wrap up: March 2018

I guess I don’t need to start this post with a personal life update, because this was a pretty dull month for me, and I don’t suppose you want to hear all about my car troubles.  😉  Anyway, it’s my birthday today and I am 26.  I will probably go to the movies later or something of that sort, but first, a blog post.  I had a really great reading month!

  • Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah ★★★★☆ (review)
  • Circe by Madeline Miller (ARC) ★★★☆☆ (review)
  • By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr ★★★★★ (review)
  • Happiness by Aminatta Forna (ARC) ★★★☆☆ (review)
  • Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard ★★★★★ (review)
  • Medea by Christa Wolf ★★★★★ (review)
  • Bury What We Cannot Take by Kirsten Chen (ARC) ★★★★☆ (review)
  • Tin Man by Sarah Winman (ARC) ★★★★★ (review)
  • Too Close to Breathe by Olivia Kiernan (ARC) ★★★★☆ (review)
  • Asking For It by Louise O’Neill ★★★★★ (review)
  • The Child Finder by Rene Denfield ★☆☆☆☆ (review)
  • The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie ★★★★☆ (mini review)

Best: Asking For It by Louise O’Neill
Runner up: Tin Man by Sarah Winman, Medea by Christa Wolf, Women & Power by Mary Beard, By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr.  I can’t choose.
Worst: The Child Finder by Rene Denfield

MARCH TOTAL: 12
YEARLY TOTAL: 26

Currently Reading: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (I will finish it in April if it kills me, which I think it might), Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry, audiobook (this has a lot of lukewarm reviews but I’m actually really enjoying it), Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan (I’ve literally read 2 pages so far).

How was everyone’s March and what’s the best book you read?  Let me know!

 

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book review: The Child Finder by Rene Denfield

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THE CHILD FINDER by Rene Denfield
★☆☆☆☆
Harper, 2017

 

The Child Finder is a very strong contender for the sappiest book I have ever read. And I guess there’s nothing wrong with a little sappiness now and then, but, I’m not kidding –

“This is something I know: no matter how far you have run, no matter how long you have been lost, it is never too late to be found.”

– this book was so saccharine I felt like I had to brush my teeth at the end of every chapter. I’m sorry but is that not the corniest sentence ever written???

Anyway, let’s back up. The Child Finder is a thriller (the least thrilling thriller of all time, but I guess that’s how it’s being classified) about a woman who finds missing children for a living. Though there are some seriously dark and disturbing themes in these pages, the narrative voice reads at a level your average ten-year-old would be comfortable with – it is painstakingly, aggravatingly childish. This book is the rather unfortunate result of someone actually sitting down and saying ‘you know what stories about pedophilia need? More whimsy.’

But, you know what, I think a certain type of writer might have been able to pull this off. I’m thinking of something like The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh (a play which balances fairytales with a harrowing exploration of child abuse), or Elmet by Fiona Mozley (which fuses dark themes with the narrator’s childish innocence in a way that’s subtle and breathtaking). But the integration of fairytales in The Child Finder was just so goddamn heavy-handed and patronizing. This book was trying so hard to be poignant and moving (despite having nothing of substance to say about trauma or child abuse) it was actually a little embarrassing.

I mean, this is the quality of prose and dialogue that I’m talking about:

“I loved you then. I loved you, no matter where you came from. No, scratch that.” His voice floated up to her. “I loved you because you came from wherever it was. It must have been a magic place to produce you.”

Naomi felt something deeper than crying, a flush in her womb. “Are you trying to talk your way into my bed?” she asked, her voice thick with emotion.

“No.” His voice sounded warm. “I’m trying to talk my way into your heart.”

You have to be joking, right? Is this a Lifetime movie??

Aside from all that, Naomi has to be the most exasperating protagonist of all time. She’s actually referred to, constantly, as ‘the child finder,’ because that’s not weird at all, I guess? and anyway, she is the most alluring woman alive. I know this because every man she comes into contact with immediately wants to have sex with her. And her personality consists of the fact that she only trusts three people – a fact that we’re reminded of at least once a chapter – and… that’s just about it.

