The Shining Girls imagines what would happen if a serial killer had sole access to a method of time travel. Harper Curtis stumbles upon a house that a...moreThe Shining Girls imagines what would happen if a serial killer had sole access to a method of time travel. Harper Curtis stumbles upon a house that allows him to move to any time of his choosing between 1929 and 1993 just by entering and exiting its front door; already a violent man, Harper takes for granted that the strange artifacts in the master bedroom are a map telling him about young women he needs to kill.
I enjoyed that the book was set in Chicago across the twentieth century, and the writing is tight and compelling, but this is most definitely a book about a serial killer, and we meet woman after woman only to see her brutally murdered. The story slowly introduces us to Kirby Mazrachi, the one woman to survive an attempted murder from Harper, and much of the book then alternates between chapters about Harper and chapters about Kirby. Kirby tenaciously begins investigating violent crimes similar to the one she suffered, but she questions her own sanity as she begins to suspect that much, much older murders tie into her own assault.
The biggest weakness in this book for me is how little explanation we get about why Harper needs to seek out these particular women. They "shine" to him in a way that others don't, but the book doesn't even attempt to explain what "shining" means, nor does it attempt to give any explanation for the existence of the house or the weird way all times seem to exist at once when Harper is inside it. There's a lot that the reader has to take on faith in reading this book, and the murder scenes can be pretty difficult to read, but Kirby is a strong, engaging character, and I enjoyed getting to see her unravel a particularly unlikely mystery.(less)
I really enjoyed reading The Newlyweds, though it definitely has some major flaws, mostly arising from the fact that the author is a white American wr...moreI really enjoyed reading The Newlyweds, though it definitely has some major flaws, mostly arising from the fact that the author is a white American writing in the voice of a Bangladeshi woman who moves to America to marry a man she meets on a dating website. The transition is a little too quick from young, naive Amina from a rural Bangladeshi village to jaded, modernized Amina from Rochester, and the book glosses over any moral struggles Amina might have had as a Muslim woman raised in a somewhat traditional religious home moving to a much more secular environment.
The writing is lovely, though, and in spite of the narrative being split between America and Bangladesh, the central conflict in the story - Amina realizing that her new husband George has kept a significant secret from her - doesn't really have anything to do with the two characters being from such different backgrounds. The central elements of the story could have played out just as easily between two characters from the same culture and upbringing.
Nell Freudenberger is a strong writer, and the book held my interest the whole way through even while a voice in the back of my head kept questioning how realistic some parts of the book were. Overall it feels more like a fluffy read about a couple who married too fast and without being entirely honest about their pasts than any kind of reliable portrayal of the experience of married life between people of two people from very different backgrounds and cultures.(less)
This novel by an Iraq war veteran about post-traumatic stress disorder is well written but ultimately left me feeling empty. It jumps back and forth b...moreThis novel by an Iraq war veteran about post-traumatic stress disorder is well written but ultimately left me feeling empty. It jumps back and forth between scenes during the war and after the narrator has gone back home, and while it's evident that something happened to shatter the narrator to the point that he can no longer function, the book is too coy for too long about the source of the stress that caused him to become so unhinged. While the reader gets a good sense of the futility and meaningless of being at war, we're kept too distant from the narrator's thoughts and emotions to build up the sympathy necessary for a book like this to have a real punch.
The whole time I was reading this book, I felt like I ought to be feeling something, but I just couldn't find anything to connect with.(less)
The Secret History tells the story of a loner transfer student at a college in Vermont who penetrates the elite world of the school's tiny Greek depar...moreThe Secret History tells the story of a loner transfer student at a college in Vermont who penetrates the elite world of the school's tiny Greek department and finds himself in totally over his head when his charismatic new friends involve him in a murder. The book is a delight to read - beautifully written and compelling - though the elitism of the characters and setting can feel a little off-putting (or maybe that's just because I read this book after a whole series of books written by nonwhite authors and set in much less cushy environments).
