Tag Archives: book review

Read: The boat rocker: a novel by Ha Jin

Standard

Having enjoyed Ha Jin’s Waiting, when I saw this book on my local public library’s shelves, I immediately checked it out. Jin is a Chinese author who writes realistic novels about everyday people and their difficulties and daily struggles in life. The boat rocker focuses on Chinese expatriate Feng Danlin who is a journalist in New York city, trying to eek out a living by exposing truth in a world in which people love flashy headlines and are less interested in details.

Jin’s writing is engrossing and fluid, making for a fairly quick read. In addition, the novel contains many poignant quotes about society, government, politics, and the media. Although it’s written about China, it could apply to any country including the US right now.

In such circumstances, a decent citizen should stand up to the government. History has taught us that no country is qualified for the moral high ground. An intellectual’s role is not to serve the state but to keep a close watch on it so that it may not turn abusive, oppressive, justice, freedom, and equality as universal values.

The story is mysterious and draws the reader in. Danlin’s ex-wife is promoting her first novel which will be translated into 30 languages right away and touting the fact that she already has a movie deal worth millions for it. He knows it’s a lie and that while there may be a book, there’s no way it’s good enough to warrant the praise she’s claiming, so he sets out to disprove her lies by exposing them in cutthroat articles interrogating the false claims. However, it’s unclear just what’s going on and who is controlling it, and just how high up the scheme goes.

The tone itself feels like a mystery novel in some ways but it is not a whodunit in the classic sense and there are no bodies or clues to examine. This ambiance adds to the charm of the novel and gives it more depth. It’s not just a story of a man jealous of his ex-wife’s success and trying to ruin her good fortune; she is conniving and exaggerating reality and those around her that are enabling also have much to gain in the US as well as China and they hope all over the world if her success is believed by everyone.

In the end, Danlin is let with not much as money and power prevail over the truth-seeking journalist who won’t quit. But he continues to fight, no matter what, for what is right. While not the happiest ending, it seems like the most fitting for not only this novel but in the present given all of the current events.

Recommended?: Yes, to everyone especially those concerned with recent current events and the media in the United States. While not directly related, certainly the topics and issues brought up in the novel do have some parallels and are interesting to consider.
img_0452

Read: The dinner: a novel by Herman Koch

Standard

Dutch novelist Herman Koch’s The dinner: a novel is an eerie read that becomes more horrific over the course of the meal. While it’s true that the characters have dinner at a fancy restaurant, The dinner has as much to do with food as Die hard has to do with Christmas. It’s the backdrop but has little to do with the plot.

Since the novel was translated into English, I will give the benefit of the doubt that the occasional clunkiness of the writing is due to the translation. So, I will set aside discussing the writing itself. 

As far as the story goes, it starts off slow and the reader is trying to figure out what exactly is going on along with the main character Paul. Paul and his wife are meeting his brother and his wife for dinner but with his brother’s political aspirations, dinner is as much about image as the purpose of that dinner if not more. The reader realizes as the night progresses, along with Paul, that the agenda is to discuss the poor decisions and bad behavior of their teenage kids and how to deal with it. But they have anything but a frank discussion and from Paul’s memories it is clear that he and his brother have a rocky relationship.

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW

The manner in which the truth of what the sons did unfolds is presented in a meandering way. Small, unclear pieces begin to fill in and then as more pieces are add, the shock value only continues to increase until it surpasses any additional meaning and the reader becomes numb to the facts as the parents try to resume their typical lives as if nothing happened. The sons, it’s revealed, murdered a homeless woman sleeping in an ATM machine that they wanted to use; the verbally and physically abused her before killing her and it was filmed by a grainy security camera, as well as a cell phone by the brother’s adopted son who was now blackmailing the boys for money. While their actions themselves are horrific, it’s almost more shocking the extent that Paul, his wife, and his brother’s wife go to scheme and protect the boys working against the brother who wants to come clean so he can be elected Prime Minister. This family certainly has issues and they are well conveyed.

