Wednesday, August 12, 2015

From the Bookshelf: Recently Read - August 2015 Edition

I was hoping I'd have more books to review for this month's Show Us Your Books! link-up, but I'm proud of myself for finishing so many when I've had a lot of other things going on. I'm still on track to meet my 50 book goal this year, though, and that's what counts!

Before you read any further, please note: I know I can ramble on and on when it comes to books, so if you aren't in the mood to read lengthy reviews, feel free to skip to the "TL;DR" summary at the end of the post. You can always go back and read a specific review more closely if something there catches your eye.

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Identical by Ellen Hopkins - 565 pages

Completed on 07/16/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

Identical was my YA pick for the Literary Ladies Summer Reading Challenge, and, despite the fact that I'm usually not a YA fan, I did enjoy this one. I wavered between a 3 and 4 star rating on Goodreads, but I eventually decided to give it 3 ... I liked it, but I didn't love it.

Before I say anything about this book, please note that it deals with a lot of heavy topics including drug and alcohol addiction, self mutilation, eating disorders, and incest. I'm not saying this to dissuade anyone from reading this, but I think it's important to know what you're getting yourself into. It can get pretty graphic, and I know some people can't (or don't want to) stomach that sort of thing.

Identical is the story of twin girls, Kaeleigh and Raeanne, and their dysfunctional family. On the surface, they seem to have it all: they're intelligent, beautiful, thin, and rich ... But no one knows what goes on behind closed doors. Their mother, a politician running for Congress, is rarely home. With an absent wife, their father focuses his attention on Kaeleigh. Though she knows what's going on between them, Raeanne can't help but feel jealous ... She would give anything for her father's love. Since she can't have that, she turns to the next best thing: sex with guys in exchange for alcohol and drugs.

Although this is a thick book, it was a really easy read. Not because of the subject matter (definitely not a fluffy beach read!), but because the book is written as one long poem. It took me a little while to get into it because of the unique style, but once I'd read about 20 pages, it was easy to keep reading. I finished it in only 2 days, which is amazing for me (especially since I worked both days!). One of my favorite things about the book was the way Ellen Hopkins inserted a short mirrored poem each time the book's narrator switched from Kaeleigh to Raeanne (or vice versa).

I also loved that Hopkins didn't shy away from difficult and often disturbing subject matter. (Apparently most of her books deal with serious issues, and I may eventually check some of them out.) She didn't simply allude to something and then back off ... She held it up to the light to be examined. And although it's a YA novel, I would only recommend it to more mature readers. As I said before, this book is filled with heavy topics.

Unfortunately, that was also my issue with this novel. It kind of reminded me of watching an entire season of Degrassi (which, feel free to judge, I totally love in all its over-the-top glory). It's not enough for someone to have one or two issues, they have to have all the issues piled one on top of another. It's like saying, "It's not enough that this character is being sexually abused by her father. Let's throw in an eating disorder, issues with self mutilation, etc." (I'll just stop there because I don't want to spoil anything.) It just felt less realistic the more I read.

I had my suspicions about the way things would turn out, but I was still at least somewhat surprised by the direction Hopkins took things in the end. I had mixed feelings about it, but I did appreciate her subtle clues throughout the novel that clicked into place once certain things were brought to the surface. (I'm being deliberately vague here to avoid spoilers.)

It's hard to recommend a novel like Identical because I know it's not the kind of thing that appeals to everyone. I enjoyed the free verse style, though, and appreciated that Ellen Hopkins willingly tackled some pretty difficult subjects (even if she may have taken on a few too many in this case). I think it's worth reading, but it's definitely not for the faint of heart.

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A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan - 281 pages

Completed on 07/22/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

I usually do a lot of research before choosing a book. This mostly consists of reading numerous reviews on Goodreads and other blogs (avoiding spoilers, of course!) in an effort to determine whether or not it will be worth my time. Despite my best efforts, sometimes I still find myself stuck with a really shitty book. (And, if you've been reading my blog for a while, you probably already know that I have trouble giving up on a book without finishing it.)

