Review: Sputnik Sweetheart

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Review of “Sputnik Sweetheart” by Haruki Murakami (originally published in 1999, translated into English and published again in 2002)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

First off, lemme say that this wasn’t a bad book. Like other online reviewers have previously stated, I too think that the reason that I didn’t rate this book higher is because I’ve read too many Murakami books already (this one, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage, Norwegian Wood, After the Quake).

Murakami’s books are definitely an ‘acquired’ taste. One of the most frequent complaints about his writing is that it is dreadfully boring, but therein, in my opinion, lies the magic. Guys, this man has the power to make a damn phone book sound interesting. His characters are usually lonely men with well-paying jobs living with some kind of unrequited sexual desire, along with highly detailed minutiae of their lives. I am continually mystified by his ability to craft the ordinary written word into the extraordinary, because any other writer that would dares to write a book with subject matter this simple I would have stopped reading in 5 minutes flat.

So the basic outline of “Sputnik Sweetheart” is this: K is a lonely schoolteacher stuck in the friend zone with Sumire, a quirky wannabe novelist who’s currently in a writer’s block. Sumire falls in love with Miu, an older businesswoman, and eventually accompanies her on a trip to Greece. While in Greece, Sumire disappears, and K is left to discover through her writings what happened to her. He eventually concludes that Sumire will not return. The end.

There you have it again: same kind of character (K is a single guy, sexually frustrated up to the wazoo), same unrequited love issues (Sumire never gives him the time of day). I just think I’m tired of the parade of Murakami Manic Pixie Dream Girl characters this time. Sumire never seems to have a life of her own, beyond developing K’s awareness of well, whatever (still not sure of what, but hey). The ending is hopeless, as are most Murakami endings. I haven’t had enough of reading him forever, but for now I’m just…done this trope.

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Review: Girls Like Us

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Review for “Girls Like Us” by Gail Giles (2014)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Sooo…I cried while reading this book. That’s twice in one week now, and the week’s not even over with yet. Darn.

“Girls Like Us” is the story of Quincy and Biddy, two “Speddies” (their term for special education students) who graduate from high school at the same time and are placed in a living assignment together by a school caseworker. The girls live together in a small apartment above Miss Lizzy, a wealthy elderly woman, in exchange for cooking and cleaning and helping around the house with physical tasks. At the beginning of the story, Quincy and Biddy are not friends and are polar opposites. Biddy is white and, we learn, was born with her mental disability. Quincy, a mixed race girl, was ‘normal’ until around the age of 6 when she was physically assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend and brain damaged as a result. Biddy is shy and timid, and Quincy is outwardly aggressive and opinionated. Quincy is slightly higher functioning than Biddy and holds a job at a local grocery store, Biddy helps Miss Lizzy around the house. Eventually they settle into their lives together and uncover the pain of their pasts and work through the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse that they have endured.

This book is presented in alternating chapters between the perspectives of Quincy and Biddy. One of the problems with this technique in other novels is that multiple voices sometimes have a tendency to get muddled and begin sounding the same–but fortunately, this problem never once happened in this book. Ms. Giles does an excellent job of maintaining a clear, distinctive voice for both characters. There were colorful spellings and pronunciations that were spot-on, it was evident that Ms. Giles knows this population (a blurb in the back of the book says that she taught special education students for 20 years) and is familiar with the inner thoughts of special needs people.

Although this was a short book with simple narration, it is not an easy one to read. There were definite adult themes of physical and sexual violence. The characters’ stories were so heartbreaking that there were a couple of times that I had to close it and I almost didn’t finish. The author did a fantastic job of demonstrating the struggles of young people with disabilities. Powerful stuff.

Before I end this review, I wanted to say that I think the reason why this book was so powerful for me was because my mother was a special education teacher for over 25 years. She’s no longer in the classroom, but when she was, she taught students with severe mental and physical disabilities. I could see the stories of so many of her students reflected here. Her choice to work with the disabled is the reason why I will always have a heart for special needs people, because they deserve our compassion and respect. ❤

Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

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Review for “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” by Gabrielle Zevin (2014)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“We read to know we are not alone.”

I can’t stand books that intentionally seem to break out the violins and Kleenex just for the sake of inducing tears. I can’t love a so-so story simply because it is sad, its got to hold its weight in terms of an actual plot line and characters that actually DO something for me. This was one such exception.

This novel is the story of A.J. Fikry, a widowed curmudgeonly middle-aged man who owns an independent bookstore on a fictional small New England island. Sales are down, and A.J. spends most of his time chasing away his customers and drowning his sorrows in alcohol. He is content to live this life in this manner until one day when a mysterious customer abandons a small child in his bookstore. He eventually adopts the little girl, and his entire life turns around for the better.

This would be well and good if this book weren’t so, I don’t know…cheesy? There are several plot twists and turns that just seem to be there because they’re well…there. The dialogue all throughout was somewhat contrived, and the characters never rose above behaving exactly as they were ‘expected’ to. However, when I got to the end of this book, I was actually crying big ol’ crocodile tears.