The entire novel consists of one evening of the four parents having dinner at the fancy restaurant. All additional scenes are Paul’s memories as he contemplates how they got to this point and his strained relationship with his brother. It makes sense in a way for the setting to be such a public venue where they are on display but it is odd as it’s revealed what the true topic of discussion, although it’s clear that no one wants to actually talk about what their sons did.

At times, it felt too much but I felt compelled to read on, but it continues to get more and more awful. Paul is violent, even towards his brother, and his son is following in his footsteps. This makes him a difficult first-person narriator to read. However, in the end, he pulls back and shows maturity in knowing that he must have restraint despite what others expect from him.

Recommended: For anyone who can’t get enough of shocking dramas and escalating situations. There’s lots of violence and physical abuse as the novel progresses, with quite descriptive passages, which aren’t for everyone. Most readers probably won’t enjoy this novel but it’s a creative idea so I will look into Koch’s other books at some point.

The dinner by Herman Koch cover image

Read: The Night Stranger: a Novel by Chris Bohjalian

Standard

The Night Strangers: a Novel by Chris Bohjalian is a mix of a pilot’s post-traumatic stress after a failed water landing and loss of most of passengers and crew and a New England small town scary story. Chip and Emily Linton move with their two twin 10-year-old girls from Philadelphia to a Bethel, NH for a new start and to keep Chip from the media’s critical eye. Haunted by ghosts of passengers in a creepy old house with its own torrid history and besieged by nefarious yet friendly rural townspeople, this family was doomed from the start.

Since the premise is so detailed, let’s start there. At first, choosing to include a failed water landing in Lake Champlain seems like a throw-away, attention-grabbing background for the main character Chip, Bohjalian truly makes it his own and uses all factors of such an event in his novel. The best use is his desciptions of the wet ghosts and how Chip can feel the water and see it soak into carpet and leave puddles on floors. That alone shows that he integrates that stark, bold fact (that could so easily be otherwise over-the-top and meaningless) so well into his story that it becomes a core part. Similarly, the herbalists (a.k.a. witches) could also have become a stock, stereotypical cult but once again Bohajalian makes them unique to his world and distinct in their own way. The use of greenhouses and the all-natural lifestyle help develop a new take on the classic witch and coven.

The overall story and mood of the novel are reminiscent of the original Stepford Housewives movie, especially with the herbalists unrelenting desire to make the Lintons part of their group. However, the rest of the town knows better than to become friends with them so they are left to their own insular group. Emily was warned briefly when she first arrived to the town but everyone feared interfering once the herbalists began courting the new family with twins.

The book itself alternates between chapters written in third persons and second. The third mainly follows Emily Linton but sometimes focuses on the twin girls. The second person is solely for Chip Linton and meant to bring the reader in closer to him and his experiences with the tormenting ghosts. For me, though, second person forces me out of a story as it is so imperative and commanding (“You see…”, “You feel…”, etc.). I think too much instead of just following what the character is doing; it reminds me that I am sitting in my chair reading and so distracts me from the story, just enough to pull me out of the moment caught up in the book. Maybe for other readers it is different, but it’s not a literary device that I enjoy although I understand why Bohjalian uses it.

Overall, The Night Strangers is a strange, enchanting read. I started the book witha physical copy and then switched over to an audiobook which had a female part reading the third person and a male voice for the second person. This made the story more compelling since it alternates fairly often and kept my interest even more. The writing itself is also quite lovely, for the most part. These are part of what kept me reading despite this type of book not being something that I would normally pick up.

Recommended?: It depends. If you like an eerie read, one filled with ghosts, witches and warlocks–I mean herbalists, a haunted house, possession, murder, and some horror then this book is for you. Bohjalian also doesn’t shy away from describing injuries in detail so there is a bit of gore as well. Since he has so many other novels, there is a variety of his works to choose from if this particular one isn’t enticing. He’s more well known for some of his other works and his latest The Sleepwalker is due out in January 2017. I will certainly keep him in mind when I want a quicker read in the future, although he will be farther down the list than others since there are just too many books that I want to get through.

fullsizerender

Read: The girl on the train: a novel by Paula Hawkins

Standard

The girl on the train by Paula Hawkins is another of the recent novels to garner public attention from the Huffington Post, The New York Times, and NPR among others. After a personal recommendation, I had to get a copy. It’s easy to read so you have until October 7th if you want to read it before seeing the movie! There are a couple of trailers out for it although there’s so much more to the story and they don’t give much away.

