Review: When We Were Animals

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Review for “When We Were Animals” by Joshua Gaylord (2015)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Hmm…this is a very weird book. Weird in a good way, though, and well worth the read.

The story takes place in a small Midwestern town named Polikwakanda, where teenagers run wild every full moon for three days while their parents and the rest of the town’s citizens lock themselves safely inside their homes. This occurrence, called “breaching,” lasts for three straight nights during each full moon. The town’s teenagers leave their homes and fight, vandalize property, run in the woods, have sex orgies, etc. The reason why it only happens in this town is never explained (though an ancient Native American curse is hinted at), but we come to understand that “breaching” is a sort of rite of passage for the town’s citizens that begins at the onset of puberty.

Lumen, the main character, is a teenage girl living with her father (her mother died when she was an infant). She believes she is morally good, and that she will not breach. She is intelligent and an awkward late bloomer, ostracized from her peers as she watches all of her classmates begin to breach around her. Pretty soon, she finds herself escaping out of her bedroom window during full moons and doing the naughty, forbidden things she believes she will never do.

Early on in the novel we learn that Lumen is now Ann Borden, a middle aged woman who is married with a young son. The majority of this story is told in flashbacks, with Lumen narrating her story from the present day. As an adult and as a teenager she feels like an outsider, still coming to terms with the events of her past.

I read a review on GoodReads that described this book “another version of Twilight,” and I completely disagree–this is nothing of the sort. There is a romance here, but it’s not the centerpiece of the novel. Although the main character is a teenager through most of the book, I would not describe this as YA, this definitely an adult novel. There are supernatural elements here that could place it in the werewolf/vampire/horror genre, so I’ll leave it there.

This is ultimately a coming of age story, with deep philosophical questions. How do we reconcile our most primal urges (sex and the desire to do violence) with rational ‘human’ behavior? At what point do we lose the ‘mask’ we construct for ourselves and be who nature intended us to be? This book explores those questions and several more in a very thorough and insightful manner. There’s a lot of darkness here and the main character’s very name (Lumen) means ‘light.’ The Freudian implications of this book are fascinating and so far from the banality of “Twilight” that to compare the two is complete foolishness.

Please read this book. You won’t be sorry.

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Review: Mosquitoland

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Review for “Mosquitoland” by David Arnold (2015)

Rating: 1.25 out of 5 stars

Meh.

I didn’t like this book. I read about 100 pages, put it down for a week, and still just…meh. The last 100 pages I skimmed through, I gave no fucks…

Anyway, “Mosquitoland” is the story of Mim (an acronym for Mary Iris Malone), a 16 year old girl living in Jackson, Mississippi with her newly-remarried father and stepmother. Her mother, the reader quickly learns, is reportedly sick and living in Ohio. Mim overhears her father and stepmother discussing her mother’s illness and proceeds to take a stash of cash and catch a Greyhound bus to her mom in Ohio. What follows as Mim goes on an almost 1,000 mile journey is a series of misadventures that I won’t go into for fear of spoiling the book, but she does meet several people along the way–some nice, some not so nice–and somehow manage to reach her destination. In the end she learns a lot about herself and the meaning of family.

The book would have been mildly enjoyable if it had not been for Mim herself. Mental illness is alluded to as the source of Mim’s problem, but it’s never definitively confirmed. She is sarcastic, but she’s so overwhelmingly negative about everything (her parents, her life, the people around her, etc.) that her particular brand of sarcasm never grew on me. Mim is very much like that bratty grade school kid you all know (only ten years older) who has no filter: many times in the story she was just plain obnoxious towards the people around her or just flat out rude altogether. I understood that living with her dad and stepmom in country bumpkin-ville wasn’t her cup of tea…but sooo many times in the story I wanted to roll my eyes and yell at her to get over herself. Sheesh.

Plotwise, this book is all over the place. In addition to the road trip, a large portion of the story is letters she writes in her journal and general retellings of past events. Honestly I was done with Mim’s (aka the author’s) Holden Caulfield-esque posturing in the first 50 pages. I kept reading because, in the end, I guess I just wanted someone remotely likable here. Pfffft.

Apparently, I am in the minority with not liking this book. It is currently receiving overwhelming praise by readers on Goodreads and has received a “Best Of 2015” nomination there. I can certainly understand why this is, Mim is somewhat of a manic pixie dream girl character with a hell of a story. In the end, it’s just not MY kind of story. I generally don’t care for road trip novels and this one was no exception.

The cover art is stunning, however. I’ve always wanted to climb on top of a moving vehicle and write. Yassss!