However, there are times when I quickly scan the summary and just go ahead and add it to my "To Read" list without bothering to check any of the reviews. In these cases, the summary makes the book sound so amazing that I just have to read it. This is how I chose A Pleasure and a Calling.

William Heming is a very successful real estate agent in a small English town. Although he owns the company and is extremely comfortable in a sales role, he's also adept at blending into his surroundings. He's very average ... Not unpleasant, but not particularly memorable. And it's this quality that makes it easy for him to indulge in his favorite hobby. (Though his choice of profession certainly helps.) 

When Mr. Heming makes a sale, he doesn't just forget about the people living there and move on. He checks in from time to time. You may think that sounds nice ... He truly cares about his clients. But there's more to it than that. 

When he stops by, he isn't ringing the doorbell and coming in for a chat. In fact, it's better if his clients aren't home at all. It's not as though he even needs them around to let him in. It doesn't matter whether he sold the home 3 months or 13 years ago ... He has keys to them all. (Lesson learned: when we finally buy a house, we need to immediately change all the locks!)

This incredibly creepy premise immediately grabbed me, and I'm glad I didn't spend a lot of time reading reviews before diving in. It would have been completely unnecessary.

Phil Hogan managed to create an oddly charming antihero in Mr. Heming. He's not really the kind of character you want to like, yet I found myself rooting for him throughout the novel.

Although A Pleasure and a Calling dragged in a few places, it was a fantastic read. There was so much more to it than I initially thought. (Vague, I know, but I prefer to let others discover things on their own.) It was the perfect combination of creepy and suspenseful with a fair amount of dark humor thrown in. (I actually laughed out loud several times while I was reading.) If this sounds like your kind of thing, I highly recommend picking this up!

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Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch - 387 pages

Completed on 07/27/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

Herman Koch is a really interesting author. In both this novel and The Dinner (which I reviewed here, if you're interested), he's written stories centering around a bunch of repulsive characters ... And, for whatever reason, it works.

The main character in Summer House with Swimming Pool is a family doctor named Marc Schlosser with questionable morals and even more questionable medical ethics. He's self-absorbed, disgusted by the human body, and has absolutely no empathy for any of his patients. For the last few years he's been mostly catering to famous people and widows. One of those famous people happens to be Ralph Meier, a talented actor who is better known offscreen as a misogynistic pig. 

We're told from the beginning that Ralph will die due to complications from a medical procedure performed by Dr. Schlosser. As the story unfolds, details from the summer the two men spent together with their families are revealed, and the later events (including Ralph's death) are seen in a new light.

I will admit that the plot of The Dinner was similar (at least vaguely). In both novels, a horrible act of violence changes the lives of the characters forever. But, while I enjoyed The Dinner, I found Summer House with Swimming Pool to be better written, more entertaining, and an overall better book. 

It's a beautifully written novel, and that's really saying something since it was translated (and sometimes the translations can seem awkward). It will not only make you think, but also make you squirm. It may also piss you off at times ... When I say these characters are horrible people, I mean it. Koch doesn't shy away from anything in this book, so I'd say it's probably not for everyone. I will say, however, that despite the awful characters and their despicable actions, I gave this book 5 stars on Goodreads. I was really impressed with it!

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Last Days by Brian Evenson - 201 pages

Completed on 07/31/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

What a fucking weird little book. I mean, based on the synopsis I knew it would be weird ... But I didn't expect this.

Kline is a former detective trying to come to terms with a brutal encounter that resulted in the loss of his right hand. It is because of this traumatic event that he is sought out by two men who claim he is the only one who can solve a crime within their religious cult, a cult that honors amputees with a "less is more" mentality.

What follows is a bizarre whirlwind of severed limbs, murder, and the feeling that the novel is somehow stuck on repeat. 

Last Days began as a novella titled The Brotherhood of Mutilation. After publishing that novella, Evenson decided he wanted to continue the story and wrote another novella using the same characters. Both novellas were then published together as one complete novel.

It didn't really feel as though the book was separated into two distinct parts. It was labeled to let readers know where one novella ended and the other began, but I thought Evenson did a nice job tying them together. 