This story is the most realistic that I have read in a while. It is set in England, frequently on trains and a suburb just outside of London called Witney. Rachel takes the train twice a day past the house that she and her now ex-husband used to live. He kept living there with his mistress-turned-wife-and-mother. Due to Rachel’s infertility, depression, and blind drunkenness helped lead to the end of their marriage despite her still loving him. From the train, though, Rachel watches the next door neighbors whom she never knew, giving them an ideal backstory. However, the neighbors lives weren’t perfect and the wife goes missing which drives most of the plot. Questions surrounding the story are how do people live with the choices that they make and how well can people ever really know their loved ones?

The format itself is told in first person in journal-like entires broken up into morning and evening portions. The main and majority narrator is Rachel with Meghan the neighbor who goes missing and Anna the mistress-turned-wife. It’s an odd format as a psychological thriller, especially as at a cliff-hanger it usually jumps to a different character. Though with the pacing of the plot and the odd mystery, it’s easy to keep turning to pages to find out what happens next. One I was about a third of the way through, I became hooked and then about halfway I began hurtling towards the last page almost in a sprint to finish.

The writing itself is journalistic, with sparse yet detailed sentences that focus on action. This make sense since the author Paula Hawkins was herself a journalist. For this type of a mystery thriller, it works well. Some also have equated her writing to Alfred Hitchcock and I agree that there are similarities. She works for the small yet long build up, with unexpected story progression and honing in on certain details in a way that Hitchcock does with his films; instead of being an abrasive action-packed thriller, the pieces begin to come together over the entire duration and only come into clear focus right at the end, like a Hitchcock film.

The tone of the novel is quite eerie since it’s hard to know who to believe or how much to trust anyone. Plus Rachel makes so many bad decisions that are “cringe-worthy” (as my personal recommender told me) but it’s impossible to put the book down so as I reader I follower her along in her misguided actions, mainly due to her alcoholism. In a way, the story is a perfect storm that coalesces into a fantastically odd, enthralling thriller. As this is Hawkins first novel, I can wait for more from her!

Recommended?: For suspense and mystery lovers as well as readers who enjoy a fact-paced thriller. There’s a fair amount of violence, abuse, and of course adultry. That aside, the violence itself is low-key, although we will see if the movie ups it and adds in any gore.  If any of this doesn’t sound appealing to you as a reader, then you can go ahead and it this one since it isn’t going to become a classic that everyone should read, although it’s a fun fairly quick one.

The girl on the train book cover

Read: The night circus: a novel by Erin Morgenstern

Standard

Curiosity finally got the better of me, well that and praise for this novel. I have known about it for years, hearing about its start as a NaNoWriMo story that met great success; author Erin Morgenstern even gave a NaNoWriMo pep-talk about her experience along with advice. However, the little that I knew about the premise of The night circus turned me off from reading it, since it reminded me of Something wicked this way comes by Ray Bradbury about a mysterious circus. Recently, I looked up the novel again and decided to give it a try. I’m glad that I did because it truly is a remarkable work, unique all on its own.

The night circus as a title does not do this novel justice. It is so much more, although the Circus of Dreams (Le Cirque des Reves) purports to be just a night circus and most visitors blindly believe that the only difference between this one and others is the fact that it only opens at nightfall and closes at dawn. In reality, the circus is a playing field for two competing magicians to showcase their very best talents with magic until one is declared the winner. Unlike a typical circus, the night circus contains a multitude of tents, each with its own exhibit or performances. Tents filled with frozen gardens, origami animals that move, an ever-changing labyrinth, and a cloud maze, just to name a few. Bound together by the game, Celia and Marco grow then circus by adding on new tents, rooms, and enhancements, trying to out due each other. However, because of this challenge, the circus requires care and attention as if it were alive so there are many people involved who keep it going as well. This twist on the classic circus setting is captivating and Moregenstern pulls it off beautifully, just like a well-practiced slight of hand. 

