"Well, what did I want, recognition? No, Hathin realized, I did everything I did because, well, I’m me."
Frances Hardinge and her oddball magical fantastical stories that, far from the simplicity often expected of books aimed at slightly less wrinkled audience, are filled with thought-provoking multilayered and often ambiguous complexity, are undoubtedly my best literary discovery of 2013 so far. Her stories are soaked in belief that children's literature can in no way be inferior to that meant for adults, that a book "just for kids" is nonsense because excellent literature knows no age restrictions.
And so, true to this, Gullstruck Island (also known as The Lost Conspiracy in the U.S.) is built of so many threads that when put together create the vibrant tapestry of rich living world, intensely real and yet wholly imagined, with the unavoidable ugliness bubbling under its surface - the easiness with which prejudice and genocide can enter society, the stifling power of bureaucracy, and the mindless ugliness of the times when people stop being people and become the mob instead.
To borrow a phrase from China Miéville, Gullstruck Island is a story of the Un-Chosen One, a story of eternal sidekick not meant for anything particularly great, not a part of a greater plan or a prophecy or destiny hidden in some snowflake-special bloodline - no, just a person meant to be in the background, meant to be invisible, meant to be a supporting character and little else, who is forced to take center stage because sometimes someone just needs to do something when world is baring its teeth ready to bite.
"Maybe after I die people will be as they were before I was born, and before you came. But I do not think they will."
In every book by Le Guin there is that special something for me, something that grabs a firm hold of my mind and heart and stubbornly hangs on, refusing to let go, burrowing deeply, growing roots, sprouting shoots that will go on to quietly, unobtrusively, almost imperceptibly change my mental landscape forever - by making me really think, by challenging established ideas, preconceptions and expectations with unexpected quiet subversive subtlety.
"But even the most unmissionary soul, unless he pretend he has no emotions, is sometimes faced with a choice between commission and omission. “What are they doing?” abruptly becomes, “What are we doing?” and then, “What must I do?”
“He had never been able to understand the assumption of intimacy fans felt with those they had never met."
I'll venture a guess that J.K.Rowling is not a stranger to this feeling. Propelled to household-name fame for her lovely gift of imagination, she gets to experience the uglier side of fans' adoration - the side that comes with suffocating hard-to-meet expectations and stifling atmosphere of demanding hype. Is it any wonder she'd look for a respite in releasing a book under a pseudonym?
And yet yours truly is selfishly celebrating the infamous leak of the unknown mystery writer's true identity since otherwise I would have been quite unlikely to pick up this tome given the ever-growing size of my precariously balanced to-read pile that is beginning to dangerously resemble the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
This is not an easy book to read. It preys on the minds of readers, on the fears and hopes that stem from our deeply ingrained cultural concepts, our habitual comfortable worldview. It takes you to the place where you can no longer be sure what is based in reality and what is the result of an absurdist deeply satirical interpretation of it.
This is a book that's set in North Korea, and its protagonist is cleverly - perhaps overly so - named Jun Do (that is, 'John Doe', the North Korean everyman, I guess). It spotlights the deeply disturbing aspects of the life in this isolated strange place - the propaganda, the police state, the prison camps, the torture-interrogations, the power of the state over individuals, the hunger, the poverty, the exploitation, the lies, the cruelty, the resignation of many to their fate, the mistrust, the crazed leaders, the corrupt almost surreal regime.
"Where we are from, he said, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he'd be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change."
Lettie shrugged. “Nobody actually looks like what they really are on the inside. You don’t. I don’t. People are much more complicated than that. It’s true of everybody.”
This story is an amalgam of helplessness and innocent ignorance of childhood with universe-old wisdom, with mystery and wonder and unexplainable and unfathomable and things that lurk around the corners of reality and seep through the cracks in the world. There's friendship and love, and cruelty and resentment. And there are monsters - and, in the true fashion of the tradition I love, the real monsters come from the people's wishes, the people's own selves, the deep down dark that lives inside us.
"Monsters come in all shapes and sizes, Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren't.”
People think I'm strange because I don't like Christmas. Well, this book did not cure me of this dislike in the slightest, nossir. Read it, and you'll understand.
"You can’t let facts get in the way of the truth."
I've also never been a fan of Christmas music. There's something just *off* in that fake strained cheerfulness that emanates from it. After this book, I dislike it even more because the annoying in it has been joined by the sinister undertones.
Also, the dislike *may* have something to do with working in a department store years ago, cleaning up before closing during the holidays¹ while listening to the never-ending 'Jingle Bells Rock' and 'Rudolf' and 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town' relentlessly playing overhead over and over again while your tired overworked brain is slowly turning to mush.¹
Have you *seen* the mess that hordes of Christmas bargain-hunters leave in the stores??? Have you ever seen the murderous rage in the eyes of quiet little old ladies when they hear that the Christmas ornament - the 50% off one - is sold out??? I still shudder at the memory of that.
If this picture does not terrify you to the depths of your soul, just wait until you finish this book.
As a side note, I've also never been a fan of personalized license plates, either. Making a connection between 'Nosferatu' and NOS4A2 takes special neurons that I apparently lack.
