A Year of Themed Book Reviews – February: Black History: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird SingsI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Angelou’s famous autobiography reveals a childhood that is at once both classic and heart-crushing. She and her brother Bailey are sent to live with their paternal grandmother for large parts of their youths and spend their days playing outside in the Depression era south, when they aren’t helping at the family store or faithfully pursuing their studies or attending the local church. At one point the inseparable duo are sent to live with their mother and father in St. Louis and it is there that Maya is attacked. While justice for her attacker is reasonably swift, some of the circumstances surrounding it only exacerbate the confusion and conflict her young mind is swamped by; the damage and mental trauma she endures linger on long after the physical wounds have healed. Despite this and other jaw-dropping incidents, Angelou grows into a warm-hearted, courageous woman. Her ability to see into the deep motivations of not just the people around her but her own heart makes this book an enduring classic and a movie-clear portrait of life as a black child in the pre-World War II era southern states.

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A Year of Themed Book Reviews – Belated January: Personal Growth: How I Stayed Alive When My Brain was Trying to Kill Me: One Person’s Guide to Suicide Prevention by Susan Rose Blauner

How I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill Me: One Person's Guide to Suicide PreventionHow I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill Me: One Person’s Guide to Suicide Prevention by Susan Rose Blauner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you are in crisis dial 911 or see this website for a list of help lines in your area https://suicideprevention.ca/need-help/ (in Canada)
http://www.yourlifecounts.org/need-he… (worldwide list of crisis hotlines)
In the States call 1-800-273-8255

“I wish I could make your suicidal thoughts disappear, but I can’t. What I can do is teach you how to get through those excruciating moments when every cell in your brain and body is screaming, ‘I want to die!’ By surviving those moments unharmed and learning new ways of coping, you will gradually create a set of tools that can make life more manageable.” (3)

I had never heard of this book until I passed it on a library shelf in a period of random wanderings. It is exactly what it says, a collection of what Blauner refers to as “Tricks of the Trade” that allowed her – with the guidance and assistance of regular therapy, and the stabilizing effect of medication – to cope with and gradually disarm the suicidal thoughts that for 18 years ruled her days, hospitalized her three times, and nearly ended her life. It is at times a very challenging book, aside from teaching readers how to reformat their brains and keep themselves alive, Blauner includes discussions of her prior suicidal gestures that at times go from frank and open right into graphic. She recommends reading this book in small, manageable chunks, remaining aware of your body while you do, and if you get distressed take a break and do something nice for yourself. Excellent advice that can be applied in a variety of situations. And then there’s the crisis plans, meditations, exercises in identifying your feelings and breaking habit loops. It’s a very thorough book. I hope everyone who needs a copy will find it.

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The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

The Lady in the Lake (Philip Marlowe, #4)The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two women are missing. Private eye Philip Marlowe is hired by the wealthy husband of the one, Derace Kingsley, to track her down after he goes a whole month without hearing from her. The other, Muriel Chess, falls into Marlowe’s lap, so to speak, when her husband chances across her body in the lake of the remote mountain village where they live. Muriel Chess and Crystal Kingsley were both last seen in the same place and on the same day, but beyond that and their passing acquaintance with each other there is nothing tying these two women together. Chandler’s stripped down writing and simple sentences drag Marlowe through the morass he’s landed in and by the end of the story there are crooked cops, a crooked doctor, and a truly hideous scarf of green kidneys on an egg-yolk yellow background. It’s classic noir fiction, and Chandler doesn’t disappoint.

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Fer-de-Lance: Nero Wolfe #1 by Rex Stout

Fer-de-Lance (Nero Wolfe, #1)Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nero Wolfe reminds me of Mycroft Holmes: a brilliant mind, but he hates to leave his house. Any sleuthing that can’t be done from a comfortable chair is done by proxy, via his “perambulatory man-about-town” Archie Goodwin. Stout drops us into a well-established partnership; Goodwin spinning references to other cases he and Wolfe have solved in amongst his mullings of what the solution will be to the Fer-de-Lance. The mystery and quandries are broken up with descriptions of Wolfe’s stunning and enormous collection of orchids, one of the few things he cares for. Hours not spent masticating or ruminating are spent petal-gazing. Fer-de-Lance opens with a friend of a friend coming to Wolfe with a favour; her brother has gone missing and, mainly because they are immigrants of scant means, the police cannot rouse themselves enough to be interested. (The story was written and set in the 1930’s, so there are some slurs.) While her brother turns up, he is revealed to be connected to the sudden death of a well-off university professor, in the middle of a friendly foursome of golf. But how? Why? The two men never met or knew each other, and it is Wolfe’s job, with Goodwin’s legwork, to determine how the disappearance of the one could possibly be related to the other. Not a bad tale to while away a weekend with.

