taralovesbooks’ #CBR5 Review #48: Born to Bleed by Ryan C. Thomas

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Cannonball Read V: Book #48/52
Published: 2011
Pages: 184

Genre: Horror

I loved Ryan C. Thomas’ The Summer I Died and I had no idea there was a sequel until recently. I picked it up despite the mediocre reviews and unfortunately came to the same conclusion: disappointing.

This books takes place 10 years after the horrifying events in The Summer I Died. ***SPOILERS FOR THE SUMMER I DIED*** Roger ended up surviving after watching his sister and best friend die at the hands of a maniac. ***END SPOILERS*** He’s obviously still very traumatized and barely functioning after he moved to southern California to be an artist. He’s out painting at a lake one day when his co-worker at the galley he works for, Victoria, and her boyfriend mysteriously vanish. After finding their car still there with blood on the ground, Roger goes all detective to track down a suspicious SUV that was there earlier and that he thinks might be the kidnappers.

Read the rest in my blog.

taralovesbooks’ #CBR5 Review #47: The Green Mile by Stephen King

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Cannonball Read V: Book #47/52
Published: 1996
Pages: 548

Genre: Mystery

Having read most of Stephen King’s books, I’m not sure how I managed to never pick up The Green Mile. I’ve also never seen the movie (yet…working on that), so I went into this book only knowing the basic plot: It takes place on death row and there’s a giant guy who may or may not have done the crime that landed him there.

Paul Edgecomb is the narrator who is in a nursing home type place writing down this story that happened when he was a prison warden in the 1930s. He saw a lot of people die while working on death row, but John Coffey stood out to him. He was brought to the prison after being convicted of raping and murdering two little twin girls (but did he actually do it?). He’s a strange man – absolutely huge, but gentle and soft-spoken and seems to never stop weeping tears. Turns out, John Coffey has some special healing abilities as well.

Read the rest in my blog.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #51: The Night Guest: A Novel by Fiona McFarlane

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The Night Guest is one of those mysterious, sly novels that throws you off balance and causes you to second guess the author all the way through. You know from the first pages that our main character Ruth is someone out of the ordinary. As we learn more about her, it becomes less clear what is real and what is fantasy.

Ruth is a 75-year-old widow, mother of two grown sons, living alone at a beachside house in Australia. When we first meet her, she has been awakened by a sound in the house which she is certain is a tiger. The next morning, a government carer named Frida Young unexpectedly arrives on Ruth’s doorstep to help her for a few hours each day. While Ruth is willing to accept Frida’s help, and her sons are pleased that someone is looking after mum since they are too far away and too busy to check in on her, there is something a bit off, perhaps even sinister about Frida. Ruth experiences occasional qualms over her presence, but what we learn throughout the novel is that Ruth is experiencing the onset of dementia. How much of her concern is genuine and how much is a figment of her imagination? And what about that tiger? It seems easy enough to write that off as a bad dream or a sign of dementia, but what if it’s something real?

The Night Guest is, on one hand, a story about growing old, losing your faculties and independence, and needing to rely on strangers for help. It was especially poignant for me because we, like many, are dealing with this in our family right now.  Ruth’s dementia becomes an opportunity for her to revert to her past, to remember her youth and first love in Fiji. Ruth’s parents were medical professionals and missionaries there and Ruth did not move to Australia until she was 19 or so. McFarlane reveals Ruth’s dementia through her recollections and telling of stories about her time on Fiji, stories whose details change and become muddled as the disease progresses.

But it’s that tiger that really fascinates me. The tiger appears at the very beginning of the story and again towards the end. Ruth’s reaction to the thought of a tiger in her home is not what you might expect. Rather than fear, she experiences something more like exuberance. “… there was another sensation, a new one, to which she attended with greater care: a sense of extravagant consequence. Something important, Ruth felt, was happening to her, and she couldn’t be sure what it was: the tiger, or the feeling of importance…. She felt something coming to meet her — something large, and not a real thing, of course, she wasn’t that far gone — but a shape, or anyway a temperature.”  She goes on to think, “For some time now she had hoped that her end might be as extraordinary as her beginning.” I can tell you that the end of the novel is rather extraordinary and would be a topic of some discussion in a book group.

