Binge-Reading and 6 Vacation Reads

Because it is FRIDAY and because I am now back from vacation, you guys get a book post today!

I just returned from 10 days in the Dominican Republic for my sister-in-law’s wedding. My husband grew up there and his family still lives there, so once a year or so we get to go to a Ten gorgeous country and hang out on fabulous beaches for a while.

While on vacation, I definitely took advantage of the beach, poolside bars, and family game nights, but I also did an oh-my-word-so-wonderful amount of reading. Here’s what I read:

 

TEN by Gretchen McNeil

 

Taken (Taken, #1)

 

TAKEN by Erin Bowman

 

 

 

 

We Were Liars

 

WE WERE LIARS by E. Lockhart

 

 

 

 

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UNDER THE NEVER SKY by Veronica Rossi

 

 

 

 

Daughter of Smoke & Bone (Daughter of Smoke and Bone, #1)

 

DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE by Laini Taylor

 

 

 

 

No One Needs to Know

NO ONE NEEDS TO KNOW by Amanda Grace (Mandy Hubbard)

 

 

 

 

 

I’m in the middle of both GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST and SIEGE AND STORM, so hopefully I’ll finish those this weekend.

Overall thoughts:

Would I read more by this author?

Lockhart, Bowman, Rossi, Grace/Hubbard, and Taylor: YES. Very solid reads.

McNeil: Probably not. I loved the concept but wasn’t wildly impressed with the writing.

Favorites:

We Were Liars, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Under the Never Sky. They’re each so rich and thought-provoking. I also can’t wait for the sequels to Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Under the Never Sky— I’m totally hooked!

I’m also really enjoying Siege and Storm. It’s been a while since I read Shadow and Bone, and I’d forgotten how much I loved the world.

Observations:

I can’t recommend binge-reading nearly enough. I didn’t write much on vacation– 2,000 words, maybe– but packing my mind full of incredible writing and wonderful stories does more for refueling my creativity and challenging my own writing than anything else does, ever. Reading a book a day for a week or two is more effective for me than reading one a week, slowly, somewhat like learning a language through immersion. Plunging right into it and letting it be a huge percentage of what your mind works over during those days is unbelievably helpful.

Have you read any of these? What were your thoughts? And do you binge-read?

Review: CALL ME ZELDA by Erika Robuk

Review: CALL ME ZELDA by Erika Robuk

Review by Alison Doherty
Call Me Zelda
Erika Robuk
NAL Trade, 2013

Since I first read The Great Gatsby in high school, I’ve been fascinated by the Fitzgeralds – especially Zelda. In a lot of ways their story as a couple both eclipses and bolsters F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books. Lately with the resurgence of nostalgia for the 1920s, aided by Downton Abbey and Baz Luhrmann’s film, even more people are interested in Zelda. They are interested in Zelda, the southern belle who charmed all the officers, or Zelda, the flapper who drank champagne all night and danced in fountains. CALL ME ZELDA, by Erika Robuck doesn’t focus on that Zelda. Instead the book shows her in the 1930s, trying desperately to recover from a mental breakdown and trying to forge an identity separate from her famous husband.

The book succeeds in large part because it is told through the perspective of made-up character Nurse Anne Howard. Anne has a history and problems of her own, but as she gets more and more absorbed in the Fitzgeralds so does the reader. Anne eventually quits her job at the psychiatric hospital to move into the Fitzgerad’s home. She starts feeling more like a family friend than employee, but the ground in the Fitzgerald household is always shifting.

During this time, Zelda cathartically writes out memories from iconic periods of her life for Anne. While these times are fun to read about, I think it was a little too bold of Robuck to assume Zelda’s writing style. Anne joins Zelda in her obsession with finding the diaries, which F. Scott Fitzgerald stole for material for his novels and proceeded to lose. They both begin to think if the diaries can be recovered Zelda will be able to recover her identity from being mixed up with her roll as Scott’s muse and literary archetype.

