book review: The Absolutist by John Boyne

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THE ABSOLUTIST by John Boyne
★★★★★
Other Press, 2012

 

The Absolutist is a tender and harrowing exploration of love, betrayal, bravery, and cowardice, set in the trenches in France during World War I. The story begins in 1919, with twenty-one-year-old Tristan Sadler making a trip to Norwich to deliver some letters to the sister of a man who had died in the war, Will Bancroft. Through a series of flashbacks, Boyne explores the relationship between Tristan and Will, and while it’s clear from the beginning that there isn’t going to be a happy ending, it ended up being even more devastating than I had expected. This book ripped my heart out, so naturally, I loved it.

Tristan Sadler is everything I could want from a narrator – complex, sympathetic, flawed, and seeking atonement, and though his guilt is present from the first page, it isn’t until you’re deep into the story that you really understand the extent of it. Tristan’s struggle with his identity as a gay man provides the novel with its central conflict, which Boyne addresses with sensitivity and nuance.

Boyne’s prose is understated and compelling, as he deftly weaves together this complex tale, whose barely-300-pages belies its thematic richness. From the synopsis I was expecting a rather cut and dry love story, but the reality of this novel is more intricate and unexpected, and a lot sadder.

This is only the second John Boyne novel I’ve read after The Heart’s Invisible Furies, but both left me awestruck, devastated, and wanting to pick up another Boyne novel immediately. The Absolutist and its characters will haunt me.

wrap up: books read in October 2017

  • The End We Start From by Megan Hunter ★★★ + review
  • Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions by Amy Stewart ★★★ + review
  • The Book Collector by Alice Thompson ★★★★ + mini review
  • Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn ★★★ + review
  • Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie ★★★★★ + review
  • Bird Box by Josh Malerman ★★★★★ + review
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy ★★ + review

Best: Bird Box by Josh Malerman
Runner up: Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie
Worst: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

OCTOBER TOTAL: 7 books
YEARLY TOTAL SO FAR: 85 books (goal was 60)

I feel like these star ratings don’t accurately represent my reading month, which was Not Great….. continuing from September I had a long streak of 3 stars, and then most of my month was spent reading War and Peace, which clearly I did not end up loving.  (Though I do feel a bit bad giving it the distinction of the worst of the month…. perhaps a more fair assessment would be The End We Start From which is one of the most unremarkable books I’ve ever read, but at least that held my attention – War and Peace was just a massive two month long struggle for me.)

In non-book news, it wasn’t a bad month!  I went on a road trip to Hartford and Boston and got to see some theatre and got to hang out with Chelsea and Steph, which was a lot of fun.  We saw the Les Miserables tour and then a sadly short-lived production of Merrily We Roll Along in Boston – review of that HERE.

Now the currently reading/TBR stuff… I’m in the middle of The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater (buddy read with Steph) and having a lot of fun with that!  Also reading An Arrow’s Flight by Mark Merlis and The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin, and I haven’t touched The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride in weeks but now that I’ve finished War and Peace maybe I’ll have the mental energy to dive back into that.  Or maybe I’ll put it off for another month.  Anyway, November will also include a buddy read of Wuthering Heights with Hadeer, The Absolutist by John Boyne, The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor, A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzie Lee… and maybe other things!  We shall see.  I’m really excited about some of these.

Finally… follow me in various places on the internet if you want!

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What was the best book you read in October?  Comment and let me know!

book review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

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BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman
★★★★★
Ecco, 2014

Bird Box is one of the most original and downright terrifying horror novels I’ve ever read. Set in the near future, the novel begins in a vaguely post-apocalyptic wasteland that used to be suburban Michigan, where a young woman, Malorie, leads her two children to a rowboat, all of them blindfolded. Five years previously, there was some kind of event which wiped out the majority of the population – there’s something outside, and when people see it, they’re driven to madness and violence. There’s only one rule in the new world in order to survive: don’t open your eyes.

This is more of a survival story than I had been expecting from a horror novel, but I was okay with that, because it focuses on the elements of survival that I find particularly interesting. How does a group of individuals move forward together in a lawless world? Which social norms from the old world are worth preserving? At what point does survival stop being enough? (It’s strangely reminiscent of Station Eleven in this regard.) I highly recommend this to anyone who prefers their horror light on the gore and heavy on the psychological.

