Sunday, May 24, 2020

#CBR12 Review #15: All Your Twisted Secrets by Diana Urban

“Welcome to dinner, and again, congratulations on being selected. Now you must do the selecting.”

I hadn’t actually heard of this novel before, but saw it was a new offering on my library app, along with a comparison to One of Us Is Lying, a book that I reasonably enjoyed, coupled with a juicy-sounding concept. And given that I recently binged the Netflix Series, Elite, you might say I enjoy soapy teen dramas involving murder, secrets, the whole shebang from time to time. Yet, despite a really intriguing premise that could result in a range of focuses for the characters, I ultimately didn’t love this one, and felt myself heading towards what I suspected was a disappointing conclusion throughout the back-half of the story. This novel really wants to have some teeth to it, and while it presents a lot of serious topics (murder, drug use, bullying, suicide, abusive families, etc), the need for a surprise twist, along with a collection of characters that behave repetitively as little-more than high school YA stereotypes made all of that seem so surface-level. The opportunity and potential was there, but never quite stuck in a meaningful way for me.

All Your Twisted Secrets throws the reader in the setup quickly: 6 teenagers are invited to a special dinner under the guise that they have won a scholarship. But when the doors lock them in at a deserted restaurant, the group soon finds a syringe of poison, a bomb, and a note saying that they have one hour to choose someone among them to die, otherwise all of them will die when the bomb goes off. At first they think it’s all a prank, or maybe an escape-room test of some kind as a part of the scholarship they are supposed to be receiving. But when everything just seems too real, the group either has to figure out how to work together to escape, or turn on each other to decide who should die. But the question constantly lingers: what do these 6 have in common despite knowing each other from school? There is a queen bee, a star athlete, a loner, a stoner, the valedictorian, and a music nerd name Amber whose POV we are viewing the story from. Who could possibly have wanted to do this to all of them and why? In a series of flashbacks we see the year leading up to this fateful event, as secrets are exposed, motives unraveled, and connections between the students brought to light. We also see the how they react to this event as the timer counts down, flipping between panic, accusation, anger, fear, resignation, and determination, as they learn each new piece of information.

Ultimately this novel aims to create a dialogue about the pressures young people feel, but more than anything it’s about bullying and being conscious of how our actions affect others. This is a good message, if not done in a very heavy-handed and a bit of an outlandish way in order to teach the characters a “lesson” about their behaviors (some of which are really just their own personal demons or insecurities that they need to work through and truly don’t harm anyone else?). In fact, using the term-heavy handed makes me think that maybe some of the content in this novel is a bit over-explained, which is not per say bad if you don’t think the audience will get it, but doesn’t leave so much room for nuance as the premise and issues that come to light had potential for.

And as for answering the question of who orchestrated all of this, as I was reading I realized that there were two general scenarios: it could either be someone on the outside of this circle who isn’t given much space to show themselves in what we read from Amber’s POV, therefore coming as a twist despite the person being “there the whole time”, or it could be one of the people in the room to really drive a point home and also come across as a twist. As I mentioned earlier, I realized just under half of the way through this book that either reveal wouldn’t feel satisfying to me unless some serious development happened in the later parts of the novel. But the problem is that despite everything that happened leading up to this, the characters are generally pretty stereotypical, with maybe one little layer of depth to be added, and they never really push beyond this stereotype in either the flashbacks or the current situation. This traumatic event should make them change and grow but, will it? It honestly doesn’t feel like they go through all that much growth by the end, and it’s unclear if they will in the aftermath either.

All that said, I really was engaged with this novel and wanted to see how it played out: in fact, I finished it in just 2 short sittings. The premise has enough mystery and a wild enough set up (I mean come on, it’s pretty elaborate to do to a bunch of high school students, and I live for a juicy melodrama), but the result doesn’t quite fit the potential we are presented with in the setup, nor do the characters really do much for me beyond representing some pretty static and basic character types that never really progress all that much: maybe they have one or two moments of breakthrough, but nothing that feels like it’s really going to stick before reverting back to their standby labels. So in the end, I have to give All Your Twisted Secrets middling 2.5 stars.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Saturday, May 16, 2020

#CBR12 Review #14: The Disasters by M K England

This was my first choice for reading out of the options of June’s The Future is Queer #CannonBookClub, though to be honest all of the 4 possible books for the book club sounded right up my alley! A group of so-called disasters having to come together to save themselves and the universe? A found family that comes together through their shared factor of being outcasts in one way or another? I love to see it.

The Disasters opens with a group of 4 young people (largely centered on the POV of one boy named Nax) as they are being kicked out of an elite space academy called Ellis Station for various reasons. This space station trains people to take on important roles on newly established colony planets in space, as Earth grows increasingly populated. However, despite what should be a one-way trip back to earth for all of these academy rejects, the group witnesses a terrorist attack on the space station, and barely escape. Now they are on the run from authorities as the small crew is turned into the perfect group of scapegoats to blame for the attack. Traveling to different planets to try and find help, and uncovering a terrible plot that will destroy the lives of many in the galaxy, the little team must work together to survive and hopefully save all of their loved ones in the process.

