Monthly Archives: April 2014

Review: Gone Girl

Unless a person has been living under a rock, it’s been impossible to ignore the buzz surrounding Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a best seller for over a year now with a movie due this October. As someone working in public library circulation, I’ve seen it fly off the shelves and continue to move at a brisk pace, so it was about time I read for myself to see what the fuss was about.

As most know, the tale follows the story of Nick and Amy Dunne, a couple whose marriage appears to be on the rocks to begin with. On the morning of their fifth anniversary, Amy disappears, and gradually Nick begins to look increasingly guilty. But nothing is quite as it seems in this drama, with unexpected twists and turns as the truth of what really happened is revealed bit by bit.

So everyone has buzzed about the big plot twist; I knew it was coming, and yet it was still masterfully handled. In fact, masterful is the best word I can think of to describe the skill with which Flynn penned this tale. I did not, ultimately, like it, but I will definitely remember it, and that is testament to the writing that kept me turning pages way too late on a work night.

Flynn has written two of the most unsympathetic characters I’ve read in a while, and the villain of the piece is sure to leave readers with unpleasant shivers. While some readers may find that a turn-off, the ugliness and suspense are honestly what keep the pages turning. The unhealthy emotional manipulation is downright unsettling, and I can only imagine the intense reactions to it in book clubs across the country. The ending also is fodder for much discussion, both in terms of reader frustrations and the news that the movie ending will differ slightly from the book; I found it depressing, personally, but not outside the realm of possibility.

Readers who have already devoured Gone Girl and are looking for new fare might try reading some Lisa Unger, for more suspenseful thrillers with unreliable narrators, as well as the true-crime novels of Ann Rule, the likes of which were inspiration for one of the characters.

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Review: Bliss

I could not have picked more disparate reads this week; earlier, I read a rollicking tale set in Dublin, and for my second international read, I chose O.Z. Livaneli’s Bliss, which was significantly heavier.

Bliss centers on three main characters; at the core of the story is Maryem, a fifteen-year-old girl whose life is turned upside down when her uncle rapes her, for which she, of course, is shamed. Her cousin Cemal is a soldier traumatized by war, and upon returning home after his service, he is tasked with taking Meryam “to Istanbul”—a euphemism for carrying out an honor killing. And seemingly unconnected to their tale is Irfan, a successful university professor who has everything yet suffers crippling anxiety attacks and undergoes an existential crisis that culminates in his leaving everything behind to take to the seas.

Meryam is clearly the star of the book, as her story arc is the most dramatic. Her vibrancy and will to live in the face of what she doesn’t fully realize is a death sentence is commendable, and she handles change with an ease that many would find enviable. Even Cemal, by turns angry, frustrated, hurt, and overall wounded, is not always a nice character, but he is consistent and sympathetic as too many difficult demands have already been made of him. War has wrought its toll on him, and he no longer has a place to belong.

The character who seems out of place here is Irfan, and while the story’s events do draw the three characters together, the professor’s psychological plight seems much less significant in the face of the very real traumas inflicted on both Meryam and Cemal, and as a reader, I found it difficult to pity this man of privilege who just walked out on his wife, job, and life. One thing the disparity of narratives does illustrate, however, is the diversity of viewpoints and experiences in a country that many Americans would lump as vaguely somewhere “over there” in the Middle East; whether traditional and conservative or modern and liberal, characters in Bliss all face their challenges.

With hefty topics like rape, honor killings, and PTSD, this is not going to be the book for everyone. However, it offers some fascinating cultural glimpses and would make a provocative book club pick, given the right readers.

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Review: The Mammy

It’s multicultural reads week in readers advisory class, so I have chosen two very different backgrounds to read: Irish and Turkish. Oddly, I hadn’t really thought of Irish as being particularly multicultural, since it’s part of the UK, but Brendan O’Carroll’s The Mammy was on the list, so I went for it.

