Sip – Review

“The sun was up, so the dark could start. All about the ground, all in the same direction, shadows sprawled. And this is what he was after.”

Oh how deliciously dark Sip is! A novel where we find ourselves 150 years in the future. A future where people can drink their shadows and change their bodies to float and distort in ways not possible before. But there is a heavy price. Once you drink, you must always drink. And if you drink too much, you are lost forever.

We follow two main characters, Murk, a shadow addict, and Mira, a girl who can hide her shadow. Mira’s mother is a shadow addict herself, but her fate is far worse than Murk. For when an addict sips your shadow, if they don’t stop they can steal the entire thing. And you are left the shell of who you once were, forced to sip shadows or face the madness beyond.

Of course, Murk doesn’t have life easy either. His leg was stolen from him. Chopped and taken, sold to the black market to be kept alive for a time on a machine invented for creating shadows. But he lost his leg before he lost his shadow, which offers him some protection as his shadow will never be whole.

This world is dark and gruesome, full of violence,  and run wild with madmen. But within this world are pockets of people trying to live normal lives, away from these addicts. Called domers, for they live beneath a dome. Blocking the sunlight and moonlight so that the addicts can’t steal their souls. The perimeter blocked by a perpetually running train and guarded by soldiers trained to shoot if anyone gets too near.

“Bored soldiers slaughtering innocents predates the naming of war, will go on after the words we call it are broken.”

Mira’s ability to control her shadow catches the interest of a domer, Bale. But his interest is expensive, and he gets thrown out of his dome as a penalty for not shooting her on sight.

Now the three of them, an unlikely trio, set off to test the theory that if you kill whomever stole your shadow before Halley’s Comet appears again, after the comet passes, you will return to normal. Mira desperately wants her mother back, and so she sets off on her quest. Time running out, since the comet is due within days.

Sip does not hold back on the brutal reality of a world overrun with addicts. I actually found the use of shadow addicts an interesting way to show the desperation and extremes addicts will go through for one fix, for one more high, for just one more. In a world where they are the majority, things can become chaotic and bleak very quickly.

We don’t see the world outside of the rural Texas area that Mira, Murk and Bale live, but we hear hints of other dome communities scattered about. All with trains running in circles to protect them. I thought it was fascinating how the addiction was also like a virus, contagious and rampant, and hit before people knew how to fight it. It is a unique dystopian unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

This book is dark in nature but shines bright within the characters it creates. Mira and Murk, unlikely friends, but friends all the same. And even Bale, with his knowledge of nothing but life within the dome will cause you to root for them, to root for their success. Because the journey is difficult, and filled with unexpected stops and obstacles along the way.

If you can’t stomach gritty, raw violence or the stark yet simple brutality of an apocalyptic future dominated by ruthless addicts, this is not a book for you. It will make you cringe, and your stomach turn, for death and violence is simply the way of life in this world, and Carr does not shy away from immersing the reader into the full experience of it.

“Some madnesses are so bizarre that they entice witnessing. Those in the bar who had been preoccupied with debauchery, who had been lost in the melee of drinking and lustful deeds, tapered their pursuits in order to watch this grimy operation.”

It is a book that requires you simply accept things as fact without necessarily understanding them. I didn’t ever get the full sense of why people could drink their shadows, or how it made them addicts. It isn’t that Carr doesn’t offer a brief history through the characters eyes, he does. But it is done in the way you would expect stories to be told. Vaguely, details lost or misunderstood with each telling, the decades between the event and the present altering it, diminishing it, leaving only what they deem important. You don’t get science, or factual information. However, not understanding didn’t take away from the rich narration of this world, or make it’s reality any less detailed.

The before and the after are less relevant to this story than the here and now. Which, if anyone has ever dealt with addiction, first hand or otherwise, it felt like this focus on the present story was a nod to the adage ‘One Day At A Time’ that you hear in meetings and therapy over and over. For addicts, there is only today, and so in that same way, we get the present. It felt poetic to me.

If it feels that perhaps the book may be ‘too out there’, or ‘weird’, I assure you it’s my own reluctance to delve into too many details. The world sounds difficult to picture, and the concepts may be hard to envision, but once you dive into this world, as gruesome and violent as it is, it is worth the journey. Once you begin, the characters pull you in and the sheer determination they have to move forward will move you forward too. It is a dark world. A violent one. Full of mayhem and criminality that makes the Wild West look like playtime in preschool. But you still can’t help but hope with the characters that life can always get better.

For my dark readers out there, this is a novel you do not want to miss! I will be reading Carr’s short stories and will for sure read anything he puts out next. I am a fan!

