BOOK REVIEW | Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Victor Mancini, a medical-school dropout, is an antihero for our deranged times. Needing to pay elder care for his mother, Victor has devised an ingenious scam: he pretends to choke on pieces of food while dining in upscale restaurants. He then allows himself to be “saved” by fellow patrons who, feeling responsible for Victor’s life, go on to send checks to support him. When he’s not pulling this stunt, Victor cruises sexual addiction recovery workshops for action, visits his addled mom, and spends his days working at a colonial theme park. His creator, Chuck Palahniuk, is the visionary we need and the satirist we deserve.

My thoughts:
On the surface, Choke is a seedy look into the world of a sexual compulsive. Our central character, Victor, is a sex addict and we follow him through his many explicitly detailed trysts.

However, it becomes quickly apparent that Victor is lost: a self-proclaimed “doormat” who works as a historical interpreter and caretaker to his sick mother, Victor’s sexual deviance is the more or less his only selfish endeavor. He gives his time and money away easily, asking for little in return. His mother seems to be holding onto a family secret, and much of this story is Victor’s journey to uncover the truth. He discovers early in life that if you nearly die by chocking, the person who saves you will want to continue saving you forever. All of this cumulates with an oddly satisfying ending.

Stylistically, this book is unique. Highly satirical with lots of repetition, and strangely poetic prose. This was my first Palahniuk, but I’m curious to read more and see how these elements translate in his other work. Learning Palahniuk’s story and inspiration for this book makes it that much more fascinating – be sure to look it up after you’ve read it!

This book is not going to be for everyone – not by a mile – but for those willing to think outside of the box, or those who are interested in the darker side of things, this is definitely worth the read.

BOOK REVIEW | The Hate U Give By Angie Thomas

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5/5 Stars

From the Publisher:
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

My Thoughts:
It would be easy to quit if it was just about me, Khalil, that night, and that cop. It’s about more than that though. It’s also about Oscar. Aiyana. Trayvon. Rekia. Michael. Eric. Tamir. John. Sandra. Freddie. Alton. Philando. It’s even about that little boy in 1955 who nobody recognized at first – Emmett.

I don’t read much YA, but knew I had to pick up The Hate U Give. Angie Thomas is bold, throwing literary punches right out of the gate, and by the end of chapter two I was in tears. Told from the perspective of Starr, who witnesses her friend shot and killed by the police, Thomas provides enlightenment and education about #blacklivesmatter.

The story itself is one we know all too well: a young, unarmed, black person is shot and killed by the police. The aftermath is wrought with pain and injustice, families senselessly torn apart. This book stands out though, not because of the tragedy, but because of Thomas’ strength as a storyteller. She has created a robust cast of characters, each fleshed out and diverse.

Starr is sixteen years old and struggling with her identity as many teens do. Her struggles, however, eventually become a source of her strength. She attends a “white” school that her parents send her to, rather than the school in her neighborhood. She is constantly working out which star she can be in any given situation – prep school Starr, or Starr from the ghetto. When a cop pulls her and her friend, Khalil, over one night, she had no idea she would become witness to tragedy and forced to find her voice against great odds.

We follow star as she moves through her grief, initially fearful, but eventually finding her inner power. Thomas consistently returns to the importance of speaking up and speaking out against injustice – your voice is your most powerful weapon.

Among all of this, we have a YA book with elements that lighten the mood. A romance between Starr and her white boyfriend, Chris, (I laughed out loud when “swirling” came up!), complex friendships, and a love for sneakers.

This book is important and timely, and I hope it reaches beyond liberal minded thinkers. I’d love to see this book in classrooms, sparking conversation among today’s youth. I already felt everything this book is seeking to teach, so I can only hope it finds its way into the hands of people who may not understand #blacklivesmatter.

BOOK REVIEW | Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

My thoughts:
This book is stunning – unique in style and rich in substance. I have never read anything like this before, and loved this new reading experience. This is one of those rare books that I could start over again immediately.

Willie, Abraham Lincoln’s eleven year old son, falls ill and dies leaving Abraham wrought with guilt and sorrow. Willie passes on to the bardo, a Tibetan concept of purgatory, and is greeted by other spirits who are stuck in this place, refusing to believe themselves dead. The ghosts want to help Willie move through to the other side, as young ones are not meant to tarry. Over the course of one night, Abraham visits Willie’s grave multiple times to be with his boy once more. Meanwhile, the United States is at war and we gain insights into Abraham’s torment about the state of the country, and how his grief shaped his presidency.