This novel is definitely a fun one with this little team at its helm: on the run, making mistakes, learning as they go, and falling into the perfect roles for themselves as each one draws upon their unique skills. The book itself is not very long, so the pace is fast and energetic, though there are some serious moments for us to learn more about the characters, why they had to leave the academy, etc. The novel’s take on exploring and inhabiting new worlds as colonies is a vibrant one, and it is interesting to see how one author might envision what life on a new planet might realistically look like.

The length and pace of the novel makes for a quick but action-packed read, although this pace doesn’t allow for a certain depth in some areas that have some very juicy potential. For example, Nax’s perceived family drama and his internal struggles with it has it’s quick moments, but they always to be brief to get back to the main issues at hand. This is definitely a thing that requires a certain, tricky balance though, when a tight time constraint is placed on the plot to get things done and solved before the timer hits zero: how much do you slow down to give space for emotional development in contrast to the established mood of urgency to get this depth? Or do you choose to focus on the plot and leave the deeper development for (hopefully) a later instalment? It’s like the difference in feeling I had between watching Dunkirk versus 1917. The former made me anxious by being so unrelenting in its pace and not giving me a second to breathe, while the latter was beautiful but took it’s time lingering at certain parts which made me anxious after the original scene setting up the movie was so insistent on being fast and furious with the task at hand which then made some of the progress feel so conflicting to those very sentiments.

But you know what I’m doing now? Getting way too in my head about a colourful and fun adventure novel. And on top of all that? The cast of characters also has a diversity that comes from the fact that these space colonies are inhabited by people from all over the world, melding together into something new. They each have their little personality quirks, but truth be told, despite the title of this novel, these characters are hardly disasters: they make mistakes and have their issues, and maybe some of the stick out from society in certain ways, but it just makes them all the more real and interesting. I would have loved to have gotten to know each of them more, beyond the stressful situation they all found themselves thrown into. So while at the moment this is a standalone novel, if a sequel were ever to be published I would certainly read it. I love a ragtag team coming together into a little family!

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

#CBR12 Review #13: Spellbound by Allie Therin

As I continue my journey with audiobooks (a new development for me over the past couple of months), my enjoyment of them has varied considerably depending on the narrator. In this case, it was a mixed bag: for the most part it was good but as the reading went on it’s as if more quirky inflections and voices were being out on to differentiate characters and moods, and honestly I’m learning that I hate the addition of silly voices to distinguish the characters. I can follow fine without it! Or even if it’s just a slight difference in speech, but without all the added flourish which I have heard coming from a number of readers at this point. In any case, let’s not get too tied up in my personal preferences of reading vs listening:

Spellbound (the first of the Magic in Manhattan series by Allie Therin) introduces us to Rory Brodigan, a young man with the magical ability to scry the past life of an object, working in an antiques shop as an appraiser in New York in 1925. This work can be dangerous at times, and particularly when he goes deep into the powers of ancient magical items known as relics. One such relic is brought into Rory’s world by Arthur, a non-magical son of a politician who is nonetheless embroiled in the supernatural world, working to try and locate and destroy the relics that threaten the world should their power come into the wrong hands.

As these two team up to save the world, more fun and interesting characters are introduced to round out the cast, but more than anything we get to see a strong dynamic between the two (both learning new aspects to themselves, wanting to hold back from one another but being incredibly open about so much), and mayhaps a budding romance? Oh yes, it’s clear as day that these two are attracted to each other from the get-go, and there is plenty of pining before the inevitable. We love a happy ending! But also I may have enjoyed some of the silly “you dumb idiot, can’t you see he likes you??” pining more than what came after: it happens sometimes with me, I can’t help it! I love that angst y’all.

Either way, Spellbound delivers an engaging historical romance, with some twists on the lore of the greater magical world that I really enjoyed. While the characters have their little quirks and distinguishing personas, for the most part they never feel too flat (especially the protagonists) which makes for a great dynamic between the push-and-pull of their interactions and the chemistry between them.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

#CBR12 Review #12: The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

Right off the bat I will say that I have not watched the HBO adaptation of this novel, so my review is free of any comparisons which may have affected my feelings on the novel. That said, it seems a little counterintuitive to read a story about the aftermath of the disappearance (and seeming death) of a percentage of the population around the world given *gestures vaguely* everything, you know? But I thought, maybe this will make these strange feelings and emotions I’m having right now feel as though they are being seen and validated. What I am experience more than anything right now is a sense of being checked-out: a numbness or all-encompassing feeling of “blah” if you will. And that is certainly echoed int his novel through the everyday mundanities and seeming detachment the main characters experience in most of the their days. But coupled with my own detachment to things, most of the characters left me feeling very little, with the exception of a couple. Am I not in the right mindset here? I don’t think that’s it, as I’m managing to connect to other things lately, but sadly I was left with little in the case of this novel.

