#24 The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See (2017)

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Li-yan lives a secluded life in the mountains of southern China. A member of the Akha ethnic minority, the upheavals of the Communist Revolution have left her isolated community relatively untouched, and her people still adhere to the ancient spirits and rituals that have been practiced for generations. But as the modern world begins to encroach on their lives, Li-yan and her family are all affected by the changes that begin sweeping into their quiet village.

I’ve been a big fan of Lisa See’s work since I read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan almost ten years ago. Her novels tend to focus on the lives of Chinese women and the struggles that they undergo, and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is no exception. It is a powerful story of the bonds between women and how even under the oppressive thumb of a strictly patriarchal society, women will always find a way to express themselves independently.

I had never heard of the Akha tribe before reading this novel, and I highly recommend that you do a little bit of research into this fascinating minority culture. The Akha managed to remain almost completely ignored by society until the 1990’s. Their belief system is a mixture of ancestor worship and animism, the idea that everything on Earth has its own spirit. Their lives are dominated by religion, omen, and tradition, and can seem incredibly backward to our “modern” sensibilities. During one horrific sequence early in the novel, we find out what happens when “human rejects” are born into the Akha community.

The protagonist of the novel, Li-yan, has been raised to believe the same things that her ancestors have believed for thousands of years. But then something happens that opens her eyes to the possibilities of the outside world. Li-yan goes to school. She learns to speak Mandarin Chinese, which makes her the designated translator when a stranger shows up in their village one day. The stranger is in search of a special kind of tea that can only be found in these isolated mountains, and according to him it is worth a fortune. This one event changes the course of Li-yan’s life. I won’t say anything further, but suffice to say that the repercussions of the tea-buyer reverberate down the years and even across the oceans.

It’s difficult to place a theme to this novel. It’s about the bonds of mothers to their daughters. It’s about the inevitable march of progress and how powerless we are to stop it. It’s about trying to find a sense of belonging in a world that is changing too quickly. One of the reasons I loved this novel so much was that it asked so many different questions, and offered a thousand possible answers in return.

This was yet another knock-out story by Lisa See. I highly recommend it.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

#23 V for Vendetta by Alan Moore (1990)

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A man known only as “V” begins a plan to bring chaos and anarchy to a Britain which has been taken over by an oppressive fascist regime. Sixteen year old Evey Hammond finds herself wrapped up in V’s plot and must decide where her loyalties lie. Meanwhile, the police detectives are trying to hunt down the terrorist before he can complete his goal of overthrowing the government.

Sometimes it’s really important whether or not you see the film or read the novel first. I saw the Wachowski sisters’ interpretation of V for Vendetta when it debuted in theaters in 2005, and it remains one of my favorite graphic-novel style movies. It sparked a fierce debate in my family about the definition of a terrorist versus a freedom fighter. It also gave us the memorable quote that “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people”. For a seventeen year old girl whose government had just invaded Iraq under false pretenses and was busy wiretapping everything in sight, this movie felt important. I went in knowing that the plot for the source material, Alan Moore’s hugely popular graphic novel, was very different. Maybe I just wasn’t prepared for how different it was.

The titular character in Moore’s novel is not a hero, nor is he fighting for a noble cause. At best he is an anarchist, who doesn’t seem to mind if innocent people get slaughtered next to the ones he has deemed guilty. He is manipulative and abusive towards Evey, who in the novel is an illiterate sixteen-year old who opens the novel by soliciting a man for sex. The Supreme Chancellor Adam Susan (Suttler in the film) is portrayed here as a mentally confused, weak minded man who relies solely on a highly advanced computer program to run the government. I much preferred the film’s interpretation of Suttler as a fanatically religious dictator.

I can admire the graphic novel for trying to highlight moral ambiguity and the prisons that people make for themselves. I’ve read a few of Moore’s novels, and his characters aren’t meant to be heroes. They’re meant to be fucked up individuals who are ultimately going to choose to further themselves over some noble idea of humanity. This is honestly a closer mirror to modern society, and Moore doesn’t shrink away from it. Taken on its own, away from the film adaptation, this is an amazing book.

I guess that I just felt deflated while reading it. Sometimes it’s nice to have heroes that are fighting for liberty and freedom as well as for revenge. It’s comforting to have a clear-cut idea of who the goodies and the baddies are. In 2018 as the world seem to be edging closer and closer to the abyss, I wanted the graphic novel to be a closer match to the film. The fact that it wasn’t is more a reflection on my current state of mind than a criticism of the novel itself.

