Book Review: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (2015)

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Review #88

Caden Bosch is on a ship headed towards the Challenger Deep, the deepest point on Earth located in the Marinas Trench. Sometimes. Other times he is a fifteen-year old high school kid who is beginning to have difficulty distinguishing between what is real and what is not. Caden Bosch is elected the ship’s artist, whose job it is to document the ship’s crew with pictures. Sometimes. Other times he is a boy who cannot stop moving, who quits the track team and instead wanders for miles around his neighborhood. Caden Bosch is beginning to contemplate mutiny against the ship’s captain but is still holding on to his allegiance. Sometimes.

Neal Shusterman dives deep into the heart of mental illness with Challenger Deep, and explores how a person’s mind can begin to betray them. Caden Bosch is never diagnosed with anything specific, but his symptoms exhibit signs of schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder. He begins to feel constant paranoia and anxiety, and his social functions plummet as he loses the ability to hold a sustained conversation. Shusterman, who uses many personal details from the life of his own son, portrays Caden as someone who has great inner strength but finds that all the perseverance in the world cannot always combat the continuous onslaught of mental illness.

Shusterman depicts the confusion that Caden feels by ensuring that his readers have some difficulty discerning exactly what is going on at any given time. His chapters are short, only three or four pages long, and vary from Caden on board a sailing ship in the middle of the Pacific to Caden trying to hold on to the pieces of his life while his illness threatens to consume him. The first fifty or so pages of Challenger Deep twist into a big jumble before settling into a more straightforward narrative. In this way Shusterman helps us to empathize with his protagonist.

Challenger Deep represents a brutally honest, yet ultimately sensitive portrayal of mental illness. Caden’s struggles are never glamorized or dramatized for effect. We identify with his struggles and rejoice with his rare glimmers of hope. He understands that he will never be “cured” and instead has to come to terms with the fact that his mental illness with be with him for the rest of his life. Instead of this being a sour note, Caden is able to meet it with resignation.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Challenger Deep here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Mermaid by Christina Henry (2018)

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Review #85

Once upon a time there was a mermaid who was curious about the lives of men. One day she swam too close to shore, and was trapped in a net by a fisherman. Moved by her alien beauty, the fisherman released the mermaid back into the sea. But the mermaid, entranced by the loneliness in the eyes of the fisherman, used an ancient magic to give herself legs and join the fisherman on land. He named her Amelia and together they lived a long and happy life, until the day came when the fisherman went out to sea and didn’t come back. Isolated in her small cabin on a cliffside, Amelia spends her days watching the sea and missing the fisherman. Many years pass, until another man comes into her life. A man by the name of P.T. Barnum.

Christina Henry has published several revisionist fairy tales, included Lost Boy which I reviewed earlier this year. I would describe her latest novel, The Mermaid, as a re-imagining of the classic story of a mermaid who dreams of life on land. The plot of The Mermaid bares almost zero resemblance to the original Danish fairy tale, choosing instead to follow its own path to 19th century New York City.

The opening of The Mermaid reads very much like a classic fairy tale, with very little dialogue and an omniscient narrator who constructs a sweet and believable love story between a mermaid and a fisherman. The rest of the novel switches to a more modern narrative with the mermaid Amelia as its heroine, a creature who is older and stranger than anyone around her realizes. Christina Henry does a wonderful job of portraying Amelia has inhuman but not inhumane. She has difficulty identifying with those around her but is filled with empathy for the everyday struggles of the people she encounters in New York.

If The Mermaid is lacking anything, it’s a solid antagonist. Because Henry has grounded her story away from its Danish roots, Amelia never makes a deal with a vengeful sea witch. There is no pressing time limit for her to win her true love and remain human. The nearest thing to a villain is P.T. Barnum as the immoral collector of freaks and oddities, but even he is presented as distasteful and greedy rather than actively monstrous.

So far I have enjoyed both of Christina Henry’s novels. I love the imaginative way she transports her readers to another time and place. Her writing is captivating and begs to be read. I’ll keep my eyes open for her next fairy tale interpretation.

My rating: 4/5

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

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (2006)

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Review #84

Shortly after a brief stay in a psychiatric hospital, Chicago journalist Camille Preaker is summoned back to her rural Missouri hometown to cover the brutal murders of two young girls. This means that Camille must get back in touch with her family, who she has been estranged from for many years. Her neurotic, hypochondriac mother doesn’t seem overjoyed to see her eldest daughter. Her half-sister has grown into a beautiful and manipulative teenager. And her stepfather seems content to sip cocktails and watch from the sidelines. While investigating in a town that seems increasingly hostile, Camille must struggle to maintain her own mental health while trying to find out everything she can about the deaths of two girls who begin to evoke memories from her own past.