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A Year of Themed Book Reviews – January: Blood Donation (Vampires) Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice

Interview with the Vampire (The Vampire Chronicles, #1)Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Anne Rice has crafted a thrilling and fast paced novel around the auto-biographical account of a vampire living in the States in what is probably the 1970’s. He is dictating his life story to an unnamed boy interviewing him, and it all starts on an indigo plantation in the swamps of Louisiana in the 1700s, when our hero Louis is turned – by the vampire Lestat – into a vampire. Lestat moves in with Louis onto the plantation and the two of them commence trying to hide their vampirism from the slaves, educate Louis about the finer points of vampire life, arguing about almost everything, killing rats and small animals for food on the part of Louis, and killing humans on the part of Lestat. A lot of humans. Interview with the Vampire is on the lighter side of violence for a horror book, but on the heavier side for a generic fiction selection. But the plot is utterly enthralling, and the events in Louis’ life make the book hard to put down until you turn the last page.

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A Year of Themed Book Reviews – January: Blood Donation (Vampires): I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

I Am Legend and Other StoriesI Am Legend and Other Stories by Richard Matheson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Though the cover gives no indication, this edition actually includes not just the novel I Am Legend, but several short horror stories mostly themed around vampires and other supernatural creatures or events. Traditional African religions form the main plot’s scaffolding of two of the short stories and it’s apparent they are something Matheson was fascinated with, though how accurately he has represented them in his work is a question I am not equipped to answer. One of those two, From Shadowed Places, is as much about prejudice as it is about witchcraft and despite being published in 1960 it is clear Matheson is on the side of equality, problematic as the story’s depiction of its educated, powerful African-American heroine and the resolution of the conflict may be. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I Am Legend is the first novel in this collection so I will start with that. Vaguely similar to the Will Smith movie of the same name, our hero Robert Neville is the last surviving human uninfected by a vampirism plague which can turn the living and the dead. He spends his nights locked in the home he has converted into a fortress, drinking himself to oblivion and his days researching the disease, roaming the dead city, searching for supplies and killing all the vampires he can find. Utterly alone. Until the afternoon he sees a woman out walking in the sunlight. His abduction of her, a near-mindless nostrum for his loneliness, preciptates a series of events that will propel him out of his carefully crafted universe into legend.

The abrupt closure to I Am Legend is followed by Buried Talents, a short story set in a fairground game booth where you win prizes by tossing ping-pong balls into empty fishbowls. Or try; no one wins anything until a tall man in a wrinkled black suit puts his quarter on the counter. He doesn’t care about the prizes, but he doesn’t want to stop playing.

The Near Departed is a scant two pages. A mortician discusses funeral arrangements for the wife of an unnamed man. She is to have the best of everything, as she is young, beautiful, and everyone loves her. Her husband always gave her the best of everything and her funeral is to be no exception.

Prey is the first short story featuring traditional African religions. Amelia has come home from a shopping trip with a “genuine Zuni fetish doll” as a birthday present for her anthropologist boyfriend Arthur, whom she plans to see that evening. But when she calls her narcissistic mother to cancel their regular Friday night plans so she can spend Arthur’s birthday with him, the resulting guilt trip and silent treatment so upset her she cancels with Arthur as well and goes to take a bath, leaving the fetish unboxed and unattended on the living room end table. What she doesn’t know is that these fetishes must be handled very carefully. Her evening does not go as planned.

Witch War Seven pretty little girls are the weapons in this dark twist on traditional World War Two stories. The writing is more experimental and repetitive than the other stories, with Matheson playing up the apparent dichotomy of “pretty little girls” being the agents of destruction.

Dance of the Dead Another post war story, we follow four college students on a double date into the dangerous and alluring city of Saint Louis, to watch the Dance of the Dead.

Dress of White Silk appears to be an excerpt from the diary of a young girl who has been locked in her room, for what she does not know, by her grandmother. She is reminiscing over the events leading to her grounding and attempting to puzzle out, with her childish logic and grasp of grammar, where she has done wrong. But her conclusions and our conclusions are vastly different.

Mad House explores the idea that human emotions can imprint on the items around them, and the horrifying, violent results of their long term exposure to the rage of a man with anger management issues.

The Funeral is a darkly comic supernatural story where the owner of a funeral parlour finds an unexpected niche market giving the undead their dream send offs.

From Shadowed Places was probably my favourite story in this collection. A wealthy young trophy hunter named Peter Lang is gripped by a mysterious malady that is slowly killing him through sheer agony. It has no discernible physical source and modern Western medicine is powerless against it. When it is clear Lang is at death’s door his fiancée, Patricia Jennings, remembers an old school friend who teaches anthropology and spent a couple years in Africa. Dr. Lurice Howell is the powerful heroine I mentioned before, and it is her power and knowledge which will battle death for Peter.

