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review 2017-10-22 18:15
Little Star, by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Little Star: A Novel - John Ajvide Lindqvist

After seeing the recent adaptation of Stephen King's It, I was inspired to delve into a big, fat horror novel (I already read It a few summers ago); plus, 'tis the season. John Ajvide Lindqvist has been referred to as Sweden's Stephen King, and I can see why. What I like most about King's writing is his characterization: characters feel like real people, no matter how fantastical, or evil. Little Star is my second Lindqvist novel, and he has a similar gift for creating engaging characters.

 

In some ways, though, I find his horror even more frightening than King's. He has a way of providing the details that are often skipped over in horror movies, such as the way the human body reacts to terror. Acts of violence are shockingly brutal (early in the novel a husband savagely breaks his wife's kneecap). He also appears to be interested in children as protagonists, especially girls. Little Star, like Let the Right One In, the other Lindqvist novel I read, features two children as the characters who drive the narrative. One (Theres) does not seem to be quite human (like the vampire in the latter novel), while the other (Theresa) is a human who is an outcast (like the boy who befriends the vampire). Each one's story is told separately at first, including their parents' points of view, until they meet--virtually and then in person. At this point we know the two will be frightening together.

 

Much of this novel details the angst and alienation of young girls, which can be painful to read if you're a woman who felt like an outsider at some point during your childhood. That alienation is weaponized; it's a freight train whose collision you can't stop but also can't look away from. It reminded me of Dietland, which I read a while ago and is not a horror novel, or even Kill the Boy Band and The Girls. I suppose I'm drawn to stories where patriarchal suppression erupts in violence.

 

I was left with a question or two, including Theres's origins (she's left to die as an infant in a forest before being discovered) and the red smoke she and the girls feed on. I also wanted a bit more of Theres's adoptive mother's perspective at the beginning.

 

Despite these questions, this novel shocked, disturbed, and awed me. I tore through it. AND I learned about several Swedish pop stars!

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review 2017-09-03 18:32
The Discreet Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa, trans. Edith Grossman
The Discreet Hero: A Novel - Mario Vargas Llosa,Edith Grossman

This book put me in a bind: while I found the story and characters engaging, fun, even, there are aspects that offended me. As I read, I would wonder: "Is this attitude or behavior endorsed by the author, or just described by him in depicting this place and these personalities?" By the end, I decided that there are definite ideologies at work here, including the beliefs that when it comes to family, blood is all; that the younger generation is responsible for squandering the hard work of their parents'; and the conservative viewpoint that if one only works hard enough, one can be successful. Other troubling attitudes that are questioned by characters but nevertheless feel condoned by the narrative: blaming victims of rape or sexual coercion; treating women as objects; racism; masculine pride as more important than the lives of loved ones.

 

After I finished the book, I read several reviews as I tried to work out my opinion of it. These mention that Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature but that this may not be his best work; that he used to be a social progressive but became a conservative who ran for president of Peru; that some characters appear in other books of his; that some elements are based on real events and his own life.

 

The book is divided between two alternating and converging narratives with separate protagonists, both fitting the "discreet hero" label of the title. The stories take place in two different areas of Peru, one Lima, one provincial, and their plots appear to have no connection. When they link up, it's very satisfying, even though the connection is quite minor. Each plot has elements of a mystery-thriller that propel the story; I found it hard to put down. The characters are often charming and easy to root for (until they're not). In story one, a man who worked his way up from nothing and owns a transport company is anonymously threatened unless he pays for protection; he refuses. In story two, a man on the verge of retirement and a long-awaited trip with his wife and son finds his life upheaved when his wealthy boss decides to marry his servant to punish his errant sons; at the same time, the protagonist's teenaged son is being approached by a mysterious stranger who may or may not be real, the devil, an angel, or just the kid fucking with his parents (this last mystery is left ambiguous).

 

Other elements I enjoyed included the relationship between the second protagonist and his wife, his feelings about art's role in life, the police sergeant from the first story, and learning about Peruvian life across two settings.