The Leftovers takes place a few years after a spontaneous, rapture-like event causes millions of people worldwide to suddenly vanish off the planet without a trace. Some families are decimated while others only tangentially know a person or two who was lost, just like how you may hear some talk of the AIDS crisis and how certain groups seemed to have been barely touched in terms of direct death itself, while others were completely wiped out. But in both that real life case and this fictional novel, everyone is affected in the aftermath in some profound way: how could you not, when something has changed the very understanding and fabric of living? The protagonists in this story center on the mayor of a suburban town in Ohio, including the mayor himself, Kevin, his daughter, Jill, his son, Tom, his wife, Laurie, and a woman named Nora who Kevin forms a new relationship with during the course of the story. Kevin urges people to try and return to life as normal, as he feels this is the best way for people to cope. Laurie has left her family to join the Guilty Remnant, a new religious group that does not speak, lives a basic life, and wants to remind people that they were left behind for some reason, and that returning to the status quo should not be done. Jill is grappling with the fact that while she was there when an old friend disappeared, she doesn’t feel all that much: she is more concerned with her mother abandoning the family, as well as her new and wild friend Aimee living with Jill and her father, her failing grades, and the fact that she doesn’t feel a point to a lot of things. Tom doesn’t feel right going back to college, and instead turns to a religion called the Holy Wayne, following a messiah figure who claims he can take people’s pain, but soon turns into a charismatic cult leader. Finally, Nora has had her entire family disappear, and she just can’t let that go, despite trying to live a normal life and figure out how she might fit into the world again with all that has happened, including trying to start dating again despite her continued emotional connection to her past life.

Everyone deals with trauma differently, I know this, but some of these characters I just didn’t get. Laurie never feels all that attached to her role in the Guilty Remnant, and I never felt like any connection to her joining was really explained: sure we see her friend go there and then she does, but why? She was an egg I couldn’t crack, and I really wanted to know her more to understand her more. Kevin feels so surface as well, and Tom is understandable in his situation  but as a character himself I didn’t feel compelled by him. The most engaging are Jill and Nora, who I felt were given the most depth to feel like real people and not just pieces moving on a chessboard. Also, back to Kevin, I know there were purposeful lines about how he is an adult and therefore if he feels any unwitting attraction to his daughter’s friend living with them, he must take charge and stop them. Okay, great, but why does Tom, a college-age student also need to have a romantic attachment or attraction to a teenage girl during the course of the novel? I mean, why do you feel the need to include that in your story not once, but twice (okay so Tom may not be that much older but the circumstances are not great). And for what, in the end? Do these plots culminate in any sort of commentary on the theme of attraction to younger women? No? It's just a bit suspicious to me.

Maybe I was looking for something this book wasn’t going to give me. I mean, there are definitely some seeds in there of deeper ideas about how we may react after unexplained events such as these that affect everyone. But I just really didn’t feel like the majority of the characters were that connected in a way that felt real to me, minus the two of Jill and Nora. Had the whole book been about them, and gone even deeper into their experiences, I think I could have liked it more. Because there is something here, it just didn’t break through for me. What I boiled it down to is that there is a dispassion to the characters in this novel which when piled onto my own disaffected feelings at the current moment results in, well, as I said before, a big old pile of blah. Then again, maybe that's the point, the fact that we will be feeling confused and lost and detached for a long time. It's just not very compelling to read about, you know?

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

#CBR12 Review #11: Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Funny enough, after finishing this book, my friend and I started watching I’m Not Okay With This together (see: video chatting while watching separately, hitting play at the same moment), and both that show and this novel involve young people who are unable to control innate abilities within themselves, that always seem to burst forth when the individual is angry or agitated in some way. But in both cases, this concept, while integral to the plot, is a vehicle for reaching into the deeper truths of humanity, growing up, and finding a sense of belonging.

Nothing to See Here centers on a woman named Lillian, years after a scandal at her private boarding school forced her to leave, and in the process leave behind her roommate and good friend, Madison. Since then, Lillian has been adrift in her life, working dead-end jobs and living in her mother’s attic. But when Madison contacts her one day with a potential job offer, Lillian is quick to reunite with her friend. The job? A nanny position for Madison’s twin stepchildren. Seems simple enough, but there’s a catch: the children happen to have a condition where they spontaneously catch on fire. Madison’s husband is a politician on the upswing, and he doesn’t want his current, perfect family image ruined by these two unpredictable children from his previous marriage. Lillian takes the job because, well, she doesn’t really have any other prospects on the horizon, so what does she have to lose?

With a seemingly strange and possibly goofy conceit, Nothing to See Here is not just a fun little ride, but also one with strong emotional resonance about finding purpose after being adrift for so long, and searching for a sense of belonging somewhere. In fact, it made me think about some of the kids that I briefly worked with while studying to be an art therapist a few years ago: so many of them were struggling to try and find a sense of control in a world so seemingly out of it, and one in particular just wanted to feel secure about people being there for them but couldn’t let her guard down after years of being shuffled around. But it’s not just the kid’s who experience this, but Lillian as she finds herself being pushed into and out of roles as it is deemed fit by other people, despite where she wants to be. It also brings to question whether our sense of belonging and purpose can change as we grow and find ourselves in new positions, and if maybe the idea of “home” isn’t always such a clear-cut concept. And yeah okay Lillian’s character did resonate with me in a lot of ways in regards to just having no idea where she wants to go or wants to do and just feeling stuck because of it. Whatever the case, this novel was quick and fun to listen to as an audiobook, and right up the alley of anyone who likes family dramedy (but this time with a little supernatural zest).

Saturday, April 18, 2020

#CBR12 Review #10: The 7 ½ Deaths to Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Like Gosford Park by way of Source Code, with a zest of Black Mirror.