I could go on and on. The subplot about Danita was transparent and emotionally manipulative. The actions and sophistication of the five year old girl, Madison, stretched all suspension of disbelief beyond breaking point. The romantic subplot was contrived and obvious. Every single sentence was either corny or trite or overwritten or some combination of the three. The story unfolded so predictably, there was not a single moment of genuine suspense. The resolution couldn’t satisfy itself with merely tying up the main plotline in a neat bow – it had to tie up several minor plotlines in neat bows too, lest Rene Denfield credit her audience with the ability to think for ourselves.

I’m definitely in the minority with this one – at a glance I don’t think any of my Goodreads friends have rated it less than 4 stars. And admittedly the atmosphere of this snowy Oregon forest was captured beautifully. That’s the only positive thing I can think to say. Maybe the audiobook was a bad decision – maybe it just exacerbated the feeling I had that I was being preached at. But you cannot convince me that reading this book on paper would have eradicated its sundry narrative faults or convinced me that this is anything other than twee drivel masquerading itself as a deep and profound reading experience. Getting through this was borderline unbearable.

top 5 tuesday: Characters Who Would Win Survivor

Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the fantastic Bionic Bookworm.  This week’s topic:

MARCH 27th – Top 5 characters that would win the show Survivor

Allow me to show my true colors as a complete nerd for a second here – I love Survivor.  I’ve watched every season multiple times (that’s over 35 seasons, over 500 episodes… all multiple times.  I have no life).  Being stranded in an airport for 5 hours with Stephen Fishbach was one of my personal highlights of 2016.  I love this prompt.

In case you are unfamiliar: Survivor is a reality television competition show, in which approx. 16-20 strangers are stranded on an island together, separated into ‘tribes,’ and compete in challenges.  The losing tribe has to vote someone out until the number of competitors dwindles down.  Eventually the two tribes merge and it becomes an individual game, and of the remaining 2-3 players at the very end, a jury of their peers votes for a winner, who receives a million dollars.  Basically, they’re voting for the person they believe “outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted” the rest of the competitors the best.  What makes Survivor so tricky is that as soon as you show how capable you are – whether it’s your intelligence or physical prowess – you’re seen as a threat to win the game, and your tribemates are going to want to vote you out.  And since you’re eventually judged by the very people you’re having a hand in voting out, it’s critical that you’re able to do so without making enemies of them.  Winning Survivor requires not only physical strength, but mental stamina, quick thinking, intelligence, and often, the ability to fly under the radar, and to manipulate without people realizing that you’re the one pulling the strings.  That’s the reason I love it so much – it’s a deceptively psychological game.

And it’s on Hulu – go watch it!

So, to add a completely unnecessary level of nerdiness to this prompt, I decided to choose my 5 favorite Survivor winners, and choose 5 fictional characters who I think are the most similar, who’d also be great at the game.  (Also NB that these are not necessarily my favorites in terms of personality, etc., just who I thought played the best Survivor games and were most deserving of the million dollars in direct relation to their gameplay.)

So, uh… spoilers for Survivor seasons: 27, 18, 13, 16, 24.

5. Tyson Apostol, Blood vs. Water (27) – Kaz Brekker, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Tyson is probably one of the most ruthless winners Survivor has ever seen.  He’s not a particularly nice person, but he’s upfront about who he is.  He won’t pretend to be your friend and then stab you in the back; he’ll be honest about the fact that he isn’t your friend to begin with.  But what makes him such a great winner is just how capable he is: he’s intelligent, physically strong, and he strategically runs the entire season.  Everyone knows it, too, but they’re a little afraid to vote him out because they don’t know what they’d do without their de facto leader.  Enter Kaz Brekker, ridiculously capable and unapologetically ruthless… but people flock to him anyway.  I think he could win Survivor with his eyes closed and his hands tied behind his back.  (There’s also the fact that Tyson won a season where loved ones are competing against each other on opposite tribes, and though he seems to not care about anyone, his weakness is his now-wife Rachel… I don’t need to comment on the obvious Kaz parallels there.)

