Wednesday, December 9, 2015

From the Bookshelf: Recently Read - December 2015 Edition

It's that time again ... Time to link up with Steph and Jana to talk about all of the wonderful (and not so wonderful) books I've read since the last Show Us Your Books! link-up. This is my favorite time of the month because I love sharing my reviews and checking out what other bloggers have been reading. (And, of course, adding a million books to my neverending "To Read" list!)

I'm not going to waste a lot of time with an introduction because, let's be honest, you're probably only here to see if there are any books you should add to your "To Read" list. So I'll get right to it! (And please feel free to skip to my TL;DR section at the end if you're not in the mood to read lengthy reviews.)

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Orphan #8 by Kim van Alkemade - 376 pages

Completed on 11/14/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

I don't read a lot of historical fiction because, to be honest, it's not really my thing. However, when I read the summary for Orphan #8, I was intrigued enough to pick it up at the library. And I'm really glad I did.

Orphan #8 is the story of Rachel Rabinowitz, who, at the tender age of 4, loses her parents to a tragic and horrifying act of violence. Rachel and her brother, Sam, are separated, and she is sent to live in a Jewish orphanage where Dr. Mildred Solomon is conducting medical experiments on the children.

As "material" for Dr. Solomon's research, Rachel is subjected to X-ray treatments that cause her to permanently lose all of her hair. As she grows older, she's transferred to another orphanage and reunited with her brother. However, her appearance makes her a target for harassment and cruelty from the other children. Sam does what he can to protect her, as does his friend Vic and Naomi, the only true friend Rachel manages to make at the orphanage ... But unfortunately it's not always enough.

Years later, Rachel is working as a nurse at Manhattan's Old Hebrews Home. Despite the horrors of her youth, she has managed to mostly push the past aside and move on with her life ... Until she's brought face-to-face with Dr. Solomon, now old, fragile, and dying of cancer.

As more information about the experiments she endured surfaces, Rachel becomes obsessed with making Dr. Solomon acknowledge (and pay for) the things she did. Eventually Rachel realizes that she must decide between forgiveness and revenge.

At the end of the novel, there's a section in which the author discusses her inspiration for the book. Much of the novel was based (at least loosely) on actual events, and several of the characters and situations were drawn from her own family's history and experiences. I loved this added insight, and I felt it made the book even more powerful.

However, I wouldn't go as far as to call the novel perfect. There were sections that were incredibly boring, which was kind of shocking. (I mean, seriously ... How can you possibly make a book like this boring?)

Additionally, while I tend to enjoy novels that flip between past and present, I hate when authors decide to switch between first and third person. In Orphan #8, the sections set in the present (which, in this case, is 1954) are written in first person, while the sections detailing Rachel's past are written in third person. I don't necessarily find it confusing ... Just sort of annoying.

My other major complaint about the book was the fact that shit was just continually dumped on poor Rachel. I understand that her life was never going to be all sunshine and roses, but my God ... I wanted to grab the author by the shoulders, shake her, and say, "Okay, enough is enough!" I just hate when characters (especially female characters) are treated as "easy targets" for terrible treatment.

One unexpected thing I really appreciated about the book was the fact that Rachel was a lesbian. I feel like this aspect of the story has gotten the most mixed reviews on Goodreads, and, while I agree that the story would have been perfectly good without any romantic elements sprinkled in, I think it provided an interesting (and upsetting) look into the struggles of being gay during a time when this was viewed as "unnatural." (Unfortunately, many still struggle with some of the things Rachel did. However, at least everyone is now free to marry the person they love!)

Overall, I really enjoyed the novel and gave it 4 stars on Goodreads. Orphan #8 isn't a book I'd recommend to everyone, though. There are some rather disturbing sections, and more than a few heartbreaking moments. It's definitely not for the faint of heart. For me, though, it was an interesting look into a horrifying history I didn't even know existed.

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The Man From Primrose Lane by James Renner - 365 pages

Completed on 11/22/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

The Man From Primrose Lane is a complete mindfuck. There's really no other way to describe it.