This might have been better as an actual read rather than an audiobook: due to the complexities of the plot and many many characters, if my mind drifted for even a second I would find myself confused as to what was happening or who was who. But then, with all the moving parts I might have had a time keeping everything straight even if I were to have read it.

I know this book has been reviewed by a number of Cannonballers in the past couple years, so I’ll leave the recap brief: a man wakes up on the estate of an old manor with amnesia. After learning that he has been invited here among many people to attend a party that evening, he continues through a confusing day, trying to discover who is he and whether or not he really saw a woman being murdered in a forest the night before as he believes. At the end of the day, however, he wakes up in a new body, and the day starts all over again. He learns that he has 8 days (and 8 host bodies) to solve the murder of a woman named Evelyn Hardcastle that will happen that night. From there our narrator weaves in and out of different bodies and days to solve the mystery of the repeating whodunnit, as well as trying to figure out why he is here in the first place.

The idea of this novel is great, but as I mentioned already, the actual progress can get a bit confusing with all the characters and jumping in the timeline, because as easy as it would be to go singularly day-by-day, the narrator actually jumps between bodies and days depending on the consciousness of the different hosts. The way things end up working out with all the details connecting in the end makes it clear that great care was taken in the extensive plotting, but made the reading experience less straightforward. It is also very long, and takes a little time to really catch its stride; once it does, it is fun and exciting, but then hits another snag near the end when a twist as to the reality of the situation is introduced. This is where it feels a little like Black Mirror, where your perception of what is going on suddenly shifts, and honestly this twist could be a whole book in itself. But given that it is crammed in right at the end, there isn’t time to really let this development breathe and take on life. It felt too much like a twist for a twist’s sake, you know? As opposed to feeling like a natural development.

So in the end, The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a fun read, but definitely a meaty one that is a bit of an undertaking to get into. Yeah, I’ll say it, I got a bit lost at times remembering who was who and where everyone was at what time, etc. I did like that there was a resolution that made sense in the end in terms of the actual murder plot, it’s just that extra twisty bit that really left me feeling underwhelmed.

Monday, April 13, 2020

#CBR12 Review #09: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

This novel ended up on my to-read list after being recommended by our library’s website after I finished Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. I really didn’t know what I was getting into though, to be honest, but I did assume that like Ng’s book, it would be some kind of personal family drama. That is certainly was, and this is a genre I usually quite like, but this time I find myself feeling a bit lukewarm about the whole endeavor.

Commonwealth begins with a man named Bert Cousins showing up to the christening party of Fisk and Beverly Keating’s 2nd daughter, Franny. Bert doesn’t really know the family, but has loose ties to friends-in-common through work, and goes to the party on a whim to have some time away from his own family. By the end of the party, however, Bert and Beverly end up kissing, and Bert can’t help but feel like his life has now changed forever. Unsurprisingly, this leads to an affair and eventual divorce, yet now the two families of the Cousins and the Keatings are even more intertwined through the 6 children that are involved between the 4 parents. Through flashes forward and back, we see how this affair and melding of the two families has shaped each of the children and parents’ lives across the years, with new bonds and secrets and taking shape over time. All of these moments, however, are brought into focus by the one daughter, Franny, after a relationship with a famous author leads him to write a story based on Franny’s family drama for all of them to have a new vantagepoint of reflection. Spanning across 5 decades, this story involves a large cast of characters and drama, but also many soft moments of love, and realistic moments of the mundane aspects of life that many people can relate to.

This novel touches on some very personal, human moments, and the way the story spins does involve some twists and surprises that I personally didn’t expect. But the problem is that it bogs itself down in a lot of ways: there are a lot of main characters here, and while each of them gets their own little section in the fallout of the inciting incident, it still feels like certain characters get a lot more love and attention than others. Certainly, some of them have more interesting stories, but the switches between characters sometimes do a disservice to the one we were just focusing on; the timing of the moments works in some places but in others seems to happen right when there is a moment for opening up that I felt should be followed-through with the character we are still on.

What I normally love about books with very human and relatable plots is the personal resonance, or the deep and real emotions they give to the reader. Some of that was present in this, but there was still a certain formality (between the characters and in the writing’s presentation) that didn’t let everything break through like it could have. So overall with Commonwealth, the bones of something really strong are here, just waiting to burst through, and they do at certain times! But in the end it falters under the weight of its own undertaking, finding a decent burst of life near the end before inevitably dragging itself across the finish-line.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

#CBR12 Review #08: The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

Unintentionally, this is the second novel I have ended up reading so far this year that takes place in a setting where magic used to exist freely, but has since disappeared, causing major changes to society in its wake. But despite this seeming similarity, both novels are very different from one another. While the first used the concept of returning magic in a YA quest, using the injustices of the class structure to create a direct allegory to the violence committed against black communities in America, The Last Smile in Sunder City presents us with a fantasy noir, following a hardened man-for-hire in a gritty city that once thrived, but was hit hard when the magic left. In this case, the distinction between magical beings and humans still clearly bears symbolism to our real world, but presented in more of a general sense of the “other”, or people trying to find a way to obtain something they do not (and have no right to) possess, or destroy those with it in order to feel more powerful than them. You can still see a clear connection here to race and marginalized communities, but the story is not per say one of empowerment anymore, but of fear and guilt in the aftermath of wrongdoing.

