Book Review: Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah

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Review 2.34

*this review contains spoilers*

I just finished this book about ten minutes ago, it’s 1:02 am, and I’ve had two (*cough* three) glasses of wine, but I just had to drag my tired ass over to my computer because I’m legit annoyed and I can’t quite determine why.

Except I do know why.

Kristin Hannah Stepmomed out on me.

I just invented this phrase, so allow me a moment to explain. When I was young, one of my mother’s favorite movies was Stepmom, a 1998 drama starring Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts. If you don’t remember it, don’t worry. It was an emotionally manipulative tearjerker.

Just like this book.

In the film, Julia Roberts is a young hot-shot somethingorother who is dating some random male who is utterly unimportant to the story except as a plot device for drama. His former wife, Susan Sarandon, is super jealous of Julia Roberts and her shark-smile and the kids are acting out and blah blah blah none of this is really important at all except at some point all hatred and jealousy and teenage rebellion grinds to a screeching halt because of one terrible word…

I’d spell it out, but you can probably guess.

Please don’t take this to mean that I am belittling cancer victims, cancer survivors, their families, or the scientific and medical community; everyone that has been battling this disease with unending hope and bravery and fervor. Or that I mean to disparage the author, who lost her own mother to cancer. I lost my own grandmother this previous summer, and am still reeling from the loss.

I just didn’t like how it was addressed in this book. It felt shoehorned in.

I spent four hundred and fifty pages with Tully and Kate. I got to know them, got to love them. I was heavily invested in their friendship, which felt real and visceral in a way that female friendships are rarely depicted.

And then in the last thirty pages…cancer.

I don’t know why, but it cheapened the entire experience for me. I get that Hannah has felt the personal grief of the disease and wanted to share that with her readers, but it came so late in the game that it felt more like a plot device than a genuine moment in the narrative arc.

Maybe that’s just a horribly cynical thought. If so, sorry? I guess? I don’t know.

I’ve read a lot of really amazing books that deal with cancer and grief and loss. This book was not one of them. It is; however, an amazing portrayal of the lasting power of female friendship and I applaud Firefly Lane for that accomplishment.

Despite the turn towards high melodramatics, the ending was genuinely affecting and well written. This can be judged by the fact that it’s now 1:25 in the morning and I’m still here writing about it. Also, I cried so much I’ll have to put cold spoons on my eyes in the morning. *helpful hint – this reduces swelling and puffiness!*

My rating: 4.5/5 (any book that forces me to face the next day on less than five hours of sleep deserves that much)

You can find Firefly Lane here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

 

 

Does Peter Pan Stand the Test of Time?

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Review 2.33

I would be genuinely surprised if there was a child in North America who was not at least passingly familiar with the story of Peter Pan. The enduring quality of the children’s story has led to dozens of film and television adaptations, literary analyses, and reinterpretations over the past century.

I have read and reviewed at least two fairy-tale reimaginings for this website, Christina Henry’s Lost Boy and, more recently, Jodie Lynn Anderson’s Tiger Lily. I truly enjoyed that latest novel, but it made me realize that I’d never actually read J. M. Barrie’s original source material. So I downloaded the audiobook and got to work.

It is almost impossible to separate our collective understanding of the Peter Pan legend from Barrie’s novel (which was originally written as a play). I will, however; try to focus on the character’s as they are presented in the book, and not how they have been portrayed over the years.

This isn’t even so much a book review as it is a look back to see how the original source material has held up over time. Because let’s be honest, there is a magical timelessness about Peter Pan that has captivated generations of children.

And then there some things that definitely have not stood the test of time.

I would have laughed out loud at the British imperialist attitude that pervades this novel if it weren’t quite so alarming. In some ways, the constant references to “the might of Brittannia” or “King and country” were quaint and almost charming.

But then Barrie spends nearly an entire chapter detailing the ways in which the “red savages” are simply inferior to the white man. There are constant references to the Native Americans as “redskins” or “pickaninnies”. They refer to Peter as their “Great White Father”.

