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!

Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker (2013)

 

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Review #71

In the winter of 1899 two strange creatures find themselves on the streets of New York City. Chava is a golem fashioned out of clay, alone and without direction following the death of her master. Ahmad is a jinni who finds himself free from his lamp after more than one thousand years of confinement. These two beings attempt to assimilate into the teeming streets of New York, and end up forging an unlikely friendship.

This novel was very different from what I expected. Judging from the title alone, I had thought it would be a story about a creature from Jewish mythology falling in love with one from Muslim legend. And in a way it is, except that the humans who take in the jinn and help him to find his way are Maronite Christians who have fled to America to seek out better fortunes. Also, rather than a love story The Golem and the Jinni is a surprisingly sweet story of two unique individuals who find in each other a kindred spirit.

The friendship that emerges between the Golem and the Jinni is one of opposites. She is a creature formed of clay that was brought to life by a heretical rabbi. He is an ancient spirit of fire that spent his former days riding the winds of the Syrian desert. She is only weeks old at the time of their first encounter, uncertainly navigating the busy streets of New York and living in terror of discovery. He is a thousands of years old, possessing the confidence and arrogance that accompanies a creature of great power. Yet they find themselves united by their otherness and their loneliness.

The story is centered around Chava and Ahmad, but they are surrounded by a wonderfully diverse cast of human characters. Author Helen Wecker captures the immigrant experience through the eyes of the bakers, smiths, and salesmen who populated the various ethnic neighborhoods of New York at the time. The people who came to the United States during this time period were either running from something or running to something, and the spirit and determination of their combined experience shines through this novel.

The Golem and the Jinni is a big overlong and could have used a little trimming around the edges, but ultimately I enjoyed it. I definitely felt transported back to Wecker’s chaotic and diverse depiction of 19th century New York. It’s really interesting to think of Central Park being used as a grazing pasture for sheep.

My rating: 4/5

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

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015)

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Review #70

The Earth is dying, wrecked and ravaged by humanity. A last group of surviving humans set out on the cargo ship Gilgamesh, beginning a desperate mission to find a new home. Frozen in stasis, they travel for centuries towards a distant solar system and find a wonderful treasure from the past, a planet terraformed and prepared for human life by the humans of the Old Empire. The crew of the Gilgamesh approach the planet with a new sense of hope, only to find that the planet is already occupied by their worst nightmares.

This novel spans thousands of years, beginning as the Old Empire approaches its destruction. Doctor Avrana Kern is putting the final touches on Kern’s World, a planet she has designed to harbor a unique form of intelligent life. Disaster strikes when a crew member decides that Kern does not deserve to play god, and sabotages the ship, killing himself and the experiments that were destined for the planet. Avrana Kern finds herself alone in a small satellite, watching her life’s work burn as it enters the planet’s atmosphere. She enters a cryogenic sleep chamber in the hopes that a passing ship will find her at some point in the future. Unknown to her, something has survived the burning of the ship, and will eventually evolve into a new and monstrous form of life.

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s science fiction novel can be summed up in three words. Giant. Sentient. Spiders. As a lifelong arachnophobe, the early chapters of Children of Time, with their numerous descriptions of spider legs, spider palps, and spider fangs, gave me the serious creeps. But after the initial ick factor wore off, I found myself oddly intrigued by the descriptions of spider society presented in this novel. The spiders begin to evolve from the simpleminded predators that we have today into a true society. They develop language, culture, and technology that will allow them to contact the Messenger, the satellite orbiting their planet. They also engage in warfare, discover religion (and religious persecution) and begin to unravel the mystery of their own existence. Tchaikovsky should be applauded for his descriptions of the spider civilization. It is no easy task to convincingly write non-humanoid characters that feel “real”, especially if those characters are something that our minds naturally see as disgusting. I haven’t rooted so much for a spider’s well-being since Charlotte’s Web.

Another amazing thing about this novel is the way that Tchaikovsky manages to interweave a narrative that spans millennia in a very straightforward and linear fashion. As we watch the spiders evolve and grow their society, we also follow the crew of the Gilgamesh as they develop their own unique culture aboard the ship. Our primary protagonist among the humans is Holsten Mason, the resident “classicist” whose function is to interpret the language of the ancient Old Empire. He emerges from stasis at various intervals throughout time, and watches as the crew of the Gilgamesh fall prey to so many of the same follies that have plagued humanity since the beginning. Arrogance, selfishness, and megalomania are still entrenched in the human psyche, and Mason is there to testify that even though humans have managed to destroy their own planet, they may not have learned from the experience. Many science fiction writers take a rather pessimistic view of mankind, and Tchaikovsky is no exception. He does instill a pervading sense of hope throughout the novel; as flawed as humanity is he definitely sees the possibility of redemption.