The novel itself centers on Fetch Phillips, living in Sunder City which was once a great industrial town due to a huge source of fire energy that the city possessed. After human soldiers attacked the source of magical power throughout the land, this fire went out, and poverty went rampant in the city. The energy here feels almost like a fantasy Victorian London, but not quite, I can’t entirely explain it: urban fantasy, I guess, but without a lot of our modern technologies (due to magic having been used for a lot of things). In any case, magical beings of all kinds with different abilities all lived here, and now those magical creatures find themselves being hugely affected in not just their abilities to make money through their magical skills, but also in their bodies: elves deteriorate, werewolves get caught between half-man-half-dog, vampires fangs fall out and they slowly wither to dust without being able (or wanting) to drink blood. One such Vampire, Edmund Rye, is a teacher at a school for young magical beings that never knew a life when magic truly existed, and therefore do not understand the effects of what happened. After Edmund goes missing, Fetch is hired to try and find the man, and let’s just say that his tactics are less than smooth; from here the story takes shape with Fetch’s investigation which leads us to information about the history of the city, and the reality that many people now live in within it.

Fetch is a former soldier who is weighed down by knowing that he had a large hand in the downfall of their society and the destruction of magic. In short, he is a miserable guy who knows how to irritate people and twist their arms to get what he wants. But is he actually good at his job, or does he just wear people down enough and happen to fall on information as he needs it? It sort of feels like the latter to be honest, as he stumbles around not really finding any strong leads, only to then be led to a conclusion with a few scraps. Overall, the plot was really halting and led itself to a lot of dead-ends and blackouts that didn’t feel like they were going anywhere. And I’m not sure that all of them did, even if there was a clear resolution to Fetch’s case in the end. Throughout the novel, we also see flashbacks of Fetch’s past and upbringing shed light on his character and how he got here. I definitely enjoyed the flashbacks a lot, and felt they did some much-needed weightlifting in giving our protagonist something to lean on other than the simple self-hatred we see throughout, but these little vignettes did spring up at times during the greater plot which took me out of it a little too much, only to need to center myself on what exactly was happening again when we got back. Truth be told, for a book that was not much over 300 pages, it certainly felt way longer than that, and took me far longer to read than I thought it would: I am all for a slow burn, but this one really just sputtered in its pacing until the last quarter or so.

But despite the so-so progress of the actual plot, there is still something I enjoyed about this novel. Fetch is a type of character I’ve seen before, sort of a John Constantine by way of Keanu Reeves: you shouldn’t like him, and he sure is a gloomy guy, but for some reason you are kind of rooting for him. And there is a mystery to be solved, after all! Not only that, but I really enjoyed the city being stitched together here: the details felt purposeful and created a very intriguing picture of this new fantasy world. I wanted to know more about the life and creatures and how things work, so in that way, the setting is really engaging and did a lot of heavy lifting.

In the end, The Last Smile in Sunder City is a debut novel from Luke Arnold, with some solid foundations in the dark noir concept and lively, rich world that has been constructed. It was just the execution and plotting that didn’t entirely stick for me. So as always, the question is, will I continue with the next book in this series once it comes out? And as is so often the case lately, my answer is, I have no definitive answer either way.  

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

#CBR12 Review #07: The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home: A Night Vale Novel by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

It’s been a long time since I’ve listened to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, a surreal little trip into a strange desert town with unexplained incidents that the people are just accustomed to and seem to live with like that’s just life. I’m not sure if my previous knowledge and experience with the series made the reading of this novel better or worse: on the one hand, it certainly filled in a couple of spaces at the end that might make those unfamiliar confused, but on the other it took away a lot of the mystery behind the faceless old woman which her character in the series so interesting. Either way, you don’t really need to listen to the podcast or read the other novels (which I haven’t yet) in order to understand the story.

The version of The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home that I took in was the audiobook read by Mara Wilson, who has one-sided conversations with the present-day Craig – the man whose home she inhabits—all while also detailing her personal history and how she came to become the Faceless Old Woman in his home in Night Vale. What you may suspect to simply be a creepy horror tale of a spirit left behind after some scary event, the truth is more of a swashbuckling adventure: our faceless old woman lived on the coast of the Mediterranean in the early 19th century, only to suffer a tragedy and be consumed by a quest of revenge. To achieve this goal, she works her way up the ranks in the criminal underworld of smugglers with a loyal troop, finding family and friendship, but ultimately betrayal. And at the end of it all, her spirit somehow, and for some reason clings on to keep her here in the present day. And yes, we find out why, or at least, what she believes her path to be.

While this story is filled with some great action sequences and a fun cast of characters, there is a bit of a somber mood throughout, and Mara Wilson’s performance sells it perfectly. You just know that something strange or serious had to have happened in order to lead our protagonist here to where she is now, living in the homes of Night Vale residents, but paying particular attention to certain ones such as Craig (not sure why she feels the need to both prank and assist people seemingly at random, actually, that’s still a bit of a mystery). Ultimately, it is a story of how the decisions we make shape us, the way of life we choose to pursue and what believe we deserve, and most importantly how hatred and revenge can rot the soul into something we never imagined.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, with only a couple of slight complains. One is that the connection to the other weirdness in the town of Night Vale seemed a little shoe-horned in there near the end which was maybe not necessary in the grand scheme of things. The second is that ultimate reveal for the ending was a bit over-explained which made it feel like it dragged on a lot longer than we really needed it to as everything has revealed itself in one way or the other along the way. In the end, though, The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home knew how to turn a story, and tie a mystery together in a very human way in the end. It was a surprise for me, as this was once again taken out on a whim while I wait for some digital holds from our library, and it was no disappointed in the undertaking!