My rating: 3/5

Note: It helps when reading this novel to have a basic understanding of British slang. Much like Mark Twain, Alan Moore writes the English language as it is actually spoken in that part of the world. One character has a thick Scottish brogue, and I actually had to read his dialogue aloud in order to figure out what he was saying.

You can find V for Vendetta here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

#22 Bird Box by Josh Malerman (2014)

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Something out there is driving people insane. If you catch a glimpse of it, you are suddenly filled with the need for terrible violence. This is the world now, where everyone lives behind blackout curtains and blindfolds, fearful of their own ability to see. Malorie and her two young children flee their house in hopes of a safer place, but it is not an easy journey. Twenty miles downriver, blindfolded with nothing but their ears to save them from the elements and the mysterious creatures that cause madness.

When I read books for this website, I tend to keep notes. I’ll jot down recurring themes, interesting characters, or quotes that I want to incorporate into my review. While reading Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, I didn’t take a single note. The story pulled me in completely from page one, and I read it straight through in a couple of days. At no point was I willing to break the web of suspense in order to write down quotes or thoughts. Bird Box completely enthralled me from beginning to end.

The idea of not being able to rely on your sight is not a new one, but Malerman takes the concept to a new level by using the mysterious “creatures” that can drive a person to madness with just one look. Whenever our characters have to venture outside, be it to get water or to search for food, they must do it blindfolded. These scenes are the most suspenseful in the novel, and I could feel my pulse racing as they stumble blindly through streets littered with debris and corpses.

There is also a human element to Bird Box that keeps the proceedings from becoming repetitive. You know how if there is a sign on a bench saying “Wet Paint”, there’s always going to be that one person who has to touch the bench to make sure it’s true? Picture that scenario, but instead of just getting paint in their finger, they run the risk of violent death for themselves and their companions. The people that Malorie eventually finds herself with try hard to work together, but at the end of the day clashing personalities and different ideas on leadership will ultimately lead to friction. How the housemates deal with this increasing friction in a stressful environment is a major theme of the book.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book to fans of the horror/thriller genre. I really enjoyed the experience.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Bird Box here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

#21 The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston (2017)

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The jungles of Honduras remain one of the few untouched environments left to us on Earth. Deep within this dark and dangerous rainforest, there is rumored to be a lost city, abandoned by a civilization that has remained undiscovered by modern society. In 2012, a group of scientists, archaeologists, filmmakers, and one journalist ventured into the jungles of Mosquitia in hopes of finding the lost White City.

The Lost City of the Monkey God opens with a very dramatic speech given by one of the team leaders. He details all the dangers that await the researchers as they begin the process of entering the untouched jungles of Honduras. The horrible diseases that are spread by insect bites. The fire ants and the spiders. Jaguars that could be waiting in low tree limbs. And the fer-de-lance, which is a snake I had never heard of and hope never to encounter. At one point, the narrator asks his readers not to Google the results of a fer-de-lance bite. I didn’t listen. I pass the warning on to you. Do not Google the results of a fer-de-lance bite if you hope to keep your lunch down.

After this promising introduction, The Lost City of the Monkey God spends the next one hundred pages slogging through the build-up that eventually brings the narrator into the jungles. The reader is given the history of the region and the legend of the lost city. The thick rainforest and high mountains have been a beacon for explorers for hundreds of years, and numerous expeditions have ventured into the area to search for cities to loot and pillage from the native tribes. The way that this modern team uses highly advanced lidar technology is really impressive, but other than that I was tempted to skim past the numerous descriptions of various failed expeditions.

The second part deals with the modern-day exploration of the region, and is easily the most interesting. The third part of the book deals with the aftermath. The fact that none of the team members escaped the journey without some kind of injury was a bit unsettling. I’ve always wanted to visit the jungles of South and Central America, but I might have to rethink that idea.

I’m going to be very honest and say that I’m having trouble writing this review because this book didn’t really leave much of an impression on me. Despite the scary descriptions of creepy-crawlies and drug cartels, I was never transported into Mosquitia. I never felt as if I were breathing the humid air of a thousand-year old jungle. It felt more like I was reading about it over someone else’s shoulder.

This book might have a very good future in an anthropology or archaeology classroom. It’s just not a book that I would want to curl up on my couch and read with a nice cup of tea.

Note: The city itself is rarely referred to as “The city of the monkey god”. It is more popularly known by locals as “Cuidad Blanca” or “White City”. My guess is that writer Douglas Preston correctly realized that titling his book “The Lost White City” sounded like white-nationalist propaganda.

My rating: 3/5

You can find this book here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

I Re-read a Bunch of Goosebumps Books and You Should Too!

