Review: Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Genre: Memoir
Pages: 298
Format: Audiobook
Publication Date: April 6, 2010

Summary:  With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money ten years before. But that past has caught up with her. Convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187–424—one of the millions of people who disappear “down the rabbit hole” of the American penal system. From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance.

Review: While I greatly enjoyed this book, I have a few mixed feelings. On one hand, I often found it funny, heartbreaking, and inspiring. However, sometimes I found myself incredibly annoyed with Piper and her writing. Throughout her account of her time, she talks about how being around the kind of people whom she directly harmed with her crime has taught her the error of her ways. She speaks honestly and quite beautifully about her guilt and the way drugs have destroyed so many lives. Her stories are candid, funny, and sometimes at her own expense, which I found very brave. I love that she brings attention to the inefficiencies of the penal system, the poor treatment and abuses that occur. It’s a good example of someone using their privileged to bring a voice to those who have less privilege and are submersed because of that.

At a few points in the book, however, I found her incredibly whiny and unthankful. She explicitly says that she is treated better than virtually everyone because of her appearance and race. She has a massive support system outside of prison who visit her weekly, sends her presents, and talks to her on the phone. She has a place to go after prison and she’s engaged to a guy who accepts the fact that she’s spending a year in prison. Despite all of this and her short sentence to boot, she occasionally plays the “victim card”, emphasizing the fact that the crime she committed was ten years in the past and that she’s a different person. The way she portrays some of the other women is demeaning and she occasionally comes off as a “special snowflake”, making it difficult to feel sorry for her.

From a writing point of view, there were a few issues stylistically. She repeated herself almost verbatim a couple times which was incredibly annoying, as if she had forgotten what she had already written or explained. I feel like a fresh editor could pick over the book and improve it.

Part of this review is also influenced by the reader of the audiobook, whom I did not like. She had a droning, bored voice and her racial accents were just horribly insulting. I usually don’t let format get in the way of my reviews, and it didn’t affect my rating all too much, but I do recommend not listening to the audiobook of this if you do plan on reading it.

I have also watched the Netflix show and while it is very, very different than the book, I highly recommend it, both separately and as a companion to the book. It’s hilarious, entertaining, and it still raises many of the same moral and political failures of the prison system that Kerman presents in her book.

ARC Review: The Waking Dreamer by J.E. Alexander

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Pages: 343
Format: ARC ebook
Publication Date: September 22, 2013

Summary: Seventeen-year-old orphan Emmett Brennan remembers nothing of his past—not the boiler room in which his needle-ravaged mother gave birth to him, nor the Druids who tenderly delivered him. He can’t remember the cabal-summoned Revenant that clawed itself from shadow to hunt him, or why his mystical midwives hid him from the necromantic creature. Approaching adulthood, he is unaware of the dark forces that still search for him or the mysterious sentinels who secretly protect him, but on the eve of his eighteenth birthday that will change. The Revenants will find him. Only the young woman from his dreams can help him confront all he was once made to forget. Together, they will brave the nightmarish landscape Emmett’s waking world will soon become.

Review: Writing this review has felt a bit like ripping a bandaid off. I’ve been putting it off but it’s not going to be any less painful so I might as well do it and get it over with. “I didn’t like this book” doesn’t even scrape the surface of my vast, shimmering disappointment of this book. The first portion was really good. Emmett, the main character, was interesting and full of pop culture references that made connecting the strange, supernatural subworld to our real world a bit easier. The first scene is of his birth and it’s so well-written that it blew my mind. However, as soon as he gets confronted with his first enemy, things go sharply downhill.

The main problem with this book for me was the ridiculous pacing (or lack thereof) and the gratuitous violence. I’m not opposed to violence in books and I do find it necessary sometimes. I have no problem reading it and I enjoy a well-written and well-planned action scene, no matter how jolting it is. This book was nonstop fighting, death, and gore. The entire plot is based around violence, but not to any sort of point. There’s supposed to be some deeper story about Emmett’s connection to this community that fights against these supernatural creatures but that is completely washed over by poorly-timed fight scenes. Each fight scene lapses into short, badly-written “development scenes” that only ever result in the characters finding themselves in a new fight scene. The moments between don’t build the characters or explain anything. Besides being annoyed and a little grossed out by all the violence, I was confused. It was an unpleasant combination and I almost didn’t finish the book.