I enjoyed this novel quite a bit. This progress of the dementia plus our concerns about Frida make for a suspenseful and tense tale. And that cover art is pretty cool, too.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #49: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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If you’ve seen any reviews of this book, you already know that it is a novel about a woman who spent the first five years of her life with a sister, Fern, who happened to be a chimp. When I started reading the novel, I was sort of irritated that reviewers have put this plot point out there and spoiled some of the fun of reading, but now that I’ve finished, the fact that Fern is a chimp is not really the big point. The novel’s focus is more about family, communication, intelligence, memory, psychology and human treatment of animals. That Fern is a chimp is not the most important thing about her.

Our narrator Rosemary (for remembrance) starts in in the middle of things, which from her point of view is when she has been in college at UC Davis in 1996, her brother having run away from the family over a decade ago and her sister missing for even longer. Rosemary has left her parents (and, she hopes, her past) behind in Bloomington, Indiana, but much of her recollections have to do with her father, who as a psychology professor at IU did research world-famous involving Fern and Rosemary. Rosemary feels great guilt and responsibility for what happened to Fern and her brother, although she herself is not clear on the details of their disappearances. It’s only through recollections, chance meetings and conversations that the “facts,” such as they are, begin to emerge.

Rosemary is intelligent, sometimes funny, occasionally emotionally raw as our narrator, and she questions her own reliability in telling this story. She is aware that memory is a tricky thing, given the amount of psychology she has been exposed to growing up. Rosemary is self-reflective, noting that as a child she was terribly, annoyingly loquacious but as an adult she has learned to suppress certain aspects of her personality, her “monkey-girl” nature for which she was teased and bullied in school. When the story begins, she is concerned that a chance encounter with a bohemian student named Harlow will cause her to revert to her uninhibited ways and bring unwanted attention to her family history. “In the comments section of my kindergarten report card I’d been described as impulsive, possessive and demanding. These are classic chimp traits and I’ve worked hard over the years to eradicate them. I felt that Harlow was maybe demonstrating the same tendencies without the same commitment to reform.” While she knows Harlow is bad news, she feels a kinship with her that has been missing since her siblings disappeared.

Communication is an important theme throughout this novel. Rosemary tells us that her father, in doing his research with her and Fern, said he wanted to see if Fern could learn to speak. Rosemary is suspicious and posits that what her father really wanted was to see if Rosemary could learn to speak chimpanzee. Rosemary and Fern were very close and, according to Rosemary, could understand each other as well as any two sisters. And like siblings, they experienced the gamut of feelings for each other from love to resentment and jealousy. Yet the communication among the other members of Rosemary’s family seems incredibly poor despite their verbal abilities. At one point Rosemary says, “Language is such an imprecise vehicle, I sometimes wonder why we bother with it.”

By the end of the novel, Rosemary has learned the truth about her family and herself. There are some sad and unexpected turns, but overall the plot hangs together well. I was very drawn in to the story and was convinced that Fern was a genuine member of this family and that her loss was as hard as the loss of any child could be. Fowler gives her reader a lot to think about and discuss in a reading group.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #48: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel by Sherman Alexie

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is Native American poet Sherman Alexie’s semi-autobiographical novel about a Spokane Indian teen from the reservation. Arnold Spirit (aka Junior) is different from the other kids on the reservation, and not just because of the condition he was born with. Arnold is different because he has hope and dares to leave the rez to attend the all-white high school in town. Filled with humor, sadness, hard truths and enduring hope, this YA novel, which won a National Book Award last year, is an inspiration for those who feel different and alone.

Arnold was born different. As an infant he had hydrocephaly, and he has had medical and speech problems through his life, problems that made him an object of bullying on the reservation. Arnold likes to read, draw (illustrations by Ellen Forney) and play basketball with his pal Rowdy, also from the rez and a really tough kid. When Arnold starts his freshman year in Wellpinit high school on the reservation, his frustration with the poor, outdated resources at the school causes an incident that ultimately leads to his decision, with his parents’ support, to attend the white kids’ public school in town. Arnold’s decision causes anger and resentment on the reservation, especially from his friend Rowdy, but others like his sister and his dad’s friend Eugene seem to understand and admire his drive to live his dreams.