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When I was young, I didn’t have many friends. My family moved around a lot, and I lived in four states before I was ten years old. I was always the new kid at school, and it didn’t help that I was awkward as hell. So I spent a lot of time in my childhood reading. My favorite place in any town was either the library or Barnes and Noble. To this day, I find the smell of old books to be incredibly comforting. Around eight years old, one of my absolute favorite books was R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. I was a horror fanatic from a very early age, and I gobbled up these short little books like candy. I had a huge collection of them which I prized greatly.

Fast-forward a few years, and I am heading off to university. I left all of my things, including my well-stocked bookcase, at my parent’s house. However, a few months later they decided to move again. They boxed up all my things and put them in the basement of their new house.

The basement flooded that year. Most of my childhood toys, clothes, and other mementos were ruined. Including all my books. It was devastating.

I open with this story not to depress you but to explain why now, as an adult, I am working to collect the entire Goosebumps series. It’s become a bit of a passion project, because as a lonely, socially awkward child, my books were my refuge.

Last week I took a trip to the local thrift shop and stumbled across a gold mine. Nearly twenty-five of the original Goosebumps books were sitting on the shelves, waiting for me. I bought them all and walked home with them shoved into a backpack. My husband, whose feelings towards my book hoarding can best be described as amused confusion, asked if I actually planned on reading any of them.

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So I did. I sat down and read twenty-five Goosebumps books over the course of five days. None of them will count towards my goal of reading one hundred books this year, but I’m ahead of schedule and wanted a break.

While I was reading, a made a few notes as to why I think these books were so popular for children in the ’90s. And why they can still be a good entry into chapter books for kids today.

  1. They’re scary but not too scary. I have always been obsessed with the horror genre. Books, movies, comics, anything. Goosebumps was probably my first foray into books that could be considered “scary”. And to a second or third grader, they are pretty creepy. Ghosts, vampires, werewolves, basically any classic monster has its place in Stine’s universe. He has an innate sense of how to chill his young readers without scarring them for life. His characters aren’t always brave, either. Sometimes they turn tail and run, just like we would. But at the end of the day, no one in the Goosebumps novels is ever in mortal danger. In Stine’s Fear Street series, which was written for an older audience, the characters often die. But the Goosebumps books are wonderfully innocent in that regard.
  2. For a child, the characters are someone to look up to. One thing that I never noticed as a kid was that every single main character in the Goosebumps books is twelve years old. Every single one. This was not an attempt to appeal to twelve year olds. By the time I was twelve I had long since moved on to Stephen King. No, R. L. Stine understood that children around seven to nine years old look up to and admire the “big” kids. Twelve is the perfect age for adventures. They’re not quite teenagers, but have more freedom than younger kids. They have the problem-solving skills that would generally allow them to behave properly in a scary environment. But they aren’t so old that they are preoccupied by the trials and tribulations of puberty.
  3. Their problems were our problems. Not the ghosts and werewolves. But a major running theme of the Goosebumps books deals with bullies. And annoying siblings. Unfair teachers and parents who don’t believe their children. Getting grounded. Being embarrassed in front of your classmates. All of the things that seemed to fill up the whole world when you were a kid. Everyone remembers the desperate unfairness of being a kid and having little power to change your circumstances. I was surprised by how strongly I responded to these children being bullied by their peers or older siblings. I think it would resonate just as much with today’s kids. Especially since the bullies or mean siblings always seem to get their comeuppance.
  4. The books are very predictable. This is important when you’re trying to encourage young children to read. Especially if you are also trying to scare them, but not too much. There are a few things that happen in every single book. At some point, one of the characters will say, “What could go wrong?” There will be a very scary sequence that turns out to be a nightmare. There will always be a heavy use of foreshadowing. And nearly every chapter ends on a cliff-hanger. As an adult, the cliff-hanger chapter comes across as terribly lazy. But for a child, it’s key. It keeps them reading. Keeps them engaged and turning the pages.

In the end, I had a blast reveling in childhood nostalgia with the Goosebumps books this week. I’m going to continue trolling my local Salvation Army with the hopes of eventually completing my collection. I’m looking forward to reading them one day to my own children. Hopefully we can all be scared together.

Happy reading everyone!

 

#20 Penpal by Dathan Auerbach (2012)

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Penpal is a series of interconnected stories that detail the creepy and mysterious circumstances surrounding a young boy’s childhood. As an adult, the narrator is beginning to understand that what seemed like random events from when he was a kid was actually a terrifying pattern centered around a madman.