Review: Finding Hope

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Review for “Finding Hope” by Colleen Nelson (scheduled to be published in April 2016)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Closer to 1.75 stars, because “Finding Hope” didn’t do it for me.

I won’t spoil this book with small details because there’s still quite some time left before its scheduled publication date. In a nutshell though, this novel focuses on Hope and her brother Eric, teenaged siblings who live in a small town in Canada with their parents. Eric is a promising soccer star with a bright future until he becomes entangled in a vicious meth addiction and gets kicked out of the family home. Meanwhile, Hope is sent to a private boarding school where she falls in (and quickly out) of favor with a cadre of mean girls. Their lives intersect at the most unlikely moment and Hope and Eric both make choices that impact their futures.

The story is told in the alternating POVs of Hope and Eric. This book is all over the place and a lot of topics are covered: sexual abuse, bullying, drug addiction, homelessness, etc. Hope is naive and an enabler of Eric’s addiction, stumbling into one bad choice after another at her new school. Eric’s chapters are far more compelling than Hope’s, but the one thing that got me here was the bland storytelling, the predictable plot lines. There’s nothing in this story that you don’t see coming a mile away. Although I sympathized with both characters, they became quickly forgettable once I turned off my Kindle. There’s nothing the author does here to draw you to either of them beyond just a general understanding of their respective situations.

Wouldn’t read this again, but am open to reading more from this author. On a lighter note, I love the cover art of this book. BEAUTIFUL!

[Note: I received this advanced publisher’s copy from NetGalley and Dundurn Press in exchange for an honest review. :-)]

Other note: TOMORROW, NOVEMBER 29 IS MY BIRTHDAY!! YAYYY! I won’t tell you how old I am, other than to say that I have long been old enough to call myself a true “80’s baby.” I’ll pretend it’s my 32 birthday again, for the umpteenth time. Ha!

Review: Bad Sex

Ok, so I showed you my fresh-in-the-mail copy of this book last week. Here’s the review…

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Review for “Bad Sex” by Clancy Martin (2015)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Hmm, I read this one in a few hours last week. First impression after finishing: a familiar, but a very dark story.

Bad Sex is about a wealthy woman named Brett who breaks her sobriety and begins to drink again after she begins an affair with her husband’s banker. Eduard (the guy she’s having an affair with) doesn’t necessarily encourage Brett to drink, but he doesn’t discourage it either. Their sexual encounters are very detailed and often include really violent sex (some scenes were quite appalling–I’m surprised no one called the cops). Her husband discovers the affair and kicks her out of their home, and Brett continues with Eduard in a downward spiral of black outs, drinking, and ridiculous behavior.

The writing here is very minimal and told in short chapters. It reads more like a collection of vignettes than a novel, almost as if you are looking at a photo album of an alcoholic’s life. Brett is a highly unlikeable character–she’s rude, obnoxious, and extremely narcissistic. At times I found myself literally rolling my eyes and thinking: Really, bitch? The choice to make this book short was a wise one, as I don’t think I could have put up with reading about any more of Brett’s antics after 182 pages.

Despite everything, I just don’t think this was the book for me. The writing is good but I was literally counting down the pages until it was over, it was so disturbingly uncomfortable I just wanted it to be finished.

[NOTE: I received a publisher’s copy of this book from Tyrant Books in exchange for an honest review.]

Oh yeah…Happy Turkey Day everyone! Gobble, gobble, gobble!

 

 

Review: Beasts of No Nation

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Review for “Beasts of No Nation” by Uzodinma Iweala (2006)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is a story that hits you like a grenade. I watched the movie on Netflix and was blown away by the actors’ performances, I cried so much watching it that I knew that I HAD to have this book. It’s short (less than 150 pages) but it took me over a week to read it. The events that are described within it are, in no uncertain terms, some of the most horrific experiences I’ve ever read about. The events are achingly close to the movie adaptation, but the book’s descriptions of the violence was a lot more brutal. The narration was somewhat hard to understand at first because the main character speaks a special kind of “broken” English that took some getting used to. By the third page, however, the character began to make perfect sense, with a cadence that made his words abundantly clear.

This is not a book for the weak-hearted. There were times during the week when I was reading this when I had to put it down, back away, get some air (literally), and come back to it later. It is heartbreaking, tragic, and terrifyingly real. It is the story of Agu, a child in an unnamed African country that is currently in the grips of a civil war. We are never told exactly how old he is, though some clues point to the fact that he is not yet a teenager–perhaps 12, or maybe 13. His mother and sister are taken away to safety in the beginning, he never sees them again. He watches his father murdered shortly thereafter. He hides in the wilderness until he is recruited (well, take that back: forced) to join a rebel army and fight against the insurgency. At first he is quite disgusted by the violence he witnesses, but after a while, he describes taking part in the rapes, murders, and act of burning villages with the same nonchalance as any other enjoyable childhood activity he takes part in.