My main issue with Last Days was that it was a really interesting idea that just fizzled out. The dark plot, outlandish violence, and surreal feel of Last Days reminded me of David Lynch's films. (I'm a huge fan of Lost Highway, though I admittedly haven't enjoyed much of his other work.) So if he ever decides he wants to make the most boring movie ever, he could adapt this story into a screenplay. 

This book was only 201 pages long, but it took me 5 days to read it (and it wasn't because I was too busy). I just never felt like picking it up. It wasn't the worst book I've ever read, but I got really frustrated with the repetition. For a good portion of the book, nearly every chapter started in a very similar way ... I felt like I was reading the same thing over and over with a few slight differences. I could summarize the chapters as follows: Kline wakes up and doesn't know where he is, he suddenly remembers and/or realizes something is wrong, he receives a threat (either in person or on the phone), he must fight to survive. Throw in several dismemberments and lots of gunshot wounds to the head and that's pretty much it.

Basically this book was extremely predictable after just a couple of chapters. I expected so much more based on the summary and reviews on Goodreads, and I was really disappointed. I still gave it 2 stars because I thought Evenson had a really good idea ... The execution just left much to be desired.

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White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi - 227 pages

Completed on 08/03/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

This novel was on my "To Read" list for several years. When I wait a long time to read a book (especially if that book sounds like something I'd really love), I start to build it up in my mind. It's not really fair to the author (or the book, I suppose), but I can't help it. I want it to be this beautiful masterpiece that I'll want to share with anyone who will listen. Most of the time I wind up disappointed and wonder if the disappointment stems from my high hopes or from the fact that it was actually not very good.

Fortunately, White is for Witching was not one of those disappointing books. In fact, I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads ... I loved it that much.

I will say that if you're looking for a light, fluffy, easy read, this isn't it. It's written in a very unconventional way, flipping through time and, in some cases, the real world versus another world that only the main character, Miranda Silver, seems able to enter. 

The story is also told from 3 distinct points of view, and you really need to pay attention because the point of view may shift several times without warning in a single chapter. The story is never told from Miranda's perspective, but rather those around her. I haven't read any of Helen Oyeyemi's other work to know whether she often writes in this style, but it really worked well in this novel. I will admit, though, that it took me a little while to adjust to the constant shifting and to accept that the house (yes, the house) would be acting as one of the narrators (the others were Eliot, Miranda's twin brother, and Ore, a girl Miranda meets and falls in love with at college).

The novel centers around Miranda's complete mental breakdown following the death of her mother, and, upon her release from a rehab clinic, the slow, subtle changes she begins to exhibit. She's always suffered from pica, an eating disorder in which a person consumes inedible substances, but her sickness goes far beyond that.

It's difficult to explain a book like White is for Witching in a review like this, though. It's really something that you just need to read for yourself. 

I wouldn't say that this is a scary book (it's definitely not horror), but it's unsettling. Helen Oyeyemi shares her story in a lovely, almost poetic way, but certain sections still gave me chills. 

It's not all about fear, though. The author did an amazing job of weaving the themes of family relationships, feelings of alienation, the political climate in England, and race into this novel. As I said, this isn't an easy read, but it's well worth the time.

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The Devil You Know by Elisabeth de Mariaffi - 306 pages

Completed on 08/09/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

I couldn't decide if I wanted to give this book 2 or 3 stars on Goodreads, but finally settled on 2. It was okay ... Not great, not terrible.

At just 11 years old, Evie Jones's best friend, Lianne Gagnon, was abducted, raped, and murdered. Although the police named a suspect, he managed to disappear. He was never found and the case went cold.

10 years later, Evie is living on her own in a small apartment in a somewhat sketchy part of Toronto. She works as a crime beat reporter, and is often handed assignments that force her to remember the terrible thing that happened during her childhood. She begins to obsess over Lianne's death, and spends every spare moment searching for the truth. As new information is revealed, she becomes convinced that the killer is still out there ... And that he's coming back for her.

Based on the description, I thought this would be a really exciting psychological thriller with lots of twists and turns. Unfortunately, only some parts of the book really delivered ... Other parts just dragged on, and in several places the dialogue was just awful.