Penpal has a rather interesting origin story. It began as an installment on reddit.com’s Nosleep forum. It was then picked up and recorded in audio form by the award-winning Nosleep podcast. The initial chapter became incredibly popular, and author Dathan Auerbach expanded his narrative to include additional chapters, eventually gathering enough to form a short novel. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Auerbach was able to self-publish this novel under his reddit name 1000Vultures in 2012.

I stumbled upon this book last autumn while I was scouring the internet for scary novels in anticipation of Halloween, and was immediately intrigued by the creepy-ass cover art. As an avid horror reader, I am well-acquainted with short-form scary stories on websites such as creepypasta. I love them because you can generally finish one installment in about ten minutes. You’re in, you’re scared, you’re out.

Unfortunately, this becomes the main problem with Penpal. The short-form horror format has limitations that make the transition to long-form narrative a difficult one. Penpal often comes off as disjointed. There is next to no character arc. There are major discrepancies between some of the different chapters. The primary meat of the story is preceded by a strange, obviously tacked-on introduction where the narrator explains why there might be discrepancies. And while individually the chapters are creepy and unsettling, the novel as a whole falls a little flat.

My favorite sections were “Footprints”, “Balloons,” and “Boxes”. Auerbach does an excellent job of setting his reader ill at ease using a minimum of words. He takes ordinary things, such as receiving letters from a penpal, and manages to make them exceedingly disturbing. The fact that the narrator is only around six years old for the majority of the novel is compelling. Children this age are largely innocent, and will generally accept any explanation from an adult. So the fact that a six-year old boy is more puzzled than terrified by the events of Penpal is believable.

However, a six-year old boy also has limitations, which Auerbach occasionally forgets. In one chapter, the narrator and his classmate build a functional raft which is capable of floating down a river. Now, I’ve taught kindergarten. Most of my students were incapable of tying their shoes on a regular basis, and became frustrated trying follow Lego instructions. Not to disparage small children, they are brilliant in their own way, but it is utterly improbable that two unsupervised six-year old boys could build a full-sized raft. Speaking of unsupervised, the time period is obviously meant to reflect those glory days of “free-range” childhood, but I’m pretty sure no child of that age would be allowed the freedom of this kid. Mothers may have been less hyper-vigilant in the ’80’s but they weren’t that nonchalant.

Overall, your enjoyment of Penpal will be closely linked to your enjoyment of short-form horror. In individual, unconnected installments, it is effectively creepy and unsettling. However, when viewed as a whole it becomes limited in its ability to scare. The fact that the last chapter is a muddled mess that seeks to “solve” the mystery did not end things on a high note for me.

My rating: 3/5

You can find Penpal here on Amazon or here on BookDepository.

Happy reading everyone!

#19 Red Clocks by Leni Zumas (2018)

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In the near future, Roe v Wade, the United States Supreme Court ruling allowing women safe and legal access to abortion, has been repealed. In its place has been passed the Personhood Amendment, which grants the rights of life, liberty, and property to any fertilized embryo. In a small fishing village in Oregon, four women are trying to come to grips with this new world and how it changes their identity as women and potential mothers.

Red Clocks is an example of a world in which one major change can have a snowball effect on an entire community. Author Leni Zumas does not paint a world as dark and dystopian as The Handmaid’s Tale. Women are not property, they aren’t forced to have sex or made to obey their husbands as gods. Even birth control is still perfectly legal. Instead, Zumas’ vision is of a world where day-to-day life carries on almost the same as it did before. In this way, Red Clocks is somehow more unsettling, because the reader feels that this is a world that could rationally exist in their lifetime. It is, in fact, a world that many in the U.S. are actively campaigning to bring about.

In Zumas’ novel the repeal of Roe v Wade creates changes of a sinister and subtle nature. Once abortion is criminalized, it ripples out in ways that extend beyond the scope of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. In-vitro fertilization is no longer allowed because the embryo can not “agree” to be moved. Adoption is only granted to married couples because they won’t be a “drain” on the system. The border between the United States and Canada becomes a nightmare as women caught trying to cross the border to gain access to abortion clinics are sent back to be prosecuted for attempted murder.

Instead or the outrage and fury that I felt while reading The Handmaid’s Tale, this book instead left me with an overwhelming feeling of sadness.  As a woman who has chosen to remain childless at thirty years of age, I could identify with the struggle of Ro, who feels that her life is somehow lesser because she never had kids. I also loved the story of Gin, the herbalist who becomes the last resort for desperate women.

How much of a woman’s identity is tied to her ability to have a child? How much of a woman’s identity should she be prepared to give up in order to raise a child? Why does society say that women who choose not to have children are somehow inadequate or incomplete? These are just some of the questions raised by Red Clocks.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Red Clocks here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!