Review: Exit, Pursued by a Bear

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Review for “Exit, Pursued by a Bear” by E.K. Johnston (2016)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

As soon as this book came up on NetGalley I immediately wanted to read it. I didn’t request it there because I’ve got so many books in my NG queue (I’ll probably be reading until Christmas), so I downloaded this from Amazon. At only 250 pages it’s a quick read, but one that completely perplexed and frustrated me. Let me explain.

NOTE: Spoilers abound here. #sorrynotsorry

Hermoine Winters is a talented cheerleader in a small Canadian town, surrounded by friends and high expectations for her senior year. On a summer evening during the last night of cheerleading camp, she is slipped a drug in a drink by an unknown assailant and raped. When she awakens, she remembers nothing of the attack.

In theory, I should have loved this book. Hermoine defies everything about a rape ‘victim’ that we have ever been previously told or read about. She is bold, undeterred by people’s whispers and stares, and determined to move on with her life. Her friends, family, cheerleading coach, and her therapist rally to her side and support her. But that’s where the ‘good’ part of this book ends. I had incredible difficulty with Hermione as narrator. She is so emotionally detached here that she may as well have been on another plane of existence. Her whole ‘I don’t remember it, I’ll be ok’ attitude perplexed me. I understand that this is more than likely due to the trauma of not remembering her attack, but it distanced me from the story and did not make for a compelling narrative here. There were also deeper, more introspective events in the story that warranted discussion that were glossed over by the author with little to no fanfare at all. Her best friend comes out as a lesbian. Hermione has an abortion as a result of the rape. Although she senses who her perpetrator was, he is never caught or prosecuted. Throughout the book I kept waiting for that YES! moment in the story for Hermione to break out of her shell and claim her right to get fucking angry, but it never happened. The story managed to take all of its issues and wrap up neatly and then…exeunt.

A blurb in the back of the book by the author discusses how she wanted to stress the importance and value of support networks for rape victims. I certainly understand this, but perhaps this trope is overstressed here, to the detriment of the believability of the book. I mean, shit…we live in a society that still does not know how to discuss or even begin to address rape as an actual crime. The fact that there continues to be a raging debate over whether or not Bill Cosby’s admitted drugging of women was wrong in the year 2016 shows that many people still do not even consider this deplorable action to be a crime. Hermione drifts through this book facing the scorn of no one, and, other than an unnamed reporter who tries to slut-shame her, she faced little, if any, actual on-screen harassment. Her reality just did not feel real, it felt rushed and unrealistic.

Overall, the writing here is nothing to brag about. It wasn’t the point though, as I would have went higher in my rating had the main character connected with me. I’ve praised many books where the writing wasn’t that spectacular, but I formed a bond with the character. Despite my harsh criticism, I do recommend this book. Just because the main character did not connect with me does not mean she will not with you, or that you won’t get anything out of this book. If anything, I came away from this novel appreciating the fact that the author chose to write about the topic of rape/sexual assault, as it takes courage to do so.

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Review: American Housewife

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Review for “American Housewife” by Helen Ellis (2016)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

After several months of waiting for this to be available at the library, I finally got a copy of this book. I’m thankful for this, because this book is so god-awfully bad I’d never consider owning it.

There are 12 stories in this collection, all of them centered around a Southern Stepford wife theme (i.e., party hosting, bra fittings, pageants). Sometimes it was successful here, but most of the time it wasn’t. The only story that was somewhat entertaining was “The Wainscoting War,” a humorous exchange between two women told through emails. “The Fitter,” a story about a legendary bra fitter’s wife was ok, but didn’t leave much of an impression on me, and “Dumpster Diving with Stars,” a selection about an irreverent reality tv show, was bland and ridiculously long for no reason. Several of the stories address the reader directly, like a how-to manual on a variety of subjects and customs, but after what I just described above, I honestly didn’t care. Zzzz.

I couldn’t wait for these stories to be over, which says a lot about a book that’s only 185 pages long. I understand that the author is satirizing a well-worn stereotype of Old South gentility, but it’s way overdone and the women in these stories are far too cliched to ever be taken seriously.

I imagine that people will either love or hate this book, appreciate the punchline that comes with it or roll their eyes in complete scorn. You can probably guess what my response to this book was. It simply was not my cup of tea. At all.