4. James “JT” Thomas, Tocantins (18) – Charles Macaulay, The Secret History by Donna Tartt

In contrast, JT is one of the ‘nicest’ winners in Survivor history.  He is a good ol’ southern boy who everyone’s drawn to, and, like Tyson, no one really wanted to vote him out even though they knew he’d win if he got to the end.  He’s pretty much The Golden Boy… but he also knows that people see him as altruistic and he’s ready to use that to his advantage (e.g., when Stephen admitted that he hadn’t wanted to bring JT to the final 2, JT acted like it was a deep personal betrayal and then later admitted that he was putting that on for show to garner sympathy).  So, for The Golden Boy who can be a bit of an asshole, Charles Macaulay is the perfect fit.  He seems the type who’d be able to win over anyone’s trust just by batting his eyelashes, but he also has that underlying manipulative streak.

3. Yul Kwon, Cook Islands (13) – Noa Baek, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

When it came down to the final 3 players this season, the two that were in contention to win were Yul, the quiet, understated, intelligent player, and Ozzy, one of the best physical competitors in Survivor history who won most of the challenges.  Yul won by a single vote, which I was thrilled about, because if I were on a Survivor jury I’d prioritize intellect over physical strength any day, and I loved his strategic game play.  The first character who came to mind for Yul was Noa, whose quiet sort of intelligence could be a huge asset, and allow him to slide under the radar.

2. Parvati Shallow, Micronesia (16) – Vanda, Venus in Fur by David Ives

(aka my wife.)  Parvati Shallow is the quintessential femme fatale of Survivor – everyone gravitates to her, and she is the queen of manipulation.  In a good-natured way, though; she always has a smile on her face and she knows it’s just a game.  But still, she can be pretty ruthless, and Vanda is a perfect fictional counterpart to her.  At the beginning of the play, Vanda is a beautiful woman who appears to be willing to do anything to appease the male playwright/director she’s auditioning for, but throughout the course of the play the power dynamic gradually shifts, and Vanda ends up in total control.

1. Kim Spradlin, One World (24) – Sansa Stark, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin

In my opinion, the best Survivor winner, who played one of the best and most understated social, physical, and strategic games.  Kim is in control of her entire season from start to finish – she decides who goes home on nearly every vote, but she doesn’t let anyone know that she’s pulling the strings; she’s more subtle about it.  It reminds me so much of Sansa Stark and the way she quietly manipulates everyone around her at King’s Landing – e.g., goading Joffrey into fighting where it’s the most dangerous in a way that’s so subtle you can hardly even tell she’s doing it.  I think Sansa would be dismissed early on by her tribemates on Survivor for not being particularly capable, but then she’d sneak up on them and absolutely kick ass.

Who else in the bookish community watches Survivor?  Let me know!!

book review: Asking For It by Louise O’Neill

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ASKING FOR IT by Louise O’Neill
★★★★★
Quercus, 2015

Asking For It is a difficult book. As if the subject matter isn’t disturbing and harrowing enough – an 18-year-old girl is raped and then ostracized from her community because of it – Louise O’Neill’s approach to this story is ruthlessly, unnervingly honest. Emma O’Donovan’s story isn’t one of healing and closure and happy endings, and it can be hard to read because of that, but it shows an important side to this story that we don’t often see depicted in fiction.

