Book reviews

I have finally reached a point where I just cannot take the heat anymore. I now look at the weather forecast and sigh. This entire month has had highs of above 30C every single day but two, and consistently it’s above 35. With no air conditioning. I was trying to think, though, whether it’s as bad as being in Alberta during the winter and the answer is no. When I saw a forecast where the high of the day didn’t break above -30C, and the rest of the week didn’t look much better, well, I wouldn’t sigh. I would whimper. So even as I write this paragraph, I’m going to try really hard not to complain. But I had to dash for a bus today in 36C weather, and it wasn’t fun. Nor is it great once you finally find some shade and stop for a second, to realize that you’re entire body is basically melting – sweat dripping down my face, arms, legs – and I’ve only just started my day.

I am envious of some of these European women’s ability to look so effortlessly chic in this weather. I’ll be waiting for the bus with my two kids, baking in the sun, wearing rumpled shorts, a dirty t-shirt and not a stitch of makeup (in a bad way) when some lovely women sails by on her bike, in a cute perfect sundress and a bouquet of flowers in her basket. I glance around for cameras. This must be a set-up, right? She’s filming something? No one should look that good in this heat. Oh well, I suspect “mother of two” is often going to be a reason I’m not looking all that chic for the time being.

I guess I’ve been taking advantage of all the time spent inside, because I continue to rack up the reading miles. I might be setting some kind of personal best book count. Here’s what I’ve been delving into:

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

Book description: Things have never been easy for Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd, a New Jersey romantic who dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the fukú — the ancient curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still dreaming of his first kiss, is only its most recent victim – until the fateful summer that he decides to be its last.

With dazzling energy and insight, Junot Díaz immerses us in the uproarious lives of our hero Oscar, his runaway sister Lola, and their ferocious beauty-queen mother Belicia, and in the epic journey from Santo Domingo to Washington Heights to New Jersey’s Bergenline and back again. Rendered with uncommon warmth and humor, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao presents an astonishing vision of the contemporary American experience and the endless human capacity to persevere – and to risk it all – in the name of love.

Reading Challenge category: A Pulitzer-Prize winning book

My review: There were two different parts of this book, winding together. One were the narratives in the Dominican Republic set in the past, describing the horrific regime of Trujillo. I know next to nothing about the history of the Dominican Republic, and I was shocked at how gruesome and bloody it was. The regime of terror, the bloody dictatorship, a systematic way of destroying hope that made Big Brother seem almost friendly … it’s kind of devastating to learn about. And to hear about all the massive poverty that still exists there. These were the parts of the book I really liked – the characters were flawed but likeable, and you root for them even though they were all fuku-ed (cursed).

The stuff about Oscar himself I was conflicted by. The problem is that Oscar isn’t very likeable. He is very believable, but I couldn’t really find myself rooting for him. He’s the unattractive guy obsessed with getting a girl, any girl, to the extent that he’d rather die then not have sex. I don’t know, it just struck me that he was such a classic “Nice Guy” and really we’d all be better off, men and women, if men’s dignity were not based solely on their success beneath the sheets. Even Dias seems to hint at that as the narrator himself is a self-professed ladies man and it is the reason he consistently fucks up his life. But we’re supposed to cheer that Oscar finally loses his burdensome virginity, even at the cost it comes at? Maybe we’re not supposed to. I didn’t. So this book is interesting, in some places fascinating, but I was also conflicted in how I felt about it.

The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner

Book description: The Sound and the Fury is the tragedy of the Compson family, featuring some of the most memorable characters in literature: beautiful, rebellious Caddy; the manchild Benjy; haunted, neurotic Quentin; Jason, the brutal cynic; and Dilsey, their black servant. Their lives fragmented and harrowed by history and legacy, the character’s voices and actions mesh to create what is arguably Faulkner’s masterpiece and one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.

