Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

Sleeping Giants (Themis Files, #1)Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
Published by Del Rey

When Rose Franklin is a young girl, she falls while riding her bike and is found in the palm of a giant, metal hand. Seventeen years later, she is a physicist leading a team to try to understand what this hand is and where it came from. She is working alongside a powerful group of people, including several former members of the military, and what they will uncover about this mystery has the potential to change the world.

This book was SO MUCH FUN. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I absolutely loved taking the journey that Neuvel presents in Sleeping Giants. The book’s synopsis doesn’t do this story justice, which is a good thing, because I went in not knowing what to expect and that paid off tremendously. I was delightfully surprised by the characters, the mysteries within the book, the overarching purpose of what was really going on, and the way that Neuvel told this story.

I love how this book tells its story through a series of interviews by an unnamed and highly mysterious narrator. I loved how Neuvel managed to get at the heart of the personalities of these characters through this method alone – it was so creative and speaks to such a talent as a writer. The reader is kept in the dark about so much of what is going on in this book, including the identity and purpose of this interviewer, and that suspense was SO much fun for me. Once I learned it was a series, I got even more excited, knowing that at some point things would make sense and I could just relax and enjoy the ride.

I absolutely loved this book and can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

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Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much MoreRedefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock
Published by Atria Books

A couple of years ago, this was recommended to me as one of those books that you just “have” to read. I didn’t know who Janet Mock was at that time, but now that I’ve read her story I’m the next person that will tell everyone else – this is a HAVE to read book! If you don’t know anything about Janet Mock, she was an editor on People.com when she was featured in an article in Marie Claire magazine in which she told the world that she is a trans woman. Redefining Realness is her story of growing up as a boy who knew he was different from other boys and was determined, from a young age, to be exactly the person he was born to be and not whoever those around him expected him to be. Most of Mock’s memoir is about her years growing up as her parents’ firstborn son and how turbulent and difficult her family life was as a child, but a good portion of the book is about her coming into her own as female and transitioning during her teen years.

For so many reasons, I highly recommend Redefining Realness. Mock writes with an intensity and honesty that is so raw it drew out so many emotions as I was reading her story. She had a very difficult childhood, living in several different cities and states with her mother, then her father, and usually those living arrangements were accompanied by whichever person either parent happened to be dating at the time. Neither parent gave Mock and her siblings the love and support that children deserve; yet she decided to become who she knew she was born to be regardless of what they thought. Despite her tough childhood, Mock talks about her parents and siblings with such love and adoration – she acknowledges their faults but loves them deeply and forgives them for what they weren’t capable of when she was a child. It’s beyond inspiring to see how she has decided to move past things that could have derailed her life and instead see things from an extremely positive lens.

Mock talks a lot about her transition but doesn’t make it the focus of her story. Yes, it was an important aspect of her life and a thing that truly changed her life in a lot of ways. But at the same time, she treats it as it is – something that matters, but is not by any means her entire existence nor something she wants to be defined by. There’s a lot she has to say on this topic and I’m sure I am not explaining it properly, but I found it super illuminating.

I personally got a lot out of this book in regards to how trans people are discriminated against – not the overt discrimination that is sadly “normal” for trans people to have to live with – but the subtle ways culture discriminates against people who do not subscribe to the gender norms of the body parts they were assigned at birth. There’s a lot to unpack on this and I can’t begin to do it justice, but I really took a lot away from what Mock has to say here. For that reason alone, I cannot more highly recommend this book.

Redefining Realness is FANTASTIC on audio as Janet Mock narrates herself. She has a calming, tranquil voice that tells her own story in such a way that it’s impossible to stop listening. I truly loved this book and I so very highly recommend it.

The Breakdown by B.A. Paris

The BreakdownThe Breakdown by B.A. Paris
Published by St. Martin’s Press

I picked up The Breakdown because I was really impressed with Paris’s debut novel, Behind Closed Doors, and I was hoping for a second helping of the same kind of thing. Unfortunately, I didn’t love her second novel – while I found it entertaining, I also found it predictable and the main character was obnoxious to the point of being distracting from the story itself.