In stark constrast to The girls, Morgenstern’s sentences are long, lush, and buoyant. The novel itself feels like a fantastical floating dream. The characters and details are so vibrant and extravagant that there is a pervasive richness throughout, adding to the wonder and glamour. It is a relaxing, enchanting, and delightful read.

The novel itself is comprised of dated entries from different characters’ perspective although always in third person. These entries jump from different times and places, moving forward and backward without a clear pattern. This makes for a somewhat disjointed experiences, especially as a few are the same date but a year apart. It’s easy to follow otherwise but the story did jump around quite a bit which gets a little confusing. I love following characters so it’s tough as a reader when I get pulled away to be shown something else before catching back up with the previous character. That being said, I like how Moregenstern reexamines an event or period of time from multiple people, giving a richer experience to the reader by providing more perspectives. While here are two main characters, there is a large cast of supporting ones who the reader comes to care for just as much. I appreciate her letting them speak for themselves and expanding the novel to include many of them as well. 

Recommended?: Yes, definitely. It’s a charming novel that envelopes the reader the way a magician entrances an audience. The story might not be for everyone, with its magical elements and dreamy prose. However, if it sounds intriguing and you want something different, then step right up and enter this circus. 

Read: The girls: a novel by Emma Cline

Standard

Wow. What a quirky, quick read. The girls: a novel by Emma Cline captured my attention With its cover and piqued my interest with its praise but I finally picked it up once I read the synopsis. As an enjoyer of true crime shows and dramas, and a love of Capote’s In cold blood, this book was a perfect fun read for me. Since it is also about a young girl growing up fast and becoming more adult sooner than she should have to, it reminiscent of Lullabies for little criminals, although this novel is no where near as bleak or dismal of a life.

Cline’s writing style reminds me of Ernest Hemingway’s short, sparse, tactile sentences. On the page, they look so simple and plain, yet they convey a lot of story within them. For example, this paragraph covers much more in the periphery around the text beyond just what is written:

I imagined Suzanne and the others would be happy with me for bringing this new person. Expanding our ranks, all the old tricks. A pie-faced admirer to raise his voice with ours and contribute to the food pool. But it was something else, too, that I wanted to extend: the taut and pleasant silence in the car, the stale heat raising vapors of leather. The warped image of myself in the side mirrors, so I caught only the quantity of hair, the freckled skin of my shoulder. I took on the shape of a girl. The car crossed the bridge, passing through the shit-stench veil of the landfill. I could see the span of another distant highway, sided by water, and the marshy flats before the sudden drop into the valley, the ranch hidden in its hills.

The type of novel that best describes The girls is a coming-of-age tale about a 14-year-old girl in the late 1960s in California. But that alone doesn’t do the novel justice because the plot of the story is her experience and involvement with a cult that commits a horrific, brutal, multi-casuality murder in the name of their leader Russell. It’s clear that the inspiration for the story is Charles Manson and the Manson murders yet Cline makes this story her own with its unique qualities and characters. Evie, the main character, narrowly avoids committing the murders, unbeknownst to her. This of course affects the rest of her life, always hinging on the worry of “what if” and “would I have” constantly replaying over and over in her mind. There is also an unending fear of harm from others, as she realizes that anyone at anytime can be violent, which leads her to like with another constant fear of being a potential victim. Her morality is clear and yet at the ranch with Russell, her chosen role-model Suzanne, and the others, she stifled it on purpose and put on self-created blinders as she wanted to badly to be a part of their rag-tag, misfit family.

The inner turmoil becomes apparent as the novel progresses. This paired with the no-nonsense writing style gives the novel a sense of honesty as Evie sorts through her past experiences as an adult, trying to understand what happened better. The story itself is written in first person, bringing the reader closer to Evie, and it switches between present day and her past which shows how these memories are triggered and continue to affect her current being and responses to the world. She clearly is not over the fact that her “friends” committed this terrible crime, her guilt of knowing, and her inner struggle of whether she would have joined in or maybe even stopped them from committing the murders.

