Popcultureboy’s #CBR5 Review #96: The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan



My Booker Longlist Challenge continues apace (though will spill over into next year’s Cannonball). This is the 2nd shortest entry of the longlisted books, an unusually narrated story of how a small town in Ireland was affected by the economic downturn. Doesn’t sound great, does it? Well, it is. Full review is on my blog here.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 55: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Goodreads summary: “1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.

At Finn’s funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd. A few days later, she receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn’s apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet. As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she’s not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he just might be the one she needs the most.”

I am so grossly behind on reviews that it hurts. Ah, post-Cannonball lethargy! Anyway, this was a very good story: bittersweet with poignant glimpses into close family relationships strained by death, jealousy, prejudice, and alienation. June, the protagonist, feels lost in the world following the death of her uncle. She’s born very much from the Loner Girl mold, an introvert who sees herself as irredeemably weird but who nonetheless manages to get along with people around her (and even attract attention from boys) when she puts the effort in. The relationship between her and her older sister — two girls feeling a chasm between them, trying to bridge it but not trying too hard for fear of getting hurt — was heartbreaking and felt all too real. This and other fragmented relationships in the novel were just a few of several reasons why this book felt very painful to read at times.

I was alive but not really cognizant of the emergence of HIV/AIDS (the epidemic central to the foundation of the novel,) but I have long been curious about both the pathology of the virus and about the curious intersection of paranoia and bigotry that made AIDS such a controversial, willfully misunderstood disease. Reading Tell the Wolves I’m Home didn’t, therefore, stir up any painful memories for me, but it did offer a really powerful and unflinching look at how those living with AIDS, and even those who died of the disease, like Finn, were demonized rather than comforted and loved.

Anyway, I read this over a month ago, so I have forgotten a lot of the details I might otherwise mention in a review, but I can say for certain that I really liked the book and would definitely recommend it.

Popcultureboy’s #CBR5 Review #86: The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks



There isn’t really anything I can say about this seriously fantastic book that hasn’t been said either at the time or in the months following Banks’s cruelly premature death. But don’t let that stop you reading the full review. You can find it here.

Popcultureboy’s #CBR5 Review #80: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver



Insert jokes about “weighty tome” <here>. Shriver draws from the ever more pressing obesity crisis to create this beautifully written but ultimately slightly unedifying story of one man’s sudden huge weight gain and the effect it has on him and his family. The full review is on my blog here.

Popcultureboy’s #CBR5 Review #79: Nineteen Seventy Four by David Peace



A grim and gripping read, the first instalment of a quartet, this is a really great book. Harsh, unrelenting, unforgiving but hugely rewarding, if you like your crime novels gritty and downbeat, this is the book for you. The great news is, there’s three more where this came from. Full review on my blog here

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 43: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The_Fault_in_Our_StarsGoodreads: “Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.”

TFIOS is a touching, funny, sad, poignant, and somewhat dreamlike story that is well-loved and has been reviewed to death here and elsewhere. I don’t want to re-invent the wheel on this one, so I’ll just quickly share some of my general thoughts. Overall, I found this to be a wonderful novel, but for some reason I can’t put a finger on it didn’t become an instant favorite of mine.

John Green’s teens are, across all of his novels, generally wise beyond their years, and so it is the case here: Hazel and Augustus at times come across more like idealized versions of themselves than actual living people. Even their faults are perfectly expressed in metaphor, their emotions precisely defined. It was that precision, though, and that heightened realism that helped ground the “cancer story” and prevented TFIOS from becoming too maudlin. Where other tragedy-porn authors steer into verbose, florid language and hyperbole to create the verbal equivalent of that token string swell, Green’s incredible ability to put a point on the exact situational qualities that define a moment draws out more honest empathy from the reader. In other words: this may still have been emotional manipulation, but when the tears came, I felt more like they came from actual understanding than from a heavy mallet to the back of the head.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 42: Looking for Alaska by John Green

Goodreads summary: “Miles “Pudge” Halter’s whole existence has been one big nonevent, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave the “Great Perhaps” (François Rabelais, poet) even more. Then he heads off to the sometimes crazy, possibly unstable, and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed-up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young, who is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart.”

Looking for Alaska predates Paper Towns, which I read first. I mention this because in my review of Paper Towns, I suggested that John Green had successfully navigated the familiar waters of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope by at first buying into it, then subverting it. He tried something very similar here, but I don’t think he was as successful. The two books are very, very similar, but Paper Towns seems to be a slightly more mature version of Looking for Alaska; both feature self-proclaimed ‘average guy’ protagonists whose worlds are upended by an extraordinary girl, but while by the end of her book Alaska Young remains more of an iconoclastic symbol than a real person, Margo Roth Spiegelman in Paper Towns explicitly rejects the idealized version of herself the protagonist believes she is.

