Review: Room

Room ruined my entire day. I feel like I’m probably in the minority with the revulsion I felt for Emma Donoghue’s novel, but I just couldn’t get into it. It’s another novel in which the horrific things that occur made my stomach twist, and gave me nightmarish mental images that I couldn’t shake. Room

Room is told from the perspective of five-year-old Jack, who we quickly learn is being held in captivity along with his mother in a single room. Jack accepts his strange environment as the norm, since he’s never known anything else, but his mother recognizes it as her prison for nearly a decade at the time the narrative starts. Jack serving as the narrator worked to underscore the peculiarity of their situation, as his innocence stands in sharp contrast to what the reader understands the reality of the kidnapped mother and her son, born of repeated rape.

However, Jack serving as the narrator was also a major irritant for me. His language is, obviously, that of a small child. I was put off by the combination of poor grammar and syntax almost as much as by the plot. Also, I found myself skeptical of the things that Jack did or didn’t know and understand. Jack will know an advanced word or concept, and then a few pages later won’t know a basic word or idea. I admit I’m a stickler for continuity, and I felt there were contradictions here. Enough on style, however; let’s move on to substance.

(Spoilers to follow!!!)

Now, the first half or so of the novel takes place in Room, but Jack and his mother eventually make their escape. I was hopeful that things would improve once they were out of captivity, but there was still a lot of pain and negativity. Their hospitalization and attempts to reacclimate to society are heart-wrenching. It’s to be expected that a kidnapping victim held for many years would struggle upon their return, but it was hard to read nonetheless. The immensity of the issues Jack and his mother face is boggling, and the mixed reaction — even from family and friends — to their return makes the process even more turbulent. There is some optimism, but not much. This is a rough read, especially in light of current events (specifically, the eerie similarities between aspects of this novel and the imprisonment and rape of the three women in Cleveland).

I don’t have much else to say about this novel, except that its ending is pretty anticlimatic. It neither goes as far nor as deep as I was hoping. This novel is a quick read, but a deeply troubling one. Should you decide to take it on, have something to cheer you up on standby. You’ll need it.

Happy Reading!

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Review: Gourmet Rhapsody

Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody is not a novel to be read for plot. It’s an exercise in style and focus, with gorgeous results.

Gourmet RhapsodyGourmet Rhapsody takes place over the course of the last day of one man’s life, with musings from the man on his deathbed anchoring chapters from numerous other points of view, including the man’s wife, his maid, a statue in his office, his cat, his children, and a homeless man. The man at the center of the novel is Pierre Arthens, a world-renowned food critic. Monsieur Arthens had fame and wealth, but — apart from food — very little happiness. His marriage is frigid, his children are estranged, and the only purely loving relationship he has is with his favorite cat. In short, Arthens is leaving a world that will likely not mourn him. This is not what troubles him, however. In his final hours, he is obsessed with rediscovering some forgotten food, a flavor that he cannot identify but that surpasses all others.

The chapters alternate between those from the viewpoint of Monsieur Arthens and those from the viewpoints of the myriad people (and animals, and objects) who know him. Arthens’ chapters focus on food foremost, with the people that provided the meals only in the background. The descriptions of the foods he ate and loved are lusciously detailed, focused on flavors, sensations, and emotions. Barbery’s style and tone are reverent, painting scenes and meals with exquisite care; more than once I found myself so drawn in that I actually closed my eyes to better experience the dishes that Barbery’s words brought to life.

The chapters from the others’ point of view are focused on Arthens as a person, or more specifically, his many glaring faults and majestic failings. These chapters are shorter, more emotionally driven characterizations. There is pain and grief, as well as moments of tenderness. Many of the brief narrators revile the man, and even those that care for him do so with reservations. The reader learns much about Arthens that then colors the chapters from his point of view, leading the reader to feel that they begin to understand him, even if they don’t like him.

Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody is a must for foodies. I do consider myself a bit of a foodie, though I don’t have the funds to go as far into that world as I’d like. But whether you’re an epicure or not, this short novel is certainly worth a read. It may not be for everyone (as I mentioned, the entirety of the plot focuses on one man’s struggle to remember a taste he once experienced), but I do think that many readers would enjoy the simplicity and beauty Barbery has created. Especially for those who read and loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog (like this girl right here!), this novel is not to be missed.

Happy reading!

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Review: The Cabinet of Curiosities

I picked up The Cabinet of Curiosities, co-authored by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, for two reasons: The Cabinet of Curiosities

1. This past semester, I took an archival literature class that focused for some time on the phenomena of cabinets of curiosity, and how the form and function translated to literature. Hence, the title caught my eye.