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review 2017-05-22 15:41
Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon
Await Your Reply - Dan Chaon

Await Your Reply is ultimately a tragic story featuring characters who are lost or mentally ill and either want a new start or can't let go of the past. However, I found it hard to sympathize with the three characters whose perspectives the novel shifts between in alternating chapters. As a result I rushed through my reading mostly to finish the book and see how these seemingly unconnected characters were, in fact, connected. It's a story of identity, how it is mutable but perhaps can become its own trap, even when that identity is traded in for a new one.

 

I'm surprised I purchased this book since it features one of my greatest squicks (as we say in fandom): a teacher-student romantic relationship. The recently graduated student, Lucy, is one of the characters whose point of view is narrated. Though she's lost her parents, at first it seems this is not a great loss to her. She also disparages her older, less ambitious sister. This made Lucy and her rash decision to run off with her AP History teacher unsympathetic for me. She's bright academically, but stupid and naive when it comes to everything else. She almost immediately begins to feel uneasy about the promises her older boyfriend made once they arrive at their temporary destination, but she sticks around.

 

Similarly, Ryan, a college student, leaves school and his family behind once he learns the truth about his parentage. He hadn't been doing well in school and wasted the money meant for tuition. He takes off with a guy he's just met and becomes involved in illegal money-moving and identity fraud schemes, though he barely understands what he's doing and why. He doesn't seem that troubled knowing that his family is looking for him. So, he's another character I found I couldn't care about.

 

The third character, Miles, I found the most sympathetic. He's been on the trail of his schizophrenic twin brother, Hayden, ever since the latter disappeared years before. Miles disrupts his own life (or barely develops one) to chase his twin and feeds on occasional communications from him. He gives Hayden the benefit of the doubt, despite the warnings of others and evidence to the contrary. Is he big-hearted or a fool?

 

I won't spoil how the three characters' stories connect, but despite some surprises, the mystery of that connection wasn't enough for me to overcome my issues with the characters.

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review 2017-01-13 18:12
The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan
The Association of Small Bombs: A Novel - Karan Mahajan

From the Tournament of Books longlist.

 

I finished this critically acclaimed book while away for the holidays and jotted down a list of likes/dislikes. Short story shorter, I liked it, but what a downer.

 

The synopsis from amazon:

 

When brothers Tushar and Nakul Khurana, two Delhi schoolboys, pick up their family’s television set at a repair shop with their friend Mansoor Ahmed one day in 1996, disaster strikes without warning. A bomb—one of the many “small” bombs that go off seemingly unheralded across the world—detonates in the Delhi marketplace, instantly claiming the lives of the Khurana boys, to the devastation of their parents. Mansoor survives, bearing the physical and psychological effects of the bomb. After a brief stint at university in America, Mansoor returns to Delhi, where his life becomes entangled with the mysterious and charismatic Ayub, a fearless young activist whose own allegiances and beliefs are more malleable than Mansoor could imagine. Woven among the story of the Khuranas and the Ahmeds is the gripping tale of Shockie, a Kashmiri bomb maker who has forsaken his own life for the independence of his homeland.

I admired the novel's intricate structure as it shifts across time and multiple points of view. As a writer, I'm always greatly impressed by such a feat when it is accomplished smoothly and clearly. The different points of view also offer insight into how a victim might become a terrorist or sympathetic to one or his cause, how other victims may become advocates, how someone moderate in his faith might become an extremist, how a terrorist may walk away free and be disaffected even as he commits or aids in more acts of terror. In the case of these characters, often it's the personal or psychological rather than the political that provides the impetus for violent action. Refreshingly, this novel does not feel ideological.

 

The prose is also accomplished, and I liked that the author wrote to his best reader; he did not define or explain cultural or religious terms that may be unfamiliar to a white, atheist Westerner like me. I had no problem looking up information for myself.

 

Despite what I was drawn to in the novel's craft, I felt the characters were held at a remove, as if I were looking down on them from above. This prevented me from fully connecting with them and the novel as a whole. Without that connection, I finished the story with a feeling of, "Well, that happened." There was nothing to counterbalance the weight of events, not enough beauty to keep the novel from simply depressing me. At times the metaphor of the titular bombs was also heavy-handed.

 

I can see what critics admire in this work, but I left it feeling untouched.