“I had been born shoved to the margins of the world, sure, but I had volunteered for the pits.”
Daniel Woodrell's Tomato Red is lighthearted and wickedly funny - until it abruptly isn't, and you are in vain trying to recover from the unexpected whiplash from the change in direction and tone, and trying to figure out when exactly this black comedy became tragedy - and has it been tragedy all along but you just haven't noticed in time??? - and rereading the last few pages trying to figure out when and how exactly it changed course to bleak desperation, and all of this is causing you a headache like you haven't had in ages, and a bit of the hollow feeling somewhere deep in the belly. At least that's my experience with Tomato Red - a book I was considering setting aside somewhere in the first third of it or so, having never been a particular fan of this particular brand of hopeless bleak humor. But something in it made me keep going, and I have no regrets.
Anyway, Jenny Trout took on a mission to recap - and what a feat it was! - with humor and anger combined the atrociousness that E.L.James inflicted upon the unconsenting universe. And, apparently, being in the business of writing erotica herself(Abigail Barnette is her pen-name for this genre) she decided to try creating an erotic romance that manages to avoid all the 50 Shades bullshit that makes readers foam at the mouth. In her own words from her blog:
¹ By "everything", I mean a rich 'hero' who knows what's good for 'his' woman and whose abusive behavior can apparently be interpreted as love by the shallow vapid useless 'heroine'.
Why exactly it has become so mind-boggingly popular is beyond me.
"It's my own entry into the contemporary erotic romance subgenre spawned by 50 Shades of Grey and the Crossfire series. But I'm pretty much just doing it for fun and to goof off, and to see if I can write a book in that genre without falling into the traps of misogyny and abuse we've seen in the 50 Shades series."
"And I thought it would be fun to write a book that has the flavor of Fifty Shades of Grey, but not the non-existent conflict, the abuse masquerading as romance, or the heroine who dumps her entire life to be owned by some dude."
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a quiet, gentle, understated and yet at the same time unexpectedly scathing at times book that offers a window (or a view from a fire escape, if you please) into a little corner of the world a century ago, and yet still has the power to resonate with readers of today. After all, the world has moved forward, yes, but the essential human soul remains the same, and the obstacles in human lives - poverty, inequality, cruelty, and blind self-righteousness - are in no danger of disappearing.
"The one tree in Francie’s yard was neither a pine nor a hemlock. It had pointed leaves which grew along green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas. Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenements districts."
It's not easy to answer what this book is about, to answer it in a way that would manage to capture the heart and soul of this story. If you ask me, I think it's a story of people simply being people, the good-bad-and-ugly of humanity.
This may be my favorite of Tana French's novels, just barely overtaking In the Woods, and I loved it immensely.
At its heart, it's a book about the terror of madness, the dreams gone awry, the slow spiral that gets you to your breaking point, and the sad pathos of desperately grasping at the straws that tether you to the world of familiar safety of normalcy.
The setting of this novel scares me in the way it's grounded in reality. This is no longer Ireland of In the Woods, Celtic Tiger rushing onto the world's economy stage, a country high on the economic boom. No, this is a land hit hard by the recession, with people losing the spring in their step as disillusionment sets in after the economic high has dissipated, with people seeing their dreams of security floating away like dust in the wind - the dreams that they have spent so long fighting for.
As Tana French herself says in the interview found on Penguin.com,
"Now a solid proportion of our generation are stuck on half–built, half–occupied, abandoned estates with open sewage pits and no street lighting, miles from any friends or family, and many of their houses are falling to pieces. They’re unemployed or being taxed to the point where they can’t pay their mortgages, and no one’s ever going to buy their houses so they can move on. And their belief in a sane world, a world where they have any control over their own lives, has been smashed.
That haunts me. It should never have happened; it didn’t need to happen. And because Ireland is my home and I love it, I get seriously passionate and seriously angry about terrible things that are done to, and by, this country. That ended up shaping the book."
***And just like that, after a 3-day reading binge of Faithful Place and Broken Harbour, Tana French joins my list of favorite authors.***
There is no place like home... Well, Frank Mackey knows this phrase can have quite unexpected sinister undertones. After all, he spent 22 years away from the place he grew up and away from his family; and it's only a suitcase found in an abandoned house on his old street, Faithful Place, that can bring Frank back home - and open an old wound that has never healed.
"The suitcase was by the window. It was a pale-blue thing with rounded corners, spotted over with big patches of black mold, and it was a crack open; someone had forced the pathetic tin locks. What got to me was how small it was. Olivia used to pack just about everything we owned, including the electric kettle, for a weekend away. Rosie had been heading for a whole new life with something she could carry one-handed."
You gotta agree - Stephen King can tell a story like few others can.
Maybe it's because he can see the world in the way most of us do not, and then grants us the privilege to experience it through his eyes for a few hundred pages - the world that can be unsettling and scary and fascinating and different in subtle little ways that change the way you view it - at least for a little while.