Fans of Frank McCourt will recognize the milieu of impoverished Irish families, though O’Carroll’s tale is set in the 1960s. The “Mammy” of the title is Agnes Browne, mother of seven who is newly widowed within the first few pages. With her dear friend Marion at her side, she goes to apply for benefits and then figure out what comes next. Life has not been kind to Agnes, with both a father and husband who beat her and a large family to care for, but Agnes is one of those indomitable women who can take what life throws at her. Whether those challenges are explaining changes of puberty to her oldest son, confronting a nun about the disciplinary tactic used on her daughter, or helping her best friend through a health scare, Agnes takes it all matter-of-factly.

Like McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, The Mammy certainly has its moments of pathos offset by droll humor. Some of the humor stems from malapropisms (Marion asks in a scandalous hush one day if, between the seven children, Agnes has ever had any “organisms” with her husband), but other humor is purely situational (like Agnes confronting the nun with the nearest blunt object she can find – a cucumber). The pace clips along fairly quickly as well, with very short chapters; at a grand total of 176 pages, the story can be devoured in one sitting.

This tale also has strong character appeal; in the foreword, O’Carroll dedicates the story to the strong women of his childhood home, and Agnes certainly is admirable homage. Readers will also note the time-old sibling dynamic of the children – they may bicker and squabble amongst themselves all they want, but no one else has the right to pick on another Browne. One literary choice I also particularly liked was the nicely developed friendship between Agnes and Marion, showing two women with a shared past who must each be there for the other during difficult times.

Readers interested in more of Agnes Browne can follow up with The Chisellers and The Granny to conclude the trilogy. The Mammy was also loosely translated into movie form in 1999, though judging by its synopsis, the “based on” part seems a bit of a stretch.

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Review: Feed

I’m pretty sure I would not survive the zombie apocalypse—not enough cardio, for one thing. Zombie tales still fascinate me, though, and Mira Grant’s Feed came to me highly recommended. The hype was not misplaced; this may well make my top ten books read for the year.

Feed by Mira Grant

Feed by Mira Grant

The year is 2039, and zombies have been a fact of life for the last twenty-odd years. Laws have sprung up for civilian safety, deliberately spreading the virus constitutes terrorism and is punishable by death, and in the chaos of the outbreaks, traditional news outlets lost legitimacy to hard-hitting bloggers willing to report the truth. In this milieu, Georgia “George” Mason and her daredevil brother Shaun, who have both grown up a product of this society, are up-and-coming bloggers who have been selected to cover the campaign of presidential hopeful Senator Peter Ryman. The career-making opportunity, however, quickly begins to reveal a much bigger conspiracy than either of them bargained for, and the truth could well kill them.

The world built in Feed feels scarily realistic, a la World War Z. The creation and spread of the Kellis-Amberlee zombie virus has left virtually everyone a carrier, susceptible to “amplification” upon contact with a live version of the virus. Amplification can occur via the traditional zombie bite or can be used as a terrifying form of biological terrorism, and both occur within the span of the novel. The rules and regulations and political balancing between freedom and safety are well-written, and contemporary readers will find that little about politics has changed even though zombies have long since redefined the status quo. If anything, readers looking for a traditional zombie novel may be disappointed by the predominance of politics and freedom-of-the-press themes, but those who are looking for something a little different and willing to commit in spite of a slow start will find their patience rewarded.

Feed is a gripping blend of zombie apocalypse horror and heart-pounding political thriller. George and Shaun, along with the other members of their team, including a perky techno-savvy blonde who goes by the name Buffy, form a trio of bloggers, dedicated to telling the truth and also capturing leading ratings. Grant gradually raises the stakes and maintains the suspense without ever overdoing it or dropping the pressure, and I found myself flying through the final two thirds of the book, anxious to see how it would turn out. While part of the big conspiracy is somewhat predictable (the villain practically carries a neon sign), the ride there isn’t, with shocking developments and upsetting betrayals. Better yet, while the novel does provide enough closure for satisfaction, it still leaves enough dangling for rest of the Newsflesh trilogy.

The novel is not, however, without its moments of levity. Mira Grant, better known as Seanan Maguire, has a knack for moments of witty banter, and quite a few passages had me snickering as I read. From George’s abrasive sarcasm to details like the “let’s poke the zombie with a stick” approach to blogging being the domain of “Irwins,” complete with annual “Steve-o” awards, snark abounds.

