A Man Called Ove – 3 Stars

As I close A Man Called Ove, I have to admit the ending was the strongest, most emotive portion of Fredrik Backman‘s 2014 novel.

Ove, the narrator,  is a stubborn man learning to navigate a life without​ his wife – an enduring marriage suddenly half empty – now missing her love and her laugh. The reader is walked through how Ove tries to redefine his days, whether by living them or not.

I found myself a bit surprised that the book I’ve been carting around reading is, in fact, an international best seller. Ove is an only mildly complex character – a grumpy, fatigued, lonely and obviously depressed man – newly widowed. While these traits were obvious, Ove and his fellow characters were, in my opinion, only shallowly developed.

Even halfway through A Man Called Ove, I would have expected the novel to have been shelved in the Young Adults section rather than in Fiction alongside the classics. Not to say that incredible reads aren’t lined up neatly with the Young Adults books – quite the opposite. I say this simply as a reflection on the style of writing.

Beyond my criticism, A Man Called Ove was an entertaining read with the necessary pits, arcs, and triumphs that every reader expects. The story structure is intact, if leaving, for me, something to be desired.


Rating: 3 out 5 stars

A Little Life – 4 out of 5 stars

Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is as mysterious as its front-most narrator.

Yanagihara weaves a hard-to-read novel that gives mental health the attention the rest the world rarely does.

Well-written and remarkable while simultaneously grammatically frustrating. As much as I valued the book and rate it highly with full recommendations, Yanagihara’s use of personal pronouns is wildly distracting. I found myself wondering if this was done on purpose or whether the choice in editor was poor.

You see, every main characters is male and each periodically takes a turn narrating. This would be fine if there were any indication whatsoever that a change had or would soon take place. Instead, Yanagihara simply continues with “he” and “him” and “his” while referring to new nouns without bothering to define them. The reader then spends anywhere from a few paragraphs to pages and pages attempting to follow Yanagihara’s train of thought.

While some authors make changes like this with varied chapters, fonts, titles, or the like – it seems like that concept would be, at best, an after-thought in this case. The book would have received an extra star, meaning full five out of five, from me if these and similar grammatical errors had been given more thought.

Pushing grammar, use of fragments, ending with prepositions – none of these elements bother me when done well. But, when writing distracts and confuses the reader, it detracts from the story and puts a damper on the author’s work. You lose your audience. Hopefully your reader keeps trying. With a 700 page book filled with so much the world would benefit from reading, I only hope Yanagihara’s readers don’t give up.

Jude is our human hero who fails to recognise his strengths. Having survived horrid trauma, repetitive childhood rape, abuse throughout his life, assault and battery, domestic violence, and eventually a successful career, hope, love, and an enriching family – Jude is the friend that you’re afraid to walk away from because he’s mysterious, mesmerising, and kind but so hard on himself that you worry when he’s alone.

Yanagihara’s A Little Life is lovely and trying, and a story that happens but not often out loud.


Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Goldfinch

It’s refreshing to read a book narrated by a not-in-any-way-heroic person. Potter is real. He has faults and he makes mistakes. I didn’t know what I was stepping into when I picked up Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, but I’m glad I took the recommendation.

The Goldfinch is a book to take your time with. Do not, do not rush. It deserves the time it takes to read nearly 800 pages. The highs and lows and humanity of it all won’t disappoint.

At times, I found myself reflecting on the similar themes of Kerouac’s American classic On the Road: drugs, travel, truth and hunting for it, art, and the temporary status of life.

And to top it off, the writing is remarkable. There are sentences, illustrations, and moments throughout that I found myself re-reading for the beauty of the words.


Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Room: Everything You Don’t Want Read But Can’t Stop – 5 Stars

Room is everything I didn’t want to read. That said – I couldn’t put it down.

Emma Donoghue has created a horrifying masterpiece. She writes in the voice of five-year-old Jack. And she nails it – describing things in a manner only a five-year-old could, in words he understands, with a vocabulary that only expresses more about the little boy Jack is. You’ll learn who he is, about his wonderful Ma, where they live and play and grow, but you’ll go at his pace.

Donoghue does a brilliant job of revealing character development and plot twists through Jack’s dialogue. For instance – why “wardrobe” is so often the safest place for him to be.

Jack takes the reader by the hand and walks through the world that he’s struggling to simply survive… while showing why “room” is the centre of everything.