Reading Challenge category: A book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t

My review: I will confess – there was never a book I was supposed to read in school but didn’t. I read them all. What can I say? I love to read. Are you really surprised? So this category presented a challenge to me. But I was watching a show where the characters were reading a book for their school assignment, The Sound and the Fury, so I figured what the heck, might as well use that. It is supposed to be one of those Great American Novels.

I was difficult to read. I know, it’s intentionally difficult to read, but that didn’t make it any easier. It was split into four parts, each told from a different characters perspective, and the first was told by the family “idiot” (don’t you love totally un-pc books?), and it was virtually incomprehensible, splintered in a way where there was no chronology. Benjy’s inner monologue is so unpolished it was difficult to figure out what the heck he’s talking about, or when he’s talking about. And that’s your introduction into the book.

Each new portion would start up again with some semblance of order, or at least an ordered mind, then by the end descend into such twisting stream of consciousness that I once again was left in the near dark as to what was going on. Okay, I’ll confess. I totally read a plot summary of the book once I saw how tangled it was. It allowed me to stay on track. I sincerely think that if I hadn’t, I would have no clue what was going on. I can’t say I loved the book, but Faulkner certainly knows how to create a turn of phrase. Though dense and confusing, his language is beautiful.

Frankenstein, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Book description: At once a Gothic thriller, a passionate romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with discovering the cause of generation and life and bestowing animation upon lifeless matter, Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature’s hideousness. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein.

Reading Challenge category: A book written more than 100 years ago

My review: Frankenstein is a book I did read in school, in my very first university level English class. I remembered virtually nothing about the book, to the point where I was actually questioning if I had read it at all. I did remember finding it confusing, and didn’t get much out of it. Funny how 15 years of reading changes you – it was a relatively easy read (especially after Faulkner!) and I certainly developed many opinions this time around.

Like how it should be titled “If Frankenstein Wasn’t Such a Dick, Things Could Have Been Really Different.” Ugh, I couldn’t stand the man! He was basically a horrible person who went around moaning about how rough his life got since he did this horrible thing, while not actually taking responsibility for it. The horrible thing he did wasn’t creating his monster, but abandoning it. While the monster was exceptionally eloquent and morally bereft, he became what he was because he wasn’t given love as a child (mothers are super important, ya hear?)

I was also struck by the complete lack of suspense in the novel. I realize it was written a long time ago, perhaps before the suspense novel was created, I don’t know the literary history there, but there was zero build up to important moments in the plot. It is such an example of telling not showing – Frankenstein is described to have just kind of happening on how to create life, with no description of the experiments that led him there. And while we all have a visual picture of the monster coming to life in a dramatic lightning storm, from movies, but there was no such description in the book. In the middle of a paragraph, the monster suddenly lives.

Another aspect I never thought of before is how much Geneva plays a part in the book. Shelley was living on Lake Geneva when she wrote the novel, and a part of the book is simply a love letter to Geneva and area. It was really fun to read this and know every play she wrote about (I was just there, at the site of that murder!)

Thief’s Magic, by Trudi Canavan

Book description: In a world where an industrial revolution is powered by magic, Tyen, a student of archaeology, discovers a sentient book in an ancient tomb. Vella was once a young sorcerer-maker, until she was transformed into a useful tool by one of the greatest sorcerers of history. Since then she has been gathering information, including a vital clue to the disaster Tyen’s world faces.

Elsewhere, in a land ruled by the priests since a terrible war depleted all but a little magic, Rielle the dyer’s daughter has been taught that to use magic is to steal from the Angels. Yet she knows from her ability to sense the stain it leaves behind that she has a talent for it, and that there are people willing to teach her how to use it, should she ever need to risks the Angels’ wrath.

My review: This was just a really good fantasy romp. Like, full out fantasy, in a new world kind of place. The worlds created were so interesting, as were the characters. It was a refreshing, easy change after some of the books I’d been recently reading and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I even had to take it out of the library again as I went over my three-week check out period. I would only do that with something I was liking.