It’s an example of racism that is so startlingly casual it almost makes you understand how the 1953 Disney cartoon adaptation thought it would be okay to include songs such as “What Makes the Red Man Red?” *Note – the movie somehow manages to top the book in terms of blatant stereotyping*

I also have a huge problem with Wendy.

She’s such a fucking sissy.

And I get it. This book was originally published in 1911, when women were kind of expected to be sissies. Wendy’s entire personality is sweet, motherly, and ladylike. That’s all she is, and she has nothing in the way of a character arc. She idolizes and worships Peter as the ruling “father” figure, and caters to his every whim. It is such an outdated portrayal of a young girl that I had to constantly remind myself while I was reading that it is literally antique. If anyone ever suggests that the past one hundred years of feminism hasn’t accomplished very much, I’ll show them this book.

With all of this in mind, would I recommend this book to parents?

Absolutely.

I’ve always been of the mind that reading changes the world for the better far more often than it changes it for the worse. Sweeping the bigoted mindset of the past under the rug isn’t the way to go. Instead, parents could use Peter Pan as a way to start a conversation about how ideas have changed over the past century, and why some people used to think in ways that were and are highly offensive.

Also, the more troublesome aspects of Barrie’s novel are but a fraction of the book as a whole. The excitement and adventure of Neverland is still there, as are the wonderfully silly lost boys, the pirates, and of course Peter himself.

I was personally glad I finally got around to reading the book.

My rating: 3.5/5

* Note: I read an unabridged copy of Peter Pan, which I believe contains a lot more offensive language than the one that is traditionally marketed to small children*

 

Book Review: And the Trees Crept In by Dawn Kurtagich

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Review 3.34

 

When Silla and Nori arrive at their aunt’s home, it’s immediately clear that the manor is cursed. The endless creaking of the house at night and the eerie stillness of the woods surrounding them would be enough of a sign, but there are secrets too—questions that Silla can’t ignore: Why does it seem that, ever since they arrived, the trees have been creeping closer? Who is the beautiful boy who’s appeared from the woods? And who is the tall man with no eyes who Nori plays with in the basement at night… a man no one else can see? [Source]

This novel was all style and no substance. I absolutely loved the visual form of this book. Words shrink and grow, they prance gleefully about the pages in a way that is wildly immersive. It creates a surreal atmosphere where the reader knows that nothing is ever quite what it seems. It was very effective at providing an appropriately spooky mood.

Except when it wasn’t. During the periods when Dawn Kurtagich’s novel is forced to play it straight and actually explain itself, it falls apart. Ultimately, this was a book of elaborate tricks hung upon the thinnest of coat-hanger plots. It’s difficult to pull of a stream-of-consciousness-style narrative for any long duration, and this is where And the Trees Crept In meets its downfall. The uncertain, dreamlike state that pervades this book makes it difficult to know what is real and what is not. This is a frequently used tool in the horror/thriller genre, but it has to be backed up by a story that is at least somewhat logical. Early chapters echo legendary short horror pieces such as The Yellow Wallpaper, but then neglect to devote the necessary time towards character development or a coherent storyline.

The central protagonist, Silla, is almost painfully static throughout the course of the novel. She begins the book in a haze of pain and hunger and anger, and that pain and hunger and anger are the only thing that motivate her through the next two hundred pages. There are occasional scenes with a oddly shoehorned love interest that feel forced, but then it’s right back to anger and obsession and constant, repetitive focus on trees.

Overall, And the Trees Crept In was very hit-and-miss. The ultimate explanation for the horrors visiting the sprawling manor home was both obvious and cliche. I enjoyed the middle third of the book the most, and again the visual style was really interesting, but ultimately that isn’t enough for me to recommend the novel.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find And the Trees Crept In here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Rich People Problems (Crazy Rich Asians #3) by Kevin Kwan

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Review 2.32

 

**contains minor spoilers for Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend**

The final installment in any trilogy has a lot to live up to. Over the course of two novels, author Kevin Kwan has created a fantastic, opulent, fast-paced, and ultimately charming universe for his increasingly large cast of characters. Now he has to find a satisfying conclusion for all of them.