The novel covers Arnold’s first year in high school, which turns out to be eventful and surprising in both good and bad ways. Arnold spends a lot of time alone and learns to handle it. He also finds some surprising allies at his new school Reardan, gains some confidence and discovers skills he hadn’t realized he possessed. One of the powerful messages of the book is the importance of parents and adults in developing young people’s self confidence. If expectations are high and the adults in your life show that they believe in you, it’s amazing what you can do.

At the same time, though, Arnold struggles with the loss of his friendship with Rowdy and a series of tragic deaths. In one chapter, Arnold addresses Tolstoy’s idea that happy families are happy the same way but sad families are sad in different ways. Arnold disagrees and the reader learns that sad statistics about alcoholism and deaths on the reservation. Arnold observes that on the reservation, they were all drunk and unhappy in the same way. Another powerful chapter deals with the basketball rematch between Wellpinit and Reardan, where Arnold has become a star. It becomes a bittersweet showdown for Rowdy and Arnold.

Alexie’s message for his YA audience (and it’s appropriate for anyone) is to make sure that you don’t let others define who you are or make you fit in some narrow category. Instead, recognize all the tribes you belong to and try to expand them. In an interview at the end of the book, Alexie says that you should be prepared to be lonely, as Arnold was when he made his decision, but Arnold found with time that the people he expected to shun him completely were part of his tribe. Arnold says, “If you let people into your life a little bit, they can be pretty damn amazing.” It’s a moving story with a great message.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #47: Locke & Key Volumes 1-6 by Joe Hill, Art by Gabriel Rodriguez

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Locke & Key is a six volume graphic novel that is scary, smart, and humorous. The first five volumes [Welcome to Lovecraft, Head Games, Crown of Shadows, Keys to the Kingdom, Clockworks] have already been published. Volume 6 [Alpha & Omega] will be published in February 2014, but you can pick up the single issues now, except for the final chapter. That will be published Nov. 27 and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. Locke & Key involves quite a bit of murder and horror, which is familiar territory for author Joe Hill and his father Stephen King. I usually shy away from creepy stuff, but the story line is so good, it sucked me in, and the artwork is a stunning complement to the writing.

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The series focuses on the Locke family and their ancestral home Keyhouse, which sits on the edge of a small Massachusetts island town called Lovecraft. When mom Nina, teen son Tyler, teen daughter Kinsey and first grader Bode arrive at Keyhouse, which has been maintained by cool, artsy Uncle Duncan, their dad Rendell has just been brutally murdered by a mentally unstable high school student named Sam Lesser. Tyler feels responsible, Kinsey is overcome by fear and tears, Bode feels lost and alone, and Nina hides inside a wine bottle. The local police keep a watch on the family when Sam Lesser escapes Juvenile Detention in California. Sam is on the road to find the family, drawn forward by a voice that comes to him and promises him everything he desires in return for his service in locating some keys.

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Throughout the volumes, Bode, Kinsey and Tyler find unusual keys around Keyhouse, keys that unlock magical/supernatural powers. Meanwhile the malevolent force that sucks in Sam also tries to work on the members of the Locke family. The story itself is fascinating because it’s more than a traditional quest story or “forces-of-good-versus-forces-of-evil” story. It is truly a psychological thriller. Many of the keys have the power to transform the person him or herself — to change form or look or even to get literally inside someone’s head. In the wrong hands, they could wreak havoc not just on one person or the town of Lovecraft, but the whole world.

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I enjoy graphic novels, but for me, it’s only worthwhile if the plot and writing are any good. That’s the hook for me, while my husband gets pulled in by art first. We both loved Locke & Key. Hill’s creative plot and sympathetic characters made me keep reading even when I was terrified about what was going to happen next (which I hate; I generally avoid horror in all forms). He goes back in time to provide an unusual family history for the Lockes, and his tale of the creation of the keys demonstrates an inventive mix of historical and supernatural imagination. The modern day Lockes are dealing with the usual teen angst and high school drama, which is also the source for the humor in the story. I especially enjoyed the prom scene that gives a hilarious nod to “Carrie.” Hill has written a “sins-of-the-father/sins-of-the-son” storyline that unfolds with tragic consequences but the possibility of redemption.

