Book Review: Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker

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Review 2.27

 

One night three years ago, the Tanner sisters disappeared: fifteen-year-old Cass and seventeen-year-old Emma. Three years later, Cass returns, without her sister Emma. Her story is one of kidnapping and betrayal, of a mysterious island where the two were held. But to forensic psychiatrist Dr. Abby Winter, something doesn’t add up. Looking deep within this dysfunctional family Dr. Winter uncovers a life where boundaries were violated and a narcissistic parent held sway. And where one sister’s return might just be the beginning of the crime. [Source]

Emma in the Night is one of those purely innocuous novels that is perfect for a long airport layover. Between its relatively slim pages is a story that is fast-paced, entertaining, and entirely forgettable. I finished this book three days ago, and I had to read the Goodreads synopsis to remember much of the plot.

Describing this novel by Wendy Walker as forgettable sounds harsh, but it isn’t meant as such. Sometimes it’s nice to sit down a read a book that doesn’t require your full concentration. It does; however, make writing a review more difficult because there isn’t much to say beyond, “Yeah I read that.”

The dysfunctional family relationship between mother and daughter is at the heart of Emma in the Night. Walker explores the concepts of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder as they relate to the bonds between the women of the Tanner family. We are told about the psychological strain of growing up in a household ruled over by a manipulative and controlling parent, and how that often triggers a cycle of mental illness and abuse.

I liked that Walker resisted the urge to split her timeline, instead keeping the story in the present tense and delivering important exposition via conversations between Cass and the police. While this does create a distance between the reader and the protagonist, it also avoids the cliche of having constant flashbacks which add nothing to the overall narrative. When the final twist came, as final twists inevitably do in the thriller genre, it didn’t feel like a cheat. Which is high praise from a reader who is thoroughly fed up with unnecessary plot twists.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Emma in the Night here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Wendy Walker’s debut novel, All is Not Forgotten, was reviewed for this website by none other than my momma! Check it out here.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher (2008)

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Review 2.25

 

In Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher tells the true and intoxicating story of her life with inimitable wit. Born to celebrity parents, she was picked to play a princess in a little movie called Star Wars when only 19 years old. “But it isn’t all sweetness and light sabers.” Alas, aside from a demanding career and her role as a single mother (not to mention the hyperspace hairdo), Carrie also spends her free time battling addiction, weathering the wild ride of manic depression and lounging around various mental institutions. It’s an incredible tale – from having Elizabeth Taylor as a stepmother, to marrying (and divorcing) Paul Simon, from having the father of her daughter leave her for a man, to ultimately waking up one morning and finding a friend dead beside her in bed. [Source]

 

When I hit “play” on the audiobook edition of Wishful Drinking, hearing Carrie’s Fishers voice come out of my earbuds almost floored me. I knew that the audiobook was narrated by the author, but somehow I hadn’t connected that with the fact that Carrie Fisher was going to be telling me the story of her life.

Just hearing that sarcastic raspy voice was enough to transport me completely. Carrie Fisher was one of my heroes when I was growing up, and not for the reasons you might think. Of course I’ve been a life-long fan of Star Wars to the point where I’m currently sipping tea out of a Death Star mug, but it wasn’t Fisher’s portrayal of Princess Leia that made me love her. It was maybe twenty years later, when I was watching an interview with Fisher on Leno or Letterman or one of those late-night talk shows. I was probably only ten years old, but I remembered even then just how few fucks Carrie Fisher gave about anyone else’s opinion of her.

Her memoir, Wishful Drinking, is an extension of that attitude. Considering that the cover features Fisher dressed up as Princess Leia, I imagined that this book would be filled with fun behind-the-scenes tales from her time on the set of Star Wars. Fisher knows her audience, and does deliver some amusing anecdotes about working with George Lucas. But ultimately, Fisher did not write her memoir to talk about her career as an actress.

She wants to talk about mental health.

Carrie Fisher was a loud and lifelong advocate for mental health. She is open and honest about her own battles with bipolar disorder and the substance abuse problems that so often accompany the illness. She describes how electro-shock therapy has left her with holes in her memory  but a renewed zest for life. This matter-of-fact portrayal of mental illness was refreshing, and Fisher herself seemed to take great comfort that so many “crazy people” managed to achieve so much despite their mental health problems. It doesn’t help that it was all read in Fisher’s brash tones.