While it's easy to understand why Richard, the narrator, is drawn into the orbit of the eccentric, tight-knit group of students he gradually befriends, I felt that the book could have done a better job of explaining just why these friends felt it was necessary to murder a member of their own group. Sure, Bunny was irritating and difficult in any number of ways, but nothing he did to the rest of them felt compelling enough for me to be able to understand why they became convinced that they had to kill him. This was the biggest weakness of the book for me - the book opens with the murder and the whole plot hangs on it, but the book should have made me be able to relate to their decision to kill, no matter how off-putting I might have found it. Instead, I felt that Tartt was stretching my suspension of disbelief in asking me to assume that Bunny needed to be killed and just roll with the storyline.
In spite of this, The Secret History is a delight to read, and I'm glad I finally took everyone's recommendations and read it. I look forward to reading Tartt's other books soon.(less)
This book started off so strong, but lost steam for me partway through. In the beginning, we are focused on Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who moved to the...moreThis book started off so strong, but lost steam for me partway through. In the beginning, we are focused on Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who moved to the United States for college and has established herself as a successful blogger writing about race issues as seen from a non-American black perspective. We get flashbacks to her childhood in Nigeria and the events that led up to her relocation to the states. The fact that many chapters end with excerpts from her blog sometimes feels a little heavy-handed, but overall the whole thing was working quite well for me - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a strong writer and I was really enjoying the character of Ifemelu.
Midway through, though, the book briefly switches focus from Ifemelu to her childhood love interest Obinze, spending a couple of chapters telling us about his life as an undocumented immigrant in London before returning to Ifemelu as the primary focus of the rest of the book. This brief shift felt awkward, and the story never seemed to get its footing back after shifting its narrative focus in this way.
Americanah has a lot of interesting things to say about race in America and about the complicated experiences of immigrating to a new country and later returning to your homeland.There's a lot to enjoy here, but the second half just couldn't hold my interest as well as the first half did. I definitely look forward to reading more Adichie soon, though.(less)
I had mixed feelings about this graphic novel, which alternately tells stories about two different Jimmy Corrigans (grandfather and grandson). I loved...moreI had mixed feelings about this graphic novel, which alternately tells stories about two different Jimmy Corrigans (grandfather and grandson). I loved the stories about the grandfather, set during his childhood against a backdrop of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago - but the grandson Jimmy, who has the most pages devoted to him, is a sad sack of a man whose sections are sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes just cringe-inducing. The stories were originally published as individual strips in a Chicago newspaper over the course of several years, meaning that the story doesn't always flow smoothly since it wasn't originally designed as a book.
An overarching theme here has to do with history repeating itself; both Jimmys are abandoned by their fathers as children, and the two even look so much alike that it can be hard to tell which Jimmy we're reading about when the stories change. Both also have active fantasy lives, and it can be hard to tell how much of their stories are truth. Both have many reasons to inspire sympathy in the reader, but they each also have some repulsive traits (the grandfather's offhand racist remarks; the grandson's overly sexual thoughts about women).
Overall I'm glad to have read this, but I expected to like it more than I did. The art is wonderful, particularly for the scenes set at the World's Fair, and the story is compelling and definitely generates a response in the reader, but I just couldn't find enough interest in the grandson Jimmy to want to spend as many pages with him as I did.(less)
Such mixed feelings about this book, which documents the mass exodus of black people from the American South in the first half of the twentieth centur...moreSuch mixed feelings about this book, which documents the mass exodus of black people from the American South in the first half of the twentieth century, as narrated by three people who made the decision to leave their families and start new lives in other parts of the country. While the author does provide anecdotes and statistics about other people, the book really is primarily an oral history of three people that uses the Great Migration as backdrop for their stories.
Each person's story is quite different - there's George, who despite his college education found himself a manual laborer in the citrus groves of Florida until his attempts at unionization put his life in danger and he fled to New York City; Ida Mae, who left Mississippi for Chicago with her husband after they both grew quietly fed up with the gross racial inequality inherent in the sharecropping system; and Robert, a physician who left Louisiana for Los Angeles because he wanted better opportunities and higher income than the South would allow (and became quite wealthy and the doctor and friend of Ray Charles). Each story is interesting in its own way; the author did a good job of choosing people from three very different backgrounds whose lives took very different paths while still sharing certain common elements.
Unfortunately, the author isn't much of a writer, and her poor phrasings, repetition, and other narrative shortcomings frequently took me out of the story. As much as I was enjoying the histories she was telling, I kept taking long breaks from the book just because the prose wasn't doing anything for me.