Thank you Soho Press for sending me a copy to read and review.

The Bad Dream Notebook – Review

“That’s what Americans are supposed to do. There’s no excuse for hanging on to negative emotions in this country.”

The Bad Dream Notebook is a novel about grief, loss, addiction and recovery. Erica Mason just lost her husband. Her daughter Mona just lost her dad. Chronic back pain turned out to be terminal cancer.

The book starts after John’s death, with Erica doing community service. Except, it isn’t her crimes she’s doing penance for. It’s Mona’s.

From the beginning, we get the sense of grief Erica is under. Her grief is not just for her husband. But for the daughter she lost as well. Mona is alive and kicking, but addiction has taken her away from Erica nonetheless.

“Living with an addicted child is a form of warfare leading almost inevitably to some form of PTSD.”

Its difficult for Erica to simply grieve for John. She feels guilty for the days leading to his death, as most people struggling with long-term illness do. Did she do enough? Did she make the right decisions?

Those emotions alone would be difficult enough to deal with. But you add in her daughter’s spiraling addiction, which triggers it’s own whirlwind of guilt and grief, and Erica is struggling to keep herself together.

“If one more person asked how she was feeling these blank, black days, she fantasized about turning on them like a wild animal, screaming.”

All of these emotions weigh heavily on Erica, and since she struggles to deal with them consciously, her subconscious takes over. In order to make sense of her dreams, she begins to keep a notebook. Sometimes written descriptions, sometimes fast sketches, but she keeps them in order to make sense of them.

We get the book not just through Erica’s memories and perspective, but we also get a few chapters via Mona. The transition from memory to present is a little jarring at times, and I did find myself having to backtrack and reread to figure out the timeline quite a few times. It could have been written that way deliberately, as a way to show the erratic nature of Erica’s mind and how seamlessly she slipped into memory versus staying in the present. If so, it does give us the jarring effect of how living with the stress of illness, both John’s cancer and Mona’s addiction can wreak havoc on everyone in the house.

We get a very really sense of the difficulty in having an addicted child. Erica displays very codependent behaviors. Some of these are surprising given her own experiences with addiction, but perhaps not so surprising. Mona is her only child. After losing her husband, the fear of losing her child and really becoming alone must feel so big and terrifying to Erica.

“That’s my girl. Mona Grey, their, liar, unemployed – unemployable – dropout, skin-and-bones nightmare of a daughter. Who I produced. My fault. My misery. My little girl.”

It’s true that both an addict and the people that surround them need to hit rock bottom before change happens. Dahl takes us through how bad life can get before that bottom is hit. For both Erica and for Mona. Because it isn’t just the addict that addiction impacts. It effects everyone around them. Dahl captures the horror and helplessness that fuels both of their negative spiraling emotions.

The Bad Dream Notebook is a very raw, emotional journey into the pain that many people struggle with every day. At times infuriating, at times heartbreaking, Dahl doesn’t try to sugar coat the emotions or decisions that both Erica and Mona make.

I did like how each chapter gave us a glimpse into some of the dreams that both Erica and Mona had. They are brief and give us more a feel of the nightmares rather than the details, which I really liked, since that’s how most people remember their dreams. In snippets and snapshots.

This book may be difficult for people who have either struggled with addition, or known someone close who has struggled. It may also be hard if you’re going through any kind of grief. But, this is a book that may also help examine your own internal thoughts and feelings. Sometimes reading a similar experience can help us not feel so alone.

Thank you BookSparks and She Writes Press for sending me a copy to read and review as part of FRC 2017!

How To Murder Your Life

Some books take us into a deep exploration of our inner selves. Especially memoirs. The battle between good and evil. Our struggle between virtue and vice. A good memoir can take us deep into the mind of someone else. Give us a glimpse at their internal struggles. They can help us see ourselves, see our own struggles mirrored on the written page. They can help us see a different path.

Seven deadly sins. Seven heavenly virtues. We can list the sins: Lust. Greed. Envy. Gluttony. Pride. Wrath. Sloth. Can anyone list the virtues? It seems virtue just isn’t quite as fun as sin. Virtue takes work, while vice is simply to be human.

I’ve always been fond of wrath. And guilty of envy. But, if I had to choose one that seems to be my achilles heel, I have to admit it’s pride.

As with all deadly sins, pride can be deceiving. If you do something well, should you not be proud? Where does the line cross from acceptable to sinful? Because, make no doubt, there is always a line.

For me, pride is my vice because it boils down to vanity. Vanity gets me every time.