But survival is only one element. Bird Box is scary. The tension that Josh Malerman creates in this novel never lets up, even for a second. Malerman taps into a really primal fear – fear of the dark, fear of the unknown. What’s so remarkable about Bird Box is that the scariest passages aren’t necessarily ones where you see horrifying things happening. It’s the ones where the characters are taking a tentative step outside, eyes closed, not knowing if they’re mere inches away from danger.

No, it’s not perfect; yes, there are questions that go unanswered, but I loved this. The atmosphere is unsettling and frightening, the characters are real and flawed and believable, and the climax is incredible. What a delightfully creepy and striking book. I wanted to start it again the second I finished.

book review: Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie

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SPARKLING CYANIDE by Agatha Christie
★★★★★
originally published in 1944

Sparkling Cyanide was my fifth Agatha Christie, and my fifth time being absolutely blown away by how well crafted her mysteries are. The novel begins with Iris Marle looking back on a dinner party which had resulted in the death of her sister Rosemary, whose champagne had been poisoned with cyanide. Though it had been initially ruled as a suicide, Rosemary’s husband, George, becomes convinced that Rosemary had been murdered – which means the culprit was necessarily one of the six guests in attendance that night.

Interestingly, the question of who could possibly have poisoned beautiful, well-liked, friendly Rosemary is quickly answered – it turns out that each of the guests in turn had their own motive. So instead the question becomes: who actually did it? It was refreshing that Christie’s approach here was to rule out several potential culprits, rather than spending the majority of the novel searching for motive.

As always with Christie, I found myself doubting my predictions at every twist and turn. The person I settled on about 65% into the book did end up bring the right one, but I’m still waiting for the day I read one of her books and can choose the murderer early on with a certain amount of confidence. Her plots are too layered and her characters too well-rounded for the kind of easy predictability you get in a lot of contemporary thrillers. As with the other four Christie novels I’ve read, Sparkling Cyanide was a quick, entertaining, clever read that I enjoyed immensely.

book review: Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions by Amy Stewart

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MISS KOPP’S MIDNIGHT CONFESSIONS by Amy Stewart (Kopp Sisters #3)
★★★☆☆
Houghton Mifflin, September 2017

I’m starting to wonder if Girl Waits with Gun was a one-off stroke of brilliance. I loved the first novel in this historical fiction series based on the life of one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the U.S., but its sequel, Lady Cop Makes Trouble, didn’t quite live up to the high bar Stewart had set for herself. I had higher hopes for Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions at first, but I think I ultimately wanted to like this more than I did.

The premise of this novel is the most interesting to me of the three. Set in 1916, just before the U.S. entered World War I, women are having to take up the slack of men who are leaving to go abroad – taking factory positions and leaving the house more often to aid war efforts. This was a difficult pill for some of these young women’s parents to swallow, and many of them reported their daughters to the police for wayward behavior, which is an interesting and frustrating piece of history that I ended up learning a lot about. I just wish the narrative had been on the same level as Stewart’s impeccable research.

While I was initially prepared to praise this novel for having more narrative cohesion than its two predecessors (the cases that Constance is investigating end up dovetailing with her personal life), I thought the execution was somewhat unwieldy. One of the characters does something that I felt was solely for the sake of furthering the plot, and really incongruous with her characterization. And while I enjoyed spending more time with Norma and Fleurette than we had in Lady Cop Makes Trouble, the relationship between the three sisters – easily the best thing about the first novel – always felt rather secondary to whatever else was going on.

I loved the new characters who were introduced, Edna especially, and I enjoyed reading about her time involving herself in the war effort. But I still thought that there were too many subplots here, and the way it all came together in the end was a little ham-fisted.

It’s more of a 3.5 than a 3, and certainly an improvement on Lady Cop Makes Trouble. But I’m still waiting for Stewart to really tap into the magic that she was able to achieve with Girl Waits with Gun. I’m undecided if I’ll continue this series if Stewart writes more. On the one hand, I’m rather invested in Constance Kopp at this point, but on the other, I have a nagging feeling that this series peaked with its first novel.

