Review: I Am Still Alive

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Review for "I Am Still Alive" by Kate Alice Marshall (2018)

Review: 4 out of 5 stars

This was between three and four stars for me. Gary Paulsen’s “Hatchet” meets The Revenant. It’s a compelling read, but not quite what I expected.

When the story begins, Jess, a 16 year old girl, has been sent to the Canadian wilderness to live with her father whom she barely knows. She has recently lost her mother in an automobile accident, the same which has left her without the full use of her legs. She struggles to adjust to life in the remote wilderness where one must live off of the land and only way in and out is via plane. She learns a bit about hunting and fishing through her father and begins to build somewhat of a bond with him until he is killed by two mysterious visitors to their cabin. The men burn the cabin down, not realizing that Jess and her dad’s dog, Bo, are in the woods hiding. For several months, Jess is left on her own, finding food and shelter and surviving in the wilderness. Eventually she discovers the reason behind her father’s death and plots out a plan for revenge.

Essentially, this is a survival story. There is the revenge element, but that plot is not in play until late in the novel. For the first 2/3rds of the book, we are reading about Jess being cold, wet, in pain, and just hating her life in general. While I’m not gonna call her a whiner (hell, I’d be whining too!), I will say that not much happens early on in this book beyond descriptions of her misery. It’s cool–just not quite what I expected. I did keep reading though. Not for the survival stuff, but for the kick-ass revenge part.

I’m not in a rush to recommend this, unless you like survival stories.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Notable Book Mashups

Ok, so today’s Top Ten Tuesday is technically “Books You’d Mash Together.” Since no one is paying me to write fiction ideas here, I’m going to suggest a few plot mashups that I’ve found noteworthy over the past few years.

  1. I Am Still Alive – Kate Alice Marshall. Currently reading this, it’s about a teenage girl surviving in a remote section of Canadian wilderness after the murder of her father. Mashup: The movie The Revenant and Gary Paulsen’s novel “Hatchet.”
  2. I Stop Somewhere – T.E. Carter. I personally didn’t like this book, but it’s deals with sexual assault, its aftermath, and the afterlife. Mashup: Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones” and Jay Asher’s “Thirteen Reasons Why.”
  3. The Ritual – Adam Nevill. Four buddies go hiking in the wilds of Scandinavia and find a murderous Satanic cult. I read this book long before it became a semi-scary movie on Netflix, btw. Mashup: The Blair Witch Project (minus the irritating teenagers) meets Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn” meets The Wicker Man meets Deliverance.   
  4. Boo – Neil Smith. A young boy wakes up in heaven, then discovers that he was the victim of a school shooting. Even worse, his killer may also be in heaven. Mashup: Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones” and Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

        Not Quite Mashups, but Similar in plot…

  5. City of Saints and Thieves – Natalie Anderson —–> Ocean’s 11 (film)
  6. Crimes in Southern Indiana – Frank Bill ——> any episode of “Breaking Bad”
  7. The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir – D. Watkins ——> HBO’s “The Wire”
  8. Bleed Like Me – Christa Desir ——-> Sid and Nancy (film)
  9. The Fates Will Find Their Way – Hannah Pittard ——> Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Virgin Suicides”
  10. Brother – Ania Ahlborn ——> The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (film)

Review: My Year of Rest and Relaxation

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Review for "My Year of Rest and Relaxation" by Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I’ll say this and I’ll say it again–at this point in my life I will read anything that Ottessa Moshfegh writes. I’ve read all of her novels (McGlue, Eileen, and her short story collection Homesick for Another World) and I consider them not just reading, but something that, for me, is more of an experience. You find yourself entering another world through her words, a parallel universe. Most of the time the universe that Moshfegh writes about is full of ugly and repulsive people who are trapped somehow–in drinking, drugs, self-loathing.

“My Year of Rest and Relaxation” follows the same theme of unlikable characters that Moshfegh is known for. The unnamed narrator is young, thin, blonde, and pretty and reminds you of this every 10 pages or so. She is wealthy, lives in a great apartment in NYC and works in a hip art gallery. However, she is depressed. Under a “mask” of having it all, she grows up with cold and unloving parents. Her boyfriend treats her like a doormat. The one friend that she has, Reva, is not really her friend, but a punching bag for her passive-aggressive anger.