As many others on Goodreads have said, it's nearly impossible to review this novel without spoilers. I'm going to do my best, but I'm going to say right now that I'll be sharing something that some people might consider a spoiler ... So just keep that in mind. (The only reason I'm okay with sharing this is because I knew about it before I even picked up the book, and it didn't hinder my enjoyment of the story in any way.)

A reclusive elderly man, known simply as the Man from Primrose Lane, is found brutally murdered in his home. Four years later, David Neff, a successful true crime writer, is visited by his publisher and introduced to the mystery surrounding this strange man. His publisher is hoping for a new book ... David, while intrigued, is simply looking for a distraction from the crushing sadness he's felt since his wife, Elizabeth, committed suicide.

What follows is a story that is beyond weird. (And I mean that in the best possible way.) One minute you think you're reading a crime thriller/mystery novel ... And then suddenly everything shifts and you probably look something like this:

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(Or maybe that was just me.)

Most of the time when I read a book that makes me exclaim, "What the fuck?!?" multiple times, it's not a good thing. Somehow, though, James Renner managed to take all of these insane ideas and twist them into a captivating story.

I loved that Renner mentioned some of my favorite musicians (Tori Amos, The Decemberists, and Neutral Milk Hotel) in the book. I almost didn't mention this in my review because I knew most people would see that and think, "So what?" Well, there's a reason I decided to include it. (And here's where the spoilerish stuff comes in, so feel free to skip this part!) As I was reading, I wondered if maybe the author was inspired by some of this music as he was writing. The lines "And will she remember me 50 years later/I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine" from Neutral Milk Hotel's "Oh Comely" kept running through my mind as Renner began to detail David's powerful obsessions. Maybe I'll come out of my shell and actually ask him about that on Goodreads since he's answered reader questions in the past. We'll see.

The Man From Primrose Lane is one of those books that I want everyone I know to read so I can discuss it with them. I will say, though, that this (like many of the books I read) isn't a book for everyone. It's dark and disturbing and there were some sections that literally made my skin crawl. But, if that sounds like your kind of thing, I'd definitely recommend this one.

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Pretty Baby by Mary Kubica - 371 pages

Completed on 11/29/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

I think I'm going to have to face facts and say that I'm just not a Mary Kubica fan.

I read The Good Girl earlier this year, and was severely disappointed. However, because it was her debut novel, I decided to cut her some slack. After all, no one's perfect and sometimes it takes authors a little while to develop their voice.

And, while I thought Kubica did a much better job this time around in terms of making each character's voice distinct, I thought the story was kind of boring and still found the writing to be kind of bland and sloppy.

And, if that wasn't enough, there were numerous times when I thought, "Why didn't the editor catch this mistake?" I'm sorry, but when you spell a character's name a certain way, you should continue to spell it that way each and every time the character is mentioned. You should especially keep the spelling consistent if the name is mentioned several times within two pages. This happened with at least two characters, and it definitely wasn't the only error I caught. (Trust me, there were a lot!) I mean, come on.

But back to the actual story.

Heidi works at a nonprofit in Chicago, and is constantly overwhelmed by her desire to help others. So when she sees a young girl standing in the rain on the train platform, holding an infant in her arms, she can't get the image out of her mind. She assumes the girl is homeless, and becomes determined to find a way to help her.

She decides to bring the girl, Willow, and her child into her home in an effort to help her get back on her feet. Her husband, Chris, and preteen daughter, Zoe, are both annoyed and concerned ... How much does Heidi actually know about this strange girl? Could she be dangerous?

As in The Good Girl, Kubica alternates her chapters between three points of view: Heidi, Chris, and Willow. Through Willow's chapters, readers slowly learn about the dark secrets she's hiding and the chain of events that led her to be homeless on the streets of Chicago.

