was disturbing. I honestly didn't like her as a character.


Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of HarperCollins for review purposes.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

One of Us

One of Us by Tawni O'Dell
Gallery Books: 8/19/2014
eBook, 304 pages

ISBN-13: 9781476755878
www.tawniodell.com


From the New York Times bestselling author of Back Roads comes a fast-paced literary thriller about a forensic psychologist forced to face his own demons after discovering his small hometown terrorized by a serial killer.
Dr. Sheridan Doyle—a fastidiously groomed and TV-friendly forensic psychologist—is the go-to shrink for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office whenever a twisted killer’s mind eludes other experts. But beneath his Armani pinstripes, he’s still Danny Doyle, the awkward, terrified, bullied boy from a blue-collar mining family, plagued by panic attacks and haunted by the tragic death of his little sister and mental unraveling of his mother years ago.
Returning to a hometown grappling with its own ghosts, Danny finds a dead body at the infamous Lost Creek gallows where a band of rebellious Irish miners was once executed. Strangely, the body is connected to the wealthy family responsible for the miners' deaths. Teaming up with veteran detective Rafe, a father-like figure from his youth, Danny—in pursuit of a killer—comes dangerously close to startling truths about his family, his past, and himself.
My Thoughts:

One of Us by Tawni O'Dell is a highly recommended psychological thriller that, although light on the suspense, is extremely well written.

Famous TV forensic psychologist, Dr. Sheridan Doyle is currently living in Philadelphia, but he grew up as an abused child in a dysfunctional family in a coal mining town. Lost Creek is famous for the gallows where some rebellious miners, the Nellie O'Neills, were hanged in the late 19th century. The mine is still in possession of the Dawes family, the same wealthy family who owned it years ago. Sheridan or Danny as he is known in Lost Creek, grew up hearing the stories from his beloved grandfather, Tommy, the one person who saved him from his father. When he was growing up, Danny's mother was in jail for murder.

Danny is back in Lost Creek to see 96 year old Tommy when he discovers a body at the gallows. This discovery leads the town to wonder if there is a paranormal explanation for the murder or is something else going on? As in any small town, everyone knows who is related and there are plenty of secrets people are hiding. It's also clear that the town of Lost Creek has obsessed over the story of the doomed miners for years.

The story is told from the viewpoints of Danny, a descendant of one of the miners, and Scarlet Dawes, daughter of the wealthy family who owns the mine. Clearly, Danny is as psychologically damaged as the killer.

The writing is excellent and O'Dell does a nice job developing her characters in this very much character driven story. Basically, there is no great mystery here regarding who the guilty party is and even much of the why is not that surprising. This is not a novel like Gone Girl or even one with a great deal of suspense. Rather is is more a novel of psychological insight into several damaged characters. It also brings to light the effects of poverty on the residents of the small coal mining town. It is an imminently readable and compelling novel.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
Gallery Books for review purposes.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Song for Issy Bradley

A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray
Random House: 8/12/2014
eBook, 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780553390889
carysbray.co.uk


The Bradleys see the world as a place where miracles are possible, and where nothing is more important than family. This is their story.
It is the story of Ian Bradley—husband, father, math teacher, and Mormon bishop—and his unshakeable belief that everything will turn out all right if he can only endure to the end, like the pioneers did. It is the story of his wife, Claire, her lonely wait for a sign from God, and her desperate need for life to pause while she comes to terms with tragedy.
And it is the story of their children: sixteen-year-old Zippy, experiencing the throes of first love; cynical fourteen-year-old Al, who would rather play soccer than read the Book of Mormon; and seven-year-old Jacob, whose faith is bigger than a mustard seed—probably bigger than a toffee candy, he thinks—and which he’s planning to use to mend his broken family with a miracle.
Intensely moving, unexpectedly funny, and deeply observed, A Song for Issy Bradley explores the outer reaches of doubt and faith, and of a family trying to figure out how to carry on when the innermost workings of their world have broken apart.

My Thoughts:


A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray is a very highly recommended novel about a family experiencing a tragic death and how they all handle the aftermath.

The Bradleys are an LDS (Mormon) family living in the UK. Parents Ian and Claire have four children: daughter Zippy is sixteen, son Al is fourteen, son Jacob is seven, and the youngest daughter is Issy. A Song for Issy Bradley opens on the morning of Jacob's seventh birthday. Claire is trying to get things ready for his party and has been promised help by Ian, but Ian is serving as a bishop for their church and rushes off to help one of the (many needy) church members who calls, leaving Claire to manage the shopping and the party alone. Issy has stayed in bed because she doesn't feel well, so Claire gives her something for her fever and tries to get everything ready for the party, hoping Issy will sleep and feel better afterwards. After the party, Ian is still gone and Issy is not up. Claire immediately realizes that something is wrong and they call for an ambulance. Issy is hospitalized, but dies from meningitis. 

Each member of the Bradley family tells their story and what they are thinking and experiencing during this picture of their lives during an especially trying and emotional time of their lives. Claire falls into a deep depression, sleeps in Issy's bed and neglects the rest of her family. Ian is like a cheerleader for the LDS church. He knows that there is something wrong but will not get Claire help, even as Zippy asks him to, because it's not what "we"do.  Zippy is a teen girl dealing with her first crush, and guilt over the way her church handles any petting - it's always the girl's fault. Al just wants to play football, something his father is trying to prohibit. Jacob thinks if he has enough faith and prays right he can bring Issy back to life. And Ian just keeps following along with the LDS role of bishop, always going if anyone calls him, neglecting his family who really need him.

I simply can't say enough good things about A Song for Issy Bradley. The writing is stunning, superb, superlative. The character development is outstanding. It's hard to believe that this is Bray's debut novel - it is that good. Now, the subject matter is hard... so hard. Parts of this novel will anger you, and with good reason: a child dies; a woman falls into a black hole of depression; a father tries to ignore it and hides the truth from people so no one will think there is anything wrong; a teenage girl is made to feel guilty and that petting with a young man is her fault, according to what her LDS church teaches; a young man is prohibited from pursuing his passion for football and doubts his faith; a young boy thinks he can pray his sister back to life.

But even as you are indignant and brokenhearted over the abuse/misuse of faith, the family is presented with real empathy and compassion. Claire's questioning of her faith and falling into a depression is very easy to comprehend after the death of her child. Ian's reactions are harder for me to accept. His eagerness to please all the church members and put their needs and desires first while allowing his own family to suffer is unintelligible.  Zippy is a great character and the guilt that she is burdened down with in the name of religion is awful.

Carys Bray grew up in the Mormon church, so she knows her subject matter and infuses every bit of A Song for Issy Bradley with very realistic details of the daily life of an LDS family. The questioning of their beliefs and how women are treated/viewed are based on real facts and the inside knowledge lends an authenticity to the novel that is hard to ignore.

One of the best books I've read this year!

One quote took my breath away since I intimately know and have experienced this feeling when my sister passed away:
"Zippy stared at Issy’s face; she didn’t look peaceful and she didn’t look asleep. She looked like a badly made model of herself, empty of all her Issy-ness. She looked really dead."



Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Random House via Netgalley for review purposes.