This is ultimately a book lover’s book. Once you take this into context, the pieces of the story I didn’t like really did not matter in the grander scheme of novel. I chose the quote above to begin this review because aloneness and the desire to be a part of something is the reason I found hours of pleasure reading as a little girl, and thirty years later, it is the reason why I still love reading today. There are thoughtful literary references all throughout the book from stories that I’ve read before and I completely related to. This book takes the love affair that we book nerds have with indie book stores and ups the romance factor 100x, and for that reason (given that I now have to drive 30 minutes from home to find a bookstore that’s not connected to some corporate chain), this gets four stars from me.

This book is not perfect, but it’s a book that makes you feel wonderful, exciting things in wonderful, exciting ways. Yassss….

Review: The Longest Night

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Review for “The Longest Night” by Andria Williams (scheduled to be published on January 5, 2016)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Hmm. I can’t go any higher than 3 stars here.

This novel is a historical fiction, based on a true event, the only fatal nuclear reactor incident in the U.S, which occurred in Idaho Falls, Idaho on the night of January 3, 1961. “The Longest Night” is set during this period at the military outpost there, where Paul Collier, the main character, works at the nuclear reactor site. Nat, his wife, is a young stay at home mom with two little girls who has trouble fitting into the socially acceptable role of a military wife.

Most of the story focuses on the nuances of Nat and Paul’s marriage–its history, its breakdown, and his eventual deployment to a remote nuclear station in Greenland for 6 months. In the background is the impending failure of Paul’s assigned nuclear reactor, mostly due to the incompetence of Paul’s narcissistic boss. Also in the background is Nat’s brewing attraction to a local man, which turns their community against them and threatens to rip their family apart.

The writing here is fairly decent. Andria Williams does an excellent job of setting the time and place of the early 1960’s. I could literally feel myself sitting in Paul and Nat’s house, seeing things the exact way in which she described them. Both Paul and Nat are constrained by the stifling roles that society and the military have forced upon them, and the claustrophobic nature of their marriage is completely apparent here. But this claustrophobia and frustration is drawn out in such painstaking detail that I almost didn’t finish this. For a long period in the middle of the book nothing really happens, you’re just stuck with the mundane thoughts of Paul and the ordinary, everyday observations of Nat. The beautiful writing ultimately keep me pushing forward, even though I knew what would happen to this reactor (duh) and I kinda knew what would happen to this couple in the end. For a book so finely crafted, the subject matter was unengaging and the plot was woefully predictable.

I would be interested in reading more of Andria Williams writing, especially with purely fictional subject matter. I would not be surprised if this book ends up on “Best Of” lists or gets selected for multiple book clubs in 2016. To be a first time writer, she definitely has talent.

[NOTE: This e-book was provided to me by the publisher, Random House, and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: This Raging Light

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Review for “This Raging Light” by Estelle Laure (scheduled to be published in January 2016)

Rating 2 out of 5 stars

Special Note: This book is currently available on Amazon, although the publishers’ copy I have in my possession says “January 2016” as the scheduled publication date. For purposes of this review, I will go with the publication date of the copy that I was furnished with.

I struggled to finish this one. Well, ok…I kinda liked it. When I say that, I really mean that I think I liked the idea of it more than its actual execution on paper. So many things in this book just didn’t work for me.

Beware, spoilers abound (#sorrynotsorry)…

Lucille is 17, and her life is turned completely upside down when her mother decides she’s had enough and abandons her and her 9 year old little sister Wren to go “on a vacation.” Her father is in a mental hospital and the supposed cause of their mom’s breakdown. The book begins 14 days after their mother’s departure, with Lucille taking on the role of caring for herself and her sister without alerting anyone to the predicament they are in. She eventually finds a job and leans on her friends to care for Wren while she’s working in the evenings after school.

Which leads me into what I didn’t like about this book. Lucille gets herself into a complicated romance with Digby, her best friend’s twin brother who is very taken by someone else. Her best friend turns on her for some weird reason that’s never really explained. There’s drama at her job. There’s issues with her father, whom she visits several times in the story. There’s also some mysterious benefactor who seems to be aware of Lucille and her sister’s plight and keeps slipping in and doing nice shit around their house (leaving baked muffins, mowing the lawn). It’s far too many plot points and in the end NOTHING is truly resolved. Well, take that back–you DO find out who’s dropping off the damn muffins, but that’s about the only subplot that finds an ending here. Lucille’s mother’s abandonment is the lynchpin of this book, but the reader gets nothing as far as any kind of resolution to this.

The writing style of this book is a bit strange too. A lot of short, short sentences that left me struggling to understand what the author was trying to present the main character as. There is growth in the character of Lucille from the beginning to the end of the book, but I don’t know…I think I just wanted more here. Like perhaps why she is so ga-ga for Digby in the first place. Their relationship is really awkward, and Lucille seems to get no more in return than his general concern about her and her sister’s welfare. Weird, because when this book begins, the main character is quite love struck with this dude. Perhaps if this relationship had more of a backstory, then we’d get why he’s going through the trouble of cheating on his girlfriend with her. Otherwise, it just seems flat.

Ultimately I’m on the fence with this book. It should have been a good story, but it felt unfinished and I never really connected with any of the writing, the events, or any characters here.