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

#CBR12 Review #06: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister, the Serial Killer begins at the cleanup of a murder; Korede is the older sister of Ayoola, and this is the third time Korede has had to come to the rescue of her little sister’s crimes in order to help her clean up and dispose of a dead body. Korede has always been protective of her little sister after a traumatic childhood with their father, but at this point she is beginning to question if the trail of bodies Ayoola has been leaving behind were really in self-defence or not. Being that she is implicated in the cover-up of these crimes, Korede keeps quiet, but when Ayoola strikes the interest of a doctor that Korede works with and has feelings for, their dynamic gets thrown for a new loop.

This book is short and sweet: it contains a darkly humorous and intriguing story that doesn’t give us a murder mystery to solve (we know Ayoola has killed the man at the beginning) so much as a playout of what comes after, holding the reader in suspense as to what decisions will be made and what the consequences of those choices will be. It also presents to us a picture of gender roles and expectations in Nigeria.

While the short nature works well with the period in these girls’ timeline that the story involves (plus the flashbacks giving us all the pertinent information we need), I personally would have like to see things beefed up a little in terms of Ayoola’s character. What we see is from her big sister’s perspective, which makes sense as to why it comes across as bratty and self-absorbed, and doesn’t really go into why exactly her sister chooses to kill these men (if, perhaps, it really isn’t self defense as she claims). But in Ayoola’s history there are some threads that could be seen as very informative of her choices, if only we are allowed to connect the dots a bit more: she learns from an early age about the cruelty of men, and in particular how sometimes what appears to be kindness is actually dangerous, such as the case of the chief who wanted to claim her as a young child. There is also a reason why she has no real friends, having a hard time letting people close to her while also relishing in attention from her “minions” and online following, suggesting that attention is how she finds a sense of worth as she has always known since she was a child, but not wanting to let closeness or letting her guard down put her in a dangerous position like it did with her father and his visitor who found so much interest in her. It’s all there, but I would have loved to have seen it explored more, to dig a little deeper beyond the superficial portrait Korede paints.

But then again, Korede is our narrator, and there is also a reason for that as well: we see the strength of her love and protection throughout their lives, and how her decisions have led her here. In the end, My Sister, the Serial Killer is about sisterhood, protecting those you love, and to be honest it’s very funny and suspenseful as choices are made and relationships take on new layers of meaning and irony. And it’s not a huge investment to jump into either, but definitely keeps the pages turning: in fact, I breezed through it in just one sitting!

Friday, March 27, 2020

#CBR12 Review #05: If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

So this novel was chosen on a whim, as it was sitting ready and waiting in the Audiobooks Available Now section of the library’s app. And upon reading the synopsis it felt like it had a similar energy to The Secret History by Donna Tartt, a book I definitely liked!

If We Were Villains begins by introducing us to Oliver Marks, a man who is just being released from prison for an unspecified crime for which he served a 10-year sentence. The original detective from the case, however, still holds suspicions towards the official story of what happened, and wants Oliver to finally tell him the truth now that the detective is retired from the force. Oliver then tells the tale of his fourth and final year at an exclusive Shakespeare acting conservatory, and the events of one fateful night where he and the 6 other classmates in his graduating cohort host a party that goes awry, resulting in one the students, Richard, dead in a lake. While it looks like a simple accident that occurred in drunkenness, the detectives on the case aren’t so sure that there wasn’t foul play. Oliver recounts not only that night, but some of the time leading up to it, showing an increasing violence in the Richard towards his friends, as well as the emotional turmoil and semester after the incident which leads to Oliver’s eventual arrest. But who is really to blame?

While M.L. Rio certainly delivers an engaging mystery overall, but unfortunately it fizzled out a little bit at the end for me. I think it just got a little too caught up in the character’s relationship melodrama to really stick the landing. These students and their lives are, in a word, messy. And while that can be very entertaining and interesting to dig into the psychology of it all, so much of this story was wrapped up in how these students go about their complicated relationships, how they deal with the consequences of their actions, and their decisions in how to protect themselves and others in the fallout of Richard’s death. But they are young, you know? So they do what young people do, and it’s understandable and realistic but also sometimes so annoying.

What is really interesting in this novel is the descriptions of the plays that they put on, and how they come to develop certain pieces, or take part in experimental, semi-improvisational work. There are also strong ties to the tragedy arcs of Shakespeare presented here, so I definitely understand the connection and meaning of the actions take near the end of the novel. They work to a point, but there is something that still feels so futile and inevitable about how it all plays out, which is a bit frustrating.

So in the end, If We Were Villains was entertaining and spun a good story for the most part, until a bit of a dip at the end in addition to some frustrating characters and relationships throughout. Your mileage on it may vary, however, depending on how much you can handle pretentious theatre kids (to which I admittedly have a reasonably high tolerance).

