Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby asks the question: what would you do if you discovered the power to make you a god? Suddenly, the command of life and death, sickness and health, growth and destruction, is in your hands. Do you want it? Will you use it? Can you control it? 

Carl Streator, the main character and narrator, is a journalist who stumbles upon the mysterious powers of a Culling song, an ancient spell that, when read aloud or focused on in the mind, has the power not only to put people to sleep but also kill them. As he discovers the vast reach of the song, he meets another, Helen Hoover Boyle (a real estate agent), who knows this secret and who has been using it to assassinate people all over the world. The two quickly come together, both hoping to find the Book of Shadows, an ancient spell book where the Culling song originated; Streator so he can destroy it and Boyle so she can become even more powerful and invincible. The two will be hunted down by time, by witches, by police detectives, and by each other, until the Book of Shadows falls into the wrong hands and, suddenly, the two realize they must become the hunters. 

In Palahniuk’s books, characterization, I find, is typically the weaker element, much less dynamic than the prose and plot. That is not the case in Lullaby. One of the most fascinating elements in this book is its characterization; how will different people react to the power they find? What do our actions tell us about human nature and the nature of power? Perhaps the reason the characters are so interesting is because they are based on people in Palahniuk’s own world; perhaps the reason their stories are so powerful is because Palahniuk wrote this book when mired in a deep, personal struggle (his father and father’s girlfriend had recently been murdered by the woman’s ex-husband), which directly relates to the plot of the story: How do we decide who lives and who dies? Does any one of us, regardless of circumstances, have authority over another’s fate? All-in-all, the dark personal circumstances of Palahniuk’s life create great tension and allow for extraordinary character growth and development. Each individual in the book, from the main characters, Streator and Hoover, to their friends and rivals, Mona and Oyster, down to a necrophilia-obsessed paramedic,  has a back story, a history, and a purpose, which makes them all equally interesting and dynamic, particularly in relation to the others. 

There is no doubt that Palahniuk is a master of the macabre. He explores the darkest, most dangerous elements of human nature, in transgressive style. The book is structured by a temporal ending, which frames the story and is interspersed throughout the traditional, linear plotline. As with most Palahniuk books, there is a plot twist near the end of the story, which brings the temporal ending into focus with the linear plot. The temporal segment chapters are italicized, which creates an enigma of sorts, as the reader cannot be entirely sure whether or not the narrator of both the present and future stories is the same person, or even whether or not the future narrator is alive (thus putting the “present-linear” plot into a past tense, without expressly doing so in the linear style). The story progresses quickly and is well-paced, but the plot twist at the end, which was hinted at throughout the story by those temporal-future segments, could likely have been achieved without those interruptions. 

The best thing about great books is that they are more than just a good story. While Lullaby is entertaining, mysterious, and bizarre, it is also highly psychologically exploratory. The story is meant to make the readers think: think about power and how one should (or would) wield it; think about capital punishment, its merits/effectiveness or lack thereof; think about sacrifice, self-worth, penitence, forgiveness, mourning, and recovery. So much of what happens in this story is deeper than the story itself, but that these themes and elements are delivered within the realm of such an interesting, disturbing, and quite terrifying story just makes it all the better. The gothic writers would be proud of what Palahniuk achieves here.

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“Old George Orwell got it backward. Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed. He’s making sure your imagination withers. Until it’s as useful as your appendix. He’s making sure your attention is always filled. And this being fed, it’s worse than being watched. With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what’s in your mind. With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.”

“When ancient Greeks had a thought, it occurred to them as a god or goddess giving an order. Apollo was telling them to be brave. Athena was telling them to fall in love. Now people hear a commercial for sour cream potato chips and rush out to buy them, but now they call this free will.”

“You turn up your music to hide the noise. Other people turn up their music to hide yours. You turn up yours again. Everyone buys a bigger stereo system. This is the arms race of sound.  You don’t win with a lot of treble. This isn’t about quality. It’s about volume. This isn’t about music. This is about winning.”