2. I am incapable of leaving a bookstore — especially Bookmans — without buying something.

The novel opens with the discovery of an underground tunnel beneath a construction site in New York City, in which the bones of 36 murder victims are found stuffed into bricked-over alcoves. The charnel immediately catches the attention of FBI Special Agent Pendergast, who enlists the help of Nora Kelly, an archaeologist working at the Museum of Natural History. Nora in turn engages her boyfriend, reporter William Smithback, to help delve into the mystery. One note on the characters and their back-stories; this novel seems to be one of a series, since it refers to past events that the authors seemed to think I should be familiar with, but reading it on its own was generally not a problem. More than anything, it was just vaguely bothersome in those moments when previous events were referred to without explanation.

The investigation into the 36 century-old murders takes on a new urgency when new victims displaying the same kill signature begin to show up around the city. It seems that their is a copy-cat killer on the loose, but why? And what drove the original killings in the first place? The investigation takes place both on the streets of New York, as well as in the sprawling archives of the Museum of Natural History. The archives hold an astonishing amount of material, from artifacts to personal correspondence between scholars to known frauds. Among all of it, Nora and Pendergast find clues to the hows and whys of the killings of the original victims, as well as hints to why it might be happening again.

This novel is interesting, with a significant number of unexpected plot twists. However, I feel that the dual authorship had one major pitfall: it made The Cabinet of Curiosities significantly longer than it probably should have been. The novel is 629 pages, and it drags in some sections. Everything does build toward the final unveiling, but I think some sections could have been tightened up, shortened, or dropped entirely. For example, while I understand making a reader want to care about the victims, I don’t feel the need to have an entire chapter devoted to introducing that character solely so they can be found dead ten pages later. Maybe this is just me being crotchety, but I kept feeling like the novel needed to be more streamlined. This, really, is my main gripe with the otherwise solidly decent mystery. It’s good summer reading, though. I myself read much of it by the pool, and I can’t recommend that methodology (read, swim break, read, read in the pool, nap, read, swim…) enough.

While this was a unique novel, especially given the lens through which I was reading, thanks to my recent coursework, I wouldn’t put it at the top of my to-read list. It’s good, not great. I’ve recently read multiple books that I enjoyed more, including other  mysteries. I think I’m going to step away from mysteries — especially murder mysteries — for a while, since I don’t want to burn myself out on them. Let’s see about queuing up a lighter read next.

Happy Reading!

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Review: The Last Child

The Last ChildJohn Hart is a great author, and his style is bitingly realistic and engaging. Now… having said that, I have to say that reading The Last Child was not a particularly pleasant experience for me. In fact, it literally made my chest hurt at times. While this can be attributed to strong writing, it can also be due to the content and plot of this novel.

The plot focuses on thirteen-year-old Johnny Merrimon’s search for his twin sister, who was kidnapped one year before the opening of the novel. In that year, Johnny’s father abandoned Johnny and his mother, Katherine, and in his absence she has taken up with a drug-addicted, power-hungry abuser. This man sexually and emotionally abuses Katherine, gets her addicted to pills, physically abuses Johnny. Through all of this, Johnny refuses to give up his search for answers in his sister’s disappearance. It’s a tough read, no question.

I have trouble recommending this novel solely because of the emotional toll it took on me. Bleakness and violence saturate the story, and I’m the type of reader that feels that sort of thing very deeply. It’s made worse by knowing the sorts of things that are described in this book, though fictional, happen in real life, every day, to many people around the world. Kidnappings, broken families, murder, and abuse. Families that never get answers, or get answers they wish they’d never heard. That, really, is what became almost too much for me. The reality behind The Last Child is even more depressing than the novel itself.

While it’s hard to handle emotionally, the mystery aspect of The Last Child is strong. Johnny’s search is mirrored by a detective’s more official investigation; Detective Hunt is invested in the case to the point of obsession. While he publicly rebukes Johnny for skipping school and endangering himself in his investigations, Hunt secretly is rooting for the boy. The reader is put in a similar position. I felt myself holding my breath, willing Johnny to succeed, heart racing in the most harrowing scenes. I wanted to grab on to this young boy and keep him safe, yet I had to keep watching him plunge further down his path to the truth.

This novel, if you can stomach it, is certainly worth your time. (HALFSIES SPOILER!!!) Don’t hope for any happy endings, though. I held on to hope for nearly the whole novel, only to have it dashed near the end. There is closure and resolution, but much of it is still achingly sad. While there is some measure of peace, and the ability to look forward, it’s hard to imagine the characters fully leaving behind all that has happened. As a reader, I know I’m still having trouble doing so.