I cannot recommend enough you listen to this book as opposed to reading it in print. As I listened to Wishful Drinking I could picture Carrie Fisher so perfectly. She is chain-smoking one cigarette after another and laughing over-loudly at some inappropriate comment. It was like having her back for a few short hours

My rating: 4/5

You can find Wishful Drinking here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible edition is read (wonderfully) by the author and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

Guest Review: Letter to My Daughter by George Bishop (2010)

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by Elizabeth Schlueter

 

After yet another terrible argument, fifteen year old Elizabeth slams the front door, having to get away from her mother who obviously has no clue what it’s like to be a teenager. Her mother, Laura, begins to pen a letter to her daughter, explaining that she does indeed know what it’s like to be fifteen years old. Laura’s letter details many of the questions that her daughter has quizzed her about over the years. Why did you get that tattoo? Was Daddy your first love?

As day fades to evening and evening well into the night, Laura focuses all her pent-up tension on writing an open and honest letter about being fifteen. She remembers her first time, being the outsider at school and losing her first love in an unpopular war. Paragraphs become pages and pages become chapters as Laura anxiously awaits and prays for Elizabeth’s safe return.

I enjoyed this novel. As a mom, our children pepper us with questions about our past, some we are hesitant to truthfully answer, and some questions that will remain secret. This novel made me reflect on my own child-rearing. How much should we really tell our children? Is it possible to be too open and honest about your own past? There are some moments and memories that we cling to and want to be just ours, not willing to share with anyone.

The author did a surprisingly good job of narrating from a mother’s point of view, but perhaps that is not all that difficult as a father. Raising children regardless of sex, the job itself is very similar, only the details may differ.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Letter to My Daughter here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala (2013)

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Review 2.17

 

On December 26, 2004, an earthquake of record proportions struck off the coast of Indonesia, triggering a series of tsunamis that swept through the Indian Ocean, ultimately killing more than 200,000 people in fourteen countries.

Two hundred thousand people.

Our brains aren’t quite capable of making sense of it. Two hundred thousand is simply a very large number, and our minds try to view it as such. It’s difficult to imagine two hundred thousand individual voices, with hopes and families and dreams and fears, being simultaneously snuffed out by a wall of water on a cloudless day.

Wave tells one of those stories. On the day of the tsunamis, Sonali Deraniyagala lost both her parents, her husband, and both her sons to the wave. She herself was swept two miles inland after being separated from her family. In her memoir, Deraniyagala gives voice to the pain, confusion, and grief that she has felt since the wave, and asks whether or not it’s possible to truly recover from such a loss.

I will say this for the author, she is brutally, unflinching honest. The rawness of her pain was almost unbearable to listen to, and I don’t know if I would have been able to get through a print copy of the book. Wave is a swirling maelstrom of grief. Deraniyagala is frank about her contemplation of suicide, her descent into binge drinking, her wish for madness to relieve her of the continued burden of life. Given the circumstances, one could expect little different. This was a book that made me want to hug my husband a little closer at night. I paused on one occasion to call my mom. Wave works as a reminder to never take our happiness for granted.

This is not a story of grief and healing in the wake of loss, it is an outpouring of grief from a woman who has been struck by unfathomable sorrow. It’s difficult to criticize a book like this without looking like an asshole. After all, this person is baring her soul to the world, who am I to deign even to reply? That said, Deraniyagala was difficult to connect with. She is self-centered and self-absorbed. At no point does Deraniyagala ever extend her grief to include any of the other two hundred thousand people who died that day. She never bothers to thank the friends and family who rallied to support her. She doesn’t seem to recognize that not everyone who suffered that day could then take the next seven years to recover, grieve, travel, and go whale-watching.