The most striking thing about Asking For It is how unlikable our heroine Emma is. The first quarter of the book is devoted to her treating her friends rather poorly and treating prospective partners like trophies; she’s stuck-up, vain, and self-centered. She wears short skirts and low-cut dresses, she drinks a lot of alcohol and takes drugs recreationally, and when she’s raped by four boys, the question in absolutely everyone’s mind – from her classmates to her parents to strangers who pass her on the street – is ‘wasn’t she asking for it?’ Louise O’Neill challenges this absolutely vile conception of what a ‘good victim’ should look like: someone who’s a virgin, who dresses modestly, whose trauma responses fit perfectly into the DSM-5. People like Emma (though she’s fictional, she’s all too real) don’t fit into this mold and their allegations of rape are often met with disdain, which is why it’s all the more critical that we support them.

Obviously, a book tackling an important and difficult subject matter doesn’t in and of itself make it a good book, so I’m glad to say that I was blown away by Asking For It on just about every level. O’Neill’s writing is stunning (I did such a double take when I flipped to the back cover and saw how young she is – not that young people can’t be good writers, obviously! but this book is nearly flawless on a technical level). Her characters are three-dimensional – Emma isn’t an archetype straight out of Mean Girls; she’s pretty and popular and vain, but it’s all rooted in a deep sense of insecurity that’s tied heavily into her upbringing, which O’Neill deftly explores in the way Emma relates to her family. I also liked that I didn’t at any point feel like I was being preached to, which is something I occasionally feel while reading YA as an adult. O’Neill explores these issues with subtlety and doesn’t shy away from asking difficult questions of her readers. My one minor critique is that the rate at which secondary characters are introduced at the beginning of the novel is a little excessive – the first thirty or so pages were me going ‘wait, who is that?’ – but once over this hurdle, the book settles into a gripping pace.

This book isn’t going to be for everyone, and I’d certainly advise that you proceed with caution if you’re triggered by this subject matter or if you struggle with anxiety (my heart was racing pretty much the entire time I was reading). But it is such a critically important contribution to the discussion of rape culture. O’Neill fearlessly advocates justice for all rape victims, not just the ones whose stories are easier to digest, that fit better into our conceived narrative of what ‘counts’ as rape. We need to stop blaming rape victims and start listening to their stories, full stop.

book review: Too Close to Breathe by Olivia Kiernan

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TOO CLOSE TO BREATHE by Olivia Kiernan
★★★★☆
Dutton, April 3, 2018

Despite my love of thrillers, one subgenre that I tend to stay away from is the police procedural – I’m just not a big fan of storytelling that relies heavily on a set formula. But I decided to pick up Too Close to Breathe anyway, because you know me, I’ll read anything if it’s Irish.

And I mostly really enjoyed this. I think part of it is that it’s been so long since I read a police procedural that I was ready for a foray back into the genre. It’s still not my favorite type of thriller, and I probably won’t pick up another one any time soon, but I think I’ll check out the next book in Olivia Kiernan’s series whenever it’s published. The plotting in Too Close to Breathe was intricate, the subject matter was darker than dark but not particularly gratuitous, the characters were compelling, and the writing was mostly really solid (except for one dialogue which actually involved the line “Blah! I don’t go in for that kind of mumbo jumbo.” but I guess we can’t have everything). This book also made me really want a bonsai tree (or more accurately reawakened my desire to own a bonsai tree – this has been an ongoing Thing for me), so all in all I’d say it was a success.

I do have some qualms – I found that there were a couple of gargantuan leaps in logic, mostly involving the way the detectives profile the killer (at one point a man tries to stab a woman but she gets away, so they deduce from practically zero information that he’s probably married and that he has a fetish for mutilating women and since this attempt went awry he’ll most likely try again… what???), and certain details behind the legal proceedings were a little far fetched, but oh well, maybe I couldn’t entirely suspend my disbelief, but I don’t know, sometimes I find nitpicking to be so tedious. I raced through this book, especially the second half – it’s undeniably engaging and entertaining and that’s pretty much all I could ask for.

