Book Review: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2004)

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Review #77

This graphic novel tells the story of Marjane Satrapi’s life growing up in Iran during the tumultuous years that include the fall of the Shah and the beginnings of the Islamic Republic. Marjane, raised by well-educated intellectuals and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, finds herself struggling to understand the difference between the freedom of her home life and the sudden restrictions of public life.

Surprise graphic novels are the best kind of graphic novels! I was unaware when I requested this book from my local library that the story was going to be told using simple yet powerful black-and-white illustrations. I was expecting a painful story of a girl whose freedom was stripped away by a regime change. Instead, Persepolis is something far more unique. It is equally parts funny, heartbreaking, and triumphant.

The best part of Persepolis is its heroine. Marjane (Marji) is outspoken, honest, and at times contradictory. Spanning her life between ages ten and fourteen, Persepolis focuses on her changing attitudes towards religion, family, politics, and Iran itself. She begins the novel with a strong belief in God, and tells her parents that when she grows up she wants to be a prophet. Marji’s faith is shaken as the people she loves are exposed to persecution and violence. For a twelve year old girl to turn her back on religion is a devastating life choice, and we share Marji’s sadness and anger as she realizes that faith can be used as a tool for suppression.

This is a smaller, more personal viewpoint of a historically volatile time period. Marji has very little knowledge of exactly why these things are happening, and couldn’t get less about the larger international implications. Instead she just knows that one day she has to wear a veil to school when last year she didn’t, and she finds it uncomfortable and restrictive. She leaves her house one day in “modern” clothes and is accosted by a woman who shouts that she is a whore. Things go from bad to worse when her family experiences the loss of a beloved family member.

I loved this novel because even though the graphic panels are in a stark black and white, the plot itself exists in shades of gray. Marjane Shatrapi illustrates the horrors that were perpetuated during the Islamic Revolution, but also makes room for lightness and laughter. She presents the Iranian people as having a “philosophy of resignation”. When the Ayatollah rose to power, the vast majority of people went about their lives and loved their families and found small victories in listening to modern music and drinking contraband alcohol. The love between Marji and her family shines through every page of Persepolis. I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on the sequel.

Going in, I realized that I did not have enough information about Iran during the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Ayatollah. I did a little bit of research so that I could truly understand what was happening in this novel. I found this video to be particularly helpful if you are also interested in learning a little bit more about this time in history.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Persepolis here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager (2018)

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Review #76

Thirteen year old Emma Davis is beyond excited to be a camper at the exclusive Camp Nightingale in upstate New York. She immediately becomes enamored with Vivan, Allison, and Natalie, her three older bunkmates who take Emma under their wing and treat her like a little sister. Vivian’s favorite game is Two Truths and a Lie, and the girls spend their nights playing. It all ends one night when Emma awakens to find that her new friends have vanished without a trace.

Fifteen years later, Emma is a rising star in the art scene. She is haunted by the memories of the missing girls, and finds herself painting them and them covering them up over and over. Her work eventually catches the notice of Franny Harris-Smith, the former owner of Camp Nightingale. The camp is re-opening, and Franny offers Emma a job teaching art to a new group of girls. Emma agrees and returns to Camp Nightingale in the hopes of finally solving the mystery of the missing girls and ridding herself of the ghosts and guilt of the past.

This novel is an entry in the increasingly popular genre that I like to call the “predictably unpredictable thriller”. These novels have become more and more prevalent following the runaway success of Gone Girl and include such entries as The Girl on the Train and The Woman in Cabin 10. Things to look for in the predictably unpredictable thriller include a deliberately enigmatic plot that seeks to squeeze every possible drop of mystery out of its storyline before finally revealing its secrets. Expect clunky and unhelpful foreshadowing. The reveal itself will unwind in about fifteen stages, and will contain just enough logic that it cannot be considered a cheat. The final ten or so pages will typically include one final twist that leaves everything that came before open to interpretation. Like the Halloween films, these novels can’t be satisfied without one final scare, no matter how unnecessary.

Honestly, that about sums up everything you need to know about The Last Time I Lied. None of the characters are particularly interesting because they only exist to say ominous things and drop hints that more often than not turn out to be red herrings.

So far it sounds as if I hated this novel, but that truly isn’t the case. Riley Sager is a competent author and the overall storyline was compelling enough that I finished the book in two days. It’s more that I find the whole psychological thriller genre to have jumped the shark. Instead of a series of events which serve to unravel a mystery that makes sense when viewed as a whole, it’s becoming more and more common to cram in as many twists and turns as possible. The problem is that too often those twists and turns come at the expense of a cohesive plot.