Vanity is superficial. I was raised in a society that values beauty in women above most everything else. Sure, we make strides to encourage empowerment, to strive for education and learning, but let’s face it, we aren’t quite there yet. Almost any magazine geared towards women has photoshopped versions of already stunning women on their covers. They are filled with ads to sell us product to slow aging, help with weight loss, whiten teeth, dye our hair, reduce wrinkles. I mean, do I really need to go on here?

And the articles themselves are more of the same. How to lose ten pounds in thirty days. How to please your man in bed. There is little in there about how to word an email more effectively. Or how to fight in your year end performance to maximize your full raise potential. Or how about an article simply on how to ask for a raise? Or to negotiate your salary? No, those have no place in the multi-billion dollar beauty world. Feminism is more a catch phrase than an ideology.

Even in the business world, women struggle with how to be perceived as authoritative without being a bitch. Or how to be more helpful towards the team versus focused on her own career. Things few men ever consider.

Yet, the industry is only a symptom. And here is where this book struck a chord with me.

Cat Marnell grew up in the beauty world too. She devoted her young life to wanting to be in this world. To write and live and breathe magazines. She worked her way into the glamorous jobs interning for these magazines, and eventually writing for them. And through it all she was highly addicted to prescription pills.

This was a fascinating book. Rather than cover her discomfort at feeling so out of place in a room she worked tirelessly to be in, she dives into the pain head first. The result is spectacular. Marnell doesn’t focus on the glitz and glamour of an exotic life lived, rather she gives us a glimpse of the broken woman underneath.

Which is why I related so much to her. I know what it’s like to feel lost when sitting in a room full of people. To feel out of place in a crowd you fought to be included in. I know what it’s like to watch yourself make decisions you know, you know, are bad. And make them anyway.

I am guilty of superficiality. Yes, I want to look good. I would rather not eat than gain weight. Most often, I choose fashion over comfort. I dye my hair and whiten my teeth. If I could afford it, I would probably partake in plastic surgery. I wear makeup whenever I leave the house. I am jealous of beautiful women, even though I try not to be.

The secret hiding underneath vanity is low self-esteem. And Marnell exposes that hidden facet, bringing it into the sunlight for all to see.

This book takes you on a journey through Cat’s life. And even though she is darkly funny, she eviscerates her life. She cuts raw and deep, exposing her inner demons for all to see. She doesn’t hold back on how drugs gave her focus and then took it away. On how she spiraled completely out of control not once, not even twice but time and time and time again. And how, even then, she always went back.

She sucker punches you with the ugly truth of addiction. The things you allow to be done to you. The things you do to yourself. The things you do to others. She doesn’t flinch. She doesn’t apologize. She doesn’t excuse.

It takes a bravery I deeply admire to show the world your scars. To lay bare your shame and misery and mistakes. While I have never lived the life she lives, I can imagine making similar mistakes had circumstances been different.

This book is not for the faint of heart. It will make you, at best, uncomfortable; at worst, disgusted.

Addiction is not pretty. Addicts do not make sympathetic characters. They are devious and selfish and woeful creatures. Marnell does not sugar coat this part of herself, even though she could. She seems very aware of the person she was (is). This can make her seem spoiled and ungrateful. She pokes at her own privileged life and doesn’t deny it. To some it may read as cocky or arrogant.

Maybe it’s because I am also a self-sabatouer, a hider behind a hard exterior and a wicked bite. I didn’t read her memoir as cocky or arrogant. I could see the pain she worked so hard to numb. In my own ways, I have done the same for so many years.

There is something else hidden in this book. Marnell finds her voice by simply being her authentic self. Even if that person was a self-destructive drug addict. She spent years hiding her addiction and being ashamed of the person she was. So much so, that the one person she admires most, she won’t reach out to until she is rid of her demons. As of publication, that has not happened.

She doesn’t say it, but perhaps being able to express herself without shame and ridicule allowed her to purge enough of the self-loathing to seek help.

It isn’t just the beauty world where women struggle to create an ironclad facade in fear that we will be ridiculed and rejected. I believe this happens in nearly every industry to some degree. It was fascinating to read how she reacted to that freedom and where it led.

Like Marnell, even though I work to be a more authentic me, it is hard to let go of the safety net. Of the coping mechanisms that kept me safe for so long. We can only try to be better each day, and not beat ourselves up for the mistakes of the past.

I went into this book not sure where it would lead. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. It is not entertainment, but rather a reminder that I am not alone. There are other women out there, living their lives the best they can. It is a glimpse into the pain someone else felt. It is an opportunity for self-reflection. And in the end, that’s all any good book truly is.