While RPP doesn’t have the breathless originality of the first novel, it definitely manages to rise above China Rich Girlfriend in terms of plot development. Things begin happening very quickly from the beginning of this book, and from page one I was sucked right back in to the complicated, extravagant lives of the Young/Shang/Leong family.

Rich People Problems does one thing right from the very start. It recognizes that Rachel Chu, the main protagonist from Crazy Rich Asians, has more-or-less played her role as the naive observer. She is largely absent from the bulk of the novel and, due to her complete lack of personality, is hardly missed. This allows Kwan to focus more of his time and attention on more interesting characters such as Astrid, Kitty, and Shang Su Yi, Nick’s grandmother.

The bulk of the plot is focuses on Su Yi, clan matriarch and the current owner of Tysersall Park, the family’s palatial Singapore estate, as she begins plans to draw up her last will and testament. And if the first two books gave us an insight into the behavior of wealthy people at the best of times, woah buddy just wait until a possible inheritance is thrown into the mix. There is also a very Godfather-esque feel to parts of the narrative, as the reader learns more about Su Yi’s danger-riddled youth under Japanese occupation.

Kwan seems to have learned from some of the mistakes of China Rich Girlfriend, and I was glad to see that the obnoxious label-dropping at dropped off to a reasonable amount. That’s not to say that there aren’t numerous glittering descriptions of the splendor surrounding these characters; Kwan knows his readers and continues to embrace the rampant materialism of the first two books. It’s just that this time none of this stands in the way of actual plot development.

It took me almost five years to get around to reading Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians series, and once I began it took me less than two weeks to read all three novels. Afterwards, I was consumed by that strange empty feeling that true readers occasionally experience. It’s that weird kind of bittersweet melancholy, because on one hand I had so much fun spending time in Kwan’s world, but it’s mixed with sadness because never again will I be able to enjoy these books for the first time.

I highly recommend the series.

My rating: 4.5/5  (5/5 for Crazy Rich Asians as a complete series)

You can find Rich People Problems here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: China Rich Girlfriend (Crazy Rich Asians #2) by Kevin Kwan

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Review 2.31

 

**contains mild spoilers**

Being the second novel in a trilogy is a thankless task. The freshness and originality of the first installment has worn off, and the author needs to lay groundwork and build exposition before the final chapter can answer all the open questions. This is why for so many trilogies, both in literature and film, the second chapter is the weakest of the three.

China Rich Girlfriend sadly falls into this “middle child” sinkhole; it gets bogged down trying to resolve all of the plotlines from the first novel while introducing all the people that will become more important in the finale. That isn’t to say that Kevin Kwan’s second novel isn’t fun; it definitely is. But there’s something missing.

For one thing, there are a lot of new characters to acquaint ourselves with. Having just managed to gain a general understanding of the complicated Shang/Leong/Young/ family tree, now the reader must also get to know Rachel’s newly-found extended family (this is not a spoiler, it’s revealed in the prologue) as well as an absolute entourage of new supporting characters.

Perhaps it is that the “label-dropping” reaches a saturation point in China Rich Girlfriend, though it’s possible that someone who actually knew something about fashion would heartily disagree*. The numerous descriptions of luxurious locations gets a bit ridiculous as well; at one point the male protagonist Nicholas Young notices that a yacht’s barstools were upholstered in “genuine whale foreskin” and I actually burst out laughing. Also, turns out that’s a real thing that actually exists in the world.

