Posts Tagged 'three out of five stars'

Book Review: Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

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Somewhere, I heard Everything I Never Told You described as “an Asian Gone Girl.” Though I had some issues with Gillian Flynn’s smash hit, I enjoyed it more than not, and especially appreciated the unrepentant, malevolent, genius female sociopath at Gone Girl‘s core. (Why are there not more truly-despicable female characters out there? Authors?)

Like Cersei! Love her. Even when Martin writes himself into a corner regarding her character.

So when my library hold for Everything I Never Told You came up, I dove in excitedly, eager to unravel the mystery and discover the dark heart at the story’s core. Ng does an admirable job of gripping the reader by the throat from the first sentence:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know that yet.

Almost immediately, things slow down as we enter the point of view of each of the remaining family members in turn, and watch them deal with the numbness and grief that accompany losing a daughter and sister.

For me, this was a case of pre-reading expectations dampening my enjoyment of the actual novel. Expectations: the great enjoyment-killer. If I had been expecting a more straightforward family drama, with my mind primed for the mystery to be more of a “mystery,” perhaps I would have found this to be a four- or even a five-star read. As it stands, this was a solid three stars for me.

Still, there was a lot to like about Everything I Never Told You. Some of the imagery was beautiful; many of the thoughts and actions from the point of view of Hannah, the youngest and most-ignored child, were honed to a scalpel’s edge and cut just as deeply.

Parents James and Marilyn are the most fully-formed characters in the novel, given extensive backstories so the reader understands just how they ended up being the people that they are. Again, this produced some of the finer writing in the book. James, the son of Chinese immigrants, craves acceptance and the ability to blend into mainstream white American society; Marilyn is the daughter of a single mother who sees how domesticity can be a prison, and vows to fulfill her dreams of becoming a doctor. Both of these driving motivations are placed squarely on the shoulders of Lydia, the much doted-on–and stifled–daughter.

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Book Review: The Tastemakers, by David Sax

Kale. Cupcakes. Bacon-wrapped everything.

What do all of these foods have in common? Besides being delicious, that is.


They’re all trendy. Who could possibly forget the internet’s obsession with bacon? Or the prevalence of fondue in homes in the 1970s? Or even the spread of the chia seed as the next superfood?

Spurred by the cupcake craze of the early 2000s, journalist David Sax takes on the mission of deciphering the popularity of different food items in The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed up With Fondue. He doesn’t stop there, though. Sax takes us on a journey through the kitchens of top-notch chefs who have a renewed interest in the artisanal, the fields of farmers experimenting with crop cross-breeding, and the board rooms of food corporations spending millions to create the next big thing.

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Book Review: Suffer the Children, by Craig DiLouie

Movie popcorn is a peculiar thing. When the lights go down and the movie starts up, that $7 popcorn tastes goddamn incredible.

Nom nom nom.

But afterwards, when you’re left with all of the unpopped kernels at the bottom of the bag and fingers greasy with synthetic butter substitute, you sort of realize that you just paid way too much money for what amounts to some oversalted cardboard.

That mirrors my experience with Craigh DiLouie’s horror novel Suffer the Children: enjoyable while reading, certainly worth the money, but not likely to leave too much of an impression after.

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Book Review: xoOrpheus, Ed. Kate Bernheimer

I read xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths, edited by Kate Bernheimer, last year, and am only getting around to reviewing it now. Usually I try to force myself to write my responses to what I’ve read no more than a week after I’ve finished it; I’m a fast, enthusiastic reader, but I have a terrible memory and will often struggle to recall plot points, or character names, or anything deeper than a surface recollection. (Is it true playing Sudoku helps improve memory? If so, I need to get on that…but I’ll probably forget.)

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In this case, spending a bit of time away from short story collection xo Orpheus was a good thing. It helped me to determine which stories actually moved me and gripped me beyond the short time I spent reading them, which stories went completely and bafflingly over my head, and which stories produced images or descriptions that are still lingering in my mind today. In a collection that I found to be somewhat frustratingly uneven, some distance was necessary for a more tempered–and hopefully more helpful!–review.

xo Orpheus is a collection of fifty “new myths,” or  myths from a variety of times and cultures that have been altered without becoming unrecognizable. Many are the familiar Greek myths that many of us were raised on–including several different takes on the myth of Persephone–while others come from cultures that may be less well-known to a modern Western audience. Still, all of them dealt in some way with the same very human themes: love, death, loyalty, fear. Life, really. Some of the stories take myths and adapt them for contemporary settings; others expand upon the original myths in their intended time and place by giving us a new point of view or an epilogue. I commend the idea behind this collection, because as Bernheimer herself says in her introduction, myths themselves are timeless; they have had a hold on the human imagination for centuries, and have certainly not lost their grasp on us yet.