Also, the author's choice to follow each of her three subjects' stories well past the era of the Great Migration and into the present underscores that this book is really an oral history of three people and not quite what it purports to be in its subtitle. At some point, the book leaves all pretense of telling us about the Great Migration and just finishes out the three stories it began to tell, which is a little trying for the reader - not that the stories aren't still interesting, but just that the book has started sprawling into something it didn't intend to be.
I'm glad I read this book, but I can't really recommend it; the experience of reading it is frustrating, even though the subject matter is fascinating.(less)
I really, really liked Five Star Billionaire right up until the non-ending. I was worried this was a sign that Tash Aw just can't write endings, but I...moreI really, really liked Five Star Billionaire right up until the non-ending. I was worried this was a sign that Tash Aw just can't write endings, but I wanted to give another one of his books a try because I loved his writing so much. I'm pleased to report that while Map of the Invisible World doesn't tie up all its loose ends in a completely tidy bow, it comes close enough that the reader can leave feeling like they've read a complete story.
In Map of the Invisible World, two brothers are orphaned and then separated into different adoptive homes. We learn about little pieces of older brother Johan's life in Malaysia, but the story focuses on Adam during the civil unrest in 1960s Indonesia. We also learn about Margaret Bates, a white woman who was born in Indonesia and grew up all over the world and is now a university professor; her assistant, Din, who is heavily involved with a radical communist group; and Adam's adoptive father, a Dutch painter named Karl.
The book manages to tell very personal stories against a very political backdrop - the reader gets a sense of what was going on in Indonesia in the 1960s as they asserted themselves as a free country apart from Dutch rule, even while the main focus has to do with the connections between each of the characters and Adam's search both for his brother and for his father, who has been arrested for being Dutch.
Map of the Invisible World isn't a perfect novel, but it's very, very well done, and I'm excited to read The Harmony Silk Factory and anything else Aw writes.(less)
I think everyone I interacted with in the month of November got to hear me complaining about this book, which falls squarely into the "why did I actua...moreI think everyone I interacted with in the month of November got to hear me complaining about this book, which falls squarely into the "why did I actually stick it out till the end?" category. I read Seeing because I enjoyed Blindness and this is advertised as a sequel, though it's actually only very loosely connected to the characters and events of that book.
Seeing is supposedly political satire, but satire is normally supposed to be funny, and this was just boring. Nothing happens for page after page after page. One election in an unnamed city, there is surprisingly high voter turnout, but the majority of the votes cast turn out to be blank. The government is so horrified that they pull out, leave the city secretly and wall it off so that no one else can get out. Even though they have withdrawn all police support, the people of the city are surprisingly well behaved. The government has many horrified meetings about how the citizens are not learning their lesson. That...about sums up the first 300 pages of a book that is barely over 300 pages.
The very end of the book gets interesting, when there are actual characters interacting with each other, and we see how this book ties in with Blindness. However, it's a serious case of too little, too late. Not recommended.(less)
I'd meant to read Octavia Butler for ages, but this was the first time I actually got around to doing so, and I'm glad I did. In Kindred, a black woma...moreI'd meant to read Octavia Butler for ages, but this was the first time I actually got around to doing so, and I'm glad I did. In Kindred, a black woman suddenly and repeatedly finds herself pulled back in time to come to the aid of her white, slave-owning ancestor, who seems to have some ability to summon her when his life is in danger. She, in turn, is only able to return to the present when her own life is threatened, meaning that some trips are quite short while others last months - though she returns to the present to find that only a few minutes or hours have passed in the present day.
On her longer visits, Dana becomes a de facto slave on her ancestor Rufus's family's plantation; as a black woman, she has no rights of her own in that time, and if she were caught out on her own without papers demonstrating her freedom (and quite likely even if she did have them), she could be enslaved by anyone who found her. At least on Rufus's turf, she has an uneasy peace - he treats her better than the other slaves because she has saved his life on several occasions, and he knows he needs her on his side the next time his life is in danger. However, what he doesn't know is that Dana is his distant ancestor, and that she needs him alive to ensure her own birth well over a century later.