Room is about our limitations, bravery, sacrifice, and primal instincts for survival.

This will be on your best-read list this year.

Sometimes I find it important to reveal more about a story in my critiques in order to review it more completely, but in the case of Emma Donoghue’s Room, I couldn’t do that to you. The writing is just that good.


Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Shirley Jackson – Mysterious and Murderous, as always – 3 Stars

That Shirley Jackson sure is an interesting character. Today I finished We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

As this isn’t my first Jackson story, I had that notion walking in… but she still astonishes me.

Jackson writes in a unique way, for certain. She takes her time in revealing secrets, allowing the narrator Mary Catherine to share what she ordinarily would in her own timid way.

As is customary with a Shirley Jackson story, the words are simple. The plot intense. Horror written around the corner. But in a fact-of-the-matter fashion. I guarantee you that We Have Always Lived in the Castle will take you, at most, a few days or sittings to finish.

The family at the centre of the plot are the Blackwoods and despite being the centre of the plot, they certainly are far from the centre of their small town. “Everyone in the village has always hated us,” Mary Catherine says. Very little of that statement seems to be in Mary’s head. Why? Because their household is notorious for being both mysterious and murderous.

I’ve rated We  Have Always Lived in the Castle 3 out of 5 stars because the story is twisted, dangerous, and enjoyable, but I was, at points, frustrated with the pace. Further, the story concluded in a way I found unsatisfying – as if waiting for something that Jackson was in no mood to provide. And I say that as someone who absolutely adored (if anyone can absolutely adore) The Lottery.

I would recommend Jackson’s writing nonetheless. She has a voice to be drank quickly and cautiously, just as her characters would urge.


Rating: 3 of 5 stars

4 stars: Men We Reaped – by Jesmyn Ward

Men We Reaped is the second book penned by Jesmyn Ward that I’ve read. And recently. For a reason.

My expectations were scattered:

  • Could it possibly live up to Ward’s incredible work in Salvage the Bones?
  • As a memoir, what themes will Ward weave through her writing that were or weren’t present in her other writing I’ve explored?
  • I know that she’s overwhelmed and passionate about racial equality – how will that be evoked?
  • The first word of the title is “men” – but it’s Ward’s memoir. Why?

In short: Ward didn’t disappoint. She explains from the get go precisely how she’s constructed the memoir, the order of chapters, the reasoning for the order… all without revealing just where she’s going or why.

She uses each chapter to reveal a section of time in her life and a relationship with a man that meant something to her – friends, acquaintances, her own brother. She’ll break your heart but you’ll learn something: about the narrator; about the racial divide in America in the 70s, 80s, and 90s; and quite possibly about yourself as well.

She loses these men – these incredible life connections – to drugs, accidents, poverty, and horrid luck. Ward pushes past these themes though in order to move beyond her grief, and to define her community and the mindset of a generation.


Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Currently Reading this Beast

This beast of a book is taking me longer to finish than I expected and not for lack of trying… granted the beast itself is over 800 freaking pages.

Game of Thrones: the first in the famous series penned by Mr. George R. R. Martin. I have about another 70 pages to go.

I’ve yet to decide if I’ll critique it properly – I’m leaning toward “no” as the public view of Martin’s work and the current television show are already so awash with ideas and reviews. I’m enjoying both, no less.

Next on my list are a few library borrows, plus another one lent by a neighbour. In order:

  1. Men We Reaped by the recently reviewed Jesmyn Ward (my views here)
  2. Room by Emma Donoghue
  3. The Last Pulse by Anson Cameron

For more reviews and lists to peruse, check out Goodreads. My recommendations are here.

What are your top reads for 2016?

 

A Critique: Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin – Yawn

I was less than impressed with Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at Home. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have ever picked it up if it hadn’t been lent to me by a neighbour. Alas, I finish what I start.

Rubin describes herself as a non-fiction writer. True, but her writing leads the reader to believe she’s aiming more for the self-help style. Rubin herself denies this genre in the book though. If it weren’t for her precise mention of this, I would have remained convinced that Happier at Home was indeed a rough attempt at the self-help genre.