Thank you to Netgalley, Houghton Mifflin, and Amy Stewart for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

My review of Lady Cop Makes Trouble can be found HERE.  (I have not written a review of Girl Waits With Gun.)

top 5 tuesday: Spooky Books (+Films!) for Halloween

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

OCTOBER 10 – Top 5 spooky reads for Halloween!

For someone who likes horror as much as I do, I surprisingly do not read much horror.  I think it’s probably because I don’t see it recommended very often in the online bookish circles that I follow, so a lot of it just flies under my radar?  Well, anyway.  Here are 4 horror novels and 1 just sort of ~atmospheric one.  (Also, my omission of Stephen King is due to the fact that I’ve never actually read anything by him.  Oops.)

594139Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.  Let’s get the non-horror out of the way.  I seem to talk about this book a lot, but only because it’s so good.  Rebecca is an atmospheric, Gothic novel about a young woman who marries a rich man whose mysterious, alluring dead ex-wife Rebecca exerts a certain pull over their lives.  It’s not a ghost story, but it is haunting in a more psychological way, and the creepy setting of the Manderly estate makes for an excellent book to read around this time of year.

27833617The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon.  Set in an abandoned motel in rural Vermont, this is obviously a book that I had to check out.  This is an eerie, creepy, suspenseful paranormal horror book that isn’t the least bit gruesome, so if you like your horror light on the gore, this is a perfect book for that.  While I did have a few criticisms by the end, I ultimately thought it was ridiculously entertaining, and genuinely frightening at times.

32796253Final Girls by Riley Sager.  Another one that I’ve talked about a lot, but I promise it’s a quick, engaging read that is well worth checking out.  This mystery/thriller novel is more of a love letter to the horror genre than a proper horror novel in its own right, but the flashback scenes set in a cabin in the woods are properly chilling.  This is a novel which follows a young woman, Quincy, the sole survivor of a brutal massacre that left several of her friends dead years ago.  The problem is, she can’t remember what happened that night.

27997200The Silent Children by Amna K. Boheim.  This is a fantastically entertaining modern-day ghost story set in Vienna, filled to the brim with dark family secrets.  It follows the story of a young man, Max, who discovers some unsavory details about his family’s past, including flashbacks to World War II era Vienna.  I’ll admit that I had a slow start with this book, but once it hits its stride about 20% in, it’s almost impossible to put down.

51xb75isx7l-_sx343_bo1204203200_The Last Night at Tremore Beach by Mikel Santiago.  This is a vaguely paranormal mystery set on the idyllic Irish coast, as renowned composer Peter Harper decides to spend some time on his own following a messy divorce.  One night as he makes his way home during a storm, Peter is struck by lightning, and in the events that follow, dreams and reality begin to blur as he attempts to save his family from an impending crime.  This is another highly entertaining novel that’s easy to fly through in a couple of hours.


BONUS: I may be a book blog, but I love horror movies.  Hands down the best part of Halloween tbh.  Rather than making a separate post for this, I thought I’d just tack these on here.  So here are some of my favorites!

p12732076_p_v8_aaHush (2016)
Directed by: Mike Flanagan.
Starring: Kate Siegel, John Gallagher Jr.

Hush is a subversive twist on the slasher genre… it starts with the ‘woman alone in a cabin in the woods being terrorized’ premise, but slowly progresses into something so much better.  The main character, played by Kate Siegel, is deaf, and she uses her deafness to her advantage to fight back against the man who’s psychologically torturing her.  It’s amazing and also terrifying… I would not advise that you watch this alone if you live in a cabin in the woods.

teaser_poster_for_2017_film_get_outGet Out (2017)
Directed by: Jordan Peele.
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams.

On this list, I’d say that Get Out is the least scary film, so if you like psychological thrillers more than flat-out horror, I can’t recommend this highly enough.  I’m sure everyone knows the premise since it was getting so much buzz earlier this year, but briefly – an African American man goes to visit his white girlfriend’s parents for a weekend, and… things get creepy.  It’s a really socially relevant film, but also weirdly humorous and incredibly well made.

mv5bmmu0mjblyzytzwy0mc00mjlilwi3zmutmzhlzdvjmwvmywy4xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtqxnzmzndi-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_It Follows (2014)
Directed by: David Robert Mitchell.
Starring: Maika Monroe.

