Becky’s One Hundred and Seventy-Seventh Book Review: “The Innocent” by Taylor Stevens

“The Innocent” by Taylor Stevens is the second book in the Vanessa Michael Munroe series. I am completely captivated by these books. Taylor Stevens is extremely talented and Vanessa Michael Munroe is a fascinating character. I cannot get enough.

SPOILER ALERT: DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THE FIRST BOOK IN THE VANESSA MICHAEL MUNROE SERIES

This book starts off slightly different in that the story opens with Logan as the storyteller. As we learned in the first book, Logan is like a brother to Munroe and one of the few that she has allowed to become emotionally close to her. Upon arrival, Logan is distraught when he realizes that Munroe has been dulling her personal demons with medication. “He left her room for the guest bathroom, irritation and anger washing over him. He needed her right now, needed her to be herself, lucid, aware, not this – brain-and-emotion-numbed, and half-alive. No matter the reasons, what she was doing was such a goddamn fucking waste of brilliance.” (The Innocent, pg 18). It is understandable that she is behaving this way after “The Informationist” ended with her losing Beyard, a man she described as ‘a rare equal’ and whom she had, in her own way, loved.

In “The Innocent” Munroe has been recruited to help Logan save a little girl from a religious cult that Logan had escaped from years ago. He has been trying to find a girl, Hannah whom was kidnapped by her mom’s boyfriend eight years before. He finally has information on her whereabouts and knows that the only way to get her out is to get Munroe involved. “In the stories of the children of The Chosen, in the sincerity of their pain, she understood the insanity of accepting the assignment and exactly why she would. There was no logic in it, no list of pros and cons; it defied the calculation and the meticulous exactness that had thus far defined her career. This desire to accept welled from deep inside; a child’s innocent yearning from years long past; the prayers for rescue never answered.” (The Innocent, pg 55). I thought this was a great insight into how Munroe thinks and feels. Her hardened exterior is to protect the damaged child within.

““Superheroes defend what’s good and destroy evil,” she said. “They mete out justice, and everybody cheers. Nobody ever talks about what it feels like to kill.” She turned her palms upward and stared at them. “They don’t discuss the rush, the savage ecstasy of bloodlust, the sense of satisfaction when it’s finished.” Her eyes cut to his. “Superheroes are glorified serial killers, Miles. Sure, they only kill bad guys, but aside from the moral labels, what makes them any different from the madmen?”
“Have you ever considered that it’s not always wrong to kill?” he said. “Maybe some people need to be killed, maybe by taking them out you break the cycle of pain and suffering.”” (The Innocent, pg 189). I loved this quote, Miles Bradford makes a really interesting point that sometimes, it is necessary – and can be – good to kill. I also liked how Munroe views superheroes; I thought it was an uncommon description.

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely, I think that Taylor Stevens really has something here. Vanessa Michael Munroe is a rare character, a woman that takes care of herself and others, someone that has the strength, skill, and intelligence to blend into whatever role she needs to be in order to complete an assignment. Most importantly, in my opinion, she is a woman that gets herself into sticky situations and then gets herself out of them. She doesn’t wait around for the menfolk to come and rescue her – she saves herself. I think that is a very atypical quality in a female character. I have the next book in the series already and was very pleased to find out that there is another coming out in summer 2015. This is an exciting series that I believe appeals to a wide range of people.

Becky’s One Hundred and Seventy-Sixth Book Review: “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” by Ben Fountain

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” by Ben Fountain was the Wall Street Journal Book Club Book a few months ago. It took me awhile to get through it, and even longer to figure out how I felt about it. On the one hand, the book was written in an odd fashion that I found to be a little challenging to get through. On the other hand, I liked quite a bit of the book and it was a book that was outside my comfort zone.

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is about a group of soldiers on leave. They are being considered for a movie after their heroics abroad and the book takes place at a Dallas Cowboys game. Reading about these soldiers trying to cope with life off the battlefield was thought provoking. “This has happened a lot lately and it’s freaking Billy out, the concentrated calm of Dime’s gray eyes with that sense of mad energy swirling at the edges, like finding yourself at the center of a hurricane.” (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, pg 14). Billy Lynn focuses quite a bit on how upside down the world seems now that they are back home. “Your mind is not calm. You aren’t sick but you aren’t exactly well. There’s an airy sense of dangling or dangerous incompletion, as if your life has gotten ahead of itself and you need some time to let it back and fill. This feels right, this grasping of the time problem…” (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, pg 43). I think that Ben Fountain does an impressive job at expressing how these soldiers feel amid the chaos of day-to-day in America.

