Book Review: Willow by V.C. Andrews (2002)

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Review 2.2

Wealth. Extravagant parties. Celebrity status. These are things Willow De Beers could only dream of until now. After discovering deep family secrets in her adoptive father’s journal, Willow bids farewell to her North Carolina college town and sets out in search of her birth family amid the ritzy glamour of Palm Beach

In my childhood home, like so many in the mid 90’s, there was a dusty shelf on the bookcase filled with old V. C. Andrews paperbacks. My parents were extremely strict about policing what I watched on T.V., but were much more casual about what I read. When I was around ten or eleven years old, I picked up Flowers in the Attic, and my eyes were opened. It was my first encounter with a book that dealt with overtly sexual themes such as incest and rape, and I had no idea what was happening in the more “adult” scenes. Nevertheless I found that I enjoyed the high melodrama and the continuous cycle of betrayal and forgiveness. All through high school, while I was taking AP Literature and preparing to begin my degree in English, these books were my guilty pleasure.

This past Christmas I had the chance to spend the holidays with my family back in the States for the first time in many years. While I was sitting and catching up with my parents I took a glance at the family bookcase and there they were. The same tattered V. C. Andrews paperbacks I had read and re-read so many times. They had dwindled in number over the years, no doubt lost to garage sales and thrift stores. I was immediately hit by a wave of fond nostalgia, and when I returned to Canada I decided I wanted to revisit V. C. Andrews by reading one of her books that was new to me. On a whim, I chose Willow, which is the first novel in the five-book De Beers series.

Why is any of this important? Because the nostalgia factor here is very strong, and definitely swayed my opinion on the book. If a person who was not previously familiar with V. C. Andrews read Willow, they would probably see it as the most ridiculous and silly kind of smut. But for me, going back into that world was so relaxing. It was like taking my brain off at the end of a long day.

Willow has all of the trademarks that make V. C. Andrews the bestselling author of trashy family dramas. The title character suddenly finds herself dealing with the ritz and glamour of Palm Beach high society. The upper echelons of the upper class are pictured here as if they have been drawn by someone who had only the rudimentary idea of what wealth is. I’ve certainly never run in those circles, but somehow I find 6:00 am beluga caviar feasts as people toast themselves and how fabulous they are a bit far-fetched. Such though is the charm of V. C. Andrews, whose books have always focused on the super-rich and their dazzling lifestyles. Even though this novel is set in 2002, the characters behave as if they are perpetually trapped in some long ago era. The women are shallow and ornamental, the men strutting and arrogant. It’s all just so deliciously silly.

I haven’t said much about the plot, but that’s because the plot is largely inconsequential. What matters is that Willow De Beers is suddenly transported to a life of fabulous wealth and dangerous secrets. How and why she got there aren’t treated with any great importance.

Books like these are impossible to review. Objectively, Willow is terrible. The characters are paper-thin, there is virtually no plot. It’s mere window-dressing, but sometimes the window-dressing can be a lot of fun. I doubt I’ll read the other four books in the DeBeers series, but I’m glad to have read Willow.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Willow here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. And on dusty bookshelves in Midwestern households everywhere.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book vs Film: The Martian

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This is one of the very rare instances where I prefer the film to the book. In no specific order, here is why. Spoilers abound.

The basic plot: Astronaut Mark Watney has been left for dead on Mars after an accident occurs during a sandstorm. He must rely on his wits and ingenuity to survive, while back on Earth a team of scientists work together to find a way to bring him home.

1.) Ridley Scott can be very hit-or-miss, but he is a genius when it comes to science fiction. I say that in full recognition of the lukewarm Prometheus and the oddly disjointed Alien: Covenant. The future presented in The Martian isn’t as high-tech and gloomy as Alien or Blade Runner, instead it deals with technology that is probably not that far off, as well as plenty of tech will be familiar to the average viewer. Scott incorporates the scientific and technical elements seamlessly into the plot. At one point, when Watney is building a hexadecimal communication system, the mathematics takes a running jump to the level that only a computer engineer could understand. Scott wisely decides not to spend too much time explaining how this system works, instead relying on the trusty science fiction fallback of “it works because science”.

Ridley Scott has long ago mastered the art of using practical effects as much as possible, and when he does resort to CGI he deploys it with a skill and grace that other directors should aspire to. After this year’s overly frantic Ready Player One and the abysmal Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, it was a pleasure to watch someone use special effects to enhance a well-told story.

And, oddly enough for Ridley Scott, this film almost has an upbeat feel. Most of which is due to the soundtrack. Speaking of which…

2.) It’s one of my all-time favorite soundtracks. Full disclaimer, I’m currently listening to Earth, Wind, and Fire while drinking a glass of wine on a Saturday night. I have a thing for disco. That said, the disco music, which is mentioned in Weir’s novel as the only thing left for Mark Watney to listen to after his team’s departure, is an inspired choice. The combination of the desolate Martian landscape, the lone and lonely figure isolated on a foreign planet, and the cheerful tunes of ABBA is perfect. I was reminded of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, another film which uses peppy, upbeat music as a background for rather depressing events. Because of this The Martian maintains an optimistic tone despite it’s admittedly bleak subject matter.

