Throw Back Thursdays: Monster by Walter Dean Myers

MonsterMonster by Walter Dean Myers
First publisher in 1999
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s Description:

Steve Harmon’s black. He’s in jail, maybe forever. He’s on trial for murder. And he’s sixteen years old.

Fade In: Interior: Early Morning In Cell Block D, Manhattan Detention Center.

Steve (Voice-Over)
Sometimes I feel like I have walked into the middle of a movie. Maybe I can make my own movie. The film will be the story of my life. No, not my life, but of this experience. I’ll call it what the lady prosecutor called me … Monster.

Steve’s story is told in the screenplay he writes about his crime, trial and time in prison and diary entries he writes while in prison. I was worried that the screenplay parts would be difficult to read since I’ve never read a whole screenplay before, but they weren’t. Steve is an incredibly unreliable narrator. Myers purposely leaves it unclear whether he is innocent or guilty. I won’t spoil it by telling you what the jury’s verdict is.

I liked that this book brought up so many issues that are ripe for discussion. Is it ethical to offer criminals deals or plea bargains in exchange for testifying against other criminals? Are black people treated unfairly in the criminal justice system? Did Steve commit the crime or not? For this reason, this book would make an excellent book club selection for a teenage or adult book club.

Walter Dean Myers, who died on July 1, 2014, was a prolific writer, having published over 100 books for children and teenagers. His books have won many, many awards. Monster won a Coretta Scott King Honor Award and was a National Book Award Finalist. I’ll probably never read all of his backlist but after reading this book, I definitely want to give it a shot.

Every Thursday I host Throwback Thursdays. If you you’d like to share a post from the past week about a book from “back in the day”, feel free to grab the button for your post and and link up below. Be sure and link directly to your post, not your blog’s home page. Thanks!

Book Review: Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guin

Manson: The Life and Times of Charles MansonManson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn
Publisher: Recorded Books
Release Date: August 6, 2013
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s Description:

More than forty years ago Charles Manson and his mostly female commune killed nine people, among them the pregnant actress Sharon Tate. It was the culmination of a criminal career that author Jeff Guinn traces back to Manson’s childhood. Guinn interviewed Manson’s sister and cousin, neither of whom had ever previously cooperated with an author. Childhood friends, cellmates, and even some members of the Manson Family have provided new information about Manson’s life. Guinn has made discoveries about the night of the Tate murders, answering unresolved questions, such as why one person on the property where the murders occurred was spared.

Manson puts the killer in the context of his times, the turbulent late sixties, an era of race riots and street protests when authority in all its forms was under siege. Guinn shows us how Manson created and refined his message to fit the times, persuading confused young women (and a few men) that he had the solutions to their problems. At the same time he used them to pursue his long-standing musical ambitions, relocating to Los Angeles in search of a recording contract. His frustrated ambitions, combined with his bizarre race-war obsession, would have lethal consequences as he convinced his followers to commit heinous murders on successive nights.

Ever since the period in high school, when I only read true crime, I’ve been intrigued by Charles Manson and the Manson Family. Helter Skelter by Vincent Buglisiosi, the prosecutor in the Manson Family murder trials, is my favorite true crime book. When I heard there was a new book about Manson that was supposed to be great, I had to check it out.

I wasn’t disappointed. This book is a very comprehensive biography of Charles Manson. While Helter Skelter is a focused look at the investigation and trial for Manson and his followers, Manson’s focus is on the life of Charles Manson. It starts with his grandmother’s life and ends at the present day. Knowing the history of the women who raised Charlie, as well as how he was raised gives a lot of insight into how Charlie came to be the man he is.

I really appreciated how, in addition to telling the story of the people in the book, Guinn describes the cultural environment of the times. His account of the 60s and how the drugs and hippie culture could give a man like Charlie an opportunity to rise to the level of guru was especially good. Guin also delves into the back stories of the prominent family members like Susan Atkins and Squeaky, among many others. While I still can’t completely comprehend how people of normal intelligence could follow someone like Manson, I do understand somewhat better than I did before. It would be great if there was some video footage of Charlie’s preaching to give me and the world a better idea of what his charisma was like. Too bad there was no cell phone videos or YouTube back then! And from what Guin says in the book, the crazy way Manson acts in the television interviews he’s done since being in prison is all an act. That’s not how he acted when he was recruiting and leading his family members.

