BOOK REVIEW | The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

5/5 stars

I’ve loved The Talented Mr. Ripley since the movie was released in 1999, and have been meaning to read the book ever since. I finally picked it up, and what a reading experience it was! I absolutely adored this book from the first page to the last, and can’t wait to watch the movie again to compare the two.

Tom Ripley is a fraudster – he tricks people into sending him cheques rather than the bank, and is genuinely proud of himself whenever he pulls off a deception. There is a sense of longing for more: bigger stunts and riskier plans are on the horizon. When an opportunity arises for Tom to go to Italy to convince playboy Dickie Greenleaf to come home to America, all expenses paid by Dickie’s concerned father, he jumps at the opportunity.

Once in Mongibello, the small Italian town where Dickie has been living, he intentionally bumps into Dickie and his girlfriend Marge, convincing them that he is an old friend. Dickie and Marge invite Tom into their home, and Tom soon realizes that he quite likes the life Dickie is leading – maybe he’d like to live this way too. A chance to make an easy dollar soon turns into a frightening obsession, and eventually to murder. What follows is a complex and expertly plotted tale of escape in plain sight. Tom Ripley is a sick genius, able to manipulate any narrative to suit his own.

Highsmith masterfully delves into the mind of a psychopath; early in the book she details a moment in which Tom rubs his hands together while laughing quietly to himself after pulling off fraud, and it’s so deliciously creepy that I knew I was in for a good ride. Throughout the story, it’s easy to both sympathize with and be disgusted by Tom; Tom’s is able to convince himself so thoroughly of his version of events that it’s easy to forget what really happened. My only critique is that it ends so abruptly – I guess I’ll have to pick up Ripley Underground soon!

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BOOK REVIEW | Live Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson

5/5 stars

“Name?” The desk clerk said to me politely… “Age?” She asked…”Occupation?”

“Writer,” I said.

“Housewife,” she said.

“Writer,” I said.

“I’ll just put down housewife, she said.

“Husband’s name?” She said…”Occupation?”

“Just put down housewife,” I said.

My first delve into Shirley Jackson’s non-fiction was beyond satisfying. I’ve read her horror, as well as Ruth Ware’s fantastic biography, and now, her humour. Life Among the Savages is a sort of memoir, Jackson reflecting on the mundanity of domestic life as well as raising her children – first two, then three, and by the end of the book, four.

It’s comforting to know that this book, first published in 1953, still rings true today. As a mom to two young boys, I often feel like I’m living among savages! Jackson’s characteristic dry wit turns moments of utter chaos into something many parents will relate to. Parenting is ruthless, absurd, challenging, rewarding, and the hardest work I’ve ever done – but I wouldn’t change anything about it. I only wish Jackson went a little deeper into the challenges of being a working mother, all while fulfilling the expected wifely duties; it’s bubbling there beneath the surface, but she never goes all the way in.

Those without kids can still enjoy this book – Jackson’s storytelling is as perfect here is it is in her fiction. These stories may be true or may be embellished, we’ll never know. Either way, this is a worthy read for any Jackson fan and I can’t wait to dig into Raising Demons, this book’s successor.

BOOK REVIEW | Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss

5/5 stars

Prentiss is ambitious with her first novel, crafting a complex, deeply interwoven narrative. The book spans countries and storylines, all the while offering a glimpse into the art scene in New York in 1980.

The story is built around a cast of fantastic supporting characters and 3 central characters: James, a synaesthetic and slightly eccentric art critic, Lucy, a small town girl who recently moved to New York, and Raul, a talented painter. These three characters will ultimately clash, a confluence of art and family. The story is so engaging that I never found myself seeking out the connections ahead of time, but rather enjoyed the progression of plot without expectation.

Prentiss’ prose is the sort that I soak up; witty, bold, and confident. Her characters are well drawn, each suffering a loss of great magnitude before ultimately finding new purpose. The character development is a driving force, moving the plot along effortlessly.

There’s a lot going on in this story, which is really its only downfall – I wasn’t ready to close the book on certain characters. I rarely say this, but this book could have been 100 pages longer and I’d be no less engrossed.

BOOK REVIEW | Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

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5/5 stars

My thoughts:
I often tell my students that fiction is about desire in one way or another. The older I get, the more I understand that life is generally the pursuit of desires. We want and want and oh how we want. We hunger.