The story is told by the ghosts in purgatory as well as through historical accounts, making for a completely new reading journey. It took me a little getting used to, but all of the insights painted a layered picture of who Abraham Lincoln was, as well as the depth of his grief.

The impression I carried away was that I had seen, not so much the President of the United States, as the saddest man in the world.

An examination of grief, Saunders astutely captures the horror of a parent loosing a child. It’s all consuming, backwards, unimaginable. This is not the story of a president, but rather of a father who is desperate in his sorrow – so desperate that holding his son’s body, just a little longer, feels like the right thing to do. A beautiful and haunting book that won’t leave me soon.

BOOK REVIEW | Blood on Snow by Jo Nesbø

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Olav lives the lonely life of a fixer. When you ‘fix’ people for a living – terminally – it’s hard to get close to anyone. Now he’s finally met the woman of his dreams. But there are two problems. She’s his boss’ wife. And Olav’s just been hired to kill her. From the bestselling author of BAFTA-nominated Headhunters, comes Jo Nesbo’s Blood on Snow: a short, sharp shock of a thriller.

My thoughts:
This was my second Jo Nesbø read, and I am so enamored with his writing. I loved, and raved about, The Son, and Blood on Snow packs a similar emotional punch. Nesbø writes characters you fall in love with, regardless of their criminal acts.

Olav is a “fixer”, or hitman, for a notorious drug distributor. He doesn’t like what he does but circumstances have led him to this path, and he knows he’s good at his job. When a job goes wrong after Olav strays from his directions, he becomes the target and ends up taking his boss’ wife into hiding with him to protect her. Olav reaches out to his boss’ main competitor, “The Fisherman”, for help and they set out to fix him first.

The storyline is compelling and keeps you flipping the pages, but it’s Olav that makes the book so impactful. He’s a reader and a romantic, spending his time thinking about the love story in Les Miserables and relating it to his own life. As we learn about his childhood he becomes more sympathetic, regardless of the brutal crimes he has committed.

This book is violent with some pretty shocking moments, but it’s impressive how much depth Nesbø delivers in this short story. I’ve been itching to start the Harry Hole series for ages, and with the latest installment coming out soon, it may be time. I’ll also be reading the companion to this book, Midnight Sun, when it arrives in the mail. If you’re looking for an unconventional crime read, be sure to pick this up!

BOOK REVIEW | The Nix by Nathan Hill

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
It’s 2011, and Samuel Andresen-Anderson—college professor, stalled writer—has a Nix of his own: his mother, Faye. He hasn’t seen her in decades, not since she abandoned the family when he was a boy. Now she’s re-appeared, having committed an absurd crime that electrifies the nightly news, beguiles the internet, and inflames a politically divided country. The media paints Faye as a radical hippie with a sordid past, but as far as Samuel knows, his mother was an ordinary girl who married her high-school sweetheart. Which version of his mother is true? Two facts are certain: she’s facing some serious charges, and she needs Samuel’s help.

To save her, Samuel will have to embark on his own journey, uncovering long-buried secrets about the woman he thought he knew, secrets that stretch across generations and have their origin all the way back in Norway, home of the mysterious Nix. As he does so, Samuel will confront not only Faye’s losses but also his own lost love, and will relearn everything he thought he knew about his mother, and himself.

My thoughts:
There is not one true self hidden by many false ones. Rather, there is one true self hidden by many other true ones.

The Nix is exactly my type of book: long and sprawling, detailing complex human relationships. Almost immediately, this book reminded me of John Irving. Elements of A Prayer for Owen Meany and The World According to Garp abound, thought it manages to retain its own unique voice. I’m not sure if Nathan Hill was inspired by Irving, but I couldn’t help but compare him to one of my favourite writers. Hill tackles politics, activism, and mother and son relationships with a smart comic voice that completely drew me in. I laughed out loud more than once while reading this.

Samuel Andresen-Anderson is an apathetic college professor and struggling writer. His mother, Faye, abandoned him and his father when he was a young boy, leaving him with a gap in his life that he has been unable to fill. Meanwhile, a 60 something year old woman is thrown into the media spotlight after committing a bizarre crime, and he soon realizes that the woman is his mother. The media is quick to label Faye as a radical hippie with a troubling history, but that’s not the woman Samuel remembers. When his publisher offers him a deal to write a tell-all book about his mother, he begins the journey into re-discovering the woman who abandoned him all those years ago.