The way that the book was written was very confusing and random. I think it gave a fairly accurate glimpse into the mind of Billy Lynn. He’s just a kid really, barely old enough to have joined the army. But he did join up and he was shipped off to fight and his company was in a bad spot. Their story is so courageous to the public that some want to turn it into a movie. They are considered heroes for what they did and all Billy can think about is how detached he feels from the world. “The war is out there somewhere but Billy can’t feel it, like his sole experience with morphine when he could not feel pain. At one point he even tried as an experiment, stared at his cut-up arms and legs thinking hurt, but the notion simply gassed into thin air. That’s how the war feels now, it is at most a presence or pressure on his mind, awareness without content, an experiential doughnut hole.” (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, pg 71).

Billy Lynn’s thoughts on the war are very interesting. At one point he is getting tired of hearing so much praise from everyone at the game. “He wishes that just once somebody would call him baby-killer, but this doesn’t seem to occur to them, that babies have been killed. Instead they talk about democracy, development, dubya em dees. They want so badly to believe, he’ll give them that much, they are as fervent as children insisting Santa Clause is real because once you stop believing, well, what then, maybe he doesn’t come anymore?” (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, pg 219). It’s interesting. The average American’s instinct is to thank soldiers for the service they have provided to their country. But here is Billy, thinking how much he would rather be called out on the horrible aspect of what it is to be a soldier. How it isn’t about saving lives, but taking them. No matter which side you support, it is horrible having to live with that each day. Knowing that you are breaking apart families in the name of your country. It’s clear that Billy is proud and at the same time shameful for what he has been doing. It leads to an interesting insight into the world of soldiers. “There’s too many people running around, too much bug-eyed panic, all the freak-out flavors of an ambush situation without any of the compensating murderous release.” (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, pg 237).

Would I recommend this book? To some, yes. What I really liked about “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is how challenging it was for me. I do not read a lot of novels formatted this way and it made for an interesting read. I also thought that the topic itself was outside of my comfort zone. I would never have picked up this book on my own. That being said, it is not by any means a light read. It is short, but it took quite awhile for me to get through it. I think that some people would enjoy reading it, but I would not recommend it for everyone.

Becky’s One Hundred and Seventy-Fifth Book Review: “The Informationist” by Taylor Stevens

“The Informationist” by Taylor Stevens is the first book in the Vanessa Michael Munroe series. I actually read the fourth book in the series first because I did not realize that it was part of a series. However I came to find this author, I have become completely captivated by her writing and the character Vanessa Michael Munroe. Taylor Stevens is truly gifted and part of what I enjoy so much about this series is that in no way, shape, or form is Vanessa Michael Munroe a ditzy damsel in distress – she is a strong female lead that takes shit from no one. She is a complete badass and makes for an amazing protagonist.

Munroe is not without her faults and she struggles with many demons. I really enjoyed getting background on why she is the way she is. She has many layers of pain to her and the more I read, the more her exterior unraveled and I got to learn about her. Munroe is in the business of getting information and “The Informationist” begins with her returning from an assignment only to find out that someone else is trying to hire her to look into a missing persons case. This is not what Munroe usually handles, but once she gets some background on the case and realizes where she would have to return in order to find this girl, she finds herself conceding to the assignment. It is when she decides that she is taking the assignment that she reflects upon what that will mean. “Returning to the past was inevitable. Somehow in the last nine years she’d managed to stay upright on a tightrope stretched between brilliance and insanity, the blackness of the abyss always with her, leaving her sometimes wondering if letting go might in the end be easiest of all.
Work had kept her sane, kept the line taut. It wasn’t fear that held her back from Burbank’s assignment or where it would lead, nor was it the contents of the envelope, symbols of the past that they were. It was uncertainty: If the line should snap, on which side of the abyss would she land? She’d planned to return when she no longer cared…
…Maybe she’d always care, maybe there was never going to be a good time, maybe she’d be running forever.” (The Informationist, pg 51).

I really enjoy the way that Taylor Stevens writes. I think she gives a unique voice to Munroe. At one point in the novel another character asks Munroe what her demons are. Her response is, “The aloneness. The invisible walls. Always the outsider looking in. Different. Unusual. I despise their world and the superficiality of it all and yet still want to be a part of it. I wonder sometimes how much simpler a life of naïveté and unawareness would be.” (The Informationist, pg 166). I think this quote sheds a great deal of light onto what Munroe is like, how she feels and reacts to things.