This was a beautifully written novel that challenges our preconceived notions about what it means to be human. I truly enjoyed this book.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Children of Time here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Night Film by Marisha Pessl (2013)

Image result for night film marisha pessl Review #69

Beautiful and talented Ashley Cordova is found dead in an abandoned warehouse in New York City, apparently having thrown herself off the building. Investigative journalist Scott McGrath suspects that her death may not have been a suicide, and instead may be connected to her father, an enigmatic and reclusive director of cult-horror films. As Scott probes deeper into the Cordova family, he is drawn into a twisted and dangerous world that threatens his very sanity.

I absolutely love the way that author Marisha Pessl interspaces the main narrative with news articles, webpages, photographs, medical reports, and other things that Scott uncovers during his search for clues about Ashley Cordova’s life. It makes the story seem so much more visceral when a character is describing a dark web that revolves around the enigmatic director, only to follow it with screenshots of the webpage itself.

Night Film unfolds like series of Russian nesting dolls, with every clue that Scott uncovers raising more questions than it answers. Reading this novel felt like walking down an endless corridor lines with doors where every door only opens onto another corridor. It is a testament to Pessl’s writing style that she manages to keep her reader completely in the loop the entire time. She avoids the “gotcha” twist that too often defines the thriller genre, and instead chooses a slow and subtle approach to building tension.

I’m hesitant to explain much of the plot, since exploring and unraveling the mystery that is Ashley Cordova was such a fun experience. Early on, we are introduced to Ashley’s father, generally just referred to as Cordova, a mysterious director who produces films so terrifying that several of them have been banned. Underground screenings draw an eclectic crowd that worships Cordova for having awoken them to a higher state of understanding. As an avid fan of the horror genre, that only film that I could even partially equate with Cordova’s work would be Lars Von Triers’ Antichrist, also known as “The One Starring Willem Dafoe’s Penis”. That’s the only horror film I’ve seen in the past few years that made me feel truly uncomfortable. In Night Film, the movies made by Cordova are described in broad strokes, giving them an eerie, detached feeling that adds to the overall unease of the novel.

I read a lot of horror novels, some of them good, most of them mediocre. I would definitely place Night Film in the former category, as I was glued to the pages throughout the duration of the book.

My rating: 4.5/5

Note: As much as I adore my eReader, Night Film is a book better appreciated in print rather than digital.

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

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: More Than This by Patrick Ness (2014)

Image result for more than this patrick nessReview #68

In the freezing waters off the coast of Washington, a boy succumbs to the crashing waves. He dies, cold and alone. Then, he wakes up. He is naked, weak, and thirsty; but he is alive. He is entirely alone in a deserted and desolate place. As he struggles to understand what happens, he begins to question whether or not this is truly the end, and whether or not there is more to life after death.

This was the June pick for my monthly book club, and the theme was “dealing with the afterlife”. Considering that author Patrick Ness wrote the heart-breakingly beautiful A Monster Calls, I went into this novel fully expecting another tearjerker. Instead, More Than This defied all my expectations by journeying into the world of science fiction.

Seth wakes up to a world that has been abandoned. The neighborhood he finds himself in is covered in weeds, dirt, and silence. Since Seth clearly remembers drowning in the freezing waters of the Pacific Ocean, he comes to the conclusion that he is in a strange, lonely version of Hell. If this is Hell, it’s an oddly mundane version that seems to focus more on discomfort and isolation than fire and brimstone. Seth’s attempts to solve the mystery of his surroundings are what carries that bulk of Ness’ narrative.

Patrick Ness has always been a favorite author of mine because he tackles delicate issues with tact and sensitivity. Instead of beating his readers round the head with a “lesson” that needs to be learned, he tends to come at the situation sideways. By doing so, he avoids the proselytizing that can occasionally saturate novels that deal with death and dying. His characters manage to be vulnerable without being weak, and they are resourceful while still being immature enough to make mistakes.

I really enjoyed this novel. It continually managed to surprise me, and avoided coming across as preachy. I have always enjoyed a new novel by Patrick Ness, and More Than This continued the trend.

My rating: 4/5

You can find More Than this here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!