Even though historical fiction hasn’t been my favorite thing to read lately, overall I really enjoyed this book. I became as absorbed in Anne’s personal story as I was in this interpretation of Zelda and Scott. It is hard to take on such iconic historical and literary figures, but I think setting the book after their success made this easier.

Both Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald created their own fictionalizations of this time period and Zelda’s breakdown. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote TENDER IS THE NIGHT about a famous psychiatrist who sacrifices his career to marry one of his patients. Zelda wrote the very autobiographical SAVE ME THE WALTZ, in which she portrays the couple’s whole relationship. In fact, CALL ME ZELDA shows both characters working on these books.

If you want to learn more about Zelda I would suggest starting with either of those or checking out the biography ZELDA, by Nancy Mitford. However, if you are looking for something easier to read or have already read those books, CALL ME ZELDA, is definitely a book I would recommend. Erika Robuck has also written novels about Edna St. Vincent Millay and Ernest Hemingway, if stories about those authors sound more interesting to you.

Alison Doherty

Release Day for The Bone Church!

I’m thrilled to welcome my wickedly talented client, Victoria Dougherty, to the blog today to talk about The Bone Church. Victoria’s writing turns everyday things on their heads in such a ghostly, atmospheric way, and her ability to craft a line is stunning. Welcome, Victoria, and happy release day!

Kate, thank you so much for having me on your blog. You always inspire me to do my best work and I’ll endeavor to keep up those expectations here :).

In addition to what I write, you’ve asked me to tell you all a little bit about why I write what I write. That’s a sit up for half the night with a bottle of wine kind of conversation, and I wish we could do this in front of a fire, with a plate of fancy cheeses, but I’ll give it my best shot with you there and me here:

drinks

Having grown up with a lot of drinking and smoking and storytelling at my dinner table, I guess I was predisposed to continue that tradition somehow. And these were crazy stories – dangerous, true-to-life James Bond-style epics told by the eccentric, high-wire act people that made up my family. Women who’d fled across armed borders, hid Jews, learned they were Jews, had guns held to their heads, knew how to double-cross and how to cross their legs to get you to notice. Men with deep wrinkles around their eyes, a wry smile and a code they lived by, except when they didn’t. I loved their stories – their Cold War stories. Ones that played out like an Escher drawing and were filled with all manner of subterfuge. Tales with real emotional stakes that forced life and death decisions. The kinds of decisions that can never be neat or clean and affect generations. Given that kind of background, I don’t see how I could have become a writer of, say, navel-gazing post-modern novels.

So, like most writers, I write what I like and what I know.man

My work is atmospheric and often blurs the line between illusion and reality. In my novel, The Bone Church, for instance, my Jesuit protagonist suffers from a series of extraordinary visions. Otherwise, I strive for a pretty straightforward Daniel Silva meets Alan Furst style thriller. I don’t stray too far off the reservation. I like my thrillers to be, well…thrillers.

One of the many reasons to read The Bone Church is that it’s such a unique, captivating story. Check out the blurb:

BoneChurch_border-1In the surreal and paranoid underworld of wartime Prague, fugitive lovers Felix Andel and Magdalena Ruza make some dubious alliances – with a mysterious Roman Catholic cardinal, a reckless sculptor intent on making a big political statement, and a gypsy with a risky sex life. As one by one their chances for fleeing the country collapse, the two join a plot to assassinate Hitler’s nefarious Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Josef Goebbels. But the assassination attempt goes wildly wrong, propelling the lovers in separate directions.

Felix’s destiny is sealed at the Bone Church, a mystical pilgrimage site on the outskirts of Prague, while Magdalena is thrust even deeper into the bowels of a city that betrayed her and a homeland soon to be swallowed by the Soviets. As they emerge from the shadowy fog of World War II, and stagger into the foul haze of the Cold War, Felix and Magdalena must confront the past, and a dangerous, uncertain future.