I really wanted to like this book, but I really didn't. I only bothered to give it 2 stars on Goodreads because I was glad to see that Kubica has gotten better at creating different voices for her characters. For me, that was the only redeeming quality. (So, basically, if this was my first Kubica novel, it would have earned only 1 star.)

I know that a lot of people really liked The Good Girl, and Pretty Baby has also gotten its share of rave reviews, but I'd say skip this one.

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The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood - 306 pages

Completed on 12/05/2015 - Read more reviews on Goodreads

I didn't know much about this book before I picked it up from the library. I usually read through book summaries and reviews on Goodreads (or at least on other blogs) before I add them to my "To Read" list, but in this case I was mostly just interested because it was a new Margaret Atwood novel.

I've mentioned before that The Handmaid's Tale is one of my favorite classic novels. I also really enjoyed The Year of the Flood (though not as much as I loved Oryx and Crake, which I'd count as one of my all-time favorite novels). So, of course, I was expecting The Heart Goes Last to become a new favorite.

Unfortunately, it didn't live up to my expectations.

Stan and Charmaine are a married couple struggling to make ends meet after a massive economic collapse. After they both lose their jobs, they're forced to live in their car. Charmaine finds casual work as a bartender, but the little money she makes is quickly spent on food and gas.

After hearing about the Positron Project in the town of Consilience, the couple wonders if this might be a way out of their current situation. It seems like the perfect place: no one is unemployed and everyone has a comfortable home to live in. The catch? On alternating months, the residents must live and work in the Positron prison system. The other six months of the year they are free to live and work as civilians.

In the beginning, this seems like a small price to pay. However, once Charmaine begins having an affair with the man who lives in their house during the months she and Stan are in prison, things become much more complicated ... And much more dangerous.

I don't even know where to begin with the things I disliked about this novel.

The main characters were really annoying, especially Charmaine. I think she could have been a really complex character, given the fact that she initially seemed so timid and wholesome only to give in to the darker parts of herself when she begins having an affair. However, she was mostly written as a ditzy blonde with very few (if any) "deep" thoughts. And, while I don't think it's necessary to swear excessively (or at all, really), I was beyond annoyed each time Charmaine said something like, "Darn it to heck!" This was probably made even worse by the fact that her husband, Stan, dropped an f-bomb every couple of sentences. I'm sure it was done to highlight their differences (or something), but, to channel Stan here, it was really fucking ridiculous.

And the affair ... Oh God. I don't mind books with an affair as a central plot point, but if the author is going to go that route, at least make it believable. I'm sure there are hundreds of ways in which two people can become entangled in an illicit affair, but in this book, Charmaine and Max simply ran into each other when she stayed late at the house to prepare it for their "Alternates" (the couple living there while Charmaine and Stan were in prison). They said maybe 5 sentences to one another before Max basically lunged at her and began kissing her and running his hands under her clothing. And then our "sweet, wholesome" Charmaine was just like, "Ummm ... Okay, sure. Yeah, let's hook up." (She didn't say that exactly, of course, but that's essentially what happened. It was beyond bizarre.)

I'm not the kind of person who believes you need to be in love in order to have sex with someone, so it wasn't that. It was just that there was no build-up. I feel like most one night stands have more of a build-up than this sorry excuse for an affair, which basically amounted to the two of them meeting up in abandoned houses once a month during the changeover days, talking dirty to each other, and fucking on dirty floors amidst bugs, dust, and graffiti splattered walls. Classy.

It also seemed as though Atwood really wanted to create the craziest scenarios possible throughout the novel, but it always wound up feeling silly. There was no real tension (even when things seemed to be going in a dangerous direction), and, unlike the world she created for the MadAddam trilogy (which felt incredibly real and terrifying to me when I read both Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood), the Positron/Consilience world just seemed really fake. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement.

I could probably go on about the things I didn't like about this book, but I won't. I did give it 2 stars on Goodreads, but only because I couldn't bring myself to rate a Margaret Atwood novel any lower. (Pathetic, I know.) The reviews on Goodreads seem pretty split on this one, so read it if you think you'll like it. I just personally wouldn't recommend wasting your time.