“The best way to waste your life is by taking notes. The easiest way to avoid living is to just watch.”

“These people so scared of silence. These are my neighbors. These sound-oholics. These quiet-ophobics.”

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Every Day by David Levithan

13262783Can you imagine yourself not as a physical being, but as an ethereal entity – a formless consciousness that floats through life from day-to-day, always looking like someone different but always knowing yourself to be the same?

Every day since birth, A wakes up in a different body. Sometimes he wakes up as a boy, sometimes she wakes up as a girl. A has no physical or biological sex, instead needing to adapt to the sex of the host body where s/he resides any particular day. S/he is capable of accessing the memories of the host bodies and can also allow (or not) that host to remember what A experiences on the day of his visit, though s/he usually chooses to block these memories so that the host will not feel as if they have been possessed or invaded. Each night, when A falls asleep in one body, s/he knows that s/he will wake up in the morning as someone entirely different.

A does have a personality, consciousness, and sense of self that is entirely individual, though s/he has no physical form, and A carries this individuality into each new day and every new body. This is the story of 40 days in the life of A – perhaps the most important 40 days that s/he will ever experience. S/he learns that s/he is perhaps not alone in this very unique experience – there may be others out there who are doomed (or blessed?) to exist only in others’ bodies. A also falls in love, for the second time, and must learn how to make a relationship work under such extraordinary circumstances or s/he must choose to make the ultimate sacrifice, for someone else’s happiness.

The two main characters are A and Rhiannon, 16 year olds who are on their own paths to self-discovery and whose encounter with each other will set the trajectories of their lives in new directions. Through A, we also witness, on the surface, the lives of dozens of other teenagers: boys and girls; popular kids and nerds; athletic kids and beautiful ones; kids who are blind, fat, depressed, alcoholic, addicts, or suffering from ADHD. We also get glimpses of their families and friends, though their stories are always in the background as A navigates their lives for one day, in pursuit of his own. The only other recurring characters include two of A’s former hosts, Justin (Rhiannon’s boyfriend and the way A comes to meet her – awkward!) and Nathan, whom A has left, perhaps purposely, with lingering feelings of his “possession” and who ultimately introduces him to Reverend Poole, the man who will change A’s perspective forever. Levithan’s primary characters are interesting individuals, as are the host bodies, all of whom are believable teenagers with varied personalities and circumstances. Viewing the characters through A, who essentially is each of them (including Rhiannon) at one point or another, creates a unique experience for the reader.

journal-011-300x200The structure of the book, too, is interesting, though not entirely unique. It is, in a way, a journal-format. Each small chapter is one day in the life of A and, indeed, the chapter titles correspond to the chronological day (such as Day 6014) in A’s life. This structure, while not entirely original, is absolutely appropriate for the type of story being told and is suitable to A’s narrative style. Levithan’s writing style, too, his prose and language, are appropriate to the age and maturity level of the narrator and also match the oftentimes didactic nature of the story. It is lofty but grounded, well-paced but reflective.

One criticism of the book is that it is at times preachy. This point is well-taken and I do agree with those who find certain elements, such as the narrative arguments for social and sexual equality, not just pointed, but sometimes heavy-handed. Levithan is an issue writer, though, and as another reviewer has aptly mentioned, issue writers are interested in making their point and, in fact, making points is necessary to their purpose. The fact that I agreed with most of the points Levithan was making (gender equality, love of the person not of the sex, etc.), made the story more interesting for me, but I can certainly see how readers who struggle or disagree with such sentiments might find the “lecture” portions of the narrative a bit jarring.

