Blip (Insomnia, Installment 11)

She takes her arms down from over her head, pulls up out of her cringe. The shimmering has stopped, morphed into something even more unsettling. Glimpses of – somethings – trees? – she doesn’t even know what – flash in the sky and all around her, then blip back out to reveal the office building, the street, the traffic – then blip – things are once again hurtling through space all around her.

She wishes crazily for a bomb shelter, but they don’t make those anymore, do they?

If you’d asked her only an hour ago, she’d have said there was no worse place to be than the Office from Hell on the twenty-second floor of Westlake Tower. She might have to rethink that one.

Unsplash, Pixabay.

This is a Six Sentence Stories installment with thanks to Ivy, as always. The cue was “floor.”

Click here for Installment 10.

Click here for Installment 12.

Click here for fun Six Sentence Stories from other writers.


Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (Book Review)

Alias GraceAlias Grace by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh my, how I love Margaret Atwood.

“Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word – musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.”

Serendipity: I didn’t even know I was picking up a fictional history novel until I got a little ways into it, then realized Grace Marks was a real and quite notorious woman, convicted of murder in 1850’s Canada. The last few historical fiction novels I tried to read were dismal efforts, so Atwood’s scholarly research and inimitable writing made this an especially welcome surprise. I even love the ambiguous ending. It’s really the only ending possible, given this is a mystery that can, now, never be solved, and I think only Margaret Atwood could have pulled it off, with her paradoxical evocation and opacity.

Bonus points for the murdered woman reading so much like my former Boss From Hell that it gave me a little thrill as she got her comeuppance for high-horsing and two-facing the wrong person (whoever that was…). Does that make me evil? Oh well.

I bought this on a whim, unread. I no longer have a lot of room to keep books, but one day I was just plain longing to leave a bookstore actually owning a new book. I’m glad I did. I’m not sure Atwood can ever beat The Handmaid’s Tale, for me, but Alias Grace ranks right up there.

View all my reviews

It’s All in the Trying (Jane Doe Flash Fiction)

Carrot Ranch Communications March 23 Flash Fiction Challenge: In 99 words (no more, no less) write an adventure, experienced or witnessed. Explore your own ideas about what makes an adventurous spirit. Is it in the doing? Does standing witness count, and if so, how? Be adventurous!

Michael Gaida/Pixabay.

Jane forces herself the first few steps, holding Troubles’ leash tightly. Why is she doing this? Waste of a Tuesday. She could be sitting in the overgrown backyard of her hidey-hole house, where neighbors can’t see, warm and drowsy in the sun, safe.

The sun, though. What a day to get out, get moving, feel hopeful. She wills her gaze up from the sparkling water, through the railing and up, across the locks to the mountains. Look anywhere but down. It’s a beautiful day for a walk. It’s just a bridge. A pretty bridge. Nothing to be afraid of.

1929 by M.L. Gardner (Book Review)

1929 (1929 #1)1929 by M. L. Gardner
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I had my doubts two pages in, but I had a metro commute to kill. I tried to make a game out of seeing how many grammatical and historical errors I could spot, but couldn’t take it and resorted to staring out the window.

Black Tuesday did not instantly plunge millionaires into homelessness and hunger, but this book would have you believe brokers went home that day with all their property, down to the last silver candlestick, under bank lien. People were not doing swan dives out of high-rise buildings in droves, contrary to popular myth. Was this researched at all? No one was tossing the phrase “affordable housing” around for at least another sixty years and “slumlord” was not coined until the 50’s. Other reviewers have noted similar contextual errors.

The cardboard characters were bad enough, but why did all the names have to start with A or C? That made them even more interchangeable, and infodump backstories are annoying.

The Roaring Twenties and Great Depression are intriguing eras, and I love good historical fiction. This isn’t it, though. This story is clearly a soap opera with “history” as stage setting. I only got as far as page 25 but the contrived, amateurish writing and poor research are evident. I’m glad I got it free. Abandoning. (I do like the cover, though.)

Pit Stop – 2016 Reading Challenge 66 Percent

I have 18 books on my 2016 Reading Challenge. Here it is only March, and I’m two-thirds of the way through! To avoid one never-ending post, I’ve split it into thirds. The first part can be found here. Following is the second batch of six.

2. A banned book.

This book came to my attention when I was writing a post for Banned Books Week. Because you can.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First, a big thank-you to the ignoramus Tennessee mother who flipped this book onto my radar, by thinking it’s her place to decide not only what her child should read, but everybody else’s child as well. Yeah. Like the author said, gynecology is not pornography. Yeesh.