For me, it was:

  • at best – entertaining for a chapter or two
  • at worst – infuriating and frustrating
  • most commonly – a complete yawn

Still, I’d rate it 2 stars, out of 5. Why? Because when you’re finally following one of Rubin’s thoughts, she yanks you out of your focus to tell you about yet another quote. She herself says near the end of the book that she’s obsessed with quotes. My thought: Captain Obvious, sweetheart. Every reader who has made it this far through your book KNOWS you’re obsessed with quotes. They’re a powerful tool when used appropriately, but overuse is distracting, detracts from your overarching goals, and becomes a complete nuisance.

I wanted to like this book. Truly.

At its heart, Happier at Home exemplifies Rubin’s respectable goal to study and experiment with increasing one’s happiness. She chooses a theme on which to focus for each of nine months. Themes include: possessions, marriage, parenthood, interior design, time, body, family, neighbourhood, and now.

The writing is brave, without a doubt. Rubin puts her heart on her sleeve and shares her trials, tribulations, and goals with the reader. I found her writing that centred on relationships and choosing how to think about happiness more worthwhile than the rest, but that comparison doesn’t mean much in this instance because the writing was so completely wishy-washy and self-centred.

I would absolutely not recommend this book. I rate it 2 stars, rather than 1, because Rubin does have a voice, personality and way with her words, but it honestly felt like a memoir of too-often whinging.

To learn more about Gretchen Rubin and her work, visit her website.


Rating: 2 of 5 stars

A Critique: Salvage the Bones – 5 out of 5 stars!

Salvage the Bones should be read for what it isn’t in addition to what it is. A truth about Hurricane Katrina and a truth about a family living a harder life than most would consider. And, how the elements of the world sometimes pile up against you to make things impossible and all you can hope for is to maybe survive.

Jesmyn Ward illustrates, to be blunt, a rough, extreme poverty-stricken family in Bois Savage, Mississippi in 2005. Ward is so brilliant with her story-telling that you forget the ultimate theme of the book despite the fact that’s written on the back cover: Hurricane Katrina.

As a first-time reader of Ward’s work, I immediately fell headfirst into the mindset of her narrator, fourteen year old Esch. Esch tells, first and foremost, her story, intertwining with her family, and the things that matter most to a young girl just trying to navigate life in the south with a drunk, often absent father, a deceased mother she’s just barely old enough to recall, and a slew of brothers to both watch over and out for. I felt for Esch, and I felt frustrated with her much of the time, as well.

Ward makes impressive use of Mississippi weather throughout her novel. She seems to make the weather work for her rather than the other way around – oft controlling and influencing us, as people. She paints the sticky humidity in the air, the red dust-covered ground Esch’s home sits on, the horror stories of past rain storms, and the ever-impending wind that comes with living near the sea.

Despite careful, gripping writing that you’re sure to remember, you’ll also find gritty, graphic scenes that you won’t like but won’t want to stop reading.

Since completing Salvage the Bones, I’ve, personally, added another of Ward’s books to my To Be Read list. She has a style and a voice that needs to be heard. The book I’ve added to my list is: Men We Reaped.

To learn more about Jesmyn Ward and her work, visit her page on Goodreads.


Rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Critique – 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl has some amusing quips here and there, but overall I found it a bit disjointed and lacking punch or flair.

Awad’s novel is written in pseudo short-story format. However, the short stories had the same themes and most of the same characters. What added to the unusual format was that deciphering time frames was never easy… which might not be a bad thing but in this case it didn’t help the author.

I respect the power of making a reader feel awkward or uncomfortable, or any strong emotion for that matter – well done. But the novel took this furtber; I must stress that the narrator was hugely unlikeable. It’s hard to enjoy a book, play, or story of any sort when the protagonist is hard to be around. Even a murderer, when described in a certain fashion, can be likeable. Sweeney Todd, anyone?

The ending, though I won’t divulge it, was disappointing and sudden. The reader spends the novel hoping that, through all of her self-reflection and often hatred, that narrator Elizabeth, will find a healthy light (and I do mean, light, not body, lifestyle, etc) to view herself in. It was less than iluminating. Not all endings have to be happy, but this one was also far from satisfying.

I’d had a few people recommend the book and felt conflicted while reading it because I simply wasn’t feeling what I expected to.

In fact, I read several reviews after finishing the book’s final page because I thought I was being overly harsh in my criticism. After seeing that so many had the same reaction, I felt less horrible about my 2 star, out of 5 rating.

To learn more about Awad and her work, visit this site.


Rating: 2 of 5 stars