The Diviners, by Libba Bray

Book description: Evie O’Neill has been exiled from her boring old hometown and shipped off to the bustling streets of New York City—and she is pos-i-tute-ly ecstatic. It’s 1926, and New York is filled with speakeasies, Ziegfeld girls, and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is that she has to live with her uncle Will and his unhealthy obsession with the occult.

Evie worries he’ll discover her darkest secret: a supernatural power that has only brought her trouble so far. But when the police find a murdered girl branded with a cryptic symbol and Will is called to the scene, Evie realizes her gift could help catch a serial killer.

As Evie jumps headlong into a dance with a murderer, other stories unfold in the city that never sleeps. A young man named Memphis is caught between two worlds. A chorus girl named Theta is running from her past. A student named Jericho hides a shocking secret. And unknown to all, something dark and evil has awakened.

Reading Challenge category: A book by an author with your initials

My review: I may have accidentally discovered this book because of Libba Bray’s initials matching mine, but I loved loved loved it. I’ll admit, I even got really scared by it. She did such a good job keeping the suspense teased out at a good pace and I am very intrigued with where she’ll take this story. Normally I can get a little frustrated with sequels (hypocritically, I know), but in this case the one story was totally wrapped up in a satisfying way. And the stuff that’s coming, that to me is the stuff I find really scary. There’s a shadowy scarecrow man waiting somewhere in the American mid-West – pretty much everything I’m scared of. I used to have a recurring nightmare about a scarecrow when I was little, so that’s always going to frighten me. I immediately but the sequel on my to-read list.

Unbroken: A World-War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand

Book description: On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.

The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.

Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.

Reading Challenge category: A book based on a true story

My review: I will sheepishly admit that I read the version of Hillenbrand’s book adapted for young adults. I didn’t know that was the ebook I had received from the library until I started reading, and by then it was too late. I’d already started and wasn’t going to look back. And I’m actually pretty happy that I did read this version. I’ve been told that Zamperini’s time as a POW were particularly gruesome, and the descriptions were not held back. I’m assuming they were in this version, as much of the torture he endured seemed to be lightly touched upon but nothing was covered in great detail. Thank goodness. I have a particular distaste for torture. I know, you’re thinking: who’s really into torture? But for me, hearing the description of, or seeing a torture scene on TV, can leave me feeling upset to the point of sickness and nausea, for days. I avoid all mention of torture if I can. Those museums dedicated to showcasing medieval torture? Would never go in there. I avoid any books about the Spanish Inquisition for that reason as well.

Enough about torture. Obviously, Unbroken is very good. Zamperini’s story is incredible, his will to survive amazing. I certainly would have not been able to make it through what he underwent to make it home. And I loved hearing about his life after the fact. Even the born-again Christianity stuff didn’t bother me that much. He just found such peace and made such an awesome life for himself. The whole thing is aspirational. I’m curious to go out and see the movie now. I wasn’t that interested before, but I’ll make the effort for this one.

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle

Book description: It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger.

“Wild nights are my glory,” the unearthly stranger told them. “I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me be on my way. Speaking of way, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract”.

Meg’s father had been experimenting with this fifth dimension of time travel when he mysteriously disappeared. Now the time has come for Meg, her friend Calvin, and Charles Wallace to rescue him. But can they outwit the forces of evil they will encounter on their heart-stopping journey through space?

Reading Challenge category: A book from your childhood

My review: L’Engle is a treasure. Just an immense literary treasure, and A Wrinkle in Time is one of her crowning achievements. I hadn’t thought about this book for a long time, until recently I was watching Interstellar. And there was talk about tesseract, and all of a sudden I remembered this book and how much I loved it, and decided I had to be my childhood book for this challenge.

I mean, it’s a children’s book about quantum physics, for heaven’s sake. Pretty much everything I know about Einstein was formulated, however subconsciously, by this book. Any time I think of the theory of relativity, I think of this book. And the was she intertwines science so effortlessly is masterful. If you have a child, have them read this book, because it is beautiful. And could send them on a career in quantum physics, which would be incredible. I wish I could understand even the tiniest bit about that particular subject matter.

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