Review: Love and Other Wounds

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Review for “Love and Other Wounds” by Jordan Harper (2015)

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

This is a book that tries to swagger but isn’t as ‘hard’ as it thinks it is. Crime noir that’s very much in the same vein as Frank Bill’s “Crimes in Southern Indiana” (which I actually liked), but set in different locales and much much worse.

What this is: a collection of short stories with bad ass characters doing the same bad ass things with the same bad ass prose we’ve already read elsewhere. There’s redneck prison yard gangsters, men who breed dogs to die in fighting pits, criminals, hit men, meth addicts, etc, etc…by the third story I was bored out of my mind. It’s not so much the violent content that bothers me as much as the fact that there’s nothing new in this book, just the same old thin, worn out characters and plots in each selection, along with gratuitous amounts of blood and gore. This book is also littered with the n-word, as if it were a Quentin Tarantino movie, without any kind of context whatsoever and I hated every moment of it.

Lemme repeat: I actually like crime noir. I am not indicting stories about low-lives and their misdeeds, because they can be transformative. But this is not good crime noir. Harper goes beyond this label and calls his writing ‘thug lit,’ and while it may be the thing for some, I couldn’t stand this. At all.

Review: The Fever

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Review for “The Fever” by Megan Abbott (2014)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

(*sigh*)….3 stars, mates.

“The Fever” is a modern day tale that centers on a fictional small town, Dryden, during one particular winter in an unnamed state. Everything is seemingly perfect in Dryden until a popular girl, Lise Daniels, is suddenly afflicted with a violent seizure at school. One by one, the girls of Dryden succumb to the same mysterious illness–seizures, hallucinations, bouts of unconsciousness, etc. Teachers, students, parents, and health officials work themselves in a frenzy to get to the truth. What could be causing this affliction? Is it something in the soil? Mold in the school’s air vents? Some strange, but yet unknown allergy? Environmental pollution? A side effect of the HPV vaccine that the girls of the town are required to take? A mutated strain of STD?

These questions swirl around for most of the book, and in the middle of the storm is Tom Nash, a teacher at Dryden High, and his two children, his daughter, Deenie, and son, Eli. Deenie’s best friend is Lise, the fever’s first victim. As the mystery illness continues to grip the community, all of Deenie’s circle of friends are affected. Will Deenie be next?

I loved the writing style of this book. The characters leapt out of the story, and Abbott manages to write some beautiful sentences, which kept me turning the pages. The story is told in the alternating perspectives of Tom and his two kids, which I didn’t mind, although the POV changed almost constantly–every half of a page or so. It’s hard to tell a story when it’s continually shifting POVs, but Abbott actually does an ok job of this.

My beef: the pacing, though. My God, this was slow. By page 150 I have to admit that I didn’t give a damn about what the cause of the illness was anymore. Nothing really significant happens after the halfway mark for the next 100 or so pages until the truth is revealed at the end. It’s a drag to read, so I skimmed about 75 or so pages of this book. Voilà.

Interesting sidebar to this novel: there was a spirited discussion for a while on Goodreads about whether this is a YA book or not. Personally, I feel it is not. This book has no business anywhere in the YA genre. Although it does feature teenage narrators and characters having sex and falling in love and lust, it doesn’t center on those themes as much as it does the dysfunctional nature of the community around them. There’s more of a ‘noir’ kinda feel here, a modern-day version of ‘The Crucible.’ So un-YA like, if you ask me…

I’d recommend this book if you like stories of lust filled teens and slightly twisted tales of suburbia.

Review: The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things

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Review for “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things” by J.T. Leroy (2001)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I’ve decided that I don’t care about the controversy or authorship ‘hoax’ that surrounds this book. I treated it as fiction from the start, because I strongly doubt the intelligence of anyone who would really think that a 16-year-old wrote this book. If you want to read about how a smart middle-aged woman fooled a bunch of dumb hipsters with her supposed ‘autobiography’, a quick Google search of “J.T. Leroy” will fill you in on all the details. It is an interesting story, though. Shit, even I have to admit that I LOL’d…

Anywho, “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things” is a set of interconnected short stories that follow the life of a young boy named Jeremiah, or in this case, J.T. Leroy. In the first few pages, Jeremiah is stolen by his drug addicted, prostitute teenage mother, Sarah, from his foster parents’ custody. The majority of the book follows young Jeremiah’s life with Sarah (on the streets, traveling the country as a lot lizard) and without her, where he is consistently abused by evil people in the most evil of ways. He depends on Sarah even as he is abandoned by her time and time again, leaving him with a desperate need to be loved by anyone, no matter the cost.