3.) Ridley Scott attracts some of the most talented people for his films. Star Matt Damon carries the film on his back. His delivery of Mark Watney is funny and sad and scared and cocky all at once. He definitely earned his Best Actor nomination. Filling out the cast are talents such as Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Kristin Wiig, Michael Pena, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, and  Donald Glover in a small but hilarious role.

4.) I haven’t talked much about the book yet. This is because, for me, the book didn’t have as great an impact as the movie. I enjoyed the novel, but it was a more straightforward science fiction story. The movie brought a sense of comedy and levity to the difficult proceedings that is lacking in Andy Weir’s novel.

I also feel that technological and mathematical concepts presented in The Martian are more easily understood in a visual format. The novel often feels bogged down in mathematics, and I occasionally struggled to picture what was actually happening as Mark Watney improvises different ways to stay alive on a lifeless planet.

I can’t think of more than ten instances where I’ve truly preferred a film adaptation over the original novel. Even though I have to admit that this is one of those cases, it is only because Andy Weir gave the filmmakers such a great concept in his novel. While I truly enjoyed Weir’s The Martian, I absolutely love Ridley Scott’s film interpretation. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go listen to more disco.

My Favorite Books of 2018

Now that the holidays are winding down, I find myself in that weird limbo period that exists between Christmas and New Years. I’ve had way too more food and wine than was good for me, got to spent Christmas with my family for the first time in seven years, and spent roughly twenty-seven hours in a car in order to do it. Now I’m back in Toronto and enjoying a few more lazy days before returning back to work and the real world.

Before the second official oneyearonehundredbooks challenge kicks off next week, let’s take a look back at some of the best books I read this year. It was so hard to narrow this list down to only twelve novels, but I finally picked my favorites. Beginning with the honorable mentions:

 

Honorable Mention: The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell Johnson

Image result for wolves of winter book Post-apocalyptic novels are always fun, and this novel really benefits from its strong heroine. I definitely recommend this one for a cold winter’s day.

Honorable Mention: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Image result for glass castle bookThis memoir, about a girl growing up with a highly unusual family, is equal parts heartbreaking and uplifting. It will make you see the value of family in a new light.

10) Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Image result for night film bookThis was a very hit-and-miss year for thrillers, but Night Film was one of those novels that kept me turning pages late into the night. The creative formatting and captivating plot line all work together to create a genuinely suspenseful experience.

9) Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Image result for through the woods emily carroll Horror novels and graphic novels are two of my very favorite genres, so it comes as no surprise that I was blown away by the five short stories presented in Through the Woods. This is a book that I am determined to add to my own library someday.

8) Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar

Image result for dead mountain book The true story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident has fascinated me since I first learned about it more than five years ago. This nonfiction novel fleshes out the final days of the doomed hikers and offers up a new and interesting theory as to what may have caused the deaths of the nine hikers in 1952.

7) You by Caroline Kepnes

Image result for you caroline kepnes This novel wins this year’s “Creeper” award hands-down. The twisted narrator who becomes obsessed with a young woman could give Patrick Bateman a run for his money. This book grabbed me from page one and didn’t let up for a second.

6) The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Image result for great alone by kristin hannah Kristin Hannah is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. This historical fiction novel, set in the Alaskan wilderness of the 1970’s, deals with the dysfunctional love that often exists in a family. I definitely looked into Alaskan cruises after reading this book.

5) The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Image result for tea girl of hummingbird lane I lived in China for almost three years, but never managed to visit the tea hills in the southern part of the country. Lisa See has been one of my favorite authors for years. I love her focus on female relationships and the bonds between mothers and daughters.

4) everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too by Jomny Sun

Image result for everyone's an alien when you're an alien too Earlier this year, I was battling a depression I didn’t even know I felt. This graphic novel, about a aliebn who travels to Earth to learn about its inhabitants, helped me find a release I wasn’t aware I needed. Another book I need to add to my personal library.

3) Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Image result for into the drowning deep book I will always drop whatever I’m doing to read the latest novel by Mira Grant. She expertly blends science with fiction with horror and this book, about a research expedition to the bottom of the Marina Trench, was a masterpiece of claustrophobia.

2) The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Image result for guernsey literary and potato peel pie book This novel, about the Nazi occupation of the British Isles during World War II, deals with some rather bleak subject material. Despite that, or perhaps because of it is, TGLAPPPS has a cheerful tone and a dry sense of humor that left me feeling optimistic and full of hope. I also reviewed the film, which was released earlier this year.