China Rich Girlfriend also does an incredibly efficient job of tidying up all of the unresolved plotlines from Crazy Rich Asians. The enmity between Rachel and Eleanor Young is swept away in the first fifty pages as if it never really mattered and is never again mentioned in any real capacity. Considering that I just spent four hundred pages watching Eleanor systematically destroy Rachel’s life, this easy resolution was unsatisfying.

Things aren’t all bad, and Kwan’s delight at bringing this secretive and showy world to life is both obvious and infectious. At the very least, I think we can all agree that no matter what happens to Nick and Rachel (who remain almost painfully milquetoast) it is Astrid who truly deserves her happy ending.

My rating: 4/5

You can find China Rich Girlfriend here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

*full disclosure-my annual clothing budget is somewhere in the range of seventy-five dollars

Book Review: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

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Review 2.30

I’ve been putting off writing this review for ages, because I can’t think of the best way to describe Kevin Kwan’s debut bestseller, Crazy Rich Asians. There’s been a ton of hype around this book since it was released in 2013, and it’s already been adapted into a film starring Constance Wu and Henry Golding.

So what can I say that hasn’t been said by a thousand readers and reviewers before me? Not much really. But I can say it again, and in slightly different words. What fun!

Speaking of fun, Crazy Rich Asians was a runaway bestseller for a reason; it’s pure unadulterated escapist fun. Instead of trying to avoid all of the cliches associated with the “chick-lit”* genre, it revels in them. At one point, a character literally pulls out an unlimited AmEx card and utters the words, “This is a fashion emergency!” (or some paraphrase thereof).

Crazy Rich Asians is shamelessly capitalist, and I spent the entire novel in a weird swirl of awe and envy that was nonetheless highly enjoyable. The name-dropping and label-obsession went completely over my head most of the time, but it was certainly an education  For example, I had no idea that “Hermes-orange” was its own color.

The thing that really sets this book apart from the myriads of forgettable chick-lit is that it is also opened my eyes to a culture I previously didn’t know much about and will, in all likelihood, never experience. I imagine this novel will do wonders for the Singaporean tourist industry, already a huge part of their economy. Personally, the numerous descriptions of delicious Hokkien street food were enough to have me poking into flights.

The central plot of Crazy Rich Asians is breathless, exciting, silly, and self-indulgent. The central character, Rachel Wu, isn’t terribly interesting at all and serves mainly as our introduction to this world of extravagant wealth. The bustling, busying, nosying, prying members of the Young family are the highlight of the book, and rarely have I enjoyed soap-opera-esque plot developments so much.

I loved spending time in Kevin Kwan’s world of extreme opulence and backstabbing family members. I also feel like I learned a lot about a culture completely different from my own, which is always a good time.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Crazy Rich Asians here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

** Personally, I find this term odious but it is a highly-effective description of the genre.

Did Not Finish: The Witches by Stacy Shiff

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It had to happen eventually. Over the past sixteen months, I’ve published reviews on more than one hundred and twenty novels. There’s been good books and bad books and occasionally a book that is truly great.

But The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff, is the first book that I am giving up on.

I don’t have a car, so I mostly walk or use public transit to get around Toronto. While commuting to various locations, I like to use Audible because my earbuds are easy to stash in my pocket once I reach my destination.

I prefer nonfiction because if I have to tune out for a few minutes in order to cross the street or dodge the ever-present construction in the city, I can quickly pick up the thread of the narrative once more.

For more than nine hours I listened to The Witches, and today I could not tell you anything about the Salem Witch Trials that I didn’t know beforehand. This is because the book is all brain and no heart. It’s filled with facts and quoted and diary excerpts, but it fails entirely to make the historical figures into living, breathing people with motivations.

I always like to know the why of things. For example, I knew the basic facts about Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt before I read Kara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King. What her book provided was the historical context of the period. Using educated guesswork and a dash of wild speculation, Cooney was able to paint a portrait of Egyptian life that allowed me to better understand Hatshepsut’s reign as a whole.