Saturday, March 21, 2020

#CBR12 Review #04: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Listened to as an audiobook, read by the author. And what a calm and straightforward voice! I can’t remember why Exit West came on my radar (I think I saw someone talking about it on Twitter?) but in any case, it was well worth the read. A story tied to real-world pain but with a fantasy element to string the story along. Does this magical realism entirely work? Mileage may vary, but overall I think the novel was successful in what it set out to do.

Exit West follows the story of Saeed and Nadia, in the early stages of a relationship within an unnamed country/city that is on the brink of civil war. As the two navigate their relationship with one another, the violent realties of their lives is inescapable, and inevitably begins to inform their relationship and how much they try to hold on to this good piece of their lives, changing as their situation requires. But amidst all this violence, they hear of doors: doors that will lead to another unknown place. Following these doors, Nadia and Saeed jump from place to place as refugees, searching for a new place to call home and experiencing what it now means to be a refugee in a place that doesn’t want you there.

All of the events of Saeed and Nadia’s story are also juxtaposed with vignettes of violent events occurring in other parts of the world, and how these may be related to the life of immigrants as our two protagonists now are. Maybe there is no complete safe place for anyone? Maybe certain views show up everywhere, despite what we may want to think.

The overall course of the novel is strong, showing us a story that is familiar, but also deeply personal: it not only touches upon the realities of people fleeing unrest in their countries, but also on the levels to which people adapt as they are required to. There is a resiliency to the human spirit, but also a dire need to hold on to relationships and some semblance of routine to keep a sense of humanity and hope that life can feel grounded, even if in the slightest ways. But how things even out so quickly at the end of this novel felt like a true fantasy. Perhaps a wish for resolution, after a time of unrest. And I guess that is something to really hang on to in difficult times, as we are all experiencing right now (whether for the first time or not).

But what about the doors? This seems to be the only magical element in the story, so why include it? It could simply be seen as a crutch to jump around to the different settings quickly and without a fuss, but maybe it is being used here because we have seen the struggles and dangers that refugees make in our real lives before. In fact, we continue to see them every day. By eliminating this factor, the question is posed: do you still care? People already turn their noses up to immigrants fleeing war-torn areas, despite the fact that they took huge risks in trying to do so. In this novel, however, we see the reasons for leaving (and there is still danger in crossing over) but without all the graphic details, and we are still situated to care about Nadia and Saeed, and all the other immigrant’s struggles to find a new life in unfamiliar places.

Ultimately, I found Exit West to be a great read, as it was straightforward, honest, personal, and meaningful in its intent. It felt like a conversation, just asking me to open myself up to not just listen, but to really hear it whenever I plugged in for a new chapter. Yet as I have felt a few times before, this feels like one of those books that will be unread by those who really should be the ones hearing what it has to say. Such is always the way.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

#CBR12 Review #03: The First Bad Man by Miranda July

Since I’ve been slacking on my reading time so far this year, but sometimes listen to podcasts while I work on art and design projects, my friend suggested I listen to audiobooks to keep with my book goals. And so here we are! Shout-out to the library for having a great digital collection that I can access with a few different apps.

Miranda July is a bit of a pickle for me: some of her works I love (ie, Me and You and Everyone We Know), but a lot of it I really don’t like at all: or at least, I just don’t get it. But there is always something there that I find intriguing, if not ultimately effective or fully developed.

Unfortunately, this one was not a winner for me. I’ll admit that I’m not used to audiobooks as of yet, and I didn’t really like the manner in which July told it—for example, how she put on a voice for any character that wasn’t the protagonist, but it was always the same sort of deep, husky imitation of a typical male voice—so that could have been a big factor in my dislike of this novel. However, I think in terms of the story and characters, that was just one of a few faults that kept me from really engaging with this book.

The First Bad Man follows a woman named Cheryl, who has a strict manner of living in her home, is hopelessly infatuated with a co-worker who she believes was her lover in many past-lives, lets people walk all over her, and is constantly searching for the soul or psychic link of a baby she connected with as a child in other babies she sees in her daily life. In short, she is odd, has peculiar thoughts, and a peculiar life. All of this, however, is thrown for a loop when a co-worker’s 21-year-old daughter, Clee, ends up living with Cheryl as she has nowhere else to go. Their relationship is strained, and soon takes on a bizarre, ritualistic life of its own, with the two enacting fights with one another what become very intense and sexual in nature. Cheryl is also grappling with a relationship with a new therapist, and the fact that the man she believes is her long-lost love of her past-lives is seeking her blessing to have a sexual relationship with a teenager. So despite seeming like a small, contained story about a contained woman and her feelings and experiences, this whole thing really is a lot.

In any case, there is something to be said about the intimacy with Cheryl’s thoughts that present themselves in this novel: we see her grappling with ideas and thoughts that maybe people don’t want others to know that they have, but also reassuring the reader that no, it’s not uncommon to have strange thoughts and behaviors that you don’t want to admit to anyone else. There is an element of feeling seen and unjudged in whoever you may be and whatever you might do in your private moments. But beyond that I can’t help but feel like some more graphic elements were included to be… not per say shocking, but maybe a little edgy? Like, oh dear reader you didn’t think we would go there but we sure did!