My biggest complaint, however, was the fact that Elisabeth de Mariaffi didn't use a single quotation mark in the entire book. The book was written in first person, and I often had a horrible time trying to figure out what was actually being said by the characters and what was simply a stream of Evie's thoughts. I kept thinking, "How could any editor let this novel move forward in the publishing process without first sending it back to the author and demanding that she use some quotation marks?" Maybe I'm a hardass, but if I were an editor, this would not see the light of day until those changes were made.

The redeeming quality was the fact that de Mariaffi managed to work some true crime into her fiction, which I found to be a very interesting approach. The Devil You Know is set in 1993, and features the crimes of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. (If you're not familiar with them, you can get a quick Wikipedia summary here.) In addition, she sprinkles in some tidbits relating to Charles Manson and Helter Skelter (I read that years ago and highly recommend it if you're interested in true crime) and David Koresh. She uses enough facts to make the story seem a little more real without overwhelming readers and taking away from the main plot. 

If the book hadn't dragged in so many places, the dialogue had been more believable, and the author had bothered to use quotation marks, The Devil You Know would have been worthy of a solid 3 stars. But, because I just can't overlook those issues, it's a book I'd just call "okay." Read it if you want, but you won't be missing much if you decide it's not worth picking up.

"TL;DR" Summary:


If you have to choose just one of these novels to add to your "To Read" list, pick White is for Witching. It's haunting, heartbreaking, and beautifully written.

Also highly recommended: Summer House with Swimming Pool and A Pleasure and a Calling. I'd suggest Summer House with Swimming Pool only if you don't mind reading novels centering around the lives of really horrible people. I know some people hate this, so if you're one of those people, skip it. If dark humor is your thing, A Pleasure and a Calling is a great choice.

Identical is good but not amazing. It deals with a lot of really difficult subjects, so I'd suggest reading my detailed review before picking it up. If, however, you're comfortable reading about pretty much anything, it's worth checking out. It's a fairly quick YA read, so don't let the thickness scare you into believing it's a major time commitment.

Last Days and The Devil You Know weren't the worst books ever, but I think my time could have been better spent. Don't waste space on your "To Read" list on either of these.

8 comments:

  1. I'm going to try White is for Witching and A Pleasure and a Calling. You've intrigued me.

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  2. I added White is for Witching since you have it 5 stars and also Summer House since you said he writes repulsive characters that work.

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  3. definitely checking out white is for witching!

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  4. I've added A Pleasure and a Calling and Identical. Thanks for the recommendations!

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  5. White is for Witching sounds really interesting. I'm going to add it and A Pleasure Calling. I just bought Boy, Snow Bird which is by the same author as White.

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  6. i know you said that young adult isn't your favorite category, but if you've not read them already, rainbow rowell writes really, really well; two of her books, fangirl and eleanor & park, are in the young adult section. she also has two adult novels, attachments and landline. e&p and landline are my favorites. i like attachments because of the female characters (the man's kind of lame, though), and fangirl's character are good, but the story's kind of weird. but i enjoyed all four of them.

    john green's the fault in our stars is really good. the rest of his works i've not been able to get into, though. i've tried on several occasions.

    i love vanessa diffenbaugh's the language of flowers. i want them to make a movie of it. i want carey mulligan to play victoria and taylor kitsch to play grant. it's a beautiful story. it'll sweep you up into it so quickly, and then it'll drop you on your ass, and then it help you back up and set you on your feet again. you'll love grant. you'll love victoria, and then you'll wanna wring her neck. plus, the way the story's told is really cool.

    i don't know if you read romance at all, but nora roberts wrote some really good stories in the late nineties. my favorites are holding the dream, born in ice and tears of the moon. they're all second novels in trilogies, and the trilogies are pretty good, but each of these kind of stands alone pretty well.

    i also liked the time traveler's wife. horrible movie. HORRIBLE. it took me a month to read the boo, because sometimes it moves at a glacial pace. i felt, on several occasions like hurling it across the room. but there are so many more times that the writing and the characters and the story enthralled me.

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  7. oh! and right before your eyes by ellen shanman. i loved liza and george.

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  8. Summer House with Swimming Pool and A Pleasure and a Calling both sound like books I'd enjoy. Adding them to my list.

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