I also really loved Frankie’s character, which is the main reason I’m interested in continuing this series. I’m a huge fan of flawed female characters, and Frankie’s tragic backstory was less a tragic backstory than one traumatic event that happened a few months back, and I like that Too Close to Breathe begins when Frankie’s still in the middle of dealing with the aftermath. Overall, a promising start to what I hope ends up being an interesting series that will inevitably draw comparisons to Tana French – definitely worth a read if you’re a fan of the crime-thriller genre.

Thank you Penguin First to Read and Olivia Kiernan for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Tin Man by Sarah Winman

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TIN MAN by Sarah Winman
★★★★★
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, May 15, 2018

Tin Man is a beautiful, tender, deeply moving novel that packs a far greater punch than I would have thought possible for its short page count. It has all the heart and heartbreak of something like The Heart’s Invisible Furies – and not a watered down version, either, just more compact. I put it down feeling drained and devastated and deeply impressed at the extent to which such a simple story was able to get under my skin.

Tin Man is told from the alternating perspectives of Ellis and Michael, two childhood friends who once fell in love. But at the beginning of the novel, Ellis is alone and grieving for his dead wife, and Michael is nowhere to be found. The rest of the story puts the pieces together in a non-linear fashion, creating snapshots of Ellis’ and Michael’s lives until we finally see the full picture.

From the very first page this is an achingly lonely and bittersweet book. My heart felt heavy even before we learned why exactly Ellis is grieving, because the atmosphere is rife with nostalgia and regret; the characters are all consumed with missed opportunities and thoughts of better days. It’s hard not to connect to the novel’s emotionality to some degree, even before you’re pulled into the story that is uniquely Ellis’ and Michael’s. And what great characters they are – flawed and unhappy and afraid to grasp at the happiness that’s within their reach.

This book makes me appreciate the art of brevity in storytelling – Winman’s prose is incisive and her execution of this story is succinct; not a single word is out of place and not a single page is wasted. Tin Man manages to be a subtle yet thorough meditation on first love, freedom, solitude, and the indelible marks we leave on each other’s lives. By the end of this I wanted more, out of a selfish desire to stay immersed in these pages even longer, but nothing was missing. It’s not a perfect book because there is probably no such thing, but it comes closer than anything I’ve read in a while.

Thank you to G.P. Putnam’s Sons and Sarah Winman for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Bury What We Cannot Take by Kirsten Chen

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BURY WHAT WE CANNOT TAKE by Kirsten Chen
★★★★☆
Little A, March 20, 2018

 

Bury What We Cannot Take is a captivating novel about one family’s attempt to flee from Communist China in 1957. Having been granted only 3 travel visas to Hong Kong for 4 family members, Seok Koon is forced to leave one of her children behind in order to legally exit the country, and Kirsten Chen explores the ramifications of this harrowing decision.

Bury What We Cannot Take is actually everything I had hoped Girls Burn Brighter was going to be. Both novels follow two parties which have been separated and which spend the novel seeking a reunion, and in both cases, these stories are filled to the brim with tragedy. But where Girls Burn Brighter indulges (at least in my opinion – more here) a bit too heavily in the gruesome details of its characters’ plights, Bury What We Cannot Take is more interested in the kind of resilience needed to survive. Though the chapters which follow the left-behind child can be difficult to read, I felt that the narrative was approached with sensitivity, and it quickly earned my emotional investment.

This novel is deceptively short for 300 pages, and as a result, my only complaint is that at times it felt a bit rushed. Though I loved how compelling and immersive it was – I think I read 20% in one sitting and then finished it in another sitting the next day – certain plot points were glossed over, and I wouldn’t have minded spending a bit more time with the Ong family.

But ultimately, I really enjoyed this. It’s a fantastic look at Communist China and its insidious regime, which follows a host of complex, sympathetic characters aged across multiple generations. Though I hadn’t heard of Kirsten Chen before this, I’ll definitely be looking into anything she writes in the future.

Thank you to Netgalley, Little A, and Kirsten Chen for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.