On to the review:

There’s something here that should piss people off.

As the blurb says, cells were taken from Henrietta Lacks in 1951, without her knowledge or permission. Those cells, called HeLa, were cultured to continue division, and sold by the billions in an industry that made many people rich. They served as a kick start for advances in medical science, contributing to the polio vaccine, chemotherapy drugs, research into tuberculosis, salmonella, steroids, AIDS, development of vitamins and hormones, mapping the human genome, so much more. They were used to study the effects of space travel and nuclear bombs on the human body. HeLa cells were a cornerstone of modern laws regarding informed consent and ethics regarding research subjects. Neither Henrietta nor her family saw any gain from these contributions to the bank accounts of others or to the health and well-being of the human race. For twenty years after Henrietta’s death, they didn’t even know about it.

There are big questions about the ethics of using tissue for research unknown to the donors, and “the donors” is just about every single one of us. And I don’t doubt that most people don’t mind their tissues being used for the benefit of everyone with improved medicine. What frosts my cookies is the patenting of these things, which impedes the progress of research and contributes to the high cost of medical procedures, tests, and medications. There is a stark contrast between the billions of dollars in commerce and marketing of the HeLa cells and the fact that the descendants of HeLa herself, Henrietta Lacks, can’t afford health insurance or medical care. If people are expected to be satisfied that their tissues are being used for the greater good, as is the current legal position, then why can’t researchers and developers and marketers be satisfied that their efforts are being used for the greater good?

I see an excellent way to fund a national health care system. Or is it just me?

 5. A Pulitzer Prize-winning book.

Olive KitteridgeOlive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

These are wonderful, wonderful stories.

Welcome to the world of Crosby, Maine, and of Olive Kitteridge, seen through her eyes or through the eyes of someone she has touched, no matter how slightly. Critical, intolerant, proud, devoted, lonely, witness to and bearer of tragedy and grief and hope -she is all these. Interweaving of community, the pitfalls and joys of love, the bafflement that is being human – it’s all here. It makes our own failings and bumps in the road a bit easier to take, when we can see the poetry in them. I am very picky about short stories and I believe the genre is difficult to do well. It is done extraordinarily well here.

And this is what I get for not being much of a television watcher. I only just learned that this book was the basis for an HBO mini-series. If I’d known that when I was putting my 2016 Reading Challenge together, I could have read this for that category and avoided the drivel that was Pretty Little Liars.

7. A book based on a true story.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is exactly the kind of thing I wish I wasn’t too chickenshit to do – just decide to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, with no experience and only basic preparation, because my life is completely wrecked. (Although there was the time I was frustrated with life and took off barefoot for San Francisco for dinner with a man I barely knew, and almost got knifed on the Embarcadero. I guess that’s close. I learned my lesson: Wear shoes.)

After reading, all I can say is: Wow.

I’ve read so many hateful reviews, I’d like to boil some of it down, to help readers avoid a book that will likely piss them off.

Do not read this book if:

– You are expecting endless flowery descriptions of scenery or detailed backpacking how-to. There is some of that, but this book is about the inner journey as much as the outer journey. A lot of it has nothing to do with the Pacific Crest Trail.

– You expect other people to live according to your idea of what they should do with their own bodies, including having sex or babies.

– You expect someone to make only the mistakes that you find acceptable, or even to view the same things as mistakes, while at the same time you do not grasp that you’ve probably done some things you view as “honest mistakes” that other people would classify as “evil.”

– You have no empathy for grief so deep it utterly consumes you and knocks your whole life off its axis. If that’s the case, you’re probably not going to get it.

– You do not understand that an introspective journey and subsequent memoir are going to be about Self. Look up “introspection.”

I’m glad I hadn’t known this was an Oprah pick, because then I probably wouldn’t have read it, and I would have missed out. I loved this story of a young woman who was reeling from loss and proceeded to cock-up the rest of her life accordingly, eventually leading her to hike the PCT almost on a whim. Frighteningly inexperienced and unprepared, she forges ahead in spite of fear, pain, and self-doubt. She finds resolve, kindness, generosity, friendship, beauty, and resolution as she makes her way through the wilderness of America and the wilderness of her own soul. Strayed’s honesty is both heartbreaking and affirming.