I’ve highlighted below the stories in xo Orpheus that made the biggest impact on me, but the beauty of a collection this large, spanning so many authors and so many myths, is that there is truly something for everyone. For example, while some of the more postmodern offerings (“The Story I am Speaking to You Now,” “Belle-Medusa,” “In a Structure Simulating an Owl”) were not to my taste, I know people who would have delighted in their unconventionality!

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Book Review: The Twelve, by Justin Cronin

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Though I didn’t find myself too impressed with The Passage, the first in Justin Cronin’s apocalyptic vampire trilogy, I ended up reading the second novel in the series, The Twelve , since my hold on a library copy finally came through. (I requested it when it came out in October 2012, so that should give you an idea of how popular the series is!) But the all-too literary treatment of vampires that The Passage offered only continued in The Twelve, with an added dose of forced spirituality and unbelievable coincidences.

This all makes it sound like I hated The Twelve, which I didn’t. It’s a solid three-star read, thanks to Cronin’s ability to inject real fear and tension into the narrative, one or two interesting and pitiable characters, and the desire to know how the heck he is going to wrap this sprawling thing up. Mostly, I think I’m just a sucker for hype. But this series is so fawned over, to the point of garnering a movie deal and getting accolades from writers like Stephen King, that I can’t quite help but feel that I’m missing something.

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Book Review: Netsuke Nation: Tales of Another Japan, by Jonathan Magonet

Netsuke Nation: Tales from Another Japan, by Jonathan Magonet, is a short-story collection unlike anything you might have encountered before–unless you are familiar with netsuke, small and elaborate decorative carvings that are part of proper Japanese dress. Magonet, who has lived and taught in Japan, became enamored of netsuke and began to collect some of his own. Netsuke Nation is the result of his fascination with the carvings: partly short stories based around the imagined lives of individual figurines, and partly an ethnographic exploration of netsuke life, including politics, art, entertainment, and even sexual relationships.

As I read, I found myself wishing the Magonet had dropped the enthnography conceit entirely, and instead focused solely on the personal histories he had created surrounded his own personal netsuke. Those chapters, to me, felt the most in-depth, realistic, and creative. There are stories about a geisha cat, a pair of elderly sumo wrestlers, a fox priest, a professor, and more. They range from exploring themes of loneliness, relationships, and politics, with just a twist of magical realism, and are written with a certain detached wryness that I thought was appealing. Enough of the “other Japan” comes through in these stories, in bits and pieces that occur naturally as our characters navigate the world, as to make dedicated ethnography chapters seem flat and overly-expository. The geisha cat, for example, introduces the reader to the role of a geisha–to be a conversational, charming, objective of beauty–in addition to what her days and nights might look like, without necessarily going into a formal study of geisha culture. It probably also helps that I was the type of kid that totally believed her stuffed animals were alive, and had all sorts of fun adventures the moment my back was turned. It was very easy for me to fall under the spell of the netsuke characters!

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Book Review: Daddy Love, by Joyce Carol Oates

In Daddy Love, by Joyce Carol Oates, a five-year-old child is violently abducted from his mother in  a mall parking lot by a serial sexual predator and murderer. We follow the mother’s struggles to live a life bereft of her son Robbie, and the boy’s transformation into the “new son” of the psychopathic “Daddy Love.” As the years pass, they have both changed immeasurable in the name of survival, and there is no telling what else Robbie (now Gideon) will be forced to do in order to stay alive.

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If you know Joyce Carol Oates, you know what you’re getting into before even cracking this novella open. She has made a career out of tackling uncomfortable subjects and truly evil characters–the darkest corners of humanity. She has written from the point of view of a serial killer, a girl slowly drowning in a sinking car, a girl in the process of being kidnapped, and, oh yeah, another serial killer.

Accordingly, Daddy Love is not what I would call an easy, or even a pleasant, read. There is substantial physical and mental abuse of a young child, and while Oates uses implications and scene fades to their fullest, there are still enough descriptions of abuse to necessitate trigger warnings. (There is also an extremely upsetting scene with a dog, as if all of the child abuse isn’t stomach-churningly horrendous enough on its own.) Daddy Love himself is a no misunderstood or sympathetic villain; he is completely and unwaveringly evil, without any redeeming features. Robbie and Dinah (his biological mother) are much more nuanced. It’s especially interesting reading Robbie’s thoughts as he grows up with Daddy Love, and the ways in which his internalized abuse changes his behaviors.

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