Angel Falls by Kristin Hannah

angelfalls

It is clear that Kristin Hannah’s writing blossomed dramatically between writing this novel and writing her master work The Nightingale.  I was hoping to be drawn into similarly beautifully drawn scenes with intricate plot lines as I was in that great novel – and I was sorely disappointed here.  While there started to be an intriguing idea for the story, and it began well enough, it just was not developed with the same sophistication and elegance as that later work.

This story begins with young Bret preparing the saddle early in the morning for his mom, Mikaela, to have her early morning horseback ride.  Suddenly, something was noticeably off and Bret watched as his mom started jumped the horse and the horse stopped and Mikaela was thrown forward, banging her head against a pole, sustaining a severe head injury.   The next thing they all knew, their lives were thrown upside-down, as Mikaela was in a deep coma and it was unclear if she’d ever recover.  What comes after tests the love each of the family members has for each other.

There are some truly brilliant moments in this story and the basic plot is a clever one.  The test of love that Mikaela’s husband, Liam, faces is a fascinating ethical dilemma that I think many would find paralyzingly difficult.  And there are tender scenes between the various family members that are quite sweet.

However, the writing itself is somewhat simplistic.  The plot could be more involved, with more story lines woven into the main one.  The characters could be much more multi-dimensional – they are extremely flat – and, wow, is the latter half of the story just pure saccharine-sweetness!  It felt as if the author herself got bored with the book about halfway through and just wanted to be over and done with the project, so she wrote whatever came out easily.  It was quite anti-climactic.

So, stick with The Nightingale, and forget about this one, I’d say…

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Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, PhD

why we sleep

After hearing Dr. Matthew Walker interviewed on NPR, I immediately bought it and read it cover to cover – and enjoyed it every bit as much as the interview itself.  Dr. Walker has devoted his career for the past 20+ years to the science of sleep and has amassed a great deal of knowledge on the structure of sleep, the benefits of sleep, the medical and psychological consequences of a lack of sleep, and societal costs of our communal lack of sleep.

What is most impressive about this book is its readability – it is science-based but not full of jargon.  Dr. Walker describes each study that supports each of his claims about sleep, but he does so in a very clear and concise way so that any lay person reading the book can understand how the study group compares to the control group in each experiment and how the conclusions were made.  He also intersperses stories and anecdotes that engage the reader so that it is not just a preachy lecture but rather a mind-opening presentation of scientific ideas based on fascinating data.

His conclusions are many and of utmost importance.  Sleep is critical to our health and our ability to learn and retain memory.  Even getting less than 7 hours of sleep a night can have a detrimental effect on our health, increasing our risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and infections.  It can have an affect on our memory and ability to learn – particularly in adolescents, whose school start times are early in the mornings (which doesn’t jive with their later circadian rhythms).  It can also increase risk of depression and anxiety – no wonder there is so much more of it now than there ever was before!

What causes us to sleep less?  We have electric lights that keep us awake longer into the evening/night.  We work earlier in the morning and then later into the night and then have activities and entertainment later into the evening/night.  We have electronic devices which have blue light/back lighting that send messages to our brains that inhibit melatonin that tells our brains that it is still daytime, so our brains don’t think it’s time to go to sleep yet.  All these contribute to later bedtimes.

So what to do?

I’ll suggest you read this book to find out.  There are great suggestions about sleep hygiene, treatment for insomnia (against medication, but supporting CBT), important lifestyle suggestions and some major public health recommendations.  The one suggestion emphasized the most?  To maintain a consistent sleep schedule throughout the week (including the weekend)!

 

Sweeping Up Glass by Carolyn Wall

sweeping up glass

Olivia is determined to figure who is killing and disfiguring the wolves on her property and why.  She has her suspicions about it – the Phelps boys have always been evil, for example- but she cannot understand why.  Meanwhile, she has to go about her life, juggling her responsibilities of raising her grandson, caring for her insane mother whom she has always called Ida, running her grocery store, and maintaining her household, until her life gets completely turned around by her gradual discoveries from her wolf investigations.

The voice of the storyteller is Olivia’s and it is frank and raw and powerful.  Olivia lives in such frequently harsh conditions that her emotions usually must be kept tamed, but the heat of her seething anger sears the page.  She loves her father as fiercely as she hates her mother, and her world is build around this contrast.  She is smart but not educated and while she doesn’t give herself credit for having much, she manages to navigate complicated and even dangerous situations with strength and with heart.  She is a truly beautiful, strong woman character.

I think the way that racism and racial violence is woven into the story is extremely effective as well.  There is a building of very tender relationships between Olivia and some of her black friends, particularly of her best friend, Love Alice, as a preface to any of the tension.  When incidents do happen -or even threats of them-  then, it becomes all that much more personal and so incredibly disturbing.  It feels like my own family members have been affected when they are only fictional characters, because of this beautiful character development.  And the story builds into an incredibly suspenseful and somewhat complicated plot line – I literally could not put this book down!

This was a surprisingly excellent book – I very highly recommend it!  A new “must-read” for the blog!

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

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Here we have another intriguing novel by John Green, who seems to really get young adults at their very core.  He introduces Aza, a teenage girl with crippling OCD, still mourning the death of her father years prior, who learns that the father of her camp crush from years ago has gone missing.  Why is her best friend, Daisy obsessed with this?  Because there is a huge $$ reward and they are both trying to save for college.  So as they set out together to dig in for clues, they find more than they bargain for in the deal.