Character development was also largely nonexistent. One of the main characters (supposedly) is Amala and without giving anything away, she is not developed at all in the story but yet, it’s clear that by the end, we are supposed to like her. I don’t buy into characters like that. The author has to work to make the audience enjoy or hate or feel something about the character and Alexander only really did that with Emmett (and even that fell apart) and Kieran, the only other character who has something of a personality that is unfortunately ultimately subjugated beneath the violence. **MINOR SPOILER** Most of the characters the reader is introduced to are immediately killed or disappear as soon as they are introduced. Their deaths are disgusting but not emotional, leaving the reader feel a sense of pointlessness to any of the new characters who get introduced. **END SPOILER**

Overall, this book completely missed the mark for me. Not one thing from the plot to the characters were well-developed and at the end, I just felt disappointed, confused, and extremely disturbed by all the unnecessary violence.

Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)

Rating: ★★★★★

Genre: Mystery
Pages: 455
Format: Audiobook
Publication Date: April 30, 2013

Summary:  After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office. Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.

Review: Yes, I only read this because J.K. Rowling was revealed as the author. No, her being the author will not effect my review. Now that that’s over with, onto the review and a confession. The confession is I’ve never really read, nor liked, mystery novels. I know that the mystery novel is literature’s first and favorite genre, but I’ve never felt compelled towards it. If more mystery novels are like this, I would like to read them so please recommend them to me. I found this book interesting and fun to read and it really made me interested in the mystery genre.

I liked that there were dozens of possible subjects, multiple people with shaky alibis and motive, and an entire lifetime of mystery surrounding Lula Landry. I didn’t think I was going to like Strike at first because he’s a bit of a brute but he’s an interesting character and an even more interesting PI. Underestimated, scared, and yet unwilling to let emotions and situation detract him from his work, he’s the perfect detective. His assistant, Robin plays off him perfectly in my mind and enriches the story. She softens his edges and continues to amaze him with her natural abilities to predict his needs and perform detective work.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this read. I liked the audiobook because there was so much dialogue and the reader did all the different voices so well. I just checked Goodreads and a sequel is planned for 2014. Call me a band-wagoner, but I am so excited.

Review: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Rating: ★★★★★

Genre: Fiction
Pages: 416
Format: Audio Book
Publication Date: June 11, 2013

Summary:  When Rachel Chu agrees to spend the summer in Singapore with her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, she envisions a humble family home, long drives to explore the island, and quality time with the man she might one day marry. What she doesn’t know is that Nick’s family home happens to look like a palace, that she’ll ride in more private planes than cars, and that with one of Asia’s most eligible bachelors on her arm, Rachel might as well have a target on her back. Initiated into a world of dynastic splendor beyond imagination, Rachel meets Astrid, the It Girl of Singapore society; Eddie, whose family practically lives in the pages of the Hong Kong socialite magazines; and Eleanor, Nick’s formidable mother, a woman who has very strong feelings about who her son should–and should not–marry.

Review: Singapore meets Gossip Girl in this fabulously fun and funny novel. I listened to it on Audiobook after he heard an NPR interview with the author. The plot is hilarious, the characters are interesting and charming, and even though it was a 15-hour audiobook, I would consider it a light read. I also highly recommend it as an audiobook because there’s so much dialogue with lots of Chinese words and saying that I can’t pronounce so it was a joy to listen to. The cultural insight was brilliant because this is not a part of Asia that many people hear about in the mainstream media. I enjoyed learning about this side of Chinese culture for the same reasons people love reading celebrity gossip: it’s entertaining.

I love that Rachel gets thrown into this amazing and glittering world that doesn’t seem to line up with her long-time boyfriend, Nick. Back in Singapore, he’s a big-shot on the radar of all the eligible ladies of Singapore. Rachel’s character reacted to the situations and people in a really unique way. She isn’t completely overwhelmed but she isn’t impervious either. It was a rich balance that I think is normally very difficult to hit when a character faces a bizarre, new scenario. This mix of shock and maturity that Rachel maintains is refreshing and helped her as a character. It also made the other characters react to her in interesting ways, such as the girls trying to get under her skin.

Overall, it was a fun story with delightful characters and the audiobook was very well performed. I enjoyed it as one of my summer reads and I would enjoy listening to the audiobook again.

