Whoosh! Another month went by in a flash. Between vacationing and gearing up for finishing my novel this summer, it’s been a busy time for me. But I always make time to read. Here’s what I polished off since we last spoke.
The following post contains affiliate links. Using these links to make a purchase costs you nothing extra and may generate a small commission for me. This does not affect my reviews, which are honestly and freely given.
The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman
In Short: YA, fantasy, dark
Warnings: some adult themes–recommend for maybe 12 and up; not equivalent to Harry Potter; some dialogue awkwardness; religion theme
Who Should Read: fantasy readers who like for the story to reflect a deeper theme
What I Learned: An interesting premise still requires characters you can care about.
I like to read books aloud, and my husband hates to read but loves stories, so we’re a terrific match–he got to turn every book into an audiobook he can kiss, I got a captive audience. We grabbed The Golden Compass when we finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows because we understood it to be a similar kind of story: young kid with powers will save the world. That much is the same, but Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is otherwise very different from HP. This is no warm story about the transforming power of friendship and love. It’s a story about sin and how people use the idea of it to maintain power and keep people in line.
And what a fabulous line it is.
If you’re sensitive about stories involving questioning religious doctrine, you will not likely enjoy this book. Indeed, I seem to recall a good deal of backlash against these books because they deal with something akin to Judeo-Christian doctrine. There are purported Bible excerpts that are mostly verbatim but then have non-biblical lines mixed in because the world of this book is not precisely our world: They have technologies we do not and lack others that we do; names of things are often similar but just a letter or two different; and their political, educational, and religious systems are intertwined. If you can keep this idea of similar-but-different straight in your mind, the religious theme shouldn’t bother you. Repeat after me: It’s just a book.
The only thing that did bother me was the dialogue. Given, I’m fresh from J K Rowling’s work, which is rich with characters who all have distinct “voices”; I can generally tell who’s talking in any HP book because the characters are so strong. In TGC, however, I can rarely distinguish them. The kids talk like adults, the adults talk stiffly, and everyone uses full names to address or refer to anyone else, which is highly unnatural. By the umpteenth time I’d read the name “Serafina Pekkala” aloud, I was beginning to get loopy. And that’s one of the easier names, apart from Roger and Mrs. Coulter. The cast includes such gems as Iorek Byrnison, Iofur Raknison, and Pantalaimon. Even the main character, whose name, Lyra, looks easy enough? Turned out I was pronouncing it incorrectly the whole time, saying “Lee-ruh” (think “lyric”) instead of “Lie-ruh.” Found out when I watched the movie (which is a poor representation of the book, despite Nicole Kidman’s on-point Mrs. Coulter depiction).
But enough about names. The story itself is exciting enough in places, chock full of things that really don’t belong in children’s literature–such as adultery and murder–but when I finished the book, I didn’t care enough about any of the characters to want to read on. It doesn’t matter how interesting your premise is, if you haven’t made me give a damn about at least one character, I will duck out without finishing the series and not lose sleep over it. I have a giant TBR pile and a whole library to comfort me.
Unfortunately, my husband can’t seem to stand to be left hanging and feels compelled to read the sequels, so we’re already halfway through the second one, thanks to having had nothing but time on our hands while on the road to Yellowstone. I’ll let you know if the series gets any better.
Love in a Nutshell: A Novel, by Janet Evanovich and Dorien Kelly
In Short: romantic; lighthearted mystery; funny
Warnings: some adult situations and language
Who Should Read: contemporary romance readers who like an element of mystery in their stories
What I Learned: Authors can ignore some details of reality in order to serve the story, without taking away from its enjoyment.
I very much enjoyed Evanovich’s One for the Money series, as well as her book on writing, where she talks about how she developed Stephanie Plum, the brassy-but-goofy heroine of those bestselling books, who chases bad guys to pay the rent, while trying not to pee her pants in fright as she does so. I call these books “candy” because they’re relatively short, sweet, and uncomplicated. I tend to pick them up after a particularly dark read, the same way I have to follow up a heavy drama film with a little Disney. We were vacationing most of June, and travel can trigger my anxiety, so I wanted to switch to something that didn’t require much thought.
This book is very much of the same formula as OftM: tough-but-tender female lead, recently divorced from a schmuck, desperately in need of a job to stay afloat and prove she can take care of herself. There is an element of mystery, which manages to be suspenseful without being stressful. Evanovich has a way of pairing dire situations with humor that keeps the reader from worrying too much.