The premise here is that we have Cass, who decides to take a “shortcut” home from a party one night through the woods during a bad thunderstorm. On her drive, she passes a car that looks stranded in the woods, and for a variety of reasons, she decides not to stop and help the woman who is inside the car. The next morning, she learns that the woman who was in the car was later found dead, and Cass totally freaks out about this. Unfortunately, she can’t tell anyone what she saw because her boyfriend expressly warned her not to drive through the woods, so she doesn’t want him to know that she didn’t listen, and she also doesn’t want people to know that she saw this woman stranded and chose not to help her. So she spirals into an anxious mess, thinking whoever killed this woman is out to get her, thinking the police will be after her, all kinds of crazy stuff. But when she starts getting threatening phone calls she really goes off the deep end and is convinced she’s going to be killed, too.

What I did like about the book was the pacing and structure and how it had that creepy thriller feel that kept me at the edge of my seat. And it was a super quick read. What I did not like was the character of Cass – one of the most annoying characters I’ve read in fiction in quite some time – and the fact that I had the whole thing figured out from VERY early on. In fact, I thought it was so obvious what was happening that I couldn’t understand how Cass didn’t see it, making me even more annoyed with her character.

I can kind of see why people liked this novel but it just was not for me. I would read more by this author because I like how she creates the atmospheric creepiness that I’ve seen in both of her books. But plot-wise and character-wise, for me, The Breakdown was a miss.

In the Country We Love: My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero

In the Country We Love: My Family DividedIn the Country We Love: My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero
Published by Henry Holt and Co.

When Diane Guerrero was just fourteen years old, her parents and brother were arrested and deported to Columbia. As Diane herself was born in the US, she was able to stay, finish her education, and pursue her dreams of becoming an actor, eventually landing a roles in the popular TV shows Jane the Virgin and Orange is the New Black. But living apart from her family during her teen years and navigating the world as a teenager by herself changed the trajectory of Guerrero’s life and her relationship to her family.

In the Country We Love is fascinating, horrifying and inspiring all at once and I think it was so brave for Guerrero to put her story out there and share some of the most difficult things she’s ever experienced with the world. This is one of those books that I just want to say “read it” and leave it at that, but there were a few specific things about Guerrero’s story that really stood out to me that I think are worth pointing out.

First of all, when Guerrero’s parents were arrested and removed from their home, not one person from the government reached out to her, checked on her, found her a foster family, took her to see her parents when they were in jail in the US before being deported, NOTHING. She was a child, a United States citizen, who was without any parental support or legal guardian in the country and not one person from immigration, local law enforcement, or the FBI even thought to make sure she was going to survive on her own at fourteen years old. Luckily, her friend’s mother took her in for a few years and then she transitioned to another friend’s family, but I am sure there are plenty of children in a similar situation who don’t have the kind of close friendship network that Guerrero had. It is shocking to me that a child who should be considered a ward of the state by any rational definition wouldn’t be so much as checked on by a representative of the government at any point throughout this process or in the years as she was growing up in the US without a parent or guardian.

Secondly, the degree to which this situation destroyed her family cannot be overstated and I honestly felt that Guerrero glossed over some of the ways in which this negatively affected just about every area of her life, but man was this rough on them. She lost touch with her brother, her brother’s ex-girlfriend, and her niece, she spent years estranged from her mother, not just physically but emotionally as well, her parents eventually divorced (which of course could have happened anyway but the stress of what they went through certainly didn’t help their relationship), and her parents had no significant part of her adolescence and early adulthood. She figured things out on her own and navigated the world in her own way, but the impact that this had on her life is staggering and this is just one person, one story. I can only imagine how many similar stories are out there that are equally or even more devastating.

Guerrero’s story is not all sadness, though, and that is what makes this book so fantastic. She is a very positive person who took a terrifying and sad situation and turned her life into something to be extremely proud of. It’s not just the acting – she became an advocate for other undocumented people and hard for that cause in many ways. She is an inspiring person and the fact that she was able to make her own dreams come true despite the difficulties in her life is inspiring.

The last thing I will say about this book is that the audio is amazing. I typically find that when actors narrate their own books the results are nothing short of great, and that is definitely the case here. She is telling her own story, in her own voice, and that adds so much to this book. If you choose to read In the Country We Love – and you absolutely should – definitely go with the audiobook.

So super highly recommended! If you never read celebrity memoirs, read this one. It shouldn’t even be classified that way, it is so much more than that.