And what a gorgeous cover, right?

Victoria

Victoria Dougherty writes fiction, drama, and essays that often revolve around spies, killers, curses and destinies. Her work has been published or profiled in The New York Times, USA Today, International Herald Tribune and elsewhere. Earlier in her career, while living in Prague, she co-founded Black Box Theater, translating, producing and acting in several Czech plays. She lives with her husband and children in Charlottesville, Virginia. Follow Victoria on her blog, Cold. Click here to purchase The Bone Church, and click here to add it on Goodreads.

 

 

 

 

 

Review: MADDADDAM TRILOGY by Margaret Atwood

Review: MADDADDAM TRILOGY, by Margaret Atwood

Reviewed by Alison Doherty

Oryx and Crake, 2003

The Year of the Flood, 2009

MaddAddam, 2013

I think many people don’t believe that fantasy or science fiction novels can be considered great literature, but the MaddAddam Trilogy, by Margaret Atwood, firmly proves this assumption wrong. In the series, Atwood describes the before and after of an apocalyptic, near future. In the before, except for a few outliers in society, corporations and science rule the world. Families are grouped on compounds depending on where the parents work, animal hybrids both dangerous and domesticated roam the planet, and food has become so bioengineered it is unrecognizable. The after is still undefined. It is a rapidly spreading illness, the collapse of civilization, the end of an important friendship, a waterless flood.

The first book in the trilogy, Oryx and Crake, shows Snowman/Jimmy’s before and after. Here’s the summary from goodreads:

Oryx and Crake is at once an unforgettable love story and a compelling vision of the future. Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride. Margaret Atwood projects us into a near future that is both all too familiar and beyond our imagining.

I found this book delightful, but somewhat hard to follow (in a way I think/hope was intentional). The next books are what made me fall in love with the series. The Year of the Flood tells the before and after of two women from a back-to-nature cult who get wrapped up in Jimmy’s story. It was especially emotive and beautifully written that it made me want to cry. MaddAddam brings all the characters together and shows their attempts to reconnect, survive, and understand what caused the plague.

What elevates the books from genre fiction isn’t just the spectacular writing, even though it is some of the best, if not the best, contemporary writing I’ve ever encountered. Most speculative fiction relies heavily on premise, often at the expense of character, but Atwood’s trilogy puts character development center stage. Understanding how the characters became the way they are, how they make their choices, and how they are connected to each other is more important than the scientific discoveries or apocalyptic details present on the page.

The books are clever, funny, and well written – but it is their ability to tap into almost every facet of cultural anxiety through both individual and communal lenses that set these books apart. These anxieties range from sex and pornography to nutrition to oil dependency and the environment. The span subjects from the justice system to education to gender roles, and the books handle these issues in a way that is interconnected. The issues all lead back to the central questions of: (1) what does it mean to be human, and (2) how could humanity be improved?

These books go beyond a question of “what if?” and instead illuminate our current world and the society we live in. As my friends know, at times I have a tendency to exaggerate about how much I like something, but these books live up to my appearingly hyperbolic praise. So if you generally read sci-fi, but don’t like literary fiction, or visa versa, I suggest you pick up this series and experience the amazement for yourself.

Cover Reveal for ANOMALY by Tonya Kuper from Entangled Teen

 

Today my wicked-talented friend Tonya Kuper is revealing her book cover! Entangled Teen is releasing ANOMALY in November 4, 2014! I couldn’t be more thrilled for Tonya, and you HAVE to to check out the awesome cover, and enter to win an eARC!

On to the reveal!

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Isn’t it gorgeous? And I can tell you, the story lives up to the cover. Prepare for this to be a big one, guys.

 

About the Book 

Title: ANOMALY (Schrodinger’s Consortium #1)

Author: Tonya Kuper

Publisher: Entangled Teen

Pub. Date: November 4, 2014

Pages: 400

Find it: GoodreadsAmazon

 

What if the world isn’t what we think?