So overall, I did not enjoy the experience of this novel on a few levels, though there was potential to it, and a few moments that grabbed me. Despite this, however, it felt like this book was desperately trying to say something but I just couldn’t figure out what that was. Oh well, maybe next time.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Saturday, March 7, 2020

#CBR12 Review #02: Lock Every Door by Riley Sager

“If something seems too good to be true, it probably is”. This is one of the lines telegraphed at the beginning of Riley Sager’s Lock Every Door, which inevitably (and unsurprisingly) ends up being far too real for the young protagonist, Jules. Jules is a recently unemployed young woman, nursing a newly broken heart and living on a best friend’s couch, trying to figure her life out. When she finds an opportunity as an apartment sitter, getting to live in the fancy building (albeit with a notorious history) of her dreams, all while making cash for doing very little, she jumps at the chance. But as Jules moves in and starts to become acquainted with the old, gothic Bartholomew building, she finds that the rules are strict and some people strange; she can’t help but feel like something is not quite right in this big old building, and she may have just put herself into the crosshairs of something sinister.

Lock Every Door is successful in setting up a mystery to unravel, with enough twists to keep up the pace throughout. However, I found that despite the eerie feeling that was trying to develop, I never quite felt a tension as the whole thing played out. It just clipped along very quickly, (the whole story only takes place over about a week) and felt very heavy-handed in making sure the clues were not missed and we knew for sure something was amiss. I love it when there is a sense that something isn’t right, but you can’t quite put your finger on it so there’s just a sense of unease, but here I always felt like I could always pinpoint exactly what was wrong or would come back later. Which is fine! But the mood wasn’t quite established for me.

Nonetheless, this was still a mystery that I liked seeing evolve as it went through, not to mention that Jules is a great character who is determined, and understandable in her motivations. She is also relatable in struggling with her position and worth in society with its class divides. These themes are a great inclusion in the story, and I would have liked to see them developed further before the ending wrapped everything up so quickly in the final explanatory chapter. So overall, Lock Every Door wasn’t a perfect read for me, but one that kept the pages turning and never dragged across its mysterious unfolding.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Monday, March 2, 2020

#CBR12 Review #01: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Would you believe that I actually first heard about this YA book from an advertisement during the trailers section of a DVD I took out from the library? Actually, I’m pretty sure I saw it on more than one! How serendipitous to then receive it as a gift. Ultimately, while there were things I really liked about this book, there were also things that I didn’t. Overall, I liked it, but didn’t love it. Being that it is the first of a series, the question is then will I continue with the rest? And well, I’m just not sure (for one thing my to-read list is just far too long!).

Children of Blood and Bone brings us the the world of Orïsha, with many elements inspired by West African mythology and the Yoruba culture and language. While this country was once home to a group of people who could practice magic (called maji), the tyrannical King Saran found a way to eliminate magic from the land due to fear of the power of the maji, and slaughtered all adult practitioners of magic as well. Zélie, a young girl with white hair marking those people who once were children of magic that hadn’t yet come into their powers, had her mother killed at this time, and now, in her teenage years is thrown by fate into a quest to bring magic back to Orïsha, alongside her brother and the unexpected companion of the crown princess of the land. In fact, this novel is not just told from the perspective of Zélie, but there are also chapters which bring us the POV of Amari, the princess, and her brother named Inan who hunts Zélie and her brother in order to stop them by order of his father.

This novel is clearly a reference to the racial injustices and violence that we see in our own world every day, and if this book can serve as a conduit for the author, Tomi Adeyemi, to process this for herself, or bring these issues into certain reader’s minds then that is a good thing. The book certainly doesn’t stray away from the brutality and violence that is all too real in our own world, and Adeyemi creates an interesting new setting for this type of “chosen one” YA story to take place. It is a story strongly grounded in WOC characters and their treatment in a world that often considers them weak or worthless, but contain great strength within them. Not only that, but the writing is very straightforward and not too difficult to get into, so I found the story really clips along at a decent pace despite the fact that it spans over 500 pages.

However, this book on it’s own did not entirely work for me. For one, the story itself is pretty standard quest fare, with some details changed. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing, but it is ultimately a bit predictable. I also found that while switching perspectives of characters was good at times in order to see more of the internal development and thought processes of Amari and Inan, when the characters’ paths overlapped it almost seemed unnecessary to rehash events over a few pages when so little new is learned. That is to say, I think the use of this technique could have been more strategically utilized.

There was also an issue of the characters: while they do grow and develop, they also fall into pretty repetitive cycles throughout the novel. I think there is certainly room to grow in the next books in the series, especially for Zélie, but I guess we will see how that plays out. I did, however, find Inan to be frustrating: while we can understand why he has conflicting feelings and the struggles he goes through, where he stands seems to flip too quickly and he needed room to really breathe with these new emotions. Furthermore, the romances inserted into the story really needed room to grow and blossom, but in particular that which involved Inan, given his behavior in their world and against the maji.

Overall, Children of Blood and Bone is a book that ticks all the usual boxes for a YA chosen one quest, but did so in a unique setting with strong imagery and serious subject-matter. While there is definitely room for growth and a lot more character development, it was still worth a read and I will see how I feel about continuing the series at such a time as the next novel comes out.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]