[NOTE: I received a free copy of this book from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt as a giveaway through GoodReads. This was my honest review.]

Review: Happiness, Like Water

Merry, Merry Christmas ya’ll!!!

I love Christmas Break, as I get to do nothing but read (and write about what I read) for three straight weeks.

  
Review for “Happiness, Like Water” by Chinelo Okparanta (2013)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Man, this woman can write…

As much as I love short stories, short story collections are always hit or miss. You may find one or a few good stories amongst the pack, or several decent offerings. Very rarely are ALL of the stories in a collection each a strong, workable a piece of art. This book of stories is one of the few exceptions.

“Happiness, Like Water” has 10 short stories, mostly featuring Nigerian woman who are dealing with contemporary issues such as unhealthy relationships, homosexuality, societal pressures, and what it means to be modern African woman in Africa, or, in some cases, America. Each of these stories are unapologetically feminist, with each character in each story making some kind of choice for her own future and taking her own destiny into her hands. In some cases, the choice has disastrous consequences, but in others, the characters find some kind of lasting peace.

The powerful story “Runs Girl” was my favorite in this collection, which tells the story of a young woman’s choice to dabble in prostitution to find the money to cure her mother’s illness. “Wahala!” is the tale of a woman who visits a traditional healer to cure her infertility and is forced to endure painful sexual encounters with her husband in order to have a child to conform to society’s expectations. “Fairness” is about one girl’s quest to be beautiful through the use of a skin bleaching technique that has dangerous consequences. “Story! Story!” is a suspenseful tale of a young woman’s obsession, with a shocking conclusion.

Several of these stories seemed to be companion pieces, ‘twins,’ if you will–two halves of the same event. In “America,” a young teacher tries to get a visa to join her lover in the U.S. In “Grace,” the focus is a romance between an older, divorced African American professor and a young Nigerian woman who is expected to be married. “Shelter” is the story of a young immigrant mother and daughter’s quest to leave an abusive marriage, and “Tumours and Butterflies” picks up that same story 20 years later, with a daughter’s choice to abandon her familial obligations in the face of her father’s cruelty and her mother’s complicity with their abusive past. 

The weakest story here was the only with a male protagonist. As far as characters go, there is not much variety. There is a lot of sameness that gets somewhat repetitive–nearly all except the one mentioned above was about young women, usually serving in the education profession as a teacher. 

Overall, this is a strong collection. It is hard to believe that this is Okparanta’s first book, as she is definitely an author to watch. Her writing is good and descriptions of events are solid. She does have a full length novel that came out several months ago that I will read, and I’m excited to find yet another talented contemporary Nigerian writer (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, A. Igoni Barrett, Sefi Atta are others) that people NEED to be reading right now.

Review: Messed Up

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Review for “Messed Up” by Janet Nichols Lynch (2009)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Aww shucks, I loved this book.

R.D. is a 15 year old Mexican-American kid starting 8th grade for the second time. His father is out of the picture and his mother is long gone away, serving time in prison for a drug offense. He is taken in by his grandmother, but she suddenly leaves him with her boyfriend Earl to go off with another man, a biker. Earl is a kind man, a Vietnam veteran with “Agent Orange” who eventually cares for R.D. in his grandmother’s absence until he dies unexpectedly one day while R.D. is at school.

Even though this book begins with R.D.’s first (or second ‘first’ day) in the 8th grade, the real story starts after Earl’s death. His grandmother is unreachable in an unknown location, and the last thing R.D. wants is for Child Protective Services to get involved and take him away from the only home he’s ever known. R.D. vows to tell no one of Earl’s death and is forced to navigate the world as an adult in her absence–arranging his funeral, having no money for bills, shopping for food. He is also still a child so he also juggles typical teenage issues as well–meeting a nice girl, dealing with gang bangers, handling a crazy girlfriend, etc. There are a lot of subplots here (normally I don’t like a story that’s too complicated) but I did not seem to mind, as they were all completely necessary to show the onslaught of “real-world” decisions that a 15 year old is forced to make in the face of extraordinary odds.

On a personal note this book hit very close to home for me. I taught middle school for 10 years. In my career I saw hundreds of “R.D.’s”–children who have good intentions but due to a chaotic home life and situations that are completely beyond their control (interrupted schooling, poverty, parents who simply don’t give a shit) they lack the adult guidance and resources to make wise choices and be the ‘good’ students that we want them to be. They drift through school until they eventually drop out, usually around 16 or 17, and from there they become unfortunate statistics–caught in a cycle of chronic joblessness or criminals in the prison system. This story moved me to tears because I knew so many kids like this, and even though R.D.’s story ends on a happy note, dozens of them don’t.

When I looked on the back of the book and saw that the author was a middle-aged woman I was completely floored because her use of voice was extraordinary. R.D. talks like most kids do, for example, “says” is spelled “sez” and the observations that he makes about the world (which are pretty funny) are completely consistent with a child his age. Loved this.

I could picture this book specifically for picky teenagers who are reluctant to read because they complain that all books are “boring.”

Anyway, great reading experience. A+.