My rating: 3/5

You can find The Last Time I Lied here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (1991)

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Review #75

Larry Cook has decided to retire and turn his three-generation Iowa farm over to his three daughters. When the youngest daughter, Caroline, does not react with what he deems to be the appropriate enthusiasm, Larry cuts her out of the deal. This triggers a chain of events that will rock the lives of Ginny and Rose, his elder daughters, as well as their husbands and children. They find themselves struggling to cope with their aging father, their angry younger sister, their respective husbands, and the demands of running a vast acreage with little help from their community.

I was initially attracted to this novel because it’s set in the farmlands of Iowa. As a child of the American Midwest, I love to see this much-ignored region represented in popular fiction. Author Jane Smiley does a great job of setting the scene of a farming community. Iowa is where endless fields meet endless sky, and the weather is fickle on the best of days. Smiley’s descriptions of Zebulon County and its inhabitants made me nostalgic for my hometown. Except perhaps without the overbearing humidity.

A loose retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, this novel focuses on middle child Ginny as she is forced to come to terms with the failings of her family. After nearly forty years of dealing with her father’s unreasonable demands, she has her feet firmly planted on the path of least resistance.  Ginny is passive to the point of submissive, and her main reaction to any given problem seems to be to sweep it under the rug and smile. The more interesting parts of A Thousand Acres deal with Ginny when she stands up for herself and begins to assert her dreams and desires for her own future.

Unfortunately, those moments don’t arrive until the last third of the book, and the first two hundred pages failed to capture my interest. I think Smiley may have been striving for a slow and creeping sense of desperation, but A Thousand Acres continually comes across as tedious. Imagine the plot as an old farmer, content to plod along without much emotion or action as he methodically carries out his daily tasks. Said farmer is respectable and worthy of admiration, but I’m not sure I would want to spend too many hours in his company.

This novel won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize. There is an inherent anxiety present when reading a book that has won such high accolades. In a sense, one feels that if they do not enjoy said novel, it must be they who is in the wrong. There must be some hidden layer of meaning, of depth that the critics saw that they cannot. In the words of a thousand pedantic literature majors, perhaps I just didn’t get it.

Well I didn’t. I found myself falling asleep while reading this book, and ended up having to read it in daily twenty page increments to resist the urge to simply put it back on the shelf.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find A Thousand Acres here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. Make sure to buy a strong cup of coffee along with it.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman (2017)

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Review #74

A teenage girl is being brutally beaten during a home invasion when she feels a tingling feeling in her hand and finds herself giving her attacker an electric jolt that brings him to his knees and saves her life. Across an ocean, other young girl uses a similar force to kill her would-be rapist. Soon all around the world teenage women are finding themselves developing a previously unknown ability to conduct electric energy with their palms. This change in the power dynamics between genders begins with women releasing themselves from dangerous and unwanted situations, but it doesn’t stop there. All around the world women begin to claim positions of political and religious power, and their intentions are not always good.

Author Naomi Alderman has envisioned a world where different women from different walks of life suddenly find themselves able to physically dominate the male sex. Spanning a ten year period, Alderman takes these women (and men) through all the upheavals and confusion that would accompany such a sudden and potentially dangerous change in traditional gender roles.

As the women begin to realize their new powers, they explore their new opportunities in different ways. Some, such as Margot Clearly, set their sights on politics by empowering the young women in her community to form a militia. Allie sees the chance to form a new religious movement and becomes a powerful cult leader known as Mother Eve. Roxy Monke seizes the occasion to become the head of an international crime syndicate. The only male character with a prominent voice is the Nigerian journalist Tunde, who travels the world and films the increasingly precarious place of men as global society undergoes a radical shift away from patriarchy.

This book would be a wonderful addition to a university course on sex and gender sociology. Alderman brings up some truly interesting questions with her novel. Are women truly the “gentler” sex, or have they taken on more nurturing roles due mainly to their physically weaker bodies? If women were in charge, would the world truly be a more peaceful place, or would females begin to exact revenge on males for all the real and imagined discrimination they have experienced in their lives? Can one sex have the monopoly on violence without becoming corrupted by their own power?

The Power took some time to get its plot rolling, and there were definitely characters that I wished had been given more focus and others that I found a little bland. However, this is one of those novels that I can already tell is going to stay with me. I would be very interested in finding other people who have read this book so that I could explore and discuss the ideas depicted here.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Power here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Lost Boy by Christina Henry (2017)

 

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Review #73

Have you ever wondered what sparked the endless hostility between Peter Pan and Captain James Hook? What is Peter wasn’t the happy-go-lucky boy that everyone loves and remembers? In this revisionist fairy tale, the world of Neverland is explored as never before, through the eyes of a boy named Jamie and his best friend, Peter.