Six years before Gone Girl became a runaway bestseller and changed the thriller genre forever Gillian Flynn published her debut novel, Sharp Objects. It’s easy to see Flynn’s obvious talent as well as how she grew as an author with her follow-up books. Sharp Objects is a shorter novel that immediately dives into a dark and haunted place and stays there for the duration.

Everyone in this book seems to be suffering from some form of deeply unhealthy obsession. Even the town itself has a kind of malignant tumor that infects the overall atmosphere. Camille’s family is a warped and twisted caricature of love. Her mother Adora demands control over everyone in her life and is willing to excise anyone who defies her authority, even her own daughter. Camille’s thirteen year old half-sister Amma has learned how to play her mother and everyone else in the town, consummately changing personalities to fit people’s individual perceptions. For Camille, who is dealing with a history of self-arm and anxiety, this is the worst place she could possibly be.

Gillian Flynn deserves props for presenting an honest and unflinching portrayal of mental illness. Camille’s fragile mental state is never romanticized, but neither does it define her entirely. She is more than her illness, and works every day to better herself. At the same time she is ashamed of what she believes to be a weakness, and self-medicates with drugs and alcohol to dull her pain. The longer Camille remains with her family, the stronger the urge to self-harm becomes.

I really enjoyed this novel for its dark and twisted portrayal of familial bonds. The tangled relationship between Camille and those who are supposed to love and support her are described in a realistic if incredibly destructive manner. I could easily relate to Flynn’s protagonist who has to hold on to her inner strength when it becomes nearly impossible to do so.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Sharp Objects here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Off to be the Wizard by Scott Meyer (2014)

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Review #83

Martin Banks is just a normal, everyday guy who enjoys digging into the depths of the internet in his spare time. On one of these nighttime expeditions, he stumbles across a discovery that will change his life forever. The world as we know it is nothing more than a computer program; a computer program that Martin is able to change at will. He vows that he will use this newfound power sparingly and with great care. This vow lasts for approximately forty-eight hours before Martin finds himself fleeing back in time to medieval England. He decides to pose as a wizard and make a life for himself in the tiny village of Leadchurch.

Author Scott Meyer makes the smart decision early in this novel not to waste time on how any of the plot elements work. The computer program controls everything about the world because it does, and Martin is able to use this to alter his appearance, his bank account, and his location by teleporting. There is very little time given over to trying to apply logic to an inherently illogical premise, and Meyer avoids getting bogged down in the details.

Instead, he offers up a wildly silly story of a man who tries to fool a village of 11th century English villagers that he is a wizard. Martin downloads the computer code into his phone, and uses it to make himself hover, emit sparks, and speak in a booming voice. Don’t bother asking how his phone continues to work in the past, it just does. This process is laid out in a highly enjoyable montage that reminded me of The Matrix, if Neo were learning break-dancing instead of kungfu.

Overall, Off to Be the Wizard was smart, irreverent, and short enough that it ended before the situational comedy began to wear thin. It never made me laugh out loud, but instead caused a kind of perpetual smirk from beginning to end.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Off to Be the Wizard here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: Blankets by Craig Thompson (2003)

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Review #81

Craig Thompson lives a lonely life in rural Wisconsin. The son of incredibly devout Christians, his early life is defined by love for God combined with the sense of shame that he will never be pure enough to earn God’s love in return. He has an ongoing sibling rivalry with his younger brother Phil and constantly feels both protective and smothered by their relationship. When Craig is in high school he attends a Christian Bible Camp. There he meets Raina, and a budding romance springs up between them which causes Craig to begin questioning his faith.

The early parts of Thompson’s novel deal mostly with his relationship with his little brother. Since Craig is constantly bullied at school because his family is poor and highly religious, he is incredibly lonely. But instead of turning to his brother for friendship, he belittles Phil and tries to make himself seem smarter and more powerful than his sibling. At the same time, Blankets is interspersed with memories of he and his brother as they play together, draw together, and bicker with one another. Sibling relationships are always a strange mixture of love and irritation, and Thompson depicts that dichotomy with humor and humility.

The bulk of Blankets is dedicated to Craig’s relationship with Raina, and the emotional highs and lows that accompany a first love. Thompson portrays their budding romance as a whirlwind of new experiences, new hormones, and new revelations that will test their tenuous bonds. We as readers know how incredibly rare it is for people to end up with their first loves, and yet I found myself hoping against hope that things would somehow work out for the two of them. Thompson shows that he has a poetic soul in these sections, and the way that Craig sets Raina on a a pedestal of perfection is beautifully written. She is highly idealized, and often represented as a goddess or an angel with a halo upon her head. There is also a running undercurrent of fear since Craig does not believe himself to be worthy of anyone’s love, and he lives in a state of anxiety that Raina will one day realize how deficient he is.