This is another quote that I feel demonstrates well how Munroe thinks. She is so used to relying only on herself that when someone else’s existence becomes something she wants to protect that she can’t help but react differently from how most people would. “The emotion she felt was a violation of the cardinal rule of survival; it skewed reason, clouded logic, had to be eradicated. Munroe took a deep breath and exhaled. She needed control, and to regain it required internal shutdown. Another intake of air, and she closed her eyes and then against her better judgment fought it, argued against it, and finally postponed it. Beyard was a rare equal, a man with skill and motive to destroy both her and the assignment. The danger was an intoxicating lure, difficult to abandon.” (The Informationist, pg 179).

Munroe is a complex character. She, like all people, has a natural desire to be around others. But her past has made her wary of others and instead of craving company she pulls from it. She doesn’t have the ability to function the way most do. She cannot accept other people into her world, and her aloneness makes her strong and weak at the same time. “After nearly our weeks of continual companionship, solitude brought with it the feeling of nakedness soon replaced by the exhilaration of freedom.” (The Informationist, pg 213). I think this expressed it well. Munroe functions best alone.

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely – I think that Taylor Stevens is a very talented storyteller and Vanessa Michael Munroe is a character that you can’t stop cheering for. She is a strong character that I cannot get enough of. I have already started reading the next book in the series and I hope that the series continues on for many more volumes.

Becky’s One Hundred and Seventy-Fourth Book Review: “The Love of a Good Woman: Stories” by Alice Munro

“The Love of a Good Woman: Stories” by Alice Munro was the Wall Street Journal Book Club pick a few months ago. I fell a little behind with the book before this, so I started it late and only just recently finished it. I have to say that this book was a disappointment. I do not tend to gravitate towards short stories, but as most of the Wall Street Journal book club books have been excellent I did not let that stop me from picking up “The Love of a Good Woman” with high hopes.

I was impressed with Alice Munro’s writing style. Her words quickly captivated me. “So they would jump into the water and feel the cold hit them like ice daggers. Ice daggers shooting up behind their eyes and jabbing the tops of their skulls from the inside. Then they would move their arms and legs a few times and haul themselves out, quaking and letting their teeth rattle; they would push their numb limbs into their clothes and feel the painful recapture of their bodies by their startled blood and the relief of making their brag true.” (The Love of a Good Woman, pg 5). Munro’s writing illustrated everything so well. I expected to continue to enjoy the book with each page I turned.

The first short story starts out with several boys discovering a body in a lake. The story is narrated in third person but follows each boy separately, while simultaneously detailing each boy’s background. I thought this was very well written and it was certainly interesting. Munro’s observations about many different aspects were relatable and intriguing at the same time. “You can never say, Nobody could make that up. Look how elaborate dreams are, layer over layer in them, so that the part you can remember and put into words is just the bit you can scratch off the top.” (The Love of a Good Woman, pg 74). With this quote she touches on dreams. At this point I was still enjoying her writing, but I was finding the stories a little hard to follow.

Perhaps it might have been better had I read this book in one sitting, but I spread it out and that led me to be really confused. Part of the issue was that some of the stories seemed related while others did not. Then there were also so many characters that I had trouble keeping track of them. In addition, quite a few of those characters had similar names, which just made it even harder to keep track of what was going on. I liked this quote for what it said, but it is also a great example of how confusing Munro’s writing can be. I had to read this part a few times to figure out what exactly she was talking about. “The sex Kath had with Kent was eager and strenuous, but at the same time reticent. They had not seduced each other but more or less stumbled into intimacy, or what they believed to be intimacy, and stayed there. If there is only to be the one partner in your life nothing has to be made special – it already is so. They had looked at each other naked, but at those times they had not except by chance looked into each other’s eyes.” (The Love of a Good Woman, pg 104). This also gives the example of there being two characters with similar names that happen to be a couple. Kath and Kent? How are readers supposed to keep track of everyone?

Normally part of what makes a book so enjoyable for me is when I find myself relating to the character or characters. I found this near impossible with the seemingly numerous characters. This one passage I enjoyed because the character was an avid reader just like myself. “Of course, I had less time for reading now, and sometimes I would hold a book in my hand for a moment, in my work at the desk – I would hold a book in my hand as an object, not as a vessel I had to drain immediately – and I would have a flicker of fear, as in a dream when you find yourself in the wrong building or have forgotten the time for the exam and understand that this is only the tip of some shadowy cataclysm or lifelong mistake.” (The Love of a Good Woman, pg 138). I thought this was a powerful passage, but I couldn’t tell you the name of the character that said it.