This is an ambitious debut novel for Hill, and I am so impressed by its strength. This book is over 600 pages long yet I didn’t want it to end. His prose and wit are razor sharp, and his ability to connect this wild story to the human condition blew me away. This deeply emotional journey centers on the power of forgiveness and the value of the supporting characters in our lives.

BOOK REVIEW | Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
One hot August day a family drives to a mountain clearing to collect birch wood. Jenny, the mother, is in charge of lopping any small limbs off the logs with a hatchet. Wade, the father, does the stacking. The two daughters, June and May, aged nine and six, drink lemonade, swat away horseflies, bicker, and sing snatches of songs as they while away the time.

But then something unimaginably shocking happens, an act so extreme it will scatter the family in every different direction.

In a story told from multiple perspectives and in razor-sharp prose, we gradually learn more about this act, and the way its violence, love and memory reverberate through the life of every character in Idaho.

My thoughts:
Perhaps it’s what both their hearts have been wanting all along – to be broken. In order to know that they were whole enough to break.

I can’t remember the last time I was so moved by the writing in a book. I read beautifully written books all of the time, but Ruskovich’s prose is absolutely stunning. It’s simple and lyrical, yet carries so much weight. Simple revelations or descriptions would nearly move me to tears. I read this book slowly, because it’s the only way to read a book like this. I savored the prose, and was completely enthralled with the characters. Ruskovich tells the story of a deeply broken family and the power of memory.

Anne is a music teacher who married a man named Wade. Wade is loosing his memory to dementia, and came to her intent on taking piano lessons after hearing that it can help with memory. He was married previously and had two daughters, May and June. On one tragic day, he loses it all. Years later, he is haunted by the parts of his memory that he can recall, as well as the parts that he is loosing. Anne meets Wade during the early stages of his memory loss, and desperately wants to care for him and find her way into his heart. The story is told from multiple perspectives and timelines, making for a well rounded picture of the family. We hear from Anne, the girls, Wade’s ex-wife Jenny, and more.

This book is painfully sad, but has so many moments of joy and beauty within. I adored the scenes with May and June as little girls, swimming in water barrels and playing the game MASH. Ruskovich so perfectly captured the innocence of childhood, and I loved getting to know them. Wade’s memory loss really resonated with me, as I watched my Grandmother suffer with Alzheimer’s, and eventually completely forget who I was. It’s absolutely shocking and heartbreaking to experience.

Here’s the thing – this book will not be for everyone. It’s completely character driven, and I think some readers will find this dissatisfying. There is a plot here, but the plot is the force behind the characters motivations and choices, not what keeps the story moving forward. For me, this book was nearly perfect. Ruskovich crafted something truly unique with Idaho, and I will be anxiously awaiting her next creation.

BOOK REVIEW | Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization, and the government is involved in sending secret missions to explore Area X. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

Annihilation opens with the twelfth expedition. The group is composed of four women, including our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all of their observations, scientific and otherwise; and, above all, to avoid succumbing to the unpredictable effects of Area X itself.

What they discover shocks them: first, a massive topographic anomaly that does not appear on any map; and second, life forms beyond anything they’re equipped to understand. But it’s the surprises that came across the border with them that change everything-the secrets of the expedition members themselves, including our narrator. What do they really know about Area X-and each other?

My thoughts:
I completely forgot I had to read this for my book club, so I put my other books aside to read this. I must say I was pleasantly surprised! I’ve heard all of the comparisons to LOST, and I have to agree – this felt very reminiscent of that show. Similarities include, but are not limited to: hog hunting, placebos, a mysterious monster (smoke vs slime), and a mysterious vessel of sorts (a hutch vs a tower). In case you’re wondering, I thoroughly enjoyed both.

We open up with an all female crew venturing into Area X. Our narrator is the biologist and she is traveling with the psychologist, the anthropologist, and the surveyor. This is the 12th expedition into Area X, which is being studied by a government agency called Southern Reach. Throughout the story we learn more about the 11 expeditions that traversed Area X before them, as well as the motivations behind the biologists involvement in the project.

This is an imaginative, science-fiction read, but I didn’t personally find it to be scary or a work of horror as many call it. For a short book, I didn’t read it as quickly as I thought I would. There isn’t a lot of dialogue, and the majority of the book is made up of the biologists thoughts and observations, which made it feel a bit slower than I expected. This is a fun and escapist book, and I will be continuing with the series and hope to find answers to some of my questions!