That’s what is sorely missing from Schiff’s book. She spends countless pages describing what the teenage girls of Salem were doing when they were supposedly bewitched. They tore out their hair, contorted their bodies, and screamed the invisible “spirits” tormenting them. These are facts. What I wanted to know was why. If it wasn’t witches, which it clearly wasn’t, then what on Earth would possess an entire community of teenage girls to behave as if they were, in fact, possessed?

If this book had been a little shorter, I probably would have been able to stay the course. But The Witches is more than five hundred pages. Like I said, I listened for nearly ten hours. Then I looked, and saw there were still eight hours to go. And I just couldn’t spend another eight hours in that particular version of Salem, no matter how technically accurate.

My rating: N/A

Normally I leave links here for anyone who would like to purchase the book, but given what you’ve just read, why would you?

Happy reading everyone!

Thrift Store Finds! 27/02/19

I think I found it. The thing I didn’t even know I had been searching to find. Hidden on a dusty back shelf at the Salvation Army was:

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The creepiest f*cking edition of Alice in Wonderland ever produced.

Seriously, every single page of this thing is pure nightmare fodder. The original story written by Lewis Carroll is unchanged, but the illustrations are in a parallel dimension away from the sweet drawings popularized by the Walt Disney film. It’s as if the artist, Camille Rae Garcia, heard that the book is often interpreted to be about drug use and said “Whelp, better try some drugs”.

And then tried all of them. At once.

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I thought Tim Burton’s film adaptation with Johnny Depp as a dead-eyed sociopath was as weird as it could get. And yet…

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I was clearly wrong.

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This thing is amazing.

Happy nightmares everyone!

Book Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (1994)

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Review 2.12

 

Shots rang out in Savannah’s grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self-defense? For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares. John Berendt’s sharply observed, suspenseful, and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction. Berendt skillfully interweaves a hugely entertaining first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case. [Source]

The murder-mystery at the center of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil doesn’t occur until almost halfway through the book. First, author John Berendt takes his readers on a tour of Savannah, Georgia in the early 1990’s and introduces us to a cast of characters so bizarre they can only be real. Among the colorful denizens of this insular community are Joe Odom, the charismatic thief who swindles his closest friends one evening and then attends their parties the next. There’s the Lady Chablis, the outspoken transvestite drag queen who nominates Berendt as her personal chauffeur. The pampered former beauty who is a near recluse. An eccentric who claims he has a bottle of poison powerful enough to kill the entire population of Savannah. I could go on and on. These voices serve as a quirky and often hilarious backdrop to the trial of James Williams for murder.

Of course the star of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is the city of Savannah herself, and Berendt describes the small coastal city with language usually reserved for beautiful women. Savannah is sultry and mysterious, seductive and veiled with secrets. She’s wary of outsiders, but still honors the Southern tradition of hospitality. People go to church on Sunday and then hire the local voodoo woman to work charms in the graveyard the next night. I dare anyone to make it through this book without stopping at some point to look up flights to Savannah. I think I got to page fifty.

The central plot deals with the murder of a male escort by a prominent member of Savannah society, and the nearly ten-year series of trials that followed. How Berendt became privy to so many intricate details of the case is never made entirely clear, but I wonder if Williams didn’t keep Berendt well-informed as a way of ensuring that his version of events was the one people would remember. Either way, Berendt’s fly-on-the-wall perspective gives a unique insight into a case that got little national publicity, but which rocked the close-knit community of Savannah to it’s core.

Overall, I can see why Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has received so much praise from high circles. After this book was published in 1994, the city of Savannah saw a boom of tourism that continues to this day. For me, Savannah has now joined cities like Boston and New Orleans on my list of must-see places in the United States.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Thrift Store Finds!

There was a $.50 book sale at my local Salvation Army, and look what I found!

 

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It’s a full color comic book adaptation of Return of the Jedi. And…

 

 

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It’s a first edition from 1983! And…

 

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It was produced by Stan Lee!

 

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This thing is so cool!

 

Happy reading everyone!