Review: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

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Review for “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” by Iain Reid (2016)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is a hard book to review because it is not a book for everyone. It’s a very dark story and its ending is completely and superbly ambiguous. Personally I loved its nebulous-ness, that there’s no right or wrong answers because it all depends on what your interpretation of the events were. This book is a great conversation piece, there’s even a website with a forum where you’re free to debate with other readers on what you think it was about. Now I’m not a genius here at 29chapters…but a book that keeps people talking about it after they read it whether it was good or bad is definitely a book to read, if for no other reason then to see what the damn fuss was all about. Conversation = good literature, nahmean?

To tell you detailed info about this story other than what you’ll find on the back cover or online is to give this book away, which is out of the question for this review. I will say that it starts off innocuously as a story of a young couple’s road trip, with an unnamed female narrator who is “thinking of ending things” with her boyfriend of several months, Jake. As she ruminates over their relationship, you get this weird feeling that things just aren’t “right.” Things get really really weird during their visit to Jake’s family’s farmhouse, weirder than ever on the couple’s way back from the farmhouse, and by the ending it was so freakin’ weird that I had to reread the last 50 pages just to understand and appreciate the brilliance of the weirdness that had just been presented to me. Cleverly interspersed within this story are conversations by other unnamed narrators on the aftermath of the two main characters involved. It’s beautiful.

This is not so much a book about what happens, but more about the atmosphere and the crazy tension you have to endure to get to the end. There is a sense of dread, of something terribly unsettling in the midst of events that at first seem completely ordinary. It is not fast paced, but a slow burn of a psychological thriller. You won’t see zombies, a killer in the woods with a bloody axe, or dead bodies. The freak-out here isn’t in what you’re seeing, but in what you’re not seeing: the human condition and what happens to the mind in the state of complete isolation.

At 224 pages, this is a short book. I would recommend reading it in 1 or 2 sittings, just because you don’t want to prolong the sweet agony of reading it any longer than you need to. Five stars here. If you read nothing else this summer, read this. Excellent!

Review: Firsts

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Review for “Firsts” by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn (2016)

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars

Man, this book sucks…

Possible spoilers abound. #sorrynotsorry

Mercedes (or, Mercy) Ayers is a 17 year old girl who provides a unique ‘service’ to the boys at her high school. Boys looking to get their first time awkwardness over with and ‘learn the ropes’ come to her for their first sexual experience. All she asks for in return is their secrecy and that they give their girlfriends the perfect first time, something that she herself never had. All goes well until she hits a snag with Zach, a boy who wants to be more than just an occasional a sex partner, and her best friend Angela, a ‘prayer group nerd’ whose boyfriend Charlie throws a monkey wrench into Mercedes’ life.

Lemme say this: I knew this book would be about sex. Sex scenes, sex positions, sex, sex, sex. I don’t have a problem with it, but the way it was executed was way over the top–particularly for a high school context. Like who would think there would be so many male virgins at ONE school, scared of how they would perform sexually? Mercedes also spends extensive amounts of time with other things sex related, like her lingerie collection (satin, leather, lace, negligees, etc). Dude, she’s seventeen. How does she know so much about this topic? Yeah, she’s no virgin, but the author portrays Mercedes as practically a porn star with specific knowledge on how to please each boy she takes on, based on his perceived attributes. Bitch, please.

As far as the character herself…make no mistake, girlfriend is a train wreck. Mercedes’ mom (not called Mom, but by her first name, Kim) is a liquored-up, Botoxed divorcee who’s never at home, her father abandoned the family long ago, and “her first time” was far less than ideal. The author spends a lot of time in this novel discussing Mercedes’ home life, trying to get you feel for her and to empathize with why she does the things she does. And I understand, I really do. But come on…I’m not saying Mercedes is a bad person for having sex (she does use condoms, btw) but did she really think she could have sex with a double-digit number of guys at one high school and for it not get out? And not just any guys, but OTHER PEOPLE’S BOYFRIENDS? Come on, now. I’m not one for slut-shaming, but you can’t blame an entire school for incurring their wrath upon her once they heard the truth about her side chick exploits…

I just can’t believe this book is anywhere near a realistic portrayal of the sex lives of high schoolers. I know it’s been a long time since I’ve been in high school, but still. No way.

Review: The Vegetarian

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Review for “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang (2016)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book is bananas…

To tell you too much about it is to spoil it, which I’ve decided not to do for the purposes of this review. However, this was a very well-written, eloquent story. I enjoyed reading Han’s words even if I didn’t really completely get the plot just because they invoked that kind of beauty.

The story centers on a typical Korean housewife, Yeong-hye, who, after having a series of violent dreams, decides that she is not going to eat meat anymore. Her husband, Mr. Cheong, is shocked at this revelation and does not know what he is going to do with her. From this point, there is a brewing conflict in their home which ultimately reaches into Yeong-hye’s immediate family and she goes into a downward spiral of madness and starvation (and a few more things I won’t reveal here) as a result.

This book is interesting in that it is split into three novella-length parts, and Yeong-hye is not the primary narrator of any of them. The first part is told by her husband, Mr. Cheong, the second by her brother in law, J, and the third by her sister (and J’s wife) In-hye. Only during the first section does Yeong-hye occasionally interject, but only to tell of the disturbing content of her dreams that lead her to give up meat. Each narrator has their own agenda, and the reader only knows of Yeong-hye though their lens.

This book is extremely short (less than 200 pages), but there was a LOT here. This is a book that ultimately I will probably end up reading again to fully understand, just because the plot was THAT heavy in symbolism and meaning. In here there’s brutal violence juxtaposed with beauty, complacency alongside action, and an reprehensible act involving a dog that truly gave me nightmares. I think this book grasps at a much larger message: how trauma in one person’s life ultimately creates ripples in a metaphorical pond that affects other people.

I must say though that now Han Kang is a writer that is on my radar. She has another book she’s written that is not available in the States that I am desperately trying to get a hold of now, and I eagerly anticipate more of her work to be translated into English.

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.

Review: The Girls

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Review for “The Girls” by Emma Cline (to be released in June 2016)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The summer of 1969. Evie, a 14 year old girl from a well-to-do family, is completely bored with her surroundings. Her parents are divorced: her mom is chasing after a new boyfriend, her dad off in another city. Evie’s best friend has abandoned her and she is desperately looking for a place to belong. She sees a group of hippie girls in a park, and it isn’t long before she becomes completely enamored with their queen bee, Suzanne. She invites her to the ranch, a commune with other misfits and their charismatic leader, Russell, and it becomes only a matter of time before Evie finds herself sucked into violent plot of revenge.

As you can guess from what I’ve told you of the plot, this book is loosely based off of the story of the Manson Family and the Tate/LaBianca murders they committed in the summer of 1969. This topic has been done before, so we all know the ending but what seems to be different about Cline’s book is that it really is about ‘the girls’–not so much the male’s relationship with his female followers, but the girls’ relationship with one another, with the leader assuming a peripheral role in the drama.

This is a beautifully written coming of age tale. Once I started reading it, I could not put it down. I read it in several days, only stopping because I had to go to class and to sleep. Cline accomplishes something here that a lot of authors don’t—an excellent sense of time and place. I felt like was really there back in the 60’s. The end was a bit flat, but the writing more than makes up for that.

Great debut novel. Can’t wait to read Cline’s next book!

[This copy was provided by Netgalley and Random House in exchange for an honest review.]