My primary point of contention comes from a particularly disturbing element of the story, which is, I believe, both indicative of the narrator’s personality but also, though I am usually reluctant to make these arguments, of the writer’s bias. Throughout the book, the narrator makes a point of being highly understanding and empathetic. Since s/he has spent his (I will stick with gendered-male pronoun from here on out, as that is ultimately how I perceived the narrator) life living inside of different bodies, it is understandable that he would be a more enlightened individual. He has been male and female, blind, deformed, ugly, and everything in-between. In each case, he makes the argument for empathy and compassion – that we should love ourselves and each other as we are and that each of us suffers from our own demons which might affect the way we treat ourselves and the way we interact with the world. A is able to build his relationship with Rhiannon, another equally enlightened young woman, whether he be in the body of a beautiful black girl, a beefy metal head, or a stringy track jock. The point is well-taken: be yourself, try to show others what is on the inside, and learn to accept others for who they truly are, not just for what they look like.

fat-thinBut then we get near the end of the book and A wakes up in the body of an obese boy. The body weighs 300 pounds and suddenly the tone changes dramatically, for the worse. This chapter, and the next one, is devoted largely not to acceptance or understanding, but to feelings of disgust and anger. It is this body, and only this one, that A is ashamed to show Rhiannon. It is this body that A blames for what it is. Unlike the addicts or depressed teenagers, whom A tries to empathize with and thereby get the reader to think more deeply about, this fat kid gets nothing but criticism – A even tries to “access” the reasons why he might be so fat, but finds only laziness as the cause. Then, after deciding to meet with Rhiannon anyway, it is after this particular meeting that Rhiannon concludes she can no longer engage in this kind of relationship, because she cannot build a relationship with someone who never looks the same. Rhiannon struggles with this all along, but with all of the other bodies, male and female, tall and short, pimpled, hairy, or beautiful, Rhiannon accepts the body. Until the fat, sweaty boy shows up and everything changes. It would be easy to say that this is just a teenage insecurity – that the author is trying to make a statement about the judgmental nature of people and youths; however, throughout the book, both A and Rhiannon, as I have already mentioned, are incredibly enlightened and accepting of all people and situations. Why, then, is this one person so different – so disgusting? Unfortunately, I feel it is a deeper bias coming from the author. He makes a point of making points in this book, as in all of his books. It would be naïve and unfair to think, then, that this, too, is anything other than his making a point: do not be fat. Fat comes from being lazy. There are no psychological or emotional reasons for obesity, it just means you eat too much and do too little. It is outrageous. Not since reading Atlas Shrugged have I been so angered by a particular element of a particular book and it saddens me that this perspective comes from Levithan who is, otherwise, a very positive, compassionate writer.

Ultimately, though, I did love this book. I found the premise incredibly interesting and thought the social/gender politics were expressed in a unique way. The story moves at a great pace, the characters and their stories are fascinating and believable. There is a fantasy element to the story which comes into play late in the book, when Reverend Poole and A finally meet, but the narrative is still grounded firmly in reality. Had it not been for the one bizarrely glaring prejudice mentioned in the paragraph above, I could have easily found this to be a perfect read. As it is, I found it, still, to be a wonderful one. Highly recommended.

Notable Quotes:

“Kindness connects to who you are, while niceness connects to how you want to be seen” (56).

“You shouldn’t have to venture deep down in order to get to love” (72).

“Tomorrow . . . a little less than a promise, and a little more than a chance” (97).

“I see no sin in a kiss. I only see sin in the condemnation” (223).

“Ultimately, the universe doesn’t care about us. Time doesn’t care about us. That’s why we have to care about each other” (320).

In the Path of Falling Objects by Andrew Smith

Plot/Story:

Sixteen-year-old Jonah and his fourteen-year-old brother Simon are abandoned by their mother, left in their house without food, running water, or electricity. Their eldest brother is serving in Vietnam, with plans to return home soon, but they haven’t heard from him in months. The brothers soon realize that they have little chance of surviving on their own; so, with ten dollars and some spare clothes, they leave their New Mexico home and head west towards Yuma, Arizona, where their father is incarcerated and soon to be released. Not too far into their journey, the horse they have been riding on dies, so they are forced to make the rest of the journey on foot. At least, that’s what they should have done. Instead, brash Simon, never one to heed his older brother’s warnings, hails down a passing car which is being driven by an unlikely and unsavory pair, a sociopathic man and a pregnant teenage girl. At first glance, the man and the beautiful young girl seem like a couple of unlikely heroes. The boys soon realize, though, that their would-be hero is not what he appears. He has buckets of cash littering the trunk of his car. There’s a stolen Don Quixote statue in the backseat. Oh, and he also has a gun. But he’s not the only one packing heat. The question is: who will use his gun first, and why?