I did have one question about how realistic a situation was: There’s a scene involving some large processing equipment that a character gets trapped in. My husband happens to work in a processing plant and has first-hand knowledge of how this equipment’s operations are handled, so I asked him if such a thing was possible. He laughed and explained how it’s not, thanks to a safety procedure known as lockout-tagout, and I got to feel smug that I had spotted an error.
But I have a feeling the authors knew it wasn’t realistic and banked on the majority of their readers’ ignorance of factory safety. As a writer, I can become paralyzed by the fear that I’m going to get a detail wrong, and someone is going to see and call me out on it. I STILL cringe when think about the time I mixed up two Queen Marys in a paper for my Shakespeare class and the professor–who got his doctorate from Yale–pointed it out. Egads. Yet, this scene was exciting to read, despite my doubts. This bold kind of prestidigitation reminds me that it’s okay to fudge a little rather than spend
days weeks years coming up with the absolute most perfect solution to your plot dilemma. If it serves your purpose and most people won’t know the difference, go for it. Don’t agonize over every minute detail to the point that you never finish the dang thing. Just FINISH THE DANG THING. (Which, incidentally, should be my motto for my WIP this summer.)
Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, by Daniel Smith
In Short: author’s experience with anxiety; not a self-help book; funny at times
Warnings: intense descriptions of anxiety episodes
Who Should Read: people with anxiety/panic issues or people who want to better understand what it’s like inside an anxious person’s mind
What I Learned: It’s nice to know you’re not the only one with a problem; what counter-phobia behavior is and its role in my own anxiety.
As I said above, this is not a self-help book; this is the author’s history of dealing with his “monkey mind,” the part of our brain that swings wildly from thought to thought like a caffeinated chimpanzee. Smith describes the origins of his anxiety, how it has affected him and his relationships over the years, and how he has learned to cope with it.
Some books sell themselves by their cover. This cover, with its wide-eyed monkey doll and the word “anxiety,” compelled me to reach for it when I saw it at the library. I feel the way that monkey looks more often than I want to. I may look calm on the outside–because I’m a “stifler” in public (not to be confused with a “Stiffler,” for all you 90s kids)–but my brain is clocking 90 mph. Thoughts whip by me before I have a chance to really look at them, until they start to pile up into a vaguely monster-shaped tower of terror.
That’s when things get real ugly, real fast. I generally know now when I’ve reached the point of no return, and I have no compunctions about reaching for my stash of emergency Xanax when I do; if you had to live in my head and body for my hours-long panic attacks, you would, too, trust me. It’s not pretty: flushed face, racing heart, nausea, fevered questioning of every choice you have ever made or could make, desperate desire to hit the reset button on your brain, overwhelming sense of impending doom that is of your own making… Ah, the song of my people.
So I do every possible thing I can to avoid reaching that point. I’ve found a few tricks to occupy my monkey mind, but I know when my brain has turned into King Kong–at that point no amount of distraction or breath-counting will save me from my primitive gray matter. And I’ve found, like the author did, that most of the work of avoiding panic is done when I’m calm–you don’t learn to fight alligators by camping in the middle of the Everglades. (The wise person who fears giant reptiles with pointy teeth just avoids the swamps, but occasionally life hands you surprise swamps.) In terms of anxiety, this is called “cognitive therapy.” It means taking every thought by the scruff and shaking the loose panic out of it, like a vengeful TSA agent. A lot of seemingly innocuous thoughts are really anxiety smugglers, so you have to interrogate them thoroughly, triple-check their ID, and inspect every prison pocket.
“In just seven days, I can make you a man…iac.” — anxiety, probably
If you’re looking for concrete steps to manage your anxiety, try a different book–and/or a therapist. (I would recommend When Panic Attacks: The New, Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life. It has solid steps and worksheets for those who are willing to put in the hard work, though I would ignore any implied promises of permanent freedom from panic.) But if you just want to feel like somebody “gets” your anxiety, I suggest you read this book. It’s engaging, surprisingly funny at times, and extremely accurate. Throughout, I kept saying, “Yes, this!” and there were several times Smith put into words a concept I had sensed but been unable to express–and if there’s one thing I like, it’s a word for something I previously had no name for.