While the premise for the story is definitely fantastical, the time-travel is only a device to get us to look at the decisions and compromises we have to make when placed in incredibly difficult situations. Dana finds herself doing and accepting things that she knows are distasteful, but are also the best decisions for the situation she is in, where doing what modern-day Dana would have called "right" could get herself or any number of other black people brutally beaten or killed.
I found this book captivating and look forward to reading more Octavia Butler soon.(less)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fascinating, creepy short novel that feels a little bit like a grown-up version of Coraline, in that it deals wi...moreThe Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fascinating, creepy short novel that feels a little bit like a grown-up version of Coraline, in that it deals with alternate realities lurking just beneath the surface of our world and with horrors that only children can see and that must be battled without the support of the adults.
The adult narrator of The Ocean at the End of the Lane returns to his childhood town for a funeral and, without quite knowing what he is doing, drives back to his old home and then further down the road to the house at the end of the lane, where a dimly-remembered childhood friend had lived. He rings the doorbell and - still without quite knowing what he is doing - soon finds himself out back, staring at a pond that he remembers Lettie had insisted was an ocean. Something about the pond draws out old memories, and the bulk of the book is then told as a memory seen through a child's eyes.
After a lodger in his house commits suicide, strange things start happening, and the narrator's new friend Lettie takes him along to confront the bizarre creature she knows is causing the trouble. The creature turns out to be stronger than Lettie expected and manages to hitchhike back into our world, where she transforms herself into a beautiful young woman who is hired on as the narrator's family's new nanny. His parents and sister are delighted with the nanny; only he can tell there is something dreadfully wrong with her. She seduces his father and turns his whole family against him, making him a prisoner in his own house and subjecting him to tortures and terrors. He knows Lettie is the only one who can help him, but he has no way of contacting her while trapped in the house.
This is the sort of book that's both short and compelling enough that it's best to clear a few hours to read it in one sitting. It's very well done and worth a read. If you liked this, or if you just want to get a sense of the kind of creepy horror of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the short story "The Father-Thing" by Philip K. Dick is in a very similar vein and is also worth a read. (less)
I don't normally rave to people about books I'm still in the middle of reading, but while I was making my way through Five Star Billionaire, I couldn'...moreI don't normally rave to people about books I'm still in the middle of reading, but while I was making my way through Five Star Billionaire, I couldn't stop bringing it up in conversations to tell people how much I was enjoying it. It felt like a five-stars-with-exclamation-point book for me; in spite of being a book that rotates through the points of view of multiple main characters, I felt invested in each and was equally eager to learn more about what would happen to each one. It's a shame that the book ends so abruptly, because the disappointment of getting to the last page and thinking "That's it? That can't possibly be it, there must be another chapter yet" shut me up about this book in a hurry.
The main characters in Five Star Billionaire are all Malaysian by birth but are living in Shanghai. One grew up in poverty and has moved there to try to improve her job prospects and find a rich boyfriend; one grew up in a wealthy family and has been sent there to manage a job for the family business; one grew up middle-class in a family with political ties and has moved there to start a new life as a businesswoman after things turn sour for her family in Malaysia; and the last grew up in an impoverished, abusive home, became a rock star after being discovered on an "Idol" type reality singing show, and finds himself trapped in Shanghai after his drunken antics cause his tour to be cancelled prematurely. In the background is also the shadowy five-star billionaire of the title, whose story is told in brief interludes between the main chapters.
For much of the book, the main characters' stories do not intersect at all, and what we really feel is how isolating and exhausting it can be to live in a huge, wealth- and appearance-obsessed city, especially as an outsider who hasn't lived there long. For quite a while, I thought the characters might actually have nothing to do with each other or would cross paths only incidentally, and that actually felt right for this book; it didn't bother me to think that Five Star Billionaire wouldn't follow the typical pattern of gradually interweaving the different characters' lives. However, the characters do begin to meet each other, and their intersecting backstories are also revealed, and immediately the book stops being about the impersonal city and draws us into human relationships. We begin to cheer on the various romances and business partnerships; Shanghai is no longer impersonal and overwhelming; we can see how everyone could end up happy after all. I think this is the reason that the abrupt ending, which leaves not a single personal or professional relationship satisfied, feels so inadequate and frustrating. It's as if Tash Aw really did want this book to be, all along, about isolation, but he teased us with a different novel halfway through and never provided a satisfactory conclusion to that book. (less)
What if a highly communicable disease suddenly caused everyone to go blind over the course of just a few days? Blindness explores what happens in just...moreWhat if a highly communicable disease suddenly caused everyone to go blind over the course of just a few days? Blindness explores what happens in just such an epidemic, both in the world at large and within the internment center where the earliest infected people are sent.