Bottom line: read this one. It has a little bit of everything and is amazing.

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Review: Let the Right One In

Like many, I first heard of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In when its movie was released in 2008 to critical acclaim. Having read the book, I’m not sure I could handle the movie, but to each their own.

Set in Blackberg, Sweden in 1981, the novel opens with protagonist Oskar in school, being targeted by bullies for the crime of simply existing. Gradually, the story incorporates other subplots that weave together and eventually collide: a man committing killings deemed “ritual” in nature by police, a lonely girl with odd mannerisms and gaps in knowledge moving in next door to Oskar, a group of friends meeting regularly for drinks, a young man stealing, and other vignettes of bleak despair. The lonely twelve-year-old girl who moves in next door to Oskar is Eli, and something is strange about her—she looks alternately sickly and healthy, loves puzzles but has never seen a Rubik’s cube before, uses oddly old-fashioned turns of phrases, only comes out at night…and she needs an invitation to enter a living place.

This is not a tale for the faint of heart. Pedophilia, murder, negligent parenting, and alcoholism run rampant within the pages. Few characters are truly sympathetic; even bullied Oskar vents his frustration with his situation by collecting a scrapbook of murders and fantasizing about taking revenge on the classmates who make him loathe himself a bit more each day. In fact, the day the first murder happened, Oskar had been out in the forest with a stolen knife, stabbing a tree trunk he was pretending was the bullies’ leader. Eli is drawn with enough enigma to render her intriguing while still strongly hinting at her true predatory nature; however, even she seems mild compared to Hakkan, the man who protects her while also lusting after her and is willing to go to desperate lengths to protect his charge.

The pacing is a bit slow to start, but the stakes quickly rise as bodies add up—or rise from the dead. In the background, Cold War tensions ripple with uncertainty. One character makes the decision to finally take a vacation, only to have his life snuffed out violently, the only witness a drunkard with too many cats. Bleak despair abounds, which will appeal to fans of both fans of horror and Scandinavian noir.

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Review: Where the Heart Leads

Confession: when I was a teen, I loved stories of the Amish and Mennonite. At the stage of not quite feeling daring enough to read the spicier stuff out there, I enjoyed the difficult choices the protagonists made as they had to weigh their personal choices against the strong ties of family expectations. In time, I wandered away from those books, but Kim Vogel Sawyer’s Where the Heart Leads was a bit of a reminiscent reading experience.

The tale follows Thomas Ollenburger, a young man raised as a Mennonite in 1904 Hillsboro, Kansas, but just finishing college in Boston. Like many college graduates, he faces the difficult decisions of finding a job and figuring out What Comes Next. Post-graduation, he returns to the family home, where he is happy to see his father, stepmother, and younger siblings again, but he’s also not quite happy there as he has job and political prospects in Boston. Not only is he torn between Kansas and Massachusetts, but of course, there are girls involved as well: Boston is the home of the lovely, flirtatious Daphne, but Kansas boasts the charms of Belinda, the literal girl next door who grew from a bitter girl to a lovely young woman tempered by loss and saved by God. Choices, choices.

I have to admit, I thought I had this story’s plot completely figured out, but it still managed some surprising turns and developments. The post-graduation angst and Thomas’s wondering if he would be able to find a job are definitely identifiable for a lot of twenty-somethings, and even moving back home and dealing with family expectations are increasingly par for the course anymore. Some things haven’t changed that much between 1904 and 2014, apparently. Readers interested in Sawyer’s writing may want to read Waiting for Summer’s Return first, though, as Where the Heart Leads is a sequel that may spoil some of the former’s plot developments.

Some aspects of the writing were a bit weak. As with The Walk, I found some of the dialogue stilted, particularly Thomas’s father’s second-language English. Characterizations are a little thin, but they do get somewhat more nuanced as the story and characters develop; one poignant moment is when Thomas is discussing his wanting to take a job in Boston with Belinda but is afraid to disappoint his father…only to realize too late that his father overheard and is upset to be perceived as holding his son back. Ouch. The religious aspects of the story will also either attract or repel readers as characters look to God to guide their hearts and actions, but for this book’s target demographic, that is likely to be an appeal.