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text 2015-04-22 22:32
Review: Beauty's Kingdom by Anne Rice, writing as A.N. Roquelaure
Beauty's Kingdom - Anne Rice,A.N. Roquelaure

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for an honest review at The Romance Evangelist.

 

BEAUTY’S KINGDOM is the surprise addition to the infamous Sleeping Beauty trilogy written by Anne Rice under a pseudonym over thirty years ago. In the history of erotic literature, the Beauty books hold a special place of honor and with good cause. From THE CLAIMING OF SLEEPING BEAUTY, through BEAUTY’S PUNISHMENT, and ending with BEAUTY’S RELEASE, we see the innocent sheltered heroine both figuratively and literally awakened to a whole new sensual world neither she nor we thought existed. Each book goes deeper in and further out so that by the time Princess Beauty finds her Happy Ever After with the powerful Prince Laurent, the reader can’t help but be as changed by the experience as its titular character.

 

But now it’s twenty years later in Beauty’s world, and the domain where she discovered both her true nature and her true love is in danger of collapse. The task ahead is great, and it will take the help of friends both old and new to secure their beloved land’s future. All this and more is the story of how Queen Eleanor’s kingdom is transformed into Beauty’s kingdom.

 

I wish I could say that I enjoyed reading BEAUTY’S KINGDOM even half as much as I’ve loved the original trilogy. But it became clear to me early on that this book was trying to hook new readers unfamiliar with the previous books while still servicing existing fans by bringing back nearly every named character from the original kingdom. The result is a story that falls down in the two areas where the original books excelled, namely exposition and pacing. It wasn’t wonderful and it wasn’t terrible. It was just…there.

 

In the original trilogy, the story is focused on Beauty herself, and to some extent, the people with whom she comes in contact on her voyage to self-discovery and love. We are given just enough information about where Beauty is and why it matters, leaving the rest for our own imaginations to run wild. But in BEAUTY’S KINGDOM, everything is laid out for the reader in such meticulous detail that it soon becomes a struggle just to absorb everything without losing track of wherever the plot is supposed to be going.

 

Thanks to all the catching up on what happened since the last book and all the details involved in Beauty and Laurent deciding to accept the throne, it takes seven long chapters – nearly a third of the book – before we actually get to Beauty’s kingdom. Before then, it’s pages and pages of “and then this happened” with name checks for all the original characters in the kingdom, even those who’d just been mentioned briefly in the earlier books, and for me it was easily the most deadly dull part of the whole book. By the time we finally arrive nine months and a hundred pages later, all I could picture was that scene in Monty Python And The Holy Grail where everyone is yelling “Get on with it!”

 

The most disappointing thing for me about BEAUTY’S KINGDOM was how little we get of Beauty or Laurent’s points of view once they are established as the new rulers. Most of the book is about how Lady Eva kept the kingdom traditions going in the absence of its previous rulers and then how each of Beauty and Laurent’s fellow pleasure slaves from twenty years ago return to take control over various areas of activity in support of the new regime. There are a few chapters here and there featuring “volunteers” in the new and improved pleasure slave experience, and those were the stories that kept me reading when I was tempted to give up. But for someone whose name is in the title of the book, Beauty herself gets precious little time in BEAUTY’S KINGDOM, and the book suffers in her absence.

 

Yet all could have been forgiven if the ending of BEAUTY’S KINGDOM was worth the work to get there. The other characters constantly refer to some terrible secret involving Lexius, the mysterious Sultan’s servant who’d been mastered by Laurent back in the third book, but when both he and it are subsequently revealed, I didn’t know whether to be amused or appalled. Meanwhile in the few glimpses we get of Beauty herself, we can see she’s still not fully content with her role in the new kingdom despite all the public credit given to her. Up until the very last scene, I was holding out hope that the parallels drawn between her and the pitiable Sir Stephen were hinting at an updated happy ending for her. But like so much of what preceded it, what is intended as Beauty’s ultimate triumph fell flat for me. By then, I was happier to be done with the story than with what I got at the end.

 

In conclusion, for me BEAUTY'S KINGDOM was as overstuffed as a Thanksgiving turkey, and just as lifeless. I'm not sorry I read BEAUTY'S KINGDOM. I'm only sorry it wasn't better.

Source: mharvey816.mh2.org/?p=806
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