It Follows is a paranormal horror film about this supernatural entity that follows a group of teenagers around after they have sex.  It’s better than I’m making it sound, I swear.  Basically, if you have sex with someone who’s come into contact with this demon thing, it follows you everywhere, but it can only walk at one pace and in a straight line – so you can run from it, but it always catches up with you eventually.

the_witch_posterThe Witch (2015)
Directed by: Robert Eggers.
Starring: Anya Taylor Joy, Ralph Ineson.

Set in 17th century New England, The Witch is a paranormal horror film, focused on one family who suspect their daughter (played by the stellar Anya Taylor Joy) of witchcraft.  One thing I wish I’d known going into this film is that it’s written in period-appropriate dialogue, including the likes of ‘thou hast,’ etc, you basically feel like you’re at a Shakespeare play – and it takes some getting used to, but the overall result is done incredibly well.

p8694014_p_v8_acThe Woman in Black (2012)
Directed by: James Watkins.
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds.

I’m sure every Harry Potter fan knows about The Woman in Black, but I had to include it, as it’s one of my all-time favorites.  Adapted from the novel by Susan Hill, it’s a downright terrifying ghost story set at a haunted estate in an English village.  I tried to get my dad to watch this with me once and he only lasted about ten minutes.

What are some of your favorite horror films and novels?  Comment and let me know!  I need some recommendations! 

book review: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

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THE SILKWORM by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
★★★☆☆
Mulholland Books, 2014

I read The Cuckoo’s Calling earlier this year (not sure what took me so long) and loved it, but I was even more excited to start The Silkworm. I loved the idea of a murder mystery set in the publishing world, as this is much more my area than the foreign and glamorous entertainment industry, the setting for the previous Cormoran Strike novel. So it is with much sadness that I have to admit I found The Silkworm to be kind of a letdown.

This book was a hundred pages longer than it needed to be, and I have a simple suggestion for paring down that page count: remove every instance of Strike complaining about his knee hurting, Robin fighting with her fiancé, Strike resolving to use fewer taxis in the future, Strike pining after his horrible ex, and Robin and Strike going out to lunch. All of that comprises a pretty solid bulk of this novel, which passes the point of character-driven into the area of complete tedium. Rowling needed an editor with a firmer hand.

The plot itself was punishingly convoluted. Not only are there a lot of characters, there’s also a story within a story which contains thinly veiled references to ‘real’ people – it’s just a lot to keep track of. The pace languishes – there just weren’t enough clues dropped throughout to keep me fully invested. I won’t say anything specific about the ending – just that I didn’t experience the shock and awe that The Cuckoo’s Calling‘s resolution had elicited from me.

I know I’m probably giving off the impression that it was a chore to read this book, but it wasn’t. I love JK Rowling’s prose, I love her characters, mainly the quick-witted and kindhearted Robin and the abrasive but efficient Strike, and I’m looking forward to continuing this series. I’m only hoping Career of Evil wows me a bit more than The Silkworm did.

wrap up: books read in August 2017

  • Yesterday by Felicia Yap ★★ + review
  • Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides ★★★★
  • Lady Cop Makes Trouble by Amy Stewart ★★★ + review
  • Holding by Graham Norton ★★ + review
  • The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne ★★★★★ + review
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess ★★★★★ + review
  • Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo ★★★★★ + review
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward ★★★ + review
  • American War by Omar El Akkad ★★ + review

Best: The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
Runner up: Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo or A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Worst: Yesterday by Felicia Yap

9 books in August and a total of 72 books so far in 2017.  Everything was kind of hit or miss this month.  Either books I loved wholeheartedly and could not put down, or books I couldn’t wait to be done with.  I’m also impressed that I managed to finish 9, since I went to Montreal for a weekend and then had a friend visiting for a couple of days, both of which cut down on my reading time.

So, what’s next?

In case you missed it, Hadeer and I are co-hosting a War and Peace read along – you guys are absolutely welcome to join us if you’d like, details in that post!