Add to it that Stephen King also can do nostalgia like no other (well, perhaps excluding Bradbury - and there are very Bradbury-esque notes in this book about a carnival an amusement park) - nostalgia not really for a specific place or a specific time period but rather for being young and idealistic and resilient and yet fragile, cynical and innocent at the same time; making the readers long for something they have all experienced or will yet experience - even if their own experiences were (or will be) nothing like what King talks about.
It's really the longing for youth from the distance of years, wistful and melancholic, seen through the sharp and yet distorted lenses of a few decades passed, with the hope and bittersweetness and gentle quiet regret that such look into the long-ago can bring; the glance into the time that seemed simpler and more innocent because you back then were simpler and more innocent and vulnerable yourself.
"When you're twenty-one, life is a roadmap. It's only when you get to be twenty-five or so that you begin to suspect you've been looking at the map upside down, and not until you're forty are you entirely sure. By the time you're sixty, take it from me, you're fucking lost."
Summary: I loved it while despising it, how 'bout that?
Oh dear, I'm caught between realizing that this is one of the most inconsistent plot-and-characterization-wise books I've read in a long time - as well as one of the most entertaining stay-up-all-night-to-finish books. Hmmmm.
This book unapologetically flew through the bestsellers and awards lists like a hurricane last year, being praised for its dark nature and unexpected twist and intricate plot (a.k.a. the reasons why I apparently requested it from my library many moons ago, getting to the tail end of a 3-digit queue which finally reached me by the time I forgot I signed up for this book in the first place).
The story is the following: Nick and Amy have been married for five years, and the marriage has been strained for a while. They used to be a rich glamorous couple in New York; now they moved to Nick's home state of Missouri having lost their jobs and most of their money. Now Nick is trying to run a bar with his twin sister while Amy apparently sulks at home. And one day, on their anniversary, Amy vanishes without a trace, with her disappearance looking like a result of a foul play, and quite soon Nick finds himself a prime suspect as all the clues somehow point in his direction.
The story is told through alternating perspectives: - Nick of present time (we learn quite a bit about him being a "Nice Guy" who is drop-dead gorgeous and has serious mommy-daddy issues as well as a dazzling smile, a perfectly cleft chin and quite a few hangups about women. Oh, and he really cannot stand his wife) - and Amy through her diary entries starting seven years prior to events of present time (she is a drop-dead-gorgeous woman rich thanks to a well-known series of childhood books written by her parents and based on her - their 'Amazing Amy'. Oh, and unlike what Nick thinks of her, she appears to be - at least through her diary entries - a pathetic doormat). Eventually we get to see the perspective of present-day Amy and realize that everything we know about her is, of course, a lie.
Hmmmm. This book is like a ninja, sneaking up on you in its purposefully donned disguise, innocently masquerading as one of those selling-like-hotcakes teen paranormal postapocalyptic romances¹. But once it's safely past your defences, once you are honestly ready to relentlessly mock it for being no different than the multitudes of other useless tomes, it drops the unremarkable disguise and finally reveals that yes, it indeed has a real heart.
¹ Just look at the description for this book. Ugh. It sounds exactly like any other book dead-set on robbing susceptible teens out of their lunch money by featuring a hot supernatural hero - but don't be fooled. It's actually pretty good - or at least quite entertaining.
Apparently it just needed that pretense to squeeze its way into our looking-for-the-next-Hunger-Games market. Can't blame a book for trying.
Milan Kundera's writing just seems to strike a right note with me, ever since the first time I read his works on a public commute as a wide-eyed college sophomore, getting hooked on the philosophical ramblings that are so essential to college years.
And that fascination apparently has withstood the test of time for me - maybe because deep down inside me a college philosopher still survives.
"Both of them are pidgeonholed, labeled, and they will be judged by how true they are to their labels (of course, that and that alone is what's emphatically called "being true to oneself")."
There's something about his books that makes them feel like narrative sketches, filled with author's musings in long, heavily punctuated sentences; ruminations about particular world experiences that finally, tangentially connect to the characters - and the characters themselves serving as just a canvas for Kundera's introspective reflections.
Not often do I decide to edit the review - and change the opinion of the book I initially detested - mere days after writing a 'why I hated it' opus. Emily Bronte, you mastermind!
In addition to learning truly horrifying things through the comments from my fellow lovely Goodreaders (people have told me that not only Heathcliff and Catherine's horrible story served as an inspiration for 'Twilight - a story that's paraded as a love story; and - brrrr - that "in almost all polls on most romantic literary figure, Heathcliff takes the lead") I read this comment from Teresa:
"I think I read somewhere -- maybe in this book: Emily Bronte: The Artist As a Free Woman -- that she was creating her own world (and the book does seem claustrophobic with its two framing narrators), her own mythos. If one sees that interpretation, I think Heathcliff could be viewed almost as a Zeus-figure, another petty and vengeful 'entity.'
... a comment that, combined with her observation in another comment that "the names Hindley/Heathcliff/Hareton all started with the same letter, not to mention having two Catherines -- an enclosed world that repeated itself" led me to realize that yes, in a mind-blowing turn of events this book is a genius take on the completely secluded, isolated world that lives only by its own rules, ruled by its own godlike creatures, and bears little resemblance to and has little influence from the larger universe outside of it.