With that being said, I don’t know if I was quite ready for the sheer volume of controversial subject matter here. As a book reviewer, I pride myself on having reading nerves of steel: fearless, unafraid, and unbothered by the most taboo of subjects. Little did I know that I would eat my words with this novel, because this one puts ‘disturbing’ in a completely different category altogether.

I won’t spill all the beans here but I will say that in terms of content this book is pretty much a snuff film on paper. There are graphic, detailed descriptions of physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, incest, scatological references–you name it, it’s there. There is nothing at all enjoyable here in terms of descriptions, settings, or characters. The horror, the abuse, and the bleakness of Leroy’s book is constant and unrelenting. There are some traces of great writing here, but it’s diminished by the author’s love of shock value. Therefore, I didn’t care for this at all.

I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you have a super-strong tolerance for gore and the darkest parts of human nature.

In the end, thank God this was a short read.

Thank God this book was fake.

Whew.

Review: Everything I Never Told You

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Review for “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng (2015)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”

Like some other online reviewers have stated, I can’t say that I enjoyed reading this book either. The first line (above) grabbed me completely, but the more I read, the more difficult to read it became: the consistent tragedy, the loss, the heartbreak. While I did not give this book five stars (I would have have to had to have loved reading it for that rating), it is a solid four stars, hands down.

This story is set in the 1970’s in small town Ohio, and follows several years in the life of a Chinese American family with three children–Nath, Lydia, and Hannah. James, their father, a man of Chinese decent born in the US, feels compelled to fit in, a feat he never accomplished as a child. Marilyn, their Caucasian mother, wants desperately to achieve her dream of becoming a medical doctor, a dream that she reluctantly gave up to become a mother. As their children get older she and James obsessively transfer their desires upon their middle child, Lydia, who becomes the obvious favorite of their family. Meanwhile, Nath and Hannah are just satellites that revolve in the background, overlooked and ignored.

It’s hard to read this book. Your heart breaks for Nath and especially Hannah, who is completely oblivious to the entire family throughout most of the book. This is to say nothing for Lydia, who feels so emotionally hampered by the burden of her parents’ expectations that she is eventually driven to do the unthinkable.

What I loved about this story was its omniscient narration–the story constantly switches between the perspectives of the parents, each one of their children. You don’t like them very much but through the flashbacks you learn about about James and Marilyn’s pasts, as well as how and why they eventually go on to break the hearts of all of their children.

Ng develops the story perfectly. You learn everything about this family, inside and out–the thoughts in their heads, the place settings at their kitchen table. I cannot say that I would read this again, but I do recommend it. It’s an excellent book.

 

Review: The Last Girl

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Review for “The Last Girl” by Joe Hart (March 2016)

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Didn’t care too much for this. The premise is interesting enough–a virus has led to a dramatic decline in the numbers of female births, reducing them worldwide to zero. The remaining girls are locked away in a facility where they are bred to repopulate the earth. This isn’t a spoiler, because honestly anyone reading this could have come up with the same conclusion within 5 minutes of reading this book. Zzzz.

Zoey, the main character, is a completely unbelievable character. For a person locked in a facility for most of her existence away from normal human contact, she seems to have an excellent knowledge of weapons (okkkkay) and her shooting ability is dead-on. The author explains the progression of the girl-destroying virus through the narratives of several other characters, but you don’t care about these people and honestly about 100 pages could have been cut from this book and it wouldn’t have suffered. The science here is kind of weird too. Isn’t the sex of a baby determined by the father? Hmm…

In addition to that, this entire book is written in a funky kind of present tense that I didn’t like. Example: She reaches out, wishing she could smash the protrusion of the calendar off the wall but knows they’ll just put another one up, and an act like that would earn her time in one of the boxes. I’m all for alternative points of view, but to read an entire book where it’s written like this makes you wonder if she’s in the process of doing something, just thinking about it, or if she even did it at all.

I imagine that plot comparisons to Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and P.D. James’ “Children of Men” are inevitable here, though this book isn’t even in the same league. I am also wondering why the author insists on continuing this book as the first of a trilogy. Then again, I’m not surprised, as it seems to be trendy for all dystopian YA, whether it’s good or not these days to be part of a trilogy (Hunger Games, Divergent, the 5th Wave, etc). Whatever.

[NOTE: This copy was provided to me from the publisher and Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.]