Even though I thought I knew a lot about Manson, I was surprised by a lot in this book as well. For instance, I didn’t know that Charlie and his family had a pretty close relationship with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. That struck me as really funny too because the Beach Boys and the Manson Family don’t seem like they would have too much in common.

I listened to the audio version of this book which was narrated by Jim Frangione. He was great – very professional and listenable. Non-fiction book narrators run the risk of sounding dry but Frangione has good energy. I have to add that before this, I had only listened to him narrating Black Dagger Brotherhood books so it took me a few minutes to get used to him talking about Charles Manson and not sexy vampires.

The print version of this book has some photos in it. I actually checked the print version out from the library so I could see the photos. There were just a few and they didn’t add anything to my experience of the book. If you choose to listen to this book on audio, I don’t think you’re missing anything. My only complaint about the audio version is that there were a lot of really long pauses and not just in between chapters. They were so long that most of the time, I thought it was time to change discs until I looked at the track count.

After reading this book, I’d like to re-read Helter Skelter, just to see how what I learned from this book fits in with Bugliosi’s side of the whole ordeal. In any case, Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson is a very well-researched biography of Charles Manson. I highly recommend it.

(I received this book courtesy of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.)

Book Review: A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley

A Long Way Home: A MemoirA Long Way Home: A Memoir by Saroo Brierley
Publisher: Putnam
Release Date: June 12, 2014
My rating: 4.5of 5 stars

Publisher’s Description:

At only five years old, Saroo Brierley got lost on a train in India. Unable to read or write or recall the name of his hometown or even his own last name, he survived alone for weeks on the rough streets of Calcutta before ultimately being transferred to an agency and adopted by a couple in Australia.

Despite his gratitude, Brierley always wondered about his origins. Eventually, with the advent of Google Earth, he had the opportunity to look for the needle in a haystack he once called home, and pore over satellite images for landmarks he might recognize or mathematical equations that might further narrow down the labyrinthine map of India. One day, after years of searching, he miraculously found what he was looking for and set off to find his family.

Saroo’s story is amazing in so many ways. First, that he was able to survive on the streets of Calcutta (Kolkata) for weeks at only five-years old. Then, that he was adopted by a wonderful Australian couple within four months of arriving at an Indian orphanage – a process that would take years today. And finally, that he was able to find the town in India he was originally from with Google Earth when he didn’t even know the town’s name!

I really enjoyed learning Saroo’s story. I was once again fascinated by the culture in India – this time learning about the very poorest slums where Saroo’s Indian family lived. Saroo tells his story in a conversational, easy style that was a pleasure to read.

I’ve included the link to Saroo’s interview on the Australian version of 60 minutes, which can be found on his website. It’s long but worth watching. In the last part of it, Saroo’s Australian mom meets his Indian mom for the first time. The emotion that his Australian mom has in that moment is astounding. Saroo talks about her being supportive in the book and it is evident at the meeting. She expresses nothing but gratitude and love to Saroo’s Indian mother. Not a hint of jealousy.

Saroo’s story is also being made into a motion picture which I hope turns out to be as good as his book. His is an incredible story worth reading.

(I received this book courtesy of the publisher.)

Throwback Thursdays: Pride and Prejudice (Encore Review)

I first published this review in May 2010. It’s interesting to see how much better and more detailed (I think anyway) my reviews have gotten since then.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
First Published in 1813
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Since I was a business major in college, I wasn’t made to read a lot of the standard classics that most people have already read. I’m finally starting to make up for lost time.

I loved this book. I have always loved 19th century literature, mostly because I love the societal rules and manners. (The House of Mirth is one of my all-time favorite books.) However, I was a bit surprised that I could be drawn in so much to a romance where no one even kisses. (Especially because some of the paranormal romances I read are practically pornography.) But I couldn’t put this book down and I am now in love with Mr. Darcy like so many other women before me.