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The writing in this novel was poignant and powerfully honest. One of the reasons that memoirs can leave such an indelible impression is that they require the author to bare their soul entirely.  Thompson draws upon that extreme confusion that all teenagers feel at some point. A crisis of faith, a feeling of shame for his own desires, a realization that a love for God does not always have to mean an attachment to organized religion are the cornerstones of Blankets.

The illustrations in this book are wonderfully expressive, and I was continually impressed by the amount of detail that Thompson was able to cram into the small panels of this novel. He draws the harsh winters of Wisconsin with a deft and loving hand that make me eager for the first snowfall of the season.

If I had to make a criticism of Blankets, it would be that there were certain aspects that Thompson left too vague. At one point he suggests that he and his brother were molested by a babysitter. This is given about two pages early in the novel, and revisited with two pages towards the middle. I kept waiting for the author to explain more about what happened with the brothers and the babysitter, but he never touches on it again. This is one example of a plot line that is never followed, and I was frustrated by the fact that Thompson would drop such a bombshell on his readers but never lead it to any conclusion.

This is the second graphic memoir that I’ve read this month, the other being Persepolis. I find myself increasingly drawn to this niche genre because of its stark and beautiful honesty, and the talent by the author to expose their innermost pain and joy to strangers. Reading Blankets was looking straight into the soul of a fellow human, and seeing myself reflected back.

My rating: 4.5/5

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

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: There’s Someone Inside Your House by Stephanie Perkins (2017)

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Review #80

 

Makani Young is struggling to adjust to life in Osborne, Nebraska. After a life spent growing up on the beaches of her native Hawaii, the small football-obsessed town is incredibly dull. Makani is relieved to be away from the dark past that haunted her back home. She’s making new friends and possibly even a boyfriend. But when her fellow classmates begin turning up dead in a series of increasingly gruesome murders, she wonders if her past hasn’t come back to haunt her.

The first twenty or so pages of this novel are brilliant. A teenage girl home alone begins to notice that random objects in her house appears to have been moved ever so slightly. She attempts to ignore her growing sense of fear and goes about her evening, but keeps feeling as though someone is watching her from the windows. When she least expects it, the killer strikes. It is a fun and tense homage to the campy openings of horror films such as Scream or Urban Legend.

It is then followed by nearly one hundred pages of a book that more closely resembles a late ’90’s teen rom-com. Author Stephanie Perkins previous works were romance novels with titles like Anna and the French Kiss. This is her first foray into the thriller genre, and it is easy to tell that she had difficulty putting aside her romantic inclinations. The relationship between Makani and Ollie is sweet and genuine, but altogether tedious when the more interesting parts of the novel focus on a deranged killer as he stalks teenagers and dismembers them in creative ways. The juxtaposition of the romance and slasher genres doesn’t quite mesh and often feels like two entirely different books that got accidentally squashed together.

Perkins also makes the interesting choice to reveal the identity of her killer halfway through the plot. Not just to the reader, the characters actually see him and identify him to the police a little past the midway point in the novel. This took away a lot of the suspense that had been building up. If the big question is “Who is the insane killer?” then answering that question with more than one hundred pages left to go drains away the energy. It also led to a messy and somewhat confusing climax.

Overall, I can admire that Perkins attempted to break out of her comfort zone and offer her readers something entirely different. I would like to see another thriller novel from her, just to see whether or not the suspense aspects of the plot have managed to supersede the romantic elements.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find There’s Someone In Your House here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather (2016)

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Review #79

Samantha Mather has always known that she’s a distant descendant of Cotton Mather, one of the main instigators in the Salem Witch Trials, but it never seemed to matter when she lived in New York City. But now, with her father in a coma and medical bills running high, Sam and her stepmother Vivian are moving to Salem to live in her deceased grandmother’s house. When she begins attending the local high school, Sam realizes that there is still a lot of resentment towards the Mather name in the town. Soon the trials of high school begin to feel more and more like a modern day witch hunt. And it doesn’t help that her new house seems to be haunted.

This novel was written by Adriana Mather, who truly is a descendant of the Mather family whose roots go back fourteen generations to the early Puritans of New England. The present-day Mather has said that she wrote How to Hang a Witch to draw parallels between the infamous witch trials of 1692 and modern day bullying.