Characterization:

There are some ups and downs with characterization and character development. Some of the characters are well-developed and complex, particularly Mitch, the sociopath, and Matt, the eldest brother. The small glimpses into Mitch’s darker persona are spaced well and provide tantalizing precursors to the larger melt-down, which readers will anticipate but not be disappointed by when it finally arrives. Witnessing the boys’ elder brother’s descent into madness, caused by the horrors he is exposed to in Vietnam, is also intriguing; it adds complexity and character to the story’s sub-plot. I found Jonah, Simon, and Lilly less interesting, though they were the characters that received the most page time. Jonah’s deep, almost paralyzing infatuation with the girl comes about so quickly and without much explanation, making it difficult to believe (aside from a “teenage hormone” perspective). Simon’s anger toward his older brother is also near-immediately apparent, but it is there with little explanation or cause (Jonah seems like a decent guy and hasn’t done anything, that we know of, to make Simon mad at him). There’s the underlying “sibling rivalry” theme which works, of course, but the level of animosity the brothers have toward each other, particularly Simon toward Jonah, doesn’t really fit a “that’s what brothers do” kind of equation. We learn, later in the story, that there has always been conflict but developing that sooner, rather than forcing it to be assumed, could have helped the overall narrative. Still, the brothers’ relationship is engaging, tense and passionate, and ultimately resolved.       


Prose/Style:

The book is formatted as a third-person omniscient narration, but not really. It’s essentially from Jonah’s perspective, written after he has gained facts about events which he could not have witnessed in person, as well as narrating those events which he did witness first-hand. So, the feel of the narration is third-person omniscient because there is little question that everything written down has actually happened but, in actuality, the narration is limited. Because the portions of the novel pertaining to Matt, who is not physically present in the story, are written in epistolary form, Smith is able to get away with this somewhat; however, for the portions witnessed by Simon, Mitch or other characters, one does need to suspend analysis a bit and just let the story flow in order to enjoy it. Chapters are often headed with a character’s name, such as “Simon,” which helps the reader follow-along with who is saying what, when (although, ultimately, the entire story is Jonah’s map/journal).  Aside from the somewhat strange structure, I definitely enjoyed the language and the prose – both of which were appropriate to the age level and well-suited to the setting of the story and its tone. The pace is deliciously suspenseful, building slowly but with an almost liquid fluidity, like a syrupy trail winding its way through the desert: sticky, sweet, rich, and satisfying.      


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

One of the strangest things about the book is that it is difficult to completely like or completely hate any one of its characters (and this, incidentally, is one of the best things writers can do for their stories, in my opinion). There are complexities of personality – inner demons and better angels- associated with each of the characters, and it is up to the reader to practice compassion and understanding when dealing with them, particularly with the protagonist(s). Jonah, the narrator and main character, is not a typical hero. Mitch, the antagonist, is vile but also quite sad. Lilly is tragically desperate, seeking shelter wherever she can find it, with little concern for what it costs her. Simon is angry, tired of being treated like a child but not wholly prepared for the adult world he’s been thrust into, head-first. The book is about family and survival, it is about making difficult choices, sometimes between the lesser of two evils, and oftentimes it is about finding out how to recover after having made the wrong choices.   


Excerpt:

I pictured the first time we saw the girl, breezing past us in that Lincoln, blond hair whirling around her, her glasses tipped down, her smile, the stroke of her fingers. The teasing.

Simon tumbled the meteorite around in the sweat of his hand. I wondered what it would be like to look down at the earth, to fall, to burn brilliantly in the air like the image of the girl who passed by, kicking back dust like cosmic ash, and could she see that, now; was she up there above us?