An honest take on what it means to be a woman who takes up space in the world, Roxane Gay broke my heart. Gay is brutally transparent as she examines the violence she experienced as a child, and how it shaped, and continues to shape, her journey through life. She discusses her parents, and what it means to be the child of Haitian immigrants in America. Expectations for her and her siblings were high, both academically and physically. Though her parent’s always came from a place of love, their focus on Gay’s weight became a point of contention and rebellion during critical, formative years.

This book felt like a release, therapy – she lays so much bare. What struck me the most is that this isn’t your typical memoir that wraps up with a happy ending, or profound lessons learned. Gay lets you know from page one that this is simply her experience. Many readers will identify with Gay’s discomfort with her own skin – I think being comfortable in your own body, regardless of size, is a lifelong process for many. Gay breaks down many of the struggles of being of size – chairs with arms, places to shop, and walks with friends to name a few.

From the first page I knew I was about to read something special, and cannot wait to dig into Gay’s fiction. While this is the story of her body, there is a universality to the memoir that will resonate with readers. I can only thank Gay for bearing her soul and her pain to create something so heartbreaking, honest, perfect.

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 | 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!

BOOK REVIEW | The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
In 1986, a shy and intelligent twenty-year-old named Christopher Knight left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, and disappeared into the forest. He would not have a conversation with another human being until nearly three decades later, when he was arrested for stealing food. Living in a tent even through brutal winters, he had survived by his wits and courage, developing ingenious ways to store edibles and water, and to avoid freezing to death. He broke into nearby cottages for food, clothing, reading material, and other provisions, taking only what he needed but terrifying a community never able to solve the mysterious burglaries. Based on extensive interviews with Knight himself, this is a vividly detailed account of his secluded life–why did he leave? what did he learn?–as well as the challenges he has faced since returning to the world. It is a gripping story of survival that asks fundamental questions about solitude, community, and what makes a good life, and a deeply moving portrait of a man who was determined to live his own way, and succeeded.

My thoughts:
It’s possible that Knight believed he was one of the few sane people left. He was confounded by the idea that passing the prime of of your life in a cubicle, spending hours a day at a computer in exchange for money was considered acceptable, but relaxing in a tent in the woods was disturbed…What did Knight to for a living? He lived for a living.

This is a story that will speak to the introverts out there (hi, that’s me); the people that need quiet in their days and thrive when alone. If you’ve read the news stories about Christopher Knight, you know the facts around his mysterious disappearance. Knight vanished when he was 20 years old, leaving his family to think him dead. Maine residents knew someone was living in the woods, experiencing frequent, but minor, burglaries. After 27 years, Knight is finally captured and arrested – the hermit had been taken down.

After Knight’s arrest, journalist Michael Finkel couldn’t get the story of the illusive “North Pond Hermit” out of his mind. How did he survive for so long, completely alone, in the woods? What did he do to stay warm in the bitter Main winters?  What was his mental state? Is he autistic? Schizophrenic? Finkel eventually reached out to Christopher in prison, and weaseled his way in to a face to face meeting, determined to discover the man behind the facade of the North Pond Hermit.

This book goes deeper than the news articles, and Finkel draws his thoughts and conclusions from about nine hours of conversation with Knight, as well as conversations with Knight’s family and the police officers who captured him. Christopher Knight, in a split second decision, chose to live differently. He set off into the Maine woods with no plan, determined to to things his way. He survived by stealing from local cabins and camp sites, feeling terrible about it every time. For anyone who struggles with the mundanity of day to day life, Knight’s decision won’t feel so incredible. In fact, this book illustrates so clearly why it may have been the exact right path for him to choose (maybe minus the burglaries!). Not everyone fits perfectly into modern society, and not everyone desires the social interactions and abundance that many thrive on. I particularly enjoyed the sections about the importance of quiet in one’s day. I’m very sound sensitive, and this spoke right to me:

Noise harms your body and boils your brain. The word noise is derived from the Latin word nausea.

If Christopher Knight’s story piqued your interest, you will enjoy this book. He’s a strange man, but the reasons behind his choices are surprisingly relatable. It’s a shame that my city is in the middle of a deep freeze, I’m craving a walk in the woods.