While this one wasn’t, I wish you, as always, happy reading.

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Review: The Weird Sisters

I finished The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown, several days ago, but I’ve been hesitating to write the review; I couldn’t really figure out what to say. Today, I decided my lack of strong feelings or opinions is my opinion: the book is fine, but certainly not something that has me jumping up and down. The Weird Sisters

The novel follows three sisters, each named after a Shakespearean heroine — Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia — who come home after their mother is diagnosed with cancer. Ostensibly, they’re home to help their parents while their mother is in treatment, but each sister has her own personal catastrophe sending them running for the sanctuary of their childhood home. Rosalind’s fiancé has moved to England to pursue a career at Oxford, leaving Rose wondering whether she should still be planning a wedding or not. Bianca has been fired from her job in New York after her employers discover she has been embezzling. Cordelia, after living a nomadic lifestyle for years, is pregnant, with no desire to ever see the father again.

The novel traces each sister’s path home, then steps back and observes the tumult of their reunion. Each sister keeps her reasons secret for much of the novel, until they burst out of each woman one way or another. While I can’t say much else for the novel, I can say this: the sisters’ interactions and relationships with one another are occasionally overblown, but for the most part ring astoundingly true. I knew both the unconditional love as well as the all-encompassing rage sibling have the uncanny ability to elicit from one another. While many other relationships in the novel seemed one-note, Brown depicted the ups and downs of family dynamics with honesty and zest.

Brown’s novel is not quite comedic nor dramatic. It heavily references Shakespeare, but neither in a way that feels educational nor makes informed readers feel “in the know”. I was hoping for more in this department, but the references are mostly discussion of the characters for which the sisters are named, as well as their professorial father’s tendency to quote the Bard.

As I said before, this novel was definitely not bad. However, I just felt sort of underwhelmed. It’s a quiet novel of a family’s interactions in the face of major change, both good and bad. It could almost be a slice-of-life novel, provided that the life in question is rather dramatic. This isn’t really my favorite type of book, though I respect it when it’s done well. This one isn’t done poorly, I just think Brown could have done more with the characters and situations she created.

While I wouldn’t classify this as a total disappointment — as I said, it’s not poorly written or unforgivably dull — I’m hoping my next read has a bit more verve and excitement.

Happy Reading!

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Review: Inferno

I am currently basking in the glow of smug self-congratulation. I didn’t figure out the whole mystery in Dan Brown’s latest novel, but I figured out where the characters needed to be — and well over a hundred pages before the protagonist, Robert Langdon, did. I suspected it even earlier, but my personal confirmation still came well before Langdon sorted through everything. High fives all around!

Confession: I do feel a tiny bit like I cheated, though, simply because this mystery was firmly in my wheelhouse. My specialties are Medieval and Renaissance literature, as well as Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance history, with a sub-specialty in history of the Crusades. Even more specifically, the disastrous 4th Crusade. No spoilers, but if you read this novel, you’ll see why I nailed it. Plus, on top of all that, I’ve even been to the place where I knew they needed to go. I have photos of it and everything.

InfernoPoint is, I felt right at home in Inferno. The novel features Robert Langdon, who Brown also chronicled in Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, and The Lost Symbol. Out of the previous novels, my hands-down favorite was Angels & DemonsInferno is now a rather close second favorite, and it more than made up for my disappointment with The Lost Symbol.

The main plot of Inferno opens with Langdon’s mysterious awakening in Florence, Italy, after what seems to have been some sort of catastrophic incident in which he was non-fatally shot in the head. Langdon is suffering from retrograde amnesia, and has lost two days of his life. He has no idea what he’s doing in Florence, or why he’s carrying an artifact that doubles as a concealed projector of a painting depicting the levels of Hell described in Dante’s Inferno section of The Divine Comedy. Langdon soon finds himself groping blindly to figure out not only what he is investigating, but why. Along with a doctor who was treating him at the hospital, Langdon begins unraveling a complicated riddle centered on the famous poet Dante Alighieri and his enduring masterpiece, The Inferno.

Much like the previous novels, Langdon is a sort of academic James Bond. However, where The Lost Symbol veered too far into spy/action-hero territory, Inferno stays believable. Everything Langdon does has grounding in his background as a professor and well-known speaker and author, and the stunts he pulls — while impressive — are not out of the realm of possibility for any fit adult. Langdon focuses on the mysteries embedded in the poem and the myriad art it inspired. The number of parties involved in the hunt is large, and their allegiances shift more times than I could count. Hidden motives abound. There are twists upon twists, and just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, Brown yanks the rug out from under you by revealing yet another red herring. While I did guess the correct location, the characters, I admit, stumped me; the final reveal caught me quite off-guard.