I wondered.

We closed our eyes.

The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd

Plot/Story:

Dade Hamilton is an eighteen-year-old high school graduate. He is spending his summer working at Food World, avoiding his parents, making new friends, and keeping a secret he plans to take with him to college: he is gay. Dade becomes estranged from his “boyfriend,” Pablo, who is anything but a boyfriend, at least to Dade. Pablo is in the closet, too; but he also has a girlfriend, and he spends his time playing between the girl and Dade, never giving all of himself to either one, and never really knowing just what he wants. The confusion of which leads to terrible consequences. Although Dade’s last summer at home was supposed to be fun, it turns out to be a time of turmoil: his parents become estranged, his friends turn on him, and his job sucks. Until Alex Kincaid, the boy who dreams are made of, enters the picture. Suddenly, Dade’s summer turns around. He finds the courage to be who he is and, with the help of a friend, visiting from California, Dade heads to college a new man: positive, strong, and ready for life’s challenges.

Characterization:

Characterization and character development are strong points in Burd’s writing, at least in this particular story. His characters do not always do what I would hope or expect of them, but their unpredictability is believable and adds to their unique individualities. The Pablo character is particularly believable; his inner-conflict is painful, as is the outcome of his struggle.  Dade’s parents are bizarre, but in the “we all know a family like that” kind of way. Their desire to come to terms with Dade’s sexuality is also realistic, in that it does not go perfectly well, but it is also not an “end of the world” scenario for their family, as is often the case in YA books that explore this theme. Perhaps the three most interesting characters, though, are the main trio: Dade, Alex, and Dade’s friend Lucy. While I was disappointed with Dade’s final decision (probably because I liked Alex’s character so much and could not see myself coming to the conclusion Dade does), I can still understand why Dade felt the need to make the decision he made and, in a way, it is laudable. 

Prose/Style:

Aside from the proofreading errors (missing words, misspelled words, minor grammar oversights, etc) which are not necessarily the fault of the author, the overall prose and style of the story is right on par with the age and maturity level of the story, and with the intended audience. The language is smooth and engaging, supplementing the emotions of the story well and progressing the scenes without conflicting with or overpowering the story itself.  The narrative voice is sound and appealing; it is easy to sink into the story and find yourself looking up only after pages and pages have passed by, without your knowing it. 

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

This is a book quite simply about life and all its twists and turns. The story tackles family dynamics, infidelity, divorce, friendship (strains and strengths), coming-out and coming-of-age, first loves, sex, drugs, exploration, and substance abuse. The most important overarching theme, though, is finding one’s way, as a youth, through the mess and into one’s own. Dade is a relatively weak young man at the start of the story, a push-over. He submits to Pablo’s whims because the brief moments with Pablo make Dade feel wanted. He never questions his parents’ antics, though they are obviously unhappy and unhealthy.  He lets his “friends” abuse him, making fun of him on a regular basis and exploding rumors about him, without confutation. Through meeting Lucy, a strong, self-aware lesbian girl, and Alex, Dade’s new love interest (one who allows Dade to explore real emotions, whereas Pablo only permitted the physical, when he felt like it), Dade comes into his own. He tells his parents the truth about himself and he stands up to them and to his friends.  Dade leaves for college a changed person, confident and self-assured. He even makes the difficult choice of leaving behind what is most important to him, in order to put himself first, to take care of himself for the very first time. The Vast Fields of Ordinary is an endearing, realistic, and reassuring story about growing up without giving up; it is a story about learning how to respect others, without sacrificing one’s self. 


 

Notable Quotes:

“It’s hard to show people everything, you know?  You never know what they’ll do with it once they have it.”

