Book Review: Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage (2018)

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What would you do if you find 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 when 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!

Book Review: The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley (2008)

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Review #87

Carrie McClelland comes to the tiny Scottish village to write about Slains, the local castle that played an important role in the Jacobite uprising of 1708. Carrie hopes to use the crumbling ruins in a historical fiction novel she is writing, but ends up writing a completely different kidn of book when she finds herself overwhelmed by someone else’s memories.

Nineteen-year old Sophia Paterson comes to Slains castle after her parents die on a sailing voyage. She finds safety and comfort with her aunt, the Countess, who is playing an active role in bringing the exiled King of Scotland back from France. Sophia finds herself embroiled in a plot that is doomed to fail.

This is my first novel by acclaimed author Susanna Kearsley, and I can see why she is so popular. Her writing style is comfortable and familiar, and she incorporates complicated historical elements in a way that is easy to understand. It is obvious that she has done a great deal of research on the Jacobite uprising and the castle of Slains. I can certainly say that I now know a lot more about the deposed King James II and those who sought to restore him to the throne than I did before reading this novel.

Generally, when an author splits the plot of the book between two characters in different time periods, one of them is going to be more well-developed than the other. That ends up being the case here, as the novel-within-a-novel that is Sophia’s story is far more interesting than Carrie’s plotline. I think Kearsley even began to understand that, since after The Winter Sea hits the halfway mark less and less time is devoted to Carrie’s narrative.

The descriptions of the harshly beautiful Scottish coastline poked my inner travel bug pretty hard. Might have to start looking into a trip to Northern Scotland. Perhaps I’ll stop by Slains castle while I’m there.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Winter Sea here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Note: This novel was later released under the title Sophia’s Secret. No idea why as The Winter Sea is a much better name.

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: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (2015)

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Review #82

Sisters Vianne and Isabelle Mauriac have a strained relationship. Isabelle feels that Vianne abandoned her to a series of convent school and a life of loneliness after the death of their mother. Vianne, still mourning a series of miscarriages, feels that Isabelle is reckless and never stops to think about how her actions may affects others. In a quiet French town in 1940, both sisters are put to the test as the Nazis edge ever closer to the French borders. Vianne believes that France will never fall, and is determined to quietly live and raise her daughter. Rebellious Isabelle longs for a chance to contribute to the war effort. The following years will test their bond, their morality, and their desire for survival.

Earlier this year I read and reviewed Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, and immediately fell in love with her writing style and her focus on relationships and the importance of family. I had heard a lot of good things about The Nightingale and was eager to read another book by this author.

There are dozens of novels published every year that deal with World War II and its aftermath. The Nightingale earns its place in the upper echelons of the genre, but ultimately it has to compete with the likes of All the Light We Cannot See and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and sadly it falls a little short. There simply isn’t anything new or surprising presented by this novel. It felt as if Kristin Hannah had a checklist of “Nazi Atrocities” that she was gradually ticked off as she wrote. The things endured by the Mauriac sisters somehow seem obligatory rather than organic.

The novel occasionally includes chapters that are set in the United States in the 1990’s. One of the Mauriac sisters, now elderly and fragile, contemplates returning to France to confront her past and honor the sacrifices made. These chapters are utterly unnecessary and were obviously put there to lead up to a “twist” that lacked any sort of punch.

This novel has been so highly recommended by so many people that perhaps I went in with expectations that were impossible to fulfill. Ultimately, I enjoyed The Nightingale, but apparently not as much as others.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find this novel 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: 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: 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: One Thousand White Woman by Jim Fergus (1999)

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Review #67

In order to solve the increasingly violent clashes between the United States government and the Native American tribes of the Black Hills, a radical solution is proposed. The Cheyenne are a matrilineal society, meaning that the children belong to their mother’s tribe. The United States asks for volunteer women to marry into the Cheyenne, becoming part of their culture while also trying to introduce Western values within the Native Americans. May Dodd, who has spent a year wrongfully committed to a mental institution, joins a group of women volunteers venturing into the untamed prairies of the Midwest in hopes of finding a new and better life among the “savages”.

It’s clear that author Jim Fergus did an extensive amount of research on the time period and the Cheyenne people prior to writing this novel. Their language and culture are well represented in One Thousand White Woman. He represents the Cheyenne as a people with both good and bad aspects, and thankfully manages to avoid the “noble savage” trope. This is not Dances with Wolves, where the Native Americans are represented as being in perfect and peaceful communion with nature and their fellow man. The Cheyenne are capable of stunning violence as well as loving relationships, just like every society that has ever existed on Earth.

Since the Native Americans are presented as rather primitive I kept waiting for my other least favorite stereotype to rear its ugly head, that of the “white savior”. Also easily recognized in Dances With Wolves, the white savior brings logic and reasoning to a group of people who would would be utterly lost without them. I was pleasantly stunned to see that Fergus somehow evades this pitfall as well. The white woman are looking to be saved more than they are looking to save the Native Americans. Most of them have volunteered for the “Brides for Indian” program to escape horrible circumstances, and have little interest in converting their new husbands to a Westernized system of thinking. The few women that are depicted as attempting to convert or manipulate their Native husbands are seen as an annoying menace.

Considering that Fergus somehow managed to walk the incredibly thin tightrope between cliches, I thought I’d enjoy this book more than I actually did. However, there were a few problems with his writing style that took away nearly all my enjoyment from One Thousand White Women. The first is the Fergus seems to have been trying to break the world record for number of extraneous commas in a novel. This could be something that no one else notices and just annoys me, since I spend an above average amount of time correcting English grammar.

The second thing I found increasingly maddening was how Fergus chose to write his dialogue. He made the decision to italicize any words that are in an English dialect. For example:

“No you don’t, suh, you do not so much as touch my Feeern Louuuuise. Evah. You heah me? Nevah, evah do you lay a finger on my darlindawg

Ya’ve come to the right place, if you’re looking for remote, Broother Anthony that’s for shooore,” said Meggie Kelly greeting the fellow. “Me an’ Susie are a couple a good Catholic gooorls ourselves. An’ we’re ‘appy to ‘aveya along – right Susie?”

Is is just me, or is that the most infuriatingly distracting way to write dialogue? It annoyed me just to type it. Reading this book gave me an active headache, and towards the end of the novel I just started skipping sections that contained italics out of sheer spite. Had I known what I was in for, I would read this book on my eReader, which lacks the ability to italicize words. Although that still would have left the ridiculous drawn out vowels…

It’s rare that such small things are able to detract so greatly from my enjoyment of a book. But both of these issues were so prevalent and obvious that, despite its virtues,  I nearly put One Thousand White Women back on the shelf without finishing it.

My rating: 2/5

You can find One Thousand White Women here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!