I enjoyed Inferno immensely, and not just because the mystery fell within my areas of study and (minor) expertise. The novel is smart, fast-paced, and engaging. It manages to be thrilling both in terms of pure entertainment and the scholarly bent for which Brown has become famous. Each of his novels feels like a tour through the various locations, and I always come away with a vivid impression of the art, architecture, and culture of the novel’s respective city or cities. Personally, I think this is one of the best things Brown has written to date.  In a recent interview, Brown discussed his writing methodology, part of which is a focus on what he withholds from readers, saying, “A reader’s desire to guess what I’ve hidden is always more exciting than anything I can show.”

Dan Brown certainly kept me guessing, and kept me hooked. This novel is a continuation of the best traits of his earlier novels, and happily it purges the excesses that plagued The Lost Symbol. On top of the surface entertainment value, Brown poses some very interesting ethical questions, and draws readers’ attention to some serious issues that the world is facing today. Even after finishing the novel, I’ve been thinking — and thinking hard — about the problems highlighted, and the potential solutions proposed by the various characters. The novel ends without definitely answering any of the questions, so I feel safe in assuming that I’m doing exactly what Brown wants from his readers: thinking about not only the novel, but the broad implications of a pressing social issue. Kudos to Brown for both the novel and the considerations that I’m sure I’ll be mulling for some time to come.

Happy Reading!

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Review: Dead Ever After

(NOTE: No spoilers for this novel, but there will be spoilers for books #1-12.)

After fourteen years, Sookie Stackhouse’s adventures are over. Charlaine Harris’ thirteenth Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire novel is the last, as the title — Dead Ever After — indicates. I’m sad the series is over, but I think Harris was right to end it on her terms, the way she always envisioned, rather than dragging it out simply for the sake of producing more novels.

Dead Ever AfterThe novel begins at a crossroads, where two men are meeting a devil. The men, who remain nameless for some time, wait in the French Quarter of New Orleans to sell their souls, each for a distinct price.

The action then jumps to Mexico, where two men — also nameless — collaborate in a scheme to exact revenge against Sookie Stackhouse for some unknown reasons.

Harris, as you can see, starts the action immediately, but the reader is left in the dark about who these men are or what motivates them. Though Sookie is mentioned, we don’t get to her familiar narration and storyline until roughly twenty pages in. Sookie’s narrative begins the morning after [*MAJOR SPOILER FOR BOOK #12!!!*] she uses the cluviel dor, a magical relic from her fairy relatives that has the power to grant one wish, to raise Sam from the dead.  Somewhat unsurprisingly, Sam is stunned and overwhelmed by the experience, and is acting like a totally different person, especially  around Sookie. Meanwhile, Eric, Sookie’s vampire boyfriend, is furious at her for not using the cluviel dor to benefit him. Eric is still bound up in the negotiations for the marriage contract for his impending nuptials with Freyda, the Queen of Oklahoma, a process that hurts and humiliates Sookie every step of the way.

With all of this already straining her sanity, Sookie’s life gets immeasurably worse when her former friend Arlene shows back up. Arlene, though never a good friend to Sookie, broke all bonds when she tried to help her new anti-vampire/were/magic friends crucify Sookie. Luckily, Sookie evaded their cruel plan and Arlene and her accomplices all went to prison for attempted murder. Now, though, she was bailed out for reasons unbeknownst to her or Sookie; they quickly become apparent, however, when Arlene turns up murdered, with evidence planted on her body that points to Sookie as the perpetrator.

The bulk of the novel focuses on Sookie’s attempts to exonerate herself, alongside a group of her friends, including Amelia, Bob, Mr. Cataliades, Diantha, Quinn, and Barry. I really enjoyed this book; I flew through it under two days. The one facet that surprised me somewhat is how small a role the vampires played in this novel. Bill, Eric, Pam, and the usual assortment are present, but remain mostly in the background. Even the shifters take a notably smaller role. Unlike the previous installments in the series, this book is not about a vampire and/or shifter mystery adventure that spills over into Sookie’s life, but rather entirely Sookie-centric in both the focus and scope.

Without going into any spoilers, I will say that it ended the way I pretty much always expected it would. I was pleased with this ending, because I really do feel like Harris hinted in this direction throughout the dozen books leading up to this one. I wouldn’t say things were completely tied up or closed off, but it’s very clear how things will play out in Sookie’s future.

I’ll miss looking forward to a new Sookie Stackhouse novel every summer, but I’m sure I’ll find another series that will hook me in no time. (Plus, there’s still the bulk of my Masters’ Exam reading list to work through…)

Happy Reading!

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