In response, the narrator decides to take a year off to sleep, and, in her words, ‘hibernate.’ She finds a psychiatrist in a phone book and tells elaborate lies to get every drug imaginable to sleep and stay that way. For an entire year, the narrator exists in this dreamlike, comatose state of waking, sleeping, recalling periodic visits with her friend, watching old movies, pondering the past, and sleeping some more. She comes up occasionally for air to get coffee, or realize that she’s done weird things while under (partying, shopping, talking to strangers online, etc). When she emerges from her year of sleep, the results are quite profound and (dare I say it) bittersweet.

As with Moshfegh’s last novel, Eileen, the plot is not the strong suit here. This is more of a character study with a depressed, highly unlikable character at the center. As with Moshfegh’s other novels, I could not stop reading this book, even as the character’s behavior completely repulsed me. That’s the gift of this writer though, she makes the ugly somehow appealing.

Definitely read this one. 5 stars.

Review: Fever Dream

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Review for "Fever Dream" by Samanta Schweblin (2017)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The experience of reading “Fever Dream” is like sitting in a room with a blindfold on. You can’t see anything but you can definitely feel emotion–fear, anger, dread. Every now and then the blindfold lifts and you get an image of Something, but it’s indistinct and unexplainable. You sit in the dark some more and you get another image, different from the last one. Eventually you attempt to put together what you’ve seen into a narrative, but you can’t. It’s unsettling and wild. Confusing.

It’s hard to describe this novel because it really isn’t about anything. On the surface it is about a young mother, dying in a hospital. Her daughter is missing and she is not sure how she got there. The entire book is a conversation between this woman and a little boy who is not hers about what has happened to her and her daughter. But you know that that’s not really it, it’s just window dressing on a deeper layer of meaning. Through the bits and pieces of the conversation between these two characters you get that this book explores parental fear, transference and counter-transference, environmental contamination, issues of trust, and some heavy duty psychoanalysis. The dialogue between the main character and the little boy is maddeningly circular and strange. It’s weird, but I was totally in for the ride.

I’ve said here before that books that are confusing are not good ones. After reading this, I realize that I may need to walk back that statement. There is so much to unpack here that I will probably reread this, and I’ll be happy when I do that. “Fever Dream” is definitely worth reading, but be aware that it is not a traditional story with neat characters, a detailed plot, and a conclusive ending. This is bizarre and murky and all over the place. If you are into dark and somewhat experimental reads and don’t mind doing a little brain work, I recommend this.

This is a short book, so I would advise letting it hit you all at once. Read it in as few sittings as possible.

Review: The Mars Room

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Review for "The Mars Room" by Rachel Kushner (2018)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

It took me almost a month to read this book. Based on its glowing reviews and my initial enthusiasm when I first picked it up, this should have been a book that I breezed right through. It wasn’t.

“The Mars Room” opens with the story of Romy Hall, a single mother shackled on a bus and headed to a remote women’s prison in California to begin two life sentences without parole. In the time before, we learn that her young life was full of trauma and neglect–drugs, hustling, and working as a dancer at a strip club that bears the book’s title, The Mars Room. The novel begins with details of Romy’s adjustment to prison life, the harsh conditions of confinement, and the connections she makes on the inside. Interspersed with Romy’s narrative are the stories of other characters in the facility and beyond: Sammy, her cell mate, Gordon, a teacher in the prison who falls for Romy, Doc, a crooked cop in a separate facility that’s loosely connected to the story’s events, and at last, Kurt, Romy’s victim.

The story started out well, but as it continued I found it harder and harder to engage with. Romy, in my opinion, was far too distant and aloof. There is a sense of empathy that you feel for Romy’s circumstances, but nothing was felt as far as a personal connection to her. The other perspectives fare no better—they absentmindedly jump around between first and third pov’s in short, vignette-style chapters. Also problematic was the reason behind the inclusion of several of them–Doc, for instance (as I mentioned before, he is only loosely connected to the events of the story). There are also excerpts from Ted Kaczynski’s diary, lengthy quotes from Henry David Thoreau. I’m still not sure what either of those perspectives were doing here.