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My husband recommended Locke & Key and we discussed the merits of the graphic novel form over traditional fiction for this story. Certainly, Locke & Key could have been told as a novel, but given the incredibly imaginative creatures and scenarios Hill envisioned, the graphic novel form was the perfect form for the story. Rodriguez’ ghosts and demons, the keys, the settings (Rodriguez is trained as an architect and it shows in his blueprints for Keyhouse) and characters are better than anything my poor imagination could have come up with. I also loved his homage to Bill Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes at the opening of Vol. 4.

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I both look forward to and dread the last installment of Locke & Key. Hill has no compunction about killing characters in brutal ways, and children are not exempt from that. I’m worried about losing some of them (I love Rufus and Erin — two characters who know the truth and suffer horribly because of it), and I hate to see the story end because it’s so good. The series has been nominated for The Eisner and other awards, and fellow writers such as Warren Ellis and Robert Crais have praised the writing and art. As they say, this is a graphic novel for those who don’t really like graphic novels.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #46: Longbourn: A Novel by Jo Baker

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Lovers of Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice will recognize the title of this novel as the name of the estate where the beloved Elizabeth Bennet and her family reside. Jo Baker, a diehard fan of Austen and the novel, has taken the classic story and created a parallel “behind the scenes” story for it, imagining what life was like for the servants at Longbourn at the time of the events of Pride and Prejudice. Baker’s focus is on her own characters, some of whom are mentioned in passing in P&P and some that spring from her own imagination. Longbourn complements P&P in a startling way. The reader is exposed to a world that existed in tandem with Austen’s society but that was hidden from the likes of the Bennets, largely because they didn’t have to look. Baker shows in detail the world of the servant, the orphan, the common soldier as opposed to the wealthy, the privileged, the officer. She also has created a really topnotch plot for her characters. I don’t think I’ll be able to read P&P again without thinking of Baker’s characters and the way servants kept the upper crust’s world running smoothly.

Our main character is Sarah, a house servant at Longbourn, an orphan roughly the same age as Elizabeth Bennet. Her life is full of work, from early morning before the family arises, until after dark, when everyone else has gone to bed. The other servants include the cook/housekeeper Hill, her butler husband Mr. Hill, and the younger servant Polly, who is also an orphan. Baker provides detailed descriptions of the types of work required of servants and the amount of effort involved in seemingly mundane tasks like cleaning clothes. In P&P, a famous scene shows our plucky heroine Elizabeth walking to Netherfield through muddy fields, getting her petticoats filthy in 6 inches of muck. How we adore her for being so independent and unconcerned about Mr. Bingley’s sisters’ derision! Yet from Sarah’s point of view, Elizabeth might take better care if she were the one responsible for getting those petticoats back to a pristine white state. Elizabeth and Sarah, though residing under the same roof, live in two very different worlds. Even their experiences of a visit to Meryton are as different as night and day. Elizabeth and her sisters visit shops and mingle with officers. Sarah sees this: Back alleys opened off to the left and right, where half-naked children made dams and pools in the gutters and women hunched on their doorsteps under shawls, bundled babies in their arms. The shambles, when she passed them, were deserted, but were filled with their usual miasma of terror, of ammonia and blood. Sarah’s experience of officers in Meryton is a truly hideous scene in which officers flog an enlisted man. The Miss Bennets would never have seen or known of such things.

The plot for Longbourn gets underway when a new servant is hired — James Smith. He is a few years older than Sarah, dark and quiet. Nothing is known or said about his background, and Sarah finds this suspicious. Why are Mrs. Hill and everyone else so willing to take on and trust this stranger? Even though he works very hard, taking on several tasks that had fallen to Sarah’s lot before (and making her life a bit easier), Sarah finds him irksome because he doesn’t engage with her. She resolves to uncover the truth about him. At the same time, the wealthy Bingley family arrives to open their estate at Netherfield, and Mr. Bingley’s servants, in particular a footman named Ptolemy (Tol), provide novel social interaction for the Longbourn servants. Tol is a mulatto, very handsome and charming. He and Sarah hit it off, but Mrs. Hill doesn’t trust him and James seems wary as well, setting up tension in the servants’ quarters. It is reminiscent of Elizabeth’s relations with Darcy and Wickham without being a clumsy recreation of it.