The tale is told in a very matter-of-fact tone that softens some of the blow of the horror while making it easy to see how feasible the entire situation is. Life in the internment center begins as an inconvenience but quickly shifts to ever-increasing squalor, and the residents begin questioning whether they are even still human or whether their blindness and captivity has turned them into animals. Meanwhile, panic on the outside keeps growing; people no longer help the newly blind but turn and run in fear, and the soldiers guarding the internment center begin to shoot on sight lest the infected get too close and spread the disease.
The story is compelling, though the ending feels hasty and tacked-on. It doesn't matter that we don't learn the cause of the epidemic - the story is about how humans behave in a crisis, not really about the crisis itself - but the abrupt ending leaves the reader unsatisfied. Other than that disappointment, though, this was a very interesting and all-too-realistic tale.(less)
The Rings of Saturn is very much a book that requires being in the right mindset when you read it. It's full of fascinating anecdotes, but if you're l...moreThe Rings of Saturn is very much a book that requires being in the right mindset when you read it. It's full of fascinating anecdotes, but if you're looking for a story, you won't find one here; the only thing connecting each anecdote to the next is the author's powers of association as he takes a walking tour of East Anglia on the eastern coast of England. Some of the anecdotes are quite educational - I was particularly taken by one about Joseph Conrad and another about the history of silkworm cultivation - but they are all, in one way or another, full of a deep melancholy and tell about things ending, going awry, falling apart.
The overall experience of reading The Rings of Saturn is that of a hallucination or fever dream, but each individual anecdote is perfectly lucid, and the author gives accounts for what causes each tale to come to mind - but the unbroken string of loosely connected stories can make the reader feel more than a little untethered. This feeling of disconnect is heightened by the fact that each story deals in some way with sadness or decay. The narrator is walking through parts of England that were once famed for their industry, but are now largely depressed and crumbling, and the stories the narrator tells are therefore also about things that start out with hope and promise but have ended poorly or just outlived their usefulness.
If you have the patience to wander with the narrator as he takes you through one tale after another, The Rings of Saturn provides a fascinating look at the impermanence of everything around us. (less)
Jean Merrill passed away last year (2012) and there was a thread on MetaFilter where people reminisced about how much her books had meant to them, and...moreJean Merrill passed away last year (2012) and there was a thread on MetaFilter where people reminisced about how much her books had meant to them, and now I've finally gotten around to reading a couple of them. Of the two I read, The Toothpaste Millionaire is written for a somewhat younger audience than The Pushcart War, but both were very smart and focused on challenging notions about race, class, and the ability of children and underdogs to make real change.
In The Pushcart War, the trucking industry in New York has grown so large that traffic has drawn almost to a standstill. It can take hours to drive a few blocks through the city, because trucks making deliveries will stop in the middle of the block and unload with no concern for the cars and taxis piling up behind them. People are starting to complain more and more loudly about how bad traffic is, and so the trucking industry decides to start pointing fingers at a scapegoat so that they can keep up their business. The heads of the three largest trucking companies, working together, decide that the pushcart vendors are the easiest target, and they start rumors all over the city that the pushcarts are the cause of the traffic problems.
The pushcart vendors slowly come to realize that the trucking industry is specifically out to get them, and they band together and declare war. They start a campaign to destroy truck tires using pea shooters with pins embedded in the peas, though they have to bring that campaign to an abrupt halt when one of their own gets caught and arrested. However, children throughout the city have embraced the idea of shooting pins at truck tires, so trucks keep suffering flats all over the city, and people can't help but notice that the trucks are breaking down everywhere and making traffic worse and worse.
Though the story does tend toward the absurd, it carries a very powerful message that might doesn't make right and that the underdog can still come out ahead. Merrill does a great job of keeping the story interesting and teaching a lesson without feeling like she's preaching or talking down to her reader. I'm sorry I didn't know about her books until I was an adult!(less)