So while War and Peace is going to be taking up a lot of my time in September, there are a couple of other books I’m hoping to get to as well.  I’m currently reading The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride and Things That Happened Before the Earthquake by Chiara Barzini, and I’m hoping to finish both of those soon.  I have Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land and Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions by Amy Stewart from Netgalley and I need to read both of those soon.  And my book club is reading All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld in September, so I’m looking forward to that.  I’m also very intrigued by Solar Bones by Mike McCormack.  A little ambitious, especially since I’m going to New York City for Labor Day weekend, but we’ll see.

What was the best book you guys read in August?  Comment and let me know!

book review: Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

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CROOKED KINGDOM by Leigh Bardugo
★★★★★
Henry Holt & Co, 2016
(Six of Crows #2)

I LOVED THIS. Crooked Kingdom is everything that was great about Six of Crows – fast paced action, characters getting out of impossible situations in unexpected ways – but it built something even better upon its already solid foundation, thanks to some truly phenomenal character development. In Crooked Kingdom, Leigh Bardugo digs into her characters’ backstories to create even more depth and dimension to this already flawed and fascinating group of individuals, and I came out of it with an even greater appreciation of each of them.

Where the plot in Six of Crows is much more straightforward and I can see where some people may prefer it for that reason, Crooked Kingdom is where Bardugo shows her complete mastery of weaving together intricate plot threads. I was mesmerized by the fact that every time there appeared to be a straightforward outcome to a situation, Bardugo still managed to veer the narrative in an unexpected direction. And it was never a cheap trick or a deus ex machina – just Bardugo cleverly staying one step ahead of the rest of us.

I wasn’t really fond of That One Thing that happens toward the end – I thought it was sort of rushed and thrown in for shock value, and I think Bardugo could have been capable of writing that in a much more satisfying way.

But on the whole, I loved this. I love Kaz. I love Inej. I love Wylan. I love this group of flawed characters looking out for each other and wreaking utter havoc. This duology was such a fun ride, and I’m sad for it to be over.

book review: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

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A CLOCKWORK ORANGE by Anthony Burgess
★★★★★
originally published in 1962

I’m seeing the play adaptation of A Clockwork Orange off Broadway in a couple of weeks, so I thought it would be a good idea to read the book first. I read one paragraph and thought ‘oh god, what am I getting myself into?’ before deciding to soldier on anyway. Now, since I’m guessing this has been the experience of just about everyone who has ever read the first paragraph of A Clockwork Orange only to put it down after that, my advice is: push through it. By the second chapter it gets easier, and by the fourth or fifth you’re practically fluent in nadsat.

But let’s back up. The most notable thing about A Clockwork Orange is that it’s written in Anthony Burgess’s invented argot, ‘nadsat,’ which draws on Cockney, Malay, and Russian. You’re thrown into this hybrid language immediately without any explanation, and it’s a little disorienting, which I think was the effect that Burgess was going for. But it works, beautifully. It draws the reader into Alex’s world, and somehow serves to desensitize from the brutal violence that Alex and his gang inflict on others. The relief you feel at being able to understand the language washes over you in stark opposition to the horrors that the nadsat is masking, and it’s a uniquely unsettling experience. I was completely drawn in by the effect that Burgess created here.

Thematically, this book is absolutely fascinating. Burgess constructs a vaguely futuristic totalitarian state that draws on elements of both communism and capitalism, which makes sense given the social climate that Burgess was writing in, in 1960s Britain. This book raises a lot of questions about humanity, free will, and the symbiotic relationship of the state and the individual. What value is there in free will if an individual doesn’t choose to be good? Is it better to choose to be evil, or to be forced to be good? What’s so striking about A Clockwork Orange is that we don’t have a hero worth rooting for in this dystopian society, but it’s still a powerful commentary on governmental injustice and youth violence. I was very moved by Alex’s story, and it’s a testament to Burgess’s skill that he was able to evoke pity for this character who should by all accounts be irrevocably loathsome.

I really enjoyed reading this, as much as you can ‘enjoy’ a brutally violent book. I don’t recommend this lightly, but if you can handle this kind of dark fiction, reading this book is a surprisingly rewarding experience.