1.) The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Image result for bear and the nightingale This dark fairy tale set in medieval Russia is the perfect book to read on a winter’s night. Katherine Arden’s writing style is hypnotic, she paints a version of the Russian forests that is somehow comforting and threatening at the same time. I also reviewed the sequel to this novel, The Girl in the Tower. The third and final installment, The Winter of the Witch, is scheduled for release on January 9, 2019.

The second year of oneyearonehundredbooks will kick off on January 1st.

Happy new year everyone!

 

 

 

Book Review: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (2010)

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Review #29

 

In post-apocalyptic Africa, there is an ongoing struggle between the light-skinned Nuru tribe and the darker-skinned Okeke tribe. The Nuru have taken many Okeke as slaves, and systematically go into the desert to rape Okeke women in the hopes of impregnating them. These children of rape are known as Ewu, and are despised as outcasts by both groups of people. One of these children is Onyesonwu, whose name means “Who Fears Death”. Early in life, Onyesonwu realizes that she is special. She has the powers of the Eshu, or the shapeshifter. With this knowledge, she seeks the training needed to hone her magic in the hopes of one day hunting down the man who raped her mother.

All of this sounds like the making of a pretty good magic realism novel. With this description, together with the amazing cover art, I was really looking forward to reading this book. But for some reason, Who Fears Death failed to capture my imagination. Part of it may be because I felt as though I were coming into a movie midway through. We are given next to no backstory about why modern systems of government have fallen. What began the conflict between the Nurus and the Okeke? There are constant references to the “Great Book” but more details are needed to understand the connection between this religious book and the current upheaval.

Another reason why I had difficulty maintaining my interest in the novel may have been that the main character has what I like to think of as “Superman syndrome”. Superman is the most boring superhero in existence because he is just too perfect, and his weaknesses are too easily overcome. I felt that same way about Onyesonwu. When the heroine can transform into animals, heal wounds, travel outside of her body, heat rocks without fire, and strike her enemies blind with a thought, there isn’t a lot of suspense. Do we ever truly doubt that Onyesonwu will fulfill her goal? She’s set up as a Jesus-like martyr from the beginning, but the reader is cheated of even that by the muddled ending.

Early in Okorafor’s novel, there is a graphic depiction of female circumcision. All of the female children in the village undergo this procedure without anesthesia at the age of eleven. They are expected to do this willingly or risk social ostracism. One thing that I will praise about Who Fears Death is its handling of this delicate subject matter. Upon discovery of her powers, one of Onyesonwu’s first act as a healer is to restore her own sexual pleasure. This reclaiming of her own sexuality is a powerful act, and its effects create ripples that echo throughout the rest of the novel.

Overall, I was disappointed by this novel. It seemed to be a fantastic premise that relied too much on having an all-powerful protagonist. And although there were aspects that I did enjoy, ultimately I kept finding myself checking to see how many pages were left until the end.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Who Fears Death here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Reviews: Wayward (Wayward Pines #2) by Blake Crouch (2013)

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After an auto accident that occurs while conducting a search for his missing ex-partner, Secret Service agent Ethan Burke wakes up in the small town of Wayward Pines, Idaho. His ID, wallet, and phone are all missing. No calls can be made out of the town. The roads are seem to lead back to the same location. And a thirty foot high electric fence surrounds the area. When people begin turning up dead, Ethan must work to discover the secret behind the sleepy town of Wayward Pines.

That’s a quick synopsis from the first book in this series, Pines. It seemed unfair to potentially spoil anything from the previous novel, as it is so much fun and I encourage anyone who loves a good thriller to go pick it up immediately.

First off, let me just commend this novel for making me almost-kinda-sorta-want to visit Idaho. Crouch describes it as a strikingly beautiful area filled with aspen trees, starry skies, and forbidding mountains. You can almost taste the fresh mountain air. Reading this novel was one of the first time I had ever stopped to really consider the geography of the state of Idaho. No offense, Idahoans. I also grew up in a highly overlooked state. I feel you.

“For every perfect little town, there’s something ugly underneath. No dream without the nightmare”

Wayward is an entertaining, uncomplicated read that still manages to raise important questions, as all good science fiction must do. What begins as a relatively straightforward murder-mystery quickly evolves into a debate on societal security versus personal freedom. At what point do we need to stop sacrificing for the greater good? What price is too high to pay for safety?

Blake Crouch is quickly becoming one of my new favorite authors. His writing style is  fast-paced and compelling, yet accessible. It’s science fiction in a Star Trek sense, a irresistible mix of thrills and sentiment, with a dash of science thrown on for flavor.

My Rating: 4.5/5

Wayward Pines has been adapted into a TV show that is currently in its second season on Fox. The third novel in the trilogy, The Last Town, was released in 2014.

Find the books here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!