Agu is morally conflicted: throughout the novel he constantly tells himself (and you, the reader) that he is a good boy, with some degree of moral sense against the acts he takes part in. He tries over and over again to convince his conscience that the violent acts that he is forced to commit are good and proper. You get angry with Agu (a lot, actually) throughout the story, but you remember that he is just a child, a pawn used by evil men. We hate that he does bad things, but what choice does he have? It is clearly a kill or be killed situation. The end does bring some promise of a future for Agu, but you still fear for him as you wonder what kind of effect these experiences will have on his adult life.

So, with that said, why am I rating this five stars? Well, because this is a story that NEEDS to be told. As Americans we complain about bad traffic and too much goat cheese in our salads, yet hardly half a world away children are forced to become a part of brutal acts that are beyond our wildest imaginations. It has become way too easy to turn on the news and hear about ‘those people,’ to donate money and shake our heads in pity and rest assured in our first world lives that these types of atrocities will never happen to us. We view childhood as a time of innocence, but in the wrong hands, we forget that it is actually pretty easy to turn a child into an efficient killing machine.

So, needless to say, I recommend this book. Agu is a special character that stays with you for a long time. Hopefully he will spur you to change your outlook on the world, or at least to learn count your blessings.

Review: Bird Box

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Review for “Bird Box” by Josh Malerman (2014)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Wow….

I read this book like a ravenous wolf.

I read this book in a doctor’s office, with sunglasses on and a chemically dilated right eye due to a corneal infection.

It hurt to read this book. But man, it was so worth it.

This book is post-apocalyptic fiction at its best. As is typical of this genre, this book begins with an Event which kills most of the people on the planet. Detailed specifics of the Event are never given, but referred to as the “Russia Report,” a phenomenon that involves people suddenly attacking and killing other people before killing themselves. Before each attack, the person reportedly sees Something that disturbs them so deeply that they are driven to madness. It spreads across the Bering Strait from Russia and pretty soon the entire country’s population is decimated. The only way to protect yourself from the Something is by keeping your eyes closed.

The main character is a young woman named Malorie, whom we learn is hiding in a house somewhere in suburban Michigan with her two young children. The kids have never seen the outside world. Malorie has trained them to hear all kinds of sounds, because they are to be her ‘ears’ as she travels with them to a safer place. They must go by boat, and they must all be blindfolded to avoid seeing the Something that will drive them to madness.

This book goes back and forth between Malorie’s journey with her kids down the river to flashbacks of how she came to be in the house with her children four years before. Before the kids were born, she lived with several housemates who banded together, covered their windows, and stockpiled food in an effort to survive. What follows in these chapters is what made this book four stars instead of five for me–it’s your all-too-typical, post-apocalyptic survival fare. There’s worries over starvation, distrust among housemates, and of course, the ever present fear of the outside world. It is engaging to read, but it’s nothing extraordinary that we haven’t seen or heard already in a weekly broadcast of “The Walking Dead.” Next…

I did love this book, however. There is an ever present dread throughout the story that begins from the first few pages and doesn’t stop until the end. How far would you get in a post apocalyptic world without relying on your sight? The scare factor here isn’t in what you’re seeing, it’s what in the dark around the corner. Or in broad daylight, behind your shoulder. Or sitting right next you. Oh well. You get the picture.

I won’t give away any more of the book here. I won’t even tell you why it’s called Bird Box. But this is a hell of a book, and I heard its recently been greenlit for a movie version. Yay! But definitely DO read this first. Great writing debut by a first time author, a must read.

About that NaNoWriMo thing…

I didn’t win this year. Even though I am slightly crushed, I think I am ok with this.

My intentions were good. I planned for several weeks before–my plot, my characters. I started on midnight November 1st and went about writing MY novel. And it worked at first. Despite my work schedule, motherly duties, the general business of running my household I set aside time for my endeavor. Words flew from my fingers. I was killing it.

I wrote with wild abandon up to the second week, and then something happened.

I began to lose steam. Entering word counts, following schedules, typing X amount of words per day. It began to feel more like a chore than an enjoyable experience. So I stopped recording the word count and stressing about the looming date of November 30.

I am still writing. My novel isn’t dead. But it won’t be finished within the span of 30 days. While I applaud NaNoWriMo’s efforts in just getting people’s off their asses and writing, their 30 day window cannot contain me.

My novel will be finished when I need to finish it. It may or may not have 50,000 words, but it’s cool. It may not make sense either, but that’s ok too. I am writing, and that’s what’s important.