Deraniyagala mentions that actually, at some point in Wave. The enormity of her loss is simply too great, and people react defensively when faced with such uncomprehending sadness. Listening to Wave was difficult and imperfect and gut-wrenchingly painful, and that is what makes stories like this so important.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Wave here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible version is narrated by Hannah Curtis and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski (1986)

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Review 2.16

 

A Door into Ocean is the novel upon which the author’s reputation as an important SF writer principally rests. A ground-breaking work both of feminist SF and of world-building hard SF, it concerns the Sharers of Shora, a nation of women on a distant moon in the far future who are pacifists, highly advanced in biological sciences, and who reproduce by parthenogenesis–there are no males–and tells of the conflicts that erupt when a neighboring civilization decides to develop their ocean world, and send in an army. [Source]

Unlike many genres, science fiction and fantasy writers often face the uphill task of world building. If the story is set anywhere other than the planet Earth, and concerns any characters that aren’t human, it’s the author’s arduous task to make this place have weight and meaning in our imaginations.

This can be a difficult balancing act, because instead of jumping right into the plot, science fiction first requires that the reader understand the “rules” of this particular universe. I say this because some critics (including some in my book club) became frustrated by A Door into Ocean due to its rather slow exposition. And it does take more than fifty pages for the planet of Shora to even make an appearance. First, Slonczewski has to establish the two worlds.

A Door into Ocean will draw inevitable and accurate comparison to novels such as Dances with Wolves, or films like Avatar and Disney’s Pocahontas. Often called the “white savior” trope, these stories all share a basic narrative structure. An outsider from a more “advanced” culture will come to a world populated by “savages”. Over time the outsider will become more and more drawn to the natural and pure ways of the natives, and in the process will betray his own people, who are often ruthless, violent, and mercenary. This is not a criticism. There are only so many stories to be told in the world; what separates good novels from the merely mediocre is the author’s ability to bring an old story to life in a new and interesting way.

Joan Slonczewski succeeds in this area by making her novel a sort of philosophical thought experiment on the nature of pacifism. Populated solely by women and daughters, the ocean world of Shora has been left untouched for millennia. The “Sharers” have a disorganized, almost anarchist society that has no concept of obedience, and therefore no concept of resistance. As the invading “malefreaks” attempt to impose martial law on the planet, the questions remains if the Sharers will remain true to their nonviolent history, turn to a violent future, or be wiped off the face of Shora entirely.

Even though it takes awhile to get there,  the planet of Shora is a fascinating and dangerous place. It is no idyllic paradise, and the dangers faced by the Sharers by their own natural environment gives the narrative a surge in excitement once it finally sets down on the ocean world.

The thing I love about good science fiction is the interesting discussions it can spark. I’ll enjoy chewing over the ideas presented by A Door into Ocean for the next couple of days to see what I uncover.

My rating: 4/5

You can find A Door into Ocean here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage (2018)

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What would you do if you found yourself unable to love your child? What if your child didn’t love you?

Eight-year old Hanna is sweet and precocious for her father, even if she is unwilling to speak. But for her mother Suzette, Hanna is a manipulative and destructive child who seems hell-bent on destroying the relationship between her parents. As Suzette becomes increasingly strained by Hanna’s behavior, Hanna’s tricks become more sophisticated as she decides that she may have to remove her mother from the picture altogether.

I read a lot, and I mean a lot of horror novels, but this debut novel by author Zoje Stage scared the pants off me. The premise is entirely ridiculous and utterly silly but it’s crafted within enough care to keep the level of suspense heightened until the very end.

The split narrative varies between mother and daughter so that the reader comes to sympathize with both characters. It would be easy to write off Hanna as a deranged child psychopath like Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son, but that would be too easy. Instead we can understand Hanna’s skewed viewpoint and how she has somehow come to view her mother as the enemy. She is never depicted as a “demon child” so much as a confused and disturbed little girl. We can also understand how Suzette has reached a breaking point when it comes to parenting a increasingly difficult child.

There is a hint of Rosemary’s Baby in Suzette’s relationship with her husband. He is too often absent, and since Hanna puts on her best face for her Daddy, inclined to side with her. As the father, Alex is the least developed character and too often plays the role of biased mediator. There are many instances where he says that his wife is “over-reacting” and that there daughter is simply “under stimulated” at home. This is a fairly lazy plot device in 2018 when most parents are more involved in their children’s upbringing.

This book is sure to be controversial with the mommy crowd, particularly the ending. As a currently childless woman, I found the ideas presented in Baby Teeth to be simultaneously disturbing and highly entertaining. It was certainly a compelling read from beginning to end.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Baby Teeth here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!