The Annotated Pride & PrejudiceThe Annotated Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I used this book as a reference while I was reading Pride and Predjudice on my Kindle. There were way too many footnotes to read directly from this edition. I would read a few chapters on the Kindle and then skim the footnotes in this edition for the section I had just read. I think I got a lot more out of the book than if I had just read the regular version. Shapard’s footnotes contained many interesting facts about the customs of the day that helped explain various characters’ motivations for their actions. He also included biographical information about Jane Austen herself that was helpful.

Every Thursday I host Throwback Thursdays. If you you’d like to share a post from the past week about a book from “back in the day”, feel free to grab the button for your post and and link up below. Be sure and link directly to your post, not your blog’s home page. Thanks!

Book Review: Invisible Ellen by Shari Shattuck

Invisible EllenInvisible Ellen by Shari Shattuck
Publisher: G.P. Putman’s Sons
Release Date: May 29, 2014
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s Description:

For many of us, there comes a moment when we wish we were invisible.

For Ellen Homes, not only does she wish it . . . she actually lives it.

She spends her days quietly observing but unobserved, watching and recording in her notebooks the lives of her neighbors, coworkers, and total strangers. Overweight, socially stunted, and utterly alone, one night Ellen saves a blind young woman from being mugged.

Then everything changes.

Ellen is an overweight woman whose face and psyche are horribly scarred. She spent her childhood either with her abusive mother or in foster care. Ellen says she’s invisible. Basically, that means that either no one notices her because she is shy and withdrawn or they ignore her because her appearance makes them uncomfortable. When she meets Temerity, the blind woman she saves from being mugged, she finds someone who understands her and sometimes feels invisible herself. And ironically, the fact that Temerity can’t see is what makes Ellen visible to her.

I thought the way that way Ellen described her feelings of being invisible was wonderful. And I loved how Justice, Temerity’s anthropologist brother completely gets Ellen. The relationship of all three of them with each other warmed my heart without being trite or cheesy.

Ellen doesn’t know what made her momentarily discard her cloak of invisibility to rescue Temerity, but once she does, she starts to evolve one baby step at a time. I found that fact that it was baby steps instead of a complete overnight transformation authentic. I could easily see the story going the formulaic way and having Temerity bring about a major transformation in Ellen through the power of her friendship. The fact that it doesn’t follow that Lifetime movie format is what makes this book so fabulous.

Ellen is overweight because she is an emotional eater. She eats both for comfort and because she often went hungry as a child. This book has the best descriptions of why an emotional eater eats and how it makes her feel. The author’s insight into the cause and effect of why Ellen eats was brilliant.

I was surprised to learn that Shari Shattuck is an actress and used to star on The Young and Restless among many other acting gigs. She is definitely a multi-talented woman. I highly recommend that you add Invisible Ellen to your summer reading list.

(I received this book courtesy of the publisher.)

Throwback Thursdays: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter, #1)Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
Publisher: Scholastic
First Published in 1997
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s Description:

Till now there’s been no magic for Harry Potter. He lives with the miserable Dursleys and their abominable son, Dudley. Harry’s room is a tiny closet beneath the stairs, and he hasn’t had a birthday party in eleven years.

But then a mysterious letter arrives by owl messenger: a letter with an invitation to an incredible place called Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. And there he finds not only friends, flying sports and broomsticks, and magic in everything from classes to meals, but a great destiny that’s been waiting for him…if Harry can survive the encounter.

Do I really even need to include a synopsis of this book?

I have been curious about the Harry Potter books for a long time but when they were first released – seventeen years ago! – I decided that I would wait to read them until I had children of my own so we could read them together for the first time. (I’m a planner.) This summer both my nine and seven year old sons decided to start the series so I did too.

My plan is not working exactly how I wanted it to though. The boys have way more free time than me and are tearing through this series. Cash, my nine-year old, finished the last book in the series this week and West, my seven-year old, is on book four. And I’ve still only read the first one! (I have read other books in the meantime though.) We are watching the movies together as they finish the books that correspond with each one. I don’t mind the books being spoiled for me by watching the movies. And I sincerely hope that the books are better because I have not been impressed by the movies so far. More on that in later posts.

So…Harry Potter. Long-time readers know that I don’t read much fantasy and when I do, I usually don’t like it. I’ll cut to the chase and tell you that I did like this book but I’m not a raving fan girl about it. Not yet anyway. Part of that may be that it’s really hard for a book to live up to over fifteen years of major hype. I was expecting it to be the Holy Grail of middle grade fiction.