Bonus points for letting me know I’m not the only person who’s ever built a crap cairn.

Double bonus points for the llama.

8. A play.

Cat on a Hot Tin RoofCat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true?”

This is a story about mendacity, the whole reason Brick is slowly destroying himself no matter how much Maggie the Cat wants him. It’s also about love, desire, facing death, connecting with each other, alcoholism, repressed homosexuality, family, and greed. But it’s mostly about mendacity. Is it more about the lies we tell each other, or the lies we tell ourselves? I can’t decide.

I did notice the use of “should of,” which drives me absolutely bonkers and surprised me, coming from a writer of Tennessee Williams’ stature. Is that supposed to be a vernacular thing? Ugh.

Still and all, I loved it. Late to the party, this is the first time I’ve read a play. It’s an intriguing new way, to me, to see what the writer sees, with stage directions and set descriptions rather than a narrator telling me what’s going on.

11. A book published a century ago.

The Lost ContinentThe Lost Continent by Edgar Rice Burroughs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is about as pulpy as pulp fiction gets, which is a good thing. Written in 1915, before America joined the Great War, it’s a post-apocalyptic story of the desolation of Europe after America self-isolates in WWI, and the subsequent discovery of civilization that has reverted to stereotypical hunter-gatherer.

Kudos to Burroughs for at least trying to portray women with less misogyny. Our busty and beautiful heroine is good with a knife, and a nice nod is given to matriarchy, even though the king still rules and the queen is still a prize to be taken by might. If you consider this was written before women won the vote then it means a bit more, despite the often patronizing tone. The racist attitude is atrocious, but again, context must be considered, kind of like when you read Tom Sawyer.

This is a fast and entertaining he-man read, with the old standard adventure tropes. It is in the public domain and available for free download from Gutenberg, who does an awesome thing by making classics readily available and deserves even a couple bucks if that’s all you can donate.

16. A book by an author you haven’t read yet.

Nineteen MinutesNineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’m not impressed.

Overuse of similes. However, this is nothing on the level of Alice Sebold (eyes like “ferocious olives”) or Marisha Pessl (men like “idiot iced teas”), so…bearable. Oh, nope. I just read, “[H]e started to move faster, bucking against her like a fish released from a hook onto a dock.” Umm…what? Oh, yeah, baby, flop around on me like a dead fish, ooh, yes, baby, I like it like that. Urrggh. Join the Sebold/Pessl Cringe-Worthy Simile Hall of Fame.

The claim that TV ticker tape didn’t exist until 9/11 is incorrect. I remember watching it as a kid in the 60’s and 70’s. The “crawler” first appeared on The Today Show in January 1952. Contextual errors like that really bug me, especially in the Age of Google when you can get correct information in about two minutes using an Android phone, as I did.

“Alex was not short for Alexandra. ..” but in chapter 1 the bailiff calls “All rise, the Honorable Alexandra Cormier presiding” and in chapter 2 she fills out medical forms with the name Alexandra.

In a small town where everybody knows everybody, why is it such a surprise to the local defense lawyer and his investigator that the shooter had a golden boy older brother who was killed by a drunk driver just before graduation only a year ago?

That’s a small sample. Lots of contradictions and unrealistic passages, like the woman who doesn’t cook stopping to fix eggs and bacon when she’s already late for work, or the defense counsel hired the day of the shooting having no evidential discovery at the preliminary hearing, or the police detective who’s solved every single case he’s ever had. Sophomoric, book-of-the-month treatment of serious issues, including gun ownership, mass shootings, violence in the media, violence in teen relationships, and bullying, with nods given to abortion, adoption, and LGBTQ issues – are we just tossing everything and the kitchen sink in here? Why is 9/11 even in this book? Something else violent and traumatic on a mass level, so let’s just throw that in too? The shooting details are largely lifted straight from Columbine, including the Boy Scout trying to save his mortally wounded teacher and the injured student escaping out the second floor window.

Abandoned. I read as far as I did because, once again, I stranded myself with nothing else to read. Bad, bad self! But now I am home, where I have many, many other books. Buh-bye, Jodi Picoult.

The Sky is Falling (Insomnia, Installment 10)

Out the doors and down the wide steps to Fifth Avenue, she gulps in air as if she’s been suffocating.  Screw this day – right now she just needs home and sleep, such as they are these days. It’s even worth getting fired from this job, such as that is too.