While Tol and James are figures of Baker’s imagination (and very well drawn characters), there are some characters from P&P besides the Bennets who figure prominently in this novel. Baker’s use of Mr. Collins and of Wickham contributes nicely to the plot without taking anything away from P&P. The arrival of Mr. Collins, future heir to Longbourn, creates a fuss and bother in the servants’ quarters not just because Mrs. Bennet is in an uproar about it but also because the fate of the servants will depend on Mr. Collins. Mrs. Hill is very concerned that, upon taking ownership of Longbourn, Mr. Collins will want to retain their services instead of firing them and bringing in others. In P&P, Mr. Collins is a comic character, much derided by Elizabeth and her father for his pedantry and awkward manners. Sarah provides a more sympathetic view of the man: Mr. Collins could not help his awkwardness. He could not help where he had come from, or what chances nature and upbringing had given, or failed to give. Wickham, on the other hand, remains very much the smarmy cad, and the adults below stairs have his character pegged long before the Bennet family.

Rather than go into any more plot detail (because it would spoil the fun for anyone who wants to read this), I’ll just say that the overriding theme is about having your own life and finding your own happiness instead of living in the shadow of someone else’s, a luxury afforded to a minority. Lovers of Pride and Prejudice will find that Baker takes great care of our beloved main characters from that novel while showing us a world that Austen and the Bennets barely knew.

taralovesbooks’ #CBR5 Review #45: The Dark Half by Stephen King

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Cannonball Read V: Book #45/52
Published: 1989
Pages: 469

Genre: Crime/Horror

Thad is a writer who didn’t have much success until he wrote a series under a pseudonym, George Stark. After his success with the George Stark books, Thad decided to “kill” Stark and try his luck once again under his own name. Then people connected to Thad start getting murdered by someone who looks and acts suspiciously like the fictional George Stark. Is Stark a real person or just a figment of Thad’s imagination?

Read the rest in my blog.

taralovesbooks’ #CBR5 Review #44: Call Me Cockroach by Leigh Byrne

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Cannonball Read V: Book #44/52
Published: 2013
Pages: 236

Genre: Memoir

This book is a follow-up of the excellent memoir, Call Me Tuesday by Leigh Byrne. She grew up in a very abusive home and her childhood was chronicled in her first book. The only thing I didn’t like about Call Me Tuesday was the sort of abrupt ending. I wanted to know what happened to “Tuesday” (or Leigh)and how her childhood abuse effected her late teens and adult life.

Call Me Cockroach follows her life after she leaves her home to live with her aunt. However, Tuesday ends up back in an abusive relationship by marrying a guy she barely knows at a very young age. She’s also still dealing with her mother, who seems to brush all of the past abuse behind her. Her mother also only abused Tuesday and not her brothers and she never did really get answers as to why. I was also heartbroken to learn that she has little to no relationships with any of her brothers. I can’t imagine how painful it would be to have your entire family basically refuse to acknowledge what she went through as a child nor offer any explanation.

Read the rest in my blog.

taralovesbooks’ #CBR5 Review #43: Cinder by Marissa Meyer

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Cannonball Read V: Book #43/52
Published: 2012
Pages: 390

Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy

Cinder is a cyborg – part human, part robot. She lives with her evil step-mother and two stepsisters (this is a re-imagined Cinderella after all) in New Beijing which is on the verge of a war with the Lunar people (who live on the moon). Cinder is a mechanic and she meets the prince when he asks her to fix one of his old robots. They strike up a friendship as Cinder tries both to hide and figure out who she really is.
This story really could have went either way, but I thought it was actually pretty good. It was interesting and never got boring. The romance was never too sappy and I felt like Cinder was a strong female character on her own (i.e. didn’t need a man to define her character). I also liked that she had other relationships that were focused on, such as with her dying step-sister (the nice one of the two) and her friendship with the house robot.