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Plot/Story:
What’s that old saying? Laughter is the best medicine? John Green, of all people, certainly understands that. The Fault in Our Stars is a rather tragic tale of two young lovers, both of whom are suffering from fatal and debilitating illnesses. They meet each other at a Support Group where neither wants to be, and there begins the wild, mad ride that is: “Hazel and Augustus.” As Green explains in his Author’s Note, and again in the Afterward, this is a book of fiction – a book of realistic circumstances and realistic characters, but wholly imagined. Even the drugs and treatments mentioned are created by the author; all this to say, this is not a story about cancer or the treatment of cancer: it is a story about life and living. This story is about being a parent and a friend.  It is about being sick and about being healthy. It is about the many different ways that many different people deal with their own grief, some coming out stronger and more focused than they could have imagined, while others sink deep into a dark and dangerous depression that is nearly impossible to escape.  This book is about freedom, the chance we all have to live life the way we want to live it, no matter how short and painful that life may be. Circumstances happen, but they do not define us; what defines us is how we meet those circumstances; and that is what we will be remembered by.

Characterization:
One of Green’s strengths is creating believable characters, people we could recognize in our own real worlds. They are loveable or despicable, but we adore them all for the very fact that they are “right;” they fit the world he has created and they serve a purpose in the grand scheme of things. The Fault in Our Stars is no exception to this Green-rule. From our main character, Hazel, who is sick but refuses to let that define her, to her parents – who are strong and weak, open and secretive;  from Augustus, who is so consciously self-absorbed that he (and we) are actually able to enjoy his ego, even if his perfection is a bit irritating at times, to Isaac and Van Houten, minor characters who make a big impact on Hazel’s life and on the story itself.  Each of their stories is connected, in some way, and spending time with them will bring laughs and tears, anger and fear. The only small complaint I have is that the two main characters are a bit too brilliant. This is a theme I’ve noticed rising in young adult fiction, lately – teenagers who are so smart, and so wise, pop culture philosophers with the vocabularies of Ivy League undergraduates. It makes the story more interesting, sure, and it helps the readers learn a bit (if they’re paying attention) but it undermines the believability aspect just a bit, for me. It also caused the distinction between Hazel and Augustus to blur a bit – at times, they seemed to be almost the same person, because they spoke the same way, had the same sense of humor (elevated and clever), and hoped the same lofty hopes. Maybe all the teenagers Green knows are wordsmiths and geniuses, but in my experience (now and as a teenager myself) these were few and far between. Minor irk – but an irk, nonetheless.

Prose/Style:
Green’s wit and charm ooze out onto the page in such an effortless way; it’s almost as if the reader is sitting in a room with him, listening to him chatter on. There’s a difference between writers and storytellers, and Green is absolutely a storyteller. His cadence and rhythm are beautifully constructed and timed. He delivers punches in the right moments, and then allows his readers to catch their breath. The pages are lined with humor and messages of beauty, hope, strength, courage and individuality. I became a fan of his style when I read Looking for Alaska years ago, because it was just so very honest. He proved me right with Will Grayson, Will Grayson, and he makes me feel like a master critic these days, because I’m so right about his prose being so wonderful (see – it’s all about me!). Although the story is a heavy one, it is not despondent. Some of the characters suffer a hopeless fate, but they do not succumb to it. There is a lighter message woven through the pages, to embrace the inevitable and leave the world behind you a better place for having done so; this, coupled with Green’s unique way of crafting a narrative, is what turns the pages and makes the book almost un-put-down-able.   

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
Markus Zusak calls The Fault in Our Stars a story about “life and death and the people caught in between.” This is true in a literal and metaphorical way. Some of the characters are quite literally stuck in that “in-between” world, where they are alive, but they know they have little time left. They must decide to either submit to their illness and avoid the world, or choose to live the best possible life they can, with however few moments remain for them. There are others caught in between, though, on that battle ground. Friends and family who are healthy and who have years ahead of them, but who are preparing for a new life, a life without the ones they love, without their sons and daughters, without their friends and lovers. As much as this is a story about cancer and how it impacts people, Green makes it clear that it is not a story about cancer, not in any traditional sense. The cancer sufferers do not go quietly into the good night, with proud and angelic smiles on their faces as they drift softly into oblivion. They are real people; they fight, kicking and screaming. They cry and get angry. They soil themselves, fall down, struggle to get out of bed; they deal with the side-effects of their illnesses but they recognize that these are just side-effects. Life is still happening, because they have the power – until the last – to make it happen.