What if reality is only an illusion?

What if you were one of the few who could control it?

Yeah, Josie Harper didn’t believe it, either, until strange things started happening. And when this hot guy tried to kidnap her, shouting about ultimate observers and pushing and consortiums hell-bent on controlling the world… Well, that’s when things got real. Now Josie’s got it bad for a boy who weakens her every time he’s near and a world of enemies on her tail who want to control her gift, so yeah, she’s going to need more than just her wits if she hopes to survive much longer.

Einstein never saw this coming…

 

About Tonya:

YA scifi author of ANOMALY, out 11/14, Entangled Teen. Represented by Nicole Resciniti. Contributor at yastands.blogspot.com & allthewritenotes.com. Music freak. Chocolate addict.

Giveaway Details:


1 eARC of ANOMALY International

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review from Alison Doherty of FANGIRL

Review: FANGIRL, by Rainbow Rowell

Review from Alison Doherty

Fangirl

Rainbow Rowell

St. Martins Press, 2013

Looking over all the books I read in 2013, Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell is the one I can’t get out of my head. As both a reader and a writer this book (figuratively) blew me away, and despite two rereads of the novel I’m still not entirely certain why.

I think a short summary might offer some clues. Goodreads calls Fangirl “A coming-of-age tale of fan fiction, family and first love,” then goes on to describe the plight of college freshman and Simon Snow fan Cath. Cath is internet famous for writing fanfics about the Harry Potter-like fictional world. When Cath’s twin sister moves on from their previously joint obsession to experience a world of frat boys and dorm parties, Cath feels left behind. Enter problems with her grumpy roommate, a writing professor that wants her to create original stories, her father who’s experiencing more than empty nest syndrome and … well you get the picture. Cath has a lot on her plate, and she’s unsure if she can inhabit the real world as well as the world of Simon Snow. Without the support of her sister, she’d not sure which one she even wants.

In English classes and creative writing courses, students are taught to disavow clichés within literature. There is a lot in Fangirl, and in the description above, that feels if not cliché than at least very familiar. The Bildungsroman genre is full of girls who are forced to choose between childhood games/ preoccupations and the pursuits of adults, or the lives experienced within their immediate families and existing with the values of society at large. I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that throughout the book readers will see Cath learning lessons and through those lessons adjusting to life in college better.

However, something keeps the book from being boring or done before. That something is the details Rowell imbibes into each page of the book. Details that surpass the types of drinks Cath prefers from Starbucks or the posters on her walls or her predilection for sweaters that approaches the mania she saves for Simon Snow: although all of those details are also worked into the character description.

It is the details worked into the plot that make Fangirl feel both unique and timely.  While a coming of age novel of family and first love is nothing new, one based on fan fiction certainly is. The prevalence of internet and fan culture, along with the fact that this shy, straight, Midwestern girl is writing gay fan fiction (imagine a Harry Potter dating a Ron/Draco hybrid), make Fangirl feel like it couldn’t have been written in any other time.

The marketing and creation of the book also have strong connections to contemporary culture. Fangirl was chosen as the inaugural book for the tumblr book club and has inspired a plethora of fanart on the site. Web comic artist, Noelle Stevenson, designed the book’s cover. Rowell first created the story through the increasingly popular and internet based NaNoWriMo.

So maybe some of these details are the reason this book excited me so much. Or maybe the answer could be as simple as good story and strong writing. It could also be because there are lots of people who understand being highly anxious going to college and deeply missing the excitement of the Harry Potter years. Whatever the combination, one thing is for sure: the book is inspiring a lot of buzz within both reading and writing communities.

Alison Doherty can be found on Twitter @AlisonCDoherty or on her blog: www.hardcoversandheroines.com.

Review: VICIOUS by V.E. Schwab

Vicious – V.E. Schwab

Review by Jamie Adams

Victor and Eli started out as college roommates – brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in each other. In their senior year, a shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing hidden possibility: that under the right 13638125conditions, someone could actually gain extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis inevitably moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong.

