Sunday, April 19, 2015

From the Bookshelf: Recently Read - April 2015 Edition

Lately I've been neglecting my blog a little too much. I'd love to say it's because I've been busy doing really exciting, amazing things, but that would be a lie. What I've actually been doing is alternating between binge watching shows on Netflix and reading.

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I'm late to the Show Us Your Books! party yet again (though, to be fair, I'll probably always be at least a day or two late since the link-up falls on a Tuesday and that day is always reserved for a recipe post), but I figured better late than never. I skipped the link-up completely last month, mostly because I was busy moving my blog over from Wordpress and reformatting a bunch of shit, but also because I'd been slacking when it came to reading.

I'm still a little behind schedule with my 50 book challenge, but with the way I've been devouring my books lately, I should (hopefully) be able to get back on track soon.

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Sister by Rosamund Lupton - 318 pages

Completed on 02/23/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

I rely pretty heavily on Amazon and Goodreads recommendations for books, and after reading about Sister, I knew I wanted to read it. I finally picked it up on one of my trips to Half Price Books, but it sat on my bookshelf for quite a while before I got around to it.

I'll be completely honest: I didn't really get into this book until about 50 pages in. But once I got into it, I had a hard time putting it down.

The entire novel is essentially a long letter written from Beatrice (or Bee) to her younger sister, Tess, who has gone missing. As the novel (or letter) progresses, Bee remembers various events (both large and small) that had an impact on their lives and their relationship with one another. The sisters have remained close throughout the years, but after Bee travels from her home in New York back to her hometown in London to try to find out what happened to Tess, she realizes she may not have known her sister as well as she once believed.

I won't give too much away in this review, but I will say that while I really enjoyed the book, there were parts of the twist that I really didn't love. I think part of it was due to the fact that I had figured some of it out before I got to the big reveal. While I love being right, I hate when things are a little too obvious (especially in a crime or psychological thriller).

That being said, I felt that Rosamund Lupton did a great job bringing the characters to life. I loved that the two main characters in particular were molded into real people with real flaws, real quirks, and real emotions. I actually cared about what happened to them, which made it a much more powerful (and enjoyable) read.

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The Child in Time by Ian McEwan - 263 pages

Completed on 03/07/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

Oh, Ian McEwan. I want to love you, I really do. You're incredibly talented and you have such interesting ideas. But the execution ... Oh God, the execution.

I struggled through this book, sometimes only picking it up because I was desperate to finish it so I could move on to something else. I know it's silly to force yourself to read a book you don't like, but I really want to finish every book I start this year. I know it's probably weird, but it's a personal thing ... I don't really like not finishing things I start (even though it seems to happen all the time when it comes to my writing projects).

The basic premise is interesting: a man goes to the grocery store with his 3 year old daughter. As they wait in the checkout line, she suddenly disappears. The first chapter deals almost entirely with this incident and the immediate aftermath, and McEwan does an excellent job describing the sheer panic Stephen (the father) feels as he tears through the store looking for his little girl. But honestly, the story could have stopped here and been just that: a short story.

I understand that Ian McEwan was trying to weave together these grand themes of time and what it means to lose a child, but oh my God ... The way he went about it was all wrong. The majority of the subplots were ridiculous (particularly the way Stephen's friend Charles suddenly regresses into a man-child intent on passing his time in a treehouse in the English countryside), or, in one case, completely random (Stephen happens to witness an accident while driving and helps the driver get help ... This is never really tied in with the rest of the story, and it left me wondering why it was even included in the novel).

And the ending ... Ugh. I know this is such an overused phrase, but these words just kept repeating in my mind as I read the last few pages: "I just can't." It was awful. The only reason I didn't give this book 1 star on Goodreads was because the first chapter was so good.

I've given Ian McEwan plenty of chances. I read Atonement. I read In Between the Sheets, a collection of short stories that contained exactly one story I actually enjoyed. Then I read The Cement Garden and believed that maybe I could be a fan ... So I decided to give him one more try with The Child in Time. I really wish I hadn't wasted my time.

Sorry, Ian McEwan. This was your last chance. I won't be reading any more of your books.

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The Red Tree by Caitlín R. Kiernan - 380 pages

Completed on 03/21/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

Before I even start my review, I just have to quickly comment on the cover because this is one of those times when "don't judge a book by its cover" is a very appropriate statement. I don't know who approved the cover art, but it would have been much better without the brooding woman. It just looks ridiculous.

But anyway, moving on.

I read this book for the first time several years ago, and I really enjoyed it at the time. I couldn't remember much about it, though, so I decided to reread it. Unfortunately I didn't enjoy it as much this time around.