While reading this novel I was strongly reminded of a post I wrote earlier this year about the enduring popularity of R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps books. This book ticks several of the criteria that I listed for a children’s scary chapter book. The protagonist is the new kid in town. She is treated unfairly by the majority of the her peers for no apparent reason, but it immediately befriended by others for no reason. At around fifteen, the characters in How to Hang a Witch are older than in Stine’s books, so there are some curse words thrown in as well as a few halfhearted and determinedly chaste romantic scenes.

There’s also the extreme lack of adult support, which is where Adriana Mather’s bullying allegory falls flat. Sam’s teachers are downright cruel to her, which worked for Stine because it could have possibly flown under the radar back in the ’90’s. In today’s world, if a teacher treated their students with the outright disdain that Sam is treated, it would be trending on Buzzfeed by the end of the day and the teacher would be out on their ass. Instead, a fellow student hangs Sam in effigy and the teacher doesn’t bat an eye. It’s entirely unrealistic and really took away from my enjoyment of this novel.

Furthermore, I’m not sure that the author has ever spoken to a teenager. The dialogue is very clunky and contains slang that spans the past fifteen years. Witches are an enduring part of supernatural lore because of their mystery and power. For hundreds of years they have struck fear and superstition into the hearts of humanity. Here, they are reduced to a group of snarky young girls who wear too much eyeliner. It was a bit unfortunate, really.

At the end of the day, this novel was just a little bit too far on “young” side of the Young Adult spectrum for my taste. I’m sure it would be very enjoyable for someone in seventh or eighth grade, and might even help them to learn about a very interesting time in American history.

My rating: 2/5

You can find How to Hang a Witch here on Amazon or here on Book Depository

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware (2018)

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Review #78

Hal Westaway is in a tight spot. Struggling to make ends meet and hounded by loan sharks, she is becoming increasingly desperate. So when she receives a mysterious letter that alludes to a deceased grandmother and a possibly substantial inheritance, it comes as the answer to a prayer. There’s only one problem. Hester Westaway was not Hal’s grandmother. She realizes that the cold-reading skills she has developed as a tarot reader might help her to claim the money, and she embarks on a risky, last-ditch effort to the country estate of Trepassen. Once she gets there, Hal begins to understand that there is something very wrong with the other descendants of Hester Westaway and the inheritance she is there to collect.

I’ve read two of Ruth Ware’s previous novels, and found myself rather underwhelmed. In a Dark Dark Wood lacked any meaningful characterization, and The Woman in Cabin 10 left very little impression at all. I decided to give Ware one more chance because the cover art for The Death of Mrs. Westaway reminded me of the classic gothic horror novel Rebecca. And there are certain similarities to du Maurier’s work here. A neglected manor home in the wilds of England. A dead woman who continues to wield great power over those who come after her. A terrible secret that haunts those under the roof of the manor home. There’s even a Mrs. Danvers-esque character who sole function seems to be spouting ominous threats in the dead of night.

Hal Westaway would be an easy character to dislike if she weren’t quite so pitiful. After all, she does set out for the estate of Trepassen with the intention of committing fraud. However, Ware introduces Hal as a girl constantly teetering on the brink of destitution. She is young, alone, and trying desperately to keep her life together. We empathize with Hal, so it is easy to root for her despite her less than noble objectives. Riddled with guilt over what she means to do, her constant flip-flopping becomes a bit exhausting, but ultimately made sense and helps to keep her sympathetic to the reader.

It helps that none of the other characters are terribly likeable, and all of Hal’s newfound “uncles” are a little one-note. Harding is gruff and impatient. Abel is apologetic and emotionally damaged. Ezra is charming and irreverent. The other family members bring little to the table. Constantly lingering in the background is the malignant presence of the deceased Mrs. Westaway, who I would like to have seen fleshed out a little more. Her motivations are murky at best, and I couldn’t understand how anyone could be so truly unfeeling towards their family.

Overall this is a mystery novel that focuses on the secrets that always seem to haunt families with old money. I initially feared that this novel would follow the current popular model and end with a series of “shocking” twists and turns, but was presently surprised by the restraint shown by Ware. She employs echoes of the old gothic style, complete with myriad descriptions of decaying walls, gloomy hallways, and misty fields. While not a horror novel by any description, there is a certain amount of creeping tension that builds through the pages.

I enjoyed this novel much more than my previous two experiences with Ware’s work. It felt more mature and composed, as if the author had decided to stop catering to the expectation that there needs to be a thousand surprise reveals in order to make a satisfying climax. I’ll keep my eye out for Ruth Ware’s next novel.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Death of Mrs. Westaway here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

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!