Ten years later, Victor is breaking out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl whose reserved nature obscures a stunning ability. Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other superpowered person he can find – aside from his own sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, spurred onward by the memory of betrayal and desperate longings, the archnemeses have set a course for revenge – but who will be left alive at the end? – Jacket copy.

This is not going to be a strictly traditional review. In a traditional review, I would tell you a little bit about the book, some of what I liked and what I didn’t, and overall who I thought this book might appeal to. When it comes to Vicious, I’m less inclined to think about what group of people might like to read it, because it doesn’t matter. You NEED to read this book.

I don’t have much to say about what I liked and didn’t, because there was nothing I didn’t like. Vicious is an excellent work, filled with compelling characters, gripping story, enticing secrecy and consuming questions about morality, mortality, power, corruption, and humanity. It’s a story that will sweep you off your feet and keep you up into the wee hours (cough, two a.m. on a work night) and lingers inside you even when the words no longer go on.

So why such high praise? After all, I have read probably a thousand books between age eight and now. My favorite books list is lengthy, mostly because I like everything I read equally save for a very few books that are far above the rest. Vicious is one of those books, and here’s the reason: it asks questions that can’t be answered, and then asks you to be okay with the eternal mystery.

What makes the things we consider right, right? In what ways does trying to do what’s right cause us to do wrong to someone else? If all things are right, does that mean none of them are? But then again, doesn’t something being right automatically make something else wrong? Who gets to decide?

Wrapped in the veils of adventure, experiments, and betrayal are questions that dig into the very roots of who we are, who we want to be, and what we believe. Most of the time, we like to avoid these questions where possible, because they awaken us to the unsettling fact that we are flawed, and we are unsure, and we are afraid. Vicious won’t let you dodge these realities anymore.

Can you enjoy it just for its brilliant writing, spectacular plot and epic showdown? Definitely. But don’t be surprised if something a little deeper than that takes root in you. Read this book.

Review: WHERE WE BELONG by Emily Giffin

Review: WHERE WE BELONG, by Emily Giffin

Review by Alison Doherty
Where We Belong
Emily Giffin
St. Martins Griffin, 2013

There are some authors I read because I know exactly what I’m going to get and other authors I read to just to see what new and exciting narrative they’ve created. Emily Giffin definitely belongs in the former category. I’ve bought and read all of her books, because I know what kind of story she will write and I know that I will like it. Her latest book, Where We Belong, is no exception.12987977

In order to avoid botching the summary, here is the description of the book from goodreads.com:

Marian Caldwell is a thirty-six year old television producer, living her dream in New York City. With a fulfilling career and satisfying relationship, she has convinced everyone, including herself, that her life is just as she wants it to be. But one night, Marian answers a knock on the door . . . only to find Kirby Rose, an eighteen-year-old girl with a key to a past that Marian thought she had sealed off forever. From the moment Kirby appears on her doorstep, Marian’s perfectly constructed world—and her very identity—will be shaken to its core, resurrecting ghosts and memories of a passionate young love affair that threaten everything that has come to define her.

For the precocious and determined Kirby, the encounter will spur a process of discovery that ushers her across the threshold of adulthood, forcing her to re-evaluate her family and future in a wise and bittersweet light. As the two women embark on a journey to find the one thing missing in their lives, each will come to recognize that where we belong is often where we least expect to find ourselves—a place that we may have willed ourselves to forget, but that the heart remembers forever.

Giffin combines highly conceptual plots, innovative story structure, and spectacular character-development into each of her novels. She is really good at getting into the heads of women. She picks out the details that are important to them and, more impressively, manages to convey to the reader the differences between how they view themselves, how others view them, and who they really are. She then uses the structure of her stories, moving between character POV and time, to make you switch your loyalty between the characters.