The Red Tree is essentially a book within a book within a book. (Yes, I meant to type it that many times.) It's supposedly a manuscript that author Sarah Crowe was working on before her death, though it's more of a journal than an actual novel. Sarah rents a house in rural Rhode Island in hopes of escaping both her writer's block and the mixed feelings she has surrounding the suicide of her ex-girlfriend, Amanda. While living in the house, she stumbles upon a manuscript written by the house's former tenant, a professor obsessed with an ancient oak tree growing on the edge of the property who eventually hung himself from the very tree he was writing about. Sarah peppers her journals with excerpts from the professor's manuscript as she begins to grow obsessed with the tree herself.

The Red Tree is, in a word, unsettling. There are a lot of supernatural elements, and certain parts of the book are creepy as hell. However, the overall novel just fell a little flat for me this time. It was like a less awesome version of House of Leaves. (I kept thinking this as I was reading, so I found it funny when, at the end of the book, I noticed the author cited House of Leaves as one of her inspirations.)

The character of Sarah really annoyed me this time around. While I admittedly had forgotten much of the book, I think I would have remembered such a whiny character. But oh my God ... Sarah was supposedly in her mid-40s, but she acted like an angsty girl in her teens or early 20s. I kept thinking, "This must be what I sounded like to everyone around me when I was younger." And then I just felt sad and embarrassed because who really wants to sound like that all the time? Sarah was full of complaints and bitterness about everything from her writing to her ex-girlfriend, and it just grated on my nerves after a while. Yes, she was going through a difficult time, but Caitlín Kiernan created a character that seemed unworthy of sympathy. 

I don't hate the book or feel like I wasted my time with the reread, but it took me around 2 weeks to finish it because I wasn't overly engaged. It's not a bad book, but I was disappointed that I didn't enjoy it as much this time.

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Out by Natsuo Kirino - 400 pages

Completed on 04/04/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

I started this book about 2 or 3 years ago, but never finished it. This is really unusual for me (I can think of only 2 other books I've ever started but never finished, and I'm working through one of them right now). The reason I didn't finish this book years ago was because I got busy and set it aside for several weeks. There are quite a few characters and subplots in Out, so when I picked it up again, I was completely lost.

I'm glad I decided to try reading it again, though. Natsuo Kirino may have created a huge cast of characters, but she weaves their stories together in a masterful way.

Out focuses primarily on the lives of 4 women, all night shift factory workers who have become fairly close friends. Yayoi, a young mother of 2 with an abusive husband, decides to end her suffering by murdering him. The act was not premeditated, however, and, panicked and desperate for help, Yayoi calls Masako, the friend she feels she can trust the most. Masako agrees to help her dispose of the body and cover up the crime, and she secures help from Yoshie and Kuniko, her other friends from the factory. Kirino gives readers a glimpse into the lives of each of the women, but also delves into darker territory when the yakuza (or Japanese mafia) become involved.

This is a really interesting novel, and I was extremely impressed with the translation. I've read quite a few books that have been translated from other languages, and some things just seem a little clunky and weird ... But with Out, it was easy to forget that it was originally written in Japanese. There's also a useful chart at the beginning of the book with some yen to dollar conversions, which I consulted at numerous points throughout the novel. A lot of the plot (and several of the subplots) centers around money, so it was nice to have that as a reference.

Although I really enjoyed this book as a whole, there were a couple of things that prevented it from achieving 5 star status on Goodreads.

I felt like some of the minor characters didn't deserve as much attention. There were points in the book when I was like, "Why is this even relevant? I don't really need to know this much about this character ... Unless they play a vital role in the story later." A couple of these characters actually did play a larger role later in the novel, but a couple of the others really didn't need 10 pages (or more) devoted to their backstory.

I also didn't love the ending. I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it. It was just ... Weird. I'm very anti-spoiler, so I won't go into a lot of detail, but I was kind of confused by Masako's sudden change of heart. It really didn't fit with her character, and although I kind of get where Kirino was probably trying to go with the idea, it just didn't work.

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Stranger than Fiction by Chuck Palahniuk - 233 pages

Completed on 04/10/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

This was another reread for me. I first read this book about 8 or 9 years ago, and while I could remember bits and pieces of the essays, enough time had passed that I mostly felt like I was reading it for the first time.

I've mentioned before that I'm kind of a Chuck Palahniuk fangirl. (Though I'll admit that I wasn't very impressed with Snuff or Pygmy and I just sort of stopped reading him after those were released.) That being said, this collection of non-fiction essays probably would only appeal to someone who really enjoys his work. While I'm sure that most people would find at least a few of the essays interesting, it's not something I'd recommend to someone who doesn't typically enjoy his writing style or subject matter. (And, honestly, if you aren't a fan, you probably won't give a shit about any of the essays in the last part of the book because they're all about his own personal experiences.)

I'm so glad I reread this book because it gave me some much needed inspiration. I'd finish an essay and just immediately start tapping away at my phone, adding to my list of notes for blog posts and other writing projects. Although I haven't started writing any of those posts yet, the ideas are there ... So they'll show up eventually. (Probably sooner rather than later.)