This was, still, a book I enjoyed, and even though all of the characters sound in one way or another like they have a healthy measure of John Green in them (by which I mean, it’s like in movies where an actor might be doing a really great job, but s/he is so famous that you never quite forget it’s that actor. That’s kind of what a lot of John Green’s characters are like), they were all still people I wouldn’t have minded having as friends in high school. His prose is very lyrical and he has the ability to describe feelings in a very acute, descriptive, and yet poetic way. More than once I stopped and thought to myself, regarding something I would have previously thought indescribable, “Yes, that is exactly what that feels like.” That ability is probably his greatest asset as an author, especially given the specific realm that he chooses to inhabit in his novels, which I would title “teenage romance and self discovery in peculiar circumstances.” Anyway, you probably don’t strictly need to read this if you’ve already read Paper Towns, but given that my audience is a bunch of people who are specifically trying to read as many books as they can, I’ll just say that this is an enjoyable few hours.

3.5 stars

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #18: Americanah

For more thoughts as I try to connect my fondness for Scotland, India and West Africa into one incredibly complicated post-colonial knot (and other more edifying writings) check out my regular blog: The Scruffy Rube.

You might recognize Adichie from her now famous TED Talk on “The Dangers of a Single Story”. She’s a marvelous raconteur, personable, sincere, and completely present amongst her audience. She knows what she’s talking about when she talks about an African’s experience in the modern world and the complex reactions to Africans in the west today.


AmericanahAmericanah serves as a platform for these observations. In chronicling the lives of Ifemelu and Obinze–as they do the business of girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl and boy live abroad, girl and boy return to eachother–she lets the characters serve as mouthpieces for ideas, perspectives and beliefs (not unlike how Oscar Wilde used his). While that’s great for sparking a discussion about race, gender, class, identity, academia, profiting off of immigrants, and an array of other topics, it doesn’t necessarily make for a thrilling story.


Instead Adichie seems to favor speechifying over storytelling. Her ideas are provocative and engaging, but might make better fodder for another TED talk or a serious blog (particularly since she occasionally includes blog-esque extracts from Ifemelu’s race conscious blog). The lengthy middle section of the novel (the part after girl loses boy), seems to almost lose the primary force behind the characters, leaving them to observe and opine rather than do much of anything. Maybe that’s the state of things for lovers in my generation–there are certainly fewer beasts to slay and grails to retrieve–but as interesting as the observations are they aren’t the same as a well honed story. Luckily, the beginning and the ends of the book are excellent expressions of young lovers, and every bit as engrossing as a dose of Downtown Abby drama.


I want to be part of a serious conversation about race, and I know that Adichie’s book can start one, I just hope enough readers aren’t so distracted by the lack of “plot” that they let Americanah fall to the ground unfinished. She’s a diamond-sharp-mind and an eloquent writer pursuing vital topics, whether or not this novel serves her goals of observation and story telling, I’m not sure.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 39: Paper Towns by John Green

Goodreads says: “Quentin Jacobsen has spent a lifetime loving the magnificently adventurous Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar. So when she cracks open a window and climbs back into his life – dressed like a ninja and summoning him for an ingenious campaign of revenge – he follows.

After their all-nighter ends and a new day breaks, Q arrives at school to discover that Margo, always an enigma, has now become a mystery. But Q soon learns that there are clues – and they’re for him. Urged down a disconnected path, the closer Q gets, the less Q sees the girl he thought he knew.”

I really enjoyed this one. It surprised me; it started out as what seemed to be a pretty standard tale of a guy obsessed with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and that she is the key to enlivening his existence. But then Paper Towns turned that whole trope on its head and became a complete deconstruction of it. What started as Quentin worshipping a romanticized ideal of Margo Roth Spiegelman became Quentin realizing he doesn’t know her at all and trying to, first by reading into clues she left behind and then by finally understanding that the whole of who a person is can’t be deduced just by pieces left behind.

Philosophical meanderings aside, the novel also had a ton of great smaller moments between friends in their final weeks of high school, a satisfying (if unrealistic) storyline of high school jerks getting their come-uppance, and some hilariously cartoonish parents. Seriously: the three sets of parents we hear the most about are prototypically mean and neglectful (Margo’s), blissfully clueless (Quentin’s), or delightfully wacky to the extent of trying to collect every Black Santa ever produced in tangible form (Radar’s).

This is a charming and thoughtful YA book that was a quick and satisfying read. It was my first John Green book, and I have others coming through the library hold pipeline that I’m excited about.