A story like this leaves the reader thinking: What will the world say about me, when I’m gone? How will I be remembered? That power is mine and mine alone.   

Notable Quotes:

“Writing does not resurrect.  It buries.”

“Okay.”

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

Three Fan Favorites Are… Mediocre?

Somehow, miraculously, I’ve found my reading groove again. I was something like 11 books behind schedule in my Goodreads challenge (which I intentionally did not make very ambitious this year, as I knew this would be a riotously busy year for me); but, I’ve managed to bring that up to being just TWO books behind schedule (and I’m currently reading 3 – so there!)

Anyhow, here are some thoughts on a few of those recent reads:

American Studies by Mark Merlis

I really wanted to love this book. Or at least like it? The good news, I suppose, is that I didn’t hate it. At no point, however, did I feel much attachment to the story or its characters. It was a struggle to get through it. I’ve never been a “DNF” kind of person; even those books that I actually have not finished sit somewhere in a box with bookmarks still in them. Call it some kind of compulsion, I guess. The main character, Reeve, is a 60-something-year-old gay man who has been brutally assaulted by a young trick he picked up at a bar. The majority of the story unfolds in flashback while Reeve recovers in the hospital. There’s some interesting history of the Lavender Scare/McCarthyism and its purge of homosexuals and “communists” from educational, governmental, and entertainment industries, among others. Interesting thoughts on friendships, family, bigotry, and self-loathing. All said and done, though, I found the pace slow and the story bland; nevertheless, it is also subtly moving and all too human in its consideration of aging, loneliness, and desire. Despite the fact that I was not a fan of this novel, I appreciate Merlis’s perspective and his style. I’m really looking forward to reading another of his, An Arrow in Flight, which I think might be more to my tastes. Final Verdict: 3 out of 5

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Wharton’s House of Mirth was the Classic Book-a-Month Club’s selection for March. Now, I run the CBAM and am in charge of choosing the books. I selected this one because, well, it’s a Wharton I’ve never read and that everyone seems to love. Unfortunately, I felt about this one the way I was feeling about Middlemarch. I just couldn’t connect to it, or care much about it. Now, I’m looking at the list of books I’m briefly “reviewing” here in this post and noticing something similar: I read them around the same time, spring, and didn’t really enjoy any of them, although many people seem to love them. So, if I’m being fair, I think I should consider that I just wasn’t in much of a reading mood for a few months earlier this year? I am normally a sucker for this kind of story. A “dark view of society, the somber economics of marriage, and the powerlessness of the unwedded woman in the 1870s”? Sign me up! (I know that sounds weird, but I love a good critique of class and high society). That being said, I just couldn’t come around to empathizing with Lily Bart. I felt that she had so many opportunities to improve her situation, but didn’t. I suppose part of the point of this story is that she does indeed make one bad choice right after another, and hence the tragedy of her life. Still, even a tragic hero is one we want to root for, isn’t it? Of course, some of the criticism rests at the feet of her snobbish and unforgiving community. Wharton does a wonderful job of leveling those criticisms, but I much prefered her Age of Innocence, or even Ethan Frome. Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 5.0.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I begin to worry that I’m setting myself up for a barrage of hate mail (hate comments?) on this particular set of musings. Oh well. This is the second Gaiman novel I’ve read. The first was Stardust, which I read years ago. I didn’t really enjoy Stardust, and I didn’t really enjoy this one. Something strange happens when I read a Gaiman novel. I see its potential. I see the potential in his imagination, his world-building, his characters, all of it. I brace myself for a pretty groovy ride. And then everything fizzles out and I feel like I’ve been ripped off. The whole concept of American Gods, a battle between the worlds oldest deities, of all types, and the new “false” gods of technology, is so fascinating. Shadow was actually a fascinating protagonist, a non-hero who just sort of falls in with an old god, named Wednesday, who needs help. Shadow becomes a sort of participant-observer in some pretty intense, behind-the-scenes, nasty god business. There are moments, which I won’t give away, that are kind of stunning. But most of the book just seems to, I don’t know, “go on.” I feel it building toward something, and then the something happens, and it’s disappointing and kind of pointless. Funny enough, though, I still want to watch the television adaptation, because I think it might be cool. Final Verdict: 3 out of 5