There were many passages throughout “The Love of a Good Woman” where I had the same reaction. I found the words that Alice Munro wrote to be inspiring and yet I had such a difficult time keeping track of the characters that I couldn’t really enjoy the book. This was yet another quote that I really enjoyed but I’m not sure who said it. “It was the truth, that there were people whom you positively ached to please. Derek was one of them. If you failed with such people they would put you into a category in their minds where they could keep you and have contempt for you forever.” (The Love of a Good Woman, pg 236). This was another quote that I really enjoyed on it’s own. Since it was so late in the book, I do remember which character said it and why, but that doesn’t change the fact that beyond knowing the short story that she was involved in, I don’t know how she relates at all to the other stories in this book. “Everybody thought she was just the same except for her skin. Nobody knew how she had changed, and how natural it seemed to her to be separate and polite and adroitly fending for herself. Nobody knew the sober, victorious feeling she had sometimes, when she knew how much she was on her own.” (The Love of a Good Woman, pg 253). This quote was powerful.

Would I recommend this book? No, I would not recommend this book to anyone. I thought that Alice Munro’s writing was excellent, but the storyline was so difficult to follow that whatever illusions I had when I started the book about enjoying it, they were quickly dissipated. I read a lot of books, so it is fair to say when I find the story hard to follow, that it is hard to follow. I doubt that I would pick up anything else that Alice Munro has written.

Becky’s One Hundred and Seventy-Third Book Review: “A Wizard of Earthsea” by Ursula K. Le Guin

“A Wizard of Earthsea” by Ursula K. Le Guin was the most recent book for the Wall Street Journal Book Club. I very infrequently find myself picking up fantasy novels although there are three fantasy series that I can remember reading (Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, and Alosha by Christopher Pike). So when I realized that the book that had been picked for the WSJ Book Club was a fantasy novel, I was a bit skeptical. When I looked more closely at the title I realized that I already owned the entire series but had never got around to reading it. And I knew the author too, she has written poetry also and I remember really enjoying some of it. To add to the list, Margaret Atwood is the author that picked this book and as I love her work, I found myself looking forward to reading “A Wizard of Earthsea”.

The book is short but powerful and in my opinion, one of the more complex and intricate novels that I have read. It was definitely an interesting read. “A Wizard of Earthsea” follows the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea: Ged, before he comes into his power and gains the knowledge necessary to harness that power. It was very interesting to read about Ged navigating his way through life, while trying to learn the strength and danger of his powers. One of the themes that is stressed throughout “A Wizard of Earthsea” is the dangers of power and more so of using said powers frivolously. Ged’s first interaction with magic happens when he observes a witch as a child. “There is a saying on Gont, weak as woman’s magic, and there is another saying, wicked as woman’s magic. Now the witch of Ten Alders was no black sorceress, nor did she ever meddle with the high arts or traffic with Old Powers; but being an ignorant woman among ignorant folk, she often used her crafts to foolish and dubious ends. She knew nothing of the Balance and the Pattern which the true wizard knows and serves, and which keep him from using his spells unless real need demands. She had a spell for every circumstance, and was forever weaving charms.” (A Wizard of Earthsea, pg 5).

Even in Ged’s first glance at magic, the foundation is set for the readers that using magic for everything is dangerous and that Balance is important. The consequences of allowing yourself to be seduced by power is repeated again and again in “A Wizard of Earthsea”. There are warnings expressed to Ged multiple times, but he lets his pride overshadow his sense and he faces dire consequences because of this.

Another warning that he is given is about change, and again – balance. “To change this rock into a jewel, you must change its true name. And to do that, my son, even to so small a scrap of the world, is to change the world. It can be done. Indeed it can be done. It is the art of the Master Changer, and you will learn it, when you are ready to learn it. But you must not change one thing, one pebble, on grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard’s power of Changing and of Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is more perilous. It must follow knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow….” (A Wizard of Earthsea, pg 44). I really liked this quote as it paints a picture of how Ursula K. Le Guin writes and is a good example of the warnings that Ged is given.

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely – I think that there is great appeal in this novel for a wide range of readers. I would never label myself a fan of the fantasy genre, but after reading “A Wizard of Earthsea” I may have to broaden my horizons even more. I am very glad that I already have the rest of the series in my possession. I may even have to try reading “The Lord of the Rings” now.