Where We Belong is Giffin writing at her best. It’s especially good because of the heightened emotional stakes that come along with parenthood as the story’s primary relationship. Although fear not, both characters do have romantic involvements! Unlike her previous novels, in this story none of the characters development is ever really finished. The novel does not contain a traditional beginning, middle, and end, but instead portrays spirals of beginnings and middles as both women come to terms with the new identities their growing relationship with each other creates. As a reader and aspiring writer I really enjoyed the idea of constant character growth.

This is a fun, quick read perfect for a plane ride, day at the beach, or particularly long bubble bath. If you’ve liked Giffin’s other novels then I feel like I can almost guarantee you will enjoy this one. If you don’t like Giffin’s writing or don’t like the somewhat condescendingly termed genre “chick lit” then I suggest staying away from this novel. I also wonder how you made it through my whole review.

Alison Doherty can be found on Twitter @AlisonCDoherty or on her blog: http://www.hardcoversandheroines.com.

Book Thoughts: STARGIRL, DRAGON TATTOO, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, ALL THE TRUTH THAT’S IN ME

Hello again!  October is almost over, and I thought I’d update you on my October reading challenge.

So far, I’ve read Something Strange and Deadly, Sharp Objects, All The Truth That’s In Me, Stargirl, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The 5th Wave, If You Find Me, It’s Kind of  A Funny Story, and Roni Loren’s serial, Not Until You. I’m in the middle of reading Trust Your Eyes by Linwood Barclay and Uglies by Scott Westerfeld. I’m giving my quick thoughts and recommendations for four of them below (more to come!)

SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY by Susan Dennard:9859436

This was a great story I’d definitely recommend. It has lots of fun steampunk elements, an interesting take on zombies, and all the Victorian charm you could want. The romance is sweet and compelling. I’d expect younger to older adolescents and adults would enjoy this tremendously. The cover (how gorgeous is that?) skewed my expectations a little for this one, though. From the age of the girl on the cover as well as the colors, I assumed this would be more grim and read a bit older, and because of the lushness of the artwork, I expected the prose to match. I was surprised that the story read younger and that the prose was fresh and crisp, instead. However, this is a great adventure with lots of danger, action, and suspense. I very much enjoyed it.

ALL THE TRUTH THAT’S IN ME by Julie Berry: 17297487

I’ve been looking forward to the release of this one for a while. It’s a fantastic mystery/thriller, and was so suspenseful I could hardly put it down. What really impressed me about this book, though, was the unusual narrative structure and the incredibly tight information control. If you’re looking for a story that makes use of unusual devices, or if you want a great example of avoiding info-dumping and backstory, give this one a try. Of course, I recommend it for other reasons, too– this story is all about healing and redemption, and does a brilliant job of using twists. If you want a gutsy, struggling heroine, Judith is your girl. Berry also is a master of spare, poetic prose that pins down moments and emotion. This story is haunting, riveting, and gorgeously written. The twist at the end was stunning. Highly recommended for teens and adults who want a gripping, thought-provoking read.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO by Stieg Larsson:

This one’s an adult thriller, not YA, and it’s a marvelous example of how much variety is available in fiction. I’ve heard people say they hated this book or couldn’t get through it, and others raved and said they couldn’t put it down. I struggled for the first half bThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium Trilogy Series #1)ecause of the sheer amount of information and backstory. I felt sometimes like I was waiting for the story to start happening. This book is the reason I did not read 15 books this month– it took me a week to get through it. However, I sped through the last half and it completely convinced me Steig Larsson is a genius. He pulls this story together in the final third in such a brilliant way that I was simply stunned. This is one of the most compelling stories I’ve ever read. The story is in very omniscient third person, but the characters are so vivid it feels much closer to them. For doing a ton with character in a handful of words, read this book. The pacing and plot twists are some of the sharpest I’ve seen in a while. It really stretched me as a writer to see something so much at the other end of the spectrum from YA, and still excellently done. If you’re a writer, I highly recommend reading this for craft alone. The story itself is fascinating and unexpected. Lisbeth won me over like few heroines have ever done. This book is well worth the time, and I’m so glad I stuck around for the second half.