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness


A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is actually a completed story inspired by the notes of British author Siobhan Dowd, who passed away in 2007.  The forward tells the story of how these notes came to Ness’s attention, and why he decided to complete the story for Dowd. We are extremely grateful that Ness decided to do so, as the story is incredibly profound and hauntingly honest. Thirteen-year-old Conor has been having nightmares – horrifying nightmares that wake him up nearly every night. One night, at seven minutes past midnight, Conor gets a visit from a monster – but it is not the monster from his nightmare, and it is not just a dream this time. When Conor asks the monster why he has come, he learns that the monster wants Conor to tell him a story – not just any random tale, but Conor’s own true life story. After the monster returns multiple times, at seven past midnight,  and telling Conor harrowing  stories where bad seems good and good seems bad, it is time for Conor to meet the monster’s demand. A Monster Calls is about growing up and facing the dark, scary, and confusing elements of life. It is about admitting to ourselves the parts of us we try to keep hidden, so that we can be freed. It is a lesson all young people need to learn, and a lesson all grown-ups need to be reminded of, from time-to-time.

Characterization:

Because the story is geared toward younger readers (though adult readers might appreciate it even more), there are not a plethora of characters and none of those present are exceedingly complicated. That being said, each of the characters, from the main character, Conor and his monster, to Conor’s ailing mother, his absent father, his strict grandmother, and even his school mates and teachers, each have unique personalities and react to situations in independent ways. Certain of the characters are a bit flat (the absent father, for instance, is about what you would expect him to be) while others, like Conor and his grandmother, can be surprising and do show multiple aspects of themselves. Conor’s journey to self-discovery (admitting what he is terrified to admit and learning to understand why he feels and acts the way he does) is fascinating not just because the story is deeply honest and painful, but because its impact on Conor manifests itself in wholly believable and understandable, but haunting ways. The monster, too, is a character one could despise or love, which is brilliant.

Prose/Style:

The only less-than-perfect aspect of this book is the prose, and that is largely due to my own struggle with understanding the intended audience for the book. While the writing is great  – good pacing, appropriate amounts of dialogue v. narrative v. description, intelligent style and form – there is still just a little something missing. I think the disconnect, for me, comes from the fact that the story itself is dark, but is displayed/presented in a picture-book type way. I would compare the theme and certain elements of the book, including many scenes where Conor’s anger is unleashed, to works by Robert Cormier – they are appropriate to the story and the audience because they are realistic and have something to teach us, but the glossy pages coupled with the limited language (accessible to younger readers, though certainly not “simple”) left me feeling just a tiny bit confused about who the intended audience was. Overall, though, it was not distracting “in the moment” and did not deter me from enjoying and appreciating the story.  

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

There is very much a “caught in-between” feeling to this book when it comes to theme and age appropriateness. Since this is really a coming-of-age tale, supported by drawings that enhance the story, the book at times feels as if it is meant for young readers; however, the subject matter and the intensity of the story are clearly more appropriate for adults. Ultimately, the book probably works best for young adults and adults, but could be a great “life lesson” book for younger children as well, if read with a parent. This middle-road effect is simultaneously appealing and unsettling. As an adult reader, I did not always feel wholly comfortable reading a “picture book,” but in the end, the story is so powerful, the images so beautiful (but dark) and the psychological/spiritual needling so personal, it is impossible not to fall head-over-heels in love with it (think: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery). Without the images, the book would not be what it is, and without the story, the images would be nice, but hollow. The combination of the two turns out to be perfection in print. 

Final Verdict: 3.95 out of 4.0