Smoke by Catherine McKenzie

SmokeSmoke by Catherine McKenzie
Published by Lake Union

This is the third book by Catherine McKenzie that I’ve read in a relatively short period of time, and by now I can completely see why people like her books but I feel that they are very formulaic, and at this point, a little boring to me. This novel features a woman named Elizabeth who works as a fire investigator, and on the same night she and her husband decide to divorce, massive wildfires break out in their area and they are forced to evacuate their home. While Elizabeth works on investigating the fire and repairing her marriage at the same time, her ex-friend Mindy has decided to help the local man whose home was destroyed in the fire. As Mindy is working with the local humanitarian groups to find shelter and other necessities for this man, the fire becomes a fixture in her own home as her teenage son stands accused of having something to do with starting it.

As I was saying, McKenzie’s books can be formulaic but they are enjoyable. Smoke definitely fit that description – these women are similar to many others I’ve seen in stories like this, both from McKenzie and other authors like her, the conflicts are resolved in an appropriately happy(ish) way, and nothing super tragic happens within the novel. I found myself frustrated with both main characters in different ways, while at the same time I ended up liking them both despite their faults. Elizabeth frustrated me because she and her husband do that thing that so many couples do in books where they dance around problems and refuse to tell each other the truth, so they end up mad at each other for absolutely no reason. The most annoying kind of miscommunication, in my opinion. And Mindy was frustrating because she couldn’t see what was right in front of her face – her son was in trouble and needed her support in a major way, yet she was spending all of her time and emotional energy trying to help this random guy who she had never met before. It was kind of her to care about this man, sure, but her own son desperately needed her and she was ignoring his issues.

All of that being said, I did find the book enjoyable and it held my interest. Things were resolved essentially as I expected them to be, the world didn’t collapse, and the characters were essentially fine with things when the book ended. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that because that’s the way a lot of these kinds of books end. I don’t have any other McKenzie books on my kindle so I will likely be done reading her for now. Overall I can recommend Smoke, as I have with her other books, for those looking for something mild and entertaining.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Exit WestExit West by Mohsin Hamid
Published by Riverhead

Nadia and Sayed meet just as their country is fracturing into a terrifying civil war, and as their love grows, their city becomes a war zone right before their eyes. When they hear rumors about doors that take people away, to somewhere far away from the chaos around them, they decide to learn more. This is the beginning of the adventure the two of them journey on together as they escape from the terrors in their hometown and find themselves in a new place every couple of months.

There is no doubt that the premise of Exit West is extremely compelling and unique; in fact the interesting premise is the exact reason I decided to pick up the book. While I enjoyed a few things about this novel, overall I was more in the camp of finding it unsuccessful than many other readers.

What I really liked about the book was the writing – it was a really cool mix of poetic and concise, telling the reader exactly what he/she needed to understand while at the same time telling the story in a beautiful way. Honestly I may have been more annoyed with the book overall if the writing hadn’t been so gorgeous. I also liked the relationship between Nadia and Sayed, especially in the beginning – I loved reading as they got to know each other, as their relationship developed from friends to dating to something much more serious. I found it fascinating how they managed to navigate their lives and their relationship despite the fact that it felt as though the world was collapsing all around them.

Ultimately my issue with the book was that I felt it was almost two separate books – did the author want to write a book about war, or did the author want to write a science fiction-y book about doors that take people to new places? I had hoped that these two concepts would come together in a way that I found cohesive, but unfortunately I didn’t personally find that to be the case. There were also some issues that I had with the later parts of Nadia and Sayed’s relationship, but I feel that these details are a bit spoiler-y so I’ll avoid the specifics.

I have to say that despite my issues with the book, I did enjoy the experience of reading it. But since the main thing I didn’t like about the book is pretty much the core of the entire thing, I find that to be pretty important. A lot of readers have loved this one, so don’t take my word for it – try it for yourself and come back to tell me what you think.

Should an author’s personal life and misconduct be considered when deciding whether or not to read their books?

I know this is not a question that is new, by any means. But I have been thinking about it right now because I am in the middle of reading Sherman Alexie’s short story collection, The Toughest Indian in the World. I got this book as a Kindle daily deal quite a while back, and having read and enjoyed his novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian years ago, I decided to pick it up. I had heard vaguely about some of the allegations against him recently but hadn’t paid too much attention to the details until Jenny linked to this article this week. Reading the article really opened my eyes to not just the sexual assault allegations against Alexie, but how he has been unsupportive of other Native American authors for years, has inflated and played into Native American stereotypes through his writing and public interviews, and all kinds of other pretty awful things.

