Tag Archives: fiction

Read: Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut

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Kurt Vonnegut has been on my list for a while, especially since he is my uncle’s favorite author. After seeing him this winter, he recommended starting with Welcome to the Monkey House. What a great suggestion!

Welcome to the Monkey House is a collection of short stories. Other than labelling it fiction, there is no consensus on what type of stories make up the collection. They are a combination of varying sorts, some military in theme (but not about war or battles) while others are science fiction. Even then, the range for both includes stories that are more realistic to fantastical and magical realism. The variety is remarkable, with each story being distinct from all others.

The sheer imagination in every story gives each such a weight that they feel more like mini novels than short stories. Vonnegut crafts detailed worlds, norms, cultures, and characters that enrich the handful of pages that encapsulate them. Even within the limited space, Vonnegut takes the reader far beyond by expanding the bounds through his in-depth, comprehensive stories. Due to the heft of each, reading the collection took me extra time as I never knew what was coming next and needed a break before jumping into the unknown of a new story. While the variety was certainly enjoyable, it also made for a choppier reading experience as there was no overall commonality other than examining humans and the human condition. The sci-fi stories that were dystopic and bleak were of human creation (or folly)–either overpopulation and highly advanced medicine, or strict social norms, or a division between a new way of life and the old. No monsters or aliens enslaved everyone or caused in-fighting; we did that to our selves.

While most of the stories start in medias res, Vonnegut’s detailed and vivid writing quickly gets the reader up to speed, which is crucial as these are short stories. Vonnegut focuses on action and uses minimal dialogue to tell the tales, without offering too many explanations. Vonnegut is a master storyteller, that is clear.

Recommended?: Yes! This collection is great especially for anyone new to Vonnegut. I can see why my uncle suggested it as my first encounter, as it gives the reader a taste of all the different types of stories. In just 330 pages, there are 25 stories and many are 6-7 pages. It is just incredible what he accomplishes in so little space. I look forward to picking up a novel of his to see how it compares–first up, Slaughterhouse 5.

Welcome to the monkey house book cover

Read: The boat rocker: a novel by Ha Jin

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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.
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Read: The dinner: a novel by Herman Koch

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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.

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Read: The Night Stranger: a Novel by Chris Bohjalian

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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.

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Read: Go set a watchman by Harper Lee

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Due to the controversy of whether or not this book should have been publisher and if it was despite Harper Lee’s previous wishes, I decided not to read it when it first came out. However, the copy at the public library recently intrigued me enough that I figured it was time. Another initial reason for not picking it up soon was the fact that it received mediocre to poor reviews as a novel. To be fair, while Go set a watchman is technically a sequel, it is no To kill a mockingbird which it seems many people expected.

First, there is some history that needs to be addressed for this novel. Go set a watchman was written before To kill a mockingbird, even though it is set after her famous novel. The story focuses on Jean Louise Finch (a.k.a. Scout) still but she is 26 and returning to Maycomb on her annual visit, having moved to New York. It is written in third person, unlike the famous first person of To kill a mockingbird. Also, most of the characters that we know and love are already present in this novel but some are very different, namely Atticus. As a person who dabbles in writing, I can tell you that characters change and grow (or morph) from the first writing to their final incarnation. So, since Lee wrote this novel in the 1950s and likely did little to no editing before it was published in 2015 means that it should surprise no one that it isn’t the same Maycomb nor the same exact characters. To me, this feels like a precursor exercise to her later written To kill a mockingbird that was never meant for publication. So it shouldn’t be described as a sequel; it’s a standalone work that happens to have somewhat the same setting and similar characters. It always breaks my heart when an unfinished or unintended work is published usually after the author dies but it is fairly common.

