The Girl Needs an AA Meeting

the girl on the train

 

This the third or fourth book that I’ve managed to blaze through in a couple of days. I’m not sure if I’ve just been lucky with my book selection or I’ve got amazing commitment to Sparkle Motion/CBR8.

It’s difficult to read this book and not draw comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Aside from the similar titles, both feature a story told from the point of view of multiple narrators and at least one narrator is unreliable. In the case of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, the main narrator is unreliable not because she is a lying sociopath, but because she is an alcoholic prone to blackout spells. It’s on the night of one of these blackouts, that another of the protagonists goes missing.

This book struck an emotional chord with me due to the fact that a good friend of mine recently checked himself into rehab because he was the same sort of alcoholic as Rachel, the main character. It was very frustrating to watch the same bad decisions, the same swearing off of alcohol only to backslide within a day or two and the general sloppiness that went along with it (my friend is 5 months sober and doing great BTW). The mystery that self isn’t particularly hard to figure out, but the story itself isn’t about just the whodunnit. It’s about the relationship between the three protagonists, the men in their lives and the way our perspectives can change and be manipulated.

At Least it Wasn’t Piers Anthony’s Utopia

beyond belief

 

If you’ve read the book Going Clear or seen the HBO documentary of the same name, the coercive tactics and cult-like secrecy used by the Church of Scientology will come as no surprise to you. What makes Beyond Belief unique is the inside view of the actual structure of the Sea Org itself. Jenna Miscavige is the niece of David Miscavige, the spiritual and financial head of the church. Her parents left their comfortable life in their custom built dream home to join the Sea Org before Jenna had even reached grade school. At 6 she joined Cadet Org, the Sea Org’s program for children and signed a 5 billion year contract with the church at the age of six. She was a strong believer in Scientology until the age of 21 when she and her husband broke from the church.

L Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s creator, was a schlock science fiction writer and it shows in the religion he founded. Hubbard’s perfectly ordered society leaves no room for human error or frailty. Naturally, any problems you have are due to sins or secrets (called overts and withholds by the church) on your part. Questioning and arguing with your superiors is met with intense auditing and security checks where you are often questioned for hours or weeks at a time until you finally admit to wrongdoing. In any halfway decent sci fi novel, the hero would be the person who leads the rebellion against this bizarre dystopia. But upper level Scientologists believe they are saving humanity.

Jenna’s closeness to Scientology’s upper echelon actually gives her a more balanced perspective than one might think. She cannot bring herself to hate many members of the Sea Org. Even her uncle David, said by his detractors to be an abusive megalomaniac, is not condemned outright by Jenna. Her lack of bitterness despite decades of abuse and lies makes for a very evenhanded read.  A quick note: Make use of the Glossary at the back of the book. Scientology is full of its own lingo and can be a trick to keep track of where Jenna is and what department she’s in at any given point in the book.

A promising, but not super thrilling beginning

Saga 1

It’s hard to say too much about the first volume of Saga. Much of the book sets up the relationships between characters and starts what promises to be many larger plots in motion. So while it didn’t grab me by the face like many first volumes do, I’m definitely intrigued enough to continue the series. That’s part of the fun of graphic novels. You can follow along as long as you’d like and abandoned a series that seems to lose its mojo after awhile. Unlike books in which you (or at least I) feel obligated to finish rather than have a half read volume.

The story focuses on a young family consisting of parents Alana and Marko and their newborn daughter Hazel. What makes them unique is that they are from opposite sides of a war between two planets which has been outsourced to the rest of the galaxy. The first volume follows Hazel’s birth to the family’s escape from the planet of Cleave where the two were hiding out until they were betrayed. They are being pursued by factions from Marko’s planet of Wreath, Alana’s planet of Landfall and by multiple bounty hunters. All of these pursuers have conflicting motivations and while none of them could necessarily be called “good,” some of them are less bad than others.

In addition the the various conflicts that are set up in volume one, there is still a lot to be revealed. Alana and Marko’s romance has been brief and, despite being married with a child, they still know relatively little about each other. I’ll definitely continue with a series because, even though I wasn’t completely wowed by it, it sets up quite a lot and doesn’t blow its wad in the opening volume like many graphic novels are wont to do.

 

 

 

Someone read this and talk to me about it, now!

a head full of ghosts

 

Twelve hours after finishing this book and turning it over in my head I’m still not sure if Marjorie Barrett was a) possessed by a demon. b) an incredibly bright but mentally ill young woman whose psychotic break was exacerbated by her father’s religious mania and her deteriorating family situation c)a convoluted combination of both. That conundrum is only a part makes A Head Full of Ghosts a complex and really amazing work of horror fiction that I managed to blaze through in less than 48 hours (a marvel given my lack of actual free time).

The book follows the Barrett family as they deal with their daughter Marjorie’s increasingly worsening mental illness. Their father turns to Father Wanderly, a Catholic priest who recommends an exorcism when her behavior becomes progressively disturbing. Out of mental and financial desperation (Mr. Barrett has been laid off for over a year) they agree to make Marjorie’s exorcism part of a 6 part reality series called The Possession. The ensuing disaster of the show and it’s aftermath make the series infamous in reality TV history. We hear this story fifteen years later, mainly from Meredith “Merry” Barrett, Marjorie’s little sister; also via a Fangoria blogger who is doing a fifteen year anniversary retrospective of the show. Merry,the only eyewitness we hear from, is by her own admission an unreliable narrator (one of my favorite and most infuriating narrative tropes) due mainly to the fact that she was eight years old at the time the events took place.