My boyfriend and I have had this conversation before as it relates to other kinds of famous people – actors and musicians most frequently – as he finds it difficult to separate these people’s performances from their personal choices and beliefs, making it more difficult for him to enjoy a movie, TV show, or musical performance if he disagrees with something the person publicly did or said. I have a much easier time separating the two when it comes to actors and musicians, but authors for some reason feel different to me. Perhaps it is because an actor is usually portraying a character, something that someone else created for them, and to me it is not indicative or even related to their actual personality and personal choices and beliefs. But an author creates their product and produces it for the public – I have a hard time separating who they are personally with the work that they produce and what they are trying to say through that work.

I plan to finish reading the short story collection of Alexie’s that I’m reading now but will likely not pick up any more of his books. And I can’t help but feel that my bias towards his terrible choices and treatment of others makes me enjoy the experience of reading his book less than I would otherwise. To be fair, I wasn’t super into the book before I read that above-mentioned article, but still – it has to be affecting me.

What do you think? Can you separate a famous person’s personal choices, beliefs, and in some cases really awful conduct from their professional work? Is there a difference, in your opinion, between a person like an actor or a musician and an author? And what do you do if you can’t get that other “stuff” out of your head but you want to enjoy their work anyway?

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Behold the DreamersBehold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Published by Random House Trade

Jende Jonga is a Cameroonian immigrant living in New York City who has saved enough money, by working low-paid jobs, to bring his wife, Neni, and young son to the US. With help from his cousin, who also emigrated to the US and has since found financial success, he is thrilled to get a job working as a chauffeur for an executive at Lehman brothers, Clark Edwards. Clark, his wife Cindy, and their two sons have the kind of life that Jende and Neni can only dream of. But the year is 2007, and as Lehman falls, all four of them are faced with life-altering consequences.

For many reasons, I really liked this book. The characters are authentic and real, the kind of people you would like to get to know in real life and can easily root for in fiction. The plot moves along smoothly and quickly, with major events happening at regular intervals and enough unpredictability to keep any reader’s interest. The writing is really nice – straightforward in a way that makes it impossible not to get sucked into the story. And I loved the way that Mbue portrayed the immigrant experience right alongside the experience of a rich, white couple living the “American dream” was interesting and gave a different perspective on what it must be like to live and work in the US while knowing that at any moment, the life you’re building could be taken from you (Jende wasn’t exactly in the US legally).

There is a feeling of desperation running through the entire novel that is difficult to ignore and truly made me feel deeply for these characters. Jende is desperate to make enough money to give his wife and family the life they have dreamed of in the US. Neni is desperate to escape her poverty and abusive father back home in Cameroon, and once she arrives in the US, is desperate to stay. Clark is desperate to keep his life together even as he can see that the company he is working for is crumbling, along with his marriage to Cindy. And Cindy may be the most desperate of all – desperate to put on a happy face and pretend to the world that she is in a perfect marriage and is raising perfect children, all the while desperately clinging to an ounce of sanity and stability and knowing that she is losing her husband, her oldest son in one way, and possibly her youngest son in another way.

The fact that the author made me feel so emotionally connected to these characters is by far the best thing about Behold the Dreamers. I deeply cared for everyone in the novel; even when I despised their decisions, I empathized with them and tried to understand where they were coming from. I couldn’t stop turning the pages as I hoped for a better life for all four of these adults and all of their children.

I had a difficult time with some of the plot points and I did feel that some of them were a bit contrived and created to make the story more sensationalized then it needed to be. That being said, this was an unputdownable read for me so that’s certainly saying something. While I was frustrated with some of the plot points, especially when it came to some of the preposterous choices of a few of the characters, overall I was able to look past those things and settle into what was an incredible story. For the most part, I really enjoyed this novel and highly recommend it for so many reasons.

Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges by Amy Cuddy

Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest ChallengesPresence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges by Amy Cuddy
Published by Little, Brown and Company

Amy Cuddy is best known for her TED talk about “power poses” – the idea that standing like Superman or Superwoman for two minutes before facing a challenge (giving a speech, having a difficult conversation, going to an interview, etc.) increases confidence and improves performance. In Presence, she delves deep into that concept and so many more. She details meticulous research that shows, in many different ways, how we can impact the way we feel about certain things and become stronger, more present versions of ourselves in just about any circumstance.

The sociology and psychology nerd in me completely geeked out over this book. I loved all of the social psychology research studies that Cuddy went over and found so many of them to be insightful, interesting, and applicable to my own life. I am not sure how many of the things she recommended are actions I will actually take in real life situations, but I certainly found them to be things I should consider doing.

Something else I enjoyed was that Cuddy relates her own personal experience to a lot of what she discusses in the book. She experienced a traumatic brain injury as a college student, and that situation dramatically changed the way she thought of herself and fundamentally changed the way her brain worked. Through years of hard work and using many different techniques, Cuddy was able to recover from her injury and find a way of learning that worked for her and allowed her to accomplish all of the things she’d hoped to do prior to the accident. Her personal experience really added an extra touch to the book and I liked having that narrative alongside the research.

I listened to the audio of Presence and really enjoyed the listening experience. Cuddy narrates herself and has a very peaceful, soothing voice. She does a really good job explaining everything in a way that is easy to comprehend. I have to say that I do wish that I had the physical book, though, because this is the kind of book I would want to revisit and it’s not easy to revisit an audio when searching for a specific part of the book to reread. Still, I recommend the audio because it was a good listening experience.

Overall I really enjoyed Presence and can recommend it for those who enjoy these types of psychological, self-helpish books. I hesitate to call it self-help but truthfully, that’s the kind of book it is, and it has truly applicable tips and techniques that can really help a lot of people.

The Sunday Salon: Feeling Blah about Blogging

Does anyone actually do Sunday Salon posts anymore? I don’t recall seeing that tagline in a very long time. Greetings, friends. I have been here on and off the past few months but I haven’t had any chatting time or life updates whatsoever. I do apologize for that – to say things have been busy is an understatement, and to say that I haven’t been very excited about blogging is a major understatement. Combine the two and you get what the blog has looked like lately.

So – life update! My boyfriend and I are moving to Tampa! Things with the two of us are fantastic, amazing, I just want to gush about this relationship every chance I get. We are beyond looking forward to embarking on this next phase in our life together in a new place where neither of us have ever lived before. We are in contract on a house but the closing is in about six weeks, and since we both already started at our new jobs (transfers for both, same positions new location), we are currently living back and forth between the house he has for sale in the existing place and a hotel near our new jobs in Tampa. It’s been interesting, to say the very least, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m so excited about what’s to come and really loving exploring a new place with him.

The job transfer has been stressful and a bit hard on me. I am a pretty extreme introvert, but I pass as an extrovert, which is a weird balance to have to keep up. Essentially, I fool people into thinking I’m really outgoing by being “on” when I’m with people, but that takes a huge toll on me and I need a lot of recharge time after I spend a lot of time with others. A new job magnifies those feelings by about 100x. I am meeting new people, getting to know a new team (keep in mind I am their manager), letting them get to know me, and all of that fun stuff. Plus I work with the public (banking), so there’s a new customer to meet and chat with every few minutes. All of that equals a LOT of small talk for this shy introvert. I’m happy but at the end of each day I am emotionally wiped out.

That being said, I haven’t been reading a lot and the books that I have been reading have been mostly 3-star reads. I don’t mind a 3-star or even 2-star read every now and again, but only reading 4 or 5 books a month, and thinking most of them are “good but not great” is pretty annoying. The last book I REALLY liked was Behold the Dreamers (which I haven’t even talked about here) and I think that may have been the only book I can say that about so far this year. Disappointing, right?

So I want to blog about more stuff. I want to blog about personal stuff, and what I have been cooking, and what I have been doing, and restaurants I’ve visited, and beaches I’ve visited, and places I’m traveling to, and all kinds of fun stuff, but I can’t make myself sit down and do it. I guess this post is to say that I’m considering being a better blogger but I’m also considering giving it up altogether.

Friends, tell me. What have you done when you’ve struggled with blogging? I know a lot of my blogger friends have quit entirely, or have morphed their blogs into something different than they were years ago, but I can’t figure out how to do either of those things. Help!