Putting all of that aside, let’s focus on just Go set a watchman as a single novel. The topic itself is oddly quite timely in America right now. Jean Louise returns home to be shocked by the level of racism in her hometown and is upset that her good friend and presumed sweetheart Henry along with her father Atticus aren’t opposing it more. She disagrees with their approach to toe the line just enough so that they can stay aware of what heinous acts active racists might do so that they can stop or prosecute them. After a black man accidentally runs over a drunk white man and kills him, Atticus gets into a fight with Jean Louise and it’s at that point that she realizes he views blacks as less-than-human who need to slowly be integrated into white society so that they don’t fail and so she throughly disagrees with him. Part of his reasoning is that it is just his generation as well as trying to live civilly in small, racist community without being alienated. With the current racial violence plaguing the country and such a divisive presidential election recently, the topic itself surely struck a chord with me while reading it. Also the n-word is used about 10-15 at least, especially towards the end, which only further emphasizes the tension and hated of that Maycomb. As Jean Louise references the case that her father tried when she was little, the main focus in To kill a mockingbird, she believes that the town and her father have drastically changed on her but as she comes to realize that perhaps she just never saw it before and now it’s just coming to the forefront which is what truly bothers her.

While the topic is racism is addressed, the novel is truly about Jean Louise and her reckoning with the fact that she sees her father for the first time as a flawed person with whom she utterly disagrees with when it comes to blacks and their treatment. For the first two-thirds, the story describes Jean Louise’s homecoming interspersed with memories from her childhood, especially of Jem her brother. Not long into the novel, it’s revealed that Jem died young and suddenly due to a heart attack–like their mother. While there are many reasons for this plot decision, it mainly adds another emotional struggle for her returning home and makes it even more difficult for her to have her idyllic image of her father smashed. Jean Louise is a strong, opinionated woman yet falls back into the childhood mindset and attitude. Due to this, the overall plot is slower-paced as we mainly follow her around Maycomb and interacting with family, friends, and townspeople of the past. The last third picks up with the struggle of her dealing with the town’s and her family’s varying degrees of racist views. In the end, she comes to some semblance of terms with it, due to her uncle ‘s harsh reasoning with her. However, it is unclear whether she will move back and marry Henry or return to New York and only continue to visit annually.

Recommended?: It depends. If you are hoping for a direct sequel of To kill a mockingbird, then you will likely be disappointed. If you can think of this work as separate from it and are curious about the original characters and backstory then you may appreciate this novel. Overall, I didn’t find it compelling and since I disagree with it being published since it seems unfinished, it wasn’t as enjoyable for me. For anyone who has read it, I’d like to know what you think.

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Read: Sharp objects by Gillian Flynn

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Known for Gone girl which now has a movie of the same name, Gillian Flynn‘s Sharp objects is just as clever and shocking of a tale. While having only seen the movie of the other, the novel Sharp objects was more integuing of an idea and story.

Caveat: the novel reads like true crime and the murders are of little girls with vivid sometimes gory details and descriptions of the main character’s family abuse and self-harm. These passage run throughout the novel and might turn some readers off from it. 
Told in first person by second-rate journalist Camille Preaker, the book opens with a murder assignment from her editor that forces her to return to her long-left home in rural Missouri. Wind Gap is so small and with other more important news in bigger cities around the world that she is the only one of the scene writing, or rather struggling to write, about the horrific murders of little girls. Part of the novel centers around her reluctance to return and enummerating the many reasons of why she moved away to Chicago years ago. Flynn’s insights on small-town life are eerily accurate and her crafting of Camille’s loneliness and unhappiness are fascinating as well. The characterizations of Camille and Wind Gap create realistic portrayals in the novel. 

More specifically, Flynn hones the details but makes them her own. For example, Camille is a cutter (self-inflected harm) who carved words all over herself during her teenage years and got professional help for it recently. Now she writes on herself in pen, sometimes mindlessly. Due to this, she’s forced to wear long sleeves and pants or skirts to prevent anyone from seeing as only a couple of people know. Instead of the generic stereotypical acting out of a teen girl, it becomes a wholly unique endeavor especially as Camille refers to certain words flaring up throughout the novel when triggered by particular emotions, people, or situations.

True to form, the reader is led to believe varying things as the story progresses, usually kept in the dark alongside the main character. Deeper and deeper into the story, more is revealed and the mystery seems to become crystal clear until the final plot twist, in Flynn’s true nature. Stunningly chilling. 

Recommended?: For those who like a twisting murder mystery but don’t mind the brutal gruesomeness of the murder details for the young girls and other abuse and self-harm described. The plot itself was well-crafted and kept me in the dark until the final twist was revealed. Maybe diehard fans would have seen it coming but I certainly enjoyed the plot itself. More Gilliam Flynn, please!

Sharp objects book cover

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

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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