From the beginning, the murders are key but through the novel they never take center stage. Small details creep in here and there. Sure, there is a few sentence about the gore of the crime and the acts perpetrated but it is never the focus. The sense that the reader gets is that the public know all of the details and so the reader does too, and any facts that Evie recounts are just her memories surfacing as she deals with them.

The girls book cover
Recommended?: Yes. I’m sure that most people would really enjoy it. There are some illegal activities of the underage minors and brief descriptions about few forced sexual acts and murder details but for the most part it is just a story about teenage struggles growing up during a time in which kids had more freedom to roam and less parental monitoring (especially since technology isn’t what it is today). It’s also a pretty quick read and the main character is sympathetic so it is easy to care about her and desire to understand her past along with her.

P.S. I sure am getting use out of my public library! The next few reviews will be from there as well–I had a compulsion of book borrowing recently and need to get through them all before they are due!

Read: 1Q84 : a novel by Haruki Murakami

Standard

What if your world changed ever so slightly but affected every aspect of your life? In Haruki Murakami’s novel 1Q84, Tokyo shifts a couple of degrees but several characters lived are upheaved as they deal with the consequences while everyone else has no idea that the world has changed.

The story is told by two main characters, and towards the end a third. Each chapter alternates from Tengo, a math tutor and an aspiring writer, and Aomame, a personal trainer. The novel is split into three parts and in the final part, the third character that shares his perspective is Ushikawa, a private detective tasked with finding Aomame. The year is 1984 and as the year progress, their two stories become more entwined. Unknowingly, they both take on the mysterious cult Sakigake by their own means and abilities, banding together in the end to try to return to the world of 1984 that they knew before the turn of events.

Having only read one other book by Murakami, The wind-up bird chronicle, it is hard to say if this is like other works of his. 1Q84 was an easier read, many times mystery or adventure carried the story along at a quick pace. Murakami’s charm in describing situations and people in concise and powerful images pervades this novel too, however, it felt like it was written with a more mainstream audience in mind than Wind-up. In addition, sex and sexual relationships play major roles in this novel, which is very different from his other novel. While it is a lengthy, almost 1000-page book, it feels much shorter as the pages turn enjoyably with great ease and delight. Perhaps wonder and curiosity are better descriptors, as the parallel world that Tengo and Aomame find themselves in is full of the unexplained and sometimes unbelievable despite the reality of the situation.

Even though this is a translated work, it’s not something that I thought about (other than wanting to hone my Japanese to read Murakami’s work in his native language at some point). A story is a story, even if it’s translated. However, due to the press and attention that this novel received, paired with the fact that Murakami is becoming ever-more well-know as an author, there’s an interesting article about the translation process. Peter Gabriel and Jay Rubin both translated the novel, with Rubin doing the first two books and Gabriel the third. To me, it read as a coherent translation by one person so they did a great job maintaining style throughout.

Not only did Murakami craft yet another intricately plotted novel with compelling characters, the design of the English translation is stunning. The dust jacket has cut-outs of 1, Q, 8 and 4 so that you can see the photos beneath of a woman on the front and a man on the back cover. The spine has 1 and 8 printed on the jacket while Q and 4 are on the book spine, giving depth and illusion to it. There are also black and white moon and cloud photos printed in the inner front and back cover as well as headers for the three book sections. Most odd/charming of all is the fun his has with page numbers. On one side, they will be printed backwards (reverse) and on the facing page they are normally. Then occasionally the sides swap and then change back, alternating as well throughout the novel. Again, the physical book carries added experiences that an ebook cannot fully capture. Since I went on vacation while reading this book, I checked out the ebook from the public library but as soon as I got home, I switched back to my physical copy to finish it.

 

Recommended?: Yes, for anyone interested in Murakami but doesn’t know what to read of his first. Granted, this is certainly an adult novel, with many sexual scenes. The story and the mystery in the parallel world are hallmarks found in Wind-up as well so if you like this one, you will enjoy that one too if you are up for the challenge. And for those who try 1Q84 and find it’s not for them, then you can at least say that you read a Murakami novel.