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Review: The Walk

Some readers want nice, gentle reads with happy endings. Others like the darker stuff. I’m of the latter persuasion, so while I know it’s good for me to read some gentle reads and inspirational fiction, it’s not at the top of the list of things I was looking forward to. That said, I have done my best to give Richard Paul Evans’ The Walk a fair chance.

The Walk is the riches-to-rags story of Alan Christofferson. Alan’s life is an enviable one at the beginning—he’s married to McKale, his childhood sweetheart, has a successful career in advertising, and wants for nothing. There’s a spot of money trouble due to his and McKale’s poor money management habits, but nothing catastrophic. Until McKale is in a terrible car accident, and Al’s partner stabs him in the back by stealing away their top clients to start his own firm. At rock bottom, Al considers ending his life, but a voice, at first possibly God’s but then sounding like McKale’s, tells him to live. When his home is repossessed, Al makes a drastic decision: to take to the road and walk to Florida, as far away on the map as he can get from Seattle. Along the way, a la Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven, his life intersects with and is affected by the people he meets.

This reminded me a lot of reading Nicholas Sparks—lots of melodrama. It seems a strange choice for inspirational writing at first, as the first third of the book is comprised of things getting steadily worse, but the walk is indeed a healing one. No doubt there are worse ways to deal with grief than hard physical exertion. A word of caution: readers interested in this tale will be committing to a series, as this one leaves off only partway through the planned journey. The books are, however, very quick reads that could each be devoured in a dedicated evening of reading.

Now then, my own cynical issues with this: like Sparks’ writing, I found the dialogue stilted and characterizations bland. I found the protagonist fundamentally difficult to identify with: even at his most broken and desperate, he had a friend sell off his remaining assets and put the money in an account, leaving him well enough to put a down payment on a smaller house in certain parts of the country. While he considers himself, down, out, and “homeless,” the truth of the matter is that he can stay in a hotel when he needs to and eat well on his way, a privilege many do not have; moreover, most people for whom tragedy strikes don’t have the luxury of just walking away from everything and not worrying about finances. Certainly, he went through a lot and deserved some time to heal (and the feeling of having his whole world taken out from under him by the loss of his beloved spouse is not something I contest at all), but there’s an implicit privilege to the manner in which he does it that I just couldn’t get past.

…and somehow I went from inspirational fiction to critiquing class and privilege. See? Not the genre for me.

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Review: Bonk

Making love. Gettin’ it on. Knocking boots. Doing the deed. The euphemisms for sex, that most primal urge, are numerous. The fact that I felt compelled to start this review this way tells me that I am probably not mature enough to be writing it, but here goes anyway!

In Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Mary Roach turns her attention to the scientific research into this often-taboo topic. After stumbling across an article studying human sexual response, Roach was intrigued to realize that even sex can be put to scientific study, at the risk of the researchers being suspected of perversion or voyeurism, and thus, the idea for Bonk emerged. The book covers topics ranging from early forays into sex research, to research focused on arousal to treatments for impotence to masturbation to pheromones. Along the way, readers get delightful forays into quirky information like patent history of sex machines and research into the role of polyester on sexual activity. Also present are the delightful footnotes that add entertaining, albeit sometimes tangential, details. Through interviews and firsthand visits to laboratories carrying out sex research, Roach sheds light on the weirder side of science.

Fans of Mary Roach’s other writing will find her irreverence and humor in fine form here. Bonk is not serious, somber, or necessarily a comprehensive history. The examples definitely skew toward the weird and sometimes discomfiting, and that is fine—readers looking for the drier stuff can peruse the bibliography for further reading. Bonk is also not for those faint of stomach; like Roach’s previous work, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, some of the descriptions can get a bit gruesome (one section, on attempted surgeries to address erectile dysfunction had me wincing on behalf of equipment that I don’t even have, due to the details involved). For those with the curiosity and fortitude, though, the read is worth it.

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