STARGIRL by Jerry Spineli:

This is a smart, engaging YA contemporary about nonconformity, individuality, and Book coverporcupine neckties. It reminded me of John Green’s works, but geared a bit younger. It’s a charming, thought-provoking story and would be a great choice for anyone looking for an unexpected, sweet, and meaningful story for either themselves or teens. (Note: this has become my go-to recommendation for parents who are looking for  something less dark and without swearing.) It’s quite a bit different from what I usually read, and again, I find those sorts of books challenge my writing. The writing is funny and insightful. The emotions run as deep as the ideas. I can’t imagine anyone not loving this book. Go read it!

More book thoughts on my next four reads coming up!

Review: ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK

Review: ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK by Piper Kerman

Review by Alison Doherty

Orange is the New Black

Piper Kerman

Spiegel & Grau, 2010

I, like most people reading the book now, started Orange is the New Black after watching the Netflix show based on Piper Kerman’s memoir. The show (which is fantastic) is full of hilarious hazing antics, big lesbian drama, and sporadic moments of terrifying violence. By contrast, the book is more subdued, compassionate retelling of Kerman’s 16 months in a federal prison.

Kerman starts the book, going to great lengths to show that’s she’s not who people think of when they think of prisoners. A well-educated, self-described “nice blond lady”, her friends, family, and fiancé are all shocked both to find out Kerman once carried money for a West African drug lord and that because of mandatory minimums she can’t get out of her jail time. Even the prison guards seemed surprised to see her there. The biggest shock of all might be that she engaged in a lesbian relationship, although as a fellow alum from Smith College that shouldn’t really of surprised anyone except maybe her grandparents.

At times, in the book Kerman highlights her otherness. She repeatedly acknowledges how lucky she is compared to the other inmates. She has a relatively short sentence, a constant stream of visitors, and a steady supply of books from her Amazon wish list. She sets herself up in the position of an anthropological observer, insisting on her separateness while attempting to tell the stories of women from all races and backgrounds. These stories always emphasize her fellow inmates’ humanity, and describe the strange customs that accompany prison life: the faux mother-daughter relationships, the contraband cookery, and the many uses for sanitary pads (which unlike almost everything else the prisoners have an unlimited supply of).

At other times in the memoir, Kerman immerses herself in the prison culture. Before entering prison many give her the advice to stay separate from the other prisoners and not to make friends. When she encounters the other prisoners’ concern and kindness, instead of the aggression she expected, Kerman finds it impossible to follow this advice. She enters into a mother-daughter relationship with Pop, queen of the kitchen. She makes microwavable cheesecake. She even manages to find some level of kinship with her former girlfriend, who’s the reason she’s in prison.

What strikes me as the true strength of Kerman’s writing is her ability to remain positive about the people she met, while inserting an admonition of the broken American prison system. She writes about boredom, loss of power, sexually abusive prison guards, the arbitrary rules, and a lack of oversight without sounding like she’s complaining. She shows how random sentencing can be and how prison is not set up to help society or reform prisoners, but instead functions as a seven billion dollar business that is being financed by tax payer dollars.

I found the memoir, illuminating, well written, honest, and quietly funny. However Kerman has received a lot of criticism, both for being overly positive and for her privileged status as a non-typical prisoner. I agree with both statements (the book is positive and Kerman is privileged), however I disagree with these criticisms. I don’t think this book or its author are pretending to be anything they aren’t. I didn’t feel like Kerman portrayed herself as either a victim or a savior. Instead, I thought she wrote this book to educate the public about prison and make something meaningful out of her experience.

Alison Doherty can be found on Twitter @AlisonCDoherty or on her blog: www.hardcoversandheroines.com.