Person to Person tells us of David Millman, plagued by an idiopathic ringing in his head that wakes him up each night at 3 am. No medicine he tries will alleviate it and allow him to sleep undisturbed, until one day the therapist he is seeing suggests David try answering the phone. That definitely sets things in motion, but not in the direction either of them are expecting. And Millman’s struggle for control of this bizarre affliction will close out not just the book, but his life as he knows it.

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A Year of Themed Book Reviews – January: Personal Growth: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

SiddhartaSiddharta by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Siddhartha tells of the journey of one Siddhartha, a young man from the high Brahman caste who leaves his home and joins an ascetic sect (somewhat akin to followers of John the Baptist, or the Stoics) in a search for enlightenment. He is convinced there is one piece of knowledge that, once he finds it, will ease the feeling that there is something more his heart still wants. Hesse has carefully crafted each placid, melodiously repetitive sentence to lull you into a meditative calm while reading Siddhartha’s story. The revelations Siddhartha discovers throughout the book are a unique way of looking at the world, and this is an excellent story to start off a new year with.

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A Year of Themed Book Reviews – January: Blood Donation (Vampires): Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K Hamilton

Welcome to the first review of A Year of Themed Book Reviews! Each month I will pick a theme and review books related to it. Depending on how much time I have, there may be more than one theme each month and I may also review books outside the themes as they interest me/are suggested. January has two themes: self-improvement, which is pretty obvious, and blood donation, since it’s blood donor month. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate books on a history of blood donation, except for one book that looked to be a university text book and promised to be staggeringly boring, which I did not want to inflict on anyone. I was lamenting my difficulties to my mother and she brilliantly suggested I do vampires. Which brings us to the first themed book review of 2018 and the first book of the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series, Laurell K Hamilton’s Guilty Pleasures

Guilty Pleasures (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, #1)Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In an alternative reality where zombies, vampires, and were-animals are common, Anita Blake is a resurrectionist/private detective/vampire hunter who is hired by a group of vampires to figure out who has been killing off their most powerful members. It’s a little strange that they’ve hired her since it’s quite clear they despise and fear her, look on humans in general as lesser beings, and because she dislikes vampires in general, although she’s not an unrestrained vampire killer, only dispatching ones who have been killing humans and only after receiving a court order to do so. Yes, it’s that kind of world. Anyways, Hamilton drops you right into the universe and once the scene is set the action doesn’t stop. Her characters are interesting and at the end turn out to be more nuanced than you would have given them credit for. It is on the marginally more violent side, with a few instances of torture and mentions of rape, so anyone with serious bloodshed or assault issues may want to give this a pass. But if you’re looking for a fast paced and thrilling distraction, Guilty Pleasures could suck you in to the whole series.

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Persepolis & Maus I

Persepolis: The Story of a ChildhoodPersepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

Maus: A Survivor's Tale : My Father Bleeds History (Maus, #1)Maus: A Survivor’s Tale : My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Persepolis immediately following Maus and now the two are tied together in my brain. These two graphic novels have a lot in common. Both are done entirely in black and white, not even grey shading. Both cover very heavy topics: Maus I covers the Second World War as seen through the eyes of the author’s Jewish father Vladek, and Persepolis, which guides us through the overthrow of the Shah in Iran, the Islamic Revolution, and the war with Iraq via Satrapi’s childhood memories. Death and propaganda saturate the pages. If it’s not posters in the streets it’s lies in the classrooms. As if the government wasn’t cruel enough all on its own, your neighbours would turn you in. An old woman in an upstairs apartment screaming for the police as a young married couple crosses the courtyard – she thinks they are Jewish. A mother accosted on the street by men who think she should be wearing a veil. It’s terrifying and baffling. As if there wasn’t enough grief in the world that some people would seek to add more. They are heavy books to start a year off with, and very difficult to put down. They don’t offer any answers, or ask many questions. They just present history. So that we don’t forget it.

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I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

I, RobotI, Robot by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Isaac Asimov imagines the Earth of 2057 has just over 3 billion people on it. Is divided into four Regions: Eastern, European, Tropic, and Northern; each of these is run by a Regional Coordinator and all of them together are run by the World Coordinator. Humanity mines not just asteroids but other planets. We have colonized other star systems. In all of these endeavours we are aided by robots. In this collection of short stories which bears no relation whatsoever to the movie of the same name starring Will Smith, Asimov takes us on a retrospective of the growth of the robot industry through the eyes of one of its giants, robot psychologist Dr Susan Calvin. Her memories of the first robot nanny, to robots managing other robots, to robots shepherding whole industries, carry us along through the decades in the future while robots become an integral part of our society. This work of speculative fiction is mostly set far enough in the future that, even sixty years from the publication date, we can still speculate along with it. As of January 2018, Mercury remains unmined.

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