There is so much going on in this book that I really can’t do it justice in one review. I want to talk about it at length with other people who have read it. There are multiple cultural references that are not at all forced or overly tongue in cheek. There’s the issue of the disappearing middle class and its impact on fathers as the former breadwinners. This book is both frightening and sad as we witness this family’s tragic collapse. Looming over all of this is the possession or mental illness of poor Marjorie, who is failed by every person in the book in a position to help her. I feel like, given enough time and resources, I could write a dissertation on the cultural significance of A Head Full of Ghosts.

There’s Beauty in the Ordinary

Agnes Gey

This is one of those books, like Jane Eyre, that I wish I’d read when I was young and impressionable. It would have probably done me more good that Sweet Valley High and an endless stream of Christopher Pike, R.L. Stine and V.C. Andrews novels. Not that there’s anything wrong with those books, but a protagonist who isn’t always the prettiest or the most talented and who’s happy with a man who’s not always the most dashing or handsome would have been helpful during my formative years.

The titular Agnes is a young woman of modest means who takes work as a governess to help her family through financial hardship. Most of the book is dedicated to her hardships as a governess. More specifically, Agnes is constantly hampered in her attempts to educate or discipline her pupils by the parents’ insistence that the children are perfect special snowflakes who should not be unduly upset or bothered by the governess. It is later in the book that she meets Edward Weston and soon realizes she is in love with him. It’s not his looks, charm or even wit that attract her but his kindness, morality and piety.

The book is short and the plot is straightforward with very few twists and turns. Like Agnes, it wastes no time on frivolities but gets right to the point. It’s plain but it’s certainly not dull. It’s a book I would give is a gift to a girl just entering the tween years with the hope that it plants a seed that blooms into something bigger.

The Boobs that Launched a Thousand Ships (or just one really nice cathedral)

Pillars of the Earth

The historical fiction I enjoy the most manages to take significant events from the past and show their effects on the average person. It’s all well and good to say “the peasants suffered,” but it’s much more effective to actually hear from the peasants themselves. This book manages to both give voice to the everyman while still keeping the reader in the heart of the political intrigue going on during the period. The period, in this case, is 1135-1154 CE in England; a period known as The Anarchy. King Henry I, died without a male heir resulting in a war of succession between his daughter Maud and his Nephew Stephen of Blois. The period got its name due to the lawlessness that was rampant throughout the land at the time since the nobility was too busy fighting on one side or the other of the civil war. The story centers around the building of a cathedral at Kingsbridge Monastery and is told from the perspective of multiple characters, Phillip, Prior of Kingsbridge, Tom, master builder, his step son Jack Jackson, Aliena, daughter of the former Earl of Shiring and William Hamleigh, a motherfucking asshole.

The political intrigue surrounding the building of this cathedral are what drives the story forward but the unrest in the country are what give it shape. William Hamleigh could never have gotten away with being the truly awful villain he was during peace time. The antagonist of the story use the shifting alliances and general instability of the time to try to thwart our heroes. As a result, getting the Cathedral built winds up costing much more money and many lives. The action moves quickly but never feels rushed. Toward the end of the book the format of the seemingly insurmountable obstacle overcome by an ingenious and unorthodox solution starts to feel a little rote but its an overall enjoyable read and I’ll definitely pick up the sequel, World Without End.

My biggest issue with this book is breasts, specifically Aliena’s breasts. I never actually counted the number of times they were mentioned or described throughout the course of the book, but it’s a fucking lot. It seems as though no male character can think about Aliena without at least some passing thought about those boobs. It’s not just William Hamleigh, who is driven in part by his lust/hate for her. Even poor Prior Phillip has to ruminate on them for a moment. At one point, Jack ponders the evolution of them throughout the years from the pertness in youth to their slight sagging in maturity (don’t worry, they’re still super hot!). It was…uncomfortable, especially since Aliena is a smart resourceful woman who loses everything, more than once and manages to get it back through her own tenacity and shrewdness. In the sequel, I’d like to see about 20 or so descriptions of the magnificent cock of the brilliant male main character, but I don’t expect it.

The Martian by Andy Weir

the martian

 

If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard anything about this book or its subsequent film, I’ll briefly summarize it for you. The Martian is the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut on the Ares 3 which is part of a series of manned missions to Mars. Due to an unfortunate series of events, Mark is left stranded on Mars when is crew believes he is dead. The ensuing novel is Mark’s efforts to stay alive until he can be rescued.

Mark is equal parts likeable and smart and I found myself emotionally invested in his rescue almost immediately. He is also extremely resourceful and is forced to think on his feet multiple times as the hostile environment of Mars seems to throw everything it can at its only human inhabitant. Meanwhile, all of Earth is following Mark and NASA’s efforts to get him back home.  Though we know that Mark has parents who love him dearly and presumably friends (someone like Mark would likely make friends easily) we see almost none of them during the course of the book. This story is about Mark and the people involved in his rescue.  It is, as the author states in the notes, a man vs nature store for the new age.

I was quickly engrossed by this book and found myself sneaking away to read it whenever I could (I even hid out in the fitting rooms at my retail job to sneak in a few pages).  I had to get to the end to see if Mark made it or not.  As I approached the end that this book was less about whether or not Mark lived or died and more about the efforts of Mark and the world to save him.  Obviously I wanted know know the result of those efforts, to not tell us would be cheating. But his life or death would be equally satisfying from a storytelling level.  If I wept tears of joy or tears of sadness, the journey of Mark and the world were the important thing.