A few of the essays were just "meh" for me, but most of them were interesting and/or inspiring. They reminded me why I fell in love with his writing in the first place, and I'm now planning to reread at least a couple of his novels this year. At least a couple of the essays also gave me that odd sense that someone had just plucked thoughts from my brain and placed them in plain sight. There's a strange comfort in knowing that someone else sees things that way. (And bonus points if it's someone you admire anyway.)

Chuck (I like to pretend we're on a first name basis ... I did meet him, after all) is releasing a collection of short stories next month, and, for the first time in a while, I'm really excited about the new material. I used to buy each of his books on the day they were released (or I'd preorder from Amazon), but I haven't done that in a long time. I've decided to do that when the short story collection is released, so hopefully he won't disappoint me. (I know this really isn't relevant to my review, but I wanted to throw it in as a way of saying that sometimes rereading a book by an author you really enjoy can reignite your passion for his/her work.)

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Don't Breathe a Word by Jennifer McMahon - 447 pages

Completed on 04/16/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

I couldn't put this book down. It's gotten a lot of mixed reviews from Goodreads, but, despite its flaws, I really enjoyed it. The only reason it took me 5 days to read it was because I had to do other things (you know, like work and go to yoga and spend time with my husband). I don't think I'm a very fast reader, but I read over 200 pages in one sitting when I started it last Saturday. I just needed to know more!

I've read a couple of Jennifer McMahon's other books (Promise Not to Tell and Island of Lost Girls), but they weren't as good as this one. As with those novels, McMahon tells the story in alternating chapters of past and present. Lisa, a 12-year-old girl with an active imagination and intense love for fairy tales, goes into the woods one summer night and is never seen again. Before she disappears, she tells her little brother, Sam, and cousin, Evie, that she's been chosen to become Queen of the Fairies. 15 years later, Sam and Evie are no longer on speaking terms. He's in a loving relationship with Phoebe, a woman who relies on him to forget her own dark past. But after receiving a call from Evie, who claims to have information about Lisa that she needs to share with Sam in person, the couple begins to experience strange things that they can't explain ... Things that may be connected with Lisa's disappearance.

I'll admit that I really hate when authors lay everything out for you because I like to draw my own conclusions. Unfortunately, McMahon is a repeat offender when it comes to this. I feel like all of her novels could be really great (even though they all stem from the same "girl goes missing" trope) if she'd stop spelling everything out for her readers.

Despite my hatred for this type of storytelling, I gave this novel 5 stars on Goodreads. This was mostly due to the fact that Don't Breathe a Word really sucked me in and held my interest. I felt like I hadn't been so completely immersed in a book in a long time, and I think that alone was enough to warrant a high rating.

I will say that my other biggest issue with Jennifer McMahon's novels is that the endings are usually a complete clusterfuck. This was no exception. I felt like she was just trying to throw every random twist she could into the last few chapters to make it more interesting, but it just backfired. I liked some of the ideas, but some of them seemed to be there merely for shock value. (And, if you're like me and it takes a lot to shock you, it won't even have the disturbing effect she seemed to be going for.) 

Don't Breathe a Word had a lot of flaws (including some inconsistencies that really annoyed me), but I thought the story itself was really fascinating. Some parts of the novel reminded me a bit of Pan's Labyrinth, and I really love that movie. And, despite the flaws, I'm glad I read this book. As I said earlier, I've been falling behind on my 50 book reading challenge, and this book (along with Stranger than Fiction) really helped me get out of my rut.


  1. I might give McMahon's book a go. Why do authors do that, throwing everything in at the end like they're unsure if the rest of the book was good enough?

    I am not a McEwan fan. I've tried, and it's just not happening.

    1. I'm glad I'm not the only one who doesn't love Ian McEwan. It drives me crazy, though, because I do think he writes beautifully and has really promising ideas.

      I was really disappointed with the way Jennifer McMahon ended that book (though, to be fair, I've been disappointed with way she ended all 3 of the novels I've read). It could have been so much better, but she was all, "Maybe I'll throw in this random twist. And this. And this. Oh, and then I'll make them think this but it's actually going to be this. And maybe I'll add in another twist for good measure." It made my head spin. But, as I said, the rest of the book kept me completely engaged, so I think it's worth a read. It's definitely interesting!

  2. I've read a couple of Jennifer McMahon books too. Promise Not to Tell - I liked a lot. Dismantled - not so much. So, I may give this one a try.

    1. I liked Promise Not to Tell for the most part, but I was so disappointed in the ending. I've come to expect that from her since it's happened every time I've read one of her books. I think she has interesting ideas, though, and that makes me keep reading. I actually want to read Dismantled at some point, but it's mostly because I've already read so many of her novels. Honestly, I'll probably read them all at some point. Maybe one of them will have an ending I actually like!