There is a lot to unpack about this book.  First of all, Green gives us a window into the mind of someone with true OCD and it is scary and debilitating.  Poor Aza cannot even kiss her young, hapless boyfriend because she is overwhelmed by fears of what germs she might contract by the exposure.  Her “invasive” thoughts bombard her brain and throw her into downward spirals of obsessions that last for hours, and she has no control over this.  She questions whether she is even her own self or whether she is just a product of the organisms that are inside of her and of the forces that act upon her rather than her own agency.  Aza is also called out by her best friend for her self absorption, for which she hates herself.  Again, she feels she cannot control this because she cannot control her thoughts – she feels they control her.  Through Aza, Green succeeds in giving the reader insight into how this lack of control actually feels.

It is interesting how Aza’s psychiatrist is depicted, which for most of the story, is fairly useless.  Although Aza is not exactly forthcoming with answers to the psychiatrist’s questions, she does answer truthfully for the most part and yet the psychiatrist does not give much in the way of concrete advice.  I would imagine that there are distraction techniques (she does use some breathing) that are incorporated into treatment that might have been used.  The point is likely that treatment is often difficult and feels futile.

Even the parts involving Aza’s new boyfriend are sweet and endearing, even as painful as many of the scenes are.  And the story line about the missing father keeps a mysterious thread running through the story to tie it together, giving it a purpose.

I actually think this is a beautiful, extremely readable, somewhat depressing but realistic novel that would appeal to adults every bit as much as teens.  I also think it’s extremely important for all to read as much as possible to increase our awareness and understanding of all types of mental illness, including OCD.

 

Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McAll Smith

tears of the giraffe

Like the first in this series, this book is lovely.  It is the story of Mma Ramotse, who has established her No 1 Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana, who now happens to be engaged to be married.  Here in Book 2, her life undergoes some vast changes, but she greets them with a calm acceptance as she pursues the cases that continue to be the focus of her life.  These cases continue to be ones that are sometimes complex and sometimes straightforward, but always with a very human and ethical twist.  There is a hint of danger and a hint of suspense, but always a great deal of heart.

What I love about the main character is that she is a beautiful feminist of the quietest and most subtle kind.  She supports other women in their pursuit of their careers (as she does in promoting her own secretary) and she sticks it to men in a discrete but very direct way to get her message across.  There are many times when feminists must beat the drums and rally the marches – I am not against that at all – but it is in these quiet moments, behind closed doors when one can really change the minds and hearts of the men who might be most resistant.  There are moments in this book that demonstrate that quite poignantly.

I think I have to move on from this series, but I will definitely return to it at some point.  It definitely gives me peace.

 

The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

ladies detective agency

This is a book where writing is beautiful in its simplicity.  Mma Ramotswe is the first lady detective in Botswana, fulfilling both hers and her father’s dream of owning her own business successfully.  Although she is off to a precarious start, and has to take on occasionally less desirable cases (involving dogs, for example), she always uses her wise intuition and her cunning instincts to outsmart even the shadiest of characters.  And as we hear her cases unfold, we also get a taste of Africa, which is as rich an experience as the stories themselves.

Between the twists and turns of the story lines, the beautiful and colorful characters and the rich landscape in which the events unfold, this book is absolutely delightful.  I have seen it advertised for so many years and have not known what I’ve been missing all this time!  I now find myself wanting to read the other sequels to this to see what other adventures await.

I highly recommend this to all of you as well.  In this time of political distress, and when the news is so oppressively sad, this is a beautiful distraction.

 

The Book that Matters Most by Ann Hood

book that matters most

Ava is still feeling raw, even a year after her husband has left her for a woman who is famous for “yarning” statues and signs.  Thank goodness for her new book club, which has let her join for the new year.  Unfortunately, in her yearning to be accepted, she has sworn that she’d procure the author of her book to appear at their meeting at the end of the year – and it just might take the whole year to find this obscure author!

At first glance, this book appears to be a somewhat superficial novel – but it very quickly delves beneath the surface, plunging into Ava’s traumatic childhood, and focusing also on her daughter, Maggie, who is lost and has lost herself in Paris.  While there is not much discussion about feelings, there is much that is clearly felt, and the awkward moments are palpable in this book.  Maggie’s character, in particular, is extremely poignant and sympathetic, and I felt very drawn to her.  The change in voice from Ava’s to Maggie’s also helps to deepen the complexity of the plot and help move the story line along as well.  It is quite suspenseful in some parts, especially when it comes to Maggie, as she engages in some very dangerous behaviors.

Spoiler alert:  Don’t read the next paragraph if you don’t want to know my opinion about the ending…

Because my opinion is that the very ending is unfortunate.  The book is actually quite good.  I am not sure, however, why authors feel compelled to wrap their productions in such neat packages.  Life isn’t like that so why do stories have to be?  Even if the book had been as it is right up until the second to last page, it would have been ok.  But literally the last 2 pages undid the book for me – just sent it right down the path to cheesy.  Such a disappointment…

But overall, I’d still recommend this book – it’s a solid read and very engaging.  And I personally enjoyed the location – as most of it took place in my original home town of Providence, RI – which does not happen very often!