It WAS a great story, with fun characters. Even the “evil” aunt and uncle were pretty bumbling and funny, which was good because if they were darker, it would have freaked West and other sensitive children out. I think I felt more sorry for poor Harry and the treatment he got, with having to sleep in the cupboard and not getting good food, than my boys did.

The thing that bothers me about fantasy is that at times it seems too easy to advance the plot with magic. There are usually no basic rules that must be followed like in science fiction world-building. That happens a little bit in this book but not as much as in other fantasy books I’ve read. In one instance, Harry needs something and it magically appears in his pocket. Why? How? That kind of thing bothers me. I think my favorite magic article in this book was the mirror. I liked what it did and how it affected Harry when he looked into it.

The bottom line is that my boys and millions of other kids LOVE this book. Kids who were reluctant readers read this book and were reluctant no more. For whatever reason, this book touches kids and sparks their interest in reading. And that is the most important thing.

Every Thursday I host Throwback Thursdays. If you you’d like to share a post from the past week about a book from “back in the day”, feel free to grab the button for your post and and link up below. Be sure and link directly to your post, not your blog’s home page. Thanks!

Throwback Thursdays: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird SingsI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
First Published in 1969
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I owned I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as a child and I assumed that I had read it. However, when I started “re-reading” it after Maya Angelou’s death, I realized that I hadn’t read it before. I would have remembered reading this powerful book. I feel a little unworthy to review this book because it’s obviously fantastic but you all want to know what I personally thought of it, right? Great!

***This review assumes that you know the basic details of Maya Angelou’s life and may have spoilers if you don’t.***

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Dr. Angelou’s account of her life from three or four years old through seventeen years old. It’s different from most autobiographies in that it’s not strictly chronologically. It’s more of a series of vignettes from her life that have common themes.

It starts off when her parents shipped her and brother off to Stamps, Arkansas to live with their grandmother, who they called Momma. And they were literally shipped – put on the train by themselves with a tag pinned to them with where they were going written on it. Living in Stamps, Maya experiences blatant racism from most all of the white people she encounters. This book presents outstanding, horrible examples of white privilege. If you know anyone who doesn’t understand the concept, recommend this book to them.

One particular incident that haunted me is when Maya is eight years old, she and her brother are sent to live with her mother, who her brother calls Mother Dear, for a time. While there, Maya is sexually assaulted and raped by her mother’s boyfriend. Her description of the emotions she experienced during these events is so brutally honest. I was impressed with the courage that must have taken. The rape and the subsequent murder of the perpetrator are what let to Maya’s muteness for the next five years.

Dr. Angelou is, of course, a fabulous writer. She crafts wonderful metaphors and descriptions. She also has wit. The story about her thinking she might be a lesbian (which she thinks is a hermaphrodite) is particularly humorous.

You’ve probably read this book already. I think it’s on every “books to read before you die” list that there is. If you haven’t read it, do so as soon as you can.

This is the inaugural Throwback Thursdays post! Every Thursday I host Throwback Thursdays. If you you’d like to share a post from the past week about a book from “back in the day”, feel free to grab the button for your post and and link up below. Be sure and link directly to your post, not your blog’s home page. Thanks!

Page to Screen: The Fault in Our Stars

***This review assumes you have read the book A Fault in Our Stars and may have spoilers if you haven’t.***

The Fault in Our Stars was one of the best books I read last year so I had high hopes that the movie would do the book justice. I was not disappointed.

When I heard that Shailene Woodley was cast as Hazel, I was concerned. I know her mostly from  the TV show The Secret Life of the American Teenager and I never thought she was very good in that. Granted, that may have been because of the material she was given to work with. However, her acting was great in this movie. She conveyed complex emotions through subtle facial expressions. I was impressed. Her haircut and wardrobe made her sufficiently dowdy like I pictured Hazel would be.

Ansel Elgort was a good choice for Gus, both in looks and attitude. I was also happy with the rest of the cast. I’m a fan of Mike Birbiglia and was surprised that he was in this movie. He turned out to be great as the cheesy support group leader Mike. And True Blood fans – Sam (Sam Trammell) plays Hazel’s dad!