Review: Librarian by Brian Fence

Rating: ★★★★★
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 432
Format: Ebook
Publication Date: May 16, 2013

Summary:  Lenna is a librarian. She’s not a mage, an adventurer, or a fighter. She enjoys life between the stacks in her quaint harbor hometown of Port Hollish. But when an old childhood friend comes back under false pretenses, she becomes all these things and more, shedding the life of a librarian. She finds herself in the midst of what she feels is a novel, caught up in the power of one of three Godstones, powerful magic gems that could have devastating consequences should they find the wrong owners.

Review: This is Brian Fence’s debut novel and it was brilliant. I can’t imagine a more skillfully-crafted, original debut for what seems will be a promising series and a promising author. I went blindly into this book after entering its Goodreads giveaway for signed copies (which I did not win). To be honest, the cover caught my attention more than anything (can you blame me?). I bought it for Kindle for $4 and having read it, I would have paid at least double.

I really loved this book. It was fun, imaginative, well-written, and inspired. From the beginning through the end, everything worked for me and the end made me wonder when the sequel will come out. I would like to signal boost this book and encourage any lovers of fantasy, steam punk, or a good adventure novel to read this. It has a disappointing amount of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and it really deserves more attention.

Lenna, the main character, was likeable. She was honest with herself and the reader, flawed and complex with real motivation that kept her actions consistent through the story. Lenna is my ideal heroine: sometime to admire who isn’t god-like and perfect. The other characters were equally well-crafted and diverse. Some of them were introduced too close to the end for my liking. I would have preferred to read more about them, but it gives me something to look forward to in the sequels!

The writing was absolutely superb. Everything was beautifully described, free of hackneyed cliches, and it had a real rhythm to it. One scene blending neatly into the next without any confusing transitions or lapses in focus. There were some issues with the pacing of the story in my opinion. At over 400 pages, the middle portion was a bit lacking in action and the end was a tad rushed but overall, it didn’t adversely affect my pleasure.

I look forward to Apprentice, Librarian‘s planned sequel and I look forward to anything else Fence writes. I am a faithful fan to a very undiscovered read and I highly recommend buying a copy of Librarian and enjoying the ride for yourself.

Review: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Rating: ★★★☆☆
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 512
Format: Ebook

Summary: The Art of Fielding is about five characters–Henry, Schwartz, Owen, Affenlight, and Pella–and how their lives and interactions dance in a tangled web together. The story focuses on Henry’s path as a shortstop who gets recruited by Mike Schwartz to Westish College in Michigan. After three years of practice and extreme training under the heavy influence of Schwartz, Henry becomes a star on the field. His dreams skyrocket until one bad throw rattles all five intertwined lives and sends Henry into a downward spiral out of the spotlight.

Review: First, I’d like to emphasize that while this book has lots of baseball and seems to be based around it–a bonus for me because I love baseball and my team is having a horrible season–it is a character-driven novel and anyone can read it without losing anything from the baseball parts. Harbach describes the game very eloquently, one of the many aspects of this books that I enjoyed, but he also writes five very complete, dimensional characters who envelope the reader in their lives and affairs.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the novel. Harbach builds Henry up into a hero-like character, young and fresh with potential, hope, and enthusiasm for baseball. I was inclined to adore Henry from the beginning. Henry’s fall from grace is heart-breaking and despite some of his more questionable actions, I couldn’t help but still root for him the entire book. I also enjoyed Pella’s character, a strong young woman trying to reclaim the youth she left behind when she dropped out of high school, got married, and moved to San Francisco. Her anti-rebellion back into college and into her father’s house makes for a refreshing character who is desperate to just be a normal college kid. As a character story, it was well-done. Each character has their strengths and flaws, deep personalities that make them all distinct and wonderful to read about.

Now let’s talk about what I didn’t like: pretty much the entire second half of the story. The middle felt long and drawn-out. Some of the characters side-stepped their carefully-constructed personalities in very uncharacteristic ways. There were a good 100 or so pages that simply could have been omitted. I almost lost my interest which is unfortunate because I wanted to like this book so much more than I did. While the characters remained relatively strong, I lost interest in the story. Everything got very messy very quickly and there was no relief for the reader past the half-way point, no hope to cling on to and this is too long of a book to be left stranded like that.

The other thing I didn’t like was the ending. I absolutely hatted the ending. It felt cheap and I finished the book feeling like I had been gypped. After investing many hours into reading a long, drawn-out book, the end felt like a cop-out. Overall, I was a little disappointed by this book. I wanted to like it so badly and 200 pages in, I would have given it 5 stars in a heartbeat. The ending really left a bad taste in my mouth. I will explain more why past the spoiler barrier so continue at your own risk.

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