"TL;DR" Summary:

Orphan #8 is a powerful (and unsettling) historical fiction novel the focuses on the life of Rachel Rabinowitz, a Jewish orphan subjected to medical research during her time in the Infant Home. Years later, Rachel, now a nurse, is brought face-to-face with the doctor who conducted the experiments. As she realizes the power she now has over the dying doctor, Rachel must choose between forgiveness and revenge. While I gave this book 4 stars on Goodreads, it's probably not for everyone. It can be pretty disturbing (and heartbreaking) at times, but I really enjoyed it.

The Man From Primrose Lane will fuck with your head and make you think, "What did I just read?!?" long after you've finished the last page. Part crime thriller/mystery, part science fiction/fantasy (with a few other things mixed in), this is a captivating book with major themes of murder, obsession, and fate. I really enjoyed it, and I'm glad the Semi-Charmed Winter 2015 Book Challenge forced me to bump it up on my "To Read" list! (I'm also glad it earned me 15 points for the challenge!) I almost gave it 5 stars on Goodreads but I wound up giving it 4 instead because there was one section that bored me so much that I struggled to make it through. Overall, though, it was a fantastic and interesting read. I really hope my summary inspires someone else to read it because I need to discuss this mindfuck of a novel with someone! That being said, it can be very dark and very disturbing at times, so keep that in mind if you think it's something you'd want to pick up.

Pretty Baby really didn't do it for me. It's listed as a psychological thriller, but it lacked any tension or excitement. I honestly had a really hard time getting through it. In addition to the bland writing and uninteresting story, the novel had an alarming number of glaring spelling and grammatical errors. I know that some people aren't bothered by this sort of thing, but it annoys the shit out of me. This novel managed to get a 2 star rating from me on Goodreads, but the only redeeming quality was the fact that the author did a better job of creating unique voices for her characters this time around. (That was one of my major complaints about her debut novel.) I know this book has gotten a decent amount of 4 and 5 star ratings on Goodreads, but I honestly felt like it was a waste of my time.

The Heart Goes Last was such a disappointment for me. I've really enjoyed every Margaret Atwood novel I've ever read ... Except this one. I found the main characters annoying, and the overall story just wasn't that great. There were so many over-the-top, ridiculous scenarios that it almost read like a satire or dark comedy. The only problem? It really wasn't funny. It was just ... Bizarre. There's no other word for it. In fact, I only gave the book 2 stars on Goodreads because I found it hard to rate an Atwood novel any lower. I could barely force myself to finish this one, and I was honestly relieved when I finally reached the last page.

Although I only read a couple of really good books this time around, I've read some amazing novels in 2015. I'm looking forward to sharing my top picks of the year when the bonus Show Us Your Books! link-up rolls around later this month! Now I just have to narrow my list ...


  1. Confession: I've never read Margaret Atwood. I know I should but I just haven't. That said, I've heard many similar reviews to yours.

    I'm not a huge fan of historical fiction, either, but occasionally I'll read one. Holocaust-type books are not something I can easily pick up, though, so I'll pass on the first one you discussed but I'm definitely giving Mary Kubica a shot. I know you're not a fan but I still want to check her out.

  2. I love screwed up books. I will definitely read Primrose Lane.

    I have only ever liked The Handmaid's Tale from Atwood. I don't care about the rest of her stuff.

  3. Oh Primrose Lane sounds intriguing! I like psychological mysteries kind of books. The Orphan Number Eight sounds interesting as well, I can't handle too many intense "real life" books, I have to be in the mood. You have so many I had not heard of, yay!!

  4. okay. so. i got the heart goes last from netgalley ages ago and i tried, i really did, but i couldn't get very far. it was just.. not good. i couldn't.
    orphan 8 sounds interesting! i don't know if i should read any of mary kubica's books, i keep hearing conflicting things so i just don't know. don't think they are really my jam.