The movie condensed the book in just the right way. Augustus still has some of his angsty, mature dialogue but not as much as in the book. I know some people thought the way he talked in the book was unrealistic. They will probably think the movie version is more believable. The one thing that bothered me is the stupid cigarette that Gus has dangling out of his mouth most of the time. I don’t remember it being as prominent in the book. Maybe I just didn’t visualize it when reading. Either way, I didn’t care for it. It’s supposed to be a metaphor but it seems like he depends on it as a comfort item, even though he never lights it of course. I remember the storyline with Hazel’s favorite author (played by the awesome Willem Dafoe) being kind of zany in the book and it was too much for me. It’s toned down nicely in the movie.

Even if you haven’t read the book, this is a fantastic movie. It’s a love story about two people who happen to have cancer. It’s not overly sentimental or trite. I give it two thumbs way up!

Book Review: The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham

The Snow Queen: A NovelThe Snow Queen: A Novel by Michael Cunningham
Publisher: Macmillon Audio
Narrated by: Claire Danes
Release Date: May 6, 2014
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s Description:

Michael Cunningham’s luminous novel begins with a vision. It’s November 2004. Barrett Meeks, having lost love yet again, is walking through Central Park when he is inspired to look up at the sky; there he sees a pale, translucent light that seems to regard him in a distinctly godlike way. Barrett doesn’t believe in visions—or in God—but he can’t deny what he’s seen.

At the same time, in the not-quite-gentrified Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, Tyler, Barrett’s older brother, a struggling musician, is trying—and failing—to write a wedding song for Beth, his wife-to-be, who is seriously ill. Tyler is determined to write a song that will be not merely a sentimental ballad but an enduring expression of love.

Barrett, haunted by the light, turns unexpectedly to religion. Tyler grows increasingly convinced that only drugs can release his creative powers. Beth tries to face mortality with as much courage as she can summon.

Cunningham follows the Meeks brothers as each travels down a different path in his search for transcendence. In subtle, lucid prose, he demonstrates a profound empathy for his conflicted characters and a singular understanding of what lies at the core of the human soul.

The Snow Queen is a slice of life that follows brothers Tyler and Barrett and their friends for a few years in the mid-2000s. There isn’t that much of a plot. Yes, Barrett sees the light and turns to religion but that all that entails is going to church a few times. Tyler’s struggle to write Beth the perfect song is a more developed plotline but not the focus of the story either. One thing I really appreciated is that it was a non-issue that Barrett is gay. He wasn’t a stereotype – he was just another character in the book that happened to be gay.

What makes this a great book is Cunningham’s astounding prose. He can craft a beautiful metaphor or description for even the most mundane object or smallest gesture. It was actually a bit over the top at times. But most of the time, I loved it. I think listening to it aloud made the writing sound even more poetic than if I had read the print copy.

I also liked how the story would skip ahead in time at points and the reader learned what had happened in the intervening time though the characters recollections. This kept the book from getting too bogged down in details and was a great device to summarize portions of the story.

Claire Danes is the perfect narrator for this book. A lesser narrator might have sounded droning reading the lengthy, meandering metaphors. Danes is obviously a phenomenal actress and read the entire book with subtle emotion that served to make the language even more beautiful. It was almost hypnotic to listen to.

After listening to this book, I’d love to read Cunningham’s backlist. He is definitely a talented, original writer.

(I received this book courtesy of the publisher.)

IntroducingThrowback Thursdays!

I’d like t0 introduce a new feature here at Chaos Is a Friend of Mine – Throwback Thursdays! On Thursdays, I’ll be posting a review of a book from “back in the day.” Then you can link up your reviews of books from back in the day too. They don’t have to be reviews actually posted on a Thursday – anytime during the week is great! And it doesn’t matter how far back the book was published – a couple of years ago or a couple hundred years ago. It’ll be fun for us all to read everyone’s reviews of their Throwback Thursday books. It’ll either bring back fond memories or remind us of something we meant to read but never got around to.

If you have a review from a book published “back in the day”, grab my Throwback Thursdays button and link your review up using the Mr. Linky that I’ll provide. We’ll officially kick-off next Thursday so be sure and come back to reminisce and link up!