J.M. Barrie’s classic children’s novel has remained popular for more than one hundred years. Since 1904 kids and adults have been captivated by the story of the boy who never grew up and instead had thousands of adventures with his troop of lost boys in the woods of Neverland. One of the many factors that have contributed to Peter Pan’s enduring popularity is the ambiguity surrounding its main character. Peter has been depicted by both male and female actors. He has been the brave hero, rescuing his friends from the clutches of Captain Hook. He has been the coward who flees from responsibility in favor of his eternal games. My personal adaptation, 2003’s Peter Pan starring Jeremy Sumpter and Jason Isaacs, shows Peter as a boy on the brink of puberty who lacks the maturity to deal with adult emotions such as love and instead hides behind a false bravado.

In Christina Henry’s re-imagining of the Neverland world, Peter is portrayed as an emotionally indifferent sociopath who lures boys away with promises of a life filled with fun and adventure. Countless years of fighting pirates, crocodiles, and the enigmatic creatures known as the Many-Eyed have left Peter twisted and morally decrepit. His lost boys exist only to admire and love Peter and to participate in the violent and dangerous games he invents. If the boys become sick, injured, or homesick for their former lives, Peter turns a blind eye to their suffering and often orchestrates for those boys to meet with some fatal “accident”. His oldest and most loyal friend, Jamie, is the one who has shouldered the burden of caring for the lost boys and trying to keep them alive for as long as possible.

Henry’s vision of Neverland differs wildly from the version we’ve seen in the past. Certain elements such as the fairies and the mermaids are barely recognizable from the original source material while other characters aren’t present at all. This is a dark and dangerous Neverland that presents a daily struggle for survival. The rivalry and violence between the lost boys is often more reminiscent of The Lord of the Flies rather than the cheerful Disney characters we remember from childhood.

At under two-hundred pages, this is a relatively short novel. I honestly found myself wishing that I could have spent more time in Henry’s version of Neverland. The climax in particular, felt rushed. Going in, we all know how Jamie’s story is going to end, but getting there was a wild, exciting, and often sad journey. After all, all little boys grow up…except one. Never has that sentence sounded more sinister.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Lost Boy here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (2018)

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Review #72

Vietnam POW Ernt Allbright is struggling to adjust to post-war life. In the summer of 1974, unable to hold a job and struggling with anxiety and anger issues, he makes the impulsive decision to move his wife Cora and thirteen year old daughter Leni to the wilds of Alaska. His plan is to live off the grid, away from the eyes of the government he feels has betrayed him.

The Great Alone focuses on Leni Allbright as her family struggles to adjust to life on the last frontier. Upon their arrival in Homer, it becomes readily apparent that they are woefully unprepared for life in the unforgiving Alaskan environment. The tight-knit community of locals pitch in to help the Allbright family prepare for the eight month winter that looms large in the minds of all. More troubling for Leni is the turbulent and often violently passionate relationship between her parents. The endless nights bring a return to Ernt’s anxiety, and he becomes increasingly volatile as his mental state deteriorates.

This novel by author Kristin Hannah is first and foremost a story about love. Romantic love plays its own role as we are exposed to the tangled codependency between Ernt and Cora. But it is also the story of the love between a mother and daughter, a community towards one another, and a person towards the wilderness that comes to define them. Leni’s confused and often desperate love for her father is mixed with fear and eventually hatred. Her love for her mother is a constant thread through her life, even when Leni begins wishing she could extract herself from the increasingly toxic relationship between her parents. There are so many intertwined relationships represented in The Great Alone that they become impossible to separate, which gives this novel its emotional core.

With this book, Kristin Hannah has written a love letter to Alaska. Numerous descriptions of endless days where the sun never sets, majestic mountains in shades of purple and gray, and orca whales diving in azure waters all come together to make some of the most breathtaking imagery I’ve read in a book for a long time. I’ve never really thought of Alaska of being a place that I wanted to visit. At one point while reading The Great Alone, I began looking up Alaskan cruises.

I  had been hearing about Kristin Hannah for a few years now, and this is my first novel by the bestselling author. I immediately knew that I was going to have to read some more of her works. Similar to my first experiences with Kate Morton, Tana French, and Mira Grant, I immediately knew that I had found a new author to add to my “must-read” collection.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Great Alone here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!