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Amber Black has commented on (10) products.

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult
The Storyteller

Amber Black, June 23, 2013

While I thought this was better than a couple of other Jodi Picoult books I've recently read, I'm still having some issues with it. The story is interesting and she definitely moves the plot along at a decent clip (rather than dragging, like some of her books). Minka is a thoroughly likable character with emotional depth and thought-provoking ideas. She uses all her typical Picoult-isms: sections in different character's voices, a legal struggle, the twist ending, unreliable narration, controversial themes, weird get the picture. I like that when I start a Picoult book I know what I'm going to get: a quick, easy read that provokes some thought.

My only real problem with this book is that, like some other Picoult books, everything seems too perfect and suspiciously convenient. Some of the coincidences really pulled me out of the story, being extremely far-fetched. I hope those who read this book don't believe that people who didn't go through this many horrific experiences during the Holocaust aren't as worthy of admiration.

This straightforward and fast-moving narrative is definitely worth the quick read.
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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Amber Black, June 22, 2013

A great social study of North Korea that introduced me to a lot of the daily details of life that most of us don't know about North Korea. Most of the books on North Korea tend to be history and military related, so it's nice to read one of the (very) few that focuses on the regular people. I particularly like that Demick picked defectors to profile that had diverse backgrounds and attitudes towards North Korea. The stories she picked to tell really showed the different lifestyles and how certain decisions or connections could help or hurt you in the last remaining Communist state. While these stories have their sad points, they were also amazing feats of endurance; these people had to put in a lot of effort to survive, even if they were of higher status. I prefer nonfiction books to give both sides of the story: why would people stay in such a disadvantaged position and why would they want to leave? Demick definitely offers her take on that very question and generated a fair amount of thought after I had finished the book. Unification does not come off as the best solution in this book, nor does defecting. In fact, no realistic solution is proposed, most likely because there is no perfect solution.

Overall a marvelous piece of reporting that, despite being several years old now, still has a lot of impact and is important to read for context as North Korea continues to survive and have an impact on international affairs. Highly recommended!
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Thousand Lives (11 Edition) by Julia Scheeres
Thousand Lives (11 Edition)

Amber Black, June 8, 2013

I'm one of those people who wasn't alive when the Jonestown massacre happened, but I've read some about it before. This book really gave the bits and pieces I already knew a narrative thread by weaving people's disparate stories together into one tale about how a man went crazy and took a lot of people with him. If a reader came away from this book without compassion for the people in Jonestown, I am a little appalled. There was so much evidence of psychological manipulation and physical intimidation by the leaders of Peoples Temple that it seems ridiculous to think of these people as weak-minded cultists. The last hundred pages was just an unending litany of the horrors that played out in that last year and if I can understand how anyone in those circumstances would feel trapped.

My problems with this book relate mostly to the style. The narrative jumped back and forth in time, which caused some confusion. Also, certain events were never well-placed within the timeline of the 23 year existence of Peoples Temple, which made it difficult to understand the circumstances. The author definitely conveyed the idea that Jonestown was a "hellhole" and most people wanted out, but never explains why the "100 percenters" still seemed sold on Jim Jones at the end. There are certain occurrences which are barely touched upon and people that were never followed through (the party that was saved by hiking out on November 18th is barely mentioned, no further mention is made of the Simon family after the group leaves for Port Kaituma, etc.). Finally, this is probably a personal preference, but I found some of the events that seemed particularly odious or shocking were not well-cited. I'm sure they were from one of the author's interviews, or maybe mentioned by multiple sources, but for occurrences that could have been sensationalized or hyped in the post-massacre press, I wish there had been explicit documentation (I do, and did for "A Thousand Lives", occasionally check the references for more information).

Despite these issues, this is an important and rare book on the topic, being the only comprehensive narrative written about Jonestown since many of the documents were released. Anyone who has an interest in Peoples Temple specifically or the extents of religious (or political) fervor more generally should read this book.
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Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

Amber Black, June 5, 2013

Despite being a little outdated (mainly due to the massive upheaval in the FLDS in recent years), the history of these groups has not changed since 2003-2004. I found this to be a good primer on the beliefs and history of the LDS and FLDS churches, especially from a non-LDS perspective. In most respects, I found it to be a fairly balanced and well-researched treatise on the topic, despite the scathing review from Elder Turley of the mainline LDS church reproduced in the appendix. Krakauer's response was levelheaded and reflected some of my own views on the Mormon leadership's stance towards willful obfuscation and ignorance. I do not feel like this book reflected a negative view of most mainline Mormons at all, in fact, my enhanced understanding of their beliefs only helps me appreciate their religious point-of-view more fully. I am offended by the accusation of Elder Turley that I am one of those "gullible persons who rise to such bait like trout to a fly hook," just because I do not buy the LDS story hook, line, and sinker.

If you read this hoping for true crime, you will be fairly disappointed. Rather it takes an outrageous crime and tries to put it in the perspective of history, social forces, family drama, and religious fanaticism. There is no discussion of crime scene evidence or victim's perspective or any of the other typical trappings of the true crime genre.

The narrative does meander a bit and some parts did not flow well (the Elizabeth Smart section in particular seemed to come from nowhere and have little relevance later). Besides that, this is an engrossing study of Mormon Fundamentalism and Mormon history from the perspective of an outsider with a respectful and balanced view. I value outsider perspectives as much as perspectives from the faithful for the well-rounded view they advance, but there seem woeful few modern, non-academic Mormon histories written by someone with no stake in the LDS or FLDS (either as an active or excommunicated member, or some raised in the religion). While the LDS leadership may not like it, I think it's important to remember no one operates in a vacuum, religious groups least of all.
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Across the Universe
Across the Universe

Amber Black, June 2, 2013

As I'm sure it is with most people who read this book, I predicted the ending about 1/4 of the way in. The "secrets" the main characters spend most of the book trying to deduce seemed wholly obvious to me, including the main villain, the reason for the murders, the origin of one of the main characters, and, basically, every major pronouncement. These reveals are not only heavily foreshadowed, but they are extremely clichéd in science fiction and YA. There was only a couple things I predicted that didn't happen, but I'm fairly certain they will in the sequel (or did, since it came out awhile ago).

The only ways for a book to rescue itself from disaster when using clichés are either to turn them on their head or to fully embrace them and take them to the extreme. This book does neither and instead just continues on to it's wholly predictable and trite conclusion. Bland, tedious, banal.

There were some things I liked, saving this rating from 1 star. I thought Amy was a decent character, although she could have been a lot better. Her inner turmoil seemed relatively believable, albeit a bit dull. I enjoyed Harley's character and wish he had been more prominent, since I thought he had a more interesting point-of-view than Elder. I think some of the elements were well-meshed, even if they were overdone themes. The writing was decent, especially for a YA book.

On the other hand, I can't overlook my intense dislike of the other main character, Elder, a wishy-washy creep with no real sense of self. I wanted to hit him about 90% of the time (despite being a non-violent person). He had very few redeeming qualities or moments, but perhaps this changed in the sequel when he's more independent.

Some of my dislikes were minor and may not impact other readers' enjoyment. I have a pet peeve for ridiculously short chapters and this had a bunch that were less than a paragraph long. Certain reveals seemed so obvious that it made me question Amy and Elder's intelligence. Things that were presented as important to characters were forgotten and never mentioned again (e.g., Amy evidently forgot about Earth after about a week). Most importantly, several major plot points were either explained via extreme handwave or not at all.

As for the audiobook, it was decent, but I started to hate anytime Amy spoke during Elder's chapters because the male imitated a girl's voice. It seemed mocking and really got on my nerves.
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