She’s just turning to go back inside, down to the transit tunnel beneath the building,when she senses rather than sees something coming at her from above. The doors in front of her are flickering wildly in and out of view, so she can’t even see what she’s supposed to grab to open them.

All she can do is duck.

Wikimedia Commons

This is a Six Sentence Stories installment. The cue was “duck.”

Click here for Installment 9.

Click here for Installment 11.

Click here for other fun Six Sentence Stories from other writers.


The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (Book Review)

The NightingaleThe Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I must be quite hard-hearted, because I did not shed a single tear.

I did learn a couple of things. I had not known that a young woman and her father really did establish an overland escape route through the Pyrenees from France to Spain for downed Allied airmen (apparently the book was based on that, which is pretty cool). I had not known that penicillin was perfected just in time to save thousands of lives during World War II, but antibiotics were not available much outside the Allied military until after the war was over (that would be a contextual error in the book). I also had not known that “storm troopers” originally applied to a unit of WWI German assault forces, the SA aka the Brownshirts, although the information I found says they had lost power by 1934, being toppled by Himmler’s SS and purged in the Night of the Long Knives. What was left of the SA primarily trained regular German soldiers and was not even found to be a criminal organization by the Nuremberg Tribunal. I’m not sure they would have been a threat in occupied France. That would be another contextual error. I just like seeing how many I can spot.

Yes, call me nitpicky. I like contextual accuracy in my historical fiction. Still, this book is better than a couple of truly awful efforts I’ve tried to read lately, which is why I’m giving it two stars instead of one.

There were a couple of things I found just plain silly. I doubt people made “some lame excuse” or talked about someone’s “impulse control” in 1940. The graveyard that had been bombed, with skeletons hanging from the trees with their bones clattering, made me cringe. I also didn’t see the intelligence in using the code name “Nightingale” for a person whose surname was Rossignol – which means “nightingale.” “Hey, Mister Gestapo Man, I’m right here!” One time the character woke in darkness but went outside and “tented” her eyes against the sun (people “tent” their eyes a lot), another time roses were tumbling over the wall in the dead of winter. And Isabelle right at the end – really? View the entire review with spoiler here.

The weird thing is that in spite of the cliched characters and the manipulative ending, it was okay. A bit romance-y, but not enough to make me throw it across the room. It kept me entertained and turning the pages without completely pissing me off. If you like so-so historical fiction smooshed with chick lit with a smidge of romance, you might want to give this a read. But there’s better WWII stuff out there: All the Light We Cannot See (luminous), The Winds of War (epic), or The Book Thief (YA/experimental).

Monday Treat

I was walking along Fifth Avenue today, on my way to the tedium of a doctor appointment, and was almost late because I stopped to listen to this man playing his erhu (a Chinese violin). The instrument itself, and the tune he played, sounded so haunting and soulful. He was a one-man concert.

Just One Chance (Jane Doe Flash Fiction)

Carrot Ranch Communications March 16 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write about the idea of “just one.”

Stretch the Heels by Jeremy Brooks, Flickr/CC.

Spotting the building ahead, Jane stops to check her reflection in a bakery window. Nervous fingers pluck at her clothes, smooth around her hairline. It’s been months since she last wore foundation. Her clothes haven’t manufactured any wrinkles, her shoes pinch. She’d been at the gym to shower and dress at three this morning to allow for bus travel time.

After countless applications, finally, an interview! She murmurs prayers to a god she needs to believe in right now as she approaches the building, clutching the portfolio holding her resumé. All she needs is this chance. Just one chance.

A Brother’s Price by Wen Spencer (Book Review)

A Brother's PriceA Brother’s Price by Wen Spencer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a fun story set in a world like a cross between Merry Olde England and the Wild Wild West, with maybe a smidge of steampunk, fairly advanced medicine, polygamy, and a complete gender flip. In Queensland, women are the privileged and superior gender while men are protected and oppressed.

And this was the fun part! I kept stubbing my toe on how fiercely a man’s virginity and reputation were guarded, and how unusual it was for a man to know how to read or shoot a gun or ride a horse. We don’t bat an eye when we read about women being treated like that, so that it takes the tables being utterly turned for us to see the density of this acculturation. And if I am to be completely honest, I am forced to admit a little spiteful satisfaction – “See? How do you like it?”

I thoroughly enjoyed the story and Spencer’s women-on-top world. It doesn’t appear that this is part of a series, and that’s too bad, but I’ll looking for her other novels. Thanks to my cuz for a great read!