There are also plot events that were so predictable that I knew how they would play out before even starting the book. Beyond setting up the basics of the story, nothing significant seems to really happen until the end and by then it’s too much, too late.

And finally…I know that women in prison make great stories, but it bothers me that this novel really doesn’t break any new ground here. What I’m saying is that there really isn’t anything in this book that we haven’t heard or seen already that hasn’t appeared in an episode of “Orange is the New Black.” What, then, is the point of this novel? If it is to stress how women on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale end up incarcerated, then we are already well familiar with this through investigative reporting on this issue, OITNB, and a multitude of other books out there. If it is to make a larger point beyond this (hence the inclusion of Kaczynski and Thoreau), then count me among those that simply didn’t get “it.”

Overall, I think that “The Mars Room” is a book with a lot of potential but doesn’t really have anything new to say.

I rate this as 3 stars, and that’s being more than nice.

Review: How to Love a Jamaican

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Review for "How to Love a Jamaican" by Alexia Arthurs (2018)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

“How to Love a Jamaican” is an engaging collection of eleven short stories from debut author Alexia Arthurs. These are not your “typical” immigrant stories, however. Arthurs is not afraid to delve deeply into the lives of her characters and discuss complex issues of sex, class, and race both in Jamaica and within the lives of Jamaicans living in America.

All of these stories are about Jamaicans and cover a wide variety of their lives–male and female, straight and gay, old, young, and middle aged, on the island and in America. The characters are not linked, but this is definitely a cohesive collection of stories. In “Mash Up Love,” a set of identical male twins vie for the attention of their mother and loved ones. “The Ghost of Jia Yi” is about a young college student’s adjustment to America and her realization that she is an outsider. “Light Skinned Girls and Some Kelly Rowlands” is about the class conflicts within a friendship between two college girls, one Jamaican born, the other U.S. born with Jamaican born parents. “Bad Behavior” is about a free-spirited teenage girl sent to the island for disobeying her parents, with the hope that her stern Jamaican grandmother will ‘straighten’ out her wayward behavior. I also liked “Shirley from a Small Place,” about a Jamaican American pop star who finds international success and deals with the pitfalls of fame.

It’s hard to choose a favorite story here, I really liked every single selection. Even though the stories share similar themes, there were no repeats and not a single word was wasted.

4.5 stars. I will definitely read the next thing that Alexia Arthurs writes.

[NOTE: An electronic copy of this book was provided by the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Top Five Book Moments

Ahh, memories. This is a good topic this week…

Certain books will always remind you of the past and the time period of your life you were in when you read it. I’ve listed a few that make me a bit nostalgic for that special moment.

Top Five Books That Are Linked to Special Moments in My Life

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Frog and Toad Are Friends – Arnold Lobel
This is one of the very first books I remember reading when I was a kid.
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“I Can’t,” Said the Ant – Polly Cameron
Another book that makes me misty-eyed. I remember my Dad used to read this book to me and my younger sister every night before we went to bed. He used to do different voices for each character, and we both thought that was the greatest thing in the world.
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Hamlet – William Shakespeare
Hamlet has always been my favorite Shakespeare play, ever since I read it in high school. I remember reading this out loud when I was pregnant with my son, hoping he would “hear” it and the words would soothe him during the evenings when he would kick me like crazy. He is now a teenager and he loves to read, so I think that this book was an excellent choice.
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Ariel – Sylvia Plath
I first came to know about Plath when I was in 7th grade. I remember reading one of her poems (ironically entitled “Spinster”) and at that moment being really, really moved by it. I went to the library and looked up some of her other poems, and from there it became an obsession. I did my undergraduate thesis on Sylvia Plath. I’m very proud of that work.
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The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison’s first book. This was the book that truly “awakened” me to the world of Black literature (before this point my reading was mostly White/European authors) and women’s literature. I read this book and thought: this is what I want to read and write about for the rest of my life. And it’s still the topic that I’m writing about today.
The ID Channel calls,
Kellan